Imaginary Gastrulation and the return of Balloon Animal Biology

The crackpots are bustin’ out all over — not just in politics, but also in science. Remember Stuart Pivar? The septic tank tycoon who invented a whole new theory of evolution and development that he called Lifecode, built entirely around imaginary drawings of how embryos formed by folding and stretching themselves like balloon animals? It was total nonsense. There was no data. Much of his imagined topological transformations contradicted known embryological patterns, and he’d clearly never looked at real embryos. It was loosely based on structuralism, like the work of D’Arcy Thompson, which I consider useful and interesting, but it ignored all the work of the last century on induction and cell signaling and gene regulation. Trust me on this, no modern renovation of evo-devo will be able to just wave away gene and molecular interactions shaped by genetic variation as irrelevant, but that’s what Pivar has done.

I should also disclose that Pivar filed a lawsuit for $15 million against me in 2007, which he dropped as it threatened to become big news. Dang. What is it with people wanting millions of dollars from me?

Anyway, Pivar has a new publication! In the Elsevier journal Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology! With new coauthors!

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Facebook has become a scourge on the world

People are starting to wake up to the fact that as Facebook made changes to monetize social interactions, they have royally screwed up and instead incentivized lies. The NY Times reports on the fake news sites that have been blossoming all over the place. It’s crystal clear what drives them: money.

Jobless and with graduation looming, a computer science student at the premier university in the nation of Georgia decided early this year that money could be made from America’s voracious appetite for passionately partisan political news. He set up a website, posted gushing stories about Hillary Clinton and waited for ad sales to soar.

“I don’t know why, but it did not work,” said the student, Beqa Latsabidze, 22, who was savvy enough to change course when he realized what did drive traffic: laudatory stories about Donald J. Trump that mixed real — and completely fake — news in a stew of anti-Clinton fervor.

More than 6,000 miles away in Vancouver, a Canadian who runs a satirical website, John Egan, had made a similar observation. Mr. Egan’s site, The Burrard Street Journal, offers sendups of the news, not fake news, and he is not trying to fool anyone. But he, too, discovered that writing about Mr. Trump was a “gold mine.” His traffic soared and his work, notably a story that President Obama would move to Canada if Mr. Trump won, was plundered by Mr. Latsabidze and other internet entrepreneurs for their own websites.

“It’s all Trump,” Mr. Egan said by telephone. “People go nuts for it.”

These guys have discovered that peddling bullshit to the gullible is profitable. There are no checks on them at all; in particular, they seem to be completely unhindered by scruples. We have a name for such people: con artists.

NPR also has a story on fake news sites. This phony is painfully disingenuous.

And as the stories spread, Coler makes money from the ads on his websites. He wouldn’t give exact figures, but he says stories about other fake-news proprietors making between $10,000 and $30,000 a month apply to him. Coler fits into a pattern of other faux news sites that make good money, especially by targeting Trump supporters.

However, Coler insists this is not about money. It’s about showing how easily fake news spreads. And fake news spread wide and far before the election. When I pointed out to Coler that the money gave him a lot of incentive to keep doing it regardless of the impact, he admitted that was “correct.”

Oh, he’s so altruistic — he’s just trying to do good and expose the fake news industry, while profiting mightily from it and not doing a goddamn thing to expose it at all. He did nothing to point out the fraudulence of his stories or to reveal the extent of their spread, waiting instead for a conventional news source to call attention to what he’d been doing.

Another thing in that NYT story, another false excuse I’ve lost patience for. It’s “satire”.

“I don’t call it fake news; I call it satire,” he said. He avoids sex and violence because they violate Facebook rules, he said, but he sees nothing wrong otherwise with providing readers with what they want.

NO IT’S NOT. Here’s a basic dictionary definition of satire.

the use of humor, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues.

Note the key phrase up there: you’re supposed to use it to “expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices”. Cheerleading for the alt-right or Donald Trump doesn’t count; like that Coler asshole, it only counts as satire if you’re using it to rebuke ideas you find disagreeable. They aren’t. They’re using lies to promote views they agree with or find profitable.

And how can lies be profitable? Blame Facebook. Here’s the story of a fellow who got banned from Facebook for criticizing the alt-right.

As I noted the last time this happened, unfortunately this is the risk you take when you sign on to Facebook and other social media sites. You don’t control the platform. Hell, you can’t even talk to the those who run the platform. And the size of it makes any attempt at real-time moderation by the platform managers a complete joke. Neither Facebook nor Twitter has made any real effort to prevent harassment, bullying, or any of the other more unfortunate aspects of social media. And Facebook has made no effort whatsoever to prevent abuse of their system and they’ve made it impossible for the victims to do anything about it. They are in fact complicit and they are very likely to become more so in the future.

My ban from the platform is the result of Facebook’s lousy architecture, which lets bullies and harassers abuse Facebook’s automated system – a system that was supposedly put in place to make Facebook safer – and I have absolutely no recourse for protest or appeal.

Let’s be honest here. Facebook and Twitter have no motivation to clean up their act: that they are paying out ad revenue to neo-Nazi propaganda is a consequence of the fact that that crap is popular. Rejecting bullying or fascism does not make them money, while providing an outlet for them does.

And now I’m torn. I feel like I should shut down my facebook account, but a) I use it for the good stuff it provides as a social medium to keep in touch with my scattered family, and b) if all the liberals leave, it will become an even worse playground for trolls and scum. What are you all going to do?

Not doing something can be just as political as doing something

You know all those distressing satellite photos of retreating glaciers and open water in the arctic? Or how about those terrible photos of the ravaged landscapes around the Canadian oil sands? Worry no more. They’re going to be gone.

Oh, we’ll still be wrecking the environment, but you won’t see pictures of it now. Donald Trump has a new vision for NASA, and it involves turning a blind eye earthward.

Donald Trump is poised to eliminate all climate change research conducted by Nasa as part of a crackdown on “politicized science”, his senior adviser on issues relating to the space agency has said.

Nasa’s Earth science division is set to be stripped of funding in favor of exploration of deep space, with the president-elect having set a goal during the campaign to explore the entire solar system by the end of the century.

This is far more political than maintaining the earth science program, which provides immediately useful information and unambiguous returns on investment. You know why he’s cutting these programs.

This would mean the elimination of Nasa’s world-renowned research into temperature, ice, clouds and other climate phenomena. Nasa’s network of satellites provide a wealth of information on climate change, with the Earth science division’s budget set to grow to $2bn next year. By comparison, space exploration has been scaled back somewhat, with a proposed budget of $2.8bn in 2017.

Revealing reality is now political, especially when your views have nothing to do with reality.

Although…maybe it’s psychological. Looking at ourselves and our own planet is too much like introspection, and we know the Donald doesn’t do that self-awareness thing.

I love it when good science comes together

I realize that I missed an opportunity, though! A week or so ago I was teaching my cell biology class about cell cycle regulation, and I was all about retinoblastoma, Rb, the gene product that acts as a regulator of the cell cycle — the cell will not proceed to the DNA synthesis phase unless Rb is deactivated by phosphorylation first. And then this week I was talking about the evolution of multicellularity, so I showed them unicellular algae like Chlamydomonas, and constitutive colonial protists like choanoflagellates, and of course I told them all about Volvox…but I failed to connect the two.

Now I read about the complexities of cell division in Chlamydomonas which could have played a role in the evolution of multicellularity, and from there I learn that differences in cell cycle can be traced to slight modifications of a few genes (no new genes required), in particular…Rb!

I wonder if the students would complain if we wound the class back to early November and started over? Probably.

Although today is a weird class day — it’s the day before Thanksgiving break, and I know from past experience that attendance will be very, very poor as students skip out to go home for vacation a day early; I also polled the class on Monday and learned that only about a quarter will show up (isn’t it nice that they’re honest about it?) I’m bribing them by promising pizza in class, but I’ve also told them it’ll just be a review/Q&A day. Maybe we can just sit down and have a conversation about science over pizza.

I get the impression that many journalists who write about biology know nothing about biology

My latest WTF moment is this article, Human chromosomes are only half DNA, which presents this little fact as if it is surprising and ground-breaking.

A chromosome is believed to be an “organized structure containing most of the DNA of a living organism.” However, new research finds that DNA makes up only half of the material inside chromosomes – far less than was previously thought.

Instead, up to 47 percent of a chromosome’s structure is actually a mysterious sheath that surrounds the genetic material, researchers from the University of Edinburgh said in a statement.

Say what? A university PR department strikes again, and an oblivious journalist scribbles it up. This is not news. This is not new. I’ve no idea how long I’ve been teaching this, but it’s been ages. Here’s Alberts’ Molecular Biology of the Cell, 4th edition, from 2002.

The proteins that bind to the DNA to form eucaryotic chromosomes are traditionally divided into two general classes: the histones and the nonhistone chromosomal proteins. The complex of both classes of protein with the nuclear DNA of eucaryotic cells is known as chromatin. Histones are present in such enormous quantities in the cell (about 60 million molecules of each type per human cell) that their total mass in chromatin is about equal to that of the DNA.

And what’s with this “mysterious sheath” nonsense?

If you’re a reporter who’s never taken a basic cell biology class, you have no way of reasonably presenting the context around even a simple observation, so don’t even try, and never trust a university press release, because they’re typically written by people as ignorant of science as you are.

Natural selection is not the whole of evolution, but it’s still definitely part of it

Ken Ham has been having a grand time redefining evolution. It’s interesting in a twisted kind of way: the anti-evolutionists are now at the point of having to accept natural selection as true, and are simply declaring that sure, natural selection is fine, it’s just not evolution, which we hate.

He’s linking to an article by Georgia Purdom that is a fine example of selective use of information, and represents AiG’s weird stance. It begins with a hypothetical dialog. It’s really weird.

Let’s listen in on a hypothetical conversation between a biblical creationist (C) and an evolutionist (E) as they discuss some recent scientific news headlines:

E: Have you heard about the research findings regarding mouse evolution?

C: Are you referring to the finding of coat color change in beach mice?

E: Yes, isn’t it a wonderful example of evolution in action?

C: No, I think it’s a good example of natural selection in action, which is merely selecting information that already exists.

E: Well, what about antibiotic resistance in bacteria? Don’t you think that’s a good example of evolution occurring right before our eyes?

C: No, you seem to be confusing the terms “evolution” and “natural selection.”

E: But natural selection is the primary mechanism that drives evolution.

C: Natural selection doesn’t drive molecules-to-man evolution; you are giving natural selection a power that it does not have—one that can supposedly add new information to the genome, as molecules-to-man evolution requires. But natural selection simply can’t do that because it works with information that already exists.

You know, that last bit is actually sort of true: natural selection shapes, or selects, the variation that already exists (although, indirectly, natural selection does create new conditions in the environment by changing allele frequencies, and those changing frequencies can create new probabilities for recombination…but I’ll give her a pass on that for now, because it’ll just lead to arguments about defining “creative” vs. “unpredictable”). But evolutionary biologists already know about all that. She’s not saying anything that we’d find surprising.

She goes on, though.

From a creationist perspective natural selection is a process whereby organisms possessing specific characteristics (reflective of their genetic makeup) survive better than others in a given environment or under a given selective pressure (i.e., antibiotic resistance in bacteria). Those with certain characteristics live, and those without them diminish in number or die.

Hey, guess what? That’s what we’d say from an evolutionary perspective, too! Unfortunately, this state of blissful concordance cannot last.

The problem for evolutionists is that natural selection is nondirectional

Nope. That’s not really a problem, because a) selection is directional in the short term, shaping the population towards greater adaptedness to local conditions, and b) we generally don’t believe in any kind of long term directionality. It’s the creationists who believe in a mysterious molecules-to-man kind of pressure.

—should the environment change or the selective pressure be removed, those organisms with previously selected for characteristics are typically less able to deal with the changes and may be selected against because their genetic information has decreased…. Evolution of the molecules-to-man variety, requires directional change. Thus, the term “evolution” cannot be rightly used in the context of describing what natural selection can accomplish.

It is correct to note that selection is largely a conservative force — it prunes out variation from a population. So she is right that if natural selection were the only force operating on the gene pool, the distribution of variants would get smaller and smaller over time.

Gosh. If only there were some other forces acting on populations to produce a constant source of new information that apparently Answers in Genesis has never heard of. If only there were other processes that generated new genetic variants that natural selection could act on…

Surprise! There is! It’s called “mutation”.

No matter what the exact value of the human mutation rate, every single possible point mutation will happen in just a few generations somewhere among the seven billion or so people on Earth. And each individual who lives to the ripe old age of 60 (i.e. youngsters) will have experienced a huge number of somatic mutations.

Let’s also note that we have a large body of phenotypic variation, not all of which is genetic but which is observable, measurable, and quantifiable, and which AiG ignores. We also have deep information about population structure and patterns of inheritance and descent with modification that directly contradicts AiG’s claim that we are descended from a population of two people only 6,000 years ago.

You cannot imagine how stupid Purdom’s article looks to anyone who has some knowledge of genetics and populations, unless you actually know a little bit about those disciplines. She is willfully ignoring a huge part of genetics in order to make a truly idiotic argument.

We’ve all laughed at this clueless quote from fundies.

One of the most basic laws in the universe is the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This states that as time goes by, entropy in an environment will increase. Evolution argues differently against a law that is accepted EVERYWHERE BY EVERYONE. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn’t possible: UNLESS there is a giant outside source of energy supplying the Earth with huge amounts of energy. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it.

Purdom has basically said the equivalent.

Natural selection reduces genetic variation in a population. Evolution says that we started out simple, and over time became more complex. That just isn’t possible: UNLESS there is a giant source of new mutations supplying the population with huge amounts of variants. If there were such a source, scientists would certainly know about it.

You bet we would.