Tag Archives: evolution

Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test (book review)

I’ve just finished reading Marlene Zuk’s newest book, Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test: How Behavior Evolves and Why it Matters. Now, before we do anything else, can we stop for a moment and admire that title? Is there a human being on Earth who wouldn’t want to know more?

Dancing Cockatoos is a book about the evolutionary ecology of animal behaviour. Continue reading


The origin, and fate, of “sister species”

Warning: etymological nerdery.

 The origin and fate of the phrase, I mean, not the actual species.

In evolutionary biology, a pair of “sister species” (or “sister taxa”, or “sister clades”) are each other’s closest living relatives. I was at lunch last week with an interesting assortment of biologists when the topic of gendered language in biology came up.  I think it started with “daughter cell”, which is routine in developmental biology, and expanded from there.  I was brought up short when the conversation turned to “sister species”.  It’s a term I know well and use often – and it had never occurred to me that it’s gendered.  This is, of course, a nice illustration of how insidious gendered language can be.  Whether or not there’s any real social consequence to our use of “sister species”, the mere fact that I hadn’t noticed the in-hindsight-blindingly-obvious gendered nature of the term was something of a shot across my mental bow.

Once you think about “sister species”, several questions seem obvious. Continue reading

There’s no such thing as “an unrelated genus”

 Image: Osmia rufa, André Karwath, CC BY-SA 2.5; Boletus edulis, Hans Hillewaert, CC BY-SA 4.0; Volvocales, Aurora M. Nedelcu, CC BY 2.5; Chimp, Aaron Logan, CC BY 2.5; Ranunculus asiaticus, Leif Stridvall, CC BY-SA 2.5; Isotricha intestinalis, Agricultural Research Service/USDA CC 0; Compilation, Vojtěch Dostál, CC BY-SA 2.5.

 (My writing pet peeves, part 4)

There I was, at the physiotherapist, reading a new manuscript by a friend and collaborator to distract myself from the indignities being visiting on my calf.  There I was, thoroughly enjoying what I was learning, when I was brought up short by a construction that drives me up the wall:

“this species, therefore, cannot be not congeneric with A. jonesi.  Instead, it actually belongs to Ethereum, a similar but unrelated genus”.*

 I gasped.  Unrelated?  No two genera on Earth are “unrelated”.  There are closely related genera and distantly related ones, but because all life on Earth shares a common ancestor, there are no unrelated ones. Continue reading

Is biology beautiful?

Photo: Glasswing butterfly, probably Greta oto, on Asclepias curassavica; Eddy Van 3000 at flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0

We could quit now, with our eyes on that glasswing butterfly: of course biology can be beautiful. Birds of paradise, lynx, ladyslipper orchids, Spanish moss*, orcas; can there be any doubt? But that’s not really what I mean. Is biology as a science beautiful, the way math is beautiful, and physics is beautiful? Continue reading

Nature’s pharmacy? “Medicinal” plants in the garden

Photo: Echinacea purpurea; credit: Jamie Heard

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I wrote for the newsletter of CC BY-SA 88x31the Fredericton Botanic Garden. I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license . If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.

You don’t need to spend long on the Web, or talking with family and friends, to hear about the wonderful potential of plants to treat human illness. The medicinal value of plant extracts is a major theme in “alternative”, “naturopathic”, “traditional”, and “herbal” medicine – and indeed, in just plain medicine, because many of the drugs we use to restore our health have their origins in the biochemical machinery of plants.

Look around the Botanic Garden – or your own garden – and you’ll see plenty of plants with historical, and often continued, medicinal uses. Continue reading