By Jerry Coyne
As I posted yesterday, a lot of contributors gave their answers to the 2017 annual Edge Question, “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known.” (See all responses here.) In the last 24 hours Richard Dawkins has weighed in with his answer, “The genetic book of the dead,” which involves reverse-engineering our DNA sequences to reconstruct the ancestral environments of living species. While Dawkins has discussed this before, most notably in The Ancestor’s Tale, not everyone’s read that book. It’s worth considering that an organism’s genome may be a palimpsest of its ancestry, which in turn reflects in part the environments to which those ancestors are adapted.
You can read Richard’s piece for yourself; I’ll give one brief excerpt:
Given a key, you can reconstruct the lock that it fits. Given an animal, you should be able to reconstruct the environments in which its ancestors survived. A knowledgeable zoologist, handed a previously unknown animal, can reconstruct some of the locks that its keys are equipped to open. Many of these are obvious. Webbed feet indicate an aquatic way of life. Camouflaged animals literally carry on their backs a picture of the environments in which their ancestors evaded predation.
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