Friday, 10 October 2008

Creativity as god?

Something that a number of popular science magazines and websites have been talking about is Stuart Kauffman's latest book "Reinventing the Sacred". I haven't read it, so I won't be commenting about it. However, I did read his Perspectives column in New Scientist.

He uses biological "pre-adaptations" and how we're unable to predict them as being evidence of a "ceaseless creativity, with no supernatural creator."He then goes on to say:

Shall we use the "God" word? We do not have to, yet it is still our most powerful invented symbol. Our sense of God has evolved from Yahweh in the desert some 4500 years ago, a jealous, law-giving warrior God, to the God of love that Jesus taught. How many versions have people worshipped in the past 100,000 years?

Yet what is more awesome: to believe that God created everything in six days, or to believe that the biosphere came into being on its own, with no creator, and partially lawlessly? I find the latter proposition so stunning, so worthy of awe and respect, that I am happy to accept this natural creativity in the universe as a reinvention of "God".
I've been thinking about this, and have to say I disagree. To start with the second paragraph, as astounding as God's creativity and beauty in His creation is, the incredible thing is that that same God who holds the universe in His hand loves you and I with a passion we cannot comprehend. A passion that lead to Jesus' death by crucifixion so that we may have true freedom. THAT is stunning and worthy of awe and respect, far more so than a disembodied, faceless and impersonal creativity.

In terms of the first paragraph: God is the same God through the ages. Jesus taught that God was a law-keeper and judge, and Moses talked of God as being merciful and loving. Greater emphasis was given to the qualities that Kauffman states, but both aspects have been there throughout the revelation God has given us. Indeed, God's love and Jesus' sacrifice is shown more clearly by an appreciation and an understanding of his Holiness and Justice.

Kauffman, S. (07 May 2008)
Perspectives: Why humanity needs a God of creativity news service

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Solomon Island Freshwater Insects

A few months ago, Dan Polhemus and a team from the Bishop Museum in Hawaii published a report on the freshwater insects of the Solomon Islands. Funnily enough, it makes for some very interesting reading. The Solomons are a fascinating and beautiful place, though somewhat off the track and as such the fauna and flora are relatively little known. It's isolation and temperamental politics combine to make it somewhat unattractive to visiting scientists. There is information out there though, if you put the effort in to find it.

Coming back to the report in question: having skimmed through it I am determined to read it in much greater detail in the future. It has a summary of the geological history of the islands which is of use to anyone wanting to understand the biota of the islands. They also summarise the work done on freshwater fauna and augment it with the results of a expedition there in 2004-2005 in which they visited the six main islands and several surrounding ones. They record the variety of fish and aquatic insects from each site before finishing with comments on the conservation status of these environments and the patterns of endemicity.

The other great thing about this report is that it has some really cool pictures! The photo above is one that I stole from it. It's a beautiful Nososticta salomonis from Choiseul...

All in all a very interesting and timely publication, and one that I may have to revisit sometime.

Polhemus DA, Englund RA, Allen GR, Boseto D, and Polhemus, JT (2008.)
Freshwater biotas of the Solomon Islands. Analysis of richness, endemism, and threats.
Final report prepared for Conservation International, Washington, D.C. 127 pp. [PBS 2008-013]

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Lots of undescribed species!!!

This August, a seminal paper was published by the Entomological Society of New Zealand's news bulletin The Weta. I am of course, talking about the note entitled "Insects associated with the mature seedheads of Buddleja davidii Franchet (Scrophulariaceae)" written by yours truly. It is my first entomological paper of sorts, and as such I am relatively pleased with it.

It came about when doing some work to finish off my undergrad degree and I ended up seiving some buddleja seedheads to get the seeds. I was surprised to see lots of insects in the seedheads and so I decided to keep them and identify them for my own interest. What interested me most was the diversity of insects, particularly ones which are considered to be native to New Zealand. You tend not to expect such high numbers of indigenous species on introduced weeds. At least I didn't.

The other things which really interested me was finding three undescribed wasp species. This really brought home to me how much we don't know about the world around us. It also gave me an interesting story to tell people who express surprise when I tell them that there are still lots of insects to describe.

For a paper that was somewhat of an afterthought, it's not too bad I reckon. Let me know what you think though....

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Featured Insect: Oryctes rhinoceros Linnaeus, 1758 (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae)

The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is one of the quintessential plants of the South Pacific and its prominence in the lifes and history of the islanders cannot be overestimated. Coconut palms and their products, while not quite as all-encompassing as they used to be, remain a vital food source and cash crop for a large number of people around the world.

Coconuts have many enemies, one of the most serious being Oryctes rhinoceros, a large dynastine scarab beetle. Originating in South Asia, it has spread across the Pacific with the accidental assitance of man. It was first recorded from Upolu, Samoa in 1909, spread to Tonga in 1921, and was discovered on Wallis Island in 1931. World War II was instrumental to the spread of the insect to Papua New Guinea, and Fiji was invaded in 1953. Larvae grow well in a variety of organic matter including decaying vegetation, sawdust and cattle dung. The adult insects causes damage to the leaves, particularly new, actively growing axils. This damage weakens the plants and causes a loss in productivity.

Several methods have been investigated for their utility to control O. rhinoceros. Among these are the use of pathogenic fungi, and and pheromones. One of the most effective however, involves the use of a virus to infect and kill the insects. In 1963, larvae infected with a virus were discovered in Malaysia. Further investigation showed that this virus was effective for control of the beetle, and was able to be cultured in the laboratory. In 1964, the virus was released experimentally in Samoa. The virus spread quicker than expected and caused a major decline in the population of O. rhinoceros. The virus was then introduced to other countries, which also experienced the same decline. Unfortunately, it appears that the virulence of the virus has decreased. Populations are starting to increase, which is sparking further research into the virus and other control methods of the beetle.

C.C. Okaraonye and J.C. Ikewuchi have got an idea for a different biological control agent - humans. The larvae of O. rhinoceros are apparently highly nutritious and full of protein. They don't give any recipes unfortunately, but do say that they can be eaten raw, boiled, smoked or fried...

Bedford, GO. (1976.)
Observations on the biology and ecology of Oryctes rhinoceros and Scapanes australis: pests of coconut palms in Melanesia.
Journal of the Australian Entomological Society 15:241-251

Bedford, GO. (1980.)
Biology, ecology, and control of palm rhinoceros beetles.
Annual Review of Entomology 25:309-339

Huger, AM (2005.)
The Oryctes virus: Its detection, identification, and implementation in biological control of the coconut palm rhinoceros beetle, Oryctes rhinoceros (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae)
Journal of Invertebrate Pathology 89(1):78-84

Jackson TA, Crawford AM, Glare, TR. (2005.)
Oryctes virus—Time for a new look at a useful biocontrol agent
Journal of Invertebrate Pathology 89(1): 91-94

Okaraonye CC, Ikewuchi JC (2009.)
Nutritional potential of Oryctes rhinoceros larva
Pakistan Journal of Nutrition 8(1): 35-38

Photo courtesy of Huger (2005)

Friday, 19 September 2008

Use these to make your life easier...

I have just started to use the styles function in MS Word, and I'm starting to get rather excited about it... I anticipate that it will make the writing up process just that much easier. Like all things, it takes a little time to learn how to operate, but once you get the hang of it, it's great!

I found this tutorial on Understanding Styles to be immensely useful, and am intending on using this guide to writing books with MS Word further.

Give it a go, you will not be disappointed.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Featured insect: Gymnopholus weiskei Heller 1901 (Coleoptera: Curculionidae)

Today is the first of what I hope will become a relatively regular thing - a feature on various South Pacific insects. The lucky candidate, by virtue of being able to source a cool picture, and having found a paper on the genus Gynmopholus....

Gymnopholus weiskei is a large beetle, around 3cm long. It is found in the Morobe province of Papua New Guinea, and feeds on a range of host plants including yams (Dioscorea spp.), brambles (Rubus archboldianus) and chinaberry (Melia azedarach)

Gymnopholus weiskei was first described by Dr K. M. Heller in 1901 and is the type species for the genus. This means that for a weevil to be named in the genus Gymnopholus, it must have several key similarities with G. weiskei.

There is another very cool photo of G. weiskei here.

Marshall, GAK. (1959). Curculionid genus Gymnopholus (Coleoptera).

Szent-Ivany, JJH. (1970).
Ethological and ecological observations on Gymnopholus spp. mainly G. (S.) lichenifer Gress. (March-April 1967).

Photo courtesy of

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

This site needs a photo...

A beautiful day at Lake Wakatipu, Otago, New Zealand

Friday, 12 September 2008

Top 10 New Species of 2007

In May, a committee appointed by the International Institute for Species Exploration released a list of the top 10 new species of 2007. This was quite a fun list, the members of which were granted a place on it due to its unusual name/discovery/appearence.

Check out the ray Electrolux addisoni (Rajiformes:Narkidae), the shocking pink dragon millipede Desmoxytes purpurosea (Diplopoda: Paradoxostomatidae), the handsome-looking Mindoro stripe-faced fruit bat Styloctenium mindorensis (Chiroptera: Pteropodidae) and the bolete mushroom Xerocomus silwoodensis that was discovered in the grounds of London's Silwood Park - one of the renowed tertiary training centres for biologists.

We know very little about the creature that we share this world with....

Monday, 16 June 2008

Simple rules for pacific science

PLOS Computational Biology has been publishing a number of papers in its "Ten Simple Rules" series. They've published well-written, practical advice on (among others) reviewing papers, getting published, and graduate research positions. One of their latest "Ten Simple Rules for Aspiring Scientists in a Low-Income Country" is particularly pertinent for scientists originating (or hoping to work) in the Pacific Islands. There's a bunch of good advice in it and it is well worth a read. Two important points stood out for me in particular.

Rule 1: Understand Your Country - "...researchers have to enjoy the idiosyncrasies of their country, and cultivate the desire to contribute to the scientific development of their homeland and to the well-being of its people."

This applies not only to those researchers who are originally from the Pacific, but also those of us from elsewhere who hope to work there extensively in the future.

The second point I thought particularly relevant:
Rule 7: Write Research Grants and Publish in International Journals

From my limited contact with scientists in Pacific Island nations, I feel that a lack of research funds, and a low publication rate double-team on them to prevent them being as effective as they can be. Rightly or wrongly, publication rates build reputations and create further opportunities for more funding. More importantly though, is that it is the key way scientific knowledge is disseminated, and the valuable research that those researchers in the Pacific are doing needs to be put out there.

I think that it is a shame that most papers of relevance to the South Pacific have foreign researchers as the lead authors, and resident scientists being one of many names following. Even worse is when none of the authors are from the country in question. It is excellent that collaboarations are being made, and research is being done. I think it would be even better if more Pacific Island scientists started publishing their own research.

The reasons why papers aren't published will be legion, and these factors should be discovered and mitigated. A few suggestions are offering statistical help, providing editorial services, or by being inspired by email mailing lists or discussion groups.

All in all, I found these "10 simple rules" to be on the mark and feel that it is required reading for researchers who live and/or work in the Pacific and other developing nations.