Paleontologist on point

June 30th, 2009
biblicalhistorygarden.jpgA scene from the Creation Museum‘s biblical history exhibit.

When the North American Paleontology Convention was held in Cincinnati last week, a group international scientists visited the nearby Creation Museum and the New York Times covered their visit. In the article published yesterday, the scientists convey astonishment, amusement, and mild to moderate revulsion at the misportrayal of scientific knowledge. There’s also a gem of a quote by Dr. Arnold I. Miller, the University of Cincinnati geologist who organized the convention and suggested the trip to the museum:

Too often, academics tend to ignore what’s going on around them… I feel at least it would be valuable for my colleagues to become aware not only of how creationists are portraying their own message, but how they’re portraying the paleontological message and the evolutionary message.

In the culture war over science and religion, words are weapons. Dr. Miller’s words here—intentionally or not—are sharp and strategic. The assumption that the creationist message is separate from paleontological or evolutionary messages is subtle but eviscerating. The brand of creationism advocated by the museum—which is run by Answers in Genesis, the same people who attempt to fight science with the pseudoscientific publication Answers Research Journal—uses the language and imagery of science to assemble a biblical explanation. (As the Times article puts it, “same facts, different conclusions.”) Consequently, parsing the paleontological and evolutionary components of the museum from the creationist mission undermines the strategy of the $27 million Creation Museum.

Innumeracy versus illiteracy

June 6th, 2009

Advice columnist Emily Yoffe, who writes Dear Prudence on Slate, now performs live Q&As Mondays on the Washington Post. This week’s session included a complaint about bad math attitudes, and later, an insightful follow-up comment by a physicist. From the conversation:

Philadelphia, PA: I’m a graduate student in mathematics, and my particular area is very abstract. When people ask me what I do, or see me with a textbook and ask what I’m reading, no matter how simplified an explanation I give them, inevitably the person remarks that my area is “way beyond” them or that they’d “never be able to grasp that.” I always want to tell them, “You definitely won’t with that attitude.” …How do you suggest I respond to these kind of comments?

Emily Yoffe: A few years ago, in an attempt to help my daughter with her math homework, I enrolled in the elementary school math prep program, Kumon. I scored at the first grade level. Even if I tried, I probably couldn’t truly understand what you’re doing. But I would be interested if you could explain what this math is used for—modeling subprime mortgages? Global warming? Then we’d have something to talk about. So ignore the self-put downs, and don’t add any of your own. Instead think of it as an opportunity to show that what you do is interesting and can—on some level—be grasped.

Comment from another reader: I think this writer deserves more of an answer. I’m a woman in physics, and nearly everyone makes a self-deprecating comment when I say so. The point really is this: there is a cultural pride in innumeracy that doesn’t exist for illiteracy—no one will brag about not being able to read, yet feel free to essentially brag about not being good at math. This is not people being candid about their abilities. It actually is a way of dismissing the importance of the field of study by implying that it has no cultural necessity or meaning. …This hurts everybody!

I think there’s a great point buried in that comment. First, I’m pleased to learn a new word, innumeracy. Second, I’m going to take it a step further: cultural pride in innumeracy might not really be a party foul at a cocktail party, but it is part of the problem with science in America. It seems Americans have a schizophrenic relationship with science. On one hand, science holds such authority that pseudoscientific explanations are rampantly invoked to justify just about anything. On another, religious conservatives reject science as the work of the “liberal elite,” and we are still recovering from our last president’s dedication to ignorance. The chasm between what scientists know and what the public understands permits this dysfunction. I can understand irritation when otherwise well-educated people express a marginalized appreciation or interest in math or science. Sometimes, a dismissal of someone else’s work as being “way over my head!” can sound a lot like that.

Confidential to Philadelphia, PA: Do I know you? I’m a science grad student in Philly too! Email me

On the stability of life

April 22nd, 2009

60sec_082.jpgThe University of Pennsylvania hosts a 60 second lecture series, in which faculty provide a perspective on their scholarship in just one minute. The constrained format seems to produce lectures that are more like performance, and language that is more like poetry. It’s an unusual opportunity to hear how scholars address some of the broadest philosophical questions in the simplest terms possible… in some cases, revealing some elegant thinking along the way. The lectures—all available for viewing online in the archives—have included topics like “John F. Kennedy’s Sex Life” and “Why is Mathematics Useful?

Today’s lecture, “On the Stability of Life,” was delivered by Joshua Plotkin. He links thermodynamics and the evolutionary process in describing the existence of life:

Ask yourselves: Is life possible? It doesn’t seem so, at least thermodynamically. After all, your skin cells are replaced every 6 weeks. All the atoms in your body are recycled each year, replaced by other atoms that were created billions of years ago, light-years away. And so in what sense are you the same person from year to year? Certainly in no physical sense. But you think you are alive, and stable enough to call yourself an individual. In what sense, then, are you stable? In an evolutionary sense. Your genetic information, though thermodynamically fragile, is dynamically repaired and transmitted with fidelity. Not perfect fidelity, thank goodness. Imperfections do arise from time to time. Without these mutations, evolution could not proceed. And so, the same entropic forces that threaten to destabilize life also allow life to evolve. Think about that, for a minute.

Adaptation, the affordable option

March 27th, 2009

Anti-science people usually hate evolution. But science denier and House Representative Joe Barton (R, Texas) likes it. He thinks it’s a practical, affordable strategy for dealing with climate change in these hard economic times. Here he is presenting his idea before Congress at the March 25 hearing on climate change:

A few gems from his speech:

Adapting is a common, natural way for people to adapt to their environment.

I think that mankind has been adopting—er, adapting to climate as long as man has walked the earth. When it rains we find shelter, when it’s hot we get in the shade, when it’s cold we find a warm place to stay.

Adaptation is a practical, affordable, utterly natural reflex response to nature when the planet is heating or cooling.

Representative Barton is a long-time global warming skeptic, opponent of greenhouse gas emissions regulation, and advocate for the oil and coal industries. He is a ranking member and former chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee.

On the other hand—but same side of the issue—Pastor Calvin Beisner doesn’t pick and choose which parts of science are acceptable. At the same congressional hearing, he invoked the “balanced, Biblical” view in his address to Congress: “The Biblical world view sees Earth and its ecosystems as the effect of a wise God’s creation and… therefore robust, resilient, and self regulating, like the product of any good engineer.” And like any good science denier, Paster Beisner hates evolution.

Think of the children… work on Drosophila

March 2nd, 2009
bolducfly3-1small.jpgFigure 1 from Bolduc and Tully’s recent paper in Fly. It shows that many genes characterized for memory function in animal models affect mental retardation in humans. Click to enlarge.

Way back in October, politics were stressful and Sarah Palin (and others) were confused about fruit fly research. But now, even politicians should understand that there is no conflict of interest between basic science research on fruit flies and saving the children: in a special issue of the journal Fly, a new review paper describes the utility of Drosophila in studying the biology of intellectual disabilities.

Many forms of mental retardation have genetic determinants, and science research into the biological basis of these disabilities is an obvious avenue to improving lives. As the paper by François Bolduc and Tim Tully describes, Drosophila is a valuable animal model for investigating the genetic basis of intellectual disabilities. About 87% of the genes identified in humans to cause mental retardation have orthologs in Drosophila.

It turns out that Drosophila is an especially good model for studying mental retardation. Genes for learning and memory are more well-conserved between humans and flies than other classes of genes, and flies are well-developed as a model system for conditioning and memory assays. Because they are small and breed quickly, flies are also a useful resource for testing pharmaceutical treatment. This paper describes a number of mental disabilities that are caused by mutation at single genes, and the insights gained by evaluating the Drosophila orthologs. And as more genetic determinants are identified, research on model systems like fruit flies will reveal valuable information on how these genes are expressed and whether medical interventions are safe and effective.

Baboon Metaphysics

February 23rd, 2009

baboonmetaphysics1.jpegDorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth‘s recent book on baboon social behavior, Baboon Metaphysics, has been nominated for… oddest title of the year!

The title echos Charles Darwin’s own comment about the fascinating behavior of baboons, made over 170 years ago: “He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”

You can vote (as many times as you like) for Cheney and Seyfarth’s book here.

They’ve got some tough competition, though, including Curbsite Consultation of the Colon and—current frontrunner—The 2009-2014 World Outlook for 60-milligram Containers of Fromage Frais. Vote early, vote often.

Happy Birthday

February 9th, 2009

Thursday is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. So, this week I made a tribute birthday cake to celebrate:


The cake is chocolate and strawberry, with vanilla icing and cocoa powder. We ate it at our weekly evolution chalk talk seminar, during a discussion about OspC in Burrelia burgdorferi. Those things on the cake are pigeons, not finches. (Note the variation.)

Filthy ideas

February 2nd, 2009

gorilladirt.jpgIt’s been a while since I grumbled about inappropriate evolution-speak in science writing in the NY Times. So at the risk of sounding shrill, I’m going to take another stab. Jane E. Brody has written about the immunological benefits of babies eating dirt. The idea that exposure to germs in early childhood can boost immune development and reduce risk of allergies and other auto-immune disorders has been around a while, and Brody’s article doesn’t really cover anything shocking. But this passage was annoying:

Since all instinctive behaviors have an evolutionary advantage or they would not have been retained for millions of years, chances are that [babies putting their grubby little hands in their mouths] has helped us survive as a species.

Do all instincts have an evolutionary advantage? Are all instincts adaptations? That opening line sounds irritatingly like another indiscriminate claim for adaptation. But in biological terms, instincts are hard-wired, not learned, and improve fitness. So I think by definition, instincts are adaptive. But has natural selection really favored babies putting things in their mouths, to increase exposure to germs and boost immunological development? (Is there variation in this? Have babies ever not eaten dirt?) I doubt it.

For most of human history, we didn’t have lysol antibacterial spray, soap, or running water. Babies, like the rest of us, were perpetually grubby and reliably teeming with microbes. So I can’t imagine that they needed an adaptation to increase exposure to germs. Only in our over-sanitized present does an instinct to seek and ingest dirt really make sense. So maybe this “instinct” is an adaptation—a really, really recent one. But… haven’t babies always eaten dirt?

Upcoming year of evolution events

January 27th, 2009

Update: Tickets (free) are required to attend the Darwin’s Legacy symposium. Access yours online here.

Update: Due to overwhelming interest, the Darwin’s Legacy symposium has been moved to a larger venue. It will now be held in Harrison Auditorium.

yearofevolution.jpgAs part of the ongoing Year of Evolution, sponsored by the University of Pennsylvania and other Philadelphia institutions, February will be host to a handful of events celebrating the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of Species 150 years ago. These events will be held all over the city of Philadelphia and are open to the public. Visit the official site here to get more information about any of the individual events.

Thursday, February 5, 2009
Academy of Natural Sciences, 5:30 PM

The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment in the Obama Administration

Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, will speak about biological conservation and environmental protection.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009
University of Pennsylvania bookstore, 6 PM

Banquet at Delmonico’s: Great Minds, the Gilded Age, and the Triumph of Evolution in America

Barry Werth, author of Banquet at Delmonico’s, will explain how a British book of science came to radically change our American identity.

Thursday, February 12, 2009
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, 6 PM

Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution

Ken Miller, author of two books about evolution, creationism and intelligent design, will speak about this conflict in American culture. This lecture is the keynote address in the two-day colloquium, Darwin’s Legacy in 21st Century Biology.

Sunday, February 15, 2009
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, 1 PM

Darwin Day and Evolution Teach In

In celebration of Darwin’s 200th birthday, and in concert with Darwin Day celebrations all over the world, enjoy mini lectures on evolution, gallery tours, birthday cake and badminton.

An angel for Christmas

December 24th, 2008
angelsmall.JPGThe cell phone camera photo of a security camera image taken in a hospital hallway in September 2008.

Fourteen-year-old Chelsea Banton was near death, hospitalized for pneumonia. She was removed from life support, and—could it be a miracle?—slowly began to improve. At the same time, a mysterious angelic form was seen hovering outside her hospital room. Her mother Colleen credits her daughter’s recovery to the angel. “It’s a miracle,” she said. Ann Curry opened this “news” piece on the Today show by suggesting that even skeptics might reconsider their cynicism after viewing the late-breaking evidence. Sixty-eight percent of Americans believe in angels (that’s 19% more than believe in evolution) already. But this is not an especially awesome example of supernatural shenanigans (the angel totally looks like a glare). And it’s not even a Christmas coincidence: this all took place months ago. I guess the news is all relative.