Category Archives: Curiosities of Nature

One of world’s best ideas: the distinction between genotype and phenotype

One of the most important ideas ever is the distinction between genotype and phenotype – between our genes and the traits they influence. It seems obvious to us now, but scarcely more than 100 years ago it wasn’t, which led to a lot of confusion.

The scientist who really clarified the distinction between genotype and phenotype (and who, along with the word gene, coined these terms), was Wilhlem Johannsen. I recently wrote about Johannsen for Pacific Standard, in the context of the recent discovery of the molecular basis of a European blond allele. Here I want to show why Johannsen’s key insight dispelled so much confusion.

Johannsen summed up his views in a 1911 paper, “The Genotype Conception of Heredity.” He starts out by saying that scientists have been confused because they are thinking about apparent heredity, or the “transmission-conception” of heredity. This transmission conception, which had been around since Hippocrates and Aristotle, was that “the personal qualities of any individual organism are the true heritable elements of traits!” Continue reading

Science for The People: Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You

#271 - Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You

#271 – Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You

This week, Science for The People is learning how deadly and delightful our planet and its ecosystem can be. They’re joined by biologist Dan Riskin, co-host of Discovery Canada’s Daily Planet, to talk about his book “Mother Nature Is Trying to Kill You: a Lively Tour Through the Dark Side of the Natural World.” And they’ll talk to astronomer and author Phil Plait about Science Getaways, his company that offers educational vacation experiences for science lovers.

Science for The People: Sonic Wonderland

#269 - Sonic Wonderland

#269 – Sonic Wonderland

This week, Science for The People is exploring the science of sound and hearing. They talk to Trevor Cox, Professor of Acoustic Engineering at the University of Salford, about his book “Sonic Wonderland: A Scientific Odyssey of Sound.” And they speak to Andrew Wise, Senior Research Fellow at Bionics Institute, about a gene therapy technique to enhance the function of cochlear implants.

Ow, My Head

Unlike the widespread reporting of the credulous media, the human skull is not specifically evolved to take a punch from other humans. Brian Switek explains the many problems with this hypothesis at National Geographic’s Phenomena. I admit that I thought, throughout my rugby career, that my head, and only my head, had evolved to be punched. It turns out that the way I played rugby had evolved to make people want to punch me in the head1. I was a particularly annoying person to play rugby against2.

Fortunately, human skulls are pretty robust in some key ways. It is just very unlikely that they got that way due to the evolutionary pressure of hominids punching each other in the noodle. One of the key problems with the punching hypothesis is that it is pure conjecture (and unreasonable conjecture, at that) without supporting experimental evidence. What would it take to really test the punching hypothesis?

WARNING: This post may contain a Game of Thrones spoiler “below the fold”. 

Continue reading

Adjusted for Accuracy

In the wake of the sensational story about a larger shark potentially killing and eating a smaller shark, shark conservation advocate and researcher David Shiffman has posted a series of overwrought shark headlines paired with versions that have been adjusted for accuracy.

My favorite is “Shark seen swimming in ocean. You know, where sharks live”.

David has invited readers to submit their own suggestions.

*Hat tip to Andrew David Thaler of Southern Fried Science.