Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Pillars of the Earth

Last night we watched the first two episodes of The Pillars of the Earth. They were fantastic. The story takes place in England during the time after the death of Henry I (1068-1135) and the civil war between Stephen and the Empress Matilda (Maud).1 This is near the end of my favorite period of history—the so-called dark ages.

Judging by the first two episodes, the show does a pretty good job of capturing the flavor of the era except that everyone looks far too healthy and beautiful. They all have good teeth.

Here's a brief history.

Henry I (1068-1135) is the King of England [Henry Beauclerc] who dies at the beginning of the series. He was the youngest son of William the Conqueror and took the throne of England (and the Duchy of Normandy) from his older brothers after much fighting.

Henry had two surviving legitimate children: Matilda (1102-1167) and his heir William Adelin (1103-1120). William died when he was only 17 years old when The White Ship sank on Nov. 25, 1120 during a voyage from France back to England. The sinking of the White Ship is the opening scene of the movie. (The ship set sail at night and smashed into a rock. Most of the crew and passengers were drunk. Everyone died of exposure.)

Matilda married Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, when she was 13 years old and she became known as Empress Matilda at that point. She returned to England when her husband, Henry V, died in 1125. In the movie she is depicted as a young girl who is present when the King learns of his son's death on the White Ship. In fact, she was already 18 years old and married to the Holy Roman Emperor when the ship went down.

Empress Matilda, known as Maud in the movie, married Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou in 1128. They had a son who eventually becomes Henry II of England and founds the Plantagenet dynasty. (Oops, I just gave away the ending! )

Henry I tried to ensure that his daughter Empress Matilda (Maud) would become Queen of England on his death but that didn't work out. The Norman aristocracy were not prepared to accept a woman as ruler and they helped install Stephen of Blois (1096-1154) as King of England in 1135. Stephen was the son of Adela of Normandy, daughter of William the Conqueror.

Henry I had about two dozen illegitimate children by many different women. Several of them drowned when the White Ship went down. His oldest "bastard" son was Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester (1090-1147). Robert is depicted in the movie as a strong supporter of Maud right from the beginning but the real history is much more complicated. He initially supported Stephen but later on he was the most important leader of the civil war that became known as The Anarchy.

Elizabeth, Princess of England is another of Henry's illegitimate children. She married Fergus, Lord of Galloway, ancestors of the Stewarts of Scotland.2.

1. I love it when they make movies of my relatives! I am a descendant of Andrew Ward (1597-1659) of Fairfield Connecticut who traces his ancestry back to William de Longespee (1152-1206) the illegitimate son of Henry II of England (1133-1189). [My Family and Other Emperors]. Henry II is Maud's baby in the opening episodes of the movie. UPDATE: Turns out I am NOT related to Andrew Ward after all! But I do count Geoffrey Plantagenet and Matilda as ancestors through Henry II to my Scottish Stewart ancestors.

2. I am also a descendant, via the Stewarts of Perthshire, from Elizabeth.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


On the drive back from Reims to Brussels we stopped for dinner in Bouillon. We had a wonderful meal in a restaurant on the bank of the river. Here's me and my three "girls."

Zoë and her grandmother (Mamère) went off in search of the prince. The "prince" is Godfrey of Bouillon (~1060-1100) one of the leaders of the First Crusade. He was the first ruler of the Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099). Bouillon was an important place in the Middle Ages. The ruins of the castle attest to its glory days.

Godfrey was the son of Eustace II, Count of Boulogne and Ida of Lorraine. Eustace II fought with William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings. His father was Eustace I, Count of Boulogne who married Matilda of Leuven (Louvain). (She was the daughter of Lambert I, Count of Leuven (~950-1015). We have many Belgian ancestors.)

Eustace I and Matilda are Zoë's direct ancestors via their other son Lambert II, Count of Lens (1025-1054). We descend from his daughter Judith of Lens whose mother (wife of Lambert II) was Adelaide of Normandy, sister of William the Conqueror.

The majority of people reading this blog are also descendants of these people. You just don't know it.


When we were in Europe, we took a trip to Reims in Northeastern France. It's a 2.5 hour drive from Brussels where we were visiting my granddaughter Zoë (and her parents).

Reims is in the heart of champagne country and the main purpose of our visit was to see the winery of Veuve Clicquot, our favorite champagne. The cellars are a maze of limestone quarries under the city. After the tour there was free champagne! Zoë loved the champagne.

The other, less important, site in Reims is the cathedral where dozens of French kings were crowned. One of them was Charles VII, crowned on July 17, 1429 after the city had surrendered to Jeanne d'Arc and her army the day before. The cathedral is beautiful but I was struck by the statue of Joan in front of the cathedral. Zoë liked her too.

Someday I'd like to visit Rouen where Joan of Arc was burned as a heretic by her English captors.

National Academies: Conceptual Framework for New Science Education Standards

The National Research Council of the National Academies (USA) has published a draft proposal of Core Ideas in science [Standards Framework Preliminary Draft]. These are supposed to serve as guidelines for educating students about science. One of the Core Ideas in Life Sciences is evolution. Here's the complete description.
Biological evolution explains both the unity and diversity of species. Biological evolution results from the interactions of (1) the potential for a species to increase its members, (2) the genetic variation of individuals within a species due to mutations and recombinations of genes, (3) a finite supply of the resources required for individuals to survive and reproduce, and (4) the ensuing selection by the environment of those organisms better able to survive and reproduce. Organic evolution, and the net result of speciation minus extinction, has led to the planet’s biodiversity and ecosystem functioning. Sustaining biodiversity is essential for the maintenance and enhancement of the human population’s quality of life.

The fossil record provides evidence of different life forms at different periods of geological history. This evidence supports the idea that newer life forms descended from older life forms, a phenomenon that Darwin aptly called “descent with modification”. DNA provides further evidence for lines of descent from ancestral species to later-appearing species.

Genetic variation of individuals within a species gives some individuals an advantage to survive and reproduce in the conditions of their environment. This leads to the predominance of certain inherited traits within a varied population. When an environment changes, there is a subsequent change in the supply of resources or in the challenges imposed by abiotic and biotic factors of the environment. This results in selective pressures that influence the survival and reproduction of organisms and which lead to adaptations, that is to changes in the traits of survivors within populations, and to extinction of species unable to adapt to such changes. Mutations most often produce non-viable individuals, but, infrequently, can introduce new traits within a population that offer survival advantages. Many such changes, along with reproductive isolation and the selective pressures from the environment can lead to the development of adaptations and, eventually, to distinct new species.

Biodiversity – the diversity of genes, species, and ecosystems – provide humans with renewable resources such as food, fuels, fertile soils, clean water and air, medicines, as well as surroundings (from species to landscapes) of inspirational value. The resources of biological communities can be used within sustainable limits, but in many cases the human impact is exceeding sustainable limits.
Contrast this adaptationist and environmentalist view with the description of evolution in Futuyma (2009)—one of the leading textbooks of evolution.
1. Evoluion it the leading principle of the biological sciences. Evolutionary biology aims to discover the history of life and the causes of the diversity and characteristics of organisms.

2. Darwin's evolutionary theory, published in The Origin of Species in 1859, consisted of two major hypotheses: first, that all organisms have descended, with modification, from common ancestral forms of life, and second, that a chief agent of modification is natural selection.

3. Darwin's hypothesis that all species have descended with modification from common ancestors is supported by so much evidence that it has become as well established a fact as any in biology. His theory of natural selection as the chief cause of evolution was not broadly supported until the "evolutionary synthesis" that occurred in the 1930 and 1940s.

4. The evolutionary theory developed during and since the evolutionary synthesis consists of a body of principles that explain evolutionary change. Among these principles are (a) that genetic variation in phenotypic characters arises by random mutation and recombination; (b) that changes in the proportions of alleles and genotypes within a population may result in replacement of genotypes over generations; (c) that such changes in the proportions of genotypes may occur either by random fluctuations (genetic drift) or by nonrandom, consistent differences among phenotypes in survival or reproductive rates (natural selection); and (d) that as a result of different histories of genetic drift and natural selection, populations of a species may diverge and become reproductively isolated species.
These are very different descriptions of one of the core ideas in the life sciences and they don't agree. Which one do you think is better—the one written by a committee 23 people for the National Academies or the one written by Douglas Futuyma? Which one supports good science education and critical thinking?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

What's the Darwinian Survival Value of Religion?

Last month, John Wilkins was at a conference on Religion and Tolerance and links to the complete video of the conference are posted on his blog [Religion and Tolerance]. Fascinating stuff.

Here's Richard Dawkins explaining the possible Darwinian survival value of religion in a way that makes a lot of sense although I don't think he pays enough attention to explaining how genes cause behavior. He also touches on the question of whether religious belief can lead to doing evil things and chastises believers for bringing up Hitler and Stalin. It's not true, he says, that having a mustache makes you evil.

If you look quickly in the first few minutes you can see a famous Australian philosopher in the audience. He seems to be agreeing with Dawkins.



Today's taxon of the week at Catalogue of Organisms is Astigmata [Life in the Fast Lane]. If you think you're not familiar with astigmata then get on over to Christopher Taylor's blog and correct that false assumption.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Teach Your Children Well?

Wait for the credits at the end.

HatTip: Friendly Atheist.

Evolving Humans

Nicholas Wade is often considered to be one of the best science journalists. He writes for The New York Times. His latest article is: Adventures in Very Recent Evolution. Here's one paragraph.
Many have assumed that humans ceased to evolve in the distant past, perhaps when people first learned to protect themselves against cold, famine and other harsh agents of natural selection. But in the last few years, biologists peering into the human genome sequences now available from around the world have found increasing evidence of natural selection at work in the last few thousand years, leading many to assume that human evolution is still in progress.
Later on in the article, Wade seems to be aware of the other mechanism of evolution but here he equates "evolution" with "natural selection." What do we have to do in order to educate science journalists? [Have Humans Stopped Evolving?] [Did biologists really think that human evolution stopped?]

Anyone who assumed that "humans ceased to evolve in the distant past" simply doesn't understand evolution. You can't stop evolution.

The main thrust of the article is whether natural selection is having a significant impact on our genetic makeup. There are many biologists who support the idea that more than 10% of our genes (alleles) are under selection and most of these biologists think that evolution by natural selection may even have sped up in the past 10,000 years.

John Hawks is a proponent of recent rapid human evolution by natural selection1 and, as expected, he has a post discussing The New York Times article [Recent selection, the new paradigm ]. I'm still pretty skeptical of those studies that claim to detect selection by analyzing genomes. I find the lack of agreement between different studies much more troubling than John does.

Recent talks and posters at the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution meeting (SMBE 2010) highlighted some of the problems. Some emphasized the large number of false positives2 in published studies and questioned the accuracy of the algorithms. Others pointed out that biased gene conversion at recombination hotspots may be much more frequent that we assumed and this gives the appearance of selective sweeps when, in fact, the alleles being enriched may be neutral or even detrimental.

Since john hawks weblog doesn't have a comments section I thought you readers might like to discuss it here.

Photo Credit: The Future of Human Evolution [Aaron Avivi].

1. See Examples of Accelerated Human Evolution.

2. See Signals of Positive Selection in Humans?.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

SMBE 2010

Scenes from the 18th Annual meeting of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution, Lyon, France July 2010.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Lyon, France

I'm in Lyon for the evolution meeting and this was our day to see the city. We haven't been here for over 30 years.

I love European cities. They are simultaneously more modern and more ancient than cities in Canada and the USA. I love the cafes and bistros and I love the old buildings and the history.

Lyon was an ancient hill top Celtic fort when it was captured by the Romans in 43 BC. Under the Romans it grew rapidly on the hill overlooking the Rhône and Saône rivers. Lugdunum, the Roman city, was the capital of Gaul and its most important city.

Here's an example of a bistro from Pixdaus.

And here's a photo taken today by Ms. Sandwalk. This is the Roman amphitheater built in about 15AD under the reign of Augustus. Today it's known as Théâtres Romains de Fourvièreand it's still in use as an outdoor theater, although part of it is in ruins and the capacity is much less than it was 1800 years ago after it was expanded.

Tomorrow we're going to the flea market.