Tag Archives: evolution

Carl Zimmer LIFE’S EDGE: The Search for What It Means to Be Alive

In addition to writing for The New York Times, Discover, National Geographic, the Atlantic, Wired and others, Carl Zimmer is the author of 14 books on science, from his first in 1998: AT THE WATER’S EDGE: FISH WITH FINGERS, WHALES WITH LEGS, AND HOW LIFE CAME ASHORE AND THEN WENT BACK TO SEA to his latest book, which we discuss today, LIFE’S EDGE: THE SEARCH FOR WHAT IT MEANS TO BE ALIVE, just published by Dutton.

He claims to be the only writer after whom a species of tapeworm has been named, Acanthobothrium zimmeri. We spoke with him on March 15, 2021.

We end with poems read by San Francisco poet, publisher and founder of City Lights Books, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He died just two months shy of his 102nd birthday on February 22, 2021.

A Tapeworm To Call My Own https://www.discovermagazine.com/health/a-tapeworm-to-call-my-own

What Is Life? Its Vast Diversity Defies Easy Definition. https://www.quantamagazine.org/what-is-life-its-vast-diversity-defies-easy-definition-20210309/?utm_source=pocket-newtab

The Surprising Origins of Life’s Complexity https://www.quantamagazine.org/the-surprising-origins-of-lifes-complexity-20130716

Meet the Sea Slugs That Chop Off Their Heads and Grow New Bodies https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/08/science/decapitated-sea-slugs.html?surface=home-discovery-vi-prg&fellback=false&req_id=1216872&algo=identity&variant=no-exp&imp_id=659601079&action=click&module=Science%20%20Technology&pgtype=Homepage

The Earth’s first breathable atmosphere https://earthsky.org/earth/the-earths-first-breathable-atmosphere

Tardigrades: nature’s great survivors https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/mar/20/tardigrades-natures-great-survivors

Gaia Vince TRANSCENDENCE: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty & Time

Gaia Vince is an environmental journalist, author and broadcaster. Her work focuses largely on the interplay between humans and the planetary environment. Her latest book, TRANSCENDENCE: How Humans Evolved Through Fire, Language, Beauty & Time, was published in the United States in January, 2020 by Basic Books.

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Her first book, Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made, won the 2015 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books, making her the first woman to win the prize outright. That book discussed the Anthropocene, the geological epoch that began when human activities started to have a significant global impact on Earth’s ecosystems.


She has held senior editorial posts at Nature and New Scientist, and her writing has featured in newspapers and magazines including the Guardian, The Times and Scientific American. She also writes and presents science programs for radio and television. Her research takes her across the world: she has visited more than 60 countries. She currently lives in London, where we spoke with her via Skype.

In addition to fire and language, Gaia Vince asserts that beauty was a powerful force in human evolution. She cites artifacts such as the “Lion Man”, the oldest known zoomorphic sculpture and uncontested example of figurative art, between 35,000 and 40,000 years old. It was carved of mammoth ivory using a flint knife and stands 31.1cm tall, 5.6cm wide and 5.9cm thick.


Recent articles pertinent to this interview:

Cave find shows Neanderthals collected seafood, scientists say   https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/mar/26/cave-find-shows-neanderthals-collected-seafood-scientists-say

Trail of African bling reveals 50,000-year-old social network  https://www.theguardian.com/science/2022/jan/16/trail-of-african-bling-reveals-50000-year-old-social-network

The Fight to Preserve a 44,000-year-old Painting    https://www.1843magazine.com/features/the-fight-to-preserve-a-44000yearold-painting?utm_source=pocket-newtab

Fossil hunters find evidence of 555m-year-old human relative  https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/mar/23/fossil-ikaria-wariootia-bilateral-organism-human-relative

El Silbo Gomero     https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qtEovudxXVE

Whistled Turkish helps speak across valleys                                       https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjcVLLdPCoU

500,000-year-old shell engraved by Homo erectus challenges previous beliefs about human ancestors    https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-evolution-human-origins/500000-year-old-shell-engraved-homo-erectus-challenges-beliefs-020122

Whistled language of the island of La Gomera, the Silbo Gomero  (UNESCO) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PgEmSb0cKBg

Big Gods Came After the Rise of Civilizations, Not Before, Finds Study Using Huge Historical Database         https://theconversation.com/big-gods-came-after-the-rise-of-civilisations-not-before-finds-study-using-huge-historical-database-113801

Rift Valley Drifters written/sung by Roy Zimmerman                           https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sqy44OsmwLo

Why it’s so hard to be rational about Covid-19      https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200331-covid-19-how-will-the-coronavirus-change-the-world



More than ten years ago, scientists at North Carolina State University dared to go where few had gone before. They began to explore the biodiversity of backyards, bedrooms, belly buttons, and more. But they didn’t do it alone. The work required the collaboration of scientists at many other universities, as well as that of thousands of non-scientists around the world, including children, who helped to take samples, ask questions and even to think about new kinds of analyses. NEVER HOME ALONE: FROM MICROBES TO MILLIPEDES, CAMEL CRICKETS, AND HONEYBEES, THE NATURAL HISTORY OF WHERE WE LIVE, published by Basic Books, tells the big story of the tens of thousands of species discovered in our homes. It argues that, as often as not, more biodiversity in your home ends up being better than less.


Rob Dunn is a biologist in the Department of Applied Ecology at North Carolina State University. Central to all of his work is the sense that big discoveries lurk not only in faraway tropical forests, but also in our homes and neighborhoods. His books include, EVERY LIVING THING; THE WILDLIFE OF OUR BODIES: PREDATORS, PARASITES AND PARTNERS THAT SHAPE WHO WE ARE TODAY; THE MAN WHO TOUCHED HIS OWN HEART; and NEVER OUT OF SEASON.robdunn.panel3_-1.jpg

You can find out more about his work at http://robdunnlab.com/

You can find out more about citizen science projects here:    http://yourwildlife.org/

Sex-Crazed Cicadas Are Set to Have Psychedelic Orgies Yet Again   https://www.vice.com/en/article/xgxyqw/sex-crazed-cicadas-psychedelic-orgies-fungus

Could humans have contaminated Mars with life?     https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20210510-could-the-perseverance-rover-have-carried-life-to-mars

People slept on comfy grass beds 200,000 years ago https://arstechnica.com/science/2020/08/people-slept-on-comfy-grass-beds-200000-years-ago/?utm_source=pocket-newtab

David Quammen- The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life


I am delighted to welcome back to Forthright Radio, award winning author, journalist, David Quammen. He was our guest 5 years ago after his book, SPILLOVER: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic was published. His latest book, THE TANGLED TREE: A RADICAL NEW HISTORY OF LIFE, published by Simon & Schuster came out a couple of weeks ago. And lest you think this book, being about science – the research and theorizing –  isn’t something you’d be interested in – let me tell you, this recent research reveals just how bacteria become resistant to our most potent antibiotics so quickly and fatally to so many, or how Horizontal Gene Transfer not only allowed for evolution, but may explain how certain cancers develop – as well as questioning our most basic concepts of ourselves as a species and individuals. And this puts a new meaning on “Tree Huggers” and “Tree Cutters”.

David Quammen has won many awards for his books and magazine articles, including from the National Association of Science Writers, and the Society of Biology (UK) Book Award in General Biology. His work with National Geographic is particularly noteworthy, and has taken him on myriad, lengthy difficult treks, which distinguish him from most authors, such as chronicling J. Michael Fay’s 2,000 mile survey hike through the forests of Central Africa, The Megatransect.


Charles Darwin speculated on the evolution of life as a tree, with “I think” written on top.


A popular 20th century version based on Darwin’s idea of a tree of evolution. At least this one, doesn’t place humans explicitly above other species.

In the 20th century there has been  a tumultuous debate as to how best to characterize the concept of evolution. Is it a tree? Is it a web? Is it a net? A mosaic?

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In David Quammen’s book, Carl Woese’s work was crucial to the debate, pioneering molecular phylogenetics, using (at the time) dangerous, innovative techniques to study RNA as a basis to determine species and evolution.

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After demonstrating that there was a third “kingdom”, the Archaea,  different from Bacteria, Carl Woese proposed a new Tree of Life pictured above.d997044659f3d0b0579a70728d1553e7.jpgLynnMargulis, married Carl Sagan when she was 19. After bearing 2 sons with him, she moved on. She took her second husband’s name, Margulis while making her revolutionary mark on biology. After juggling the three jobs of scientist, mother and wife, she decided to forego that last job, wife.
Her work synthesized earlier ideas, which she coined, endosymbiosis, that organelles, crucial to more complex life forms – including humans – were based on “infective heredity” by bacteria, that established essential organelles such as mitochondria, chloroplasts and centrioles.



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Matthew Wolf-Meyer- The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine & Modern American Life

This edition of Forthright Radio from November 11, 2012 came up in conversation (12-11-17), so we thought it might be of interest to our web listeners, as well.

As the nights grow longer, and the season approaches of long winter naps, it seems like a good time to discuss one of the inevitable aspects of life – sleep. And this seemingly simple topic is not so simple for more and more people in the modern world. And it really is quite mysterious. Neither doctors nor scientists can even tell us what sleep IS, much less what natural sleep might be. And then, there are the effects of capitalism on sleep.

To discuss these things and more, we have with us Matthew Wolf-Meyer, who was (then) a Professor of Anthropology, at UC Santa Cruz. Matthew Wolf-Meyer received his Ph.D. from the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota, specializing in medical anthropology, and the social study of science and technology. He holds previous degrees in Literature, Science Fiction Studies, and American Cultural Studies.

In January, 2016, he joined the faculty of the Anthropology Dept. at SUNY Binghamton. His work focuses on medicine, science and media in the United States to make sense of major modern-era shifts in the expert practices of science and medicine and popular representations of health.    His book The Slumbering Masses: Sleep, Medicine and Modern American Life, published by The University of Minnesota Press, was the first book-length social scientific study of sleep in the United States and won the New Millennium book prize in 2013. It offers insights into the complex lived realities of disorderly sleepers, the long history of sleep science, and the global impacts of the exportation of American sleep.