Matthew Cobb answers questions about evolution and animal sniffers

August 28, 2015 • 10:15 am

Manchester Life Sciences has posted a new YouTube video in its “Ask a Scientist” series, and the scientist to ask happens to be our own Matthew Cobb. In this 15-minute video he takes on six questions about evolution and about his own speciality: olfaction. It’s very interesting: click on either screenshot below to go to the video:

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Our hero! (Notice his collection of toy dinosaurs in the office.)

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37 thoughts on “Matthew Cobb answers questions about evolution and animal sniffers

      1. Typo or not, this mistake has always been a common one. I remember my high-school English teacher reminding us (over 40 years ago!) that there is “a rat” lurking in the word “separate”.

          1. I might finally remember it now with that assistance! It’s one I always have to think twice about.

  1. A little surprised at the animals and best sense of smell. Have always been told about how many times better the dog is verses the human. Maybe the sensitivity is as key as the numbers.

  2. It’s lovely to see this sort of programme is being provided for our schools. I think the best think such programs do is to show youngsters HOW scientists think – how the one thing they try to use in their explanations or suppositions is EVIDENCE. At the end of the day everything boils down to what Jerry’s latest book says in its title – Fact versus Faith. Kids need to understand the difference.

    Not everything is so perfect here in our British school system. About 2/3 of our primary schools are “church schools” – funded by the state but run by religious institutions. It is a program that indoctrinates young minds on the Fact vs. Faith issue in favor of faith.

    A horrifying discovery occurred for me just today. My grandson Ned (5 years old) goes to a church of England school. My daughter called me this morning to say that Ned told her that GOD created humans. When she told Ned that humans evolved from ape like ancestors Ned said that god wouldn’t do it that way. This is what atheist families face here -having to undo religious brainwashing funded by the government.

    All is NOT well in the UK.

    1. My daughter at age five had trouble accepting that people were animals.

      I can recall at about that age having trouble understanding that a city was part of a state.

    2. It must be very upsetting to know that this kind of proselytizing is state sanctioned. While violations certainly happens here in the US, the law is very clear about separation of church and state. I think the UK needs an establishment clause.

      1. The UK needs an entire Constitution Bob.

        It’s quite bizarre that in a country where over 40% are not religious at all, church attendance minimal, and two of the three of the last candidates for Prime Minister were atheists, that there is an established church, that church bishops have a right to vote in Parliament, and that most schools are religious but government funded.

        1. Right, and for the unique efficacy of a Constitution in controlling religion we only need to look at the US of A, where – oh, wait…

            1. Well yes, the States does seem to do the Xtianity-brainwashing thing far more consistently, reliably and predictably, doesn’t it? [/snark]

              In case you missed the point of my comment – comparing the degree of religiosity in the US compared with the UK or most western European countries, what on earth gives you the idea that imitating any USian features is likely to improve matters?


              1. Of course it’s a rather nice feeling to be surrounded by more people “like us” but what I’m talking about is the impact of how secular one’s country REALLY is – and how that affects one’s day to day life. There’s not much justice in being surrounded by fellow non-believers but still having your own belief system trampled over by non-secular institutions. My example- what possibility do you have of NOT having your child indoctrinated in religion just to get a place at school? (believe it or not infiniteimprobabilit but some atheist PARENTS have to go to church themselves just to get their kids a place in a nearby government funded school over here). The States is a big place – easy enough to find somewhere where one’s community is not overly religious, if you have a desperate need for that.

              2. I’ll reiterate what I said just once more.

                The US Constitution seems to be more effective in promoting the ‘rights’ of gun nuts than preventing public religiosity. How many atheist senators / congressmen are there?

                From what I recall from my UK schooling decades ago, we got the weekly ‘religious knowledge’ hour and promptly forgot it. It certainly wasn’t the evangelical bullshit that (apparently) pervades swathes of the US.

                So – what use would a ‘Constitution’ be, exactly?

              3. “The US Constitution seems to be more effective in promoting the ‘rights’ of gun nuts than preventing public religiosity. How many atheist senators / congressmen are there?”

                It should NOT be the role of government to “prevent public religiosity” for that would be a terrible infringement of a basic right of people to hold to their own beliefs. The role of a secular state is not to have religion of any sort imposed or directed through state institutions – it is SEPARATION of state sponsored activity and religious activity that makes secularism.
                The UK is NOT a secular state. It has an established church. Church officials have a guaranteed place in Parliament. Most schools are run by religious institutions, mostly the CofE. Publicly funded radio/tv in the BBC provides extended religious services.

                If you want to talk about a secular European country choose France or Sweden etc….not the UK.

              4. ps: You can not even have a Humanist wedding service to establish a legal marriage in the UK though you CAN for any religious group even including Scientologists.

                And why not look on the Humanist Society websites for both the UK and the USA for their programmes of reforms they are seeking – just to get a sample of how backward the UK is on the secular front.

              5. Howie – which country’s elected government is dominated by Xtians (in both parties)? Which country’s political candidates are all obliged to profess their Goddiness if they want a chance of being elected? (Hint: check out the recent GOP primaries, I think it was). Whose Supreme Court is packed with religious bozos? In which country is abortion under threat?

                The US Constitution seems to be totally unable to prevent Xtians from controlling the country. Not much use separating church and state if the state is controlled by Xtians anyway.


              6. The US Constitution seems to be totally unable to prevent Xtians from controlling the country.”
                Only if Donald Trump is elected president will I believe that what you say is true.

              7. First off, to boil the efficacy of the US constitution down to “promoting the rights of gun nuts” is a ridiculous straw man.
                Secondly, you’re talking about culture and howiekornstein and I are discussing the law. Whether the UK would choose to enforce an establishment clause is an entirely separate issue than whether or not such a clause is needed.

              8. @bob

                Well if a law isn’t enforced it’s pointless having it, isn’t it?

                My fundamental objection to this whole (off-topic) thread is howie’s contention that things in the UK are broken and it would be magically better if it had a constitution. I think that’s bs.

                This thread is ctd and I’m off.


  3. Notice his collection of toy dinosaurs in the office.

    Including that well-known extant dinosaur, Gallus gallus. Which also answers the first question without much quibble-room (if re-posed in a “did they?” form).
    Where’s my signature file? Ah, here : “Birds are not dinosaur descendants; birds are dinosaurs, for all useful meanings of “birds”, “are” and “dinosaurs””

  4. Great questions from the public and responses by Matthew. I appreciate the many times he said “we don’t know”. This is the driving force of why we even do science, and it should never be seen as a negative, or used as a gotcha moment.

    I’ve lost my sense of smell (and consequentially taste) from severe head colds a few times in my life, as I’m sure most have. It’s a very strange and unpleasant experience…and of course having the cold in the first place only adds to the discomfort.

  5. Nice video; Matthew has a great voice for these Q&As.

    I would conjecture further about humans evolving separately. Its reasonable to assume an output on a moon of Saturn can contain 10k+ people and that they isolate themselves from other people as our species go out into the galaxy and that those people would form a distinct ‘human-like’ species from other humans.

  6. Thank you for this and all your other posts. I learn something new every day from you, your colleagues and from the comments!

  7. I thought I knew the human nose pretty well, what with having one right at the front of my face and all, but trillions of smells? Seven carbon atoms smells different than eight?

    1. Heptane and octane? He didn’t actually say what the compounds were.

      (Obviously it would be blatant cheating to compare e.g. toluene and octane… I’m sure he didn’t mean it that way.)


  8. Matthew does a good Q&A show, doesn’t he?

    Re the putative correlation between narrow noses and higher latitudes, a largely untested hypothesis that went around years ago was that it allowed for better heating and moistening of incoming air during cold and dry winter conditions. If I remember correctly it was popular among Nordic ski athletes, who tried to extract every advantage they could.

    However, I seem to remember a small test (probably too small) that claimed the extra length and heat/moist exchange surfaces didn’t do much of a difference. The null hypothesis would be sexual selection, I guess?

  9. Paleontologist Dale Russell has opined that the Troodons might have evolved into intelligent bird like animals. If the dinosaurs had survived, it is unlikely that any large mammals including humans would have evolved. Mammals existed for much of the age of the dinosaurs and none much larger then a fox terrier has been yet found.

  10. Thanks for the link – good stuff. I’m stymied over the trillion smelles too. Wow. Will have to investigate further.

    What I really liked, though, is the scientific humilty. This is a little test I use all the time when listening to scientists talk. The best ones pepper their language with pharses like “we aren’t entirely positive” or “we just don’t know but have a good evidence that…” I guarantee that when you listen to IDers or creationists or adherents to alien butt probing that wondering or not knowing never once enters into their vocabulary.

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