Random bits #7

Here's a few things I found interesting (and weird) over the past few days:

First is this paper from the journal Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling:

Whitacre. 2010. Degeneracy: a link between evolvability, robustness and complexity in biological systems. Theoretical Biology and Medical Modelling 7:6.

From the abstract:
This paper offers a new perspective on the mechanics of evolution and the origins of complexity, robustness, and evolvability. Here we explore the hypothesis that degeneracy, a partial overlap in the functioning of multi-functional components, plays a central role in the evolution and robustness of complex forms.
That makes a lot of sense. I've often thought that the redundancy of genomes might serve some kind of error tolerance function, but if redundancy were also a means of adaptation, that would be a double benefit.

Phil Senter has a really neat article in the February issue of The American Biology Teacher (with a free PDF):

Senter. 2010. Were Australopithecines Ape–Human Intermediates or Just Apes? A Test of Both Hypotheses Using the "Lucy" Skeleton. The American Biology Teacher 72(2):70-76.

It's a great lab exercise that demonstrates the intermediacy of Australopithecus afarensis. I don't think that the test of "Lucy was just an ape" that he proposes is quite adequate, but to his credit, he does not try to oversell his results. He concludes:
Exercises such as these are not likely to change the mind of anyone who is strongly influenced by the religious dogmas that keep young-earth creationism alive. Nevertheless, they are potentially useful for students on both sides of the fence. For those who accept that humans evolved from apelike precursors, such exercises provide clarification of the evidence. For those who do not accept the evolution of humans from nonhumans, such exercises at least show that the idea is not just a baseless atheistic conspiracy, as is often falsely claimed (Gish, 1995; Sarfati, 2002), but is instead based on observable physical data.

Zemojtel et al. report another functional human retrogene, derived from a retrotransposition event. Always interesting to see what kinds of changes genomes can tolerate.

Zemojtel et al. 2010. Retrotransposition and mutation events yield Rap1 GTPases with differential signalling capacity. BMC Evolutionary Biology 10:55.

This morning I was looking around for some references for a paper I just finished, and I stumbled across one of the strangest abstracts I've seen in quite a while:

Niebauer et al. 2004. Interhemispheric interaction and beliefs on our origin: degree of handedness predicts beliefs in creationism versus evolution. Laterality 9(4):433-447.

Yes, you read that right. From what I can understand of the abstract, if you're strongly handed, then you're more likely to retain creationist beliefs than if you are more ambidextrous? Unfortunately, the paper is pay-per-view, and at $30, I'm afraid I'm going to have to remain ignorant of its contents.

Last but not least, I got my copy of Leonard Brand's revised Faith, Reason, & Earth History today. Like the original edition, Leonard continues to use "intelligent interventionist" rather than "creationist," at least in part because he thinks "creationist" is too narrow to describe his position. Here's a passage that I really liked:
In the long run, the beneficial approach is for interventionists to conduct themselves as genuine scientists and get actively involved in research. It is better to develop an alternative paradigm than to merely poke holes in someone else's theory. If interventionist efforts only center around disproving the prevailing evolutionary paradigm, this question will be raised: What do you have that is better?
Amen to that.