I'm an evolutionary computational biologist at Michigan State University. I do modeling and simulations of evolutionary processes (selection, genetic drift, adaptation, speciation), and am the admin of Carnival of Evolution. I also occasionally debate creationists and blog about that and other things at Pleiotropy. You can find out more about my research here.

My Proof: Twitter Facebook

Update: Wow, that was crazy! 8 hours straight of answering questions. Now I need to go eat. Sorry I didn't get to all questions. If there's interest, I could do this again another time....

Update 2: I've posted a FAQ on my blog. I'll continue to answer new questions here once in a while.

Comments: 2357 • Responses: 76  • Date: 

drunk_gaymer419 karma


bjornostman679 karma

That is a viable hypothesis. Some people (e.g. Stephen J Gould) think that nothing like humans would evolve if the we "replayed the tape of life". However, I personally predict that if we find life on other planets, then it will resemble some species from Earth in some ways, perhaps even as much as there being creatures with 4 limbs (which I think is not coincidental, but because it is a highly versatile solution to locomotion). In other words, I think convergent evolution is a very likely outcome.

Unidan365 karma

Group selection (not the crazy, debunked kind) is receiving a bit of a revival recently with new attention being given to E.O. Wilson and David Sloan Wilson's collaboration on Multi-level selection.

There's been new evidence finding that "selfish genes" may not be the only factor at play, so how do you think your field may try to accommodate collaborative methods of evolution, especially in the difficult-to-quantify realm of things like the evolution of culture?

bjornostman194 karma

I think my answer is going to be that there is lots of effort right now to elucidate cooperative behavior using game theory. Agree?

Unidan132 karma

I'd agree with that! :D

I think the problem, as I think you allude to, is that it's insanely difficult to test for it.

bjornostman4 karma

It's not insanely difficult using digital life systems. The main difficulty is separating group selection from kin selection. See for example this paper by my lab mate Dave Knoester: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/220743136_Using_group_selection_to_evolve_leadership_in_populations_of_self-replicating_digital_organisms

kdjarlb208 karma

What's your take on evolutionary psychology? Particularly as applied to gender differences and mating strategy in humans?

bjornostman384 karma

Evo psych is a field of psychology which uses evolution to generate hypotheses. Sometimes evolutionary psychologists have overreached and made strong statements about how and why this or that human behavior or instinct evolved (e.g., mating strategies such as polygamy vs. monogamy), which can be very difficult to test, and this is why I and many biologists are skeptical of the veracity of their findings. However, that is not to say that the human mind has not been subject to evolutionary pressures the same as other traits.

Edit: not

honeyandvinegar69 karma

Listen, as an evo psych person, I agree with the above, minus your typo in the last sentence. Overreaching statements are certainly a problem with the field. This is not necessarily evo psych in general however. Just as all biologists would be wary to say that any trait evolved for x, all psychologists would be wary to say that any behavior is caused by x. I would say rather than blaming the breadth of the field, I would blame the poor scientific practice behind specific studies.

However, I think it is necessary to incorporate biology into psychology, and evolution is a critical component of biology. These two fields must be intertwined. I would say that the field of psychology is designed to study behavior. Our techniques can and should be treated with skepticism outside of the discipline--this is just good scientific practice. But common ground needs to be found to advance the field of human behavior.

bjornostman35 karma

Agree with all. Typo fixed.

Water_nut172 karma

What is the dumbest question that anyone has asked you?

bjornostman464 karma

The old adage is that there are no dumb questions, but that is honestly something professors say in order not to discourage students from asking questions. That being said, most questions that people have are not dumb, even when the person with the question is afraid of it - most other people won't know the answer either, so always ask, even if you think the question is dumb. But ok, with that disclaimer, one of the dumbest questions ever is "if humans evolved from apes, why are there still apes around?" Jeez! The apes - humans, chimps, gorillas, orangutans, and gibbons - share a common ancestor that we can also call an ape. That ancestral population diverged, creating two new species, and this process then happened several times.

Water_nut118 karma

Thanks op

bjornostman840 karma

If God made humans from dust, why is there still dust around...? Checkmate!

Ciriacus151 karma

What do you find is the most fascinating aspect of your field?

bjornostman298 karma

That it explains our origins. Where we come from. I studied astrophysics and cosmology as an undergrad, and in hindsight I think I was interested in that for the same reason.

dikhthas123 karma

Does abiogenesis count as biology or geology geography?

Edit: am retard

bjornostman176 karma

Chemistry. The people who work on abiogenesis are chemists. There is an evolutionary component, as the line is a little blurred. The idea is that molecules started to self-replicate, which does not make it life, but does add a component of selection.

whiteydaley150 karma

What authors would you recommend for a non-scientist interested in evolutionary biology?

bjornostman280 karma

Stephen J Gould (mostly his essays from the Natural History magazine, which have been collected in a number of books).

Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene, Th Extended Phenotype, Climbing Mount Improbable, and more).

Carl Zimmer (he writes a column for The New York Times, and is the best journalist writing about evolution, in my opinion - and many evolutionary biologists I know would agree. He also wrote a highly acclaimed textbook for undergrads: The Tangled Bank).

Neil Shubin (Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body).

Jerry Coyne (Why Evolution is True).

EO Wilson.

Holocaust__Denier49 karma

What about college students, or students doing advanced bio degrees, what books would you recommend?

bjornostman141 karma

Speciation by Coyne and Orr. Evolutionary Biology by Douglas Futuyma. Population Genetics by Gillespie. Fitness Landscapes and the Origin of Species by Sergey Gavrilets. Computational Molecular Evolution by Ziheng Yang. The Evolution of Cooperation by Robert Axelrod. From DNA to Diversity: Molecular Genetics and the Evolution of Animal Design by Sean B Carroll. Natural Selection in the Wild by John Endler. Resource Competition and Community Structure by David Tilman. Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters by Donald Prothero.

zombiesingularity18 karma

What do you think of Jerry Coyne's, "Why Evolution is True" as an introduction to understanding biological evolution?

bjornostman38 karma

I loved that book. Simple to read, and full of evidence for evolution. Not the first book to go to for actually understanding evolutionary theory, though. I don't think there are a lot of those that aren't text-books..?

BorneoTraveller16 karma

The selfish gene -Richard dawkins is amazing. Sorry for hijacking.

Horg26 karma

However if people are only going to read 1 book about the subject, I find myself rather recommending the Greatest Show on Earth for its broader sweep.

bjornostman7 karma

I haven't read that yet, but have heard good things.

cleatusbrowning122 karma

Are different races in humans an example of slight speciation? What accounts for the differences between humans of different origins?

bjornostman198 karma

Yes, I do actually think that you could call different human races "slight" speciation. We might call it incipient speciation. Some biologists will disagree, but imagine Danish and Japanese people hadn't interbred for the next 100,000 or one million years, then perhaps they would really have become different species. The biological differences between different ethnicities likely arose from random changes that became dominant through neutral processes (genetic drift), as well as though adaptation in some cases, like skin color, where dark skin protects against the sun, and pale skin is more efficient at producing vitamin D in the sun.

DayMan-FTW116 karma

What are your thoughts on the new discovery of Mega Evolutions, and why do you think they are only temporary, unlike normal evolutions?

bjornostman69 karma

Can you point me to somewhere I can reads about that? I never heard about it before.

correctyourface72 karma

Why do you think evbio gets such a bad rap for being racist? Do you think its justified?

bjornostman203 karma

That's because creationists, who are hell-bent on making everyone think humans didn't evolve, promote this false notion. Darwin's famous book was titled "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life". From that people incorrectly think this implies a struggle between human races, but in the old Victorian english, that is just not what Darwin meant. But most importantly, evolutionary theory explains how living organisms evolve, and does not make any moral judgments. Humans can argue, if they are so inclined, that different races shouldn't mix, or whatever, but nature has no "opinion", and a theory that explains natural processes therefore cannot either.

Lilman1060 karma

I want to become an evolutionary biologist. I have a felony charge on my criminal background. Am I wasting my time? Will any university hire me?

bjornostman77 karma

So far I have not been subject to any kind of clearance. I suspect that it should also not be a problem if you want to be a professor, but I'll ask around if anyone knows about criminal background checks.

LivingLeper70 karma

I could see that being a funny conversation.

"So, I have a friend who is wondering if universities do criminal background checks."

bjornostman38 karma

Haha! I'll let you know how that goes....

StopTheMineshaftGap56 karma

What's the longest you've ever allowed BoxCar2D to run?

bjornostman61 karma

A few hours. It converges rather quickly, as far as I have observed. Those interested can try it here: http://boxcar2d.com/

BorneoTraveller35 karma

I'm going to study this at university, any advice? Edit: how important/expanding is the evolutionary aspect of biology compared to other aspects ie marine, behavioural or molecular cell? In your experience what are the prospects for an evolutionary biology post grad (employment, pay etc) I'd really appreciate a response, thanks

bjornostman75 karma

Read as much as you can muster. Read widely rather than deeply, at least in the first few years. Go to seminars even if you don't think that the talk is about something you are very interested in. You may still learn something, and you may find new interests. And don't be afraid of not understanding everything. No one does, even professors. Discuss everything with your peers. Enjoy it - it's going to be so much fun, intellectually and socially.

BorneoTraveller13 karma

Thanks for the encouragement. I am aware that it's very difficult to calculate, but 'how much' is there we simply do not know about evolution? perhaps someone at the forefront will have the best idea as to what we don't know, and the likelihood of us finding out.

bjornostman29 karma

There is A LOT that we don't know about evolution, but the fundamental things are pretty well worked out, I would say. I boldly predict that new findings about evolution will continue to appear for at least the next 163 years. Things we do not know are the details of how evolutionary novelties evolved (complete new structures, such as eyes, brains, and the flight of bats), why there are so many species (particularly of microbes), what the evolutionary history is of the human lineage, how sexual reproduction evolved, and how new genes/protein evolved.

bjornostman15 karma

Evolutionary biology explains how things came about, and so is arguably important in all other areas of biology. As for post grad employment, I think there is as much room in academia as other scientific fields, but perhaps less so in industry. However, if one is willing to not work directly in evolution, then the skills you learn studying evolution are very marketable, I believe (but I am no expert here).

YelirLLieno33 karma

Are humans done evolving? Have humans gotten to the point where we adapt our surroundings to us instead of the other way around? Do you think another homo species will arise on Earth?

bjornostman80 karma

We are not done evolving. We still evolve biologically, though there are some aspects of humans life that have been taken over by cultural evolution. Just to mention one prominent aspect: medicine has alleviated many selection pressures. For much of our history a large factor in how we evolved was diseases. Diseases is a very strong selection pressure for evolving resistance. We are now resistant to many diseases that previously killed us, and yet when new ones arise today, we can fight back with medicine. For example, we don't need to succumb to HIV/AIDS, such that only the few that by chance are lucky to be resistant will survive, while everyone else dies (which incidentally is an excellent example of how selection works). As a result in part of medicine (particularly improvements in hygiene), the human population is now as large as it is. However, most people who argue that humans have stopped evolving seem to not have understood 1) that the increase in our population size leads to an increase in genetic diversity, which is the fuel for evolution, and 2) that evolution takes time, and there will come a time (perhaps in hundreds of thousands of years, but I am not so optimistic) when things will change, and the environment will again favor some human subpopulation over others. You can read more about this from my colleague Madhusudan Katti in reply to the sad claim from David Attenborough's that humans are no longer evolving. http://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/sorry-attenborough-humans-still-evolve-by-natural-selection/article5141928.ece

bjornostman34 karma

If and when humans go extinct, it could be that eventually another intelligent species would evolve. However, they would not likely be identical, and would be a different species, so not Homo sapiens.

deathbyaninja32 karma

Has anyone ever recreated the Miller Urey Apparatus experiment to prove the beggining of life? Do you agree with his findings?

bjornostman66 karma

This is not something I know much about. Abiogenesis - the origin of life - is really part of chemistry (yuck!), so while super interesting, I'm not really the right person to answer this question. However, I do remember reading that they reanalyzed the compounds from the original experiment and found even more amino acids that they did in the past. Read more here. But I find it plausible that natural processes could have created life from non-life, yes.

Potboza26 karma

I'm fascinated by the crazy, now extinct predators that very early humans had to contend with. I'm thinking Saber Cats, Hyenadon... and what else? What amazing and epic fauna did very early humans encounter and 'overcome'?

bjornostman78 karma

Wolves, man! I think our notion of werewolves came from the ever present danger of being eaten by wolves int he areas where they lived together. But cats everywhere. Lions, leopards, mountain lions - those are so effective predators. Without tools, I think humans would not have become the top predator, but would have lived in fear of these today. Lions in Europe. Dire wolves in North America. Dinosaurs in Asia... oh wait, no.

evolvearth24 karma

How does it feel to be the BJ Eagle?

bjornostman47 karma

Haha! It feels very good, thank you for asking. For those who don't know, bjørn in Danish means bear, and ørn means eagle. To be an eagle in Danish means being really good at something, so... figure the rest out for yourselves. :)

aphex_twink13 karma

and "ostman", written with an 'o' rather than an 'ö' or the other version of that letter, means "cheese man" in swedish. fyi.

bjornostman3 karma

Østman means Eastman. Ostman would mean cheeseman, yes. I do love cheese.

Vrolik17 karma

bjornostman18 karma

Omg, that is a super-cool animation. It definitely portrays well the struggle for life and how life is diverse. I especially enjoyed the scene where a little animal is surrounded by numerous larger predators, but then they fall through the ice because they are so big, and the small animal survives. That is a good example of how it is not always the strongest that survive (to reproduce).

greatwhitehead13 karma

Hi! Do you find it difficult to get funding for your research? And, please do not take this in the wrong way, but what do you see as your field's contribution to advancing the human condition?

Alternate/bonus: what do you see as an end application of your research? Seeing rate of change generation to generation and predicting where future evolution will take us, or other species? Perhaps application of these models to disease or engineering new tissues, even useful organisms?! I'm looking at the plausible side of sci-fi

bjornostman33 karma

I am a postdoc, so at this stage in my career I don't have to worry too much about applying for funding myself. But yes, generally it is very difficult, as a lot of researchers compete for very little money. The situation is quite bad these years, and applying for grants is the thing I worry the most about for my future. I think the most important contribution from evolutionary biology is simply that it explains our origins, which I think is very important for our curious species. But evolution is also becoming more and more important in medicine and engineering, where evolution explains antibiotic and antiviral resistance , and allow engineers to build better cars, antennae, and other things.

oddrey300010 karma


bjornostman11 karma

Go white?

VOZ19 karma

What is something about evolution that many people don't know about? It could be something that is perhaps still a theory, a "more controversial" idea at the fringes of the field, something along those lines.

bjornostman17 karma

Not the fringes, but I have come to learn that most people doesn't really understand natural selection very well. It's is apparently difficult to get just how it affects populations, and how it is actually has an inherently stochastic (random) component. For an example, see this conversation I had with a creationist recently, who - despite my serious repeated attempts - could not fathom how selection can work if there are generally more deleterious than beneficial mutations.

jackthelumber7 karma

Often it is hard for me to wrap my head around, how an evolutionary explanation for any thing is found. Has evolutionary theory a falsifiability or is it even possible to proof one?

As an example, the explanation for http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heikegani (I just recently watched cosmos). I mean, I really like the story and the explanation it provides. But how can someone be sure (in an scientific sense) that there are no other possible stories?

I'm no creationist or something, I really accept evolution but somehow I see in other fields of scientific research often "harder facts" - and the possibility for falsifiability

bjornostman4 karma

Evolutionary theory is certainly falsifiable. Show that selection doesn't work, or that radiometric dating doesn't work, or that rabbits and dinosaurs lived at the same time, etc. However, compared to many other scientific theories it is incredibly well supported. To the point of it being nearly impossible to refute in its entirety. Some aspects could be changed, and some probably will - after all, we are still figuring stuff out - but there is no better chance to refute the notion that species evolve than there is to refute electromagnetism.

As for questions about how this or that trait evolved, such as the markings on the Heikegani crab, those can be tested, but it might be very difficult, so we may not in many cases have a clear picture of how they evolved.

Azurity6 karma

I posted this in AskScience a while back but got no replies:

I'm a molecular biologist, not an engineer, but I've usually heard of DNA referred to as a "digital code" that can be represented with A's, C's, T's, and G's for the four nucleic acids. This makes sense for our understanding and organization, but DNA is not literally a "digital code" in our cells, right? Is there such a thing? For all intents and purposes, DNA is "read" by transcription/replication enzyme machinery based on the physical structure of the bases, matching corresponding purines and pyrimidines, and thus it's truly "analog" isn't it? They're not reading letters, they're "feeling" the shape of the bases, yes? I liken it to a needle "feeling" the grooves of a record and sounding a G sharp, not reading some "digital notation", hence the classical distinction between analog and digital music storage. Here's the context: I think intelligent design proponents usually argue that DNA is a "digital code" to play into the "digital=not natural, therefore designer". They then go on to describe DNA as a "language" complete with "syntax, grammar, punctuation" etc, which is arguable for other reasons. So, is DNA literally digital or analog?

bjornostman9 karma

Right, DNA is not a digital code, but could be said to be analog code. I think the 'digital' code notion is merely an analogy, but that the important distinction that Intelligent Designists would like to blur is that the information contained in our genome doesn't have a sender - it is written by natural processes (mutation and selection), and it emphatically not evidence of intelligent design.

Azurity2 karma

Thanks for the response! That's my thinking as well. I talk with creationists on and off on internet forums and I try to think of myself as a mellow, patient evolutionist. I love referencing and explaining primary literature so that people can understand it. I don't try to downplay Christianity at all, just defend evolutionary science. I've taken a few glances at your blog, but how would you describe the situation these days, about creationism in America? What are your goals, when you talk with creationists? I've been entertaining the idea of starting a blog to correct misconceptions in biology and comment on current events in education policy but I am unsure of its exact mission and how to frame it for a diverse audience.

bjornostman2 karma

I live somewhat in isolation from creationists at a university, so most of the time I am pretty happy. But whenever it dawns on me how creative creationists can be in their attempts to refute evolution, and how bad the situation is in the southern US states, I get pretty sad for a while. It's not just that it's important for education in the long run, that creationists aren't allowed to rewrite science textbooks, but that I care so much for the truth that hearing that I am either a liar or very stupid because of the work I do makes me angry, especially coming from people who are either lying or very stupid. :P

uronlisunshyne6 karma

If you don't mind me asking, since you are an evolutionary biologist, are you any religion? If no, what are your thoughts on death?

bjornostman35 karma

I am not religious. My thoughts on death are that there is life after death: my children's after mine. Individuals die and the mind ceases to exists. I am not a dualist - there is no mind separate from the brain. When you die you don't know that you are dead. It is only difficult for the other people. It is the same with stupid.

DEDson6 karma

What's an example of a biological myth that you've seen in tv/movies etc?

bjornostman32 karma

That "seeding the primordial oceans" with DNA from an alien humanoid species would lead to the inevitable evolution of humans. The presence of humanoid DNA before the appearance/evolution of multicellular life would not have any effect on what evolved later on. That DNA would have changed so many times that even if it was present at first, it would be totally unrecognizable as humanoid DNA after 3.8 billion years of evolution (not that it would even take that long).

crazyavocado6 karma

What software Do you use to simulate evolutionary processes?

bjornostman14 karma

I write my own programs. Matlab and Python. Some code is written in C++ when performance is key (but not by me - collaborators are crucial).

zip_zap_zip5 karma

How did eyes happen? I read once that it would take something like 9 genetic mutations with no benefit to the individuals with them before an eye would evolve. Is that true?

bjornostman16 karma

Eyes have been shown to be able to evolve by a gradual evolutionary process from very simple photoreceptors. I don't know about those 9 mutations specifically, but it may be that some neutral or even deleterious mutations happened along the way. However, that is not a problem for evolution - mutations that do not increase fitness, but are neutral or even decrease fitness, doesn't not always get weeded out by natural selection. Some of my own work actually shows why that is https://www.msu.edu/~ostman/#epistasis.

gemfountain4 karma

Will our species ever stop slaying each other? For what ever reason such as religion, intolerance, hate?

bjornostman8 karma

Yes, I think we will, for the most part. Steven Pinker is arguing in his latest book that human violence is on the wane.

souriez4 karma

Greatest misconception about your field?

bjornostman8 karma

That evolution is a ladder-like rather than a bush-like process. Even though Darwin did his best to dispel that idea, many people today still don't get it.

palebluedot04184 karma

How do you feel about the plausibility of the Aquatic Ape theory?

bjornostman5 karma

Answered above. I don't think it's a good theory.

pepperidgefarm286193 karma

What is something you know that most people don't about evolution?

bjornostman11 karma

That deleterious mutations (those that decrease fitness) are not a very serious obstacle for evolution, but in fact are at times necessary for adaptation.

man_bear_puig3 karma

What are you religious beliefs? What would you say are the most prominent religious beliefs in the field?

bjornostman6 karma

See my reply to Mlyle665.

Int he field of evol biology, I think most scientists are non-religious. Among those who are, probably most are some sort of Christian, which I say just because there are far more scientists in the parts of the world that is predominantly Christian, compared to say Muslim. I could be wrong (always).

jickay3 karma

This might be outside of your field, but I've had this idea that the growth and development of human society closely follows patterns of cell differentiation of a human body, from stem cells to differentiated. Is there evidence of overarching patterns, or stages, in the progression of a genetic line?

As a side question, how is grad school? I've been out of school for a while and tried different things, but have this gut feeling academia would work for me. Curious of others' experiences.

bjornostman2 karma

I loved grad school. My adviser was great in allowing me to shape my own research, and still give input and answer questions whenever I had any.

It is not a new idea that complexity of anything increase (complexity here defined as an increase int he number of components) as it is allowed to evolve. There is at least computational evidence that when a new niche (way of life) is discovered, then diversity can increase as that niche is occupied. Adding new features to a system by evolutionary mechanisms (i.e., not by design) is a tinkering whatever-works process, and that means that the system becomes a kluge. I can't say how close human society follows the patterns of cell differentiation, but it is an interesting idea.

abohanan3 karma

As I remember it's two genes that make humans able to talk, a gene controls something in the brain, and another gene that controls the lips. I wonder if we implanted those two genes into a Chimpanzee's DNA, will we get a talking Chimp? If it worked, what should we expect to hear from a talking Chimp? From what I saw in documentaries Chimps are really smart and have so many human-like behaviors. I think if we could get a Chimp to talk then it will no longer be an ape, it will be a human.

bjornostman4 karma

I don't agree a talking chimp will be a human. There are other things that make us different. By the Biological Species Concept we are different species because we cannot reproduce with each other, and that will not change with two genes that affect lip movement and the brain. On top of that, it is highly implausible that just two genes are enough to explain the difference between the ability to speak in chimps and humans. However, I don't know which or how many genes it would take to make this change. However, we do have an idea what a talking chimp would say, because chimps (and gorillas) have learned sign language, and have communicated with humans that way for many years. Read more about Washoe and Koko http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washoe_(chimpanzee) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koko_(gorilla) on Wikipedia - my favorite website after Reddit.

BorneoTraveller2 karma

To my knowledge, Chimpanzees lack the necessarily vocal physiology to imitate human language, even if they possess sufficient intelligence to understand it, (as in Nim chimpsky or in Savage-Rumbaugh's study into language acquisition in chimps). It simply isn't enough to say that two genes would make a 'talking chimp'. 'Implanting' genes is not enough to account for millions of years of ancestral divergence between humans and chimps that allows humans to communicate by talking. Again, this is only to my knowledge.

UnhWut1 karma

There is a controversial theory that some bonobos are able to speak, but you have to learn how to hear their "accent".


bjornostman2 karma

Interesting. I have never heard of that before.

Bleeding_Zombies3 karma

Do you teach undergrads or have any work for you? Have you ever met a student in the sciences that did not believe in evolution? How big is your lab and how much funding do you get? Any cool instruments you use that you can show us?

bjornostman4 karma

I am a postdoc, and work in the lab of Professor Chris Adami, so I don't have a lab of my own. I have worked with undergrads. In fact, I just submitted a paper where one co-author was a high school student at the time, but is now about to graduate from Caltech: Trade-offs govern resource specialization in a model of sympatric asexuals.

I once TAed a class at UC Santa Barbara where one (good) student said he was a creationist. He did very well in class, and we never talked about creationism.

I can't show you any cool instruments, except for the coolest of them all: the computer. I am strictly theoretical/computational (which includes working with and analyzing empirical data), and currently run simulations of very large population sizes on MSU's High Performance Computing Center cluster (which is pretty cool).

echatoner3 karma

I just thought you should know, you're doing the job I wanted to do when I was a child with hopes and dreams.

abohanan1 karma

It was my dream too when I was a teenager.

bjornostman2 karma

:) Hopefully you are fulfilled in what you do now, and perhaps still able to follow some current research in biology. If you have programming skills and time for a side-project, let me know...

timothyjc3 karma

Do you think humans will destroy the planet in the same way an algal bloom can become toxic and destroy the algae?

How do you think evolution will shape humans in the future? Do you think becoming a global society benefits more selfish behaviour?

bjornostman3 karma

I don't think we will destroy the planet, though we may destroy enough for ourselves to go extinct. But life will probably be here in some shape or other long after we are gone. I just so badly wish I could be around to see it.

I think the global society clearly favors cooperation, and not selfish behavior.

Nekrosis133 karma

I often hear scientists say that X planet is not suitable for life, because there's no water or oxygen.

It seems to me quite narrow-minded to assume that because life developed on earth using the elements we have here, then life cannot exist without similar conditions.

Is it possible that life on other planets could be composed of something other than carbon, and breathe something other than oxygen, say, hydrogen or helium?

bjornostman3 karma

I too think that that is narrow-minded. Yes, I would say it is possible. Perhaps silicon-based life, instead of carbon? Breathing even occurs on Earth with other gases than oxygen. Many bacteria breathe nitrate when there is little or no oxygen in their immediate surroundings. That being said, I think there is good reason for looking for life in places with water, because we know it can sustain life. Even more speculative: We could also imagine life that is purely electromagnetic. Generally I think it is unwise to say that things are limited to what we know. History is riddled with people predicting the future and getting it horribly and laughably wrong.

Red5point13 karma

I have an interest in evolution from a non-academic point of view.
My question is, what do you think are the most important ares of research that are either currently been pursued or that need attention in your field please, thanks for the AMA.

bjornostman3 karma

The mechanisms that increase and sustain the diversity of species. The evolutionary advantage of sex. The evolution of altruism. The affect of genetic architecture on adaptation. The structure of fitness landscapes and how it affects adaptation and speciation. (All are being pursued in some manner).

damthatriver183 karma

What is the defenituon of a species? Evolution is slow, so where was the line drawn between say a house cat and a bobcat?

bjornostman5 karma

The most common definition used for sexual species is the Biological Species Concept, coined by Ernst Mayr. It says that two populations are different species if they are reproductively isolated from each other. There are other definitions, but this is the most widely used one when we aren't talking about species that are mostly asexual, such as bacteria. When house and bobcat split from each other, reproductive isolation probably took a while to occur. So for some period of time and evolutionary biologist would have a hard time figuring out if and when they became different species.

frosted10302 karma

As a man, I'd like to know, in humans, why is there such a variaty of breast sizes in women?

bjornostman5 karma

Probably because breast size doesn't matter all that much.

tumblrmustbedown2 karma

Have you heard of or do you know Leslie (Les) Real by any chance? He's the evolutionary bio professor at my university but he's originally from Michigan. Just wondering! I've enjoyed his teachings so much, evolutionary biology is such an interesting field of work.

bjornostman2 karma

Nope, haven't been acquainted. Glad to hear he is able to make evolution interesting.

DumbDeafBlind2 karma

How exactly did dead matter come to life at one point?

bjornostman2 karma

That's a question for chemists. Abiogenesis. There are lots of theories and experiments that explain parts of the process, but even if we at some point can create life from non-life ourselves, it doesn't mean that we will know how it happened in the past some 3.8 billion years ago. The evidence for that did not fossilize, so to speak.

IAmALostEnt2 karma

Hey me too :D, I did my undergrad in BioChem, when I contacted NSERC for funding for my M.Sc they were less than helpful considering the subject matter.

I was told a few times that they were going in another direction, which to me is weird considering how important our understanding of evolution is to the basis of biology in general.

I've got it all figure out now but it was a real pain to find any sort of funding, congrats on being able to do what you love doing.

bjornostman3 karma

Thanks! Best wishes.

ashaman33552 karma

As someone who dropped out of college for financial reasons but was studying biology and focusing on evolutionary but is also thinking of changing majors to something more practicle what career would i recomend and where to start if i stuck with evobio. Ps this is from work on a tiny phone sry for fat fingers

bjornostman2 karma

If you are chiefly concerned with getting a well-paying job, then I would not recommend studying evolution. Or anything science, for that matter. Engineering, yes. Also, in that case don't get waste your time getting a PhD. A PhD is for passion, not for money. Not to say you can't make a decent living from it, especially if you focus on quantitative methods.

bouldermite2 karma

What do you think about the idea of humans being a product of hybridization between pigs and chimps? Does it seem plausible to you? Here's a link to an article I read about it: http://phys.org/news/2013-07-chimp-pig-hybrid-humans.html

bjornostman14 karma

It's sounds like one of the dumbest ideas I've ever heard, to be frank. There is no evidence anywhere of hybrids between such distantly related species. They are simply not genetically compatible, plus the fact that we have evidence that humans and chimps shared a common ancestor about 7 million years ago. But I'll read the article now...

bjornostman14 karma


GreeneMan2 karma

I find it quite incidental that I'm watching 'Idiocracy' while seeing this AMA. But, do you think humans are at their 'evolutionary peek.' As in, we cannot evolve any more as a human, but we could evolve into another species such as Neanderthals to Homo-sapiens.

bjornostman2 karma

See my reply to YelirLLieno above.

We could still evolve into another species, but not to something involving Neanderthals (pronounced 'tal', btw). The notion of the "peak" shifts when the environment changes, so if we are on a peak now, that will definitely change at some point in the future.

BrobaFett_2 karma

Have you done any work on the Antagonistic Pleiotropy hypothesis of aging?

Do you feel the mathematical models for it are done well? Math isn't my strong point so unfortunately I was unable to understand the mathematical modelling of the hypothesis... All I know is that the gist of it certainly sounds plausible. I'd love to hear your thoughts on it, and whether or not you find the mutation accumulation hypothesis to have more support.

bjornostman1 karma

I know about the model but have not worked on it, so can't speak to the math of it.

shalafi712 karma

Hot damn! Just who I wanted to talk to. There's so much about evolution that I don't quite get.

Just an example: Why are there two different kinds of crabs (Blue and Rock) in the bay by my house? They're very different. The Blues are soft shelled and agile while the Rocks are thick shelled and clunky. Wouldn't evolution have selected one or the other or a hybrid as the best for that environment?

I could go on and on. I get the overall gist of evolution and I don't have any of those weird misconceptions that the religious often have but I'm probably going to bug you to death. :)

bjornostman1 karma

I don't know about those two species specifically, but basically theory goes that they can live in the same habitat because their ways of life (their niches) are different enough that they don't outcompete each other (aka competitive exclusion). Perhaps they eat different things, or have different predators. Maybe you go find out how they differ?

spitonmydick2 karma

Oh my god, this is a dream come true!

So dude, I'm writing a science fiction book about Jupiter's moon, Europa, and it's all about the organisms found there under 15 kilometers of ice. Can you give me any ideas or thoughts you have about what kind of adaptations that an observer might encounter under the ice?

I can imagine bioluminescence, sonar/echolocation, hydrothermal vents, protective plates, slow moving to conserve energy, and etc...

Anything else you can imagine or that I didn't think of?

I'd love to PM you in the future about related questions if you're cool with that!

bjornostman1 karma

Sure, PM me if you need something specific.

All the same adaptations as organisms living in similar environments on Earth? Others? Adaptations to other chemicals?

Horg1 karma


Sorry for my English, I am not native.

What do you think are the odds of a planet similar to Earth, with all the same building blocks and athmospheric parameters that has just developed simple life forms like bacteria - to have intelligent life after a reasonable timeframe (4 billion years)?

bjornostman2 karma

99.999 and then some percent.

edawg08031 karma

What exactly do evolutionists and creationists disagree about, besides a time scale difference?

PoopyMcPeePants4 karma

Creationists refuse the acknowledge the overwhelming evidence for evolution because it is a direct contradiction of certain literal interpretations of their scripture. Not much more to it than that, really.

bjornostman1 karma

Agreed. Specifically creationists are opposed to the idea that humans evolved and didn't appear as described in scripture, Christian or Muslim.

MindIsAVortex1 karma

Can you model into the future? And following that, what would we look like if we survive another million years on this or another planet?

bjornostman1 karma

When we make models and implement them as simulations, we are going into the future, so to speak. But the way you mean it here we cannot. Predicting evolution is hard because the factors that affect the process are numerous and poorly understood. Some might be there for a long time, and some very little. I did write a book chapter about predicting evolution (it's an easy read), but the the take-home message is that what we need to really predict evolution is the fitness landscape, and that only works for constant near-future environment.

trabbledot0 karma

Can you delve into the microcosm a bit?

bjornostman2 karma

You'll have to be more specific, please.

Mlyle665-2 karma

What is your religious belief?

bjornostman1 karma

I am not religious and I have no faith. I am atheist with respect to any gods that I have heard of. I have been non-religious since I started to think about it as a child.

Dora_De_Destroya-3 karma

If Adam and Eve were white, why are there brown people?

bjornostman1 karma


ssaa6oo-7 karma

Is God real? :D

bjornostman8 karma

God is not a hypothesis that we need to explain life, if that's what you are asking.