Good solutions to biology’s problems are astonishingly plentiful

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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 it by natural selection? Well, not quite. You don’t have to be a benighted creationist, nor even a believer in divine providence, to argue that Darwin’s astonishing theory doesn’t fully explain why nature is so marvelously, endlessly inventive. “Darwin’s theory surely is the most important intellectual achievement of his time, perhaps of all time,” says evolutionary biologist Andreas Wagner of the University of Zurich. …

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

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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 pathogen jumps from its natural host to an incidental host, it’s called spillover, which probably happens more than we realize. Each outbreak of Ebola started in this manner — Ebola virus slipping from its natural host, moving directly or eventually into a human. According to studies done in Gabon, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, numerous people have been exposed to Ebola virus without an outbreak occurring. These are probably isolated spillover events, with limited secondary transmission. …

The evolutionary biologist reads Robert Frost

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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). …



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