15 February 2009

Weekly sampler 22

It was a week of celebration and remembrance. There was a major birthday. And celebrations of that day of the first fruits of bigger things, in unlikely places like Florida and Arizona. It's all very exciting.

1. So... you're tired of reading about why Darwin is [God/Satan/Abe Lincoln/Howard Stern] or whether Darwinism is [Nazism/Atheism/True religion/ID codeword]. You'd rather read about what evolutionary biologists are doing today, and what real scientists think of Darwin and his ideas, but you don't have access to most academic journals. Take heart! There are some very good free resources that have been posted in celebration of Jason Varitek's signing, and here are some that I think are worth a visit:

2. Randy Isaac (executive director of the ASA) has been providing reports from the AAAS annual meeting in Chicago, focused on topics of interest to ASA folks. He attended a symposium on human origins and posted comments on the ASA email list.

3. The Vatican will be holding a conference on evolution next month, and reports indicate that ID will get a very critical eye. Via John Farrell.

4. At the end of the month I'll be in Dayton, Tennessee to participate in an interesting Darwin-themed event at Bryan College and to hang with my friend Todd Wood. (Ted Davis is another speaker.) I hope to have a Scopes trial-centered tour as well. And in June I'll be giving a talk in a symposium at the North American Paleontological Convention in Cincinnati. I'll post the abstract here once it's accepted.

5. Siris on why Jerry Coyne should either stick to genetics or take a high school-level philosophy course.

6. More amazing illusions, again at Scientific American and again via Very Short List, but this time we have sculpted illusions of "impossible figures."

7. Gordon Glover has posted some lectures by Dennis Venema at Beyond the Firmament. Dennis is a professor at Trinity Western University in British Columbia and a fellow evolutionary creationist and ID skeptic.

10 February 2009

Kill Darwin?

Today's Science Times, oddly enough, is devoted to articles on evolution and Darwin. Included is an essay by Carl Safina, "Darwinism Must Die So That Evolution May Live." Safina's basic point is that Darwinism as an -ism is a hindrance to scientific thought and – worse – a source of strength for intelligent design creationism.

I think he's right about that. But I think he's wrong about a lot more, and so does PZ, who documents a set of errors in a post on the Panda's Thumb that expresses what I disliked about the essay. I'd like to zoom in on one particular thing I really didn't like about Safina's essay: the suggestion that scientists are "propounding Darwinism":

By propounding “Darwinism,” even scientists and science writers perpetuate an impression that evolution is about one man, one book, one “theory.”
Science writers, I'll readily grant, "propound Darwinism," though I suspect that the most abundant and profligate users of the term are the purveyors of intelligent design creationism. But to what extent to scientists do this?

Well, let's have a look. I searched PubMed (articles in English only) for the use of terms that would refer to Darwin's concept of natural selection. In one search, I found entries that include the string "natural selection" and in another search I found entries that include "evolution" and "selection" but not "natural selection." The number of hits (20,109) would have been bigger if I had looked for entries including "positive selection," "purifying selection," "evolutionary adaptation," and so on. But there it is: more than 20,000 articles in the scientific literature that make reference to natural selection in some way. Then I searched for "darwinian" (1143 hits) and "darwinism" (204 hits). I put them together, because I'm a generous guy. Here's a nice little graph of the results:

  The "cult of Darwinism" is an invention of propagandists who are smart enough to know that a frontal assault on evolutionary science is a suicide mission. I concur with the multiple commenters on the essay at the Times' site when they refer to this aspect of the essay as a strawman. Safina made some good points about the equating of Darwin and evolution. But he's addressing the wrong audience. Scientists know that's a mistake, and creationists know it's not true. Scientists don't say it. Creationists do.

01 February 2009

Mendel's Garden, 28th Edition

Hello and welcome to the 28th edition of the genetics blog carnival known as Mendel's Garden, where we celebrate blogging on topics related to anything touching on what Mendel discovered (or thought he discovered).

While reading these interesting and informative pieces, please think about work that should be featured in a future edition and/or blogs (like yours) that would serve well as future hosts.

So do tomato seeds get you excited? No? Oh. Well, they should, if you're at all interested in evolutionary genetics. Michael White at Adaptive Complexity explores some new findings in which evolutionary changes in seed size in tomatoes are explained to a large extent by variation in a single gene, pinpointed through the use of standard genetic crosses. He summarizes the work as "a clear case of natural genetic variation controlling the size of seeds, variation for evolution (or plant breeders) to work on when larger or smaller seed sizes are needed to adapt to a new environment." Not peas, but close. Mendel would be proud.

"Mendel would be proud" happens to be the title of a post by Michael at Ricochet Science, pointing to a new educational site which he hopes will help students and laypersons learn genetics.

Ouroboros describes experiments on an interesting DNA repair enzyme called Ercc1. One might think that deletion of the gene encoding this protein (it controls nucleotide excision repair) would be a Bad Thing, but in fact mice that have been so altered are strikingly cancer-resistant. And there's more, but you'll have to check out the excellent Ouroboros blog (focused on aging and related biology) yourself.

At the Spittoon, Erin introduces her post entitled "Miss Con-GENE-iality" with this teaser: "If Facebook is starting to take over your life, maybe your genes are partly to blame." The subject is heritability of various aspects of social connectedness, and instead of whining "I could quit Facebook anytime I want" just go read about these new genetic analyses of our social behavior.

On a more serious note, Razib at Gene Expression explores the genetics that might underlie the interesting case of Sandra Laing, a woman born to apparently white parents but who appeared to be "of a different race." And in South Africa. For more on the genetics of human appearance, see the Eye on DNA interview with Dr. Tzung-Fu Hsieh, developer of a test for the red hair gene.

Oh, and before you give your credit card number to a personal genomics outfit, spend some time at Genetic Future – Daniel notes when a company is charging too much, and comments on some recent remarks by Francis Collins on the future of "consumer genetics."

Organic transgenic food might sound like an oxymoron, but Anastasia at Genetic Maize explains why it's not and introduces the new word for such methods: orgenic.

Jonathan Eisen at The Tree of Life is recruiting people to help with analysis of metagenomic data. Go there to learn more. I forgot to inquire about salary and benefits.

Back to evolutionary genetics: Todd at Evolutionary Novelties reports on an extraordinary example of evolutionary convergence, involving proteins called opsins which are best known for their roles in vision.

Need more evolution (with genetics)? Go read about pink iguanas at Nothing's Shocking. This should get you thinking about speciation, and that means it's time to read about "speciation genes" at Evolving Thoughts. John's not crazy about the term. What a grouch.

And here's a new twist on the whole "species boundary" concept: Ed at Not Exactly Rocket Science writes about a single gene in glowing bacteria that accounts for the ability of the same bacterial species to colonize (in a mutualistic relationship) two completely different organisms (pinecone fish with glowing "headlights" and squid with a luminous "cloaking device"). Now that's cool.

Let's give the Digital Cuttlefish the last word, at least because the blogosphere recently treated us to intensely disturbing images of cuttlefish meeting violent ends. At that little piece of blogospheric heaven, the Digital Cuttlefish reports on the cuttlefish genome project. It's not what you think – it's better.

Thanks for reading, and look for the next edition of Mendel's Garden the first Sunday in March at Biofortified.