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The ancient ruling archosaurs of the mesozoic were such a diverse and wildly successful group that if often seems like a shame that their reign met its end at the end of Cretaceous. Filling almost every possible niche, the archosaurs - which is the group of diapsids containing dinosaurs, pterosaurs, crocodiles, birds, and several other extinct groups - radiated into thousands of unique and fascinating morphologies and functions. They inhabited the seas, the skies, and every Mesozoic land environment until the mass extinction event at the end of the era destroyed all but a few groups of them. With a clade of such startling success and diversity, it's hard not to think about what could have been. What would time have done to these awesome creatures had they been given another 65 million years to flourish?

65 million years is a lot of time for species to go extinct just from more ordinary causes, like competition and more minor climatic changes. But some groups of dinosaurs had been immensely successful for millions of years prior, so it's easily to see how they could have stuck around for another 65. Dromaeosauridae, for instance, evolved in the middle Jurassic, meaning that the "raptor" family existed for over 100 million years. Barring a global extinction event, it's easy to see how they could have continued evolving up to the present day. What would these feathered fiends have turned into, given enough time? Would they have grown small and flighted, as their ancestors eventually did? Or, along with their cousins the Troodontidae - as the most intelligent groups of archosaurs alive at the time - would they have evolved into something... more interesting?

Which brings me to this month's discussion question: What kind of forms and functions do you imagine the dinosaurs and their cousins occupying in the present day if most of them had not been wiped out at the end of the Mesozoic?

Many people have wondered whether dinosaurs would have eventually evolved sentience as primates did. The paleontologist Dale Russell believed that Troodonts would have eventually evolved an upright stance and an enlarged braincase, mirroring the course of evolution that hominids took on their path to sentience. He called this hypothetical animal the "Dinosauroid" and collaborated with the artist Ron Sequin to create a lifelike model of this creature. While such a thing is possible, I'm hesitant to say whether I think it's actually likely - I think of the evolution of true sentience as much more of a happy accident than an evolutionary inevitability, which needs a lot of specific selection pressures in order to arise.

Other paleontologists have speculated on this on a broader scale, like Dougal Dixon in his book The New Dinosaurs. While more of an interesting thought experiment than true science, this book explores the possibilities of many new forms dinosaurs could have evolved into, from the duck-like predatory "Pouch" to the arboreal snakelike "Treewyrm." In this hypothetical future, archosaurs are still by and large the dominant animal group, with mammals still existing in the shadows of giants.

The possibilities are truly endless for what could have been. It's sad to think that such a timeline could not possibly have produced an "us" to observe them!

-EWilloughby
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Some of you might have guessed why I was waiting until today to post this month’s topic, but for anyone who hasn’t figured it out already, today is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday.  This makes 2009 a rather important year for evolution, and it also is for one other reason:  on November 24th of this year, it will have been exactly 150 years since the publication of his book The Origin of Species.

As is probably obvious from the name of this group, no single person is considered more important to the theory of evolution than Charles Darwin.  And historically, it makes sense that he would receive the credit for it, since The Origin of Species was more responsible than anything else for making evolution a widely-known biological process.  In this respect his discovery was similar to that of Christopher Columbus—both of them deserve credit for being the one who introduced their society to what they discovered, but neither were actually its sole discoverer.  Just as the Vikings had been to North American before Columbus, the theory of evolution owes its existence to more people than just Darwin.

Evolution as it exists today has undergone several modifications from Darwin’s incarnation of it, among the most notable being Mendel’s mechanism of heredity, Gould’s punctuated equilibrium, and Dawkins’ selfish gene theory.  Less well-known but equally important were Darwin’s precursors, who proposed earlier theories of evolution that lacked some of the details which Darwin would later add.  The most famous of these was probably Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who like Darwin believed that all animals shared a common ancestor, and that by undergoing small changes over successive generations, the descendents of this ancestor had given rise to the animal kingdom’s current diversity.  Unlike Darwin, however, Lamarck believed that these changes happened within each animal’s lifetime, with animals developing the traits which were most important to their survival, and then passing these traits on to their offspring.  With the exception of processes such as epigenetics, this idea that acquired traits can be passed on to offspring has now been abandoned.

Even before Lamarck, however, the concept of evolution had existed for centuries.  If the theory of evolution itself were traced back to its earliest ancestor, that ancestor would probably be Anaximander of Miletus, a philosopher who lived in Greece during the sixth century B.C.  Anaximander was the founder of uniformitarianism, the now-central idea in natural history that the world operated in the past by the same physical processes which currently govern it.  While most people in his time and place believed that the world and everything in it had been created by the Greek gods such as Zeus and Hera, Anaximander reasoned that if this were the case, the gods’ intervention should still be visible in the present.  And since nobody in Anaximander’s time ever saw Zeus or Hera creating animals, he believed that this hadn’t occurred in the past, either.

So if humans were not created directly by the gods, where could they have come from?  Since Anaximander was aware that in the present, humans cannot come into the world without a parent providing for them both before and after birth, he concluded that the first humans must have been descended from other types of animals.  As for where the first land animals had come from, Anaximander’s conclusion was that they were descended from sea animals.  I’m fairly sure that his theory didn’t attempt to explain what the process was that had caused these ancient animals to evolve into their present forms, but for what he did manage to figure out, Anaximander was still millennia ahead of his time.

Darwin’s main contribution to the already-existing study of evolution was his explanation of natural selection as the process responsible for it, but even that is something for which he doesn’t deserve exclusive credit.  Alfred Russel Wallace came up with this idea at approximately the same time, and exchanged ideas with Darwin at several points leading up to the publication of Darwin’s book.  So while Darwin may be the name that everyone remembers in connection with evolution, it’s worth also remembering the people such as Wallace, Lamarck, Anaximander, and numerous others upon whose ideas Darwin built his own theory, or the more recent people who have subsequently built upon Darwin’s ideas.

Most evolution-related communities are celebrating Darwin’s birthday this month, but this month I’d like to ask something a little different:  Do you think the other people who have contributed to the theory of evolution receive too little credit in comparison to Darwin?  Or is it reasonable for Darwin to receive most of the credit the way he does?

So far, most of the topics that I’ve posted about here have been ones that I had strong opinions about, but in this case I don’t really.  As unfortunate as it might seem that some of evolution’s other contributors have had so little time in the spotlight, I’m also aware that this tends to be the case for most discoveries.  The New Yorker describes this fact here, in reference to the way discoveries tend to be named after someone other than the person who originally made them.  Quoting Stephen Stigler:  “It can be found that Laplace employed Fourier Transforms in print before Fourier published on the topic, that Lagrange presented Laplace Transforms before Laplace began his scientific career, that Poisson published the Cauchy distribution in 1824, twenty-nine years before Cauchy touched on it in an incidental manner, and that Bienaymé stated and proved the Chebychev Inequality a decade before and in greater generality than Chebychev’s first work on the topic.”  Stigler has even formulated what he calls “Stigler’s Law” about this tendency: “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer.”  The theory of evolution being known as “Darwinism” might be another example of Stigler’s Law.

It seems that Stigler’s Law is so universal, there would be little point in making a big deal about this in Darwin’s case.  So we may as well continue using the word “Darwininsm” for the theory of evolution, and thinking of Darwin as the main person responsible for it, as long as we don’t forget that in his studies he was far from alone.

Agahnim
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Evolution and dinosaurs have been depicted in various works of fiction for decades, with varying degrees of success and accuracy. Dinosaur-related fiction has run the gamut from early portrayals in novels like Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World to modern video game and cinematic classics like the Turok series and Jurassic Park.

Evolution-related fictional portrayals have run a similar gamut, though with perhaps less installments. The most noteworthy recent example is, of course, Spore. Often overlooked are older portrayals, like the SNES game E.V.O.: Search for Eden and the comic portrayal of evolution in The Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick.

So, this month's topic is: What is your favorite fictional portrayal of dinosaurs or evolution, and why? This can apply to novels, comics, video games, television shows, movies, or anything else along those lines. All we ask is that you PLEASE be more creative than Jurassic Park. ;)

I have quite a few favorites, though it took a while to narrow them down. My favorite dinosaur-related fictional portrayals are:
  • The Age of Reptiles comics by Ricardo Delgado. While not anatomically accurate by today's standards, these comics were brilliant at portraying the life and emotion of dinosaurs in a semi-realistic and not overly anthropomorphized way. They also influenced my own art, especially at designing realistic emotional expressions.
  • In the Time of the Dinosaurs, Megamorphs #2 in the Animorphs series. While clearly written for a younger age bracket, this was the first portrayal of dromaeosaurs in fiction that I stumbled across that stressed their relationship to birds. As a youngster I found this very interesting, and also really enjoyed seeing my favorite characters getting to "be" dinosaurs - something I had always dreamt of myself.
  • Raptor Red by Robert Bakker. Most dinosaur nuts are familiar with this tale of a Utahraptor's journey through life and her struggles to survive and find a mate. While fairly realistic, it still manages to capture a great deal of personality and emotion in the animals, and remains to be one of the standards for realistic dinosaur fiction. Despite the realism of the situations and characters, I thought the writing style still left something to be desired; for this reason, I still consider this niche in fiction to be somewhat lucrative.

Owing to the dearth of really good portrayals of evolution in fiction (creationist arguments aside, har har), my list of favorite evolution portrayals consists of only one item: E.V.O.: Search for Eden. This was one of my favorite games as a kid and still remains in my top 20 or so. It was not overly realistic by any means, but the degree of freedom in evolving your own organism was extremely engaging at the time.

So, share your own! And try to be somewhat creative and original.

-EWilloughby
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My apologies for being kind of late with this month’s post.  I was going to post it earlier, but didn’t think I should yet because Christian Forums was down, and this topic involves linking to a thread there.

Anyone who consistently debates with a particular group of people is likely to have certain arguments against the opposing position which they’re particularly fond of.  It could be because these points are particularly striking, particularly difficult to refute, or for any other reason.  This trend isn’t restricted to creationism vs. evolution—I’ve noticed the same thing in some of the debates that Jason Malloy of Gene Expression has with people who insist that there are no biological differences between humanity’s races.  (For more details about that topic, see our post from October.)  So this month’s topic is: What is your favorite line of evidence for evolution, and why?

In my case there are two answers, for two different reasons.  The first answer is endogenous retroviruses, and in particular this essay about them.  For those who don’t know, endogenous retroviruses are bits of DNA that are inserted into an organism’s genome as a result of a failed viral infection, which can in some cases be passed on to its offspring.  No two ERVs are the same, even if they came from the same virus, since what specific bits of DNA are left behind and where in the genome they’re left is different for each infection.  So if two animals share an ERV, there is no plausible explanation for this except that they both inherited it from a common ancestor.

As the aforementioned essay shows, the pattern of ERVs found in humans and other primates exactly mirrors the relationships between them which has been concluded from fossil and anatomical evidence.  This essay also does an excellent job refuting basically all of the creationist arguments against this idea.  My fondness of this essay in particular relates to a second reason why I especially like this line of evidence—this essay was written by R. Allan Glenn, who was a friend of mine in my debates with creationists in 2004 and 2005, but died in November of 2005 from complications of cystic fibrosis.  A lot of members of the creation/evolution section at Christian Forums still regard Allan’s essays as so authoritative, they continue to cite what he’s written there even three years after his death.  Many of them, myself included, consider his essay about endogenous retroviruses to be among his best.

A second piece of evidence that I particularly like relates to evolution’s ability to predict future discoveries; something which creationism has never been able to match.  One of the best examples of this is the fact that several paleontologists were able to predict the existence of feathered dinosaurs more than a decade before they were discovered.  (Perhaps "predict: isn’t the best word to use here, since the feathered dinosaurs obviously existed already, but the point is that the theory of evolution was able to determine their existence before there was any direct evidence for it.)

The paleontologist who’s most famous for having made this prediction is Gregory S. Paul, whose book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World contains several illustrations of the plumage he’d concluded these animals would have had.  One such illustration can be found here.  As can be seen from the date on this drawing, it was created in 1988, while the first feathered dinosaur fossil to be discovered, Sinosauropteryx prima, wasn’t found until 1996.  Greg Paul also managed to correctly predict a few more specific details of their anatomy, such as the fringes or "proto-wings" on the Velociraptor’s arm, which have more recently been discovered in the fossils of dinosaurs such as Caudipteryx and Sinornithosaurus.

The prediction about feathered dinosaurs that I consider most striking, though, was not nearly so recent as the 1980s.  In 1915, the American zoologist William Beebe reached a conclusion about the type of animal from which birds would have evolved, based on his studies of bird embryos.  He predicted that their ancestors would have included a small, feathered dinosaur that flew using wings on its legs as well as its arms—a fairly good description of Microraptor gui, a feathered dinosaur whose remains were discovered 88 years later.

William Beebe also illustrated this hypothetical animal, which he referred to as “Tetrapteryx”.  To anyone who does not know this illustration was created in 1915, it could easily be mistaken for a reconstruction created within the past five years of 2003’s discovery.  I’ve included his illustration side-by-side with the original fossil in order to show their similarity; note the unique “leg-wings” in each case.

Willian Beebe's prediction by Agahnim

In addition to my general interest in feathered dinosaurs, the reason why I particularly like this piece of evidence is because it’s one of the only examples where it’s possible to show an illustration, based only on an understanding of evolutionary theory, of something whose existence was not actually discovered until decades later.  What other specific pieces of evidence for evolution are the people here especially fond of, and why?

Agahnim
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This month's topic involves a video game that, as many of you probably know, came out in September and was one of the most highly-anticipated games in recent memory. For those who don't know, Spore is a computer game developed by Maxis, the same company famous for their line of Sims games. Spore is a game that is meant to simulate the evolution of organisms on a planet - the player "evolves" them from single cells, to creatures, then to tribes and civilizations and finally to space travel and exploration. The player's own population of unique organisms, built completely by the player, can interact with other creatures developed by other players as well. For me, the most anticipated part of it was that relating to physically changing and developing the creatures. And as it's rather relevant to the concept of evolution, this month's topic is:

What did you think of Spore from an evolutionary perspective? What do you think it did well, and what could it have improved? Do you think this game has the potential to influence people's perception of evolution, and if so, how?

My own opinions on the game are not terribly positive. From an evolutionary and gaming perspective, Spore was, in a word: Disappointing. From an evolutionary perspective alone, Spore was doubly so.

As most of you probably know, Spore is divided into five distinct sections, each of which is meant to emulate a different stage of "evolution." Each stage also has a very distinctly different type of gameplay. However, only the first two really deal with biological evolution: the Cell Stage and the Creature Stage.

The Cell Stage was extremely simple and easy, and took half an hour to beat. You basically just swim around in a simulation of a primordial cesspool with your little single-celled critter and gobble up bits of floating food while avoiding or attacking other cells. Once you get enough EVO points - oops, I mean DNA points - you can "evolve" your creature by "buying" new parts for it to have. Once you have eaten enough stuff, basically, you get to move on to the Creature Stage.

This is the main bulk of the game's evolution-related content. It's certainly fun and interesting in its own right, but it has little to do with actual biological evolution. You run around, attack and eat stuff (or make friend with them), and then mate and produce young. The young can differ significantly from the parents, which often has ridiculous-looking results. As in the cell stage, whenever you produce a new generation, you get to alter the appearance of the young by "purchasing" new parts with your EVO DNA points. Unfortunately, everything about this process is mind-numbingly simple and dumbs down the concept of evolution to a startling degree. There's nothing related to genetics, population dynamics (beyond the most simple imaginable), mutation, speciation, or anything, really, beyond hunting other species on the planet in order to make your own creature more powerful.

Truth is, though, that I was probably expecting far more from this game than I should have. I wanted a complex and elegant evolution simulator when what I should have been expecting was, well, The Sims but with animals. It wasn't a complete disappointment, mind you. The amount of freedom you have in creating the appearance of your animals is really impressive, and will keep you engaged for hours even if the gameplay itself is not appealing. I spent a lot of time creating realistic dinosaurs and other animals, and some of them have even become popular enough that they show up the games of people I don't even know.

The final three stages have their ups and downs as well. The Tribal stage is another that is very simple, and will almost certainly not take you long to beat. As in the Creature stage, using plain brute force is extremely easy. The Civilization stages is much more complex than the previous ones, and you get to design all of your buildings and vehicles with an impressive degree of freedom and flexibility. It still, however, suffers from the same problem that most of the others do: an overarching sense of extreme simplicity. The Civilization stage is little more than a dumbed-down RTS game, and if you want to play a good RTS game, there are a lot of better choices out there. Such is the case for each individual stage in this game, really - the unique things are that you get to design your creatures/buildings/vehicles/spaceships yourself, and that it's the only game that has this many different types of gameplay all together in the same place.

Some say it's the Space Stage where the game really shines. It's definitely the largest, longest and most complex of the stages, and also the only one where relying on brute force alone is almost completely impossible. You can do a lot of different things in this stage, from abducting and transplanting creatures from one planet to another, destroying primitive species, destroying entire planets, and establishing new colonies. From an evolutionary perspective, however, this stage isn't exactly the meat and potatoes of the game.

One thing I did like about this game was the amount of little sci-fi references it made to various things, like the little cutscene between the Creature and Tribal stage which is an obvious 2001: A Space Odyssey reference, or the usage of "spice" as the currency in the Civilization Stage (an obvious homage to Dune), or, my favorite, the "Little Doctor" weapon in the Space Stage, a reference to Ender's Game. These little clever things are what I like about Will Wright - but as an evolutionary biologist, he fails. And that's what I wanted out of this game, not another The Sims.

At least this means I'm still free to create the kind of game I wanted to see in Spore... someday. =P

What are your thoughts?

-EWilloughby

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