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Editor, The Konformist
All of science owes debt to Darwin
David Perlman, Chronicle Science Editor
Sunday, February 8, 2009
The shy young naturalist Charles Darwin, who voyaged around the world
aboard HMS Beagle and became the bearded sage of rational scientific
thought, is having a birthday this week - his 200th - and
celebrations have already begun throughout the Bay Area, and indeed
on every continent.
"No one," says Kevin Padian, a Berkeley biologist and tracker of
dinosaur evolution, "has influenced modern thought, modern science,
and indeed our modern culture more than Darwin.
"His influence is everywhere, and science would be impossible without
Every true scientist at work today is in fact a Darwinian.
They are decoders of the human genome, immunologists battling AIDS,
stem cell researchers seeking tomorrow's cures, anthropologists
unearthing fossil hominids to define our human ancestry - even
the "astrobiologists" seeking life on other planets while they study
organisms living in extreme conditions on Earth.
The man who was born just 200 years ago Thursday did not stumble on
his theory of natural selection in one blinding insight - as legends
that have morphed into quasi-history would have it - when he observed
the varied finches and mockingbirds and tortoises of the Galapagos
Islands during the Beagle's stopover there.
No, his theories developed long after the observations he had made
while adventurously collecting fossils of long-extinct beasts and
living plants and animals - largely in South America.
His first insights on evolution and the emergence of new species came
to him two years after the Beagle returned to England, and it wasn't
until 1859, more than 20 years later, that Darwin, inspired by the
writings of Thomas Malthus on population pressures and Charles Lyell
on the ancient age of Earth's geology, completed his first great
work: "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the
Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life."
To evolution researchers today, the California Academy of Sciences in
San Francisco is an important source of information, for the academy
maintains the world's largest collection of Galapagos plant, animal
and insect life. The Galapagos archipelago and the Darwin Research
Station in the tourist-jammed town of Puerto Ayora on the island of
Santa Cruz there remain an international monument to his achievement.
Darwin, no ornithologist, had collected scores of finches and
mockingbirds from different Galapagos islands and noticed how widely
varied the finch beaks were. He thought some were not finches at all.
But it was long after the Beagle's return to England that he learned
his birds were of widely different species and wondered how they came
"One might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in
this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for
different ends," he wrote in "The Voyage of the Beagle."
Descent from common ancestors with modification are watchwords for
scientists of all stripes today. And Darwin saw more clearly than
anyone that the pressure for modification came primarily through
natural selection: Beasts or plants or microbes come from common
ancestors. They are modified to adapt best to an environment, and
produce descendents; those who aren't adapted die by the wayside -
just as the Neanderthal people may have died away competing in vain
with the first Homo sapiens, our direct ancestors. That's today's
"A steady thread of Darwin's natural selection runs through all our
work," says David Mindell, dean of science and curator of ornithology
at the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park who studies
the evolution of predatory birds - hawks, eagles, falcons and the
like. "Darwin has given us the way to see how species change over
time, how new species arise - and that fact remains the real focus of
all scientists who study evolution."
The concepts of natural selection and Darwin's later parallel
discovery of sexual selection operate at all levels of life, and not
just among vertebrate animals that reproduce sexually, Mindell says.
"You can put a culture of bacteria into a laboratory flask, and even
though they reproduce by fission, you can see natural selection
operating even there - new bacterial species will arise almost
instantaneously," he says.
Among his own birds of prey, as Mindell notes, Darwin's concept of
sexual selection operates clearly: A bird uses its plumage - or its
chirps or raucous cries and whistles - to signal to a potential mate
that it has the most desirable genes for producing the best
descendants. To Mindell, that means that studying "molecular
systematics," or the structure and sequences of genes in his birds,
can lead to clues to the evolution of new species.
They are, Mindell says, "molecular clocks" for the history of
Padian, the Berkeley biologist, testified as an expert witness during
the famed 2005 trial in Dover, Pa., over the school district's
decision to order the teaching of intelligent design as an
alternative to evolution in explaining the origin of life.
Intelligent design is based on the idea that living organisms are too
complex to have evolved naturally, and must have required an
intelligent designer to create them.
Like virtually all scientists today, Padian equates intelligent
design with biblical creationism, a view held also by the judge in
the Dover case who ruled that intelligent design "is a religious
view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific
theory." In Dover, evolution won.
Despite that ruling, efforts to promote intelligent design continue
to roil school districts across America, and Darwin's evolution - no
more a theory than gravity or the round Earth - is still under legal
Padian is a foremost expert on the evolution of dinosaurs, the
creatures that ruled the earth for about 160 million years and whose
mass extinction an estimated 65 million years ago has given rise to
conflicting causes: a meteorite crashing onto Earth or Indian
volcanoes erupting in catastrophe.
To Padian, however, the dinosaurs never really went extinct. His
studies, and those of many others, have provided overwhelming
evidence that dinosaurs evolved in true Darwinian fashion to become
Some of the meat-eating fossil dinosaurs that Padian and other
scientists have unearthed at ancient sites around the world bore
fierce horns, while their more placid plant-eating relatives did not.
So Padian today is also studying the evolution of horns in modern
"That's why," he said recently, "I studied a thousand skulls of
different antelope species in South Africa - to see how they fit into
Darwin's tree of life."
E-mail David Perlman at dperlman@...
This article appeared on page A - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle
February 5, 2009
Giant Titanoboa snake ruled the earth after the dinosaurs
The Titanoboa grew to 45ft or more
Lewis Smith, Environment Reporter
A titanic snake that snacked on crocodiles and was longer than a
London bus has been identified as the top predator to walk, or at
least slither, the land when the dinosaurs disappeared.
It weighed 1.25 tonnes and with a length of 45 feet or more it would
have been able to take on and eat pretty much any other animal it
The newly discovered type of snake, named Titanoboa in honour of its
immense size, was for 10 million years the largest land predator on
At least 28 individual specimens have been uncovered in Colombia and,
with all of them being around 40 feet long, researchers said it is
likely the species could have reached much further than 45 feet.
Fossils recovered from the site over the last five years have given
researchers the most detailed picture yet of life in tropical South
America in the years following the disappearance of the dinosaurs.
Alongside the enormous snakes, which were so wide it would have been
a squeeze for them to get through a doorway, were fossils of turtles
and giant crocodile-like dyrosaurs.
Other fossil finds, including fish, gastropods and plants such as
palms, are providing researchers with their first glimpses of the
tropical ecosystem that laid the foundations for the Amazon forest.
Jonathan Bloch, of the University of Florida, was one of the
researchers who analysed the remains of the snake, the biggest that
He said: "It was not only the biggest predator in the region, as far
as we know, but it was the largest terrestrial vertebrate known on
the face of the planet for at least 10 million years.
"It could have eaten pretty much anything that came its way. If we
had to guess, it probably ate a lot of fish and crocodyliforms.
"It is possible that the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years
opened up the opportunity for the evolution of another top-predator
such as Titanoboa."
He added: "Truly enormous snakes really spark people's imagination,
but reality has exceeded the fantasies of Hollywood. The snake that
tried to eat Jennifer Lopez in the movie Anaconda is not as big as
the one we found."
Carlos Jaramillo, of the Smithsonian Institution in Panama, said the
specimens uncovered from the mine are likely to have been merely
average in size, meaning that some individuals would have been much
The reticulated python, from South East Asia, is the longest living
species recorded, according to Guinness World Records, with one
individual reaching almost 33 feet long but the average length for
the species is only 20 feet.
The size of the cold-blooded Titanoboa indicated to researchers that
the tropical coastal river system it occupied would have been warmer
than the tropics today. Using the snake's proportions they worked out
that the tropics 60 million years ago would have been about 32C, some
4C warmer than now.
Jason Head, of the University of Toronto in Canada and the
Smithsonian Institution, said as the findings were published in the
journal Nature: "The discovery of Titanoboa challenges our
understanding of past climates and environments, as well as the
biological limitations on the evolution of giant snakes."
Mythic Birthplace of Zeus Possibly Found
Tuesday, February 10, 2009
By Heather Whipps
The Greek god of thunder and lightning had Earthly beginnings, and
scientists think they finally know where.
Ancient Greeks first worshipped the omnipotent Zeus at a remote altar
on Mount Lykaion, a team of Greek and American archaeologists now
During a recent dig at the site, the researchers found ceremonial
goods commonly used in cult activity and dated at over three
millennia old, making them the earliest known "appearance" of Zeus in
The discovery challenges the idea that Zeus worship began on the
Greek island of Crete, which at least one classical historian names
as the god's mythic birthplace.
The latest finds on Mount Lykaion, in the mainland province of
Arcadia, are as old as the idea of Zeus himself, said the project's
senior research scientist David Romano, of the University of
"This new evidence strongly suggests that there were drinking (and
perhaps feasting) parties taking place on the top of the mountain in
the Late Helladic period, around 3,300 or 3,400 years ago," Romano
Worship of lightning god unbroken
Zeus is the most important figure in ancient Greek mythology. He is
the supreme ruler of Mount Olympus, the god of the skies and the
father of a slew of other deities and mortals, such as Athena,
Apollo, Heracles, Aphrodite and Helen of Troy, say the legends.
The heroic figure was born on either the island of Crete or on Mount
Lykaion, according to two competing accounts written in ancient times.
While the myths are just that stories historians and
archaeologists have always been interested in discovering what
elements of the stories might be at least loosely based on fact.
Though temples to Zeus, including one of the seven ancient wonders of
the world, are found throughout Greece, Zeus' mythic "birthplace" may
actually be the spot where Greeks first started to worship him too,
the new finds suggest.
Excavating a trench on Mount Lykaion, in an area which ancient Greek
historians later called "the ash altar of Zeus," archaeologists found
more than 50 drinking vessels, fragments of human and animal
figurines, as well as burned sheep and goat bones.
All of the artifacts are consistent with cult ceremonies of the
Mycenaean people, who settled Greece approximately between 3,000 and
4,000 years ago, historians say.
A portion of these finds were announced preliminarily by the research
team last year.
Mycenaean mountain-top altars are very rare on mainland Greece,
according to archaeologists. The period also coincides with the first
historical mentions of the god Zeus in Greek texts, suggesting that
the Mount Lykaion ceremonies were to honor the man himself.
The worship of Zeus, a god traditionally associated with mountains,
became popular on Mount Lykaion during classic Greek antiquity, said
the team, made up of archaeologists from the University of
Pennsylvania, Arizona, and the Greek Archaeological Service.
Younger, higher levels of the trench have yielded silver coins, a
bronze hand holding a lightning bolt and petrified lightning in past
All are clear dedications to Zeus, indicating that the use of the
god's altar on Mount Lykaion was likely unbroken for several
Myth and history
The connection between myth and history doesn't apply solely to
ancient Greece. Many ancient cultures worshipped gods that had links
to both the spirit and physical worlds.
Real-world spots mentioned in mythic or sacred texts often become
places of worship or temple locations or, like Mount Lykaion, vice-
versa. This especially applies to birthplaces or homes of the Gods,
Heliopolis, Egypt: Though largely destroyed and swallowed by the
sprawl of modern Cairo, the ancient city of Heliopolis was once the
center of the Egyptians' worship of Ra, the all-important sun God. Ra
died in the evening and was reborn every morning, according to
legend, spending the night in a boat floating through the underworld.
Kilauea, Hawaii: This sacred volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii is
both feared (it is the most active volcano on the planet) and revered
as the home of Pele, Hawaii's fire Goddess. Tourists who disrespect
Kilauea or take rocks from the mountain are thought to incur the
wrath of Pele, who will curse those individuals with bad luck.
Teotihuacan, Mexico: The most important site of the pre-Columbian
Aztecs and a major world city in its own right, Teotihuacan was also
the ceremonial heart of the cult of the feathered-serpent
Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec's creator god. It was at the site's temple
where Quetzalcoatl first had plumes added to his reptilian body,
according to Aztec myth.
Art & Design / Buildings / Future Tech
Treehouse hotel takes lofty living to new heights
Did your dad build you a treehouse when you were a kid? Obviously, he
didn't love you enough. If he did, he would have built you one that
looked like this new tree hotel designed by Sweden's Tham & Videgard
The "Harad's" tree hotel has a small kitchen, terrace, living area
and sleeping area. There doesn't appear to be a bathroom or a ladder.
That could make for a, um, rather uncomfortable night, at least for
guests of the female variety.
The mirrored surfaces blends this conceptual design into the
environment. I have a hard enough time remembering where my room is
when they all look alike in a real hotel. What if all the trees look
alike? Even worse try finding your tree at night.
Butter Up: Why Butter is a Healthy Choice
Monday, February 09, 2009 by: Elizabeth Walling, citizen journalist
Key concepts: Butter, Health and Vitamin A
(NaturalNews) There seems to be a lot of question about which healthy
spreads should be used to replace butter. Since the word is finally
spreading about the harmful nature of trans fat, margarine has been
officially declared as a substance which should be avoided. Of
course, in its place have rushed countless other butter alternatives
which do not contain hydrogenated fats. But now that refined
vegetable oils, additives and preservatives are coming under fire, it
leaves the question what in the world can we spread on our toast? The
answer is simple and natural: go back to butter.
Of course, most people balk at the suggestion of eating real butter.
After all, won't butter cause heart disease and all kinds of other
frightening health conditions? Although the claim that butter is
harmful has been a popular one in the last 70 years, it's an
assumption with no foundation. In fact, statistics show the rate of
heart disease has increased as butter consumption has decreased.
Butter is filled with essential vitamins and antioxidants in their
most natural and absorbable state. Butter is actually a better source
of vitamin A than carrots, especially for people who have trouble
converting the beta-carotene in carrots into vitamin A. You can also
find vitamin E and selenium in butter. These along with vitamin A
actually protect the heart from free-radical damage, which is a
factor in weakened arteries. On the other hand, fabricated spreads
are filled with rancid and refined vegetables oils that cause free-
The vitamin A in butter is a vital nutrient which strongly impacts
growth in children. Deficiencies can affect the development of teeth,
bones, and vision. Low-fat diets are often recommended for children
even though these diets have been linked to a failure to thrive as
published in Pediatrics in March of 1994. Low-fat diets which remove
butter from children's lives may be cutting out their only source of
absorbable vitamin A.
Another common misconception propagated by modern industry is that
the fat in butter is bad for us. Butter is comprised of mostly short
and medium chain fatty acids. These fatty acids can protect against
cancer and boost immunity. They are also antifungal. Short and medium
chain fatty acids are also more easily broken down for energy, which
means its actually less likely that the fat in butter will be stored
in the body.
The essential nutrients found in butter are not commonly found in
other foods that are considered palatable in American society, which
makes butter all the more necessary to our health. So many of our
foods are manufactured fabrications that can't possibly offer the
same health benefits as their natural counterparts. It's time to
start choosing the real thing. It's time to bring butter back to the
Fallon, Sally and Enig, Mary G. Why Butter is Better. Health Freedom
McCullough, Fran. Butter's Good for You. The New York Times. (2007)
About the author
Elizabeth Walling is a freelance writer, specializing in articles
about health and family nutrition. She is a strong believer in
natural living as a way to improve health and prevent common
A $99 iPhone may be in the works
Analyst's report says phone would also come with a cheaper data plan
By Suzanne Choney
Feb. 10, 2009
Apple may be planning an "entry-level" $99 iPhone, one that would
look and feel the same as its $199 and $299 siblings, but come with
fewer features and a more budget-oriented data plan.
RBC Capital Markets analyst Mike Abramsky said in a report today the
new phone will likely be introduced in June or July, when an upgraded
iPhone 3G also is released.
"Checks reveal further entry-level iPhone details, including entry-
level pricing," he said in the report. "Also expected is a 3G iPhone
The $99 iPhone, he said, will not run on AT&T's faster 3G, or third-
generation wireless, network, but rather use its slower 2.5G, or
second-generation network. The phone will have Wi-Fi and Bluetooth,
just as the first two versions of the iPhone have had. It would also
have the same 3.5-inch screen of the current iPhone, with a
resolution of 480-by-320.
Apple, which does not publicly comment on products in development,
released the first iPhone in mid-2007, and the second model, called
the iPhone 3G, came out in July 2008.
A RAZR-like move?
David Chamberlain, principal wireless analyst for In-Stat Research,
said a $99 iPhone price is "probably a little low and, if it were any
other device, would signal a deterioration of the brand. Remember how
Motorola killed the RAZR's exclusivity by dropping the price and
Indeed, Abramsky said in the report, "We estimate the entry level
iPhone would cost $195 to $225 to manufacture, vs. the iPhone 3G at
The new iPhone 3G will be offered at the same prices as it is now,
the analyst said, but have some new features, including a higher-
resolution touchscreen of 720-by-480, a video camera and come with
either 16 or 32 gigabytes of flash memory. The current model does not
include a video camera and comes with either 8 or 16 GB of flash
The monthly data plan for the phone, for unlimited Internet and e-
mail access, is about $30 a month. The $99 iPhone will have a "light"
data plan of about $15 a month, with limited usage. The phone is
offered exclusively by AT&T in the United States.
Abramsky said at $99, between 20 million and 30 million of the phones
might be sold in 2010, meaning the iPhone's share of the global
smartphone market could go from an "estimated" 12 percent to between
14 and 19 percent.
He noted that Apple sold 6.1 million iPhones in its first year and
that the Motorola RAZR sold 30 million units in its "first 18 months
of availability. Our outlook assumes 20 percent of prior-generation
iPhone users upgrade to the updated iPhone 3G in 12 months."
Cheaper iPods may follow
Because the iPhone also is an iPod, Apple's digital music player,
Abramsky said that sales of a cheaper iPhone could cannibalize those
of iPods, especially the iPod touch. In that case, he said, price
cuts would likely follow for those players. The iPod touch, which
resembles the iPhone, is $229 for an 8 GB version, $299 for 16 GB and
$399 for the 32 GB version.
"AT&T's recent results show that the iPhone has been one of the most
important reasons they have continued with their subscriber growth,
taking customers not only from weaker carriers like Sprint but also
dinging Verizon Wireless," said Chamberlain of In-Stat Research.
"After watching Verizon Wireless take market share based on the 'it's
the network' message, AT&T now has an even more powerful tool: 'It's
the iPhone,' and, believe me, they're going to want as many of them
available to as many people as possible."
Chamberlain said he's not sure whether "that $100 difference between
a new stripped-down iPhone is a result of AT&T subsidies or whether
it's being borne by Apple, but, either way, it's going to be a big
benefit to AT&T to continue subscriber growth, even as the rest of
the economy is struggling."