Friday, December 23, 2005

Evolution takes gold

Just out today, the well-esteemed journal Science has judged the science of evolution to be the top scientific breakthrough of 2005! The ideas of evolution, of course, traces back to Darwin, and even further. So why is 2005 such an interesting year?

As this story from BBC reports, there have been many vital scientific publications that highlight and expand our understanding of evolutionary processes. This includes the publication of the full chimp genome (from a chimp called Clint). As Science writes:

The genome data confirm our close kinship with chimps: We differ by only about 1% in the nucleotide bases that can be aligned between our two species, and the average protein differs by less than two amino acids. But a surprisingly large chunk of noncoding material is either inserted or deleted in the chimp as compared to the human, bringing the total difference in DNA between our two species to about 4%.

Second, 2005 has seen some important publications on the emergence of new species, also called speciation. Science gives many good examples, including this:

...Birds called European blackcaps sharing breeding grounds in southern Germany and Austria are going their own ways--literally and f iguratively. Sightings over the decades have shown that ever more of these warblers migrate to northerly grounds in the winter rather than heading south. Isotopic data revealed that northerly migrants reach the common breeding ground earlier and mate with one another before southerly migrants arrive. This difference in timing may one day drive the two populations to become two species.

Finally, Science mentions something more close to home for BrainEthics - the improval of the human condition through natural science. With the advanced understanding of evolution and comparative studies between humans and non-human species, we may better understand diseases and treatments that are first tried in animal models. This could lead to better models of cognitive processes, how brain disease initiates and progresses, and how medical treatment can be optimised. Advances such as the sampling of the full chimp genome also allows for sorting out the unique traits of the human genome, which in turn may shed light on what makes humans so distinct from other species. In addition, potential treatments using animal models should now take into account the specific genetic makeup of the animal being used. While it has been known for decades that different species -- even strains within species (e.g. rats) -- may produce different results, knowing the full genome offers a whole new way to quantify these relations.

In the end, however, one cannot avoid speculating about the political importance of stressing evolution today. 2005 has indeed been a year filled with increased interest and discussion of evolution, especially in the light of Intelligent Design. So, while Science has indeed the scientific reasons in place to support a 1st place for evolution science, I won't say that the signal value does any harm, either.

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