origins of life

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 A review of Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell

Pub 2009, Harper One (edition reviewed was the Kindle edition).

Introduction

In late 2011, Stephen Meyer delivered a lecture in London. Organised by the UK’s very own Centre for Intelligent Design (C4ID), and hosted in Whitehall by Lord Mackay of Clashfern (a notable member of the Free Church of Scotland), I received an invitation in the post.  Circumstances surrounding this lecture coupled with some background reading I’d done on Meyer’s thinking and an awareness of how Intelligent Design creationists have in the past used academic attendees at events as some kind of litmus test of acceptance, I decided not to attend.  Instead, I was quite vocal (critical of ID creationism) in several internet fora, which attracted some criticism that I had not actually read the book in question (had I attended, I would have been given a copy).

I can summarise my opinion of the book quite succinctly. It is lengthy, tedious, overblown, very defensive at times, occasionally interesting, generally deceptive, but ultimately completely unconvincing to a practising biologist.  However, I did read this book with the intention of reviewing it, so here goes. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Daily Telegraph reported yesterday that a new hominid had been discovered in South Africa (Missing link between man and apes found – Telegraph).  Apparently the discovery is of a skeleton (or, as it turns out from a quotation from Phillip Tobias skeletal remains from several individuals) and this is quite exciting since hominid fossils are usually pretty fragmentary. Apparently the fossils represent an intermediary between Australopithecus and Homo habilis and are about 2 million years old. There’s to be an announcement on Thursday, followed by a TV series.

The find is deemed to be so significant that Jacob Zuma, the South African president, has visited the university to view the fossils and a major media campaign with television documentaries is planned.

This all sounds a little familiar – remember the Darwinius masillae frenzy (see Darwinius masillae and Darwinius masillae – the BBC World Service gets it…)?  Hopefully this fossils will live up to the promise. The eminent human anatomist and anthropologist Phillip Tobias, who is one of the few scientists to see the fossils, is certainly excited, and is quoted as saying:

He said: “To find a skeleton as opposed to a couple of teeth or an arm
bone is a rarity.

“It is one thing to find a lower jaw with a couple of teeth, but it is
another thing to find the jaw joined onto the skull, and those in turn
uniting further down with the spinal column, pelvis and the limb bones.

“It is not a single find, but several specimens representing several
individuals. The remains now being brought to light by Dr Berger and his
team are wonderful.”

All very exciting, and I’m looking forward to Thursday already!

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This week’s Nature includes a brief paper that concludes that multicellular life originated about 100 million years earlier that previously known. The work places sponges in the Cryogenian period, >635 million years ago, prior to the Ediacaran period. See Flies & Bikes for more on this paper.  Formally, of course the paper suggests that either demosponges were there, or an ancestor – but still, more evidence of the antiquity of life on Earth!

Love et al (2009) Fossil steroids record the appearance of Demospongidae dueing the Cryogenian period. Nature 457; 718-723. doi:10.1038/nature07673 (subscription required)

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