It's Darwin Day! Two hundred and six years ago, our buddy Charlie was born, and today is the day we commemorate his big bad discovery -- natural selection and evolution. We assume that you're going to curl up by the fire with a copy of "On the Origin of the Species" this evening so you can marvel at the wonder that is life. In the meantime, here are some of our favorite stories about Darwin himself, the great American evolution debate, and the sciences that rely on his theory:
One of Darwin's first big "aha!" moments came courtesy of Galapagos finches. The birds, spread across the many tiny islands of the archipelago, lived very differently from one another, relying on different sources of food. But when he observed his sketches and notes on the birds, Darwin realized that a lot of their differences seemed to come down to adaptations in one area -- the beak. These finches became a token model for how one species can turn into a dozen or more as individuals learn to exploit different natural resources and habitats.
On Wednesday, researchers published findings in Nature that examine the genetic basis of these bespoke beaks.
Okay, so it's a video instead of a read. But come on.
Hey, if evolution is a scientific fact, then why aren't things evolving around us all the time?
Organisms are evolving all the time, but most animals change too slowly for us to see their adaptations develop. That's not the case for Anolis carolinensis, otherwise known as the green anole. An invasive species has driven this little lizard to adapt super fast as a way of avoiding extinction. They're not the only animals on the evolutionary fast-track: Scientists believe that the Peruvian mimic frog is well on its way to dividing into multiple species.
Sometimes people use the concept of evolution for evil instead of good. And by "evil," I mean banishing carbs. Rejoice, fellow lovers of both pasta and science, because the paleo diet's claim that we're evolutionarily suited for a certain category of eating is pretty much bunk.
And now, a brief musical interlude courtesy of The Low Anthem:
Four hundred million years ago, some fish hoisted themselves out of the water and started a long evolutionary trek to personhood. But how did they learn to walk? In a recent study, researchers reproduced the process with a living, walking fish.
Some of the only surviving pages of Darwin's original, hand-written manuscript of "On the Origin of the Species" were saved because of the drawings his children made on the back. Thanks for doodling, little Darwins!
Bacteria are really, really good at adaptation. That's great for them, but bad for us: Whenever we talk about antibiotic resistant bacteria, we're also talking about evolution. The microbes that can survive a course of antibiotics are the ones to reproduce, so eventually we end up with a ton of bacteria we have no defenses against.
Antibiotic resistance is a major public health concern (so much so that the White House wants to double the funding dedicated to fighting it) and we covered one of the potential solutions last month. The researchers developing Teixobactin say that the new class of antibiotic, which was developed from bacteria found in soil, could resist resistance for longer than anything previously developed.
Some scientists are so eager to find new antibiotics in dirt that they want you to send in samples of your local mud. Be a good citizen scientist and send your dirt today.
After Bill Nye publicly debated the anti-science Ken Ham on the subject of evolution, some deniers posted pictures of themselves holding up further questions for Nye -- ones that they thought refuted his pro-evolution stance.
Lots of scientists and science communicators responded to those questions in some way, but Phil Plait at Slate has some of my favorite answers. Remember: When someone really believes something (especially when that belief is tied to spiritual convictions) evidence to the contrary will often just make them more convicted. Don't be a jerk to your creationist friends, just share some cool science with them when the opportunity arises.