Thursday, August 18, 2016

A World from Dust (Plus): Yes, Air-Breathing Fishes Evolved Dozens of Times

I couldn't help myself. I was sitting there, with the proof of A World from Dust in hand, facing a deadline, and unable to change anything beyond the occasional sentence. Yet I had just read The Runes of Evolution and just had to cram in one more datum. Here's the paragraph, with the addition in the middle:
Whichever road it [evolution] used, it appears to have happened repeatedly, because swim bladder genes evolved and converged four times in teleost fish, providing many structures from which a lung could develop. Some estimate that fish overall evolved air breathing 68 independent times. These fish took evolutionary paths that differed in the details, but they reached the same destination dozens of times, predictably.
If I had space ... well, if I had space I would have put a lot more in, but if I had a few more characters I could have put in a big "NOTE ADDED IN PROOF" in from of the "Some estimate that fish overall evolved air breathing 68 independent times." And, perhaps due to my own haste and newness to this whole writing thing, the citation to that 68 times reference was dropped! So let me provide it here. In The Runes of Evolution, Simon Conway Morris writes on page xxiv:
Graham concludes, “air breathing has independently evolved among the fishes at least 38 times and perhaps as many as 67 times,” a point that Karel Liem echoes in his analysis of ABOs [Air-Breathing Organs].

"Graham" is Jeffrey B. Graham, author of the aptly titled book Air-Breathing Fishes: Evolution, Diversity, and Adaptation. The book was published before high-throughput genomics techniques, such as the analysis that gives evidence for four convergences in teleost fish mentioned in the previous sentence. As such, it's based on classic biology: comparing lots of fish and noting just how many fish breathe air, using organs that have many, many different shapes with one oxygen-gathering function. You could rewrite Red Fish Blue Fish with all the different fish that breathe air in Graham's book (an idea I'm just going to leave out there for free considering the burgeoning children's convergent evolution market).

Notice also that I was content to use the hedge words, "Some estimate," and that's good because I made another slip of the keyboard, putting 68 instead of 67. (I try to type independently to avoid plagiarism and I must have fused the two numbers from the quote maybe? Sigh.)  But the important word is in the final sentence of my paragraph above: whether 38, 67, 68, or something else, these are big numbers and are all in the range of "dozens" (as in greater than 24).

That in itself was a dramatic surprise to me, and should be a dramatic surprise to most people. The very fact that we are so surprised shows us that our mental image of evolution should be changed. Evolution is not always an inefficient and undirected process that depends on lucky chances. Or, if it is, there are so many lucky chances that it can be counted on to increase resource efficiency and even complexity. Conway Morris refers to evolution as a "search engine" working on a planetary level, returning complexity and intelligence. That's not what most people think of when they hear "evolution" -- and yet that's what Conway Morris and Graham see, and it's one of the points of my book. Here's one more bit of evidence to back it up.

Book Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

Another Gaiman book read aloud, this one meant for young readers. I liked revisiting it and thought it was well paced, but it was a bit dark and "stuck in place" for the younger readers. I also like how Coraline struggles with fear, yet how she's not deceived by the beldam for more than an instant. She has the right kind of strength -- she chooses it. It's instructive to compare the villain in Stardust to the beldam here. Both have a similar modus operandi, but in Stardust she preys on general hospitality, when in Coraline she instead usurps family. This is a great read because it's so focused, but at the end my favorite Gaiman works have more atmosphere and explore more. A hero like Coraline who likes to explore should be given more to explore.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Book Review: End of Watch by Stephen King

This book is the third in a trilogy following the exploits of retired detective Bill Hodges. The upshot is that this is a well-plotted, functional little detective story. More than the previous two books, this one verges into more typical Stephen King territory what with telekinesis, hypnosis, and even possession. The plot also involves suicide, and it all comes together with an almost audible snap. Yet, in other Stephen King books, there's something more going on. This could've had genuine insights into suicide or old age, but I feel like it's less than the sum of its parts relative to other insightful works like King's Joyland or 11-22-63. The first book in the trilogy, Mr. Mercedes, had some of these insights about the nature of evil, but nothing new on that really comes out here, possibly because the plot gives the villain too much power over his victims. I'd prefer if the victims actually had to be convinced but they are more controlled here. Regardless, King moves the plot along, has enough character moments to keep you invested, and surprises you just enough in the right ways at the right time. If you're pressed for time, I recommend just the first of the three novels here rather than sticking it through to the end, but it's still hard for me to find fault with something so cunningly crafted that it's difficult to find the seams in the story.

Monday, August 8, 2016

Audio: ASA 2016 talk on How the Periodic Table Shaped Life (and the Brain)

Two weeks ago I gave a talk on my book at the American Scientific Affiliation meeting at Azusa Pacific. Since the theme of the meeting was the mind and brain sciences, I focused on the chemistry of the brain and why I think that chemistry would be similar on different planets. This is an extension of Chapters 9 and 10 of my book with some new research findings.

Here's the audio for the talk*, and here's a PDF of the slides (fair use pics only).

(* Sorry I walked around so much, the mike picked up everything but volume goes up and down as I pace!)

Book Review: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

I just re-read Stardust by Neil Gaiman, aloud for my kids, from the version with illustrations by Charles Vess. The illustrations are perfect and the story fits together just as it should. It was a little tricky to read aloud. I know Gaiman thinks that certain scenes will just fly past kids who aren't ready for them yet, and I know that you have to establish the Fairie parentage of the main character for the story to work, but I'm reading it to a group including a 5-year-old, so, yeah, I'm going to edit out the sex. I remembered the first scene and edited accordingly, but there were others that I didn't remember and had to improvise a bit clumsily. Anyone who's reading it aloud should know it comes with the territory, and don't use the audiobook if you're reading to young children. That said, it's got wonderful characters and a fitting ending and occasional early-20th-century verbiage that just makes it that much more fun. This book is more Princess Bride than the Princess Bride book! On my personal Gaiman ranking list, it's definitely below Neverwhere, American Gods, and the Graveyard Book, but that still makes it very good.