Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Another F-word of Evolution

I already fingered “fittest” and “favored” as f-words of evolution and here’s a third: forwards.

You don’t hear this one as much, but the concept infiltrates and sabotages much of our evolutionary thinking, limiting our understanding of nature, and, worse, leading us down that dangerous path to apathy, hate, and violence.

Here's the trouble with forwards and evolution.

Time goes forwards. It's singular and linear. You might call it an arrow (like Carroll) or persistent (like Dali), but you wouldn’t call it progressing or progressive. That is, a minute now isn’t any better than a minute 30 minutes ago. A minute now isn't an improvement over a minute 30 billion minutes ago.

This is a very simple, value- and progress-free understanding of forwards that isn't transferred onto biological evolution.

Instead, with biology we equate forwards, or the passage of time, with progress but this is a biased view of nature.

Time goes forwards. Complexity requires time. Okay.

Yet, onward-and-upward-ness is our invention. It's a cultural notion, that we can't help but project onto nature. And if you see traits changing through time as each phase being better than the next, as being a part of some cosmic progress, then you’re falling into a dangerous trap.

While you're trapped by forwards-thinking, you might assume that:

(a) prior states of traits were worse than present ones

(b) losing a trait is bad

(c) traits that are not as complex/large/fast/furry/slimy/etc as in prior states are somehow lacking

(d) present traits that resemble earlier versions are somehow lacking, in other words, "primitive" traits are valued less than derived ones.

The last one can rear its ugly head when we naively or carelessly use our completely acceptable evolutionary jargon to describe human variation: Some people are derived at trait X, while others are "primitive."

(Can you call it an f-word if it starts with a p? Because "primitive" might need to get censored from evolution-speak too.)

While you're trapped by forwards-thinking, you might refer to early hominids as “proto-humans” implying they’re an imperfect draft or prototype and that they're not quite perfect or human. If this is true, then we’re proto-Pauls.

Try this. Get in your DeLorean, and set the dashboard to 50 million years ago. Make sure your flux capacitor is engaged and then drive 88 mph down your street and... Voila! You're back in time. Now, are all the animals drooling all over themselves, barely able to eat, walk, or do whatever it is that they do?

Of course not. They’re getting along just fine.

Evidence? Look around you in the year 2011. Nothing would be hunky dory now if nothing was hunky dory in the past.

Yet, 50 million years ago is full of half-baked, inadequate organisms like “proto-whales” and “proto-lemurs” and “proto-bears.” That’s because we have few ways to describe them in such a way that links them to their present-day relatives. They're ancestors or relatives to present day species and we can make those links thanks to some traits they share in their anatomy. But they're not prototypes of anything. They're not anticipating anything. They're not becoming anything. They're just anything--like you and me today are anything.

While you're trapped by forwards-thinking, you might even use the non-term “devolution” to describe the loss of a trait, or the decay of a trait or the decline of a trait. But that’s just evolution. Forwards/backwards, new versions/reversions, gains/losses... All that's just regular old evolution with our biased, value-laden vocabulary (and our aversion to reversion) draped over it. Thinking there's a backwards in nature is just backwards thinking.

We all fall into the forwards-thinking trap. We all have trouble escaping our linear, progressive, goal-oriented thinking. It’s difficult to step out of our present perspective and our culture while we absorb the evidence for evolution. Of course, it's hard... We're complex!

But there are lots of organisms that we wouldn't call complex that are just fine at doing their simple things. Furthermore, there are lots of traits within complex organisms that haven’t changed over millions of years because they’re fine just the way they are. DNA is just one example. Not only have there been myriad additions to organismal complexity during the span of Life on Earth, there have also been myriad losses of functioning
traits as well.

That certainly doesn’t sound like nature is progressing towards a goal or even just towards ever-increasing complexity for complexity’s sake.

Just because we consciously create increasingly complex technology ... just because we marvel at complex systems... just because we appreciate and even strive for complexity…just because we celebrate forwards-thinking... and just because we teach and reinforce goal-oriented behavior... that doesn’t have any bearing on what matters in nature.

Nature cannot strive for, marvel at, celebrate or appreciate, remember?

In nature, there's no forwards or backwards. Nature just is. What works works. What doesn’t doesn’t.

Some of it’s beautiful and some of it’s brutal, but nature has no idea.

Beautiful and brutal and forwards-thinking are ours.

Thanks to nature.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A brief early-summer break from being too serious....

We in academe like to complain about our students.  We like to grumble that they have no interest and little ability.   They just want to carouse, not to study.  How dreadfully unappreciative of our efforts!

A recent article in the New Yorker about cosmologist David Deutsch says he is basically self-employed because he, though affiliated with Oxford University, doesn't teach--doesn't want to spend effort with a bunch of students who don't want to be there.  In a famous passage, Thomas Huxley, energetic advocate of education for the working class, grumbled about the 'won't learns, don't learns, and can't learns'.  Socrates complained about his students, too....and that was 400 BC!

But the tables can be turned, as well.  Tennyson, Darwin, and Einstein to name but three we can remember off-hand, noted that they went to university but, fortunately, escaped unscathed, or that they couldn't have achieved what they did if they'd been employed by a university.  Too stultifying, bureaucratic, constraining, stuffily self-satisfied.

Well, that's not new either.  The European universities as we know them were founded around 1000 years ago.  They quickly got into international status rankings and competition for students and their tuition.  And by the 1600s they were already very much as we know them today.  A satirical play by Robert Burton, called Philosophasters, written around 1606, portrays the founding of a new University in Spain, whose faculty manifest the same stuffy, self-important, often vacuous pomposity by which academics are often characterized today.  And the students are carousing as they do today, often learning little more than how to posture about their qualifications.

We might be depressed about this: the secret of the nature of academe is out, and hasn't changed for centuries.  Students have always been the same degree-deserving scholars that we find in class (when they actually go to class) today.  Recent surveys have shown how standards and rigor have dropped, along with actual learning.  And the professors?  We're the same all-knowing authority figures, knowing the Truth about everything big and (mainly) trivial, and solving all of society's problems just as we've been in the past.

But let's not be depressed.  First, every human organization or group has its faults, and rarely is even aware of them.  Why should we be an exception?  So let's take cheer (and raise our glasses) because it provides us a living, is harmless in general, and because society has survived our millennia of effort unscathed.  Or rather, thinking about history, at least no more scathed than it would have been otherwise.

It is easy, and fun, to criticize, as long as we know that we ourselves are targets.  It's also perhaps largely useless to criticize, as history shows.  But without at least some critical pressure to do better, things could be a lot worse.  And there are reasons to think that for the health of our country, the quality of our education system might actually matter.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The F-words of Evolution

Religion is commonly pegged as the biggest obstacle to teaching the backbone of biology – a.k.a. evolution.

But there’s also a formidable secular issue in evolution education and I think it’s far too often overlooked and underestimated:

Even after evolution’s accepted, it’s commonly misunderstood, mistaught, and misapplied.

Getting things wrong is bad enough, but scarier ramifications occur when wrong-headed evolutionary thinking, based on what or who is "favored" or "fittest," is used to support apathy or to justify hateful and violent behavior between humans.

So let’s think about how we throw around those
f-words. Especially in the presence of children!

Let my people evolve

Whether or not they realize it, people speak of a trait or an individual being
favored by Mother Nature (a.k.a. “selected for”) in the same way that religious folks talk about some people being "chosen" by God.

No, I don’t think it’s intentional.

But I do think that there's a real link: Whether or not you believe
that there's a God and s/he favors people, it's easy to transfer that thinking onto Mother Nature and to have her favor things too.

must be doing the selecting... natural, sexual, or otherwise. Something with agency.

And not only that, but that something might like me a whole lot! And it may like me more than my drunk, tacky neighbor! Because that's logical. I really am better than my drunk, tacky neighbor. And something bigger than me should recognize that.

Whether it’s God or Mother Nature or the universe or whatever you want to call it, that agent deems me better than someone else and I love that. And I
neeeeeed that.

If you cling to this belief that only the
favored are special in the eyes of a God-like Mother Nature, then evolutionary thinking can give rise to the same sorts of tribal and societal conflicts that derive from religious beliefs.[1]

We need to disassociate nature from "Mother Nature" which is an entity with agency and intention.

Nature can’t
favor anything. It’s our limited vocabulary that leads us to say so. And saying so tempts us to think so.[2]

Any which way but lose

Darwin incorporated Spencer’s phrase “survival of the
fittest” into his work, which helped him to paint the evolutionary landscape as one rife with conflict and combat. And it certainly has a lot of that.[3]

"Survival of the
fittest" brings to mind the fastest gazelle or the tallest giraffe or the busiest bee or the spiniest sea urchin or the pinchiest lobster. But that’s an extremely limited view of the world.

Most organisms are not the _____-est!

Are you the _______-est in anything or at anything?

I'm not.

Now, okay, you got me fair and square: I’m a tree-hugging liberal.

But I’m also a highly competitive person who was raised in the southern U.S. in the 1980s, who is a former captain and coach of various sports teams, and who doesn’t believe in giving every child a ribbon at a track meet.

So hear me as the latter when I say…

Evolution isn’t about the winner.

The winner? The
fittest? Nope. Think “survival of the fitter.”

Many individuals, not just the winner, the best, or the ____-est, pass on their genes to the next generation. Those individuals that do not pass on their genes (the evolutionary losers, if you must), those individuals are out of the game, along with their genes. All the rest, not just the ________-est or the winner, are still in the game!

We're used to games like running races or basketball with one winner or one winning team. This analogy doesn't apply to evolution.

Instead of “survival of the best” think “survival of the good enough.”

This change in wording can change your thinking and it reminds me of the difference between saying “early man” and “early humans.” When I hear “early man” I imagine only prehistoric adult males[4] and "early humans" fixes that by adding females and juveniles to my head movies.

“Survival of the
fittest” may be even more accidentally exclusive than “early man.”

So let's phase out “fittest” and let's phase out "favored."

Let's work on censoring these f-words and, when they must be used in historical contexts, let's be mindful of their power to not only mislead and limit our evolutionary understanding but to also support racist beliefs and behaviors.

Just because Darwin said these f-words, does not mean that they're necessary or correct.
Origin of Species should not be treated as holy text.[5] There’s no such thing as blasphemy in science.[6]

And I bet Darwin, as sensitive as he was, would have dreamt up a better language for evolution and selective mechanisms by now.
But since he can't, why don’t we?

Coming soon... another f-word: Forwards (a.k.a. progress)

[1] Have you seen
this map of the hate groups in the U.S.? Have you studied history? Religion isn’t the only route to superiority. Among these hate groups, you're bound to find misapplications of evolutionary theory, like "social Darwinism" and the like.

[2] This is similar to how our limited vocabulary leads us to say that silverback males are "securing paternity," which then leads us to incorrectly assume that they know the concept of fatherhood in the sense that humans do.
Read more here.

[3] But none of any of this would be here today if there wasn’t also very powerful cooperation at all levels of size and complexity within the biosphere. For more on cooperation, see the book The Mermaid’s Tale
by Ken and Anne (of this very blog!)

[4] There's that tree-hugger rearing her frizzy-haired head.

[5] No text should be treated as holy.

[6] Even the f-words of evolution could be rescued from cuss-dom if the evidence supported it.

The Darwins at Malvern: the Water-Cures

We are on holiday in Worcestershire in the UK this week.  (By luck we are staying at one of the nicest B&B's we've ever found, the Old Country House in Mathon.  It's lovely, in a stunningly beautiful part of the country, with a lovely proprietress.  If you've ever got an inkling to make a pilgrimage to Malvern, where Darwin came to take the waters, and where he brought his 10 year old daughter, Annie, when she was very ill, this is the place to stay.)

E.g., a well-dressed well in Wyche.
We wandered through Malvern in an English spring rain, the town that drew so many people "to take the waters" (from the hills, not the rain!) in the 1800s.  The water here has been used for cures, and bottled for drinking for a very long time.  A lesser known tradition practiced around here is "well-dressing", an ancient tradition started in the 12th century.
...in the 12th and 13th centuries the Holy Well was dressed annually with offerings, probably on August 5th, in thanks to St Oswald for water cures there. In 1615 there was a national drought, but as Malvern`s springs kept flowing they "were (well) dressed as a token of gratitude for a plentiful supply of water" (Malvern Advertiser 1870). 
We passed a long row of hotels built in the 1800s to accommodate all the people who came to town for the waters.  Including Charles Darwin, who spent several months here taking water treatments at Dr Gully's Water Cure Establishment.   This involved wrapping the poor patient in cold water-soaked sheets, much dumping of ice-cold water over the head, brisk walks in the countryside, and lots of  consumption of the famous Malvern water.  The woman at the little museum in Great Malvern told us that of course people's health improved, they were away from the polluted cities, eating well and doing exercise, perhaps for the only time in their lives. (In any case, as any honest doctor will tell you, most patients will get better on their own, treatment or no treatment.)  Darwin himself was pleased with his therapy, and continued it for a while when he returned home.

When his dearest daughter, Annie, fell ill in 1851, Darwin brought her to Malvern, where Dr Gully was sure he could cure her. After a week she seemed to be improving, and Darwin left her to return home, confident he'd soon return to Malvern to find her quite recovered, but instead he was summoned back within a fortnight because she was getting worse.  He went alone, as his wife, Emma, was heavily pregnant and unable to travel.

Annie Darwin's gravestone
Annie died several days later, and Charles and Emma Darwin were heartbroken, never fully recovering from her loss.  Darwin went home to Emma the day after Annie's death, leaving his brother and sister-in-law to fill in for them at Annie's funeral.  She is buried in the graveyard of the little church in Malvern, where, we were told, her grave is almost always surrounded with flowers.  However, and we think appropriately, there is no fanfare, no special markings, no souvenir hawkers besides this very modest memorial.  Annie really does rest in peace.
Montreal House, Malvern

It is somewhat ironic, however, that she does this in a churchyard.  This doubtlessly gave comfort to Emma, who was a serious believing Christian, but for Charles any remaining doubts about the Christian version of God died with Annie.  Her painful and pointless death served no purpose, and she had done nothing to be taken at so young an age.  Darwin wanted to believe in things which, if they had no Purpose, at least made sense.  Evolution did.

Charles stayed at Montreal House, one of the hotels in that long row of such establishments on Worcester Road in Malvern, now bearing a plaque commemorating that fact.

But, in fact it was more than Darwin that drew us to this part of England.  It was the Victorian age poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who spent her childhood at a place called Hope End, not far from Malvern and close to the Old Country Farm where we are staying.  She grew up here, and though she like Annie was plagued with an illness, it had nothing to do with Annie's disease, nor with the spas or water-cures.

However, it's late, we're tired, and that story is for another day.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Our economic models are lousy because our ape brains couldn't do math?

Driving to work the other day we heard part of a story on the BBC about human economic behavior -- we heard the part about the behavior, but did not hear the part that told us what show it was, so, in what is very poor blogging protocol, we can't link to it.  In any case, their 'expert' (undoubtedly an economics professor at some presumably respectable university, and thus expert at evolutionary biology) says that humans are always trying to outwit and outcompete each other, and that we're vulnerable to herd behavior in terms of what it seems will be good competition (like buying a house because everybody else is, assuming that even if there's a bubble, and it bursts, at least I will get out in time to profit).

As the yarn was spun, our expert said that we came from ape stock, small bands, simple life and all the usual stuff.  Then we 'decided' to build complex systems like Wall Street (let's cut a break for the far-sighted implication that an ape foresaw New York), but our little ol' ape brains weren't capable of living in such a complex system.  That's why our behavior is not up to it and why such a system as Wall Street doesn't actually work.

Now no doubt economists, who for some reason still have paying jobs at universities, acknowledge that they can't predict any better than weather forecasters, have all sorts of theories about why the system fails, leads to such personal tribulations, high unemployment, etc. etc.  And the Beeb interviewee went on about similar kinds of things.

So we have the very ethnocentric Just-So story that we're over our li'l heads in complexity and that's why things don't work!  But wait just a second!  To the ear used to accepting baloney Just-So stories, this sounds acceptable.  But there is a much more plausible explanation, far more evolutionary in fact than these contorted post hoc evolutionary make-believes.  Evolutionarily, our economic system is either irrelevant, or it works wonderfully!

After all, there are by far, far, far, more people on earth, and hence more copies of 'the' human genome, than ever before.  There may have been a total of less than 200 billion people ever, in the past hundreds of thousands of years of human history, but 7 billion of those -- around 5% -- who ever lived, are alive to day, and in terms of reproduction we're putting bunnies to shame.

No evolutionary biologist has any reason to make any connection between Darwin and whether people are enjoying life.  Indeed, Darwin rested his theory on his belief that life was miserable, relentless, cruel competition.  So, even if we accept the economist experts completely at their word about our non-rational behavior, we are, as a species, booming along just fine!

From this point of view, it matters not a whit if you are unemployed, lose your house, or can't get good health care.  So long as you and your descendants are rutting merrily away, the economic system is working wonders, whether you're happy with it or not.  And if economic woes lead to even less 'responsible' sexual behavior, that's evolutionarily even better!

It's a wholly legitimate question why we can't understand economics.  But it's not an evolutionary question about whether humans are adapted to our culture or not.  Our economic behavior must fit within our biological nature, and of course there will be genetic variation that affects it--and even some genetic variants that have detectable effects.  But the behavioral 'repertoire' is not restricted to humans.

Economic behavior is evolutionary, but it's cultural not biological evolution that matters.  And the fact is, social scientists including cultural anthropologists have failed rather seriously either to simply recognize there are serious limits to knowledge, or that their knowledge is seriously limited, or that their profession's achievements are fundamentally under-developed.  That's where the problem lies, and the proof is in the pudding.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The evolution of complexity without natural selection

There is a very interesting report in Nature this week (see the BBC story, if you can't access Nature) about the evolution of complex life and the role of natural selection in that.  The BBC writes

A comparison of proteins across 36 modern species suggests that protein flaws called "dehydrons" may have made proteins less stable in water.
This would have made them more adhesive and more likely to end up working together, building up complex function.
The Nature study adds weight to the idea that natural selection is not the only means by which complexity rises.

These flaws are a particular aspect of proteins that make them less likely to do their assumed original or 'proper' job as well as the normal form of the protein would. This molecular deficit makes proteins stickier and more likely to adhere to each other.  The authors suggest that this can enable more complex molecular interactions, and hence more complex living forms.
The analysis showed that organisms with smaller populations - such as humans - had accumulated more of these defects than simpler organisms with vastly higher population numbers.
One of the authors, Michael Lynch, has been trying to persuade biologists that classical Darwinian natural selection is not the only way that complex traits can be enabled.  The other author, Ariel Fernandez, is an expert on the particular biochemical aspects of these modified proteins.  If a population is small enough, traits that are not quite as 'good' (in terms of their darwinian fitness) as some other version of the trait in the population can nonetheless proliferate and even displace the 'better' one.  This works when the supposed deficit is small relative to the best-available, and the population is small.  The consequent advance in frequency of the less robust forms can lead to new traits--such as the aggregation of similarly deficient proteins to lead to more complex structures and hence new or more complex traits.

This is not an argument that classical kinds of natural selection don't or can't occur, but it is an argument that nature is not always relentlessly perfecting and purifying what exists.  So it is a challenge to the kind of universal selectionism that we often see and hear stated as 'the' theory of evolution.  Of course, if something advances, an ardent Darwinian can say that, however indirectly, this variant was in a sense the best after all, or that the new complex trait would not evolve without being favored by selection.  So a Darwinist would argue that it is wrong to refer to these as 'flaws' in molecules, just as, from an evolutionary point of view, humans' poor night vision, worse than that of, say, owls, is not a 'flaw': in our evolutionary history, it was the best available.

We won't delve into that argument, which involves definitions of terms, ideas very hard to test scientifically, short-term ideas assumed to apply steadily in the long term, as well as stubbornly held ideological views about evolution.

But we will point out that the idea of Lynch and Fernandez relates to a major interest of ours, here on MT here and in the book after which we named this blog: it relates to what we have called cooperation in the nature and evolution of life.  Evolutionary success has involved at least as much successful interaction among cooperating units--in this case 'defective' proteins--as it has involved relentless all-seeing selective competition.  Selection and cooperation exist, perhaps at all levels of life.  The major question for biologists who want to understand life rather than just assert an ideology about it, is to understand how these two factors, along with many aspects of chance, explain how life works and how it got that way.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Extinct because ex-stent?

In the latest surprise bulletins is a report of an Egyptian mummy who is found, after sexy hi-tech body scanning, to have had heart and other arterial blockage disease.  If she were alive, say the investigators, she'd have needed bypass surgery (or just a few stents?).  This princess died about 3,500 years ago.

Now whether or not you think it is ethical to do such studies of the deceased, and despite the fact that this prying is certainly interesting, the story is reported in part because "The researchers say her case shows heart disease pre-dates a modern lifestyle".  The idea that this proves that heart disease predates modern culture is another misleading bit of self-promotion and media hype.  Why?

References to and treatment of heart disease are plentiful in the existing literature of the past.  Other animals are known to get heart disease.  And it is manifestly shown that avoiding the worst of 'modern lifestyle' clearly leads to less heart disease, but not in everyone.  So the 'finding' is really nothing more than what was already well-known.  The researchers go on:
Her diet was significantly healthier than ours. She would have eaten fruit and vegetables - and fish were plentiful in the Nile at that time.  The food would have been organic - and there were no trans-fats or tobacco available then. Yet, she had these blockages. This suggests to us that there's a missing risk factor for heart disease - something that causes it that we don't yet know enough about.
The researchers pander to every here-and-now fad or idea ('organic' food).  Nothing wrong with advocating a better diet, of course.  Despite their taste, brussels sprouts are life-savers!  But we already know of various genetic factors that can lead, for example, to hypercholesterolemia basically even without lifestyle provocation.  Of course, they'll probably now do her genome sequence, if DNA survived her embalming, and we'll spend a good deal of money to get and have a good many news stories to report the findings.  Perhaps they'll find one of the known LDL receptor mutations but those are largely in Europeans so if they find one they'll then be able to proclaim that she was an immigrant or proved there were royal liaisons with European (i.e., barbarian) royalty!

Sadly, we were not around to be invited to any Pharaohnic dinner parties, so we don't know what kind of food the royals of the time ate.  Nor whether the princess happened to have both a sweet tooth and indulgent nannies.  Or whether she was just plain genetically unlucky.

Again, we know we're spoil-sports but we think science should be about science rather than spin, even it makes knowledge a bit more boring, and science reporting should be done by people who know their field and report properly.  The reason for our stodgy views is that spinning is how we make ourselves teeter off on expensive research as well as pop-culture/how-to tangents.

The definition of peace and quiet: 200 trillion miles to our nearest neighbor

The Gliese star (photo from BBC)

Well, here's some relief for those of us who want some peace and quiet from noisy neighbors.  The discovery of the week is the nearest planet that could (might, possibly, if we imagine hard enough) 'host' life (well, at least water), an exoplanet circling the star Gliese 581.

Being a good 'host' may be rather moot, as far as earth life is concerned, because we can't even go to the moon any more, which at 250,000 miles away is slightly closer than the Gliese 581g planet.  But with a big enough gas tank (probably will require ethanol from corn, argues Cargill) and enough Twinkies and Tang, and thick enough radiation shields, the NASA vehicle could get there within about 3 working lifetimes if it could go at, say, 1/3 the speed of light (that sluggish rate for reasons of fuel economy).  Of course, that means the vehicle will require dessication facilities for the initial astronauts, not to mention appropriate privacy so that succeeding generations could be conceived.

The quest for life out there is interesting and even thought-provoking if there were even a shred of evidence for it.  Of course some, including Francis Crick, argued that life here had been seeded from visiting spacecraft (dumping garbage, presumably).  Martians may be watching us, of course, but if so they're keeping mighty quiet about it.

We were discussing extraterrestrial life with a friend of ours, David Krakauer at the Santa Fe Institute.  One of the problems with understanding the lack of results from years of SETI (with countless computers scanning for electromagnetic radiation-based signals from intelligent life out there) is how long the signal takes to get here, now at least 20 years based on this recent discovery, relative to when such high-IQ life existed or how long it would exist, or whether and how it would be sending signals to life that is 'out there' for them--us!  It is not at all clear that even if life does, did, or will exist elsewhere, that we could expect to detect it. So one can believe what they want to believe about it.

Of course, from a scientific point of view, what counts as 'life'?  Need it be based on water?  Is the basic energy cycle, that also generates protein and DNA components on earth, necessary for what we'd call life?  If the right ingredients are present, would such life inevitably occur?  Could anyone really argue that DNA as protein code would be inevitable?  And if it were, is there any reason for that to generate anything that resembles human beings or human intelligence?

Many have argued in the positive, while others think that is asking too much.  There could be self-perpetuating, energy-grabbing, life that is nothing like what we are like.  Finding that might be more deeply interesting than finding DNA-based slime molds dozens of lightyears away.

Probably, each of us has our own preferred sci-fi scenario.  Undoubtedly astronomers will continue to discover the planetary targets of Trekkies of the future.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Caveat emptor! The latest snake oil being hawked by geneticists.

Telomeres (public domain photo)
The British newspaper The Independent reported on May 16 that a £435 ($700) test to determine telomere length will go on sale in Britain within the year.  Telomeres are structures on the tips of chromosomes that have been found to shorten with age, and the company, Life Length, claims that the test results will predict a person's lifespan.
Scientists behind the €500 (£435) test said it will be possible to tell whether a person's "biological age", as measured by the length of their telomeres, is older or younger than their actual chronological age.
Life Length is anticipating hundreds of requests from people wanting to have their telomeres tested and is expecting demand from thousands more once the company is able to bring down the cost of the test as public demand increases.
And they are certain that public demand will increase.  
Asked why the general public would be interested in taking a telomere test, Dr Shay [a consultant to Life Length] said: "I think people are just basically curious about their own mortality. If you ask people what they worry about, most people would say they are worried about dying."
He added: "People might say 'If I know I'm going to die in 10 years I'll spend all my money now', or 'If I'm going to live for 40 more years I'll be more conservative in my lifestyle'.
Curiously, the reporter adds, "The worrying thing is that if this information ever got to a point where it is believable, insurance companies would start requiring it in terms of insuring people."  Throughout the story the reporter strives to be agnostic as to whether the science is up to the claim, quoting scientists on both sides of the issue (though, it must be said that those in favor are tied to Life Length) and yet he apparently doesn't believe it himself.  Why isn't that the story here?  Why give free advertising to a product that isn't obviously  ready for prime time?

Indeed, a follow-up story in the same newspaper by the same reporter on May 17 under the headline "Concerns grow over DNA test that determines your lifespan", tells a more cautionary tale. 
Experts are worried that people may misunderstand the limitations of the test, which purports to measure a person's true "biological" age rather than the usual chronological age. They are also concerned that the information may be used by insurance companies and organisations trying to sell fake anti-ageing remedies.
"I'm sceptical and concerned about this test mainly because of the lack of evidence that this information is useful and yet this test touches on really significant issues, such as predictions of life expectancy," said Colin Blakemore, an Oxford neuroscientist and former head of the Medical Research Council.
"My pressing concern is just how reliable these tests are in terms of anything significant. We need to know an awful lot more before we make predictive statements. People worry about how predictive it is."
This sounds an awful lot like what's being said by some about direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies.  We, for example, have said it here, and here.  How predictive genes 'for' disease or telomere length actually are is simply not known, and sales of these results as though it is is just snake oil.

Yes, telomere length has been found to be correlated with lifespan, but as everyone knows, correlation does not mean causation.  Which comes first, illness which shortens telomeres, or short telomeres, which cause illness?

And even more significant for this story is the fact that apparently telomeres can be lengthened.  A paper published in The Lancet in 2008 looked at telomerase activity (the enzyme that maintains telomeres) in men with low-risk cancer of the prostate. 
30 men with biopsy-diagnosed low-risk prostate cancer were asked to make comprehensive lifestyle changes. The primary endpoint was telomerase enzymatic activity per viable cell, measured at baseline and after 3 months. 24 patients had sufficient PBMCs [peripheral blood mononuclear cells] needed for longitudinal analysis. This study is registered on the ClinicalTrials.gov website, number NCT00739791.
PBMC telomerase activity expressed as natural logarithms increased from 2·00 (SD 0·44) to 2·22 (SD 0·49; p=0·031). Raw values of telomerase increased from 8·05 (SD 3·50) standard arbitrary units to 10·38 (SD 6·01) standard arbitrary units. The increases in telomerase activity were significantly associated with decreases in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (r=−0·36, p=0·041) and decreases in psychological distress (r=−0·35, p=0·047).

And, telomere length has been linked with chronic stress exposure and depression.  Indeed, some studies have shown, according to the May 16 story, "that meditation or other forms of stress reduction may lengthen telomeres" (one such study is here). Even some of the pro-testing scientists interviewed for the story suggest that people who find out they have short telomeres can beat the odds by improving their diet and exercising. So, why should anyone buy this $700 test if telomere length is essentially a reflection of lifestyle, and a short term one at that? 

And that's just the beginning.  Other issues include the variance around the predicted (statistically 'expected') age of death.  And how stable that is--since it must be based on actual deaths in some way, relative to the dynamics of telomere degradation per year.  And whether death-age estimates are based on prior lifestyle exposures which cannot be extrapolated to the future.  And whether the prediction is any better than that based on your close relatives' experience, your weight, diet, smoking and other habits, your job hazards, and so much else.

Telomeres are important aspects of genomic health, but organismal health is more complicated than just telomere length (measured in blood samples, whereas death rarely occurs because of blood failure!).  There are correlations with body size and lifespan, but the relationship to telomeres and their maintenance across species and over evolutionary time are not so simple.

So, snake oil is still snake oil.  Caveat emptor!  And scientists: be restrained in what you accept and what you teach your students.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sad, or sick, sign of the academic times

Well, it's a slow week for science news.  Nothing other than the usual claims for revolutionary discoveries.  But then, when we went to our mailbox at work, the Major Moment arrived!  A flyer for the "NIH RO1 Grant Application" Mentor!

First came the fear tactic.  79% of NIH Grant Applications are unfunded! (note exclamation point)  So this will walk you through, step by step, how to do the whopping 12 page RO1 grant application form.

And in case your PhD or other higher degree didn't provide what you expected, this spiral-bound book includes "sample language from FUNDED applications..."  (capitals in the flyer). "color coded exact copies of NIH words when they are especially helpful."  And when the flyer says "100% Satisfaction Guaranteed or Full Refund" we wonder if that satisfaction means you got your grant or if, having failed as most applications do, you would not have 'satisfaction' and could demand your money back (providing this wonderful company is still in business, which hopefully they won't be).

Of course to be clear (but naturally not to mislead) the company has 'NIH' in its name, though the tiny, tiny print (too small for many aging PhDs even to read) provides the usual disclaimer that it's not actually affiliated, sorry to say.

And in case you're too slow to get the Big Picture, this "unique manual...coaches" you to "optimally" prepare your grant application "one section at a time!"  (rather, we assume, than, say, 4 sections at a time).

You might expect this massive tome (number of pages not specified, but it has 8 "sections" and looks to be less than an inch thick) to cost around $35, puffed up beyond the usual cost of something this grand as the publishers take advantage of your fearful hunger to get grants.  But you'd be wrong, because the special Early Bird offer is for $200!  And no, that's not the price....it's the discount!  Your special price is (believe it!) only $399!

No, but wait!!! (as the television infomercials say).  Now, for you only, there are two formats.  The price we just quoted was for the online pdf version!  A steal at that price.  If, however, you insist on a printed version, it's a mere $75 more--a not-so-grand total of $474 (but don't worry, that includes shipping and handling).

How venal, cynical, and sick can our society get?  There seem hardly to be any limits.  It is not just that this preying on fears to a disgraceful extent, the fears of no-grant no-job.  And that some poor suckers will shell out (a friend of ours once noted that the most intelligent people are the most gullible).  It is that anyone would have to be vulnerable to such fears in the first place--that our system would be so harsh and materialistic that our most educated (if science PhD training these days can be called 'education') people are reduced to such debasing grubbery.

This is but one more indication of how much is rotten in the state of universities these days.  As recent studies have clearly shown, students pay high tuition and get weak education, and faculty are pushed in many ways not to bother trying to educate them but to hustle grants to raise money (otherwise called 'indirect costs') for your administration; after all, how could you spend effort on teaching, while you are pouring over your NIH grant-cribbing manual?

Monday, May 16, 2011

An economy of labels: the evolution of evolutionary economics

"THE anxiety we feel about whether we’ll succeed is evolution’s way of motivating us," or so says Robert H Frank, an economist at Cornell, in the May 14 New York Times.  That's in 'economist' which of course must mean expert in evolution!  After all, we buy groceries and cars and have a checking account, so we are (to a comparable extent and forecasting skill) economists.

Behavioral economics is the area of economics these days that, in frustration over the inadequacies of mathematical predication of economic decision making and consequences, that is, the failure to actually do their job satisfactorily, has turned to psychology, genes and evolution instead (we blogged about this a while back).  Molecular genetics (and, of course, NIH grants) to the rescue!  Why do people make the seemingly irrational economic decisions they do?  Evolution made them do it.

It's a little hard to ferret out the theme of Frank's piece, but essentially it seems to be that we're driven to succeed by worry.  Success apparently being the whole point (material wealth? fame? he presumably doesn't mean having more children than your neighbor).  Frank says people are very bad at predicting how they'll feel about changes in their lives.  Not being promoted, we worry, will make us miserable, but as it turns out, within six months people are generally as happy as, or even happier than they were before they were turned down.  They've got a new and better job, or it didn't matter as much as they'd feared.  Whatever.  Even people who become physically disabled, Frank says, once they've adapted are often as happy as they were beforehand.  
The human brain was formed by relentless competition in the natural world, so it should be no surprise that we adapt quickly to changes in circumstances. Much of life, after all, is graded on the curve. Someone who remained permanently elated about her first promotion, for example, might find it hard to muster the drive to compete for her next one.
By now you know what we have to say about the hyper-Darwinian explanations that hold that evolution is and always has been about 'relentless competition'.  Not to mention facile just-so stories about everything and anything one can assess by survey methods in our society.  Cooperation is much more ubiquitous than competition, and works at all levels of life, and we can not only observe it but retrodict into our ancient past.  Why Frank claims that competition means we adapt quickly to change isn't clear, but in fact adaptability is fundamental, so fundamental that essentially all living creatures have the ability to adapt to change.
Paradoxically, our prediction errors often lead us to choices that are wisest in hindsight. In such cases, evolutionary biology often provides a clearer guide than cognitive psychology for thinking about why people behave as they do.
According to Charles Darwin, the motivational structures within the human brain were forged by natural selection over millions of years. In his framework, the brain has evolved not to make us happy, but to motivate actions that help push our DNA into the next round. Much of the time, in fact, the brain accomplishes that by making us unhappy. Anxiety, hunger, fatigue, loneliness, thirst, anger and fear spur action to meet the competitive challenges we face. 
Turning to Darwin as though his work is the Bible is a common thing for professors (that is, experts) to do, but why?  Like everyone, Darwin was a product of his time, immersed in a culture of hierarchy and competition, which is reflected in much of his writing.  This is most obvious when he is trying to explain human culture and behaviors.

Explaining our drive to succeed or to be happy in Darwinian terms, as Frank tries to do in this piece, conflates contemporary psychological issues and concerns with the evolutionary social scientist's drive to explain how and why behavioral traits arose, most often with just-so stories.  Why are humans driven to succeed? Frank's answer is that "Anxiety is evolution's way of motivating us."  Really?  Evolution wants us to to do better at our jobs and get that promotion?

In fact, of course, evolution doesn't want anything.  It certainly doesn't care whether we're promoted.  Or even whether we're happy.  The only definition of success that counts in the evolutionary long run is surviving to reproduce.  But our contemporary brains are just as able to convince us not to reproduce as to have as many children as we can.  Our contemporary brains can even convince us to become suicide bombers before we give a thought to reproducing -- not very evolutionarily successful behavior.  Or to commit infanticide, or to have abortions, or to become estranged from our kin.  Or heaven forbid, even to be kind to strangers.  Sure, evolution-minded social scientists can always come up with some sort of convoluted 'evolutionary' explanation for these behaviors, but the simplest explanation is that culture trumps all we think we know about evolution when it comes to why we do what we do.

Of course, other denizens of academe will give Darwinian explanations for the destructive effects of angst.  No matter, they apply to different NIH sections for funding and live in different departments.  No matter, too, that the kinds of rationales that are given do not provide any evidence that humans are at all unique in these ways, which means that explanations in terms of human evolution are mis-placed.

There are, perhaps, valid evolutionary explanations of these things.  But they are about cultural rather than biological evolution.  The processes of cultural evolution and cultures' impact on us, given our basic animal physiology and mental states (that, in some ways we cannot really know are the direct, or more likely indirect products of millions of years of evolution and adaptation).  Understanding how these cultural effects work is an important problem.  Of course, undoubtedly professors of economics, being very intelligent, are experts in that, too.  Maybe if funders stopped funding this kind of faux Darwinian speculation, economists would be forced to figure out how their own, actual area of purported expertise  works.

-Anne and Ken

Friday, May 13, 2011

We want you to be happy.....and write checks!

Well, the craven venality, even of our most prestigious universities, has hit a new low, we suggest. We've heard tell that at Stanford, an instructor was called onto the dean's carpet for being too critical of students' essays in an English class.  Bad grades are discouraging, and Stanford wants its graduates to carry fond memories (the poor delicate things!).....presumably so they'll want to open their wallets in response to the relentless bleating of their alma mater in the future.

This is paired with two other issues that probably can be called scandalous:
First, our student debt is already higher than our national credit card debts.  Here's a BBC program that documents this problem, asking how often the debt is worth the calling card with degrees after the debtors' names.  Most people go to college because they'll get better jobs (at nice offices where the work isn't very hard), but increased lifetime income (not to mention job satisfaction) need to be weighed against the debt cost.

Second, recent studies have shown what students are doing and learning through their studies.....they're not.  They don't study much, don't read their textbooks, and classes are so entertainment-based (see our opening paragraph) that learning has been shown to be minimal.  We are graduating people who are better at tweeting and texting than putting articulate sentences together.  Grade inflation and degree collecting have become baubles of status jewelry in our society, regardless of whether the jewels are made of paste.

Third, at our prestigious 'research 1' universities, faculty are teaching less, teaching small graduate seminars more, with non-tenured instructors given the thankless task of entertaining the undergraduates (who aren't given a reduction in the tuition we continue to charge relative to the time when faculty actually taught).   Faculty members have become prima donas, like star athletes, highly paid, with all summer off, and little formal responsibility, because their--our--research is so vitally important to human existence (you've noticed how much better our society is than, say, a generation ago, yes?)

There are exceptions of course.  Some faculty actually do try to teach, and challenge their students.  Some students are just plain terrific.  What a pleasure to teach them!

The issues are not naive nostalgia.  It has always been true that most people would rather play than study, that most don't really want to be in class, and most of us are about average (the meaning of the word).  We're not all geniuses or scholars.  The problem is that most don't need a college degree as currently constructed, and flooding universities with students who (in between drinking bouts, all-night encounters, and football games) demand passing grades -- or even A's instead of A-'s -- and in-class entertainment, enlarges classes, waters them down and thus cheats those really talented ones who want to  learn and who can make the most of it.  That's where the problem is most serious in terms of our national future. 

But we're on a path, like lemmings, to the cliff.  Smiling as spectators to this dash to mediocrity, are the Chinese, Indians, and others who seem to still to have some actual educational standards.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

An 'Arab spring'* for science?

We started MT to opine on ways in which various principles other than natural selection are important (or even much more important) in life.  Our book argues that Darwin's insight about single origins, and that life is an historical process of descent with modification molded by natural selection enabled a profound transformation of the life sciences.  But an oversimplified, competition-centered worldview has resulted and been extended to society and even to multiple universes, and we felt that a more balanced treatment of what we actually know was warranted.  Hence this blog.

As it has turned out, we spend many posts criticizing what we believe is weak, superficial, over-sold or over-interpreted science, and the cost it extracts from society and the way it and the associated vested interests redirect science towards those interests and towards superficial self-promotion that feeds media, professional, and bureaucratic interests as much as it does scientific ones.

Of course, we know our view puts us in the minority, the vast minority.  We are not vain nor are we naive enough to think that our grumbles will have any leverage on the way science, now a substantial invested segment of society, is carried out.  This is true even if our every opinion were dead on target.  Like any other System in society, science is entrenched and inertial relative to change.  Among other things, science is a pursuit of the upper middle class, and we need to protect our jobs and our McMansions.  But that means to us that science has become wasteful and costly relative to its payoff to the public, who are daily given doses of promised miracles, while their tax money goes as much to support the system as to new discoveries.  Of course, the same kind of behavior characterizes other segments of society as well.

However, we feel there are real problems with how science is being done, and it is important that they are stated.  If we're wrong, our views will go quietly into the night.  This is likely even if we are right.  But as the Arab spring shows, sometimes views that are right, and could lead to improvement in the state of things, do catch on, and motivate larger and larger numbers of people to insist on something better.

We don't claim we have made major discoveries in the views we express, or that we have deeply penetrating insight that nobody else has.  But the issues we write about are real, we think, and need to be 'out there' in the hope that, when the time is ripe, large numbers of people will insist that things be changed in better directions.  Hey, we can dream.

*The current 'Arab spring' is a very serious expression of popular discontent against the few who are controlling the many.   It seems to us to be a fine expression of public will and we don't mean in any way to make light of that in using it in our post title.  The issues we raise in science are of course utterly trivial by comparison.  It was the idea of a general push for change that led us to refer to it.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

God's revenge?

Well, the latest bulletin on how your money is being spent on major research reports that gays have higher cancer rates than straight people.  The headlines, as always, don't tell the whole story -- though in this case, the science reporter more or less gets it right, including a number of reasons why the study is seriously flawed.  Even investigators quoted in the BBC story say that the study doesn't make the case (though, naturally, 'more research is needed'). 

In the 2001, 2003 and 2005 California Health Interview surveys, a total of 3,690 men and 7,252 women said they had been diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives.
Out of the 122,345 people interviewed, 1,493 men and 918 women described themselves as gay, while 1,116 women said they were bisexual.
Gay men were twice as likely to have been diagnosed with cancer as straight men and, on average, it happened a decade earlier.
There was no such link in women.
But then the reporter goes on to say:

The survey interviews "survivors" so is not a true representation of the number of cancer cases.
Some patients will have died before the survey and others would have been too ill to take part.
And then cites an interested bystander:
Dr Ulrike Boehmer, from the Boston University School of Public Health, said it was not possible to conclude "gay men have a higher risk of cancer" because the underlying reasons for the higher incidence could be more complicated.
This is clearly a case in which correlation doesn't imply causation and, worse given the social issues about sexual preference, implying that it is gayness that is causal is itself a story-writer's and investigator's subjective decision.

There are so many real and possible reasons why being homosexual correlates with other lifestyle factors that even to couch the story in these terms is a kind of judgment, even if not a 'value' judgment in the eyes of the investigators.

It's one thing to investigate, say, cancers associated with homosexual vs heterosexual activity--for example the physical exposure to carcinogenic viruses.  But quite a different thing to investigate whether being gay itself is causal.  Does being a professor cause disease (besides egomania)?  Or having a sense of humor?  Maybe one could study whether being married 'causes' higher rates of some disease or other (though, this might only be in the states that allow same-sex marriage!).  Indeed, if you search hard enough you will nearly always be able to detect some differences between any two groups in society.

Telling jokes at the dinner table may increase risk you or your companions may choke on their food while laughing, but it's not because of a sense of humor itself.  But using a label like homosexual adds many other unstated implications that can themselves be harmful as well as scientifically misleading.

And guess what!  Another study has shown that filthy lucre--being well off--seems to cause leukemia in childhood, at least as the reporter phrased it.

Can we now expect to see some of our more ignoble religious leaders proclaiming, from the pulpit no less, that the curse of gay behavior is God's revenge?  More likely God's revenge on the sane parts of society, by providing preachers something to draw attention (and donations) to themselves.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Individualized attention for every kid: personalized disease?

We all want to feel unique, special, deserving of note or attention.  With our huge research establishment, almost anybody can achieve this yearning.  And not just in terms of skills and interests.  We can, apparently we will eventually, all have our own personalized disease(s).

Results from a large study of autism among Korean children are making a big splash in the health news (e.g., here).  Prevalence of this disorder was studied in a "total population sample" and the results published in the May 9 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry.  The study is making a splash because estimates of prevalence among Korean kids, 2.64% or more than twice as high as among American or British kids, where it's around 1%.  (We are unable to access the paper online, but the Autism Science Foundation Blog cites it generously here, the source of our quotes from the paper.)
This study was conducted between 2005 and 2009 in the Ilsan district of Goyang City, South Korea, a stable, residential community near Seoul (area, 102 km2; population, 488,590) and representative of the general South Korean population (Korean Statistical Information Service, Capital Region Population, 2006). The target population (N=55,266) included all children born from 1993 through 1999 (ages 7–12 years at screening) and attending Ilsan elementary schools, as well as children in the same age group enrolled in the Ilsan Disability Registry between September 2005 and August 2006. Thirty-three of 44 elementary schools agreed to participate; 36,592 children were enrolled in participating schools and 294 in the Disability Registry...
Two thirds of the cases they found were among kids in the mainstream school population, previously "undiagnosed and untreated".  The authors suggest there could be cultural reasons for this (apparently autism can be a stigma that affects an entire family in Korean society).  They also suggest that kids on the autism spectrum may do better in Korea's highly structured school system than they do in the US, so can be fairly successful even without diagnosis and specialized support, and thus have flown under the radar.

The authors further conclude that prevalence estimates are likely to go up in the US and the UK if their methods are followed.

But, the "autism spectrum disorder" (ASD) category is a fluid one, generally having become broader over the years as more is learned about apparently similar behavioral disorders.  And, as a cynic might say, increasing the topic-pool for researchers, special ed programs, and other interests. The broadening of the definition, as well as the increased awareness of the spectrum have correlated with a rapid increase in prevalence of autism in the US over the past several decades.  Thus, it has been difficult to sort out whether the increase has been largely due to changing definitions and awareness or in fact to more cases.

Therefore, the suggestion that because prevalence is higher in Korea than in the US means that prevalence has been underestimated in the US -- and that thus many children are being denied treatment and schooling that would improve their chances of success -- assumes that prevalence is real and there to be uncovered rather than at least somewhat dependent on definitions and awareness.  We aren't arguing at all that the disorder doesn't exist, simply that if you throw more symptoms into the pot, you'll get more kids with what is called ASD. If behavior has a distribution, as it seems to--such as a 'normal' distribution--then it's a continuum and one can choose whatever cutoff points one wants to define a person's trait.

Not surprisingly, the intensive and very expensive search for genes 'for' ASD has yielded no genes with large effects.  This is because autism is a complex trait, and like all complex traits, is more likely to be polygenic than due to single genes.  The heterogeneous definition of the trait doesn't help, either. The more continuous the distribution of what's being measured, the more likely it is to be complex--that's the nature of nature.

But the suggestion in this paper that it's incumbent upon researchers to estimate the true prevalence of ASD so that affected children can get the individualized attention they deserve (which they certainly do) is troublesome.  What is 'true' depends on where you draw the line, even if measurement and interpretation were perfect.  Wouldn't every child benefit from individualized attention, whether or not they have been diagnosed with a disorder?  The brightest kids get it, and thrive.  Athletic kids get it, and musical kids, kids into mechanics or art or theatre, as well as kids with labeled disorders. But these labeled kids are the only ones with IEPs (individualized education protocols).

There are several issues here.  One, the solution isn't to label more kids but to give more attention to every kid.  Yes, that's asking for a fundamental remake of the public school system but rather than expand our definitions so that, say, shyness becomes social anxiety disorder, and thus druggable, and every child with any symptom along the autism spectrum becomes treatable, it would behoove us to recognize that all behaviors fall along a spectrum.  And every child deserves an IEP.  And two, we should not give in to the pressure to dope everyone up on maintenance meds.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Taking sex seriously, so as not to rupture a gasket.

WARNING:  This post is rated Adults Only.  Children (including university students) should not see that adults with respectable titles like 'scientist' waste their time doing studies such as that reported here.

There's apparently no end to the marvelous, unpredictable, exciting, deeply penetrating insights of modern science--your tax money at work!  Now, at long last, is proof of the harm that evolution has wrought:  Keeping awake for sex can kill!  This notable story is fair warning about fair damsels: keep away unless drowsy.  The buildup of fluid pressure, or that sudden 'surge,' can trigger bleeding on the brain. So, at least if you must indulge, keep it from a climactic ending and keep your wits about you.  Of course any other gushing (if less blushing) behavior can have similar effects, like blowing your nose.  But they don't get into the news.

On the other hand, another study shows that happy marriage reduces the risk of stroke, so something has to give.  This may be the phenomenon of 'marital bed death', in which couples are happier if they keep their hands off each other.  At least, that's the implication.  Marriages in which a certain manifestation of groping fondness for some strange reason persists are risky, it would appear, if this comparably penetrating study is to be believed.

One way to resolve these apparent differences is to note that sex and coffee are not limited to marriage, so that marriage confounds the understanding of the causal connections.  Unless being married is the stressor, and sex only the correlate rather than the cause.  Presumably extracurricular adventures would also have to be considered, but the authors didn't, so far as we're aware, peek into such affairs.

The bottom line, so to speak, is that you have to pick your poison.  Keep your hands to yourself and keep your head clear:  decide where you want your fluids leaking--on your brain or elsewhere.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Saving Society through Science?

We've posted recently on the comparative successes of science in the 'hard' areas like physics and molecular biology and many others, and the rather bleak failure in the social sciences to live up to the hopes of the period known as the Enlightenment, that knowledge, reason, and science would lead to the perfection of society.  Utopian thinking dreamt of real perfection, but we don't have to be completely idealistic to ask how well the dream has been approached if not achieved.

Emile Zola
In our earlier posting we asserted that social science has been a rather dismal failure in that regard, despite extraordinary investment in research resources, the growing of university departments (psych., sociology, political science, economics, family studies, ethnic studies, and many others).  Tons of books and many board-feet of library shelves housing journals have resulted, but it's hard to say that society is better in major ways as a result of this kind of knowledge.  Cynically, what has been better is the lifestyle of social scientists.

It may be argued that the idea of such perfectability through knowledge is overstated and that it was not really something that 'stuck' after the 1700s and 1800s period itself.  But here is a quote, one of many on the subject of science triumphing over faith from the famous French novelist and political agitator (dreamer?), Emile Zola:
Was it indeed true that the cultured young were still and ever in their silent forge, renouncing no hope, relinquishing no conquest, but in full freedom of mind forging the truth and justice of to-morrow with the invincible hammers of observation and experiment? (The Three Cities Trilogy: Paris, Vol 2)
And later, Zola says, referring to the priest who has lost his faith,
And now the young men of intellect of whom he had despaired, that generation of the morrow which he had thought spoilt, relapsing into ancient error and rottenness, had appeared to him full of virile promise, resolved to prosecute the work of those who had gone before, and effect, by the aid of Science only, the conquest of absolute truth and absolute justice.
We have many criticisms of the life sciences, not so much because we haven't solved all the problems in biology but for the amount of largesse and the braggadocio and self-aggrandizement that is involved.  The same kind of boastful self-promotion is going on in the social sciences, especially as social scientists rush to do genomics--explaining all about your behavior and society in terms of genes.  This awful abandonment of social science in favor of genetics is a clear confession of failure but not an acceptance that loss of funding should go with it--until and unless social sciences begin to live up to what we should expect of them: to understand behavior and society so as to improve it and the world we live in.

Societies are perhaps the ultimate 'emergent' phenomenon, not predictable from measurement on individuals any more than the pressure of a gas can be predicted by enumerating each of its molecules.  It's a major challenge.  We can easily imagine an improved society, but we don't yet know how to engineer or even to predict it.

Zola's comments show that for quite a while there was a belief that science would do this.  The implicit promise of those still feeding at  the NIH and NSF funding trough shows that the belief, or at least the rationale, persists.  Isn't it time for some results?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Between Two Hominins

It's well underway already, but I wanted to post the link to the live feed of Sanjay Gupta's interview of Don Johanson and Richard Leakey at the AMNH tonight.


It's fascinating. They are tried and true explainers. Leakey's devlish grins are priceless. Johanson is a master at this.

If I wasn't traveling tomorrow, I'd post all about what bugged me. Instead, I'll just jot some concerns down now.

Particularly, and this is big, neither one of them corrected Sanjay Gupta when he asked if humans could experience "devolution" or "de-evolution." Johanson just spoke about differential reproduction, etc.. Getting, as expected, a lot of audience laughter. You can't ask him to be responsible for all evolution education, and especially not during one interview. However, you'd think that mistaken term ("devolution") would ring a loud nauseating bell in either of their minds.

Devolution or de-evolution is JUST evolution. To say it's something separate is to define evolution as progress or the attainment of (or striving for) perfection. When, instead, evolution is only change through time. And only what's necessary (or what's not so bad) is what normally works for an organism and allows it to keep evolving (rather than go extinct).

All this talk (by Johanson mostly) about Africa being perfectly poised (I believe that's a quote) for the origins of Homo sapiens... Well, of course! That's where we think it happened and it happened there. In Africa. Why's it got to be perfect and seemingly destined?

Look, as long as Africa was all right and not awful, then that's all that was required for Homo sapiens to first emerge there (as if "emergence" is something that even actually happens over deep time).

It's not like our species is baby Jesus and we need to create this perfect birth story where the manger was just so and the swaddling was all clean and Mary was just glowing and hardly perspiring and the on-looking animals were all well-behaved and Joseph loved Mary so much.

Evolution usually isn't about perfection. It's just about what works and what doesn't. And that's not just true for slime mold evolution but for human evolution as well.

Instructions for downloading and viewing the movie about Deep Time

I posted about my deep time movie here recently, and since then I’ve received a few queries from people who can’t actually see the movie!
I hope these instructions below will fix that problem and help everyone to see the movie.
Here are the steps that people operating PCs (like me) will need to take to download and to watch the movie
1. Go to the journal's 2011 volume: http://www.paleoanthro.org/journal/2011/
2. Find  my article and click on “PA20110013_S03.zip” which is “Supplement 3” under my article “Deep Time in Perspective: An Animated Fossil Hominin Timeline
3. A window will pop up on your screen.
4. Select  "Extract" (Depending on your unzip program, there are variations on how to get to this command of "extract" and what it does, but ultimately it results in the "Timeline Folder" ending up where you choose. I choose my Desktop.)
5.. Go to where you sent these files (e.g. I go to my desktop) and find “Timeline Folder”
6. Double click on it to open it
7. You will see three files inside this folder
8. Double click on “timeline” (there are two named this, choose the one that is 2kb and comes ready with a browser’s icon… mine is Firefox)
9. It should open your internet browser and start running
10. You can stop it at any time by clicking on the red “button” below the timeline
11. You can change the rate by choosing from the drop-down menu below the timeline. At its slowest it takes 93 hours, at its fastest it only takes about 7 minutes or so.
12. You can start all over from the beginning by hitting “reset time” below the timeline.

A few thoughts...
One reason that this movie file is hard for some people to access is that it is NOT linked to (as implied) in the original article.
The other reason it's a nuisance is the movie comes in the form of a zip folder containing three files that need to remain bundled in order for the movie to run. The movie (one of the files) draws on the data from the other two files that it’s bundled with. As it’s running (in your default internet browser, like Mozilla Firefox or Internet Explorer) you can’t tell that it’s doing that at all. However, if you remove the movie file from the folder and try to run it, it won’t work. Whenever you move the movie or copy the movie, you must do it at the folder level. You must move or copy the whole "Timeline Folder" or else it won't run.
To download zip files you have to “extract” them before viewing them. So the process is a little bit convoluted for newcomers. Zip files are handy ways to compress large files for sending via email, but in this case we used the zip technology to bundle the three files that MUST remain as one unit for the movie to run.

Thank you so much for all the positive feedback. I hope this movie is a useful tool for everybody.