December 30 - Happy Birthday, Jerry Coyne!

Posted on December 30, 2016

Hey, any guy who likes cats, boots AND biology is cool with me!

Today is biology professor Jerry Coyne’s birthday. There are probably a lot of biologists who like cats and boots, but the way that Coyne first came to my attention is through his website / blog, which is called Why Evolution Is True. I also checked out his book of the same title!

I love it when scientists take the time to explain things to we, the public, in a really clear way, Two of my heroes when I was growing up were scientists who wrote about science for the all-of-us — Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan — and although they are both gone now, I still think that many of their books and articles are worth reading. But science marches on! New discoveries are made! And sometimes new discoveries shine a different light on older data and theories, and we need to jigger our ideas a bit to consider the new findings. So it’s important that every generation produces scientists willing to write popular books about science.

Coyne, born on this date in 1949, isn't one of the youngest of science popularizers — but he is one of the scientists who jumped on the blog bandwagon, realizing the immediacy and no-cost communication that the internet can give. I salute Coyne and hope that many, many more younger scientists in all sorts of fields are also taking up the cause of explaining things to all of us not in their field. We cannot be good national and world citizens — for example, we cannot make good voting decisions — if we don’t understand the world we live in!

Here are a few ideas Coyne helps me to understand:

Biogeography is the study of where various species (plants, animals, and so on) live in space and through time. Of course we all know that some species do better in warm environments, and others are adapted to cold, and we know that some do better in very moist environments or underwater, whereas others have adapted to dry conditions. All of that definitely affects “what lives where” in some predictable ways.

However, geography has a ton to do with where species live, as well. If there is a way for animals to migrate to new areas with the right kind of conditions, for example, they will do so. But barriers such as high mountains, wide deserts, or huge oceans affect where animals can and cannot migrate. Ditto for plants, which often require wind or animals to disperse their seeds. By studying how the continents have moved over time, fossils, current migration patterns, island species, and current species habitats — we can piece together a better understanding of evolution.

Vestigial organs (and structures) are useless or poorly suited body parts that are evidence of evolution and a species’ ancestors. Some examples of vestigial body parts include non-functioning eyes in cave fish, goosebumps in humans, and hind leg bones in whales.  

Did you know that pythons and some other snakes have vestigial leg "buds"?

Transitional fossils are remains of life forms that have traits that are common to two different groups — an ancestral group and a descendant group. They are the “in-between” animals / plants / etc. — who have since died out — that show us how modern animals / plants / etc. evolved. Transitional fossils include tiktaalik (a transition between fish and amphibians), archaeopteryx (a transition between reptiles and birds), and the ancestral tree of whales, which include land animals. 

Also on this date:

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