Someone pointed out to me after my last post that I am now around 14 or so posts into this series about life on earth and evolution, and if this was a lecture series, it would be about time for a recap of why, where and how, especially given my habit of writing fairly long posts.
As I have got some regular followers now *waves at the nice people reading her blog*, and my thousand word or so posts are quite rambling (One of the problems of just writing, and never re-reading posts), I think this is quite a good idea, especially as I have not gone back and re-read any of my posts, so I cannot expect that other people have either. I have not read my own posts because I hate reading myself as much as I hate watching myself on video, or hearing myself on tape (This is also why I have not made these into youtube videos, although that has also been suggested).
So, today will be a recap, with links to older posts, and a brief (well, hopefully) overview of each post, and an explanation of why I am doing this series, and where we have been, and where we are going.
I started this blog because I think that science can seem very complicated to the outsider, and this can act as a barrier. I have personal experience of this, as it was 15 or so years between when I left school, and when I started University, and being dropped into University level science classes without any college education, surrounded by people who had just finished college a few months earlier made me feel very stupid for a while, especially as I lacked the technical terms to explain concepts, and used everyday language and analogies to try to explain myself. This feeling was my own lack of confidence, not anything that other students said to me. I think a lot of people are familiar with the feeling that “I am just making this stuff up as I go along, I hope no one notices”, and even now, when I pass exams, I think that they have just passed me because they feel sorry for me, or they need a specific quota (This last one might actually be true!)
What got me excited about nature, and led to my studying environmental biology was spending the 15 years between school and university watching documentaries. When I watch them, especially BBC nature documentaries, they lead to me wanting to find out more about the animals, plants or geological processes that the documentary covered (Space documentaries I am not so good at, I think we need to figure out this planet before going off to investigate elsewhere). I assumed my friends had also seen these documentaries, or at least, that everyone else knew the things I was reading about, after all, if it is in a TV documentary, it is rarely groundbreaking science news. Re-watching Life on Earth with someone who had not seen it before, and seeing their face when they saw some of the animals in it made me realise that this is not the case, and it was this person who suggested I write a blog taking some of these documentaries, and expanding a bit on them, and maybe share other science topics in everyday language, so that the barrier of technical terms was not there.
This is not to say that some topics are not extremely complex, but many topics are explainable with everyday terms, especially with the help of images and videos. So, I decided to try to share my enthusiasm, and I thought that the evolution of life on earth was a perfect place to start, as it is one of the topics which has so many misunderstandings surrounding it, but for me, when you stop and think, and see at least part of the progression from simple organisms to us, it is breathtakingly simple. The mechanics behind it may be more complicated, but just starting to think about “why would X have an advantage over Y” sends you off on a journey of discovery, and even if your initial idea might not be right, it is starting the thought process which is the fun part!
So, this first series of posts in this blog is inspired by Life on Earth although this series is now 33 years old (same age as me!), and some information in it has been updated due to advances in genetics, developmental biology etc, it is a very good starting point for each post.
We are currently around 10 minutes into episode 2, and there are 13 episodes, so there is a lot of material!
We started out with looking at cyanobacteria, and the important role they played in transforming the atmosphere (or, as one of my friends puts it “The first great environmental disaster”), with “Oxygenation of the Atmosphere, or why we love bacteria”
Staying with very simple life forms, the next post discussed a theory about how eukaryotes (cells with a nucleus) came to be: “Eukaryotes or why we love bacteria part II” I just realised on re-reading it that I said there would be 10 posts on evolution…I may have underestimated slightly!
Moving up from cyanobacteria, I posted about some of my favourite micro-organisms, Dinoflagellates, and how, despite being so small, they have an impact which we can see without a microscope: “Starting small: Dinoflagellates”
The general characteristics of Cnidaria was my next post, and the first of several about this phylum. This post showed the different life stages, and the medusa stage could be seen as an upside down polyp phase, with a discussion about possible reasons for distinct life stages. “Still small: Cnidaria part I”
Sea anemones were the topic of the next post, with an explanation of the defining characteristic of Cnidaria, and information about the life cycle of sea anemones, and some basic anatomy: “Cnidaria part II: Sea Anemones”
We stayed on sea anemones for another post, but discussed the relationships they have with other life forms, and different types of symbiosis, and the benefits of each type: “More Sea Anemones”
The start of the posts on corals was next, with a brief introduction, and some fossils: “Cnidaria Part 3: Corals”
The life cycle of corals was the subject of the next post, with a focus on spawning, and the mechanisms behind it: “Cnidaria Part 4: More Corals”
Sticking with the life cycle, there was a post about the larva of corals: “Still corals”
The aim of the next post was to show some things about corals which are not normally seen, so we covered luminescence, and the possible reasons behind it, as well as predatory behaviour in corals, and territorial disputes: “When corals attack!”
Deep water corals of the non reef building variety were next on the list: “Sea Pens”
The final post on Cnidaria was about the Portuguese Man O’War, and a discussion about the nature of this organism, and how it is different to other colonial organisms, and in some ways, more similar to complex multi-celled organisms: “Jellyfish…or is it?”
We then moved on to flatworms, and a post covering the important evolutionary developments in this phylum: “Platyhelminthes: Flatworms and body plans”
Penis fencing, pharynx and pretty swimming flatworms were the subject of the post: “More Turbellaria: Moving, eating, mating”
Pre-Cambrian life, and fossils from this period were covered in the post “Backwards before we go forwards”, as well as a brief discussion about why a round body may have had an advantage over a flat body as time went on
The most recent post was about the round organisms which represent another step forward, with a circulatory system, and a complete digestive tract, as well as a very strange organ for hunting: “From flat to round”
So we have travelled from single-celled organisms, to organisms which are free moving, with a system for moving blood around their bodies, and able to eat and excrete at the same time. Along the way, I have tried to incorporate technical topics into visual demonstrations.
I have tried to cover, superficially at least, some of the more complex discussions among evolutionary biologists in terms which are accessible to everyone. Whether you realise it or not, these posts have included phylogenetics, developmental biology, taxonomy, gross anatomy, paleobiology, as well as looking at topics such as cell biology, symbiosis and photosynthesis.
I am by no means an expert in any of these topics, I write each post by finding the next organism to cover, then trying to teach myself more in-depth information on the organism, and finding the most interesting, as well as relevant parts, but I hope that so far I have shown that science is not as scary as it can seem, and I hope I have got you thinking about some of these topics.
From here, we move on next time to organisms which started to have some real protection from predators. I hope you will stay with me as we travel through evolution, and beyond, as I try to show you some of the things about the natural world which inspire and excite me. For me, the moment when something suddenly makes sense is an amazing feeling, the “Oooooh, that is why that happens”, and I hope I have managed to show some of those moments so far.