Mary’s Monday Metazoan: We’ve got company

We’ve been invaded by a pair of groundhogs who have taken up residence under our deck, and are apparently dining grandly on our weedy overgrown backyard. They’re evasive, though, and I’ve only got this one poor shot of one of them resting in the dappled shade.


OK, here’s a clearer shot of what they look like from the web.


These two are big beasts, and they probably outweigh our cat, who claws frantically at the door to the deck when they make an appearance. I have mixed feelings about their presence — on the one hand, they have gnawed on things in the past, and now we’ve got a mating pair — but on the other hand, they are native Minnesotans. Maybe I should leave them be.

On the third hand, they do look rather plump and meaty, and if we weren’t all vegetarian, might be tempting to toss in a stewpot…

I agree with Neil deGrasse Tyson

He’s been catching some flak for his comments on GMO foods, but I agree whole-heartedly with what he says here (except I don’t think “non-perennial” means what he seems to think it means…astronomers, geez).

Ten days ago, this brief clip of me was posted by somebody.

It contains my brief [2min 20sec] response to a question posed by a French journalist, after a talk I gave on the Universe. He found me at the post-talk book signing table. (Notice the half-dozen ready & willing pens.) The clip went mildly viral (rising through a half million right now) with people weighing in on whether they agree with me or not.

Some comments…

1) The journalist posted the question in French. I don’t speak French, so I have no memory of how I figured out that was asking me about GMOs. Actually I do know some French words like Bordeaux, and Bourgogne, and Champagne, etc.

2) Everything I said is factual. So there’s nothing to disagree with other than whether you should actually “chill out” as I requested of the viewer in my last two words of the clip.

3) Had I given a full talk on this subject, or if GMOs were the subject of a sit-down interview, then I would have raised many nuanced points, regarding labeling, patenting, agribusiness, monopolies, etc. I’ve noticed that almost all objections to my comments center on these other issues.

4) I offer my views on these nuanced issues here, if anybody is interested:

a- Patented Food Strains: In a free market capitalist society, which we have all “bought” into here in America, if somebody invents something that has market value, they ought to be able to make as much money as they can selling it, provided they do not infringe the rights of others. I see no reason why food should not be included in this concept.

b- Labeling: Since practically all food has been genetically altered from nature, if you wanted labeling I suppose you could demand it, but then it should be for all such foods. Perhaps there could be two different designations: GMO-Agriculture GMO-Laboratory.

c- Non-perennial Seed Strains: It’s surely legal to sell someone seeds that cannot reproduce themselves, requiring that the farmer buy seed stocks every year from the supplier. But when sold to developing country — one struggling to become self-sufficient — the practice is surely immoral. Corporations, even when they work within the law, should not be held immune from moral judgement on these matters.

d- Monopolies are generally bad things in a free market. To the extent that the production of GMOs are a monopoly, the government should do all it can to spread the baseline of this industry. (My favorite monopoly joke ever, told by Stephen Wright: “I think it’s wrong that the game Monopoly is sold by only one company”)

e- Safety: Of course new foods should be tested for health risks, regardless of their origin. That’s the job of the Food and Drug Administration (in the USA). Actually, humans have been testing food, even without the FDA ,since the dawn of agriculture. Whenever a berry or other ingested plant killed you, you knew not to serve it to you family.

f- Silk Worms: I partly mangled my comments on this. Put simply, commercial Silk Worms have been genetically modified by centuries of silk trade, such that they cannot survive in the wild. Silk Worms currently exist only to serve the textile industry. Just as Milk Cows are bred with the sole purpose of providing milk to humans. There are no herds of wild Milk Cows terrorizing the countryside.

5) If your objection to GMOs is the morality of selling non-perennial seed stocks, then focus on that. If your objection to GMOs is the monopolistic conduct of agribusiness, then focus on that. But to paint the entire concept of GMO with these particular issues is to blind yourself to the underlying truth of what humans have been doing — and will continue to do — to nature so that it best serves our survival. That’s what all organisms do when they can, or would do, if they could. Those that didn’t, have gone extinct extinct.

In life, be cautious of how broad is the brush with which you paint the views of those you don’t agree with.

Respectfully Submitted


When will we wake up?

We had organic solvents dumped into West Virginia rivers thanks to lack of regulatory concern. We’ve got Republicans rah-rah-rahing for fracking, which risks our aquifers…and of course, they want to run the leaky ol’ XL pipeline across our midwestern farmland. And now 400,000 people in Ohio are without drinking water, and are draining the markets in Michigan of bottled water. What’s causing this problem?

The annual algae blooms have been concentrated around the western end of Lake Erie. The algae growth is fed by phosphorous mainly from farm fertilizer runoff and sewage treatment plants, leaving behind toxins that can kill animals and sicken humans.

Somehow, we seem oblivious to the fact that we can’t poison our environment and also have a good quality of life. You can’t just say, “I’ve got good water now,” and then neglect the infrastructure that maintains that water, or worse yet, charge off and let people profit by wrecking it.

2 + 2 = 17, for certain values of 2

A while back, I responded to Behe/Luskin’s claim that his model proving the impossibility of evolution of chloroquinone resistance was vindicated. I pointed out (as did Ken Miller) that showing that a particular trait required multiple point mutations did not affect the probability in the naive way that Behe and Luskin calculated — in particular, it did not require that the mutations be simultaneous. We’re familiar with a great many known mutations that involve multiple sequential hits to have their effect. I mentioned the work on steroid receptor evolution, and how cancer is an amazing example of the power of the accumulation of sequential variants.

Behe fired back, issuing a challenge to ‘show my numbers’. If he could have said anything to confirm that he was obliviously ignoring my point, that was it, and so I blew him a raspberry and ignored his challenge. I wasn’t arguing with his numbers, and we could even use his very own set of numbers — my point was in the operation he was doing with those numbers. His assumption is that you must have two mutations occur simultaneously, in the same individual, so that you simplistically multiply the probabilities together to get an improbably low frequency. I’m saying that’s invalid: these mutations can happen independently, they can accumulate to some frequency in the population, and then a second mutation can occur.

Now Larry Moran has carried through on the calculations. Using the known data on mutation rates, and throwing away Behe’s bogus demand that everything occur in the very same instant, he shows that the evolution of chloroquinone resistance ought to be rare, but not at all impossible, and with frequencies that are in the ballpark of what is observed.

Furthermore, Moran describes a paper that quantifies the presence of malaria strains in the population that contain pieces of the resistant combinations and that further describe the sequential series of mutational events that led to the most resistant strains.

All of the strains (except D17) are found in naturally occurring Plasmodium populations and the probable pathways to each of the major chloroquine resistant strains are shown. It takes at least four sequential steps with one mutation becoming established in the population before another one occurs.

None of the mutations occurred simultaneously as Behe claimed in his book.

The intelligent design creationists are somehow still crowing victory. I don’t quite understand how — their premises have been demolished, they’ve been cut off at the knees, but I guess their followers are easily bamboozled if they shout “math!” loud enough. Even if the math is wrong.

Friday Cephalopod: They’re forming tribes!


We’re doomed. The Pacific striped octopus is exhibiting complex social behaviors.

Panamanian biologist Aradio Rodaniche first reported the Pacific striped octopus in 1991 off the coast of Nicaragua, noting its strange behavior—living in groups of possibly up to 40, laying multiple egg clutches, and mating face-to-face and sucker-to-sucker. Most other octopus species, for instance, come together only to mate.

Next thing you know, they’re making spears, forming hunting parties, warring with one another. And then they develop city-states, philosophy, diplomacy, and politics, and all the horrible appurtenances thereof: assassins, lobbyists, and televangelists. Then they take over.

It’s all because of that face-to-face mating. Hey, that’s our thing! They’re copying our specialty! Only they’re making it scarier.

"Regular octopus mating, where the male is behind and on top of the [female]—or far away—that’s scary enough to watch," said Ross. Females of many species, for instance, will sometimes kill and eat their mate, even if they are mating from a distance.

But "watching these guys come and interact with their beaks—wrapped up in a ball of limbs—are they fighting or mating?" he recalled wondering.

OK. They win.

Inhofe is wasting our time

Minnesota’s Democratic senator, Amy Klobuchar, recently introduced a resolution in the senate that simply stated a clear fact that congress tries to avoid: that climate change is real. James Inhofe (Republican doofus from Oklahoma) got up to insist that he sees nothing, nothing, and that he had a petition from 9,000 cranks that there’s nothing to worry about.

Then Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island rose up to slap him down.

People like Inhofe are a catastrophe for progress and reasonable action on important issues. Could you Oklahomans please stop electing these idiots? We’re getting rid of Bachmann up here in Minnesota, I think it’s only fair that you sacrifice a wingnut, too.

Scariest news yet

Liberia is experiencing a major Ebola outbreak.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has announced the closure of most of the Ebola-hit country’s land borders after the deadly tropical virus spread to two of west Africa’s largest cities.

Liberia, along with neighbouring Guinea and Sierra Leone, is struggling to contain an epidemic that has infected some 1,200 people and left at least 670 dead across the region since the start of the year.

A 56% mortality rate is a great improvement over the 90% reported in previous outbreaks, but it’s dependent on getting care to the affected rapidly. And one of the affected is an American doctor working to treat Ebola patients in Monrovia. Even that rate could worsen if the medical infrastructure were to break down.


As if it wasn’t enough of an offense that the Minnesota Vikings got buckets of money to build a brand new stadium…now it seems that their soaring glass design for the thing is an invisible wall of death to migrating birds, and they’ve refused to consider using bird-safe glass. I guess it’s going to be one of the unadvertised pleasures of watching the Vikings play, that you’ll get to stroll through scattered feathered corpses on the way in. Or maybe they think it will reduce regional unemployment, because they’ll have to hire people to pick up dead birds and wash blood splatters off the glass.

And it will be a lot of birds. We’re located in the great Midwestern flyway, where migrating birds pass through seasonally, taking advantage of all the lakes and rivers in the area for resting and feeding. Rivers like the Mississippi. Which the stadium is built near.

Look! Bird radar!


There’s a petition to the owners to use bird-safe design. Everyone should sign it.