Welcome to the Genomics Forum blog

Based at The University of Edinburgh, the ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum is part of the ESRC Genomics Network and pioneers new ways to promote and communicate social research on the contemporary life sciences.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

8.7 million and not counting

While Ken and Pippa are assiduously covering the book festival, I'm still in my garret dealing with basic texts.

I've just finished a first draft for my Traverse Event on September 30th..."Of Monkeys and Men"...which is a re-examination of the famous Scopes Monkey trial in Tennessee in 1925...that got dramatised with great success as Inherit the Wind by Lawrence and Lee.

You remember?...the movie is a real Sunday afternoon classic on TV...Spencer Tracy and Fredric March acting the belt and braces off each other in the deep south..where the teacher gets arrested for teaching evolution?...Dick Yorke? He's the teacher? Remember?...Samatha's husband in "Bewitched"? It's got Gene Kelly in it too...wearing a really bad suit and not dancing...? No?

You're probably all too young...Kevin Spacey revived it at the Old Vic a couple of years ago.

Anyway, I've been digging around in this old story and I believe I've unearthed some good new stuff...as well as some properly dodgy dramaturgical practices...which, along with the Creation Scientists' Strategy Document for attacking evolution right here and now, I'm keen to share...

(The strategy is called "The Wedge", by the way. Which is a Darwinian joke.)

In other news, the title of this latest blather refers to the number of different species currently living on earth...as reported in this morning's Metro...and if the number is anything like right, most of them haven't been catalogued or numbered.

(They're probably all beetles, of which, as JBS Haldane pointed out, the Creator is excessively fond...)

8.7 million? How can you possibly know that? I wondered...and the internet being the wonder that it is, in two shakes I'd found the paper in PLOS BIOLOGY from which the Metro article had descended with modifications...

(that's another Darwinian joke)

Here's the reference and citation

Citation: Mora C, Tittensor DP, Adl S, Simpson AGB, Worm B (2011) How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean? PLoS Biol 9(8): e1001127.

After an unworthy chuckle at one of these enumerators of unregarded phenotyopes being called Boris Worm, I quote:

"Here, we document that the taxonomic
classification of species into higher taxonomic groups
(from genera to phyla) follows a consistent pattern from
which the total number of species in any taxonomic group
can be predicted. Assessment of this pattern for all
kingdoms of life on Earth predicts ,8.7 million (61.3
million SE) species globally, of which ,2.2 million (60.18
million SE) are marine. Our results suggest that some 86%
of the species on Earth, and 91% in the ocean, still await

I'm not here to argue about statistical methodology.

(pshaw!...as if?)

My questions are a lot more basic...like if the evolutionary advantage of speciation in the first place is to diversify between, and compete for, food supplies, does speciation have an upper limit in a given eco-system?

If natural selection primarily operates at the level of genes, and there really are THAT many species, how meaningful is it to talk about species at all beyond whether Organism A can or cannot breed with Organism B? Do we need to do what Darwin did, and question what the word might mean given a Darwinian View of Life?

(The word itself has a neo-Platonic heritage: Species = Special Creation = Ideal Dog modelled in the mind of God.)

Is speciation wholly driven by progressive divergence due to genetic mutation? How big an influence are epigentic factors like viral infection, gene transfer, environmental change? Can mutation alone account for 8.7 million species?

If potatoes have got twice as many active genes as we have...and ferns...which have been around FOREVER...are just loaded with the things - despite their comparative simplicity - then is the number of coding genes analagous to the time that has passed since speciation...and what would that tell us? Am I completely off the wall here?

If natural selection still operates as a total explanation of speciation, (which it must...what else is there?) what is all the fuss about epigenetics I've been hearing? What on earth is "epigenetics" anyway??!?

Much watch the blood pressure.

On "epigenetics", I'm grateful to have been sent a link to Jerry A Coyne's excellent blog "Why Evolution is True"...and specifically a discussion about epigenetics' supposed challenge to "Darwinian Orthodoxy" aka "The Synthesis"

It's much better explained here than I could do.


I also have to confess, from the point of view of my own unworthy dramaturgy, that the comments are fun too...in that it's fun to see scientists getting pissed off with simplifying populists like myself.

So I've started following it.

So much to read, so little time!

Peter Arnott is Resident Playwright at the ESRC Genomics Forum April 2011 - April 2012. Appointed in partnership with the Traverse Theatre Edinburgh, Peter will be hosting a number of public engagements as he explores ideas and seeks inspiration for a genomics related play.

No comments:

Post a Comment