19 June 2009

Weekly sampler 24

1. Get your genome sequenced for $48,000. I would so do this. In the meantime, we bought the Matheson family DNA test for my dad for Father's Day.

2. I'm following this series at Siris: Philosophical Sentences explained. You know the old chestnuts: Cogito ergo sum, God is dead, virtue is its own reward, cleanliness is next to godliness... heh. Brandon tells us where they came from and a little about them. Latest installment is Santayana's famous quote etched at Dachau.

3. A very cool illusion that, like all good ones, tells us something interesting about how the brain processes visual information. Don't click till you're ready to follow these instructions: display the image on your computer screen so that you can slowly back away from the screen and still see the image. The idea is to view it up close then back up at least a few meters.

4. Two of my favorite bloggers, John Lynch (of Satan's University) and John Wilkins (from Down Under) have left ScienceBlogs and set up shop independently. Lynch formerly blogged at Stranger Fruit and his new place is called a simple prop. Wilkins is an important antidote to brainless anti-religious bellowings from Coyne and like-minded simps. Both are skeptics who know a lot about evolution. Recent important posts: Lynch on The Roots of ID and Wilkins on The Demon Spencer.

5. Strangest species discovered in the last year. The ghost slug wins for weirdness, but the big news is that someday we might be able to drink decaf that's still coffee.

6. Becoming Creation is an important blog by a homeschooler, evolutionary creationist, accomplished biologist and good guy: Doug Hayworth. Up right now is an interview with Denis Lamoureux, author of Evolutionary Creation.

7. A recent piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education presents a very interesting take on teaching science in the context of religion (and other social influences). The concluding paragraph:
Science professors should explicitly engage the rich social and ethical context of the subjects that they teach, engaging new generations of students in the science that so many now fear and reject. A careful, thoughtful approach to teaching the sensitive issue of evolution represents merely the beginning of a challenging, less-traveled-by path, but one that could, nevertheless, make all the difference.
8. My research concerns some very interesting proteins called formins. Michael Behe's scholarship includes a focus on the malaria parasite, P. falciparum. A recent paper reports that a formin protein in P. falciparum is critically involved in the process by which the parasite invades red blood cells. I always knew that Professor Behe and I were destined to be collaborators.

10 June 2009

Theistic embryology: the talk

I previously posted the abstract of a talk I gave at Calvin last month in which I test-drove my "theistic embryology" metaphor that I'll present at the North American Paleontological Convention in Cincinnati in two weeks. Now the audio and my simple slides are posted on Calvin's e-zine, Minds in the Making. Lots of jokes. And now my name's spelled right.

About halfway through, I refer to "10 dangers of theistic evolution" at Answers in Genesis. Later I read from Jerry Coyne's steaming pile. And speaking of steaming piles, I then read from one of my favorite posts in The Cesspool. In case you wanted to follow along.

09 June 2009

Deep homology and design: common design and its implications

Consider these not-so-random samples from the animal world: a cockroach, a zebrafish, a mouse. What do these creatures have in common?

Left to right: American cockroach (Periplaneta americana), zebrafish (Danio rerio), house mouse (Mus musculus). Cockroach image from Wikimedia Commons, zebrafish and mouse from Wellcome Images.

Well, they're all animals and that means they're all eukaryotes, for example. They all have DNA-based genomes. They all like water to some extent. They all have muscles that cause them to move. And so on.

But let's think of them in a different way. Let's think of them as things that exhibit design. (Not Design. Just design.) We see similarities like the ones we just listed, and we see some dramatic differences. Insect, exoskeleton, open circulatory system. Fish, gills, egg-laying. Mammal, milk, hair, live birth, temperature control. We can see elements of common design (limbs and joints, eyes, nerves) and elements of specialized design (lungs, fins, antennae).

Now let's forget everything we know about common descent and adopt an Intelligent Design perspective. This isn't hard to do: just think of each animal as a machine that was designed to be the way it is. The machines have some common design elements and some specialized design elements. Now this is important: let's assume that each machine was designed separately, such that design decisions were made on a case-by-case basis (for each type of machine, not for each individual machine). In other words, let's think of the cockroach as designed from the ground up to be a cockroach, and the fish and the mouse likewise. Simple, right? I think so.

Now, let's look under the hood of each machine and ask detailed questions about how it's built, again with the assumption that it was designed. Not just its overall structure, but also the procedures used for its assembly. Let's look, in other words, at its molecular machinery – machinery for signaling between cells and tissues, machinery for signaling within individual cells, machinery for directing gene function during development and normal function. And let's focus specifically on the signaling systems in these creatures and in their developmental stages. What would we expect to see? Well, let's consider some basic scenarios.

1. Maybe the signaling systems will be roughly the same – or even largely the same – in all three animals. This would imply that such systems are hard to assemble and perhaps even harder to tune and maintain, and therefore we would conclude that there are very few ways to make a working system. The only other explanation would refer to preferences on the part of the designer, who was unconstrained by design limitations but nevertheless insisted on doing things a certain way.

2. Maybe the signaling systems will differ between the three animals, to such an extent that it is clear that the choice of a system is somewhat arbitrary, arbitrary in the sense that the choice of a particular system is largely independent of the context or the function that is specified. The implication is that there are plenty of ways in which cells and molecules can communicate, and no strong constraints on the designer's choices.

Now of course we may find examples of both scenarios in our analysis. Perhaps some signaling systems will appear to be highly constrained while others will be largely different among the three species. The point, though, is this: when examining machines that were separately designed, common design implies either design constraint or designer preference. Divergent design implies a lack of design constraint. There are no further options: either the designer was constrained, or she wasn't; if unconstrained, she could nevertheless choose a favorite scheme and leave the impression that she was somehow constrained.

Designer constraint could arise in various ways. It could be that a particular signaling system is uniquely suited to a particular purpose. It could be that a particular signaling system is highly robust to damage or other challenges. It could be that there are only a handful of different possibilities due to limitations in the raw materials. One variation of that last possibility would look a lot like how evolution is known to work: the designer tweaks the system a little at a time, working with the materials supplied by each generation and therefore constrained by common descent.

Design proponents can be stunningly cavalier about all this. "Common elements in animal biology? Well of course! Common design!" But wait: common design implies either design constraint (that was the best way to do it – or the only way to do it) or designer preference (she just happens to like it that way), and those are dramatically different from an explanatory standpoint.

It turns out that signaling systems in animal development are so universally conserved that they require an extraordinary explanation. The commonality of the elements is so striking that it took most biologists by surprise when it first became evident, and remains one of the most remarkable facts of developmental biology today. We'll look at some recent advances in this area of evo-devo in posts to come.

But one last thing: I'd like to try a thought experiment to illustrate how we might approach questions of signaling in animal cells and embryos. Consider a group of 50 people who have agreed to help with your experiment. You divide them into pairs and tell each pair to send one person out of the room. Then you tell the remaining people to greet their partners upon their return, using a single word of their choosing that is certain to convey the greeting. You observe that all of the people employ either "hello" or "hi" for this purpose.

Question: would you conclude that "hello" and "hi" are uniquely suited for the task, and that no other word could possibly have worked? I hope you would seek another explanation and perhaps consider trying the experiment in, say, Shanghai or Guadalajara. You would conclude, I wager, that the word itself is of little explanatory value. In other words, the choice of a word was constrained, but not by anything specific to the word itself. In Shanghai, it's "ni hao." Maybe somewhere it's "duuuuuuude." And in a matter of minutes, you could change it to "ahoy" or "blorp" or anything you want.

And if you really wanted to probe the notion of constraint in human conversation, you would ask your 25 pairs of subjects to come up with an identifying word or phrase that they could call out to find each other in the dark. You would find, of course, that the choice of that word or phrase would be almost completely unconstrained.

What does all this have to do with signaling systems and design? That's for next time. Till then, blorp.

08 June 2009

Deep homology and design: a new series

Recently I was reading a superb review article [doi] on the subject of a famous and important cellular signaling pathway called the Notch pathway. The author, Mark Fortini of Thomas Jefferson University, quoted James Puckle (an 18th-century English inventor and writer) on the "wonderful frame of the human body" in which "so many strings and springs" which all must "be in their right frame and order" for life and concluding that "it is next to a miracle we survived the day we were born." (If you must know, it's maxim #914 in The Club, in a section called "Death.")

This reminded me of some personal tragedy in our own family, after which Puckle's conclusion was repeated almost verbatim. It also reminded me of my need to write about the amazing homology of developmental signaling mechanisms in animals. For many months, I've listed an article on "deep homology" as the subject of my next Journal Club. But this topic won't fit into one article review, so I've decided to turn it into a little series.

Here's what Fortini writes in his introduction, after quoting Mr. Puckle:
Surprisingly, research over the past few decades has revealed that the orderly differentiation and arrangement of these many physiological ‘‘strings and springs’’ are controlled by a relatively small number of developmental signaling pathways. These pathways, including the Notch, Ras/MAPK, Hedgehog, Wnt, TGFβ, and JAK/STAT pathways, among others, are widely conserved throughout the animal kingdom and they cooperate throughout development to pattern a diverse array of tissues in different animal species.
The lingo might seem strange, but I hope the point is clear. The vast diversity of animal life, with "endless forms most beautiful," is assembled through the action of a small set of signaling systems. And, remarkably, the systems are used in the same ways in animals that couldn't be more different in behavior or structure.

This fact raises interesting questions about design and evolution. Why so few systems? Why are they used again and again, for the very same purpose? Are these choices forced by design constraints of some kind, or is there another explanation? Could it have been otherwise? Can it be otherwise? I'll tackle those questions while discussing some recent experiments in evolutionary developmental biology, or evo-devo.

And what of this phrase "deep homology"? It was coined by some of the founding minds of evo-devo – Neil Shubin, Cliff Tabin and Sean Carroll – as they considered the fact that animal limbs of every kind are "organized by a similar genetic regulatory system that may have been established in a common ancestor." And we mean limbs of every kind: whale flippers, fish fins, bat wings, human arms, and, amazingly, insect limbs. Such disparate structures may not be evolutionarily homologous (meaning that they were modified from a common ancestor) but the signaling systems that create them are homologous.

This, then, is deep homology: the sharing of signaling mechanisms that are used to create diverse (though often functionally similar) animal structures. So please join me, and maybe we'll lure interesting commenters into the discussion.