Thursday
Oct072004


It looks nice, but apparently it will rip your face clean off.

Wednesday
Oct062004

Oh My Word! It Has Been Too Long!

At first I didn't believe the people who said Dick Cheney is a robot, but upon watching this evening's vice presidential debates, I'm beginning to buy it. The guy is smart as a whip and on point (and he's from Lincoln). It's a shame he uses his powers for eeeeevil.



I apologize for the lack of updates for the last....THREE MONTHS!!!!! Oops. I do have good reason. Since last I posted, I have been granted a master's degree, moved half way across the nation, and begun work on my Ph.D. in a strange new land - Utah.



I really like it here so far. People are nice and the city is beautiful. I've provided some pictures of my building on the University of Utah campus, Stuart Hall. Below that is a photo looking over campus. You can barely see downtown, where I live, in the background.

Wednesday
Oct062004


Campus and Downtown

Wednesday
Oct062004


Stuart Hall

Friday
Jul022004

OpenGov

After a seemingly endless hiatus, OpenGov is back up and running. As I mentioned in the "Vote Early, Vote Often" post below, OpenGov provides information about the sources of our politicians' campaign contributions (among a myriad of other interesting tidbits).

Thursday
Jun172004

Computer Programming Using Natural Selection

In a previous post, I provided a rough overview of evolution and its primary mechanism, natural selection. Here, I would like to describe an emerging use for evolutionary theory in computer programming that is absolutely fascinating.



Programmers are now using natural selection to create original programs and inventions. They let the computer know the problem they wish to solve and the computer builds a program to solve it using natural selection. Code that works toward the goal is reproduced and code that fails to work is weeded out, just as DNA which promotes adaptive traits is selected for or against by environmental pressures in biological organisms.



Interestingly, this type of programming leaves vestigial (i.e. obsolete) code lying about, just as natural selection sticks us with vestigial DNA (body parts such as the tailbone, extra ribs, and non-working pheromone receptors in our noses are the result of our vestigial DNA). Programmers often choose not to remove this presumably useless code because they are unsure whether doing so might affect the program's functionality.



Check out more at www.genetic-programming.org/

Wednesday
Jun092004

Evolution and Natural Selection






The following post offers a very rough description of evolution and its primary mechanism, natural selection. If you are interested in the straight dope from the most prolific evolutionary theorist of our time have a look at Stephen Jay Gould's tome The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.



Evolution happens in interesting ways. The mechanism that makes evolution tick is called natural selection. When people say "evolution is just a theory...," they miss the point. Evolution is a fact, the mechanism that makes evolution function (natural selection) is "just" a theory. Actually, it is a "just" theory.



At its heart, evolution is an adjustment, or adaptation, to an environment. Natural selection works by favoring those individuals who are better suited to the environment than their peers. Here, the term "environment" is defined broadly; it does not simply refer to the weather. It includes everything from the organism's local vicinity to the Sun which provides the energy needed to power life as we know it.



For example, Koala bears subsist on nothing but eucalyptus leaves (and a little dirt now and again). They are highly adapted a single environmental niche. If the Australian climate suddenly changed and all species of eucalyptus were wiped out, the koala would be out of food, and out of luck. Unless there were koalas who, because of a random genetic mutation, could process another form of local vegetation. In this case, all of the eucalyptus-eating koalas would starve and the "new" koala would proliferate. Random genetic mutation is one of the cornerstones of evolutionary theory and is quite common because the mechanisms that replicate our DNA are not 100% accurate. This kind of intraspecies adaptation is called "microevolution."



Evolution occurs around us every second. Viruses and bacteria are constantly evolving. They can evolve as much in a few days as we can in thousands of years because they have relatively short lifespans. For them, hundreds of generations can pass within days. Evolution is one of the main reasons modern medicine has difficulty curing the most common bacterial and viral infections and preventing disease. Viruses, bacteria, and the like evolve much more quickly than we can develop modes of stopping them. We are always one step (or 10,000 generations) behind.



Another form of evolution is called "macroevolution." This is the form that some religious fundamentalists and radio talk show hosts have problems with. With macroevolution, entire new species come into existence from others. In general, a "species" is defined as a group of organisms who can mate with one another and produce viable (i.e. fertile) offspring. We have no way of directly observing whether the ancestors of today's complex organisms were capable of producing viable offspring because they are long-dead and we cannot observe them directly. But, we can make inferences based on how we see organisms behave today and then apply these observations to past forms of life. As discussed above, we witness the evolution of simpler organisms like bacteria all the time. In addition to these inferences, the fossil record shows evidence of transitional forms of many species. These transitional forms are just what their name would suggest, they share features of their predecessors and their descendants.



The selective breeding used to produce different varieties of dogs, horses, and crops is called "artificial selection." It exploits the same genetic mechanisms as natural selection, but the end product has whichever traits the breeder so chooses. It is unlikely that natural (non-human) evolutionary forces would produce an animal like this without a little help from humans (as sick and twisted we may sometimes be).



The chart at the beginning of this post (click here to enlarge) shows our own evolutionary path from about 4.5 million years ago to the present. A chart like this is called a phylogenetic tree. To the right of the tree lies another chart. This one shows the how the environment in Africa has changed during the same time period. Notice how the African climate has changed from woodland to grassland. Now, look at how our evolutionary tract has followed this pattern while the other lines have gone extinct. As Africa's climate/environment and, therefore, vegetation began to change dramatically from woodland to grassland around 2.5 million years ago the species living there were forced to either adapt to the changes or die (remember the koala example). Over time, genetic adaptations accumulated to a point where breeding was no longer possible between individuals of two different groups and a new species was born. This type of slow accumulation of genetic changes is called "gradualism." There is another form of macroevolution known as "punctuated equilibrium." It happens much more quickly than gradualism. I am not going to go into its mechanics here, but Stephen Jay Gould (see the link above) wrote the book on it, literally.



I have just scratched the surface of some of the basic processes of evolution for you here. In closing, I would like to note that natural selection does not necessarily produce species which are "more evolved" than others. It produces species that are adapted to their niche. The term "more evolved" suggests that evolution is a linear process, we know that it is not because genetic mutation is often random. One must also consider that the term "more evolved" is relative. Dolphins are certainly "more evolved" swimmers than humans, bats are "more evolved" than us when it comes to flying and negotiating darkness, and humans do OK writing weblogs sometimes.



Wednesday
Jun022004

The Strategic Threat From Suicide Terror by Scott Atran

To kick things off, I'm providing a link to a report written by Scott Atran titled The Strategic Threat From Suicide Terror. Dr. Atran's paper transcends the popular political rhetoric of the day/week/month and looks at suicide terrorism from a scientific standpoint. This paper elucidates some of the reasons people willingly participate in the most evolutionarily maladaptive behavior possible; suicide. Find the paper here: The Strategic Threat From Suicide Terror.

Wednesday
Jun022004

First Day

I've decided to have a crack at blogging. I don't know that I'll be posting any ground breaking information here, but I'll surely post some interesting links and reports as I come across them.



I'm currently working on my master's thesis which is why updates to this blog may seem somewhat infrequent. I will defend on July 19th, 2004. I'm excited to have it finished. Hopefully it will be published shortly thereafter.



This blog is going to be scientific and political in nature. The further one goes with their education, the more intertwined these two notions become. It's somewhat disheartening that it works this way, but it certainly does.


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