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Aaargh, go away, silly physicists!

It pained me to see that bad biology peddled by Davies and Lineweaver, who tried to argue that cancer was a revived genetic atavism, a kind of throwback to a primeval state. But they just won’t learn. It’s as if they don’t care to learn. Now Lineweaver has a new article up flogging the same old dud of an idea, claiming that an “astrobiological view” of cancer's evolutionary origin is relevant. He does have a new metaphor.

Genomes have a complicated history, like a canvas that has been painted on over and over again with different scenes in each layer. When the top surface of this palimpsest gets old and cracks and peels off, you don’t get random mutations of colour – you get glimpses of the underlying scenes that were painted years earlier.

Those underlying scenes are the ancient genes that used to rule the roost. And those ancient scenes don’t contain the genes to regulate cell proliferation. So cells can proliferate without knowing where they are in the body, and cancer emerges.

You know, rather than an astrophysicist’s view, I’d rather have a microbiologist’s view. She wouldn’t be assuming that ancient single-celled organisms lacked genes to regulate cell proliferation — she’d probably know that bacteria have cell cycle regulators, and control their reproduction to match opportunities and constraints in the environment. It would be nice for these bozos to get some input from people who actually know how cells work, rather than that they continue on with their ignorant assumptions.

Also, he repeats this really annoying rationale.

Our model gives hope to cancer researchers because it predicts that the number of adaptive behaviours available to cancer is not open-ended.

You know what else would give researchers hope? If your model predicted that a shot of penicillin would cure cancer. It doesn’t, but it sure would be hopeful to pretend that something that simple would fix all our problems. Also, maybe it could fix global warming and end the wars in the Middle East, too…see how hopeful it could be?

But we don’t evaluate hypotheses by how much we wish they were true — we test them against reality, instead. Davies and Lineweaver really need a good solid whack on the noggin by the 2×4 of reality, that’s for sure.

Comments

  1. says

    Genomes have a complicated history, like a canvas that has been painted on over and over again with different scenes in each layer.

    They’re more complicated than that, because no way does the old material remain unchanged like these bozos assume. In fact, it typically is lost if it isn’t still used, mutated into meaninglessness, possibly just being gone.

    Those underlying scenes are the ancient genes that used to rule the roost.

    No, there isn’t an accumulation of unused but pristine genes at all. The simile is just plain wrong, as wrong as the rest of their “idea.”

    Is there a “lemur” hidden away in your genes? Are you just a gussied-up reptile, thinly disguised as a mammal? Why are there still monkeys? Well, clearly because some humans just had the “top layers” of their genomes stripped off. It’s so clear now…

    Glen Davidson

  2. Rodney Nelson says

    Our model gives hope to cancer researchers because it predicts that the number of adaptive behaviours available to cancer is not open-ended.

    All too often when an expert in one field pontificates in a completely different field all that’s done is annoy the people studying the second field.

  3. fataz says

    I started in chemistry and physics, shifted to microfluidics, then left a secure position, so I could move university, to shift to microbiology before shifting across to more cell biology (and studying and working the lab like crazy each time). I understand what these wankers hope to do, and have seen it done with success by physicist colleagues before, but only by collaboration with people who know what the fuck they were talking about.

    On behalf of australian scientists, SORRY. They’re just a couple of asshats who think they’re teapot’s gift to the fuckin’ human race. Just want to know how they got hired at the ANU. Thank teapot I’m looking at UQ if ANU employs tossers like these. Then again, it is Canberra…

  4. Ysanne says

    Let’s just say that mentioning “Lineweaver” and “publication” in one sentence got me cringes and groans from his colleagues… And an explanation: Every uni needs someone that the local paper and breakfast radio programmes can go to for soundbites on anything science-y, and people who are happy to comment on pretty much any topic without feeling inhibited by their lack of knowledge are natural candidates for this role. It only becomes embarrassing when this “spokesperson” lets this approach spill over into actual academic publications, but at that point it’s too late to stop them, as they’ve grown into a good position to publicise their “findings” widely in popular media…

  5. natashatasha says

    Charley Lineweaver is very good at astrophysics, which is why he got hired. You’re allowed to have crackpot idea is they’re not related to your field, though, which seems to describe Charley in a nutshell. I still remember in first-year when he described life as any structure that increases the rate of change of entropy in the Universe by lowering the entropy inside itself.

    And fataz, don’t judge ANU off Charley. It’s a wonderful University (I’m not biased at all *coughs*). That said, UQ is nice too.

  6. Ysanne says

    fataz,
    don’t worry, UQ has its share of teapot’s gifts to mankind, too… just like any other uni. Still, it’s a nice place (especially with the corella invasion in the last few days).
    natashatasha,
    so my is freezer alive by this definition, or am I missing something?

  7. davidcoburn says

    I think the notion that many new ideas come from people outside of a particular field is strong enough in the minds of many to shelter them from being embarrassed about making these kinds of statements. I do feel like physicists and engineers seem to be more likely to opine about biology than are biologists to to do so about physics. Does anyone have an example of a biologist rhyming off something this incoherent about physics?

  8. robro says

    PZ: Perhaps you should write an essay on the biological theory of the quantum/gravity dichotomy, a string theory where the strings are like DNA. You could say impressive things about chirality…or something. It would give us all a lot of hope that one day we can explore distant stars in hyper-lightspeed helical cocoons, and live forever, too.

  9. says

    Of course I’m nowhere near being a biologist, but I like reading Pharyngula. It strikes me that, even though Davies and Lineweaver are out of their expertese-niche, that they may be onto something even if the details are muddy. It seems your response to their pretentiousness is itself ostentatious. Can’t you even conceive of some work-arounds for their errors? Maybe they are on a dead-end street, but what if there could be found some cancer connections to atavism?

  10. ibbica says

    It seems your response to their pretentiousness is itself ostentatious. Can’t you even conceive of some work-arounds for their errors? Maybe they are on a dead-end street, but what if there could be found some cancer connections to atavism?

    It’s not pretension if you actually know what you’re talking about.

    “Conceiving of workarounds for errors” is not anyone’s responsibility but the erroneous party. No, you shouldn’t get credit for being too lazy to check to see if you’re spouting off nonsense before shooting your mouth off.

    Given how many blatantly erroneous claims they have to deal with by “outsiders” making claims on physics matters, you’d think physicists would be more careful about making claims outside their own area of expertise…

  11. Lachlan says

    Why the lame generalisations? I don’t think physicists are more likely to make faulty claims outside of physics than a scientist in any other field.

  12. John Morales says

    [meta]

    Lachlan, hardly lame, when they’re so very spry. :)

    BTW, in what other scientific field is is held all other fields are but elaboration of theirs?

    (After all, reality is but the interaction of matter and energy mediated by fields, no?)

  13. Lachlan says

    Kristjan Wager:

    Physicists and engineers are well know for this behavior. Here is an article (by a physicist) explaining why this behavior might be so widespread.

    Interesting article. As he said though, this isn’t a problem unique to physicists, though I can accept that there’s a greater prevalence of such attitudes among physicists.

    Just to put my cards on the table, I’m studying as a physics student and fully intend to be a physics researcher. We’re none without our biases. :)

  14. madtom1999 says

    In computer software we know have people patenting things that should be part of IT introductory classes.

    A point that migh be found interesting is in uchip design GaAs chips were held as the future after initial developments shone. After six or seven years of very slow development they managed to pry the development out of their sticky fingers and into the hands of electronic engineers who immediately provided order of magnitude improvements in performance – withou knowing the physics!
    But as Lachlan pointed out it isnt just a problem with physicists but then progress is often made by people who dont know not to try something – in engineering terms its called annealing – who would have thought that heating something till it nearly melts and then beating the shit out of it with a hammer would make it stronger?

  15. John Morales says

    [OT]

    who would have thought that heating something till it nearly melts and then beating the shit out of it with a hammer would make it stronger?

    Swordsmiths.

  16. Ysanne says

    BTW, in what other scientific field is is held all other fields are but elaboration of theirs?

    If maths counts as a science? Pure maths. Everything is so trivial, it’s just all these “couldn’t add two fractions to save my life” lab people who can’t figure it out….
    Applied mathematicians can at least appreciate by experience that once you bother to take a closer look, stuff which looks trivial in the abstract can get extremely difficult and not straightforward at all.
    Also, mathematicians just know that physicists have no idea what they’re doing in their calculations, and it’s only by luck (and mathematicians’ foresight) that the theorems and notation they abuse turn out to work in the end.

  17. Lachlan says

    I find pure abstract math to be much easier than physics, at this point in my education anyway.

  18. Tyrant al-Kalām says

    I don’t know… being a theoretical p. myself, my firm opinion is that a good physicist worth her salt should have an appreciation of how difficult it is to understand complex systems. It is easy for physicists to forget how incredibly simple even the so-called “complex” systems are which we choose to study in our field (a choice to which we owe our ability to have all those absurdly accurate theories for them).

  19. Alex the Pretty Good says

    Our model gives hope to cancer researchers because it predicts that the number of adaptive behaviours available to cancer is not open-ended.

    Ooh … two can play that game:
    The “prayer” model gives hope to cancer researchers because it predicts that the possibility to heal millions of people without the use of medicine is real.

    The “Stargate” model gives hope to space researchers because it predicts that the number of inhabited planets available for human colonisation is not infenitessimally negligible.

    The “Ancient Aliens” model gives hope to rocket researchers because it predicts that it is possible to travel to other panets within a lifetime and have sex with the local inhabitants.

    Yes, you too can be a published scientist! We at Stercus Tauri Publishing work together with peers from only the finest institutes like Shady Acres, TGIF Happy Hour, the School of Hard Knocks, Everybody Knows, and many others who realise that an idea only needs to sound practical to make sense. So don’t hesitate, send in your manuscript today! Free complementary fractus-quality pot for the first 100 submissions.

  20. clastum3 says

    John Morales #20
    BTW, in what other scientific field is held all other fields are but elaboration of theirs?

    Yes, it was another down-under physicist, I think (Rutherford) who said, there’s physics, and all the rest is stamp-collecting.

  21. says

    @ ibbica: I realize it may not be the case here, but good things sometimes come to those who from time to time think outside the box. Capernicus, for example, faced down quite a few pompous debunkers.

  22. robb says

    if life is anything that decreases it’s entropy by increasing the entropy of the universe, then we all better watch out for our refrigerators. but you don’t have to worry unless you catch them ordering phased plasma rifles in a 40 watt range.

  23. says

    What he’s proposing is straight out of the movie “Altered States”.

    When you can’t distinguish science from science fiction, then you’re a very very bad scientist.

  24. charlessoto says

    So, if I can understand that statement correctly, he’s saying that genes are like tools in a junk drawer. When a “new gene is acquired” the old one just gets thrown in that drawer. But that’s not it at all. It’s as if the spanner got dropped and just happened to have the right bend necessary to reach behind that basin and reach the nut.

    Thinking this way because I’m about to start a bathroom remodel and I loathe the tight spaces involved in plumbing…

  25. blf says

    in what other scientific field is held all other fields are but elaboration of theirs?

    Pure Mathematics. Physics is just unproven hypotheses derived from Applied Math. And then simplified.

  26. DLC says

    Bob Moore: Copernicus had the advantage of being right, or at least plausible. These two aren’t even plausible.

  27. says

    OK, DLC. If no reputable biologist will say that it’s plausible then I’ll quietly be put in my place. Thank you for your response. I stand corrected.

  28. samharris says

    David@11 –

    In my experience, it is a pretty common phenomenon for engineers and physicists – engineers in particular – to think themselves hyper-capable in all fields. My experience pertains specifically to the creation-evolution issue, but it seems that there is some spillover into other related fields as well.

    For example, I once read where a mechanical engineer (a creationist, of course) declared that ‘all of biology’ was but a weekend reading project for him (this is the same chap that told me that ‘all cells are spheres’ – when I showed him a picture of cuboidal epithelium, he stopped replying to me).

  29. davidcoburn says

    Sam,

    Nice example, I wonder what a picture of a macrophage extending filopodia would have made him think. That ‘weekend reading’ attitude is particularly condescending. If it’s so easy I wish one of them would just cure cancer already. It shouldn’t take more than a year right?