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Our original deadline for the recent contest was going to be today, but… we have no entries yet. So my question is, was anyone planning on entering? If so, I will consider extending the deadline.
Our last two contests were intended to celebrate benchmarks in the group - our 100-member mark and 300-member mark, respectively - but at this point it has become something of a yearly event. (Although, for anyone curious, we now have 440 members!)

The Contest: It's been said before that "a picture is worth a thousand words". One good illustration can sometimes convey a concept or argument more clearly than even the best explanation. Your task is to create a visual explanation for some aspect of evolution, or a visual refutation of a misconception about it (including creationist arguments). Optimally, we'd like the image itself to be an argument for the concept, rather than merely illustrating it. However, we will accept a broad range of submissions that fit the theme in a general sense. For example, an illustrated cladogram of a particular group of animals would be acceptable, but not a terribly creative entry.

Here are a few preexisting examples of the sort of thing we're after:
  • This comic, by Lieju, illustrates the concept of natural selection.
  • This illustration, by doctormo, illustrates the literal "evolution" of intelligent design.
  • This cartoon, by Koobine, is a humorous illustration of the absurdity of the claim that there are no transitional forms.
  • This chart, by Agahnim, is an illustrated rebuttal to the creationist designation of "kinds".
  • And this chart, also by Agahnim, shows that most creationists in the US are rejecting evolution in opposition to their church denomination's position.
  • Beautifully illustrated cladograms such as this one are also acceptable, though not preferred.

If you're not sure if an idea you have is suitable to the contest, feel free to run it by myself or Agahnim and we'll let you know.

The Rules: As is standard, works must be created specifically for the contest, and cannot be preexisting submissions.

Works must also relate in some manner to the concept of evolution. This can be from a purely biological approach, or from an anti-creationism approach. We will not accept submissions intended solely to mock religion - there must be a relevant application to evolution.

Other than that, this contest is pretty open.

The Judging: As always, the winner will be chosen by myself and the co-founder Agahnim. The winner will be chosen based on a combination of skill, style, and creativity. Though a wide range of possibilities exist for this contest, preference will be given to those illustrating a particularly clever, complex, elegant and well-executed evolutionary or anti-creationist concept. Please be creative! This contest should be a chance not just to show off your artwork and win a prize, but to also educate our viewers.

The deadline for all entries will be July 1st.

The Prize: And of course, the best part of any contest. We will select ONE entrant who will win a SIGNED, first-edition copy of Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins. Photographs of the signature can be provided upon request if there are any doubters. This is a once in a lifetime prize opportunity! However, there is one caveat: this prize will only be available if five or more people enter the contest. If we get fewer than five entrants, the prize will be a year-long DA subscription.

As with last year, you must be comfortable giving your mailing address to me in order to receive the prize. In the event that our winner is not comfortable with that, we can substitute the prize for a year's DA subscription, if you really want to be that boring. (I agree to keep your address and so on completely private, no worries.)

Good luck and have fun!
I was originally intending for this month’s featured topic to be about Yutyrannus, a one-ton feathered tyrannosaur that’s the largest dinosaur (or animal of any sort) to be found with feathers.  But as interesting as Yutyrannus is, this month has also had another piece of dinosaur-related news that’s a little more unusual—although the way in which it involves dinosaurs is pretty far-fetched.

This paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society discusses the concept of chirality, which is the way it’s possible for a molecule with a particular structure to exist in two different “versions”, one of which is a mirror image of the other.  The paper suggests that the reason why amino acids on earth tend to have a particular chirality might be because amino acids with that chirality were delivered to prehistoric earth on meteorites.  For the most part it’s a fairly standard biochemistry paper, but it concludes in a unique way:
the universe or 
amino acids 
have landed
 on Earth. 

have the good

off not 

Dinosaurs are not mentioned anywhere in the paper besides the closing paragraph, so bringing them up in the last paragraph isn’t exactly well-supported in a scientific sense.  This doesn’t have to be a problem, though.  As long as other scientists understand that this was just meant to be funny, it doesn’t do any harm for a scientific paper to include something fanciful for the sake of humor… at least not until the media catch hold of it.

Here is Google’s list of news stories about this paper.  There are too many to list, but the titles should make it obvious what aspect of the paper they’re exclusively focusing on.  The article at Science Daily is titled “Could 'Advanced' Dinosaurs Rule Other Planets?”, while the article at The Register is titled “Death Star dinosaur aliens could rule galaxy”.  The first sentence of the Register article is one of the best examples of what the media has to say about this paper which was discussing molecular chirality: “Rather than dying out in the dimly lit aftermath of a ginormous asteroid impact, dinosaurs on Earth may have instead spread to other planets and built a terrifying space-conquering empire.”

Of course, the real question is whether the paper’s author, Ronald Breslow, should be blamed for any of this.  In the past I’ve tended to assume situations like this are the fault of the media alone, but there have also been a few situations like this one where scientists have clearly manipulated the media coverage of their papers in order to get as much positive press as possible.  The article’s press release, which appears to be no longer online, clearly emphasized the “space dinosaurs” idea over the actual content of the paper—it’s anyone’s guess whether that was the original author’s idea or not.

In any case, during the weeks since the paper was accepted for publication, there’s been a second problem.  As pointed out here, it was eventually discovered that a large portion of the paper had been copied word-for-word from previous papers that the author had published in other journals.  The same post also points out how surprising this is, when one considers the author’s credentials:  he’s a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the former president of the American Chemical Society, and has won numerous awards.  Plagiarizing one’s own writing isn’t as bad as plagiarizing someone else’s, but what he’s done is attempt to publish essentially the same paper in multiple journals under different titles, which goes against the American Chemical Society’s code of ethics.

Due to the self-plagiarism issue, the paper has now been removed from the website of the journal that published it.  With the original paper vanished, the news media coverage is now all that’s left.  In other words, anyone reading these news articles about space dinosaurs will no longer have any way to look up the original paper and see what it’s actually about.

We’ve had many previous posts about the errors and excesses of science journalism, but in my opinion this particular instance is one of the worst examples I’ve ever encountered.  So here is this month’s question: What should be done to prevent the science media from misrepresenting research in this manner?

In the past, I’ve suggested that one of the solutions is for scientists to write at least some of the news stories about their own research.  However, that doesn’t solve the problem of situations where scientists are deliberately trying to manipulate public perception of their research, as in the case of the arsenic bacteria paper.  In situations like that, scientists writing the popular accounts of their research would not make the problem any better.

Perhaps another solution would be news sources to require science journalists to meet a minimum requirement of training about science.  Most colleges and universities expect that in order for someone to be qualified as a professor, they should have either a master’s degree or a Ph.D in the subject they’re teaching.  Science journalists play just as important a role in informing the public about science as professors do, but the only requirement for someone to be a science journalist is that they be trained in journalism.  Perhaps someday, this double standard can be fixed.
As many of you probably already know, color studies for extinct animals have been popping up left and right lately. The first was the reconstruction of the full color pattern for the paravian Anchiornis, which showed it to look startlingly similar to modern woodpeckers. This remarkable new science involves analyzing a fossil - which has to be one with exquisitely detailed feather impressions - with an electron microscope, looking for signs of fossilized organelles known as melanosomes. These tiny structures are responsible for the many colors of integument in modern animals, and by comparing fossilized structures to extant ones with known coloration, paleontologists can reconstruct the colors, with a fair degree of accuracy, of extinct animals as well.

The newest addition to the colorful Mesozoic menagerie is Microraptor, the tiny four-winged dromaeosaur that most people in this community are probably familiar with. Analysis of a new fossil specimen of the animal has revealed a few interesting tidbits. First, that the animal apparently had a long, thin pair of tail feathers jutting out from the center of its tail fan. Second, that the structure of the fossil feathers reveals an interesting property common among modern birds but up to now unknown in extinct dinosaurs: iridescence. Microraptor was most likely a deep black from tip to tail, but with a striking sheen that may be reminiscent of that on ravens or a host of other birds. It's not possible to tell what color the iridescence was, but one thing is certain: this beautiful black biplane was shiny.

The authors of the study, Shawkey, Vinther and Clarke, speculate that this combination of iridescence and long retrices may indicate the same kind of sexual display that modern birds are known for. Indeed, tail feathers in modern birds are warped into all kinds of interesting and sometimes ridiculous shapes and structures for the purpose of attracting a mate. It is difficult to imagine that a long pair of twin retrices could be useful for an aerodynamic purpose - they may have had a detrimental effect, also similar to many modern birds. So it is reasonable to conclude that the tail feathers of Microraptor may have been especially sexy to the ladies.

But what of the iridescence? There are many reasons that an animal may evolve a unique coloration or pattern, and sexual display does not seem to have a monopoly on iridescence in modern birds. Indeed, crows, ravens and the like seem to use their black, shiny bodies as ways to communicate to one another across distance. Solid black seems to be fairly common for birds that live in gregarious colonies or flocks - their shapes are probably outlined better against the sky, which makes them easy to recognize from afar. Might Microraptor have used its color for a similar purpose? Which brings me to this month's question: What do you think was the biological or ecological significance of the coloration revealed in this recent Microraptor study?

The idea that this tiny dromaeosaur was filling a similar niche to modern corvids seems consistent with the fact that there are apparently hundreds of undescribed specimens of the animal - indicating that it was probably immensely common in its environment. It may have been opportunistic and omnivorous, as ravens are, gathering together in large, noisy flocks within tree canopies. It has always been a challenge to reconstruct dinosaur behavior in any respect, but it may be that these increasingly common color studies can give us an insight into the lives of these animals that we haven't had before.
This topic might have been a little more relevant in February 2009, since that month was the fortieth anniversary of two highly important papers in two areas of science for which this group has a special affinity: paleontology and psychometrics.  But at the time, there was an even more important anniversary to celebrate, so our post was about that instead.  In addition to Darwin’s birthday earlier in the month, though, the last week of February is the anniversary of two historic papers by two scientists between whom there are some interesting parallels: the paleontologist John H. Ostrom and the psychologist Arthur R. Jensen.

On February 25th, 1969, John Ostrom described and named the dinosaur Deinonychus in the Yale Peabody Museum’s journal Postilla.  Deinonychus is now quite a famous dinosaur, but Ostrom’s discovery of it is important for reasons that go far beyond giving the world knowledge of such a fascinating animal.

At the time when Ostrom’s paper was published, the prevailing view of dinosaurs was as sluggish, cold-blooded animals that were an evolutionary dead end.  This had not always been the case—in the late 19th and early 20th century, dinosaurs had often been thought as fairly active animals that were directly ancestral to birds, and one example of the active view of dinosaurs during this time is Charles Knight’s 1896 painting of two sparring Laelaps.  (Now known as Dryptosaurus.)  In the mid-20th century, however, this idea had begun to fall out of favor.  One reason why it did is Gerhard Heilmann’s 1926 book The Origin of Birds, which carefully examined and then rejected the idea that birds were directly descended from dinosaurs.  (Incidentally, the Wikipedia article about this book is written by Ferahgo.)

Although Heilmann’s book was very well-researched, its conclusions were ultimately the product of the incomplete fossil record that was known at the time.  Despite pointing out the numerous skeletal similarities between dinosaurs and birds, Heilmann ultimately rejected the idea that birds were their descendents for a single reason.  That reason was because no known dinosaur had a furcula (wishbone), or even clavicles (collarbones) that could have been fused into a wishbone.  An Oviraptor fossil with a wishbone had actually been found in Heilmann’s time, but Heilmann had the misfortune that this particular bone on Oviraptor would not be correctly identified until the 1980s.

Because of the conclusions reached by Heilmann’s book, the idea that birds were directly descended from dinosaurs gradually fell out of favor among paleontologists, even when dinosaur fossils with correctly-identified wishbones became known in the 1930s.  It is because of John Ostrom, and specifically the research based on his discovery of Deinonychus, that the perception of dinosaurs has now shifted to what it is today.  Ostrom’s discovery of Deinonychus therefore marks the beginning of the period now known as the “Dinosaur Renaissance”—the modern re-awakening of the idea that some dinosaurs were active, warm-blooded animals and that birds are their direct descendants.

Arthur Jensen’s most famous paper was published in Harvard Educational Review on February 28, 1969, three days after the publication of John Ostrom’s Postilla paper. Harvard Educational Review had asked Jensen to examine the conclusions of the Coleman Report, a report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education which had concluded that compensatory education was not effective for increasing students’ IQ or academic achievement.  The conclusion reached by Jensen’s paper was that the reason why compensatory education programs were not effective for this was because IQ was heavily influenced by genetics, and that genetics therefore were limiting how much students’ IQ could be raised by factors like education.

Like Ostrom’s conclusions about dinosaurs, Jensen’s idea that IQ was highly heritable had once been widely-accepted in the late 19th and early 20th century.  Not only had this idea been widely-accepted; it had also been misused as the justification for various abuses of governmental power, such as forcibly sterilizing people with below-average IQs.  After a few decades of this there was an inevitable backlash against these ideas, fueled in part by universal revulsion at the eugenic policies of Nazi Germany.  By the mid-1960s, any idea that popular perception associated with eugenics was generally not considered worthy of serious consideration, including the idea that genetics influence IQ.

As can be expected of a paper reaching a conclusion that went so strongly against society’s zeitgeist, Jensen’s paper was among the most controversial in the history of psychology.  A large part of this controversy was focused on a part of Jensen’s paper that only took up around 10% of its total length: Harvard Educational Review had also asked Jensen to provide an opinion on why the average IQ of some ethnic groups was higher than that of others, and Jensen’s conclusion was that there was a substantial chance genetics were contributing to that also.  No other modern scientist in the western world has had to endure the amount of persecution that Jensen experienced because of this conclusion.  It included protestors disrupting of the classes he taught at U.C. Berkely, slashing the tires of his car, painting swastikas on his office door, repeated death threats, and a few occasions where the police had to protect him from angry mobs for the sake of his physical safety.

As John Ostrom’s description of Deinonychus was for the Dinosaur Renaissance, Arthur Jensen’s HER paper was the beginning of several decades of new research about the nature of intelligence and its relationship to genetics.  At this point, the majority of Ostrom’s conclusions about dinosaurs have been widely-accepted, and the discovery of dinosaur fossils with primitive feathers over the past 15 years can be considered the ultimate confirmation of Ostrom’s theory that birds are their direct descendants.  Jensen’s conclusion that genetics influence IQ has also been widely accepted in the fields of psychometrics and behavioral genetics, and its own ultimate confirmation could be this study from October of last year, which was the first to conclusively link variance in IQ to specific genes.  His conclusion that evidence supports a genetic contribution to the IQ variance between ethnic groups is not yet widely-accepted, but it’s taken far more seriously as a scientific hypothesis than it was in the 1960s, and it’s now generally possible for scientists to research this idea without being in physical danger.

In case it isn’t obvious, I find it interesting what a close parallel there is between John Ostrom and Arthur Jensen, and the impact that each of them had on their respective fields.  I felt this way ever before I was aware that both of them published the papers which were the beginning of this impact in the last week of February 1969.  With that in mind, here is this month’s question:  Can anyone think of any other examples of two fields of science where the developments closely paralleled each other in this manner?  It would be especially interesting if there is another parallel between two specific researchers, or if important papers in both fields were published only a few days apart.

At the moment I’m not aware of any other examples of this, although that might be because I’m more familiar with paleontology and psychometrics than most other areas of science.  I would be very interested to know if there are other fields where the parallel is just as strong, or if it turns out that the parallel between John Ostrom and Arthur Jensen is unique.

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