Good solutions to biology’s problems are astonishingly plentiful

Illustration: Jon Han

By Philip Ball

Originally published at Nautilus on January 8, 2015.

Is the natural world creative? Just take a look around it. Look at the brilliant plumage of tropical birds, the diverse pattern and shape of leaves, the cunning stratagems of microbes, the dazzling profusion of climbing, crawling, flying, swimming things. Look at the “grandeur” of life, the “endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful,” as Darwin put it. Isn’t that enough to persuade you?

Ah, but isn’t all this wonder simply the product of the blind fumbling of Darwinian evolution, that mindless machine which takes random variation and sieves…

Every time a disease spreads, it has another chance to mutate

Video produced by HHMI BioInteractive Video

By Lina Moses

Originally published at Nautilus on October 27, 2016.

Ebola doesn’t select people. We haven’t figured out what Ebola virus selects as its natural host, but it’s definitely not humans. Every once in a while, Ebola stumbles upon a human host, which ends up being a fatal mistake. When I say fatal, I mean for the virus. After all, Ebola is usually not highly efficient at sustaining infection or transmitting from human to human, and eventually that chain of transmission turns into a dead end. Every Ebola outbreak has ended, even the 2014–2015 West African epidemic.

When a…

The evolutionary biologist reads Robert Frost

By Michael Segal | Interview by Elisa New

Originally published at Nautilus on October 27, 2016.

In some ways, Richard Dawkins has been thinking about contingency for most of his life.

The book that catapulted him to fame, The Selfish Gene, is about one kind of contingency, which shapes genetic codes and chooses winning species (and genes). This contingency is nested in many others. In his memoir, An Appetite For Wonder, Dawkins imagines a dinosaur that would have caught and eaten the shrew-like ancestor of all mammals, had it not sneezed. …

Written and illustrated by David Antonio Perezcassar

Unreliable rewards trap us into addictive cell phone…

The arXiv preprint service is trying to answer an age-old question

Credit: PhonlamaiPhoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus

By Kate Becker

Originally published at Nautilus on October 27, 2016. The address was cryptic, with a tantalizing whiff of government secrets, or worse.

The server itself was exactly the opposite. Government, yes — it was hosted by Los Alamos National Laboratory — but openly accessible in a way that, in those early Internet days of the 1990s, was totally new, and is still game-changing today.

The site, known as arXiv (pronounced “archive,” and long since decamped to the more wholesome address “” and to the stewardship of the Cornell University Library), is a vast repository of scientific preprints…

How settling Mars could create a new human species

2 parents, 2 grandparents, a teenager, and a baby pose for a family portrait on a red martian landscape
2 parents, 2 grandparents, a teenager, and a baby pose for a family portrait on a red martian landscape
Illustration: Hannah K. Lee; photos: Image Source/Getty Images, Wikimedia Commons

By Scott Solomon

Originally published at Nautilus on October 27, 2016.

In the upcoming Hollywood movie, The Space Between Us, a child is born to an American astronaut on Mars. The mother dies in childbirth, but the baby survives, and is raised by a small colony of astronauts on Mars. In the trailer, a somber voice-over intones the central conceit of the film: “His heart will simply not have the strength for the Earth’s gravity; his bones will be too brittle.” In other words, there is no turning back. …

Only 1 in 3 people have evolved tolerance to lactose

Photo: Howard Hughes Medical Institute

By Madeline Gressel

Originally published at Nautilus on October 20, 2016.

Most people will remember the clever Got Milk ads, which slapped milk mustaches on celebrities in an effort to get Americans drinking dairy. Milk is sold as something healthy and wholesome — after all, isn’t drinking milk the most natural thing in the world? But actually, only a third of adults worldwide can even digest the stuff. The rest of us — the silent majority — are lactose intolerant, meaning we’ve lost our lactase, the enzyme that makes milk digestion possible. …

Purebreds don’t satisfy the biological definition of a species

Watercolor painting of overlapping dogs of different species.
Watercolor painting of overlapping dogs of different species.
Illustration: Chris Buzelli

By Raymond Coppinger & Lorna Coppinger

Originally published at Nautilus on October 20, 2016.

What is a dog? Many people often think of dogs as kennel club creations. The purebred dog is man’s best friend, not the street dog. Man’s best friends live ubiquitously in the United States, Europe, and other developed countries and, in these countries, are by and large household pets. Man’s best friends only live in areas where people have easy access to vaccines against rabies and distemper. …

We follow others no matter how hard we try

Photo source: John Kobal Foundation/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

By Joann Greco

Originally published at Nautilus on October 20, 2016.

The notion that our choices are driven by our own personal thoughts and opinions seems so obvious that it is not even worth mentioning,” Jonah Berger writes in the opening of his 2016 book, Invisible Influence: The Hidden Forces That Shape Behavior. “Except that it’s wrong.”

Berger, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, has made a specialty of researching why we make the decisions we do. In his first book, the best-selling Contagious: Why Things Catch On, Berger, 36, explored the hows and…

The private life of the African giant offers a remarkable view on evolution

Photo: vince42 via Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0

By David P. Barash

Originally published at Nautilus on May 21, 2015.

The first time I saw a free-living giraffe was in Tanzania’s Arusha National Park, where I was astounded by a yellow-and-brown head gliding gracefully and, it seemed, impossibly high above the tops of tall acacia trees. That was 11 years ago and underscored why the giraffe has remained one of my favorite animals. But it wasn’t just my African experiences that kept the giraffe in my graces.

As an evolutionary biologist and professor, I have put Giraffa camelopardalis on stage in my classrooms — well, not literally —…


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