Friday, December 30, 2011

The iron cage of preconception

We thought we'd let MT lay fallow today, in lazy anticipation of the turning of the year, when not many people are spending their time browsing blogs.  But now that we've seen this story on the BBC site we can't let it slide.  It's the report of an experiment that provides the missing link in the evolution of language.  Yes!  Can you believe it?. . . .
Researchers found that wild chimps that spotted a poisonous snake were more likely to make their "alert call" in the presence of a chimp that had not seen the threat.
This indicates that the animals "understand the mindset" of others.
The insight into the primates' remarkable intelligence will be published in the journal Current Biology.  How could Nature and Science, both hungry as they are for sensational stories, have missed this?
Matthew Cobb, professor of zoology at the University of Manchester, explained that "imagining what another individual is thinking" is a crucial part of human language. 
But, hold on. Didn't we learn just last week that corvids could do the same? Jays that see that they've been observed while hiding food later move it, because they apparently understand what the nearby jay is thinking, namely that when the hider leaves, he or she will get the hider's meal for free.

We are not criticizing this story itself, and indeed it seems both interesting and convincing. But how can there still be surprise at, or doubt about, the ability of animals other than ourselves to have sophisticated mental and social lives? Instead of trying to explain how, with their dullard brains, other species can do things we fancied that only our noble selves were up to, wouldn't an evolutionary perspective simply have expected this?

Chimp warning an uninformed mate
about danger (from the BBC).
Species other than ourselves are hatched into complex, variable, threatening as well as beckoning Nature. They have to perceive it, size it up, and decide how to manage their way through it. They have the same sense organs we have, using very similar genes and genetic pathways -- some, such as light-perceiving mechanisms even shared between clams and humans.

We can debate who has 'consciousness' til the proverbial cows come home, and we know that many don't want to credit that to any species but ourselves. That is a debatable, perhaps largely semantic, question, and humans are certainly very different from other species in this respect. How and why it's not as different as it seems is a matter for another post or series of posts. But the notion that individuals in other species can solve problems and size up things and respond to or communicate with each other should not be any sort of surprise, even if one might not be able in advance to predict all their instances or specifics.

This reflects a persistent human exceptionalism but, we think, something more profound about the very same human culture that manifests this surprise. It is that we are born into a culture that frames our world, and it is difficult to escape it. The worldviews of a culture put a kind of iron cage around individuals, making it difficult to appreciate, or even 'get' other cultures. This is a profound lesson of anthropology, though it seems to have been pretty much forgotten these days, with the prevalent opposition to notions of cultural relativism (that other cultures could be as true or valid ways to live as our own culture is).

We like to fancy that science is an objective pursuit that is above such subjective constraints. But scientists are inculcated with the same kind of conceptual cage. We call it 'theory'. It's long been recognized that it is difficult to get out of that cage, and in a sense it rarely happens (the term used for that is 'paradigm shift').

The conceptual cage of human exceptionalism is like that, we think. The humans-only view is a cage that makes us oblivious or resistant to knowledge that is actually freely available, because that knowledge seems to challenge ideas that are the root of too much of our theory and the research that theory leads to, and the careers that are built on it. This seems true even though evolution, which is at the heart of much of that theory, predicts connection as well as difference among species.

Whether chimps (or crows) could understand the New York Times is perhaps not at issue -- and we've got another post waiting in the wings about bird brains. Probably, they wouldn't want to--too many boring, self-interested stories about the trivial events in human society. Chimps (and crows) have other things to deal with, and they pass the news to each other in their own ways.

Have a very good New Year, everybody!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Irreducible Complexity....that might actually mean something!

The Intelligent Design people argue, among other things, that organisms manifest 'irreducible complexity' (IC hereafter) that cannot be explained by us 'evolutionists'.  They say that things like, say, our complex, focusing, camera-like eye, for example, can't have evolved one bit at a time, because the parts make no sense until the whole thing is put together.  In fact, this was an example chosen by Darwin to exemplify the potentially devastating explanatory problem that his theory of gradual evolution by natural selection posed.  Complex things simply can't arise out of thin air, by any process known to evolutionary biology, after all!

The IC people are essentially arguing against spontaneous generation, one might naively think:  that was the idea, mooted about even by Aristotle, that a bit of goo and slop might come suddenly together and--poof!--arise as a ready-made organism, like a fly.  Of course famous experiments by Spallanzani in the 1700s (and replicated by yours truly in one of my Evolutionary Anthropology columns only a few years ago) clearly discredited that idea, showing that maggots may appear to arise in dead meat as if by spontaneous generation, but in fact that only happens if a fly happens to have, modestly, laid eggs in the meat.

Darwin's fears were groundless, for two reasons.  First, he suggested some  possible paths from simple light perception to complex eyes.  And second is the minor fact that he has been shown to be right!  We now know that eyes of all sorts, simpler and more complex, have arisen many times independently, but usually sharing at least some developmental genetic basis, such as Pax genes in development and opsin genes in light-detection.  And, to assuage his worst fears, all sorts of 'intermediate' types of eyes and light-sensitivity have been found.

Still, the IC campaign, a thinly disguised Christian biblical fundamentalism, carries on, apparently oblivious to its own manifest non-sensicallity.

But there is another sense in which IC may be a more profoundly true and legitimate aspect of biology and consequence of evolution (maybe we should not use the abbreviation in this case).  A Commentary by Gray et al. in the 12 November 2010 issue of Science ("Irremediable Complexity?", p 920-921, accessible with subscription), asks whether there may be, in fact, an aspect of irreducible complexity in living Nature.  (Yes, November 2010 -- I'm working my way through my "Urgent!" reprint stack this week!)

The authors argue that some macromolecular processes in life seem to have "gratuitous complexity".  Among the examples they cite is the spliceosome, the structure that takes a messenger RNA molecule copied from a DNA 'gene', and removes the non-coding sequences (introns) that interrupt the coding parts (the exons), and then splices the exons together to form the single protein code.  Why introns?  Why such a complex structure to do this?  How could organisms have evolved to need to spend--waste!--the energy (and hence needed food intake) to splice all their genes in all their cells all the time?  It's not necessary to life, as bacteria clearly show (they don't splice).  How inefficient!

Strict Darwinian selectionism that is argued to optimize everything all the time must answer such questions, but the suggested answers are often as post hoc and contorted as, well, as a spliceosome!  But Gray et al. argue that understandable evolutionary processes have integrated bits of the current structure over time (again contra the allegation of the IntelligentDesigners!).  Some steps, or perhaps the initial step may have evolved in the usual way for some reason that may or may not have been related to the current function in which the gene is used.   Other steps may have arisen when causing no harm, or such trivial harm that in spite of that they became fixed in the genome by chance.  If they happened--'chanced'--to have some effect, say by binding to the strongly selected gene-products, that could have been integrated into the genome (fixed in the very ancient species involved), and then as a result been impossible to remove without harm.  Like a ratchet, step by step, complex structures could arise over zillions of years.

In this scenario, previously independent functions could become dependent, as illustrated in the figure from Gray et al.   The two components arose on their own, for whatever reason, but mutationally later became hitched at the altar to form a new function or modify an existing one.  Once the marriage is made, it cannot be rent asunder by selection, yet neither was installed specifically by selection.

This is the kind of partnership (what we call 'cooperation' in MT) that is so pervasive in life, indeed is so much at the core of how life works.  It is in no way incompatible with reproductive success--due to chance or selection--but it was not selected 'for' as is implied by classical Darwinian explanations.  It violates no principles of biology or evolution--and certainly doesn't constitute a 'paradigm shift'!  It's just plain old evolution.

In this way, constructive evolution can also be selectively neutral evolution.  Racheted increasing complexity may be an important or even fundamental aspect of life.  We know from many examples that things once established can be removed or made simpler by mutation and selection, but ratched complexity can become so entrenched--so complex--that it can't just be disassembled in any old way to regain the beatific simplicity of its yesteryear.

This of course has implications for selective arguments about evolution.  At the molecular level, complexity can be installed without specific strong or directional selection, and this can also be true at the organ or organismal level as well.  Selection on higher-level traits, like say, complex behaviors, could occur, even strongly, and yet be distributed over so many different contributing genes that none of them would show statistically detectable evidence of selection.

Even behaviors could have evolved from simple to more complex, bit by bit, in the same ratcheted--neutral--way.  Behaviors, like problem solving, often integrate multiple systems including vision, hearing, olfaction and so on, just as spliceosomes and their ilk evolved in augmented, incremental ways.  Behaviors also involve perception, synthesis, strategizing, and choice of actions, each with its own only partially interdependent connections.

A point we repeatedly harp on is that the evolution of organisms is the evolution of multiply interacting factors that must cooperate to be successful.  It builds piecemeal, and yet is 'reducible', even if we don't know all the details by any means.  But even if not 'irreducible', simple reconstructive explanations may be difficult to construct.  In this sense, adaptive explanations can also be very far from what actually happened.  We can see a net result today, but the evolutionary history of its assembly may be easy to imagine, but  difficult to prove or reconstruct.  Not food for IntelligentDesigners, but irreducibly complex in retrospect nonetheless.  Again, selection works on organisms, no matter how they work.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Mars and Venus: thoughts on the nature and evolution of (sssh!) sex. Part II

We tried to make a delicate point in the wake of the Penn State child abuse scandal, which seems to have  'released' inhibitions across the country, perhaps even more readily than a decade or more of stories about abuse in the Catholic Church.  If up to a quarter of people were abused as children, and even if each abuser was a multiple offender, then abusers are very common in our society.

In the previous post in this series we reviewed an article by Barron et al., in the December 2011 BioEssays, that argued that we now clearly know that there is much more variation in sex-related behavior than a dichotomous male-female view reflects, and that a more nuanced, variation-reflecting truth should be taught in college courses.  Plus, of course, if there is so much variation and if it is biologically based, that may call for explanations about how it could have evolved, given the strong and direct fitness effects associated with reproductive success.

If gender behavior evolved because of Darwinian selection for successful reproduction, a long-standing problem for evolutionary biologists has been to explain the much less common aspects of behavior such as homosexuality, trans-sexuality, voluntary celibacy and the like.  Rationales and (we would suggest) post-hoc wriggling have been offered to ensure that gender behavior is indeed biologically driven by a long history of selection 'for' successful reproductive strategies.

Of course, if there is variation in genes that causes these kinds of anomalies (assuming that they can be called that), one can ask why they exist.  The variants must be new enough not yet to have been screened away by selection....yet homosexuality is far too common to have survived such stringent selection.

Culture can make people do strange things, like be suicide bombers, commit infanticide, or agree to voluntary celibacy.  In this sense, culture is a human trait based on imagined truths (going to Heaven for such acts, for example).  That means culture can override biological 'imperatives' a view that we would personally agree with.  But there's more, since the term imperative invokes just the kind of dichotomous thinking that Barron et al. object to.

So among other aspects of variation in sex and gender behavior, what could possibly explain anything resembling a quarter of people being sexually abused and so many abusers?   We know that some cultures allow or even mandate consummated marriages for children of ages that in our society would be defined as sexual abuse.  This includes cultures that in various ways allow or mandate homosexual encounters with what we define as 'children' (classical Greece is one example, but only one).  Definitions of what constitutes rape vary over time, and one can easily list variation that clearly muddies up any simplistic evolutionary arguments:  stoning adulterers in societies that now, or recently, have allowed or encouraged polygamy; making forcible sex in marriage illegal and calling it rape; same-sex marriages, and more.  And of course there were laws about inter-racial sex or marriage, and there is the current abortion controversy.

Society can determine what is accepted behavior and who can be locked up for what.  Is our idea that child abusers are pathological purely cultural and definitional? Or, why are there so many of them?  After all, especially in the case of same-sex abusers, what evolutionary mandate is being reflected in their behavior?  Are they super-sexed-up so that during their lives they actually sire more children than their contemporaries--in which case their 'abuse' is simply a manifestation of their superior sexuality?  But this seems unlikely since most people are not sexually attracted to children.

Since our society calls child sexual abuse abnormal and illegal, and in our society, the effect on children can be profound and lifelong, people certainly should not do it!  But it seems too common to be called 'abnormal' in the medical or psychopathological sense.  The article by Barron et al., if even reasonably on the mark, implies that as a population we have not come to grips with the natural variation in sex-related behavior.  Whether the variation is caused by genes (and if even that means it is 'mandated') or by culture, its very existence raises questions that evolutionary psychology should take seriously rather than ignore or sweep under the rug (much less be oblivious to).

Should how and where social policy and legal constraints ought to be applied be derived from a better understanding of biology, or is it appropriate for cultural and religious criteria to be used to establish constraints, whether or not they go against biological 'mandates' (if there are such things)?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Mars and Venus: thoughts on the nature and evolution of (sssh!) sex. Part I

In the wake of the revelation of alleged repeated sexual assault on young boys by a big boy who was a football player and legendary coach here at Penn State, we mused about what it all meant.  An important part of that story was how the event released all sorts of other allegations of child sexual abuse, by men and women, and figures suggesting that a sixth to as much as a quarter of both men and women had been sexual abused as children.

That the issue expanded in this way could in part be a common phenomenon of the expansion of definitions to include more than gross physical abuse, copycat claims and the like.  But even if that were partly true, still the prevalence of adult offenders is rather astonishing.  Sexual abusers are not just very rare deviants, but part of the 'normal' (that is, usual) distribution of sexual behavior--so that child sexual abuse is apparently a common form of violation of law and publicly proclaimed standards.

This is not any sort of defense of child abuse, and we won't rehash our commentary here.  But the point is that there is much more variation in sexual, or perhaps more properly put, gender-related behavior than is generally acknowledged.

Today's post was triggered by a thoughtful commentary by Andrew Barron and two co-authors, in the December issue of BioEssays, itself a thoughtful journal.  The article is about how we are--or aren't--appropriately educating undergraduates about what is actually known about sex and gender and associated behaviors.  As the authors put it:

Research over the last decades has stimulated a paradigm shift in biology from assuming fixed and dichotomous male and female sexual strategies to an appreciation of significant variation in sex and sexual behaviour both within and between species. This has resulted in the development of a broader biological understanding of sexual strategies, sexuality and variation in sexual behaviour. However, current introductory biological textbooks have not yet incorporated these new research findings.

The authors further state that

Darwin’s strict view of male and female roles most likely reflected the social constraints of his time, yet these stereotypic assumptions have influenced  evolutionary and biological research for decades. Darwin characterised males as competitive and eager in the pursuit of females, while females were described as passive, coy and choosy. Darwin’s theory of sexual selection has been enormously influential and still enjoys tremendous research discourse.

They go on to discuss how we could improve education by properly presenting what is now actually known about sexual behavior, sexual selection, and related topics.  Most books cling to the simple ideas of classical Darwinism and their expanded theoretical treatment from a mathematical and selectinonist perspective often called 'evolutionary psychology' or 'behavioral evolution'.

There is the problem, according to Barron et al., of too rigid a separation of the sexes and much too rigid dichotomization of behavior that, within and among species, is far more variable, plastic, and less stereotypical than is the usual treatment--or caricature--that is offered.  Not so long ago, Joan (once Jonathan) Roughgarden wrote a book, Evolution's Rainbow: Diversity, Gender, and Sexuality in Nature and People, similarly intended to debunk simplistic Darwinian treatments of sexual selection.  We mention Joan née Jonathan because Roughgarden can be viewed as having  personal, political, and experience-based, as well as scientific interests in a less rigid view of sexual identity and behavior.  Points of view are rarely totally disinterested, and that might be expected to be a major aspect of a subject such as this.

In a somewhat similar vein, Barron et al. argue (and cite supporting literature) that "biological sex (and its associated traits)" are in fact "a fundamentally plastic reaction norm."  They cite Kinsey research showing "significant and consistent variation in sexual behavior," and argue that too often sex and gender (sex-related behavior) are equated when they really are far less rigidly stereotypical in humans and in other species.

To the extent that they are on target, this is a problem because a rigid dichotomization of what is actually more overlapping and variable will lead to social definitions that categorize people, lead to laws setting legal limits and punishments, and restrictions on personal freedoms that are cultural reflections of mistaken biology.

Someone with strong selectionist views such as are common among evolutionary psychology or behavioral evolution may feel that these authors have overstated the amount variation, and that things are actually more dichotomous than Barron et al. allege or have similar reactions to Roughgarden's book.  We are not expert in this area and we are less sanguine about adaptive explanations that are so common and, we feel, weakly supported but too strongly argued in evolutionary psychology.  That difference aside, however, the point here is that if one wants to understand sex and gender behavior in our own society (forgetting strutting peacocks and bright red male cardinals), we would do well to understand what is actually going on in Nature, rather than what our culture considers 'right', 'normal', or 'pathological.'

Barron et al.'s point is that education is doing a disservice to the variation that exists.  They identify areas of sex and behavior that they feel should be included in modern college courses on the subject that would properly reflect the variation seen in Nature.  Their concern is biological factors (not just cultural ones in humans) that affect sex and gender beyond the mechanics and genetics of reproduction.  An example is the controversy over the genetic causation of homosexuality ('gay' genes).  They find that psychology texts do a better job of this but that most anthropology and especially biology texts fail their test.

But what does this have to do with sexual abuse of children?  In Part II we'll return to a point we made in our initial Sandusky-related blog-post.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

I'd rather be a Pagan suckled in a creed outworn

We've been posting some poetry appropriate to the season.  A friend sent this famous Wordsworth poem, appropriate to a season in which materialism can overtake other attitudes about the world.  The ideas are relevant even to those not formally celebrating these days for religious reasons.  At least, their spirit is about perceiving the nature of the Nature of which we're apart, and in cultural terms, about trying to get along and live together.  Maybe you recall this from your school days, as we did.  But we thank Hank for reminding us of it.


        THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
        Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
        Little we see in Nature that is ours;
        We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
        The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
        The winds that will be howling at all hours,
        And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
        For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
        It moves us not.--Great God! I'd rather be
        A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;                      
        So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
        Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
        Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
        Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

Friday, December 23, 2011

No need for tribalism: just good holiday wishes!

We've been discussing (debating? arguing?) atheism vs organized religion, and whether there can even be actual discussion.  But, back from the brink, we also posted a couple of nice verses about the season, and nice behavior was one of the issues around which the post that elicited the atheism/religion debate was motivated.

An important point is that one can have holiday wishes, and spread them around, without their being tied to any dogma.  Here, in a well-known verse by the often beautifully pastoral poet William Wadsworth, is an example of good holiday cheer:

The Minstrels
The minstrels played their Christmas** tune
To-night beneath my cottage-eaves;
While, smitten by a lofty moon,
The encircling laurels, thick with leaves,
Gave back a rich and dazzling sheen,
That overpowered their natural green.

Through hill and valley every breeze
Had sunk to rest with folded wings:
Keen was the air, but could not freeze,
Nor check, the music of the strings;
So stout and hardy were the band
That scraped the chords with strenuous hand.

And who but listened?—till was paid
Respect to every inmate’s claim,
The greeting given, the music played
In honour of each household name,
Duly pronounced with lusty call,
And “Merry Christmas” wished to all.

**or however you wish to refer to the season's rationale

Poems for winter

Two days ago on the Solstice we received an email from a long-time MT reader, who lives in Minnesota.  He wrote that there was no snow on the Solstice there for the first time in five years, and that the colors are muted, and will be for the duration.  Though, as he said, some birds, the chickadees and juncos "appear to dress for dining."  His message was lovely, a bow to the day, and a welcome reminder that we aren't just talking to ourselves.  He included two poems, sent to him in turn by a friend to mark the day.  The Solstice is past, but here in the northern hemisphere we won't notice the lengthening of the days for some weeks to come, and these poems aren't specifically dedicated to the shortest day of the year so we thought we'd share them with you.

....And if you have some timely or thoughtful verse to add in Comments or to send to us, we'd like that.

Black Rook in Rainy Weather

On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain.
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident

To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall,
Without ceremony, or portent.

Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can't honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Lean incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then --
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honor,
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); skeptical,
Yet politic; ignorant

Of whatever angel may choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant

A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content

Of sorts. Miracles occur,
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance miracles. The wait's begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent. 
              --by Sylvia Plath


I have news for you:
The stag bells, winter snows,
Summer has gone
Wind high and cold,
The sun low, short its course
The sea running high.
Deep red the bracken;
Its shape is lost;
The wild goose has raised its accustomed cry,
Cold has seized the birds' wings;
Season of ice, this is my news
            --9th C. Irish

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hitchins your wagon to a star

A lot has been made of the death of the professional curmudgeon Christopher Hitchins.  He was one of the recent spate of public intellectuals who are also strident atheists.  For some reason, the public idolizes these guys as if they were rock or sports stars.  If it were all about entertainment, then one could respond according to his/her views about how much of that such stars deserve in any society with measured values.  Perhaps they bring pleasure, and that's worth more than so much else  in life that is rewarded less plentifully.

The strident atheists get ink and airtime because they are glib and claim that science proves their atheism, and they make a 'story' by using hyperbole to ridicule believers in standard religions.  Among other arguments, they point out how much damage has been done in the name of such religions, though perhaps without realizing the similar nature of their relentless anti-religion.  I have been reading Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate, his classic WWII Russian-novel that's an analog of Tolstoy's  War and Peace.  Tolstoy was a communist of sorts, in the best share-the-wealth sense of the term, but his book was more about the rather mechanical forces that control human history than the Great Men to whom historians typically give all the credit.

Grossman's book is about the mechanical grind of evil and human cruelty, often perpetrated in the name of ideology, be it organized religion or its analogs in atheistic communism or fascism (or, we'd add, in sciences like Darwinian-based eugenics).  In a very angry and poignant chapter that I wish I could download and post to MT readers copyright free, Grossman argues that as soon as organized religion gains power it almost inevitably brings on evil, in the form of 'We are better than you!' which leads to 'We have to kill you in the name of Truth or Goodness!'  Secular ideologies, like Grossman's communist Soviet state, do exactly the same thing as Christianity and other major religions.

Grossman argues that goodness exists only when it has no power, in the lone or even anonymous individual acts of kindness, sometimes under the most horrendous of circumstances.  It's person to person, not organized and not implemented by states or churches.  It works because it has no power except kindness on its own, for its own sake, in the name of nothing higher or more grand than just a quiet helping hand.  Grossman has a point.

People  want certainty and to gang together with others who share the same certainty.  Scientists are no different in this respect (and, to the extent we develop weapons or create discriminatory ideologies, no better, either).  We want simple answers,  not complexity, even if complexity is Nature's reality.  The strident atheists reflect this:  in their own simplistic way they are surely right in pointing out the evils perpetrated in the name of theological religion, and the utter lack of any actual evidence for the organized theological belief systems.  It's hard to argue coherently with that, as Hitchins' debate opponents found out.  But the lack of evidence for religious truths doesn't mean that science can disprove religious assertions, nor certainly that they have any moral high ground from which to give their sermons.

The most scientists can do is to point out the rather empirically absurd aspects of so many beliefs. Given the vast coldness of the universe, our puny protoplasmic nature, and the mortal or worse evils perpetrated by those claiming to believe in versions of the Good, it is simply very difficult to be a serious scientist and hold to religions based on personal, loving Gods who care about our daily burps.  Or to think that there is any rational reason to believe that a system would be set up for us to suffer here for decades (or less) and then be transported forever to some wonderful peaceful place.  Nor how this Goodness could deliver a multiple whammy such as has just befallen some friends of ours, good people not deserving of such hits (Thanks, God, and Merry Christmas to you, too!).

It makes no actual sense but worse, tragically, too many believers have been, and are, willing to commit horrors on others in the name of their Goodness, whatever its particular brand, and not withstanding the actual good that many of the same people and organizations do. 

The world holds together logically with the kinds of explanations that science offers, no matter that we have gaps in our understanding.  It's frightening and depressing, perhaps, to think that science has shown us the nature of our frigid landscape.  But the coldness of harsh realities need not lead either to illusions or to harshness on our part.

Can we do better?  Can we hitch our wagons to some better star, of actual rather than imagined knowledge?  The star will take us so far, but no farther, than what human knowledge can deliver.  But we can accept the harshness of life and death, without using that to justify harshness or cruelty.  We know clearly, as we've tried to argue here on MT and in our book of the same name, that cooperation is pervasive in all  aspects of life, much moreso than competition.

We can take a different path, and argue that if all we have is here and now, and we're in it together, we should  share a wagon hitched to a brighter star than what's offered by strident atheists.  We may not be able to find scientific justification for such kinder behavior, but we need not search for it in the stars but in our own, individual, local instincts and feelings.

Even in a Darwinian world, the existence, after so many evolutionary millennia, of sparks of local kindness show that it is possible to act cooperatively rather than competitively, warmly rather than coldly.  If we can do this on a local level, why not on a more organized level as well?  Is that impossible, or is it just that, in societies usually organized around ideology, we haven't learned to do it yet?

We should be able to do this a-theistically, that is, without having to justify it by invoking a God or received sacred book as a justification--even if somehow they could be true.  But this is not the same as justifying any behavior on the grounds of the lack of evidence for such received truths, or on a belief instructed by atheism (or any other 'ism').  It is part of our individual nature, whether or not it can ever be at the core of our collective nature.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Good crud -- antivirals

The development of antiviral agents to combat viral infections from the common cold to HIV, hepatitis, SARS, Ebola, and other lethal diseases has proven to be elusive to date.  Such an agent would be an invaluable contribution to the world's armamentarium against disease.  And now it may be that the world is on the verge of getting such an agent.  Last year, Leo James, an immunologist at Cambridge reported in PNAS that his lab had found that antibodies can make their way into cells and destroy the virus before it harms the cell or causes illness.  This was treated as great news for the possible development of antivirals, though it was early days, and of course much more work is needed.

Then, Todd Rider, at MIT, published a paper in PLoS One in July that reported progress on a treatment that takes advantage of the double stranded nature of RNA viruses, and the ability of cells to kill themselves when they detect that they've been infected by a virus.
We have developed a new broad-spectrum antiviral approach, dubbed Double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) Activated CaspaseOligomerizer (DRACO) that selectively induces apoptosis in cells containing viral dsRNA, rapidly killing infected cells without harming uninfected cells. We have created DRACOs and shown that they are nontoxic in 11 mammalian cell types and effective against 15 different viruses, including dengue flavivirus, Amapari and Tacaribe arenaviruses, Guama bunyavirus, and H1N1 influenza. We have also demonstrated that DRACOs can rescue mice challenged with H1N1 influenza. DRACOs have the potential to be effective therapeutics or prophylactics for numerous clinical and priority viruses, due to the broad-spectrum sensitivity of the dsRNA detection domain, the potent activity of the apoptosis induction domain, and the novel direct linkage between the two which viruses have never encountered.
Why this was published in PLoS One, which is in many senses not really a fully peer reviewed journal, if it is so important isn't clear.  Maybe it was rejected by more noted journals, or maybe the authors believe in the public library concept, or they want quick publication without the usual delays and hassles with nit-picking referees.  In any case, why is the BBC just getting around to reporting this now?  Because they've just done a radio segment on the development of antivirals, including an interview with Rider, highlighting his work.

Viruses are difficult to stop because they are complete parasites, and so much of how they work is identical to how our own cells work.  Bacteria are easier targets because they are so different from ourselves, and so destroying them doesn't pose the same kind of risk to our own cells that targeting viruses does.

A number of labs are currently working on antivirals, from somewhat different angles. Peter Palese at Mt Sinai has found a compound which is active at least against influenza, and perhaps other respiratory viruses, though in principle, the list could be longer.  Every cell needs pyrimidines to make nucleic acids -- if you reduce the pool of pyrimidines, viruses won't be able to replicate.  Palese has identified a compound that acts to reduce that pool, which results in a lower viral load and absence of clinical disease, at least for the flu.  Why that wouldn't harm the host cells for the same reason isn't clear (to us, who aren't experts in this area by any means).

A different agent looks to be effective against a large number of viruses.  Benhur Lee at UCLA has identified a compound that seemed to be effective against poxes, RNA viruses, DNA viruses, and many others.  These are lipid envelope viruses; Lee's agent attacks the viral lipid membrane, disarming at least (or only, it's not yet clear) this type of virus.

But Todd Rider suggests that his drug, or DRACO (yes, you are supposed to think of "draconian") will be able to treat all viral infections, without harming uninfected cells.  Cells have enzymes that can detect long dsRNA -- when they detect it, they fight the virus off.  But, some viruses can outsmart that system, so Rider has wired together the protein that recognizes dsRNA with a caspase, a protein that triggers apoptosis, or cell suicide.  When it finds the dsRNA, it will activate the caspase, causing the infected cell to destroy itself.

Will this method become clinically useful?  Other immunologists caution that success in the laboratory is a far cry from success in infected humans.  Rider recognizes that he has a lot more work to do, but he says that so far no one has offered a reason why his antiviral approach isn't going to work.  The potential seems to be there.  Of course, side effects, both foreseen and unforeseen, are a potential risk, as with any new way we find to mess with biology, but this all sounds like progress on an important scale.

If one or more antiviral agent is on the horizon, it is in part due to increased understanding of viruses at the genetic level.  This we would say is a laudable use of genetic knowledge and technology.  It may be that 90% of the work will turn out to be crud, but this is the kind of generation of crud that seems to us to be justified.  And the ubiquity and importance to humans and our pets and food sources, of better control of viruses means this kind of work could be as important as most of us (vainly) claim their (our) work to be.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Good news on malaria. Kind of.

It has been said that malaria has killed  more people than any other single cause in human history.  And that's not to mention the problem of ill health in people even if they don't die.  The reason for its toll seems to be the association of malaria with agriculture and settled populations that provide the right ecology for the disease.  Those populations were far larger than their ancestors', making vastly more people vulnerable than had ever lived in the past.  The evolution of genetic resistance has helped save many people, but not all that effectively.

But there's some good news from the World Health Organization.  The 2010 World Malaria Report states that the number of people who died from the disease has fallen 26 percent since 2000, 5 percent since 2009, to on the order of 655,000 deaths last year, predominantly children under the age of five.  And 2010 was the first year when no locally contracted cases of malaria were reported in the European region.  The WHO says this is because of increased use of malarial control measures such as the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, the increased availability of effective medicines, and the rise in the proportion of cases confirmed by testing prior to treatment, a widespread effort to reduce the spread of treatment-resistant disease.

However, WHO had previously set the goal of reducing incidence by half by 2010 from the rate in 2000, but it fell by only an estimated 17 percent (figures were not believed to be accurate enough from two dozen countries in Africa to be more precise about the rates).  The WHO has also set the goal of reducing mortality to almost none by 2015, a goal that is probably unlikely to be met, in spite of the fact that bed nets and diagnostic tests are cheap.

A story at questions the wisdom of setting such grandiose goals.
Dr. Robert Newman, director of WHO's malaria program, said it is disappointing not to have reduced malaria by 50 percent by last year. But, he said, it was "truly significant progress" that the parasitic disease's death rates fell by more than one-third in Africa.
He described the current goal of cutting malaria deaths to "near zero" by the end of 2015 as "aspirational," but added that it wouldn't be accomplished unless every person at risk has access to a bed net and suspected cases are properly diagnosed and treated. Newman also said it would cost $6 billion a year — about three times more than the world currently spends — to be successful.
"It is unacceptable that people continue to die from malaria for lack of a $5 bed net, a 50 cent diagnostic test and a $1 anti-malarial treatment," Newman said in an email.
The risk is that because control is so dependent on continuing donations from both the public and private spheres, when goals aren't attained, donors may stop giving.  This is the history of disease control.  And the global financial crisis isn't helping.  In fact, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the primary funding agency for public health programs, currently can't fund its next round of grants.  Their financial difficulties will mean less funding for bed nets and treatment programs.  So, the danger of improved control becoming elusive is real. Yet bureaucracies, in our current 'advertising age' seem unable to keep their fund-seeking hype, in the form of these unrealistic goals, under control--and/or our population has come to be responsive only to hype.  Either way, it's not a good way to be!

We are also interested that the WHO report doesn't mention the reduction in malaria incidence that can't be explained by bed nets or treatment, something we blogged about back in September. We cited a paper published in the September issue of Malaria Journal by Meyrowitsch et al. which suggested:
...other factors not related to intervention could potentially have an impact on mosquito vectors, and thereby reduce transmission, which subsequently will result in reductions in number of infected cases. Among these factors are urbanization, changes in agricultural practices and land use, and economic development resulting in e.g. improved housing construction.
Or, they suggested, the decline might also be attributable to a decrease in the mosquito population due to changing rainfall patterns caused by climate change, an hypothesis tested by Meyrowitsch et al.  Year-to-year climate changes are going to be unpredictable, which means that their effect on mosquito populations, and thus malaria incidence and mortality, will be unpredictable as well. 

It's probably a mistake for an organization like the WHO to set unattainable goals, but it's also a mistake for them to let it seem as though they understand all the forces responsible for the epidemiology of a disease like malaria, which depends on a complex interplay of climatic, demographic, social, economic and biological factors, and is thus much more difficult to explain and predict than by simply reducing it to bed nets and treatment.  And comparably more problematic to predict rates of success or its timing.  Bed netting and treatment are crucial, of course, but its a disservice to the public health infrastructure that is working hard to control the disease to make it seem simple.

But, on a positive note, at least no one's saying that if only we could sequence, or even genotype, everyone at risk we'd have the problem licked.  Maybe if we sequenced a few mosquito nets though....

Monday, December 19, 2011

Chimps looking back at us

Chimpanzees are our closest genetic relatives, and as such have long been used in medical research, particularly in the kinds of experiments that have been deemed unethical to perform on humans.  They've been used to test vaccines and drugs and new medical procedures, and in psychological and behavioral experiments, and so forth.  Now, in recognition of the similarity chimps have to ourselves, the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies in the US is saying that the continued use of our nearest brethren in experimentation is immoral and unethical, and they are recommending that their use be drastically curtailed.  According to the CNN story reporting this:
The IOM recommends that chimps should be used only if the research project cannot be ethically performed on people and that the use of these primates should be allowed only if their use will prevent humans from being treated to a life threatening or debilitating condition.  According to the IOM, aced on these criteria, chimpanzees are not necessary for most biomedical research.  
The IOM also stated that NIH should also limit the use of chimps in behavioral research in studies that provide very few insights into normal and abnormal behavior, mental and emotional health or cognitive skills.  And if the chimps are used in these experiments, NIH should use techniques that do little harm to the animal both physically and mentally. 
The report itself lists these criteria for deciding when their use is deemed moral and appropriate.

The NIH has long banned killing chimps when their usefulness is over, unless they are suffering.  For that reason a number of chimpanzee retirement centers have been established, where chimps are only sent out to pasture metaphorically.  They've got tv's, play areas, all the food they can eat, good medical care, and companionship.  What more could they ask?  Except maybe a good jungle?

Even the latter is provided, after a fashion, by one such place, Chimp Haven, in Louisiana.  There chimpanzees retired from research are given a decent environment in which to live out their natural lives, as described on their web site:

Chimp Haven’s construction began in May 2003 on 200 acres of pristine forest, donated by the local citizens of Caddo Parish, Louisiana. Chimp Haven’s facility includes an interconnected network of bedrooms, outdoor courtyard and play yards, and large, forested habitats up to five acres.

We applaud these new regulations.  As regular readers know, we have often commented on examples of less than useful research being done.  Clinical trials aren't our area, so we can't speak to whether drug testing on chimps is valuable overall, but since a large number of experiments done with humans are let's say inconclusive this must be true for chimps as well, particularly in the psychological or behavioral realm.  It has been said, indeed, that the psychological world of chimps is so different from ours that decades of research on chimps' ability to learn 'language'--meaning human language'--have been a misguided waste of research resources, despite the human interest of the results (that is, that most research along such lines, despite protests of the investigators of course, would fall into the NIH prohibited category).

There is of course the question of the arbitrariness by which we decide what species we can do what to in the lab.  Why just chimpanzees or other great apes? Why not baboons, who are widely used by researchers (including ourselves, though we only look at ones that died naturally and are interested in morphology rather than physiology or behavior)?  What about the long-used (or abused?) rhesus monkeys?  Do they not have a cognitive world in which fear and suffering are included?  If they are so different from us as to be unqualified for special protection, why do we study them?

The question can be, and perhaps should be, extended to all vertebrates, or perhaps all animals.  No one can seriously deny that fish or even insects manifest the signs of fear, though that seems to be the position on which university research review boards act.

There is the interesting case of Neandertals, too, now that their DNA has been sequenced after a fashion (the 'whole genome' sequence available so far is not really the whole genome and it's from a composite of different individual fossils, as far as we are aware).  There has been some salivation over the juicy possibility of cloning a Neandertal, in the sense of replace all the 'genes' (protein coding regions) in a human by those sequenced in Neandertals, and then using that for in vitro fertilization in some donor-incubator (a human?  a chimp?).  Would this be cruelty to the gestator?  And what about the 'Neandertal' thus produced?

Neandertals are, consistent with the fossil record and their genomes, very close to humans in genome structure (90% closer than chimps, relatively speaking).  Essentially, they were human, and debates about whether they could interbreed with those contemporaries who, based on fossils, seem more directly in our line of ancestors, are rather silly.  Indeed, the evidence suggests interbreeding, so that they are direct ancestors.  So, where do we draw the research line?  

Would it be right to clone a Neandertal, even in the artificial sense just described?  Would the new individual be allowed to be experimented on, tested for HIV susceptibility or dissected to see how many lobes in its liver, its brain scanned under various conditions, or put on display?  Or would it have human rights--to go to school, to a human home rather than a cage, to vote?

In the 19th century there were strong moves against the torture of animals by science, called 'anti-vivisection' movements, and their descendants are the animal rights groups today.  There are many legitimate reasons to ask whether we should do any experiments on animals, and whether understanding human biology or disease justifies it.  The response generally is that of course scientists are going to do it whether it's particularly humane or not, but that we do have at least some restraints on the pain and fear etc. we can inflict, and on what species.  Also, of course, we do raise and kill many animals to eat, and we're perfectly sanguine about asphyxiating zillions of fish a day so we can eat them.

So, taking care of chimps seems like an unambiguously good thing to do.  But it does raise deeper questions.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Metagenomics in action

'Metagenomics', the direct sequencing of all the DNA found in environmental samples.  From one perspective, this is yet another 'omics', a way to keep all those expensive sequencing machines going.  And a way to avoid having to have hypotheses about what's going on in nature before you start your project--a somewhat strange twist in modern biology.  Still, 'omics' is done because we have the tools to do it and because it does promise to find something, on the single underlying assumption, namely, that something is there, even if we don't know what it might be.

In fact an interesting use of this methodology is reported in Nature this week, in a paper about the sequencing of all the microbes in Alaskan permafrost soil samples pre- and post-thaw.  The paper reports rapid changes in the abundance of many phylogenetic and functional genes and pathways, suggesting a rapid response to changing environment.  In this case, there need not have been any kind of a priori hypothesis about what one would specifically find for this to be a valuable kind of work, which this study has proven to be.

Mackelprang et al. collected 3 frozen soil cores from an area in Alaska that they had previously characterized.  They removed samples from these and let them thaw over 7 days.  They monitored the carbon dioxide and methane concentrations in the headspace of the helium filled tubes in which the samples were incubated, and extracted DNA for 16S ribosomal RNA and metagenome sequencing.

The authors were particularly interested in what happened to the methane and carbon dioxide because, of course, these are greenhouse gases.  They document changing levels of these gases as the soil samples thawed, and corresponding increases in genes in their metagenome from microbes that produce these gases as metabolic byproducts.  

The metagenome data revealed core-specific shifts in some community members, including the orders Proteobacteria, Bacteriodetes and Firmicutes. We found that Actinobacteria increased in both cores during thaw. Actinobacteria have previously been found at high abundance in permafrost, which is thought to be caused by their maintenance of metabolic activity and DNA repair mechanisms at low temperatures. Most archaeal sequences identified in the metagenomic data were methanogens in the phylum Euryarchaeota (62–95%), including the Methanomicrobia that was represented in our draft genome. In total, four orders of methanogens (Methanosarcinales, Methanomicrobiales, Methanomicrobia and Methanobacterales) were detected. As the permafrost thawed, the methanogens (including Methanomicrobia) increased in relative abundance. These orders are known to be metabolically versatile and can use a variety of substrates.
They also found that methane was consumed post-thaw.  But, to us what is most interesting about this, not being climatologists or microbiologists, is what they found about the differences between samples post-thaw, as they describe here.
We tracked simultaneous shifts in the total gene complement from the metagenome data to obtain a global view of functional response to thaw. The active layer samples were relatively similar before and after thaw. By contrast, the two frozen permafrost metagenomes differed dramatically before thaw. In addition, functional genes in frozen active layer and permafrost samples were distinct from each other, including differences in several key metabolic pathways such as energy metabolism, nitrogen fixation, amino-acid transport, oxidative phosphorylation and anaerobic respiration. During thaw, the permafrost metagenomes rapidly converged and neared those in the active layer samples. The convergence of function was not matched by a convergence of phylogenetic composition during this short-term incubation, suggesting that disparate community responses to thaw can have similar functional consequences.
As we said yesterday in our post about ostrich penises, however the job can get done, evolution can support it.  Whether or not the job being done here is good or bad for humans vis-à-vis climate change is another story.  But, convergence of function in the communities of microbes analyzed by these researchers happened in communities with very different compositions of microbes.

Organisms have responsive genomes. Indeed, the 'job' of cells is to sequester their special ingredients within, but to monitor the external environment to determine how to behave most successfully.  They are changeable, within their genomic repertoire.  Mutation followed by natural selection can lead to specific genetically committed responses, but that isn't always necessary, because due to whatever earlier processes, even humble microbes have evolved to be able to respond to the conditions they find themselves in.  And, whether or not warming temperatures are beneficial to specific microbes, the community adapts. 

Based on comparative morphology and modern-day science, roughly 4 billion-year-old aggregates of bacteria (fossil biofilms calleld  'stromatolites') look strikingly like their modern descendants.  Today, biofilms are known to be bacterial responses to changes in conditions--even different species can aggregate in the same biofilm.  This means that not that long after the origin of life (and, indeed, of the earth itself), fundamental facultative adaptability had already been built by evolution into the genomes of the earliest cells--and that means it is a basic property of cells.  This is a point we stress in our book, The Mermaid's Tale, and we're always gratified to see it confirmed.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

A major evolutionary transition explained

Photo from the BBC website
It's difficult to compete with the Higgs Boson story, but here's a strong second, a hot breaking story on the BBC web site about erections in big birds (note, the picture shows the birds, so you'll know what we're talking about, but the erect structures in the picture are necks).  The story starts out:
Ostriches have bloodless erections, according to researchers.
The large birds were previously thought to have blood-based erection mechanisms similar to humans.
But scientists from Yale University, US, have now confirmed that the birds actually enlarge their penises with lymph fluid.  
All other birds with a penis achieve erections in this way, leading scientists to believe the mechanism evolved in their ancient ancestors.
The paper itself is published in the Journal of Zoology.  The authors explain in the abstract why it's so important:
Because the penis in all other described birds has a lymphatic erection mechanism, clarifying that the erection mechanism of ratites [large flightless birds] is of great importance to understanding one of the major evolutionary transitions of penis morphology within amniotes. Here, we show that the erection mechanism of ratites is lymphatic, confirming that the evolutionary transition to lymphatic erection occurred in the last common ancestor of Aves.
You'd always wondered about the major evolutionary transitions of penis morphology, hadn't you?
(Actually, though, this may not have been as pressing a question as it seemed at the time, given another recent breaking story: men don't think about sex as often as their reputation has lead us all to believe, proven by a study that asked men how often they thought about sex. 
"The absolute number of sexual thoughts is dramatically less than the urban legend that men think about sex every seven seconds," says study researcher Terri Fisher, PhD, professor of psychology at The Ohio State University at Mansfield.
Men were asked to push a button on a counter every time they had a sexual thought.  But, we wonder, isn't it possible that the count was artificially reduced by the subjects' thumbs tiring of pushing the freaking button?) 

But, back to the story at hand, ratite penises.  There was a suggestion long ago of lymphatic involvement in the erections of flightless birds, but it remained unconfirmed until now.  After all, who dared to look?  These guys bite hard!  (Hard to do it, but we're resisting the temptation to make a pecker joke here.)  Instead, the authors were sent ostrich and emu penises from birds of reproductive age (that is, certified to be adults, if you're worried that we're writing this from Penn State), and they dissected them -- for methodological and anatomical details, see the paper, but suffice it to say that their work confirms the old suspicion. 

It is rather surprising that this wasn't known until now, and the authors of the paper briefly describe why this is so, including something tantalizing about a reference gone missing.  Indeed, there are a lot of citations in the paper of "unpublished data" on bird penile morphology.  So, it's even more surprising that all it took to answer this question was a bit of dissection of the relevant organs.  Now done. 

The story on the BBC reports that there are still unanswered evolutionary questions, however (there must be, or the specialists would be out of a job).
Similarities have been drawn in the past between bird and reptile penises but the latter use blood for erections, as do mammals.
"The reason why the change between blood vascular and lymphatic took place remains a mystery," said Dr Brennan.
"The lymphatic system is a low pressure system, so this means that erection cannot be maintained, and this has some important implications for how birds actually copulate," said Dr Brennan.
Some species of bird, such as ducks, are known for their "explosive" erections achieved when lymph fluid is forced into the penis to increase pressure for a short time.
But ornithological reproduction expert Prof Tim Birkhead from the University of Sheffield suggests that the structure of ostrich penises could make up for the shortcomings of the lymph system.
"Ostriches and rheas appear to have additional muscles that help to maintain a rigid phallus," he explained.
Ok, so is this actually of interest, other than as a footnote to the sexual life of birds?  Because, after all, however erections happen in these birds, the mechanism has worked for a very long time (except for the dodo and the roc).  The authors say this is an important contribution to the understanding of the evolution of penis morphology.  We have to take their word for it, though this does seem to be a rather specialized interest -- yet another science paper detailing perfectly good work, but that didn't warrant all this fuss.

Is there even a general lesson here?  Well, it's yet another of the myriad examples of variation underlying a single trait or mechanism -- if it does the job, evolution can support it.  Nothing new here.  Indeed, the genetics underlying many examples of what's called 'phenogenetic drift' -- many genetic pathways to a given trait -- are well-documented (Kazu Kawasaki in our lab has done a lot of work on the evolution of genes for mineralization in multiple lineages, for example, a beautiful example of phenogenetic drift; same trait, even under strong selection, yet produced by different genes in different individuals, populations, or times).  So the fact that there are different erectile mechanisms isn't at all a surprise, just another variant in the wide spectrum of how organisms reproduce.

What makes this story manage to stand tall in the news makes it harder, to fathom.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Pig's Nose-on?

The news we've all been, waiting (but not praying)...for is now out, or at least the installment that says we may have found something, it may be definitive, but we need billions more to be sure because it may not.  Your life will be different now that there might, or could, possibly perhaps be a Higgs boson, that elusive thing that puts the lead in your pencil, so to speak--gives mass to fundamental particles--without which you would wither away to a mere nothing (like Higgsy hopefully won't).

Well, as the figure shows, Higglety Pigglety, it really is a mere nothing (well, near-nothing if it exists, or nothing if it doesn't).  The arrow points to the teensy, weensy, boson flying around amidst a cloud of dust particles or nuons or neutrinos, or something like that.  Now don't be cynical, and think this is just a screenshot from some video game.  Yes, it resembles the Droid logon screen, too.  But believe us, it's the real thing (if the real thing exists).

What we're seeing today is by now a standard marketing strategy: a carefully timed media announcement event.  A claim that we've now got it, the Big Finding, but it's only the beginning.  That doesn't make it a false announcement, but there is still the possibility that this is a Pig's nose-on some junk scraps rather than a Higgs boson some scraps of detector signal.  Whether this is beauty or beast only time will tell.

It's easy (and justified?) to have some fun with this long played out Lamborghini of a science story (given its cost), but it again reflects the current view that science must now address Very Big questions on a huge long-term scale.  The rationale is that small studies can't get at the complex or minute effects that we have to find in a sea of data.  Small-scale experimentation may be in order once the 'signal' is found, to understand it in detail, but the prevailing idea is that by and large the easily findable big effects are already known.  In genetics, for example, the rationale is, as well, that small effects on individuals if they're common can lead to large numbers of affecteds on a population scale (100 million people at a risk of one in 100,000 would mean 1000 individuals affected), or that some very strong effects that are so rare they could never generate statistically convincing evidence on their own might in fact be devastating to those few people that inherit them.

This is true, in theory, in physics as well. The Higgs boson affects every bit of matter, including you, your eyes reading the screen, and the screen itself.  So this is a trivially small physical effect individually but a totally profound one in the overall scheme of the cosmos.  It is claimed that (if it actually exists) it will tie together many loose threads in theoretical physics.  Lots of jobs and work to do for physicists, and maybe even stimulation for biologists to ask themselves whether there is something fundamental missing from our thinking.

Whether or when it will have any direct effect on anyone other that students in Physics classes, only the media hype-engine knows (Whether it's real or not, it may show up on their exams!).  It is edifying and elegant, as is the experiment to hunt ol' Higgsy down, if true.  For the middle class it may seem worth its cost, and it may be better than most television (and will generate countless television specials as well).  But, just as whether big genomic science is worth the cost to those billions barely scraping a living together, with less than a boson's worth to eat, is another story.