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December 2009 Archives

December 28, 2009

The End of Origins

image This year, the worldwide community of science has marked the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth—and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species—with dozens of evolutionary-themed meetings, books, review papers, and Science’s own monthly Origins series. In this blog, we’ve both joined in and reported on these celebrations, covering the meetings, expanding on the essays, and highlighting the most current research on evolution in all its many forms. Now the blog, like the year itself, draws to a close; this will be our final entry. We hope you have found it both diverting and useful.

Of course, Science’s interest in origins and all things evolutionary continues. For although 2009’s evolutionary parties are ending, the science behind them continues to serve as the firm foundation of modern biology as well as a rich source of new research. You can see all our Year of Darwin coverage in one place here, and you can continue to find the latest on evolution in online news at ScienceNOW and in the news and research in the magazine itself. Thanks for reading!

The Origins Blog Editors: Elizabeth Culotta, Elizabeth Pennisi, John Travis

If you're tired of watching It's a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol yet again, perhaps Darwin can occupy your cold winter nights. As a holiday treat, Origins would like to point out that this summer's Darwin Festival in Cambridge, U.K., has compiled videos of many of its sessions, which typically start with a reading from Darwin's correspondence. You can watch the videos directly here on the embedded media player, even skipping among the talks, or go to where they are posted here on YouTube. Enjoy.

RamseyDarwinFestival

by Lucas Laursen

Charles Darwin may have had his biggest impact on biology, but he began his scientific career as a geologist. So it’s appropriate that earlier this year, retired geologist John Ramsay, who had long studied the famed biologist’s life, accepted a commission to compose a Darwin-themed string quartet.

Darwin “did some pretty fundamental geological mapping," says Ramsay, drawing a parallel to his own geological career, during which he has drawn maps of the Scottish Highlands, South Africa, and the Swiss Alps. Ramsay says he and Darwin also share a penchant for putting "ideas that spring from other parts of one's life" into their current work. He notes that Darwin applied lessons from Earth's landscape to biology, adapting, for example, Charles Lyell's theory of gradual geological change to living things. Similarly, Ramsay's musical tribute draws on his own geology background. "Knowing Darwin's work, I wrote my quartet first of all on the evolution of the Earth," Ramsay says.

At the beginning of the piece, a disorganized Earth takes shape, with the core, mantle, and crust emerging into distinct musical themes. Life then arrives. Next, Ramsay writes in his concert notes, "the 'wriggly' primitive forms evolve into ... stronger and more continuous themes representing reptile and mammal forms."

Performed by the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, Ramsay’s composition premiered in Cambridge, U.K., during the Darwin Festival (Ramsay pictured above and Quartet playing pictured below) on 7 July 2009. The Darwin Quartet gave its second performance late last month during the triennial Cambridge Music Festival. The two festivals jointly commissioned the piece, and Ramsay hopes the Fitzwilliam Quartet will record the composition next year.

How did a structural geologist who spent his career climbing the academic career ladder at British and Swiss universities end up composing evolution-themed music? National service: After completing his Ph.D. in geology at Imperial College London, recalls Ramsay, "I became a cellist in an Army orchestra" in 1955. For 2 years, he toured Britain and British bases in Germany.

When his tour was over, Ramsay had to decide between pursuing music or geology. "I was hard-put," he says, "but I only started playing cello at 18, ... and that's a bit late for someone becoming a top professional." Instead, he continued with geology research and teaching at Imperial College, moved to the University of Leeds, and eventually settled in Zurich, Switzerland, with joint geology appointments at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and the University of Zurich. But his other passion has come to the forefront again now that Ramsay has retired. Today, he teaches and composes music in the French hamlet of Cratoule, in a wine-growing region near the Rhône River whose landscape he describes as "wild without being fiercely wild."

His music hobby did not directly influence his geological career, Ramsay says, but a night class on life-drawing he took while in the Army probably did shape his interest in geological maps: "They are scientific records of the rocks on the Earth's surface, but they can be exceedingly beautiful things."

Ramsay says he tried to incorporate Darwin's ideas about the fleeting nature of any individual species into the epilogue of his composition; the music is meant to evoke a barren landscape, devoid of today's multitude of species. "Darwin showed that practically all the organisms that have lived on the Earth had a limited species-life, and practically all of them have died out and been replaced by new ones," Ramsay notes.

And what would Darwin have thought of the composition? "I don't know what he would make of my string quartet, [but] he was very worried toward the end of his life about where things were going," Ramsay says. "My idea is that perhaps the world will finish up like Mars, without life but still with a great deal of beauty."

Images courtesy Miranda Gomperts/Darwin Festival

darwin quartet.jpg

by Elizabeth Pennisi

Notho In my essay on the origin of flowering plants, I discussed many ideas related to how angiosperms came to dominate terrestrial ecosystems. Representing hundreds of thousands of species and 96% of all terrestrial vegetation, flowering plants are the most successful land plants on Earth. Researchers have long chalked it up to their flowers, which enlist insects and other animals to help them reproduce and spread. But two plant biologists credit the leaves instead. More leaf veins (left) made the plants better photosynthesizers, say Timothy Brodribb, a hydraulic physiologist at the University of Tasmania in Australia, and Taylor Feild, now at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. "The importance of vein density has never before been so clearly presented," says Peter Wilf, a paleobotanist at Pennsylvania State University, University Park. Read about their compelling data and argument here.


Credit: Timothy Brodribb

December 3, 2009

On the Origin of Tomorrow

by Elizabeth Pennisi

image More than ever before, the future is in our hands. We are shaping not just our own destiny but also the destinies of much of life on this planet. That is the take-home message of the final essay, On the Origin of Tomorrow, in Science's Origins series.

As Carl Zimmer points out in this essay, Charles Darwin gave a nod to the future, finishing On the Origin of Species with a paragraph that talked about continuity: "... endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” He recognized that as long as the ingredients for the evolutionary process still exist, life has the potential to change. He didn’t believe it was possible to forecast evolution’s course, but he did expect humans would have a big effect—they had demonstrated this power already by domesticating plants and animals and driving some species to extinction. Darwin also expected that our own species would change.

As the world celebrates the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species this year, scientists continue to think deeply about what lies ahead. Some feel a new sense of urgency about understanding what might happen. Since Darwin’s day, humans have gained an unprecedented influence over our own evolution. At the same time, our actions, be it causing climate change, modifying the genomes of other organisms, or introducing invasive species, are creating new sources of natural selection on the flora and fauna around us. “The decisions we and our children make are going to have much more influence over the shape of evolution in the foreseeable future than physical events,” says Andrew Knoll, a paleontologist at Harvard University.

In this essay, Zimmer examines Darwin's perspective on the future and discusses how humans have helped to alter the course of their own evolution. He describes the ways humans have shaped the world around them—through global change, for example—and thereby affected the futures of countless other organisms and ecosystems. Finally, he ends with the question of whether humans will ultimately be smart enough to prolong the life of the planet.

Image: Katharine Sutliff