LIFE

Duck Sex, Aesthetic Evolution, and the Origin of Beauty

[9.3.14]

The way nature is—the nature of flowers, the nature of birdsong and bird plumages—implies that subjective experiences are fundamentally important in biology. That the world looks the way it does and is the way it is because of their vital importance as sources of selection in organic diversity, and as a result we need to structure evolutionary biology to recognize the aesthetic, recognize the subjective experience. 

~~

...ducks are one of the few birds that still have a penis. It's a very weird structure. It has an explosive erection, its erection mechanisms are lymphatic instead of vascular, it's stored outside-in inside the cloaca and comes flying out, and they can get very lengthy—up to 40 centimeters, which is over a foot long on a duck that is itself not even a foot long. It's an extraordinary piece of biology. What's going on in these ducks?

In lots of ducks there's forced copulation. It's the equivalent of rape in ducks. In species where there is a lot of forced copulation, females have evolved or co-evolved complex vaginal morphologies that frustrate the intromission or frustrate entry of the penis during forced copulation. For example, the penis of ducks is counter-clockwise coiled and often has ridges or even teeth-like structures on the outside. In this case, in these species, the female has evolved a vagina that has dead end cul-de-sacs, so that if the penis goes down the wrong direction it’ll get bottled up and doesn’t perceive to be closer to the oviduct, or further up the oviduct and closer to ova. And then above the cul-de-sacs, the duck vagina has clockwise coils, so there's literally anti-screw devices that prevent intromission during forced copulation.


(1 hour)

RICHARD PRUM is an evolutionary ornithologist at Yale University, where he is the Curator of Ornithology and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Richard Prum's Edge Bio Page


DUCK SEX, AESTHETIC EVOLUTION, AND THE ORIGIN OF BEAUTY

Over the last few years I've realized that a large portion of the work that I've been doing on bird color, on birdsong, on the evolution of display behavior, is really about one fundamental and important topic, and that's beauty—the role of beauty in nature and how it evolves. The question I'm asking myself a lot now is: what is beauty and how does it evolve? What are the consequences of beauty and its existence in nature?

There's a long history of people thinking about ornament in nature—those aspects of the body or the behavior of organisms that are attractive, which function in perception of other organisms. Usually we think about this in terms of sexual selection or mate choice, but there's a bunch of other contexts in which it can occur, like flowers attracting pollinators and fruits attracting frugivores, or even the opposite—a rattlesnake or a poisonous butterfly scaring away predators. These are all aspects of the body that function not in the regular way but in perception. 

WHAT DO ANIMALS WANT?

[10.31.12]

Whatever anybody says, I feel that the hard problem of consciousness is still very hard, and to try and rest your ethical case on proving something that has baffled people for years seems to me to be not good for animals. Much, much better to say let's go for something tangible, something we can measure. Are the animals healthy, do they have what they want? Then if you can show that, then that's a much, much better basis for making your decisions.

MARIAN STAMP DAWKINS is professor of animal behaviour at the University of Oxford, where she heads the Animal Behaviour Research Group. She is the author of Why Animals Matter.

Marian Stamp Dawkin's Edge Bio Page


[35 minutes]

The Reality Club: Nicholas Humphrey


WHAT DO ANIMALS WANT?

The questions I'm asking myself are really about how much we really know about animal consciousness. A lot of people think we do, or think that we don't need scientific evidence. It really began to worry me that people were basing their arguments on something that we really can't know about at all. One of the questions I asked myself was: how much do we really know? And is what we know the best basis for arguing for animal welfare? I've been thinking hard about that, and I came to the conclusion that the hard problem of consciousness is actually very hard. It's still there, and we kid ourselves if we think we've solved it.

WHAT DO ANIMALS WANT?

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/80816569

Whatever anybody says, I feel that the hard problem of consciousness is still very hard, and to try and rest your ethical case on proving something that has baffled people for years seems to me to be not good for animals. Much, much better to say let's go for something tangible, something we can measure. Are the animals healthy, do they have what they want? Then if you can show that, then that's a much, much better basis for making your decisions.

BRAINS PLUS BRAWN

[10.17.12]

There are many other features in the head that help us become exceptional long-distance walkers and runners. I became obsessed with the idea that humans evolved to run long distances, evolved to walk long distances, basically evolved to use our bodies as athletes. These traces are there in our heads along with those brains.
 

DANIEL LIEBERMAN is Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. His research combines experimental biology and paleontology to ask why and how the human body looks and functions the way it does. He is especially interested in the origin of bipedal walking, the biology and evolution of endurance running, and the evolution of the human head. He also loves to run.

Daniel Lieberman's Edge Bio Page



[47:38 minutes]


BRAINS PLUS BRAWN

I've been thinking a lot about the concept of whether or not human evolution is a story of brains over brawn. I study the evolution of the human body and how and why the human body is the way it is, and I've worked a lot on both ends of the body. I'm very interested in feet and barefoot running and how our feet function, but I've also written and thought a lot about how and why our heads are the way they are. The more I study feet and heads, the more I realize that what's in the middle also matters, and that we have this very strange idea —it goes back to mythology—that human evolution is primarily a story about brains, about intelligence, about technology triumphing over brawn.

BRAINS PLUS BRAWN

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/83528140

There are many other features in the head that help us become exceptional long-distance walkers and runners. I became obsessed with the idea that humans evolved to run long distances, evolved to walk long distances, basically evolved to use our bodies as athletes. These traces are there in our heads along with those brains.
 

TO BRING BACK THE EXTINCT

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/80821779

"One of the fundamental questions here is, is extinction a good thing? Is it "nature's way?" And if it's nature's way, who in the world says anyone should go about changing nature's way? If something was meant to go extinct, then who are we to screw around with it and bring it back? I don't think it's really nature's way. I think that the extinction that we've seen since man is 99.9 percent caused by man."

TO BRING BACK THE EXTINCT

[8.28.12]

One of the fundamental questions here is, is extinction a good thing? Is it "nature's way?" And if it's nature's way, who in the world says anyone should go about changing nature's way? If something was meant to go extinct, then who are we to screw around with it and bring it back? I don't think it's really nature's way. I think that the extinction that we've seen since man is 99.9 percent caused by man.

RYAN PHELAN is the Executive Director of Revive and Restore, a project within The Long Now Foundation, with a mission to provide deep ecological enrichment through extinct species revival.

Ryan Phelan's Edge Bio Page



[14:33 minutes]

REALITY CLUB: Jennifer Jacquet, Stuart Pimm, Esther Dyson


[ ED. NOTE: The following conversation took place at the seventh annual Science Foo Camp (SciFoo),  hosted by Nature, Digital Science, O'Reilly Media, and Google, August 3 - 5, 2012, at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California. Special thanks to Philip Campbell of Nature, Timo Hannay of Digital Science, Tim O'Reilly of O'Reilly Media ("Foo" stands for "friends of O'Reilly"), and Chris DiBona and Cat Allman of Google. —JB ]


TO BRING BACK THE EXTINCT

[RYAN PHELAN:] The big question that I'm asking right now is: If we could bring back an extinct species, should we? Could we? Should we? How does it benefit society? How does it advance the science? And the truth is, we're just at the beginning of trying to figure all this out. I got inspired really thinking about this through my involvement with George Church, and I've been on the periphery of an organization that he started called The Personal Genome Project. Over the last seven years I've been working primarily in personalized medicine, keeping my eye on the application of genomic medicine in different areas, and the growth of genomics and the shockingly drop in the sequencing price, and the cost of sequencing, and what that means to all different areas of science.

One thing led to another and we started talking with George about what it would mean if we could actually apply this towards the de-extinction of species. It turns out, of course, that in George's lab he's pioneering in all these methods. Right now, George's approach of basically editing the genome starts to make the concept of bringing something back really plausible.

WHAT IS LIFE? A 21st CENTURY PERSPECTIVE

[7.12.12]

Introduction
by
John Brockman

Several weeks ago, I received the following message from Craig Venter:

"John,  

"I would like to extend an invitation for you to join me in Dublin, Ireland the week of July 10 during which one of the landmark events of 20th Century science will be celebrated and reinterpreted for the 21st Century as part of the Science in the City program of Euroscience Open Forum 2012 (ESOF 2012). This unique event will connect an important episode in Ireland's scientific heritage with the frontier of contemporary research.  

"In February 1943 one of the most distinguished scientists of the 20th Century, Erwin Schrödinger, delivered a seminal lecture, entitled 'What is Life?', under the auspices of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, in Trinity College, Dublin. The then Prime Minister, Éamon de Valera, attended the lecture and an account of it featured in the 5 April 1943, issue of Time magazine.

"The lecture presented far-sighted ideas on how hereditary information could be encoded in a chemical structure (aperiodic crystal) in living cells. Schrödinger's book (1944) of the same title is considered to be a scientific classic. The book was cited by Crick and Watson as one of the inspirations which ultimately led them to unravel the structure of DNA in 1953, a breakthrough which won them the Nobel prize. Recent advances in genetics and synthetic biology mean that it is now timely to reconsider the fundamental question posed by Schrödinger 70 years ago. I have been asked to revisit Schrödinger's question and will do so in a lecture entitled "What is Life? A 21st century perspective"; on the evening of Thursday, July 12 at the Examination Hall in Trinity College Dublin."  

Never one to turn down an interesting invitation, I was able to organize an interesting week beginning with an Edge Dinner in Turin, in honor of Venter, Brian Eno and myself, where Venter, in an after-dinner talk, began to publicly present some of the new ideas he would flesh out in his Dublin talk.

Then on to Dublin, where I sat in the front row at Examination Hall next to Jim Watson and Irish Prime Minister (the "Taoiseach) Enda Kenny for Venter's  lecture. At it's conclusion, the two legendary scientists, Watson and Venter, shook hands on stage, as Watson congratulated Venter  for "a beautiful lecture". Schrödinger to Watson to Venter: It was an historic moment.

Listen and watch carefully. 

JB


[55:14 minutes]


WHAT IS LIFE? A 21st CENTURY PERSPECTIVE

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/82197660

"I was asked earlier whether the goal is to dissect what Schrödinger had spoken and written, or to present the new summary, and I always like to be forward-looking, so I won't give you a history lesson except for very briefly. I will present our findings on first on reading the genetic code, and then learning to synthesize and write the genetic code, and as many of you know, we synthesized an entire genome, booted it up to create an entirely new synthetic cell where every protein in the cell was based on the synthetic DNA code."

J. CRAIG VENTER: THE BIOLOGICAL-DIGITAL CONVERTER, OR, BIOLOGY AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT @ THE EDGE DINNER IN TURIN

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/80815144

"We can now send biology at the speed of light, and this is one of the implications of our work, which we recorded two years ago making the first synthetic life form. We completely synthesized the genetic code of a cell starting with a digital code in the computer—it's the ultimate interface between computers and biology. The digital code and the genetic code have a lot in common; something Schrodinger pointed out in 1943, saying it could be something as simple as the Morse code."

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