Posts filed under ‘Evolution’

Darwin Day 2012 – Recommended Reading

Science Online 2011 - Darwin ShirtHappy Darwin Day 2012!
A lovely Darwin Day 2012 to you!

A couple of years ago, I accompanied Ryan Somma to the then-new Sant Ocean Hall at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Although I was already a subscriber to evolution at the time, I profoundedly struck by the fossil record leading up to whales. Starting with the land-based Maiacetus inuus you could watch the progression of millions of years unfold right before your eyes. The front legs got larger and broader and the hind legs got smaller and smaller. Finally you were presented with the bones of a modern day whale. If you watch the film Big Miracle, you’ll note that whales no longer have hind legs, but inside they still carry a souvenir of old times – hip bones! The progression was easy to see and remarkably beautiful. I remember feeling so impressed and inspired.

In celebration of Darwin’s Birthday today, Ryan has compiled a list of 101 Reasons Why Evolution Is True. Perhaps there will be something on this list that will you’ll find as inspiring and fascinating as I was by whale hip bones!

February 12, 2012 at 11:36 am Leave a comment

Halloween… and Convergent Evolution

Happy Halloween!

For Sagan’s first Halloween, Ryan and I wanted to pick something delightfully geeky. Star Trek was too obvious and “Tetris Piece” looked like it would be uncomfortable for Sagan to wear… or more importantly, uncomfortable for Mommy to put on Sagan.  Every time I have to put something on over his head, I remind him about the birth canal but he seems to find little solace in precedence.

Ryan suggested “Gir” from Invader Zim. Sagan’s Aunt Carolyn is a big Gir fan and even has a handmade Gir hat! I have friends in Washington State who named their dog after Gir. Ryan’s suggestion seemed like it would be an instant score in a niche audience!


So how does one with limited time make a costume for a 16 week old baby? Well, to help answer that question I needed to look no further than Kitty’s Heart of Nature. Last year for her daughter’s first Halloween, Kitty made adorable owl costumes, using brown hoodies as the base.

I ordered a reversible green jacket (with hood!) from Precious Cargo. Take your handy glue gun, a supply of felt and two foam balls and voila– Gir costume.

Sagan - Halloween - Outfit Alone
Gir Costume

And like the “real Gir”, Sagan could be completely in disguise or reveal his inner self.

Sagan - Halloween - Gir (Hood Down) with Mommy
Who’s Gir?

Sagan - Halloween - Riding as Gir
Sagan’s Gir!!!

Even though I copied Kitty’s hoodie technique, I was still feeling pretty creative and unique. That is, until I did a search on “Gir Hoodie”. It turns out, there are quite a few Gir Halloween costumes out there. As I scanned the photos in Google and Flickr, I realized I had taken part in a demonstration of convergent evolution.

Convergent evolution is when unrelated species independently acquire the same biological trait. A good example is wings. Mammals, birds and insects all “invented” the wing and guess what, they were reinventing something the reptiles had done way back in the day of the pterodactyls!

Convergent Evolution
Photos by Michael Pennay, CaptPiper, and tanakawho

Really when you boil it down, convergent evolution is about problem solving. An organism is presented with a challenge in its environment and it comes up with a solution. Sometimes the solution is such a perfect fit to the problem, it is just asking to be discovered again…and again…and again.

Such is the case with the Gir Halloween Costume.

You have a green character whose head can peel back and reveal his robot self.

Uh… green hooded article of clothing. Duh!!!

Convergent Girs
(Photo Credits: DilanofDreams, spookykittencouture, windmillcookie, and ME!)

Sagan’s costume does have one thing going for it. I didn’t find any other babies dressed up as Gir.

“He’s the only Gir that’s about the right size,” Ryan pointed out. 🙂

11/1/2011 Update! – Sagan is NOT the only baby dressed up as Gir. Check out adorable little Paige and her vastly superior Gir costume! (Hat Tip, Scott!)

There are more pictures of Sagan in his Gir costume on Flickr and there are plenty of pictures of other Gir costumes all over the internet.

P.S. If you are interested in purchasing a Gir costume for yourself, SpookyKittenCoutures (pictured above) does do custom orders. You can also find a whole slew of Gir-themed products at HotTopic.

October 30, 2011 at 11:51 pm 2 comments

Grandparent’s Day, Dr. Rachel Caspari and Why You Should Always, Always, Always Strap Your Son in His Stroller

My husband introduced me to a quote by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:

“I don’t mind paying taxes. They buy me civilization.”

There was a prerequisite to civilization, however, well before there were taxes. Grandparents, particularly post-menopausal women, a.k.a Grandmas!

Anthropologist Rachel Caspari (along with Sang-Hee Lee), examined 768 ancient skulls. By evaluating dental wear, they got approximate ages of the individuals in various prehistoric populations. Next they looked at the OY ratio– the number of older, grandparent-aged adults compared to the number of young adults.

Grandparents were rare… until about 35,000 years ago.

Around 2 million years ago, only about one in 10 Australopithecines—the modest-brained hominids exemplified by the famous fossil Lucy— who made it to adulthood lived to twice the age of sexual maturity. That number increased to about 1 in 5 when early Homo species appeared a million years ago and increased again to nearly 4 in 10 by the age of the Neanderthals, some 130,000 to 30,000 years ago.

“Then around the 30,000-year mark, all of a sudden you see the reverse, where you have about two older adults for every young adult,” Caspari says

-“Grandma’s Cultural Kick“, October 2004 Issue of Discover Magazine

At the same time grandparents started to be prevalent in the fossil record, so did an explosion of “distinctly modern behaviors”– sophisticated tools, art and symbol-based communication. Once there were grandmothers, it appears culture and civilization could really take root.

Caspari described the presence of grandparent-aged adults as a positive feedback loop. With grandmothers helping take care of their grandchildren, the parents were able to have to more children, increasing the population’s size. In addition, grandparents brought cultural knowledge to the table. By passing along wisdom such as the construction of tools, which plants were dangerous and which plants were good, grandparents helped increase the survivorship of their kin— producing future grandparents!

Yesterday, Ryan and I found tremendous value in the experience, counsel and advice of grandmothers. On our weekly walk to the Farmer’s Market, we had a stroller mishap and Sagan had a fall and hit his head. The accident was 100% preventable– we didn’t have poor Sagan strapped into his stroller. My mother was on the scene almost instantly, calming Sagan and perhaps the tougher job– calming me. Ryan’s mother drew on her many years of nursing experience to assess the situation and advise us.

We had phone calls to pediatricians, an ER visit, various tests, an ambulance transfer to a different hospital, a precautionary saline lock (that Sagan found way worse than the actual hit to his head) and an overnight stay for observation. We certainly expected one day a child of ours would take us to the emergency room, but we didn’t quite anticipate visiting so soon. It was an emotional day, but throughout it all, we had our mothers. They gave us wisdom, they gave us kind words, they gave us stories of the incidents we managed to survive when we were young. How frightening the day would have been without the experience and expertise of grandmothers!

And so I find it particularly fitting that today is Grandparent’s Day. After yesterday, Ryan and I are even more appreciative and grateful for everything grandparents have to offer. We extend a very heartfelt and hearty thank you to both of our mothers.

Sagan - August 27 - With Grandma Sagan - Day Twenty-Eight - Lifts Head with Grandma


It turns out, all is well. Sagan will be making a full recovery and in fact, he would have healed on his own without a hospital visit (but we had no way to know that at the time).

Despite the happy ending, Ryan and I have found one piece of cultural wisdom we will certainly be passing on to our children and grandchildren when the time comes:

Always, Always, ALWAYS Strap Your Son in His Stroller.

More On Caspari’s Research on Grandparents:
“Grandma’s Cultural Kick” from the October 2004 issue of Discover Magazine
“The Evolution of Grandparents” from the August 2011 issue of Scientific American (also available from
“Few Grandparents Until 30,000 Years Ago” from The Telegraph
Dr. Rachel Caspari Interview on The Takeaway

September 11, 2011 at 4:41 pm 1 comment

Thanksgiving and Pigging Out

Happy Thanksgiving!

Today Ryan and I will be spending the day with extended family in Silver Spring, Maryland. Last time we spend the holiday there, in 2008, there was a convenient scale in the living room. We weighed ourselves right before the meal… and then we weighed ourselves again after ingesting numerous helpings of delicious turkey, stuffing and that decadent sweet potato casserole I’d still trade my sanity for.

Thanksgiving 2008 - Ryan Weighs Himself
Ryan Weighs Himself – Thanksgiving 2008

The data collection made for some interesting banter, but that’s about all we used it for. We didn’t step back and reflect, “Hmmm… what are the evolutionary implications of gorging oneself?”

National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) is doing a blogging competition where the prize is a travel grant to Science Online 2011 conference (which Ryan and I are attending). One of the entries tackles a topic that I found very fitting for today’s festivities. Enjoy!

Eat ‘til you can’t eat no more: Evolution of the pig-out

November 25, 2010 at 5:00 am 1 comment

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