Ben Carson did experiments on tissue from aborted fetuses


The paper leaves no room for ambiguity.


Note that there’s nothing at all wrong with this — the use of fetal tissue in these kinds of experiments, and many more, is ubiquitous, and it is not obtained by magic, but by the ethical donation of fetal material from abortions and miscarriages and stillbirths. I don’t object at all to Carson having participated in this kind of research.

I do object to him now declaring that it is unethical in all circumstances.

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Botanical Wednesday: I need!

We’re leaving for the West coast on Friday, and of course my creaky old joints are lancing me with stabby excruciating pain. I have seen my doctor. I have pills. Because I must restore myself with red cedar, Sitka spruce, sea stacks, tide pools, banana slugs, great herds of sea urchins, and the ocean and the mountains, I will get there if Mary has to carry me on her back.

The Olympic National Forest is also where Mary and I had our honeymoon, 35 years ago. If ever I could just ditch all my responsibilities and retreat somewhere to avoid everything, this is where I’d go. But don’t bother looking for me. Just be satisfied with the news that, if I vanish, sightings of hairy ape-like creatures in the wilderness of Washington state will spike.

Christians can get awfully reductionist when it suits them


Amanda Marcotte rips into stupid gotcha by Marco Rubio.

When Rubio appeared on CNN after Thursday night’s Republican debate, he kept insisting that this vague entity called “science” has declared that human life begins at conception. (Actual biologists, for what it’s worth, argue that life is continuous and that a fertilized egg is no more or less alive than a sperm or an unfertilized egg.) CNN host Chris Cuomo vainly tried to point out that “science” says no such thing, and Rubio got a little excited.

“Let me interrupt you. Science has—absolutely it has. Science has decided… Science has concluded that—absolutely it has. What else can it be?” he asked. Then Rubio reared up for what he clearly intended as his wowza line: “It cannot turn into an animal. It can’t turn into a donkey. The only thing that that can become is a human being.”

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Those sneaky gingers pop up everywhere


I have a brother with red hair. I also have a son with red hair. Once upon a time, my beard and mustache contained many red hairs among the dominant browns. If you’ve ever wondered how these gingers appear all over the place, Petra Haak-Bloem offers a good explanation (although it needs some editing: how many different ways can they spell pheomelanin?).

The shade of hair color is determined by the amount of melanin, or pigment, in the hair. Your DNA not only encodes what kind of pigment you have, but also how much of it. “For white people the shades are dependent on two sorts of melanin: eumelanine (black pigment) and pheomelanine (red pigment). Hair cells of dark haired people only contain eumelanine. Blondes have less eumelanine. And redheads’ hair contains mostly pheomelanine,” Haak-Bloem says.

“More than a decade ago, researchers discovered that one gene (MC1R) on chromosome 16 plays an important part in giving people red hair. MC1R’s task is making a protein called melanocortin 1. That proteine plays an important part in converting pheolmelanine into eumelanine,” Haak-Bloem tells me. “When someone inherits two mutated versions of the MC1R-gene (one from each parent), less pheomelanine is converted into eumelanine. The feomelanine accumulates in the pigment cells and the person ends up with red hair and fair skin.”

The unexpectedly red beard is the effect of the same mutation in the MC1R gene. When you only have one mutated MC1R, red hair can appear in (unwanted) places. But even Haak-Bloem wasn’t completely sure of the mechanism. Having a deviant red beard has never been linked to any deadly diseases, so it’s pretty low on the research priorities list.

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Reconstructing a brain


Every once in a while, I get some glib story from believers in the Singularity and transhumanism that all we have to do to upload a brain into a computer is make lots of really thin sections and reconstruct every single cell and every single connection, put that data into a machine with a sufficiently robust simulator that executes all the things that a living brain does, and presto! You’ve got a virtual simulation of the person! I’ve explained before how that overly trivializes and reduces the problem to an absurd degree, but guess what? Real scientists, not the ridiculous acolytes of Ray Kurzweil, have been working at this problem realistically. The results are interesting, but also reveal why this work has a long, long way to go.

In a paper from Jeff Lichtman’s group with many authors, they revealed the results of taking many ultrathin sections of a tiny dot of tissue from mouse cortex, scanned them, and then made 3-D reconstructions. There was a time in my life when I was doing this sort of thing: long hours at the ultramicrotome, using glass knives to slice sequential sections from tissue imbedded in an epoxy block, and then collecting them on delicate copper grids, a few at a time, to put on the electron microscope. One of the very cool things about this paper was reading about all the ways they automated this tedious process. It was impressive that they managed to get a complete record of 1500 µm3 of the brain, with a complete map of all the cells and synapses.

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Listicles get published in peer-reviewed journals!


I used a cruel headline, but this is actually a useful list: Fifty psychological and psychiatric terms to avoid: a list of inaccurate, misleading, misused, ambiguous, and logically confused words and phrases. It’s not just the popular media that mangle scientific language, but also more technical works sometimes slip into misleading shorthand. For instance, #1 on their list of bad terms:

(1) A gene for. The news media is awash in reports of identifying “genes for” a myriad of phenotypes, including personality traits, mental illnesses, homosexuality, and political attitudes (Sapolsky, 1997). For example, in 2010, The Telegraph (2010) trumpeted the headline, “‘Liberal gene’ discovered by scientists.” Nevertheless, because genes code for proteins, there are no “genes for” phenotypes per se, including behavioral phenotypes (Falk, 2014). Moreover, genome-wide association studies of major psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, suggest that there are probably few or no genes of major effect (Kendler, 2005). In this respect, these disorders are unlike single-gene medical disorders, such as Huntington’s disease or cystic fibrosis. The same conclusion probably holds for all personality traits (De Moor et al., 2012).

Not surprisingly, early claims that the monoamine oxidase-A (MAO-A) gene is a “warrior gene” (McDermott et al., 2009) have not withstood scrutiny. This polymorphism appears to be only modestly associated with risk for aggression, and it has been reported to be associated with conditions that are not tied to a markedly heightened risk of aggression, such as major depression, panic disorder, and autism spectrum disorder (Buckholtz and Meyer-Lindenberg, 2013; Ficks and Waldman, 2014). The evidence for a “God gene,” which supposedly predisposes people to mystical or spiritual experiences, is arguably even less impressive (Shermer, 2015) and no more compelling than that for a “God spot” in the brain (see “God spot”). Incidentally, the term “gene” should not be confused with the term “allele”; genes are stretches of DNA that code for a given morphological or behavioral characteristic, whereas alleles are differing versions of a specific polymorphism in a gene (Pashley, 1994).

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