The epigenetics miracle?

Jerry Coyne is mildly incensed — once again, there’s a lot of recent hype about epigenetics, and he doesn’t believe it’s at all revolutionary. Well, I’ve written about epigenetics before, I think it’s an extremely important subject central to our understanding of development, and…I agree with him completely. It’s important, we ought to spend more time discussing it in our classes, but it’s all about the process of gene expression, not about radically changing our concepts of evolution. I like to argue that what multigenerational epigenetic effects do is blur out or modulate the effects of genetic change over time, and it might mask out or highlight allelic variation, but ultimately, it’s all about the underlying genetic differences.

Coyne mentions one journalist who claims that new discoveries in epigenetics would “make Darwin swoon,” which is a bizarre standard. Darwin knew next-to-nothing about genetics — he had his own weird version of Lamarckian inheritance — and wasn’t even equipped to imagine molecular biology, so yes, just about anything in this field would dazzle him. My freshman introductory biology course would blow Charles Darwin away — he’d have to struggle to keep up with the products of American public education.

(Also on Sb)

Quacks everywhere

David Colquhoun has posted an excellent series of posts on the Steiner Waldorf schools, 19th century crackpottery that persists even now, by hiding their fundamentally pseudoscientific basis under a fog of fancy invented terms. He discusses their goofy philosophy of anthroposophistry, their devious efforts to get state funding, and their unfortunate but unsurprising history of racism. It’s wild and crazy stuff, and it’s been sidling under the radar for a while.

What initially drew me to DC’s site was his article on quackery in retreat: the University of Westminster has discarded some of their previous offerings in naturopathy. There is still a fair amount of junk in their curriculum, but there’s hope that those are waning too.

I needed that bit of solace, because my university’s official listserve sent me a wonderful offer earlier this week.

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Anti-Caturday post

I vividly recall the first time I encountered a cicada killer, the amazing huge solitary wasp. I was in eighth grade; I was bumming about in our backyard, not doing much of anything, when I heard this loud clattering buzz overhead, looked up, and saw this giant beast slowly cruising towards our apple tree. It looked like something that ought to be accompanied by Flight of the Valkyries, an armored predatory monster determinedly homing in on its helpless prey. It disappeared into the foliage and then reappeared a moment later carrying a cicada that looked to be twice its size, and it landed on a branch overhead and started chomping. I could hear its jaws cracking open the bug from the ground. It just shredded its meal — and it wasn’t tidy, either. Bits of dead cicada came fluttering down around me. I was frantically looking about the yard for something I could use as a club in case it turned its dead glittering eyes on me.

And ever since that day it has been my dream to grow up and become a Sphecius wasp, a cold, brutal killer capable of rending my enemies into shattered fragments with heedless indifference, inspiring terror in all who behold me. Until now. A new species of wasp has been discovered in the fierce jungles of Indonesia.

Behold the dreaded killer of Sulawesi.

The male measures about two-and-a-half-inches long, Kimsey said. “Its jaws are so large that they wrap up either side of the head when closed. When the jaws are open they are actually longer than the male’s front legs. I don’t know how it can walk.”

Its jaws are longer than its legs. Awesome. I’m in love.

(via Bug Girl)

(Also on Sb)

Spam advice

The Dennis Markuze story has made it to Ars Technica. I am much relieved to have that pest gone from my mailbox, but I was thinking about one point everybody is missing: the human brain seems to have an edge over computers.

I just checked, and the FtB site has accumulated about 2100 spam hits which none of you have seen, but which were automatically intercepted by the software (you aren’t missing much: somebody really wants to sell you shoes, lots of shoes). Markuze was hitting me on email and twitter for more than that, and the thing was, those all got past the filters I’ve got in place. So one obsessed crazy man with minimal technical skill and nothing but persistence outperforms all the spambots out there, at least on the scale of individuals, if not in breadth of attack.

Spammers might want to think about that. Instead of writing a new generation of software to circumvent our filters, maybe they should recruit social misfits with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and write software that amplifies their efforts. You can blame me if they take my advice.

(Also on Sb)