My #230 Papers Challenge

You might have heard of the #360papers challenge – to read one journal article a day for a whole year – you might be less familiar with the related #230 papers challenge. This makes the more realistic goal of reading one journal article each working day of the year, which is apparently 230 days in total (I haven’t checked their maths). This is a record of my feeble attempt to reach this lofty goal – I will update every ten articles or so and try to give a one sentence summary (or link to an article or a longer blog).

Last updated: 04.04.17

Continue reading

The Truth and Lies Behind Alternative Medicine

Alternative medicine: a phrase that is heavy with connotations, emotions and frankly, a great deal of confusion. Whichever side of the debate you find yourself on, the opinions are usually strong, stubbornly held, and generally backed up with too few facts for any kind of meaningful discussion. It is for these reasons that I usually try to avoid the topic entirely. But avoiding the issue gets us nowhere. So lets do it properly, if we’re going to do it at all. Over the last year I have read no less than 144 scientific papers on seven different so-called “alternative medicines”, in search of the truth behind the hype. From acupuncture to homeopathy, from reiki to hypnotism, I’ve searched high and low to find out what really works, what doesn’t work, what is helpful and what is potentially harmful. This series will explain what I’ve found in a fair and scientific way. It is not meant to offend anybody, merely to arm us all with the facts, so that we can make our own informed decisions.
Continue reading

Animal Personality Part II:
The Evolution of Personality

The field of research into personality and behavioural syndromes in animals has blossomed over the past few decades. With ample evidence for it’s existence, biologists have begun to consider its evolution; what is the adaptive benefit of personality? How are multiple personality types maintained in a population? Why do personalities exist when they sometimes result in maladaptive responses?

All these questions, and any evolutionary questions we might care to ask, make the assumption that personality is heritable. Without heritability, personality cannot be passed from generation to generation, and cannot be subject to natural selection. There is now plenty of evidence for high heritability of many personality traits in animals, although there is also an important influence of the environment too. Heritabilities estimates vary, from 0.22 – 0.61 in wild great tits, 0.32 in social spiders, 0.54 – 0.66 in humans and 0.2 – 0.8 in dumpling squid. These genetic influences may in part be reflected in brain morphology; one study in humans found differences in brain structure relating to neuroticism, conscientiousness, and extraversion. More neurotic people have a smaller total brain volume and a smaller frontotemporal surface area, whilst extraverts have a thinner inferior frontal gyrus.

Continue reading

Animal Personality Part I:
Individual Differences

To even the most casual observer, it is clear that people are not homogenous in their behaviour, and that this goes beyond possible nurture influences such as cultural upbringing. Individuals vary in their behaviour in a consistent manner; some people are generally more aggressive, friendly and adventurous in every aspect of their lives. So obvious is this observation that we even have a word for it – personality. Likewise, anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in the company of animals will almost certainly acknowledge that they are not all the same. The extent to which this is apparent varies from species to species, of course, but the observation is not a revolutionary one. And yet, until relatively recently the concept of ‘personality’ in non-human animals was revolutionary. And it has had to work hard to shake off the criticism of anthropomorphism and pseudoscience.

It was long assumed that animals were infinitely plastic in their behaviour, being able to respond adaptively to all environments. When people actually started to look, however, it became apparent that this wasn’t the case. Individuals showed substantial variation in their responses to certain events and environments, and these responses were not always adaptive. There was a strong correlation however, in the responses of a single individual over time. Personality, you say?

Continue reading

What Makes Us Human?

Understanding the evolution of Homo sapiens, and how humans came to be human, has been a fascination for people since Darwin’s time, but it has also proved to be one of the most controversial of the sciences. Humans and Chimpanzees diverged about 7 million years ago and during this time a great deal of anatomical and behavioural changes occurred which now distinguish us from our closest relatives. Despite this, we still share over 99% of our genetic make-up with Chimpanzees; only 1% of our genes truly make us human. What is the manifestation of this 1%? Some of these differences are very clear visually; we are taller and less hairy, with larger brains and an upright, two-legged stance. Other differences are slightly more subtle; we have language, we use tools, we have culture and art enabled by abstract thought, we have a concept of self… but as that list continues, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine whether Chimpanzees, or indeed other animals, also share these qualities. If Chimpanzees can be taught language, then this indicates they have a brain capable of understanding and learning language, and thus, surely they can in some sense be said to have language themselves? Other characteristics are even more difficult to pin down; how do you measure self-awareness? Although there is a long list of traits that most people would consider to be exclusively human, the situation is in fact far less clear cut than that.

Continue reading

Reasons Why Evolution is True

Across the next 10 articles, I present a few of the quirky examples of evolution that we can readily observe in nature. It is by no means an exhaustive list, but merely a set of stories which I feel illustrate well the power of evolution to create complexity, and how we can see evidence for natural selection by looking carefully at the idiosyncrasies it has produced.

The examples I provided in this series can be broadly categorised into a few themes; coevolution (Fig Wasps and Hawk Moths), evolutionary constraints on adaptation (Pandas, The Human Eye), convergent evolution (Birds and Bats), adaptive radiation (Galapagos Finches, Ring Species) and homology (DNA and the Pentadactyl Limb). And within each of these categories, there are numerous other stories I could have told to illustrate my point. But the point I am trying to illustrate is that evolution is a real phenomenon. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is one which explains the natural world around us in both a satisfying and verifiable way.

Continue reading

Ants: Civilisation in Miniature

You might not think you have much in common with the small, six-legged creatures that occasionally break into your home to raid jam jars, but over the next three articles I hope to illuminate some of the parallels between people and ants. Like humans, ants are highly social; building civilisations, utilising sophisticated mechanisms of communication, and nurturing other living creatures in various forms of agriculture. And just like us, their societies are sometimes compromised by cheats and criminals. Ants share many of these traits with other members of the social hymenoptera, which includes most bees and wasps. Few species outside this group have developed cooperation as sophisticated or complex.
Continue reading