On the importance of luck

That paper that proposed that most cancers were due to bad luck, that is, that they were a consequence of biological factors that could not be controlled, has been surprisingly controversial. I thought it was a fairly unsurprising paper that confirmed what we already suspected, but wow, the furious pushback has been something to behold.

Today, though, a couple of MDs have responded to the paper and reinforce what I said.

[Read more…]

Bafflingly hyperbolic

Oh, look. The creationists have been routed, and the problem of the origin of life has been solved. Would you like to learn about the brilliant new science that has creationists and the Christian right terrified?

The Christian right’s obsessive hatred of Darwin is a wonder to behold, but it could someday be rivaled by the hatred of someone you’ve probably never even heard of. Darwin earned their hatred because he explained the evolution of life in a way that doesn’t require the hand of God. Darwin didn’t exclude God, of course, though many creationists seem incapable of grasping this point. But he didn’t require God, either, and that was enough to drive some people mad.

Darwin also didn’t have anything to say about how life got started in the first place — which still leaves a mighty big role for God to play, for those who are so inclined. But that could be about to change, and things could get a whole lot worse for creationists because of Jeremy England, a young MIT professor who’s proposed a theory, based in thermodynamics, showing that the emergence of life was not accidental, but necessary. “[U]nder certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life,” he was quoted as saying in an article in Quanta magazine early in 2014, that’s since been republished by Scientific American and, more recently, by Business Insider. In essence, he’s saying, life itself evolved out of simpler non-living systems.

[Read more…]

What makes for a good death?

I was reminded to think about how I’d like to die. It’s actually pretty simple: a long, slow, painless death, greatly deferred. I’ve actually got it thoroughly planned out.

I’m on my deathbed in my undersea dome, surrounded by my children, my grandchildren, my great grandchildren, my great-great grandchildren, and my great-great-great grandchildren (it’s a very large dome). I’m looking good — I’ve lost some weight, the rejuvenation treatments have been working well, and I’m also feeling terrific — but I know my expiration is imminent. I get ready to speak my last words.

“I love you, Mary.” The phone rings.

“Yes, this is he,” I say. I whisper to Mary, “It’s the Nobel committee.” “Yes, thank you, it’s an honor. You’re lucky to have called just now — another 10 minutes, and I would have been posthumous, and no longer qualify. We have a spot all picked out on the wall for it, right next to all the Olympic gold medals. But now I have to get back to dying. Later!”

“My children, my descendants, I’m very proud of you all,” I continue. The phone rings again.

“Hello, Madam President. Don’t worry, stop crying, you have nothing to worry about — I trained you well, you don’t need me any more. Also, my wife has agreed to step in as an advisor, and you know she’s the smart one of the family. Besides, with world peace and prosperity a reality, it’s not as if you need my guidance anymore. Bye!”

I turn off the ringer on the phone, and settle in for a quiet exit. “Now where was I…”

The door bursts open! There, standing in all of his regalia, is the Last Priest in the World!

“I could not miss this opportunity for a deathbed conversion,” he hisses, swinging his censer and and shaking his staff, resplendent in his bright orange robes and mitre (as the last priest, he was also the Pope, the Dalai Lama, the Head Imam, etc. — religion had tried a desperate series of mergers to stem the rising tide of atheism.) Then his words are lost in a welter of glossolalia and Latin.

I leap from my deathbed, and gripping his throat in my left hand, I lift him off the floor; with my right, I deliver a stinging series of slaps. “There <SLAP!> is <SLAP!> no <SLAP!> god! <SLAP!>” I throw him to the floor.

He shakes, as if waking from a dream. “You’re right,” he says, “I’ve been living a lie. I don’t know how I deluded myself for so long.” He throws off his mitre, his yamulke, his robes, his staff, his orb, multiple fragments of old saints’ corpses, his magic underwear, and rises naked, unashamed of his humanity. “I think I’ll go back to school and learn something useful. Do you have any recommendations?”

“Biology is always good,” I say as I vault back into my deathbed.

“Now where was I…oh, yes, my last words.” And I say them, and they are witty and wise and will be quoted down the centuries, but I can’t tell you what they are, because they’re also totally spontaneous, so you’ll just have to wait.

And then, with a soft quiet sigh, I die instantly and painlessly.

At least, that’s how I’m planning to die. Reality may interfere. But you know what isn’t anywhere in my scenario?


[Read more…]

Cancer: bad genes or bad luck?

If there is one cause of cancer, it would be genetic damage to somatic cells. So all we have to do to cure cancer is prevent all genetic damage! That’s not a very useful prescription, unfortunately; it’s rather like saying that all we have to do to prevent accidental deaths is prohibit all potential causes of injury. The causes of genetic damage are ubiquitous.

We’re familiar with some. Smoking, for instance, irritates and damages the cells of the lung epithelium, and increases the rate of cancer incidence. UV radiation damages DNA, so prolonged exposure to the sun increases the rate of skin cancer. Chimney sweeps would get covered in the carcinogenic compounds present in soot, which would accumulate in folds of skin, and had phenomenal rates of scrotal cancer. So don’t clamber around in chimneys, stay in the dark all the time, and never start smoking, and you won’t get cancer, right? Wrong. You’ve eliminated some factors that increase the incidence of cancer, but not all. You might think that if we just eliminated every cause of genetic damage we’d be safe, except that there’s one we can’t get away from.

[Read more…]

Who’s the whitest of them all? And who cares?

Carl Zimmer writes about the muddled genetic state of race in the United States. We’re a mongrel nation, even if many people don’t want to admit it — but a recent analysis of data from the 23andme program shows a substantial mixing of races in the US. Well, except for Minnesota. Look how white we are up here!

The percentage of self-identified European Americans who have one percent or more of African ancestry.

The percentage of self-identified European Americans who have one percent or more of African ancestry.

[Read more…]

Let’s slap ENCODE around some more

Since we still have someone arguing poorly for the virtues of the ENCODE project, I thought it might be worthwhile to go straight to the source and and cite an ENCODE project paper, Defining functional DNA elements in the human genome. It is a bizarre thing that actually makes the case for rejecting the idea of high degrees of functionality, which is a good approach, since it demonstrates that they’ve at least seen the arguments against them. But then it sails blithely past those objections to basically declare that we should just ignore the evolutionary evidence.

[Read more…]