Stop pooping! You’re killing sentient beings!

bacteria

In a recent quack conference, Deepak Chopra did his usual thing: taking new science that he understands poorly and stuffing it full of magic bogosity.

According to Chopra, that pesky inflamed microbiome is sentient. The genome, microbiome and epigenome, which the author collectively calls the “super gene,” are referenced throughout the interview. His book, Super Genes: The Key to Health and Well-Being, was published last year.

Oh, no! Every time I use the bathroom, I am slaughtering billions of sentient beings? I’m going to have to stop pooping.

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Why do zebras have stripes?

zebrastripes

An article asks why biology students have misconceptions about science, and it clears up one misconception while implying another. Cool!

Here’s their example of a common error of thinking:

Zebras developed stripes to avoid predators.

That error is incredibly common: it’s the problem of thinking teleologically. Stripes didn’t evolve for a specific goal. The interesting point in the article is that biology students are just as likely to have these misconceptions as non-biology students, but that they are better at arguing for the teleological fallacy, which suggests that biology education is reinforcing the misconceptions. Uh-oh.

But I have to point out that the educators discussing this problem went on to reinforce another misconception, that the stripes are adaptive.

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Deep down, we all want to be Bond villains

lander

I wrote earlier about the latest contretemps in the CRISPR community, and it turns out that I was a paragon of restraint and moderation in my comments. I am not accustomed to this role. I will try harder in the future. For now, I’ll try to turn to turn to Michael Eisen as a model. His review of the very same issue starts this way:

There is something mesmerizing about an evil genius at the height of their craft, and Eric Lander is an evil genius at the height of his craft.

Lander’s recent essay in Cell entitled “The Heroes of CRISPR” is his masterwork, at once so evil and yet so brilliant that I find it hard not to stand in awe even as I picture him cackling loudly in his Kendall Square lair, giant laser weapon behind him poised to destroy Berkeley if we don’t hand over our patents.

I had to laugh, and now I’m wondering what actor will play the Bond villain modeled after Lander.

What kind of education do you want?

Here’s an interesting discussion on why Apple makes iPhones in China rather than the US. It’s not just cheap labor. It’s because we don’t have an appropriately trained work force.

The U.S. can’t compete with China on wages. It can’t compete on the size of the labor force. China has had a decades-long push in its education system to train these workers; the U.S. has not. And the U.S. doesn’t have the facilities or the proximity to the Asian component manufacturers.

Speaking as someone at a liberal arts college, where we teach a broad, general approach to learning that is often abstract, I have to say I agree. There’s a place for us, but there’s also a place for vocational education, and we ought to be building an ecosystem of knowledge, where we value the two-year colleges as much as the four-year elites; liberal arts is not superior to welding and manufacturing.

Scientists behaving deviously

Cas9

There are some scientific technologies that rapidly become ubiquitious and indispensible, and they become the engine that drives tremendous amounts of research, win Nobel prizes, and are eventually taken for granted. Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is one example: PCR is routine in molecular biology now, but I remember when PCR machines were magical objects of reverence, and you were cutting edge when you used one. No more; I actually tell my senior students presenting their final thesis presentation that they don’t have to explain what PCR is anymore, everyone knows what it is and how it works and what it is used for.

The new technology of today that is going to be showered with awards and money and accolades and become totally ubiquitous is CRISPR/Cas. This technique exploits the molecular biology of a prokaryotic adaptive immune system to target gene sequences in living cells and swap in a different sequence — it’s a mechanism for going into a cell and editing its genome selectively. This is huge. It has gigantic implications — people are already fretting over the ethical use of a way to modify people’s genes, even before it has been applied in any practical way. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this is going to be the universal tool for experimental molecular biology for the next several decades, possibly indefinitely.

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But that’s not how science works!

There will be an interesting meeting in London next fall, New trends in evolutionary biology: biological, philosophical and social science perspectives. The description:

Developments in evolutionary biology and adjacent fields have produced calls for revision of the standard theory of evolution, although the issues involved remain hotly contested. This meeting will present these developments and arguments in a form that will encourage cross-disciplinary discussion and, in particular, involve the humanities and social sciences in order to provide further analytical perspectives and explore the social and philosophical implications.

It’s interesting because it could be enlightening, but it could also be weird and chaotic and a magnet for crackpots. Larry Moran is attending — not as a representative of the crackpot contingent, but, I suspect, to cast a cynical eye on the shenanigans. The Third Way of Evolution gang seems to be excited about the meeting, which is not a good sign — these are people who have taken some useful ideas in evolutionary theory, like epigenetics and niche construction, and turned the dial up to 11 to argue that these concepts are so revolutionary that they demand a complete upheaval of neo-Darwinian thinking.

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