Scientists Believe Life Emerged from a Process of “Creative Destruction” and Global Warming

CosmicCrashSite2009-09-07.jpgSource of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A9) In a paradox of creation, new evidence suggests that devastating avalanches of cosmic debris may have fostered life on Earth, not annihilated it. If so, life on our planet may be older than scientists previously thought — and more persistent.

Astronomers world-wide have been transfixed by a roiling gash the size of Earth in the atmosphere of Jupiter, caused by an errant comet or asteroid that smashed into the gas giant last month. The lingering turbulence is an echo of a cataclysmic bombardment that shaped the origin of life here 3.9 billion years ago, when millions of asteroids, comets and meteors pummeled our planet.
. . .
But in their super-heated plunge through the atmosphere, these asteroids and meteors may have helped create conditions ideal for emerging life. “Everyone focuses on the meteor that hits the ground,” says geochemist Richard Court at London’s Imperial College. “No one thinks about the products of its journey that get pumped into the atmosphere.”
As they vented, they collectively could have imported billions of tons of life-sustaining water into the air every year, Dr. Court and his colleague Mark Sephton recently determined. They calculated that these showers of volatile rocks delivered 10 times the daily outflow of the Mississippi River every year for 20 million years. By analyzing the fumes emitted under such extreme heat, they discovered these rocks also could have injected billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year.
Combined with so much water vapor, the carbon dioxide could have induced a global greenhouse effect. That could have kept any life emerging on Earth safely in a planetary incubator at a time when the planet might easily have frozen because the Sun radiated 25% less energy than today. “The amount of CO2 that was produced is about the same we produce today through fossil fuel use and we know that is a climate-changing volume,” says Dr. Court.
. . .
“It is literally a revolution in our ideas about how our solar system evolved,” says asteroid expert William Bottke at the Southwest Research Institute. “It could be that our form of life today — every living thing that we see today — is due to this bombardment that happened 3.9 billion years ago.”

For the full commentary, see:
ROBERT LEE HOTZ. “SCIENCE JOURNAL; Some Creative Destruction on a Cosmic Scale; Scientists Say Asteroid Blasts, Once Thought Apocalyptic, Fostered Life on Earth by Carrying Water and Protective Greenhouse Gas.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., AUGUST 14, 2009): A9.
(Note: ellipses added.)

“A Splendid Birthday Present” for Charles Darwin


Source of the book image:

(p. A13) . . ., on Feb. 12, biologists the world over will celebrate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. Throughout the year, at festivals galore marking his bicentennial, “On the Origin of Species,” a mere 150 years old, will be hailed as one of the greatest works in the history of the sciences.
. . .
Mr. Coyne begins with a succinct account of what is at stake. “Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species — perhaps a self-replicating molecule — that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection.”
Darwinism is thus a claim with several basic components, and the book is structured by carefully exhibiting the evidence for each. Making that structure explicit allows readers to recognize just where they are in the argument. As they follow Mr. Coyne’s parade of evidence — his discussions of the fossil record, of vestigial traits, of the ways in which living things constantly make novel use of the bits and pieces they have inherited, of the distribution of plants and animals — the components of Darwin’s thesis are sequentially supported. We have a list of things to be shown, they are shown and the truth of evolution is established.
. . .
Yet will any defense of Darwin, however painstaking and lucid, succeed in substantially modifying the public-opinion survey results? Mr. Coyne has seen the opposition first-hand, recounting his experience of talking to a group of businessmen about evolution and eliciting the reaction: “Very convincing — but I don’t believe it.” This sort of skepticism is often rooted in a sense that Darwinism somehow discredits morality — a perception that Mr. Coyne argues against, cogently, in a brief final chapter. But he does not seem to appreciate the depth of popular hostility toward Darwin.
. . .
Whether or not he succeeds in bringing Americans en masse to learn to love evolution, he has offered Darwin a splendid birthday present.

For the full review, see:
PHILIP KITCHER. “Bookshelf; Following the Evidence.” Wall Street Journal (Thurs., JANUARY 29, 2009): A13.
(Note: ellipses added.)

The reviewed book is:
Coyne, Jerry A. Why Evolution Is True. New York: Viking, 2009.

A classic paper on whether the speed of a scientist’s acceptance of evolution was related to the scientist’s age, is:
David L. Hull, Peter D. Tessner and Arthur M. Diamond. “Planck’s Principle: Do Younger Scientists Accept New Scientific Ideas with Greater Alacrity than Older Scientists?” Science 202 (November 17, 1978): 717-723.

Private Money Supports Quest for Dinosaur DNA


   Source of graphic: the online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1)  JORDAN, Mont. — Prospecting in Montana’s badlands, rock ax in hand, paleontologist Jack Horner picks up a piece of the jawbone of a dinosaur. He examines the splinter, then puts it back and moves on. It isn’t the kind of bone he is looking for.

Prof. Horner is searching for something that many scientists believe no longer exists: dinosaur bones that harbor blood cells, protein and, perhaps, even DNA.

"Most people looking for dinosaurs are looking for beautiful skeletons," he says. "We are looking for information."

. . .  

Prof. Horner, a curator at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, is among the world’s most influential and offbeat paleontologists. He pioneered studies of dinosaur parent-(p. A12)ing behavior, species variation and bone cells. He is dyslexic, a former Special Forces operative of the Vietnam War era, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellow, and a chaired professor of Montana State University who never finished a formal college degree.

"The lenses that people normally use to look at stuff are broken in Jack," says Mary Schweitzer, an assistant professor of paleontology at North Carolina State University, who has worked with him for years. "That’s what makes Jack such a good scientist. Every now and then, every field should get a renegade weirdo in it who challenges assumptions."

. . .  

"The chances of finding any [dinosaur] DNA are pretty low," Prof. Horner acknowledges. "I am still hopeful."

In a field mostly outside the mainstream of federal research funding, Prof. Horner has a knack for attracting private grants. Star Wars producer George Lucas, Qualcomm co-founder Klein Gilhousen and Wade Dokken, a developer of Montana real estate, have contributed toward his research, the university says. Nathan Myhrvold, formerly chief technology officer at Microsoft Corp. and co-founder of Intellectual Ventures LLC, is helping to underwrite this season’s fieldwork.

This summer, in Montana’s Hell Creek Formation, Prof. Horner is searching the last landscape inhabited by dinosaurs. More than 65 million years ago, this plain was a wetland where herds of horned Triceratops watered. Today, it is an arid outwash of boulders, cactus and sage. The red and gray soil is littered with white shards of petrified wood that ring like bone china when tapped together and countless crumbs of dinosaur bone.

. . .

"As long as you are not bound by preconceived ideas of what you can find," Prof. Horner says, "there are an awful lot of things you can discover."


For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Dinosaur Hunter Seeks More Than Just Bare Bones; Prof. Horner Searches For Traces of Blood, DNA; Lucky Break From T. Rex."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., August 24, 2007):  A1 & A12.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


     At top, Prof. Horner; at bottom: "Sarah Keenan, 21, an undergraduate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who is working this summer for Prof. Horner, covers the fossilized triceratops frill in a protective jacket of plaster."  Source of caption and photos: the online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.


Google Evolves

Gary Hamel has recently penned some thoughtful observations about what practices of Google have led to its success.  An excerpt from that analysis appears below.  (Hamel earlier wrote a popular book in which he makes extensive use of Schumpeter’s process of creative destruction.)

Only time will tell whether Google has succeeded in building an evolutionary advantage.  But consider:  Since it’s founding, it has repeatedly morphed its business model.  Google 1.0 was a search engine that crawled the Web but generated little revenue; which led to Google 2.0, a company that sold its search capacity to AOL/Netscape, Yahoo and other major portals; which gave way to Google 3.0, an Internet contrarian that rejected banner ads and instead sold simple text ads linked to search results; which spawned Google 4.0, an increasingly global entity that found a way to insert relevant ads into any and all Web content, dramatically enlarging the online ad business; which mutated into Google 5.0, an innovation factory that produces a torrent of new Web-based services, including Gmail, Google Desktop, and Google Base.  More than likely, 6.0 is around the corner.

Of course Google may ultimately fall victim to hubris and imperial overstretch as it takes on Microsoft, Yahoo, eBay, the occasional telecom giant and pretty much everyone else in cyberspace.  Or like Microsoft, it may simply become like every other big company as it grows.  But that’s not the way I’d bet.  Google seems to have grasped the new century’s most important business lesson:  The capacity to evolve is the most important advantage of all.


For the full commentary, see:

Hamel, Gary.  "Management à la Google."  The Wall Street Journal  (Weds., April 26, 2006):  A16.




And here is the information on Hamel’s most recent book:


Hamel, Gary. Leading the Revolution: How to Thrive in Turbulent Times by Making Innovation a Way of Life. Revised & Updated ed.  Harvard Business School Press, 2002.


 Source of image:

Missing Link Found Between Sea and Land Animals: More Evidence for Evolution


Model recreation of missing link animal.  Source of image:  Online version of NYT article cited below.


Scientists have discovered fossils of a 375-million-year-old fish, a large scaly creature not seen before, that they say is a long-sought missing link in the evolution of some fishes from water to a life walking on four limbs on land. 

In two reports today in the journal Nature, a team of scientists led by Neil H. Shubin of the University of Chicago say they have uncovered several well-preserved skeletons of the fossil fish in sediments of former streambeds in the Canadian Arctic, 600 miles from the North Pole.

The skeletons have the fins, scales and other attributes of a giant fish, four to nine feet long.  But on closer examination, the scientists found telling anatomical traits of a transitional creature, a fish that is still a fish but has changes that anticipate the emergence of land animals — and is thus a predecessor of amphibians, reptiles and dinosaurs, mammals and eventually humans.

In the fishes’ forward fins, the scientists found evidence of limbs in the making.  There are the beginnings of digits, proto-wrists, elbows and shoulders.  The fish also had a flat skull resembling a crocodile’s, a neck, ribs and other parts that were similar to four-legged land animals known as tetrapods.

Other scientists said that in addition to confirming elements of a major transition in evolution, the fossils were a powerful rebuttal to religious creationists, who have long argued that the absence of such transitional creatures are a serious weakness in Darwin’s theory.  

The discovery team called the fossils the most compelling examples yet of an animal that was at the cusp of the fish-tetrapod transition.  The fish has been named Tiktaalik roseae, at the suggestion of elders of Canada’s Nunavut Territory.  Tiktaalik (pronounced tic-TAH-lick) means ”large shallow water fish.”

”The origin of limbs,” Dr. Shubin’s team wrote, ”probably involved the elaboration and proliferation of features already present in the fins of fish such as Tiktaalik.”  

In an interview, Dr. Shubin, an evolutionary biologist, let himself go.  ”It’s a really amazing, remarkable intermediate fossil,” he said.  ”It’s like, holy cow.”  

Two other paleontologists, commenting on the find in a separate article in the journal, said that a few other transitional fish had been previously discovered from approximately the same Late Devonian time period, 385 million to 359 million years ago.  But Tiktaalik is so clearly an intermediate ”link between fishes and land vertebrates,” they said, that it ”might in time become as much an evolutionary icon as the proto-bird Archaeopteryx,” which bridged the gap between reptiles (probably dinosaurs) and today’s birds.  

The writers, Erik Ahlberg of Uppsala University in Sweden and Jennifer A. Clack of the University of Cambridge in England, are often viewed as rivals to Dr. Shubin’s team in the search for intermediate species in the evolution from fish to the first animals to colonize land.

H. Richard Lane, director of paleobiology at the National Science Foundation, said in a statement, ”These exciting discoveries are providing fossil ‘Rosetta Stones’ for a deeper understanding of this evolutionary milestone — fish to land-roaming tetrapods.”


For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD.  "Fossil Called Missing Link From Sea to Land Animals."  The New York Times  (Thursday, April 6, 2006):  A1.


  Source of graphic:


Evidence for Darwin’s Claim that Small Changes Can Accumulate Into Bigger Changes

By reconstructing ancient genes from long-extinct animals, scientists have for the first time demonstrated the step-by-step progression of how evolution created a new piece of molecular machinery by reusing and modifying existing parts.
The researchers say the findings, published today in the journal Science, offer a counterargument to doubters of evolution who question how a progression of small changes could produce the intricate mechanisms found in living cells.
. . .
The researchers found the modern equivalent of the stress hormone receptor in lampreys and hagfish, two surviving jawless primitive species. The team also found two modern equivalents of the receptor in skate, a fish related to sharks.
After looking at the genes that produced them, and comparing the genes’ similarities and differences among the genes, the scientists concluded that all descended from a single common gene 450 million years ago, before animals emerged from oceans onto land, before the evolution of bones.
The team recreated the ancestral receptor in the laboratory and found that it could bind to the kidney regulating hormone, aldosterone and the stress hormone, cortisol.
Thus, it turned out that the receptor for aldosterone existed before aldosterone. Aldosterone is found just in land animals, which appeared tens of millions of years later.

For the full story, see:
KENNETH CHANG. “Study, in a First, Explains Evolution’s Molecular Advance.” The New York Times (Fri., April 7, 2006): A19.