In the footsteps of elephants

It's highly unlikely that you woke up this morning and wondered about the characteristics of the very first algae to inhabit the earth. You probably didn't even think about whether elephants have always lived in matriarchal societies.

Or what kinds of flowers woolly mammoths would have seen as they wandered through Siberia. But sometimes scientists like to surprise you with a little gift.

For the flower news, which was widely reported last month, you can thank a squirrel that was burying food 31,800 years ago. Mindful of the approaching winter, it put aside a seed from an ancestor of the narrow-leaved campion. Shortly afterwards, an ice age rolled in. We don't know what happened to the squirrel, but scientists in Moscow found the seed, added some growth hormone and coaxed it into producing a flower. The point isn't to create an interesting centrepiece for the dining table. Comparing the plant's physical and genetic characteristics with those of existing campions opens up a way to explore how evolution happens.

The same is true of algae: we have now answered a fundamental question in evolutionary theory. According to the best hypothesis, a billion and a half years ago there was a bacterium that could turn sunlight into energy. One day it invaded one of the first cells to contain a nucleus. The resulting super-organism was the ancestor of all red and green algae and land plants. Until the past week, this story was just a suggestion. Now, thanks to analysis of the genomes involved, just published in the journal Science, it has moved from hypothesis to fact.

However abstruse it might seem, such work is culturally important. Confirming the hypotheses of evolution gives people confidence in holding world-views that are not as "based on the Bible" as Rick Santorum would like. Learn about the power of evolutionary biology and you are encouraged, one would hope, to question whether morning prayers are the best way to begin government meetings at any level. The evidence in favour of evolution is a spur to choose leaders with views and policies based on knowledge rather than myths. American women are flocking towards Barack Obama precisely because of this. And the elephant story can only help.

Seen and herd

The footprints of a herd of ancient elephants preserved in mud near Abu Dhabi prove that elephant society has been matriarchal for seven million years. The research, published on 22 February in Biology Letters, is a remarkable piece of detective work, revealing the elephants' assorted sizes, weights and genders. A female led the herd, which was at least 13-strong. In fact, the entire herd was made up of females or young elephants. The footprints of a solitary male moving in another direction suggest that he and his kind were, as now, kept on the outside, and allowed in only for mating.

It's quite a contrast to most human societies. The UK cabinet is four-fifths male. Last month, women in the US watched congressional proceedings in horror as a panel composed entirely of men discussed the legalities of contraception. Elephants wouldn't stand for it.

It might seem rather a stretch to link elephant societies to human sexual politics, but there is a great deal to be said for presenting examples of nature's diversity. When the Canadian biologist Bruce Bagemihl compiled Biological Exuberance, his astonishing roster of homosexuality in the animal kingdom, it redrew the landscape of "natural" sexuality.

Maybe we don't think much about algae, elephants and ancient flowers, but we should be glad somebody does.

Michael Brooks's "Free Radicals: the Secret Anarchy of Science" is published by Profile Books (£12.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar