Top 10 Evolution Articles

December 29, 2008

A rundown of some great evolution articles from New Scientist that are well worth reading:

 How trees changed the world

It’s only when you try to imagine a world without trees that you realise how much we take them for granted. Yet 450 million years ago there was no such thing as a tree: few plants grew more than a centimetre tall. Between then and now, things happened to give another dimension to plant growth and to create the diversity we see today.

Reclaiming the peppered moth for science

The peppered moth used to be the textbook example of evolution in action. Then, about a decade ago, creationists began an orchestrated a campaign to discredit it – and with it the entire edifice of evolution. Now biologists are fighting to take it back…

Uncovering the evolution of the bacterial flagellum

The whip-like tail of some bacteria has become the cause célèbre of the “intelligent design” movement and a focal point in science’s ongoing struggle against unreason. It doesn’t seem possible to come up with one via Darwin’s “numerous, successive, slight modifications”, they say. Now science is coming up with an answer…

Evolution: What missing link?

The fossil record used to be thought of as a patchy and unreliable record of evolutionary change. Today, that record is much more dependable. When it comes to “transitional fossils” – those that bridge the gap between major groups of organisms – we now have some excellent examples.

Evolution: 24 myths and misconceptions

Evolution is perhaps the best known yet least understood of all scientific theories. Here,, seeks out the facts behind common misunderstandings that have grown up around “the blind watchmaker”.

Rewriting Darwin: The new non-genetic inheritance

We resemble our parents and can fall prey to the same diseases mainly because we inherit their genes. Yet there is another form of inheritance that does not rely on genes, one that allows characteristics to be passed on that are acquired during a person’s lifetime…

The Ordivician: Life’s second big bang

The Cambrian period, starting about 540 million years ago, is famous for the appearance of all but one of the types of creatures we see around us today. Yet in terms of new species this period cannot hold a candle to a little-known explosion of life called the Great Ordivician Biodiversification Event.

Vestigial organs: Remnants of evolution

From goosebumps to wisdom teeth, vestigial organs have long perplexed biologists. What was their original purpose and what happened to make them redundant? presents its top five vestigial organs and explains how they differ from male nipples.

Viruses: The unsung heroes of evolution

Viruses are often seen solely as carriers of death and disease. In the light of genomics, however, they are being seen as critical evolutionary players. Far from being a biological afterthought, they may be the most creative genetic entities we know of.

Freedom from selection lets genes get creative

Natural selection is seen as a tough master, constantly applying pressure to improve the fit between an organism and its niche. Yet some researchers believe that when the pressure of natural selection lifts, genomes go wandering and unexpected effects can arise. To see the impact, he argues, we have to look no further than ourselves…

Azawakh is not Tamasheq

Azawakh or azaouak comes from the Djerma language. It means “Land of the North”. The Djerma are a considered to be a branch of the Songhai people, but they may were actually assimilated during the Songhai Empire in the 16th century. Many Djerma were displaced from what is now a Fula region, Lac Debo in Mali. They eventually settled well East of Lac Debo near Niamey in what is now Niger. The Azaouak Valley is almost directly to the North of Niamey.

Young pair of Azawakh.

Young pair of Azawakh.


Not Just a Name for Dogs

In addition to being the name of a breed of dog, Azawakh, is a strain of Zebu cattle characterized by long lyre-shaped horns and a hump. The cattle are thought to have arrived in the Sahel around the late 7th century BCE. Other names for these cattle are Bororo, Tuareg, Adar, Tagana and Azawaje.

I have the sense that both breed names were synthesized by Europeans in the post-colonial period of the last century. Neither Azaouak (meaning a breed of cattle) nor Azawakh (meaning a breed of hound) is used by any local people. Both words are really a shortening of a phrase:

  • Cattle of Azawakh
  • Hounds of Azawakh

If I Have More than One are they Azawakhs?

No. The Plural of Azawakh should still be Azawakh. Remember that Azawakh is the name of a place, the Azawakh Valley or the Land of the North. When we use the Azawakh as a breed name, it is really just a shortening of hound of Azawakh. Where the hound of part is understood. The plural is hounds of Azawakh. The hounds of part is still understood even if you don’t say it. It would never be hound of Azawakhs nor hounds of Azawakhs.

As another illustration, consider if we replace Azawakh with Canada. We now have an imaginary breed of animal called Canada. Can you imagine calling a pack of them Canadas?

The other option would be a construction like Azawakhians or Azawakhans, which just seems horrifying.

The plural of Azawakh should remain Azawakh.

For all one of you reading along, last time we established that while in modern English “hound” can mean “dog”, it has an ancient connotation of “noble hunting animal”. This time ’round I want to look at the most common English words for “coursing dog”: greyhound, gazehound and sighthound.

The eye of a retired NGA greyhound.

The eye of a retired NGA greyhound.

Sighthound, gazehound and greyhound are all composite nouns:

  • sight + hound
  • gaze + hound
  • grey + hound

We’ve already established that hound means “hunter”. What do the prefix modifiers mean? Sighthound and gazehound are synonyms. Sighthound is just a more modern form. Gaze is a somewhat archaic word for “to look”. It originated in 14th century Middle English (Anglo-Saxon) as gasen.

  • Middle English (Anglo-Saxon): gasen [to look]
    • English: gaze


  1. a hound that runs or courses game by sight rather than scent

synonyms: gazehound

I don’t like these two words because they don’t make very much sense. All hounds can see and use their eyes to hunt. There is a natural suite of hunting motor patterns in canids:

  1. orient (track)
  2. eye (stare)
  3. stalk
  4. chase
  5. grab-bite
  6. kill-bite

These behaviors occur in order. Foxhounds and Beagles will definitely eye and chase a fleeing prey animal. Greyhounds will definitely sniff around excitedly at deer spoor hoping to find the critter to chase. I don’t like the term sighthound. It’s lame and it creates a wrong impression of the behavior of these animals. In modern times large swaths of society are divorced from any sort of real-world experience with hunting. I have a hard time believing that people were really so confused in the 16th century that they believed that cursorial dogs hunt only by sight.The interesting thing, though, is that the word gazehound exists at all. It is so wrong and there was already a really good word in English for a coursing dog: greyhound.

According to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, gazehound was coined between 1560 and 1570 in modern English. The word greyhound is at least a thousand years older and has its roots in Old English and Proto-Indo-European.

Why are greyhounds called grey? They are most commonly fawn, not agouti grey. The grey in greyhound has nothing to do with color. It derives from the Proto-Indo-European word for “shine” or “twinkle”.

  • Proto-Indo-European: g’her [shine, twinkle]
    • Old English: grig
      • Middle English: grig [lively, bright, fair]


  • Middle English: grighund [lively, bright, fair + hunting dog]
    • English: greyhound

Basically, greyhound means a particularly lively and good-looking hound; perhaps the flashy hound that runs faster than the others and is most often successful with the take.

Why did someone decide to invent the word gazehound in the mid-16th century if they already had such a nice word in greyhound? I don’t know, so it’s time to go off the deep end into more-or-less pure speculation.

The early and middle16th century was the reigh of Suleiman the Magnificent who presided over a great expansion of the Ottoman Empire. So what? Under Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire expanded into germanic territories of modern Austria, Hungary and the Balkans as well as pretty much all of North Africa and Greece. English traders could not possibly have avoided interaction with Turkish culture and perhaps been exposed to their hunting dogs (which I’ll just refer to as saluqi for convenience).

In her book Gazehounds: the Search for Truth, Connie Miller suggests that the real origin of the prefix in gazehound is not gaze but ghazal. Ghazal is Arabic/Persian/Urdu for gazelle. I think she’s close but even better is the Turkish: gazel. Saluqi are hunting dogs that can take gazelle. Rather than gaze + hound the original coinage might have been gazel + hound. It’s easy to see how the ‘l’ could be dropped in correspondence and retelling. What Elizabethan Englishman ever heard of a gazel? I like to think that sighthound is a derivation of a giant malapropism.

On the whole, I find a lot of charm in the word greyhound and none in sighthound nor gazehound. Perhaps I should not be irritated when people stop me on the street walking my Azawakh and ask me if he is a greyhound. They are very fair and lively dogs.

Sub-adult Azawakh play-chasing an Azawakh puppy.

Sub-adult Azawakh play-chasing an Azawakh puppy.

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose; By any other name would smell as sweet.”
William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

Words have a definition but they also have a deeper tapestry of meaning – especially old words. What do words say about our culture and our past? Take the word “dog” for instance. We all know what dog means:


  1. a domesticated canid, Canis familiaris, bred in many varieties.
  2. any carnivore of the dog family, Canidae, having prominent canine teeth and, in the wild state, a long and slender muzzle, a deep-chested muscular body, a bushy tail, and large, erect ears. Compare canid.
  3. the male of such an animal.
  4. any of various animals resembling a dog.
  5. etc.

I was having a chat with a friend the other day and he asked me what does hound mean. “A hound is a pack hunting dog,” I said.

My friend was not so sure. “Isn’t hound from the German, hund, meaning dog.”

A quick visit to the dictionary and I found that it means both.


  1. one of any of several breeds of dogs trained to pursue game either by sight or by scent, esp. one with a long face and large drooping ears.
  2. Informal. any dog.
  3. etc.

It turns out that hound is a much older word than dog. It traces back to Proto-Germanic which was a pre-cursor language of both English and German.

  • Proto-Germanic [2500–500 BCE]: hundaz
    • Old English (Anglo-Saxon) [400 BCE-1100]: hund
      • Middle English [1000-1400]: hound
        • English [1300-Present]: hound
    • Old High German: hunt
      • German: hund

It also turns out that hundaz as a verb is the progenitor of both the English and German verb to hunt. At a profoundly deep level, hound really means “hunting animal”. For 2000 years the only word for “dog” in germanic culture was equivalent to the word for hunt. At a very deep level of our culture there is a built-in assumption that dogs are for hunting.

Ok, if hound means “hunting animal”. Then what does dog mean?

  • Old English (Anglo-Saxon): dogca / dogga [powerful dog]
    • Middle English: dogge
      • English: dog
      • German: dogge [meaning mastiff]
  • Old Norse: kurra [to grumble]
    • Middle English: curren [to growl]
    • Middle English: curdogge [composite of curren + dogge (growling powerful dog, guard dog)]
      • English: cur [mongrel or inferior dog]

A couple of things happened in the first millennium. First, we spontaneously developed a new word for dogca which is used concurrently with hund. This new word dogca means a powerful dog that by definition is not used for hunting or else it would be a hund. Dogca eventually evolves into the modern German word for mastiff. By the time we reach the beginning of the second millennium, dogca, has become dogge  and is also used in a composite form with curren – to growl. Curdogge litterally means a growling mastiff. Obviously a guard dog. In modern English, curdogge has been truncated to cur.

Dog and cur are congnates. They have the same origin. Dog/cur is the name given to the guard dogs kept by common peasants. The differentiation of hound from cur coincides with the rise of the the Ango-Saxon nobles who restricted hunting as an activity for the gentry. Peasants were could not legally hunt. Therefore, their dogs were guard dogs only and guard dogs are of the peasantry. Hence curdogge becomes cur, the despised mongrel. In the 16th century – perhaps because of the force of overwhelming numbers – dog superseded hund as the generic term for dog in common use. Hound is now generally reserved for traditional hunting dogs (e.g. the Hound Group in the American Kennel Club and Kennel Club of England).

It seems that hound and dog are not the same. The word dog implies common in every sense of the word. The word hound implies hunter and nobility. It seems that no creature escapes the class system in our society.