Friday, December 23, 2005

Breakthrough of the Year: Evolution in Action

The journal Science announced their pick for Breakthrough of the Year : "Evolution in Action".
Today evolution is the foundation of all biology, so basic and all-pervasive that scientists sometimes take its importance for granted. At some level every discovery in biology and medicine rests on it, in much the same way that all terrestrial vertebrates can trace their ancestry back to the first bold fishes to explore land. Each year, researchers worldwide discover enough extraordinary findings tied to evolutionary thinking to fill a book many times as thick as all of Darwin's works put together. [. . .] Amid this outpouring of results, 2005 stands out as a banner year for uncovering the intricacies of how evolution actually proceeds.
Several discoveries were cited as part of this "breakthrough", including the sequencing of the chimpanzee genome, which confirmed the close kinship of chimps and humans (and yes, we are still evolving as a species). If you are a really interested, you can watch a video presentation about this year's breakthroughs.

The editor-in-chief, Donald Kennedy, comments:
Wait a minute, I hear you cry. Hasn't it been a trying year for evolution, considering the debates about teaching evolutionary theory in science classes in the United States and the headlines about Intelligent Design? On the contrary; in the research community, it's been a great year for understanding how evolution works, through both experiment and theory. No single discovery makes the case by itself; after all, the challenge of understanding evolution makes multiple demands: How can we integrate genetics with patterns of inherited change? How do new species arise in nature? What can the new science of comparative genomics tell us about change over time? We have to put the pieces together, and it could not be a more important challenge: As the evolutionary geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky once said, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."
This highlights the disconnect between the people claiming that there is a scientific controversy about evolution that should be taught in high school biology classes and what is really happening in the world of science.

The runners-up are also interesting, from interplanetary probes to better models of global warming to the understanding of how flowers develop. There is also an attempt to learn some lessons from natural disasters of the past year.

Finally, they present a list of scientific areas to watch in 2006 and fearlessly look back at last year's predictions for 2005. They had 4 clear hits, 2 close calls, and 1 miss - and unfortunately the miss was that there would be a reduction in the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

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