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Corante Blogs examine, through the eyes of leading observers, analysts, thinkers, and doers, critical themes and memes in technology, business, law, science, and culture.

The Press Will Be Outsourced Before Stopped

Vin Crosbie, on the challenges, financial and otherwise, that newspaper publishers are facing: "The real problem, Mr. Newspaperman, isn't that your content isn't online or isn't online with multimedia. It's your content. Specifically, it's what you report, which stories you publish, and how you publish them to people, who, by the way, have very different individual interests. The problem is the content you're giving them, stupid; not the platform its on."
by Vin Crosbie in Rebuilding Media

Travels In Numerica Deserta

There's a problem in the drug industry that people have recognized for some years, but we're not that much closer to dealing with it than we were then. We keep coming up with these technologies and techniques which seem as if they might be able to help us with some of our nastiest problems - I'm talking about genomics in all its guises, and metabolic profiling, and naturally the various high-throughput screening platforms, and others. But whether these are helping or not (and opinions sure do vary), one thing that they all have in common is that they generate enormous heaps of data.
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

Disrobing the Emperor: The online “user experience” isn't much of one

Now that the Web labor market is saturated and Web design a static profession, it's not surprising that 'user experience' designers and researchers who've spent their careers online are looking for new worlds to conquer. Some are returning to the “old media” as directors and producers. More are now doing offline consulting (service experience design, social policy design, exhibition design, and so on) under the 'user experience' aegis. They argue that the lessons they've learned on the Web can be applied to phenomena in the physical and social worlds. But there are enormous differences...
by Bob Jacobson in Total Experience

Second Life: What are the real numbers?

Clay Shirky, in deconstructing Second Life hype: "Second Life is heading towards two million users. Except it isn’t, really... I suspect Second Life is largely a 'Try Me' virus, where reports of a strange and wonderful new thing draw the masses to log in and try it, but whose ability to retain anything but a fraction of those users is limited. The pattern of a Try Me virus is a rapid spread of first time users, most of whom drop out quickly, with most of the dropouts becoming immune to later use."
by Clay Shirky in Many-to-Many

The democratisation of everything

Over the last few years we've seen old barriers to creativity coming down, one after the other. New technologies and services makes it trivial to publish text, whether by blog or by print-on-demand. Digital photography has democratised a previously expensive hobby. And we're seeing the barriers to movie-making crumble, with affordable high-quality cameras and video hosting provided by YouTube or Google Video and their ilk... Music making has long been easy for anyone to engage in, but technology has made high-quality recording possible without specialised equipment, and the internet has revolutionised distribution, drastically disintermediating the music industry... What's left? Software maybe? Or maybe not."
by Suw Charman in Strange Attractor

RNA Interference: Film at Eleven

Derek Lowe on the news that the Nobel Prize for medicine has gone to Craig Mello and Andrew Fire for their breakthrough work: "RNA interference is probably going to have a long climb before it starts curing many diseases, because many of those problems are even tougher than usual in its case. That doesn't take away from the discovery, though, any more than the complications of off-target effects take away from it when you talk about RNAi's research uses in cell culture. The fact that RNA interference is trickier than it first looked, in vivo or in vitro, is only to be expected. What breakthrough isn't?"
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

PVP and the Honorable Enemy

Andrew Phelps: "Recently my WoW guild has been having a bit of a debate on the merits of Player-vs.-Player (PvP) within Azeroth. My personal opinion on this is that PvP has its merits, and can be incredible fun, but the system within WoW is horridly, horribly broken. It takes into account the concept of the battle, but battle without consequence, without emotive context, and most importantly, without honor..."

From later in the piece: "When I talk about this with people (thus far anyway) I typically get one of two responses, either 'yeah, right on!' or 'hey, it’s war, and war isn’t honorable – grow the hell up'. There is a lot to be said for that argument – but the problem is that war in the real historical world has very different constraints that are utterly absent from fantasized worlds..."
by Andrew Phelps in Got Game

Rats Rule, Right?

Derek Lowe: "So, you're developing a drug candidate. You've settled on what looks like a good compound - it has the activity you want in your mouse model of the disease, it's not too hard to make, and it's not toxic. Everything looks fine. Except. . .one slight problem. Although the compound has good blood levels in the mouse and in the dog, in rats it's terrible. For some reason, it just doesn't get up there. Probably some foul metabolic pathway peculiar to rats (whose innards are adapted, after all, for dealing with every kind of garbage that comes along). So, is this a problem?.."
by Derek Lowe in In the Pipeline

Really BAD customer experience at Albertsons Market

Bob Jacobson, on shopping at his local Albertsons supermarket where he had "one of the worst customer experiences" of his life: "Say what you will about the Safeway chain or the Birkenstock billionaires who charge through the roof for Whole Foods' organic fare, they know how to create shopping environments that create a more pleasurable experience, at its best (as at Whole Foods) quite enjoyable. Even the warehouses like Costco and its smaller counterpart, Smart & Final, do just fine: they have no pretentions, but neither do they dump virtual garbage on the consumer merely to create another trivial revenue stream, all for the sake of promotions in the marketing department..."
by Strange Attractor in Total Experience

The Guardian's "Comment is Free"

Kevin Anderson: "First off, I want to say that I really admire the ambition of the Guardian Unlimited’s Comment is Free. It is one of the boldest statements made by any media company that participation needs to be central to a radical revamp of traditional content strategies... It is, therfore, not hugely surprising to find that Comment is Free is having a few teething troubles..."
by Kevin Anderson in strange
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

The Loom

« Chronicle of a Death Foretold | Main | Book News, Part Two »

November 17, 2005

Book News, Part One

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Posted by Carl Zimmer

Smithsonian cover.jpgMy latest book, Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins is now available on, and I think it's getting put on the shelves at bookstores. I've only referred to the book here glancingly from time to time, and I wanted to take a minute now to give Loom readers a sense of the book (and perhaps inspire the sales of a few copies).

From the start of this blog, I've dedicated a lot of space to new discoveries about where we came from. I've written about spectacular new fossils, from Sahelanthropus, the oldest known hominid to the Hobbits (a k a Homo floresiensis), which might have been a distant branch of hominid evolution that survived until just 12,000 years ago. It's also been wonderfully exciting to see studies of the human genome reveal all sorts of fascinating twists and turns in our evolution.

In 2003 I wrote a cover story for Discover about the big questions in human evolution, and before long it evolved into an illustrated, 176-page book published by Smithsonian Books. Here's a brief overview:

Chapter 1: The Clues
I introduce the book, starting off with Charles Darwin's remarkably insightful ideas about human evolution—ideas that came to him without any knowledge of DNA or of hominid fossils.

Chapter 2: A Budding Branch

This chapter looks at the latest evidence for how hominids branched off from other apes. This evidence includes new fossils such as Sahelanthropus as well as insights from comparing human DNA to chimpanzee DNA.

Chapter 3: The Walk Begins
Charles Darwin thought that bipedalism, big brains, and tool use all emerged at the same time in human ancestors. It turns out that he was wrong. Hominids were walking on two legs for millions of years with brains not much bigger than a chimp's. Why they made the transition remains a fascinating puzzle.

Chapter 4: The Toolmakers
Here I tell the story of how our ancestors began making stone tools, looking not just at the ancient tools themselves for clues, but also at the behavior of other apes that might have opened the way to our own technology.

Chapter 5: Becoming Human
This chapter looks at how tall, long-legged hominids emerged about 1.8 million years ago and spread across the Old World, ultimately evolving into species such as Neanderthals and perhaps Homo floresiensis.

Chapter 6: Sapiens
I describe what scientists have learned recently about the emergence of our own species in Africa roughly 200,000 years ago. New discoveries about this crucial time in our evolution—from ancient jewelry to hints of ritual cannibalism--are coming fast and furious these days. Some even had me revising the manuscript to this book at the last minute.

Chapter 7: The Last Wave
Once our species emerged in Africa, it expanded across the rest of the planet, even reaching the New World where no hominid had come before. In this chapter I look at the evidence for how our ancestors spread and the evidence as to why we are now the only species of hominid left on Earth.

Chapter 8: Where Do We Go From Here?
Everyone always wants to know what the future of human evolution will be. There's plenty of evidence that our species has continued to evolve in just the past few thousand years. At the same time, though, the rise of human culture, medicine, and genetic engineering may be sending our species off on an evolutionary trajectory that's impossible to predict.

So if you want a short, sweet, beautifully illustrated introduction to the science of where we come from—or if you're trying to think of a Christmas gift for that cranky uncle who says there's no evidence whatsoever for human evolution—please check out this book!

Comments (12) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Evolution


1. Scott Belyea on November 17, 2005 03:54 PM writes...

I've been given a ship date of November 23 from Amazon in Canada.

"...trying to think of a Christmas gift for that cranky uncle"

Nope ... it's for me!

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2. Michael Balter on November 17, 2005 11:21 PM writes...

From one human evolution writer to another: Congratulations on the new book, Carl!

Michael Balter, Science

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3. Jason Malloy on November 17, 2005 11:58 PM writes...

Oh yes, I'm buying this baby for myself. Christmas is too far away to wait for the gift. :)

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4. John Sully on November 18, 2005 01:50 AM writes...

I have to say after finishing Carl's "At the Water's Edge" that he is one of the finest science writers I have run across. Since I just bought a copy of "Soul Becomes Flesh" I'll have to wait a week or so to pick this one up, but trust me, I will.

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5. Charlie Wagner on November 18, 2005 09:12 AM writes...

No one who has looked at the evidence objectively can deny that humans have evolved. They have evolved culturally, morphologically and technologically in the time they have been on the earth. In addition, our kinship with our other primate cousins is clear. That all primates most likely had a common origin is obvious.
What is not obvious, however, is the mechanism by which these changes have occurred. In this matter we are still pretty much in the dark. Evolution is a process, that is strongly supported by empirical evidence. But it remains a process looking for a believable mechanism. Random mutation and natural selection are mechanisms of evolution and it is possible to accept the reality of evolution on a scientific basis and deny the claim that mutation and natural selection are capable of achieving it.
Intelligent input is also a mechanism of evolution, without any empirical support. But it is clearly obvious to me that random mutation and natural selection are insufficient to explain the complex systems that human beings possess as well as the cultural, intellectual and social components of our collective humanity.
What we observe in humans (and other living systems) are means adapted to ends. We see structures supporting other structures and we see processes supporting other processes. We also see that these structures and processes are integrated into functional systems in such a way that they all support the overall function of the organism.
Science has failed to establish with empirical evidence, any kind of believable link between the trivial effects of mutation and selection and the emergence of highly organized structures, processes and systems. Some important component is missing.
It seems to me that such a level of organization simply cannot be achieved by random processes and requires insight. Some kind of intelligent input seems necessary.
I will however, purchase the book, and when I read it, I will be looking for your explanation regarding the evolution of humans and the organization they manifest.

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6. Mike Snider on November 18, 2005 03:03 PM writes...

Charlie Wagner -- I'm a poet and programmer, not a biologist, so I'll leave your biology education to the experts. But have you ever considered the incredible complexity of the system that puts fresh Snickers bars in every drugstore in America? Mathematician John Allen Paulos has.

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7. Jim Douglas on November 18, 2005 10:27 PM writes...

Howdy Carl,
For quite sometime, since I read Water's Edge, I've been curious about your educational background. Try as I might, I only find bios that list your writing experience and various accolades. I'm interested to know your actual educational background and how you came to be the popularly respected science writer we know today.

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8. Doug on November 19, 2005 01:02 PM writes...

Blog entries are monitored now? Why the change? Don't expect the engaging debates of the past to coontinue. Perhaps you want to take cheap shots at creationists with out fear of our pesky rebuttals. Your "cranky uncle" is shaking his head in disappointment.

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9. Wayne Francis on November 22, 2005 09:34 AM writes...

To those that don't know Charlie Wagner here are his beliefs on life on Earth
1) Life on Earth was seeded by aliens
2) All life on Earth was front loaded. This means the first life had all the genetic information it needed and all species downstream for it.
3) These aliens are not supernatural
4) These aliens didn't need to evolve because they have always been
5) The universe is infinitely old in a manner that that was always habitable (steady state model)

Charlie shows a profound lack of understanding about Hubble red shift the CMB and many other principles of cosmology and physics.

Just wanted people to know before they think his claims might actually be valid.

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10. Bruce O on November 28, 2005 11:42 PM writes...

Just a comment to Charlie, who wrote:

"Science has failed to establish with empirical evidence, any kind of believable link between the trivial effects of mutation and selection and the emergence of highly organized structures, processes and systems."

I think this criticism is patently absurd, unless Charlie ignores all the experimental, paleontological, genetic, embryological, biogeographical, etc., evidence that has accumulated over the last 150 years. Furthermore, there is absolutely NO EMPIRICAL EVIDENCE for any so-called "intelligence" capable of directing the creation of life on Earth. None. Not one shred. I'm sure if there was empirical evidence of a "higher power" by now, everyone, and I mean everyone, would have heard of it.

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11. Robert Bohm on May 24, 2006 02:51 AM writes...

I just bought a book for me son. I don't think the knopwledge they are given at school on the topic is enough.

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12. DonS on May 31, 2006 04:18 PM writes...

"But it is clearly obvious to me that random mutation and natural selection are insufficient to explain the complex systems that human beings possess"

Glad it's so clearly obvious to Charlie. That way he doesn't need science & stuff to get in his way.

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