What, really, is the point of conserving agricultural biodiversity? The formal sector, genebanks and the like, will say it is about genetic resources and having on hand the traits to breed varieties that will solve the challenges tomorrow might throw up. Thousands of seed savers around the world might well agree with that, at least partially. I suspect, though, that for most seed savers the primary reason is surely more about food, about having the varieties they want to eat. David Cavagnaro has always championed that view. David’s is a fascinating personal history, which currently sees him working on the Pepperfield Project, “A Non-Profit Organization Located in Decorah, IA Promoting and Teaching Hands-On Cooking, Gardening and Agrarian Life Skills”. I first met David 15 or 20 years ago at Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah. This year, I was lucky enough to be invited there again, and I lost no time in finding time for a chat.
David pointed out that immigrants are often keen gardeners and, perforce, seed savers as they struggle to maintain their distinctive food culture in a new land. That’s true for the Hmong in Minneapolis, Asian communities in England and, I’m sure, many others elsewhere. What happens as those communities assimilate? The children and grandchildren of the immigrant gardeners are unlikely to feel the same connection to their original food culture, and may well look down on growing food as an unsuitable occupation. Is immigrant agricultural biodiversity liable to be lost too? Efforts to preserve it don’t seem to be flourishing.
Seed saving for its own sake, rather than purely as a route to sustenance, does seem to be both a bit of a luxury and to require a rather special kind of personality. John Withee, whose bean collection brought David Cavagnaro to Seed Savers Exchange and people like Russ Crow, another of his spritual heirs, collect and create stories as much as they do agricultural biodiversity. And that’s something formal genebanks never seem to document.
There’s a lot to unpack here with respect to agricultural diversity and evolution. Mass food manufacture is a boon for the world, but this type of industrial process should be working on ways to keep some programmed diversity in the process as well. I would have been perfectly happy for this interview to have gone on for several hours and in greater depth.
One of America’s foremost philosophers offers a major new account of the origins of the conscious mind.
How did we come to have minds?
For centuries, this question has intrigued psychologists, physicists, poets, and philosophers, who have wondered how the human mind developed its unrivaled ability to create, imagine, and explain. Disciples of Darwin have long aspired to explain how consciousness, language, and culture could have appeared through natural selection, blazing promising trails that tend, however, to end in confusion and controversy. Even though our understanding of the inner workings of proteins, neurons, and DNA is deeper than ever before, the matter of how our minds came to be has largely remained a mystery.
That is now changing, says Daniel C. Dennett. In From Bacteria to Bach and Back, his most comprehensive exploration of evolutionary thinking yet, he builds on ideas from computer science and biology to show how a comprehending mind could in fact have arisen from a mindless process of natural selection. Part philosophical whodunit, part bold scientific conjecture, this landmark work enlarges themes that have sustained Dennett’s legendary career at the forefront of philosophical thought.
In his inimitable style―laced with wit and arresting thought experiments―Dennett explains that a crucial shift occurred when humans developed the ability to share memes, or ways of doing things not based in genetic instinct. Language, itself composed of memes, turbocharged this interplay. Competition among memes―a form of natural selection―produced thinking tools so well-designed that they gave us the power to design our own memes. The result, a mind that not only perceives and controls but can create and comprehend, was thus largely shaped by the process of cultural evolution.
An agenda-setting book for a new generation of philosophers, scientists, and thinkers, From Bacteria to Bach and Back will delight and entertain anyone eager to make sense of how the mind works and how it came about.
Epigenetics refers to information transmitted during cell division other than the DNA sequence per se, and it is the language that distinguishes stem cells from somatic cells, one organ from another, and even identical twins from each other. In contrast to the DNA sequence, the epigenome is relatively susceptible to modification by the environment as well as stochastic perturbations over time, adding to phenotypic diversity in the population. Despite its strong ties to the environment, epigenetics has never been well reconciled to evolutionary thinking, and in fact there is now strong evidence against the transmission of so-called “epi-alleles,” i.e. epigenetic modifications that pass through the germline.
However, genetic variants that regulate stochastic fluctuation of gene expression and phenotypes in the offspring appear to be transmitted as an epigenetic or even Lamarckian trait. Furthermore, even the normal process of cellular differentiation from a single cell to a complex organism is not understood well from a mathematical point of view. There is increasingly strong evidence that stem cells are highly heterogeneous and in fact stochasticity is necessary for pluripotency. This process appears to be tightly regulated through the epigenome in development. Moreover, in these biological contexts, “stochasticity” is hardly synonymous with “noise”, which often refers to variation which obscures a “true signal” (e.g., measurement error) or which is structural, as in physics (e.g., quantum noise). In contrast, “stochastic regulation” refers to purposeful, programmed variation; the fluctuations are random but there is no true signal to mask.
This workshop will serve as a forum for scientists and engineers with an interest in computational biology to explore the role of stochasticity in regulation, development and evolution, and its epigenetic basis. Just as thinking about stochasticity was transformative in physics and in some areas of biology, it promises to fundamentally transform modern genetics and help to explain phase transitions such as differentiation and cancer.
This workshop will include a poster session; a request for poster titles will be sent to registered participants in advance of the workshop.
Adam Arkin (Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory)
Gábor Balázsi (SUNY Stony Brook)
Domitilla Del Vecchio (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
Michael Elowitz (California Institute of Technology)
Andrew Feinberg (Johns Hopkins University)
Don Geman (Johns Hopkins University)
Anita Göndör (Karolinska Institutet)
John Goutsias (Johns Hopkins University)
Garrett Jenkinson (Johns Hopkins University)
Andre Levchenko (Yale University)
Olgica Milenkovic (University of Illinois)
Johan Paulsson (Harvard University)
Leor Weinberger (University of California, San Francisco (UCSF))
Whether by virtue of being prepared in a slowly relaxing, high-free energy initial condition, or because they are constantly dissipating energy absorbed from a strong external drive, many systems subject to thermal fluctuations are not expected to behave in the way they would at thermal equilibrium. Rather, the probability of finding such a system in a given microscopic arrangement may deviate strongly from the Boltzmann distribution, raising the question of whether thermodynamics still has anything to tell us about which arrangements are the most likely to be observed. In this work, we build on past results governing nonequilibrium thermodynamics and define a generalized Helmholtz free energy that exactly delineates the various factors that quantitatively contribute to the relative probabilities of different outcomes in far-from-equilibrium stochastic dynamics. By applying this expression to the analysis of two examples—namely, a particle hopping in an oscillating energy landscape and a population composed of two types of exponentially growing self-replicators—we illustrate a simple relationship between outcome-likelihood and dissipative history. In closing, we discuss the possible relevance of such a thermodynamic principle for our understanding of self-organization in complex systems, paying particular attention to a possible analogy to the way evolutionary adaptations emerge in living things.
Notions like meaning, signal, intentionality, are difficult to relate to a physical word. I study a purely physical definition of "meaningful information", from which these notions can be derived. It is inspired by a model recently illustrated by Kolchinsky and Wolpert, and improves on Dretske classic work on the relation between knowledge and information. I discuss what makes a physical process into a "signal".
Life was long thought to obey its own set of rules. But as simple systems show signs of lifelike behavior, scientists are arguing about whether this apparent complexity is all a consequence of thermodynamics.
This is a nice little general interest article by Philip Ball that does a relatively good job of covering several of my favorite topics (information theory, biology, complexity) for the layperson. While it stays relatively basic, it links to a handful of really great references, many of which I’ve already read, though several appear to be new to me. 
While Ball has a broad area of interests and coverage in his work, he’s certainly one of the best journalists working in this subarea of interests today. I highly recommend his work to those who find this area interesting.
E. Mayr, What Makes Biology Unique? Cambridge University Press, 2004.
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A. Barato and U. Seifert, “Thermodynamic uncertainty relation for biomolecular processes.,” Phys Rev Lett, vol. 114, no. 15, p. 158101, Apr. 2015. [PubMed]
J. Shay and W. Wright, “Hayflick, his limit, and cellular ageing.,” Nat Rev Mol Cell Biol, vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 72–6, Oct. 2000. [PubMed]
X. Dong, B. Milholland, and J. Vijg, “Evidence for a limit to human lifespan,” Nature, vol. 538, no. 7624. Springer Nature, pp. 257–259, 05-Oct-2016 [Online]. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nature19793
R. Landauer, “Irreversibility and Heat Generation in the Computing Process,” IBM Journal of Research and Development, vol. 5, no. 3. IBM, pp. 183–191, Jul-1961 [Online]. Available: http://dx.doi.org/10.1147/rd.53.0183
Fearless by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel(Invisibilia | NPR.org)
In "Fearless," co-hosts Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller explore what would happen if you could disappear fear. A group of scientists believe that people no longer need fear — at least not the kind we live with — to navigate the modern world. We'll hear about the striking (and rare) case of a woman with no fear. The second half of the show explores how the rest of us might "turn off" fear.
Our evolution certainly hasn’t been keeping up with our level of fear in the modern world. Even simple things like kids playing around their own neighborhood like I did as a kid in the 70’s and 80’s has changed drastically. How can we keep ourselves from being held back unnecessarily?
During decades the study of networks has been divided between the efforts of social scientists and natural scientists, two groups of scholars who often do not see eye to eye. In this review I present an effort to mutually translate the work conducted by scholars from both of these academic fronts hoping to continue to unify what has become a diverging body of literature. I argue that social and natural scientists fail to see eye to eye because they have diverging academic goals. Social scientists focus on explaining how context specific social and economic mechanisms drive the structure of networks and on how networks shape social and economic outcomes. By contrast, natural scientists focus primarily on modeling network characteristics that are independent of context, since their focus is to identify universal characteristics of systems instead of context specific mechanisms. In the following pages I discuss the differences between both of these literatures by summarizing the parallel theories advanced to explain link formation and the applications used by scholars in each field to justify their approach to network science. I conclude by providing an outlook on how these literatures can be further unified.
Even in 2016, publishers and authors are still struggling when it comes to re-releasing decades-old books, but Penguin had a unique problem when it set out to publish a 30th anniversary edition of Richard Dawkin's The Blind Watchmaker.
The Bookseller reports that Penguin decided to revive four programs Dawkins wrote in 1986. Written in Pascal for the Mac, The Watchmaker Suite was an experiment in algorithmic evolution. Users could run the programs and create a biomorph, and then watch it evolve across the generations.
And now you can do the same in your web browser.
A website, MountImprobable.com, was built by the publisher’s in-house Creative Technology team—comprising community manager Claudia Toia, creative developer Mathieu Triay and cover designer Matthew Young—who resuscitated and redeployed code Dawkins wrote in the 1980s and ’90s to enable users to create unique, “evolutionary” imprints. The images will be used as cover imagery on Dawkins’ trio to grant users an entirely individual, personalised print copy.
In his 2010 book, Life Ascending: The Ten Great Inventions of Evolution, Nick Lane, a biochemist at University College London, explores with eloquence and clarity the big questions of life: how it began, why we age and die, and why we have sex. Lane been steadily constructing an alternative view of evolution to the one in which genes explain it all. He argues that some of the major events during evolutionary history, including the origin of life itself, are best understood by considering where the energy comes from and how it is used. Lane describes these ideas in his 2015 book, The Vital Question: Why Is Life the Way It Is?. Recently Bill Gates called it “an amazing inquiry into the origins of life,” adding, Lane “is one of those original thinkers who make you say: More people should know about this guy’s work.” Nautilus caught up with Lane in his laboratory in London and asked him about his ideas on aging, sex, and death.
Biochemist Nick Lane explains the elements of life, sex, and aging in an engaging popular science interview.
A review of Summa Technologiae by Stanislaw Lem by David Auerbach from the Los Angeles Review of Books.
AT LAST WE have it in English. Summa Technologiae, originally published in Polish in 1964, is the cornerstone of Stanislaw Lem’s oeuvre, his consummate work of speculative nonfiction. Trained in medicine and biology, Lem synthesizes the current science of the day in ways far ahead of most science fiction of the time.
I came across this book review quite serendipitously today via an Auerbach article in Slate, which I’ve bookmarked. I found a copy of the book and have added it to the top of my reading pile. As I’m currently reading an advance reader edition of Sean Carroll’sThe Big Picture, I can only imagine how well the two may go together despite being written nearly 60 years apart.