Nothing but us big fat chickens around here


There are two kinds of people in this world: those who are deeply suspicious of twin studies, and those who welcome their confirmation that that their identity is fixed and heritable. I’m in the first group. I always have been. Maybe it’s something in my genes.

I first encountered the popular accounts of the Minnesota twin studies when I was a teenager, seeing the scientist and some of the twins doing the rounds of the afternoon talk shows — I think I saw them on the Mike Douglas Show (I’ve dated myself now). I remember them going on and on about the amazing similarities between the twins who had been raised apart. They both married women with the same name! They drank the same brand of beer! They were both volunteer firemen! They gave their dogs the same name! But while there were some recognizable similarities in the pairs, at the same time the obsession with superficial trivia wrecked the credibility of the stories. What? You’re trying to argue that my pet’s names are somehow encoded in my genome? It seemed to me that what we were seeing is echoes of similar culture in their upbringing (later confirmed: most of the twins weren’t really ‘separated’, but were raised by different relatives).

I also saw psychological tropes that ought to have been recognized. These were people who were rewarded for finding coincidences, and they avidly complied, and the scientists were readily accepting of coincidences as evidence of fundamental causal similarity. I was exposed to this pop genetics at the same time I was reading Fate magazine with a critical eye, and the stories were similar. I’d see stories that claimed to confirm the fact of reincarnation, for instance, by compiling lists of similarities between the contemporary claimant and their past life incarnation. They have the same birthday! Note the resemblances in this old-timey photograph! He lived in the Civil War era, now he is a Civil War re-enactor! He died in a fire, and now he’s afraid of fire!

It was exactly the same. That bugged me. And to this day I still see people touting the old twin studies as conclusively demonstrating the genetic basis of personality and intelligence, declaring that it has been positively confirmed that the heritability (a word they often don’t understand — genetically, it has a very narrow and precise meaning that isn’t exactly what they think it is) of intelligence is exactly 50%, meaning that half your IQ is determined by your genes (again, that’s not what it means), and therefore we should be more concerned with breeding intelligent people than teaching people. I also see this fandom coupled with other ugly associations — racists love it, as do Libertarians and simple-minded techno-fetishists. There are definitely genetic contributions to brain development and behavior, but human twin studies are deeply flawed and prone to exaggeration.

Stephen Hsu is a member of the gullible second group. He has posted a reply to my criticisms of his claim that we can readily ramp up human intelligence to reach an IQ of 1000 because hey, intelligence is obviously heritable. The twin studies say so.

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Woo kills


Gwyneth Paltrow always makes for a hilarious story: is there any New Age nonsense she won’t swallow?

For someone of even the slightest scientific inclination, Goop [Paltrow’s web site] is a veritable cornucopia of What-The-Fuck? There’s “spirit truffles”, which contain “spirit dust” which apparently “feeds harmony and extrasensory perception through pineal gland de-calcification and activation”. In fairness to Goop, those are definitely all real words. They’ve got us there.

There’s the “morning smoothie” which lists as an ingredient Cordyceps, the parasitic fungus which genuinely turns insects into zombies by infecting their brains. Gwyneth Paltrow is literally telling her fans to consume brain-controlling fungus!

At least things have an actual psychical presence. The less said about the products that work by being infused with positive vibes and good intentions, the better. Same goes for vaginal steaming.

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Your exactly accurate definition is still exactly stupid


One of the most common dodges used by Intelligent Design creationists is to use a vague definition of their subject so that critics have nothing specific too attack, and also so they can accuse anyone who disagrees with them of using a strawman argument. For example, they claim that organisms exhibit “specified complexity”, which cannot have evolved and requires a designer. If someone rightly points out that their definition of complexity is nowhere close to what real complexity theorists use, they can say, “Ah, but I’m talking about specified complexity, which is something different,” which leaves you adrift and wondering what the hell they’re talking about. I read that whole ghastly tome by Meyer titled Signature in the Cell, and he throws around that phrase willy-nilly and never bothers to define “specified”.

Now David Klinghoffer is complaining about Lawrence Krauss’s performance in a recent debate, claiming that he mischaracterized ID creationism horribly. Nowhere in the post does he tell us what Krauss said, and he’s also not quoted in the creationist post he’s citing, which is weird and annoying because they’ll just use the ambiguity to weasel away some more, but Klinghoffer does approve a given definition of ID creationism, saying this is exactly accurate.

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Superbrains will not come out of a test tube


Stephen Hsu thinks super intelligent humans are coming. He thinks this because he’s very impressed with genetic engineering (he’s a physicist), and believes that the way to make people more intelligent is to adjust their genes, and therefore, more gene tweaking will lead to more intelligent people, inevitably. And not just intelligent, but super-intelligent, with IQs about 1000, even though he has no idea what that means, or for that matter, even though no one really knows what an IQ of 100 means. We’re going to figure out all the genes that are involved in intelligence, and then we’ll just turn the knob on each one of them up to their maximum, and boom, super-humans.

Good god, what a load of crap. Lots of people seem to think it’s brilliant, though. It isn’t.

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Mary’s Monday Metazoan: Trouble-making immigrants

Mostly, the killer whales native to Puget Sound are salmon eaters. But there are also transient orca who cruise through the Sound, and their diets may be a bit more adventurous. And then this week the gray whales were passing by, and…uh-oh. Gang fight.


It’s that time of year.

The Great Migration of 22,000 Eastern North Pacific grays is well underway. As spring approaches, these massive creatures, which can reach 50 feet and 40 tons, begin an epic journey of between 5,000 and 6,800 miles from the warm-water calving lagoons in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula and Gulf of California to the Bering and Chukchi Seas, traveling constantly at about five knots and averaging 75 miles per day. It’s the longest migration of any mammal on Earth. Midway through the journey, from late February to the end of May, a small group makes a pit stop in Puget Sound — for the shrimp buffet.

We should all be outraged at the misuse of science against women


I just told you about my brief history with the gaming community. I drifted away from it into something else, and that something else also shaped the way I think about these feminist issues. I became a scientist. And worst of all, my trajectory started with neuroscience, and led me into developmental biology and genetics, and then on to evolution, and I’ve got to tell you, those subjects…it’s almost as if they were designed to put you on a collision course with feminist concerns. Just think, I could have gone into physics or chemistry and avoided thinking about sex and gender altogether…until, of course, I noticed the humanity of my colleagues.

What brought this on is an excellent article on the history and genetics of the sex chromosomes. Two things leapt out at me, in part because they confirmed something I’ve been trying to teach my students for years.

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Louisiana, where even the Democrats are science denialists

Watch State Sen. John Milkovich make his case for creationism before the Louisiana legislature. He’s a Democrat. I’m so embarrassed.

This guy just sits there and lies his ass off, supremely confident that the truth doesn’t matter in the least.

Scientific research and developments and advances in the last 100 years — particularly the last 15, 20, 10 years — have validated the biblical story of creation by archaeological discovery of civilizations in the middle east that seculars said did not exist …

No, science has not validated Genesis. The Earth is not just a few thousand years old, there was no global flood, all animals were not created in a single week. Finding evidence of a civilization mentioned in the Bible that “seculars” never heard of is not evidence for all the miraculous poofing described in the book.

And what civilization is that? It seems entirely reasonable to me that the authors of the Bible would have good knowledge of contemporary cultures, and it wouldn’t surprise me if some obscure people mentioned in the Bible were confirmed by trustworthy evidence. On the other hand, some of the treasured stories of the Bible are being found incredible and lacking in evidence. The Exodus almost certainly didn’t happen, for instance.

there is some published research that a large boat or ark was found on top of Mt Ararat …

Published…where? On the web pages of Ron Wyatt? Because no, there is no credible evidence of a 4000 year old big boat sitting on a mountaintop in Turkey.

But hang on, here comes my favorite part of his argument.

the notion of instantaneous creation has been validated by the scientific study of heliocentric circles in rocks which is consistent with an instantaneous…I guess I’m asking this. Are you aware that there’s an abundance of recent science that actually confirms the Genesis account of creation?

He doesn’t say instantanous what — he just lurches off into more assertions. But still, I’m amazed at heliocentric circles in rocks. What does that even mean? Is he saying something in the rocks circles around the sun? Or is this some strangely garbled version of Gentry’s bogus polonium halos claim, which, even if you believed it, does not say anything about instantaneous anything — he uses them to claim that the earth is young.

I think he’s just pompously pleased at being able to seem wise by babbling out a 5-syllable word. Incorrectly. Which makes him look like a world-class fool.

And no, there is no recent science that actually confirms the Genesis account of creation. All of the science says that the literal interpretation contradicts the evidence.

Friday Cephalopod: Squid in Spaaaaace!

The Squid Scientists take a photo of their baby animals, and unwittingly reveal what they’re actually doing.


Look behind the squid — I know it’s hard, why would you want to look past cephalopods? — and what do you see? That blurry poster in the background? It’s a space shuttle launch.

And now you know. This is a top secret program to train Euprymna scolopes to pilot spacecraft. They’d probably be better at 3-dimensional thinking than us, so it’s only natural. Quick, reboot Star Trek with a more appropriate cast!

Oh, I think it’s been done–the Thermians from the Klaatu Nebula in Galaxy Quest. Man, that was a prescient movie.