Free Online Video Lectures

For the last few months, I have been making use of the ‘iTunes U’ feature on Apple’s software to download lectures to listen to whilst making sure my crickets are living the high life in my lab. There are a lot of good courses there – the main ones I have been using are Stephen Stearns‘ Evolution, Ecology and Behaviour course from Yale, and some of Terrence Deacon‘s Anthropology course from Berkeley. You can have a look at what’s available here – in fact, the ‘featured lecture’ on this page is actually a ‘virtual tour of the Galapagos’ from the Open University’s David Robinson.

I was actually searching for some more information on a subject Stearns talks about in a sexual selection lecture when I found the CosmoLearning website. In its own words, CosmoLearning is “an educational website committed to improve the quality of homeschooling, teaching and student excellence, helping educators and self-learners alike anywhere in the world.” The biology section of the website contains a number of courses relevant to those with an interest in evolution, and include video lectures for the Stearns course available as audio on iTunes; this will come in very handy for those of us who have listened to the lectures and been left in the dark as he refers to images and graphs in his presentation!

For someone such as myself, coming to evolutionary biology from another discipline (and having spent a number of years away from study), it’s really wonderful to be able to access such resources, teaching the fundamentals without my having to pay anything or rearrange my day in order to go to undergraduate lectures! A bonus feature of the CosmoLearning website is its documentaries section – the evolution section has a number of films, including the rather fantastic BBC production ‘Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life’. Perfect for winding down after a lecture on the finer points of genetic drift…

CosmoLearning biology section here (unfortunately, constricting the search to just ‘evolution’ in the toolbars actually removes several relevant courses)
CosmoLearning evolution documentaries here

The Rap Guide to Evolution

Due to spending a lot of time doing experiments in my cricket dungeon of late, I’ve been trying to divide my listening time between music, comedy podcasts, and scientific podcasts or lectures. Thankfully, I hit on something recently which crosses the boundaries – The Naked Scientists’ podcast from the Darwin Festival 2009 (download here) features The Rap Guide to Evolution from Canadian Baba Brinkman:

Award winning Canadian hip hop artist Baba Brinkman brings us his Rap Guide to Evolution, an hour of clever, witty and scientifically accurate rhymes that will have you seeing Darwin from a whole new perspective. Baba explores the history and current understanding of Darwin’s theory, combining hilarious remixes of popular rap songs with clever lyrical storytelling that covers Natural Selection, Artificial Selection, Sexual Selection, Group Selection, Unity of Common Descent, and Evolutionary Psychology.

I first happened upon Baba Brinkman (as, I imagine, did the majority of evolutionary biologists who have heard of him) when his performance at Robin Ince’s ‘Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People was televised by the BBC in 2009. I’ll be honest – at that point, my interest in hip-hop probably superceded my interest in evolutionary biology, and I wasn’t expecting great things on either front. However, Brinkman – a literary scholar whose previous credits include ‘The Rap Canterbury Tales‘ – is a master at distilling complex ideas and presenting them in a logical, memorable and humourous manner.

Brinkman is now using the Crowdfunder site to help raise money for an educational DVD, including music videos for each track and a host of teaching resources. This money would add to initial funding from the Wellcome Trust, and your donations give returns to suit even the most braggadocious of evolutionary biologists – such as your own picture occurring in one of the music videos! Plus, as you’ll hear from the podcast, his is also a ‘peer-reviewed’ hip-hop show – so you can be assured that scientific accuracy takes precedence over his rhyming dictionary….

Donate to Baba Brinkman’s fund here.

A curious debate

I managed to get embroiled in a little debate about evolution on an internet forum the other day, which I quite enjoyed – in spite of the fact that nobody was really taking up the creationism / intelligent design side of things. There was one guy who carried it on a little further, although I was having trouble discerning his viewpoint… I wasted a fair bit of time arguing with him before he dropped this bomb:

Until that day: I think human is not of this place we call ‘earth’. The earth is not a better place from our existence upon it and the earth will send us back to whence we came.

It’s difficult to argue with someone who believes in evolution for all organisms on the planet other than humans; someone who even agrees with the evolution of apes up to a point, but then seems to think that humans were beamed in from the stars. Genetic and fossil evidence are, apparently, ‘not enough’ – despite there being no evidence for anything else! Requesting something that might back up his hypothesis brought this telling response:

There’s that word again: evidence.

Do you really want want to know my thoughts or are you trying to make a point about evidence- or the lack there of? Because you know I have no evidence, I know I have no evidence. I know you know I have no evidence therefore I wonder why you would ask it of me.

Sigh.

In any case, the ramblings of someone who ‘wants to believe’ are not the aspect that I took from this discussion. I enjoyed having the opportunity to look back at some of the wider points of evolution, but I also realised that I’m very happy to be in my little niche. Human evolution, fossils, etc – it’s all very interesting, but the sexy stuff…. well, it’s in sex.

Still Alive…

I had the best of intentions when I started this blog – unfortunately, I think I underestimated both the amount of work I would have to do on my first experiment, and my enthusiasm for then writing about it at the end of the day. I haven’t had a day off work since the beginning of September, although I have roped in some helpers which has kept the 12-hour working days to a minimum! Anyway, I have some pretty cool pictures and movies to post when I have some more time, and maybe even some more details on my project… if I can face thinking about it!

How to set up your own cricket experiment!

The experiment that I have started this week uses Gryllodes sigillatus, commonly known as the decorated cricket (or brown banded cricket).  I aim to look at how the ‘condition’ of an individual (more on ‘condition’ at a later date!) affects the expression of its sexual traits, and shall control this via the animals’ diet.  Unfortunately, these insects are quite happy to supplement their diet through cannibalising their fellow housemates (something that probably could have kept Big Brother going for another couple of series), so they have to be kept in individual containers from within 24 hours of hatching.  General tips on how to keep crickets at home can be found here, which you can supplement with these instructions if you wish to perform your own experiments!

I am using 5cm x 5cm tubs, each of which requires a piece of shelter (one piece of egg carton), water (I use a small plastic tube with a piece of damp cotton wool as a stopper), and a food source.  I am using the top of an Eppendorf tube to store the food, and have ground it to a powder for the nymphs – you can see an example below of the ‘good’ diet on the left (100% ground cat food), and ‘poor’ diet on the right (50% ground cat food, 50% ground oatmeal).  Once the crickets reach adulthood, they can be given larger pellets – this makes it easier to control the mass of the food, as well as reducing the likelihood of the food to go mouldy!

You can also see that each tub has 2 labels, one that gives information on the individual inside, and another that gives its hatch date.  Once you have all your crickety needs, simply arrange in the tub as shown below!

Ensure that you have pierced the lid several times before putting the cricket in there (unless your experiment is cruel and fairly redundant); you can also cut away part of the corners on the tub (as shown in the top 2 corners in the picture above), which makes it easier to remove the lid for quick access.  Time will tell if this also makes it easier for the crickets to open the tub as well.

Once you have prepared this little home, you’re ready to introduce your cricket babies!

The Masterplan..

My grand plan for the first post on this blog was to discuss what most people are likely to think when they hear the word ‘evolution’. For the vast majority, ‘evolution’ brings to mind phrases such as ‘natural selection’ and ‘the survival of the fittest’.  The ‘fittest’ individual, in common terms, would be the one that is most physically fit – stronger and healthier.  However, this is not how Darwin interpreted it when he appropriated Herbert Spencer’s phrase (coined after reading ‘On the Origin of Species’) as a synonym for his theory of natural selection.  The ‘fittest’, in this case, means those that are best adapted for the immediate environment.

Anyway, I say that this ‘was’ my grand plan, because not only did I swiftly realise that the subject is rather dry, but I also found that starting a blog on evolutionary biology whilst starting my first big experiment is probably the worst idea that I’ve had in some time.  As such, I shall devote most of the following entries – for the foreseeable future, anyway – to detailing the experiment that I am setting up, and generally how much I’m losing the will to live!  I keep receiving emails and texts asking me how my insects are doing, so now I can just send on the URL to this – mainly because I’m only a few days in, and already I cannot close my eyes without seeing rampaging hordes of cricket nymphs surging over my retinas…