Thinks Night Out is Reading on Porch
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Having read this wonderful and accessible book, I am just brimming with questions for Neil Shubin. Here are a number of questions that arose for me in reading the book, from which I hope he can choose the most interesting to respond to.
1. How common in evolution is the stratagem of Tiktaalik's elbows, ie development of something that then provides a platform to enable further evolution?
2. Are there many other examples like fish elbows, of an adaptation that appears in one context (doing push-ups in shallow water) and proves very useful for the movement of the organism to another context (walking on land)?
3. Was the ability of human beings to stand tall on the savannah to see predators an example of such an adaptation caused by one evolutionary pressure factor that had a range of spin-off benefits?
4. Is Tiktaalik's fin and webbing like a sort of 'incubator' in which the potential of the tetrapod limb was refined, before finding its wider range of uses in terrestrial creatures?
5. Can this evolutionary genetic understanding - of traits acquiring wider use - apply to cultural and technological evolution, as implied in comparing teeth to plastic injection (p79)?
6. For example, is it reasonable to say the internet emerged first to serve scientific and military purposes, and then evolved to have far wider application?
7. Was the initial emergence of innovation with the early internet comparable to fish elbows, with its subsequent commercial and popular evolution like the movement of amphibians to land?
8. How much do you consider your work is providing revolutionary discoveries in basic science, notably regarding what you call the "deep connection between my humanity and another being" (p43) where "a wonderfully direct window opens onto the distant past" (p45) with a "deeper beauty" (p59) in the genetic unity of the tree of life, as shown in our genetic links with everything back to the jellyfish eye/ear gene (p172) and bacteria (p133)?
9. Is your discussion of the new precision in relations between biology and paleontology (p139 & 201) a revolutionary development in science?
10. Is your description of your method as "trying, failing and learning" (p18) a common scientific approach, or is it more widespread to see incremental progress that makes less of a jump into the unknown than your Arctic trips?
11. How widely do you see the 'Red Queen Race', where predator and prey evolve to stay in equilibrium, as a driver of evolution, similar to your discussion of microbial interplay as the genesis of bodybuilding? (p136) Is the ostracoderm toothy skull (p77) likely to be the result of such a race?
12. Could you comment on the role of will in evolution? For example, people use willpower to achieve objectives, and we can say animals use will in situations such as long migration or battles between alpha males, so the individuals with strongest will have most offspring. By analogy, can we say plants and other life-forms use will, for example in the efforts of forest trees to get a place in the sun?
13. In discussing teeth and ears, is it fair to say that mutants with advanced powers out-competed their less well-endowed brethren? For example, is the main driver of the refinement of mammalian ear bones from a reptile jaw (p159) that each individual who can hear better has more offspring, presenting acute evolutionary pressure for the ear bones to mutate towards the most sensitive hearing ability possible?
14. Does your description of learning to suddenly "see" fossil teeth in the field (p64-5) indicate the role of craft and experience, as opposed to theory, in scientific discovery?
15. Are there still likely to be errors in scientific understanding like the nineteenth century assumption that conodont teeth were organisms? Have genetic methods exposed errors of this scale?
16. Does your example of the twists and turns of head nerves show that nature builds on precedents? Does this incremental complexity built on precedent ever get swept away by a new method that is simple and efficient, like the electricians considering whether to clear out old jerry-rigged wiring (p85) to start afresh, or fish with jaws out-competing the ostracoderms?
17. Is the 'ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny' idea still widely believed? (p103)
18. Are you worried about unknown risks inherent in swapping genes between species? (p115)
19. Does the example of Heron of Alexandria's steam turbine (p135), unused because the world wasn't ready for it, illustrate that necessity is the mother of invention, both in evolution and in culture?
20. Are smell genes that have become obsolete due to colour vision in primates (p147) what is meant by 'junk DNA'?
21. Re your description of how "the tires used on a Corvette have a history, as does the rubber used in making them", and how this change process provides "a great analogy for bodies and organs" (p149), does this illustrate that the laws of evolution operate in competitive technological markets?
22. Do you see the confrontationist approach of Richard Dawkins in exposing the errors of those who are ignorant of science as helpful?
23. Does the 'merciless raucous spit roast' (p173) of robust debate remain open-minded in your view, or does the competition in scientific circles mean that people get entrenched views which close them off from interest in new discoveries?
24. Does your description of parenthood as a signature law of biology (p174) have a similar law-like status as the laws of motion and thermodynamics in physics?
25. Do environmental 'traits without a genetic basis' (p176) nonetheless evolve, as in Darwin's example of the Galapagos finch?
26. Do you see much evidence of what you call "the essential optimism that fuels the best science?" (p200)