TIME Science

Watch Bill Nye Explain Evolution Using Emoji

“We emojinized it.”

Bill Nye has never been known to teach science the way you learned it in school — unless, of course, your school taught you about water displacement by spoofing Sir Mix-a-Lot. The Science Guy is still infusing fun into science, this time spreading the gospel of evolution with the help of some emoji.

In the video, produced by Mashable as part of General Electric’s “Emoji Science” promotion, the major players in evolution get emoji matches: carbon is represented by the diamond, self-replicating molecules are interconnected faces and bacteria are represented by the purple alien monster. But despite his casual demeanor in this video, Nye takes the topic rather seriously. Back in February, he debated Ken Ham, a prominent proponent of creationism, in an attempt to win over creationists with the scientific evidence supporting evolution. In November, he released a book called Undeniable: Evolution and the Science of Creation, aimed at exposing young creationists to the scientific principles of evolution.

For those who don’t plan to read the book, the video offers a simplified version. “We shook it up with emoji, and then we told a story,” Nye says of the digital age approach to evolution. “The way you might do if you had too many, um, Jell-O shots.”

TIME

On Evolution Day, Remember That Darwin Knew He’d Meet Resistance

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A statue of Darwin in the Natural History Museum, London Philippe Lissac—Godong / Getty Images

Plus, TIME's original coverage of the anti-evolution arguments of the 1925 Scopes trial

Correction appended, Nov. 24, 2014, 5:49 p.m.

Time was, “Darwin” was just a guy’s name. It was not a noun (Darwinism) or an adjective (Darwinian). And it certainly wasn’t a flash point for debate between folks who prefer a Scriptural view of the history of life and those who take a more scientific approach. That started to change 155 years ago today, on Nov. 24, 1859, when Charles Darwin’s seminal work—On the Origin of Species—was published.

Darwin knew that by supporting an empirical theory of evolution as opposed to the Biblical account of Creation he was asking for trouble. Two weeks before the book’s publication, he sent letters to 11 prominent scientists of his day, asking for their support—or at least their forbearance—and acknowledging that for some of them, that would not be easy. To the celebrated French botanist Alphonse de Candolle he wrote:

Lord, how savage you will be, if you read it, and how you will long to crucify me alive! I fear it will produce no other effect on you; but if it should stagger you in ever so slight a degree, in this case, I am fully convinced that you will become, year after year, less fixed in your belief in the immutability of species.

And to American Asa Gray, another botanist, he conceded:

Let me add I fully admit that there are very many difficulties not satisfactorily explained by my theory of descent with modification, but I cannot possibly believe that a false theory would explain so many classes of facts as I think it certainly does explain.

But the whirlwind came anyway. Speaking of Darwin in 1860, the Bishop of Oxford asked: “Was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey?” The battle raged in the U.S. in the summer of 1925, with the trial of John Scopes, a substitute school teacher charged with violating a Tennessee statute forbidding the teaching of evolution in schools.

But Darwin and his theory of evolution endured, so much so that Nov. 24 is now recognized as Evolution Day. As if serendipity and circumstance were conspiring to validate that decision, it was on another Nov. 24, in 1974, that the fossilized remains of Lucy, the australopithecus who did so much to fill in a major gap in human evolution, were found in Ethiopia.

In honor of Lucy and Evolution Day and Darwin himself, check out TIME’s coverage of the florid anti-evolution closing argument of prosecuting attorney and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes trial, as quoted in the magazine’s Aug. 10, 1925 issue:

“Darwin suggested two laws, sexual selection and natural selection. Sexual selection has been laughed out of the class room, and natural selection is being abandoned, and no new explanation is satisfactory even to scientists. Some of the more rash advocates of Evolution are wont to say that Evolution is as firmly established as the law of gravitation or the Copernician theory.

“The absurdity of such a claim is apparent when we remember that any one can prove the law of gravitation by throwing a weight into the air and that any one can prove the roundness of the earth by going around it, while no one can prove Evolution to be true in any way whatever.”

Bryan died mere days after the trial ended but, as the historical record shows, his strenuous efforts paid off—sort of. Scopes was duly convicted. His sentence for teaching what most of the world now accepts as science: $100.

Read the full text of that story, free of charge, here in the TIME archives, or in its original format, in the TIME Vault: Dixit

Correction: The original version of this article misstated the date of Darwin Day. Darwin Day is typically celebrated on February 12.

TIME Science

What You Didn’t Know About William Jennings Bryan. What You Should Know About Darwin

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William Jennings Bryan, center, arrives at Dayton, Tenn., in 1925. AP

Enthusiasm for improving the human race could have negative consequences

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

The action of the North Carolina legislature to pay compensation to victims of a forced sterilization program brings attention to an almost forgotten chapter of American history. It may also provide an opportunity to set the infamous Scopes trial in a broader light and do justice to the much-maligned William Jennings Bryan for his role in that case.

The sterilizations that were carried out in so many American states were a direct result of Charles Darwin’s writing on the theory of evolution, writings which alarmed William Jennings Bryan and led him to campaign against it being taught in American schools. Bryan was no theologian but an intensely practical man concerned with consequences. His goal in life was to make the world a better place and he believed that teaching evolution would not do that. In one area at least he was right.

Darwin followed up his publication of The Origin of Species in 1859 with a second book, The Descent of Man, published in 1871. Bryan had prepared a long statement for the Scopes trial but the trial came to an end before he could enter it in the record. In his statement, he quoted from The Descent of Man, in which Darwin had written:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated; and those that survive commonly exhibit a vigorous state of health. We civilized men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination; we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick: we institute poor laws and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to smallpox. Thus the weak members of civilized society propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but, excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed.45

Bryan was appalled. Darwin, he wrote,

. . . reveals the barbarous sentiment that runs through evolution and dwarfs the moral nature of those who become obsessed with it. Let us analyze the quotation just given. Darwin speaks with approval of the savage custom of eliminating the weak so that only the strong will survive, and complains that “we civilized men do our utmost to check the process of elimination.” How inhuman such a doctrine as this! He thinks it injurious to “build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed and the sick” or to care for the poor. Even the medical men come in for criticism because they “exert their utmost skill to save the life of everyone to the last moment.” And then note his hostility to vaccination because it has “preserved thousands who, from a weak constitution would, but for vaccination, have succumbed to smallpox!” All of the sympathetic activities of civilized society are condemned because they enable “the weak members to propagate their kind.” . . . Could any doctrine be more destructive of civilization? And what a commentary on evolution! He wants us to believe that evolution develops a human sympathy that finally becomes so tender that it repudiates the law that created it and thus invites a return to a level where the extinguishing of pity and sympathy will permit the brutal instincts to again do their progressive (?) work! . . . Let no one think that this acceptance of barbarism as the basic principle of evolution died with Darwin. ( Memoirs, p. 550)

Bryan’s concern was with practical outcomes, not “What do Christians believe?” but “What difference does it make?” Evolution seemed to him to be making the wrong kind of difference, and in his time it often did. The development of what is now called “Social Darwinism” is far too complex to be dealt with fairly in this brief article, but German militarism in World War One seems to have been influenced by it and the Turkish genocide of Armenians was justified by some on the same grounds.

The same enthusiasm for improving the human race called “eugenics” led a majority of the states to pass laws allowing the sterilizing and castrating of selected populations, typically prisoners and those with reduced mental abilities. California, in particular, carried out thousands of sterilizations. Unnoticed at the time of the Scopes trial was the publication in the same year, 1925, of Mein Kampf in which Adolf Hitler called for the improvement of the race by the elimination of inferior people: Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally retarded, and others. Once the full significance of that program became visible at the end of World War Two, eugenics and social Darwinism took on a different appearance and the interest in improving the human race by those methods withered away.

The ongoing struggle over the teaching of evolution in American classrooms and courthouses seems now to be confined to a conflict between what scientists believe and what some Christians believe but unfortunately William Jennings Bryan’s role in the Scopes trial is caricatured in those same terms. Undoubtedly Bryan had a simplistic view of the Bible, but the cause Bryan was championing was one with which most Americans today would probably agree: human beings are not to be treated as mere tools in some gigantic experiment. Human progress is created when societies find new and better ways to incorporate the weakest and most handicapped as fully as possible in the life of their community. The North Carolina legislature has taken an important step in recognizing a wrong turn in its past and has set an example for many other states to follow.

Perhaps it is time also to rescue William Jennings Bryan’s reputation from the stain of the Scopes trial. He was not a brilliant and original thinker but he was a man who consistently worked for the weaker members of society and set the Democratic party on the side of those who were being left behind in the free-for-all evolutionary struggle of the age of industrialization.

Christopher L. Webber is an Episcopal priest and author of some thirty books including “American to the Backbone,” the biography of the fugitive slave and abolition leader, James W.C. Pennington. He is a graduate of Princeton University and the General Theological Seminary who has served parishes in Tokyo, Japan, and the New York area and currently lives in San Francisco. The work of William Jennings Bryan is dealt with more fully in Christopher Webber’s book, “Give Me Liberty: Speeches and Speakers that Shaped America,” Pegasus, 2014.

TIME animals

Scientists Discover Why Mosquitos Love Human Blood

mosquitoes blood sucking
Getty Images

You get mosquito bites because of your smell

Scientists have discovered the reason that mosquitos switched from feeding on animals to humans: the smell of a chemical vapor on human skin.

The chemical, called sulcatone, has a unique scent that mosquitos learned to associate with food, The Independent reports.

“It was a really good evolutionary move,” said Leslie Vosshall of Rockefeller University in New York, who led the study published in the journal Nature, “We provide the ideal lifestyle for mosquitoes. We always have water around for them to breed in, we are hairless and we live in large groups.”

Researchers found that mosquitos that still feed on animals do not respond to the presence of sulcatone, but those that prefer humans are drawn to the scent.

TIME space

Why the First Comet Landing Matters

This mission may be our most informative one yet

Philae lander touched down Wednesday on the comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko, also known as 67p, after a 10 year journey that cost as much as $1.3 billion. You might be wondering why the European Space Agency spends so much time and resources on a frozen lump of ice millions of miles away. But this mission, which successfully landed the first ever probe onto our solar system’s most primitive material, will give us valuable information about the origins of our solar system and how it evolved.

TIME animals

You Always Knew Your Cat Was Half Wild But Now There’s Genetic Proof

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Paula Daniëlse—Getty Images/Flickr RM

That kitty curled up on your lap is only one genetic step away from jungle killer

A new study on house cats has found that our feline companions are actually only semi-domesticated.

People began domesticating cats around 9,000 years ago but DNA researchers from Washington University in St. Louis found that house cats still have many of the same traits as their wild cousins. The fact that cats have retained the ability to hunt and survive effortlessly in the wild just underscores how little impact we humans have had on them.

Wes Warren, an associate professor of genomics at the university, told the Los Angeles Times, “We believe we have created the first preliminary evidence that depicts domestic cats as not that far removed from wildcat populations.”

That’s not to say humans haven’t had any influence on cats. We originally took them into our homes to hunt rodents and rewarded that behavior with food. According to researchers, this lead to eventual changes in a group of stem cells that resulted in more docile (but not fully domesticated) felines and produced colors and fur patterns that humans liked.

“Our results suggest that selection for docility, as a result of becoming accustomed to humans for food rewards, was most likely the major force that altered the first domesticated cat genomes,” researchers wrote.

Read more at the Los Angeles Times.

Read next: Celebrate National Cat Day With the Most Ridiculous Cover in TIME History

TIME Research

Human Genitals May Have Formed In The Same Way As Limbs

Harvard researchers probe genetic connections between the two

There is a strong correlation between the formation of genitals and limbs, the Boston Globe reports, citing a study conducted by researchers from the Harvard Medical School and published in the journal Nature.

Researchers examined the genetic processes that take place during the development of embryos in various animals, and also performed complex cell-transplant surgeries to see if they could get genitals to grow elsewhere. They partially succeeded — causing genital-like buds to form in a chicken embryo — by using the cells that generally form hind limbs.

Patrick Tschopp, the study’s lead author and a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard, pointed out that babies born with poorly formed limbs often also possess poorly formed genitalia. “We knew there was some sort of genetic link between the two, and this could provide some information about where these genetic links are,” he said.

Read more at the Boston Globe.

TIME animals

Scientists Trace Back the First Sexual Act Ever, to Weird Ancient Fish

Ancient fish were the first to copulate. And according to a world renowned paleontologist, it looked a lot like square dancing

Scientists have discovered the origins of sex, and like anyone’s first time it sounds pretty awkward.

Now light some candles and let’s set the scene: The first act of copulation occurred in the nippy Scottish sea some 385 million years ago. The fornicators in question were a set of primitive jawed, bony fish aptly called Microbrachius dicki. The dirty details? Well, according to Australian paleontologist John Long, “With their arms interlocked, these fish looked more like they are square dancing the do-se-do rather than mating.”

Not only had scientists previously thought that the first sex act occurred on land at a later date, but Long says, “We didn’t expect these little suckers to have reproductive organs.”

But the M. Dicki were endowed, as is explained by Long and his colleagues in a paper that was published in Nature Monday. Although their genitalia are not described in romantic terms.

Long, a professor at Flinders University, explained to the BBC that the fish’s arms linked them together, “so the male can get this large L-shaped sexual organ into position to dock with the female’s genital plates, which are very rough like cheese graters. They act like Velcro, locking the male organ into position to transfer sperm.”

This is also the first species that displayed a different appearance between the male and female.

TIME animals

Study: Chimps Learn How to Use New Tools From Other Chimps

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A chimpanzee holds a lettuce at the zoo in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on June 12, 2014 Sia Kambou—AFP/Getty Images

This means chimps have a prerequisite for human culture

A new study from PLOS Biology found that chimpanzees can learn group-specific behavioral traits from each other, widely considered a prerequisite for human-style culture. The results suggest the foundations of human culture can be traced back to our common ancestry with apes.

Researchers in Uganda noticed that a few chimps in a group started using new kinds of sponges to drink water. Usually, chimps use clumps of leaves to extract the water, but the team observed one chimp using moss instead. Once the other chimps saw him using moss, seven other chimps made and used moss sponges over a six-day period. There was also another variation on the leaf-sponge (re-using an old leaf sponge) that also spread through the group.

“Basically, if you saw it done, you learned how to do it, and if you didn’t you didn’t,” lead researcher Dr. Catherine Hobaiter told the BBC. “It was just this wonderfully clear example of social learning that no one had [witnessed] in the wild before.”

TIME Evolution

The Remarkable, Movable Whale Penis: It’s Just Science, People

No snickering please: A humpback whale on the prowl
No snickering please: A humpback whale on the prowl Gerard Soury; Getty Images

A new study of cetacean pelvic bones reveals how pleasing the ladies gave some male ocean mammals a reproductive edge

It’s hard to imagine what a dolphin or a whale needs a pelvic bone for. Sure, the structure was important 40 million years ago, when the ancestors of these seagoing mammals were walking around on land and had actual legs attached to actual hips. But for a legless swimmer, there doesn’t seem to be any point. No wonder evolutionary biologists have long considered these small, apparently useless bones purely vestigial, destined eventually to vanish.

“Apparently” is the key word here, however. A team of biologists has figured out what the pelvic bones of dolphins and whales are good for—and it’s a lot more fun than walking. The bones anchor muscles that control the animals’ penises, and far from fading away, they appear to be evolving to give the animal even more, well, finesse.

“We’ll never be able to ask a female whale, ‘was it good for you?'” says Jim Dines of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, co-author of a new study in the journal Evolution. “But it’s plausible that if you can maneuver the penis in a slightly different way, there could be an evolutionary advantage.”

The advantage, in case it’s not obvious, is that keeping a female cetacean happy (“cetacean” being the umbrella term that covers both whales and dolphins) would give a particularly expert lover a better chance of getting his sperm to its destination. That in turn would give him more descendants with the ideal, pelvis-anchored musculature to keep their partners happy, producing even more descendants, and so on. The triumph of the agile penis.

That’s the theory, anyway, and while it’s not quite a slam-dunk, there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence to support it. To start with, Dines and his co-authors examined the pelvic bones of 130 whales and dolphins from 29 different species—not just superficially, but using a laser scanner that made exquisitely detailed 3-D models of the bones that could be digitally compared for similarities and differences.

It turned out that the animals with the largest pelvic bones in relation to overall body size also had larger testicles than the other species. That’s important, says co-author Matthew Dean, of the University of Southern California: “Species that are the most promiscuous tend to have the largest testes.” The reason: the animals’ strategy for providing their sperm to as many receptive females as possible is to make a whole lot of it. For example, he says, “chimpanzees have gigantic testes—they’re almost as big as their brains.” Now that this image is forever lodged in your head, the more important point is that there’s a direct line from larger, more evolved pelvic bones to larger testicles to more sperm to more babies—which is the entire point.

When it comes to whales and dolphins particularly, things are more complex still. Consider that cetacean penises are, for want of a better word, prehensile. “The penis of a whale or a dolphin is very dextrous,” says Dean. “It has a mind of its own.” Specifically, it’s controlled by two strong muscles that pull with differing tension to let the organ change shape. “I think of it like a trick kite, controlled by two strings and capable of complex motion. That’s a whale’s penis to me.” And now, surely, to all of us.

To make sure the authors weren’t kidding themselves, they also looked at the ribs of big-testicled cetaceans to rule out the possibility that the relationship between large gonads and large pelvic bones was a coincidence—that all of the bones in the skeletons of these species were oversized and the pelvis bones were just going along for the ride. But nope, a bigger pelvic bone didn’t correspond with bigger rib bones. Improved sexual performance remained the leading theory.

The pelvic structures that make certain cetacean species such sexual virtuosos probably evolved very rapidly. “Male genitalia evolve much faster than other parts of the body,” says Dean, because even the slightest mating advantage can give an individual more offspring. Still, in the case of the cetaceans’ maneuverable penises, Dean concedes, “It’s a speculation. We don’t know for sure.”

Here’s hoping they prove it soon; it’s too good a story not to be true.

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