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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How bad are Trump’s advisors?

How bad is Jeff Sessions, his pick for Attorney General? This bad.

His anti-choice record includes:

  • Voted against a resolution in support of Roe v. Wade in 1999
  • Voted to defund organizations that perform abortions in 2007
  • Co-sponsored a bill prohibiting taking minors across state lines for abortion and then voted to increase funding to enforce the in 2008
  • Voted in support of a bill notify parents of minors who get out-of-state abortions in 2006
  • Voted no on a plan that would have allocated $100 million in federal funding for family planning services that sought to reduce teen pregnancy through education programs and access to contraceptives in 2005
  • Voted to ban partial birth abortions, except for cases in which a woman’s life is in danger in 2003
  • Voted to maintain a ban on military base abortions in 2000
  • Voted to prohibit federal funding for abortions in 2011

There’s a theme running through all of that. I wonder what it is?

How bad is Tom Price, his pick for Health and Human Services? This bad. He belongs to the AAPS, a fringe society of conservative physicians.

Before the big 9/12 rally in Washington, AAPS cosponsored a protest on Capitol Hill with the Tea Party Patriots that AAPS says attracted 1,000 physicians. The organization’s president, Mark Kellen, appeared with Georgia representatives Tom Price and Phil Gingrey—GOP members of the congressional doctors’ caucus—to slam the bill. The group (which did not return calls for comment for this story) has been around since 1943. Some of its former leaders were John Birchers, and its political philosophy comes straight out of Ayn Rand. Its general counsel is Andrew Schlafly, son of the legendary conservative activist Phyllis. The AAPS statement of principles declares that it is “evil” and “immoral” for physicians to participate in Medicare and Medicaid, and its journal is a repository for quackery. Its website features claims that tobacco taxes harm public health and electronic medical records are a form of “data control” like that employed by the East German secret police. An article on the AAPS website speculated that Barack Obama may have won the presidency by hypnotizing voters, especially cohorts known to be susceptible to “neurolinguistic programming”—that is, according to the writer, young people, educated people, and possibly Jews.

Oh jebus. Andrew Schlafly gets mentioned, too, a notorious anti-evolution kook.

I can guess who’s going to be appointed to lead the NIH, if this trend continues.

Connect the dots, and look at ourselves

I’ve been reading Scott Atran’s work for years; I initially thought he was too soft on religion, but that he was still carrying out compelling, insightful research on what makes people turn to terrorism. His key message was that you can’t simply blame religion. There’s something about young men in particular that makes them susceptible to radicalization, and it’s a cop-out to blame it on Islam, or mental illness, or economic hardship. I first heard him talking about soccer clubs — how young men isolated from other communities would room together, and begin to drift, thanks to Islamic propaganda, into increasingly radical attempts to find purpose in their lives.

Atran’s war zone research over the last few years, and interviews during the last decade with members of various groups engaged in militant jihad (or holy war in the name of Islamic law), give him a gritty perspective on this issue. He rejects popular assumptions that people frequently join up, fight and die for terrorist groups due to mental problems, poverty, brainwashing or savvy recruitment efforts by jihadist organizations.

Instead, he argues, young people adrift in a globalized world find their own way to ISIS, looking to don a social identity that gives their lives significance. Groups of dissatisfied young adult friends around the world — often with little knowledge of Islam but yearning for lives of profound meaning and glory — typically choose to become volunteers in the Islamic State army in Syria and Iraq, Atran contends. Many of these individuals connect via the internet and social media to form a global community of alienated youth seeking heroic sacrifice, he proposes.

This does not fit the media narrative. I’m sure you’ve noticed: the message they try to send is always that the terrorist, the mass murderer, is an alien outsider, someone wildly different from us — a lone wolf with a broken brain. His origin is incomprehensible, and we don’t try to understand it, but only to separate him from us, the normal people, and reassure ourselves that our social group is nothing like that.

Sarah Lyons-Padilla shares a similar view.

Researchers have long studied the motivations of terrorists, with psychologist Arie Kruglanski proposing a particularly compelling theory: people become terrorists to restore a sense of significance in their lives, a feeling that they matter. Extremist organizations like Isis are experts at giving their recruits that sense of purpose, through status, recognition, and the promise of eternal rewards in the afterlife.

My own survey work supports Kruglanski’s theory. I find that American Muslims who feel a lack of significance in their lives are more likely to support fundamentalist groups and extreme ideologies.

She also sees what sets people on the path to supporting terrorism: the isolation of smaller communities from the larger, the fastening of blame on innocent groups. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What we really need to know now is, what sets people on this path? How do people lose their sense of purpose?

My research reveals one answer: the more my survey respondents felt they or other Muslims had been discriminated against, the more they reported feeling a lack of meaning in their lives. Respondents who felt culturally homeless – not really American, but also not really a part of their own cultural community – were particularly jarred by messages that they don’t belong. Yet Muslim Americans who felt well integrated in both their American and Muslim communities were more resilient in the face of discrimination.

My results are not surprising to many social scientists, who know that we humans derive a great deal of self-worth from the groups we belong to. Our groups tell us who we are and make us feel good about ourselves. But feeling like we don’t belong to any group can really rattle our sense of self.

Take a look at America. We fear Islamic terrorism, so the first thing we do is condemn all Muslims, displacing them from our selves, isolating them, divorcing from the True American community, and reinforcing the very sociological conditions that foster radicalization.

This isn’t just about Islam, though. This seems to be a property of young men in all sorts of conditions. Abi Wilkinson writes about the online radicalisation of young, white men. She’s been reading the Internet.

No, not the bit you’re thinking of. Somewhere far worse. That loose network of blogs, forums, subreddits and alternative media publications colloquially known as the “manosphere”. An online subculture centred around hatred, anger and resentment of feminism specifically, and women more broadly. It’s grimly fascinating and now troubling relevant.

In modern parlance, this is part of the phenomenon known as the “alt-right”. More sympathetic commentators portray it as “a backlash to PC culture” and critics call it out as neofascism. Over the past year, it has been strange to see the disturbing internet subculture I’ve followed for so long enter the mainstream. The executive chairman of one of its most popular media outlets, Breitbart, has just been appointed Donald Trump’s chief of strategy, and their UK bureau chief was among the first Brits to have a meeting with the president-elect. Their figurehead – Milo Yiannopoulos – toured the country stumping for him during the campaign on his “Dangerous Faggot” tour. These people are now part of the political landscape.

It turns out that Algerian soccer clubs, the Red Pill subreddit, and Breitbart have a lot in common: they’re all gathering places for frustrated men, who then proceed to reinforce each other’s views, starting with vaguely unpleasant dissatisfaction with, for instance, women, to increasingly vicious and dangerous forms of propaganda. I think you might recognize this tendency many men have to top each other’s stories, to exaggerate their dominance. It leads to increasingly awful stories…and the men in these groups, rather than condemning or rejecting their claims, instead strive to repeat even more outrageous claims.

Reading through the posting history of individual aliases, it’s possible to chart their progress from vague dissatisfaction, and desire for social status and sexual success, to full-blown adherence to a cohesive ideology of white supremacy and misogyny. Neofascists treat these websites as recruitment grounds. They find angry, frustrated young men and groom them in their own image. Yet there’s no Prevent equivalent to try to stamp this out.

Much has been written about financial hardship turning afflicted white communities into breeding grounds for white supremacist politics, but what about when dissatisfaction has little to do with economic circumstance? It’s hard to know what can be done to combat this phenomenon, but surely we have to start by taking the link between online hatred and resentment of women and the rise of neofascism seriously.

These communities create a kind of tension within themselves that seeks an outlet. In radical Islam, it might be to strap on a dynamite vest and kill yourself for glory. In the alt-right, it might be to raise a middle finger to the establishment and vote for Donald Trump. It’s arguable which is more disastrous for world stability.

We need to pay attention to how these radical movements develop. Avoid the cheap out of dismissing it as a consequence of the wicked other — it is us. White people are people, just like Muslims, and just as susceptible to being led down a dark path.

Speaking of introspection and examining ourselves, here’s someone else who was radicalized by a social movement — in this case, the dark side of atheism. Sam Harris, Dave Rubin, Thunderf00t, Christopher Hitchens…these guys are gateways to the normalization of hatred.

I was curious as to the motives of leave voters. Surely they were not all racist, bigoted or hateful? I watched some debates on YouTube. Obvious points of concern about terrorism were brought up. A leaver cited Sam Harris as a source. I looked him up: this “intellectual, free-thinker” was very critical of Islam. Naturally my liberal kneejerk reaction was to be shocked, but I listened to his concerns and some of his debates.

This, I think, is where YouTube’s “suggested videos” can lead you down a rabbit hole. Moving on from Harris, I unlocked the Pandora’s box of “It’s not racist to criticise Islam!” content. Eventually I was introduced, by YouTube algorithms, to Milo Yiannopoulos and various “anti-SJW” videos (SJW, or social justice warrior, is a pejorative directed at progressives). They were shocking at first, but always presented as innocuous criticism from people claiming to be liberals themselves, or centrists, sometimes “just a regular conservative” – but never, ever identifying as the dreaded “alt-right”.

For three months I watched this stuff grow steadily more fearful of Islam. “Not Muslims,” they would usually say, “individual Muslims are fine.” But Islam was presented as a “threat to western civilisation”. Fear-mongering content was presented in a compelling way by charismatic people who would distance themselves from the very movement of which they were a part.

Oh, man, that sounds so familiar. I felt the pull of this attitude myself, but at least was able to look ahead and see where it would lead me in the long run, to a belief in Western male exceptionalism that I find grossly repellent.

This morning, I got an email from someone who was in the same situation and got out. They warn of things to watch out for, that almost seduced them.

Here is a tactic to watch out for. They always justify given talking with these people as credible, by say “I disagree with what they say, but they’re nice people, not racist, bigots, sexist etc.”

Sam Harris thinks Black Lives Matter are awful and playing Identity politics. I wonder if Martin Luther king would have been dismissed as playing Identity politics. Anyways just thought I would add to the tactics these people use to lure impressionable white guys like me to the alt-right movement.

Take a look at the NY Times. Combative, Populist Steve Bannon in an article that tries to claim that he’s not a racist. Yet at the same time, it reports that…

One of his three former wives claimed in court papers that he had said he did not want their twin daughters to go to school with Jews who raise their children to be “whiny brats,” a claim Mr. Bannon denies. In a 2011 radio interview, he dismissed liberal women as “a bunch of dykes that came from the Seven Sisters schools.”

In a radio interview last year with Mr. Trump, Mr. Bannon complained, inaccurately, that “two-thirds or three-quarters of the C.E.O.s in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia.” He has sometimes portrayed a grave threat to civilization not just from violent jihadists but from “Islam.” He once suggested to a colleague that perhaps only property owners should be allowed to vote. In an email to a Breitbart colleague in 2014, he dismissed Republican congressional leaders with an epithet and added, “Let the grass roots turn on the hate.”

Not racist! Not misogynist! Just a “combative populist”.

The seeds were sown early on, and we dismissed them, and now they’re bearing fruit, while the media tries to pretend that there’s no problem at all.

Let’s not do that. Let’s look at that work on the origins of radical Islamic terrorism and appreciate that it’s not solely about those brown people over there, it’s about human beings like the ones right here.

Pipeline politics explained

That contentious oil pipeline being built across the Standing Rock reservation’s water supply has a revealing history. It wasn’t originally supposed to go there!

As Bill McKibben explains for the New Yorker, the pipeline was originally supposed to cross the Missouri River near Bismarck, but it was moved over concerns that an oil spill at that location would have wrecked the state capital’s drinking water. As a result, the pipeline was shifted to a crossing half a mile from the reservation.

All the white folks in Bismarck didn’t need to camp out and get shot at and blown up and frozen in order to express their disapproval — a few words of “concern” and oil executives decided to pick a less important population to poison.

But don’t worry. I now have a solution to the whole problem.

As relayed in a memo to employees, the company insists that “concerns about the pipeline’s impact on the local water supply are unfounded.”

Excellent! So just pack up and move the thing to the original, planned location, which isn’t full of uppity, fractious natives who are willing to fight for their land.

I’m glad that was so easily solved. I’m sure the residents of Bismarck will find that memo totally reassuring.

The great groaning suffering of the dreaded Job Search

The load is back on my shoulders: we advertised for a tenure track job opening a while back, and this is the week we’re reviewing all the applications — that great mass of applications. That’s what I was doing yesterday, that’s what I’m doing today.

I just want to thank all those applicants who didn’t read the job description. We are a liberal arts university, and the ad emphasized teaching, because that’s what we do, and yet so many applicants wrote fantastic great treatises on their research, talking about all the fabulous high tech gear they use, and their letters of recommendation write glowingly of their amazing commitment to research, nothing but research. We can read them admiringly and appreciate the really cool stuff they’re doing, and place their application respectfully on the honorable pile of file folders that we never need to look at again. It’s a tall stack. Good luck at the R1 universities to which you’ve also sent applications!

There are also applicants that talk enthusiastically about their teaching and how their research can be carried out at an undergraduate university, and we reverently set those aside in a much smaller stack that will be opened repeatedly in the next few days, and that we’ll probably quickly narrow down to a dozen or so and we’ll moan in despair that we can’t hire them all right now, and then we’ll argue bitterly over which ones we’ll invite to a phone interview, and then we’ll agonize more over the few we’ll get to invite to campus, and then we’ll decide which one will be offered the position in a knife fight between their faculty advocates in the Ring Of Death out back, and then our first choice will probably turn us down and we’ll wallow in despond, drooling out rivers of tears that, given that this is Morris, will freeze into crystalline shards that will festoon the building to mock us until spring.

Aren’t job searches fun for both the applicant and the search committee?

I have bad news for everyone

There’s all this talk about how horrible 2016 has been: celebrities dying all over the place, an evil orange dorkwad getting elected to the presidency, etc., etc., etc. But I hate to break it to you, but there’s nothing magical about arbitrary date boundaries — there is no wicked juju over this particular revolution about the sun. It’s just a combination of chance, the large number of boomer celebrities, and a bit of self-fulfilling prophecy — we’re now in the habit of announcing “oh god it’s 2016 again” at every minor bit of bad news.

What that means, unfortunately, is that the bad news will continue to roll out, even after the mystical boondoggle of 1 January 2017. Nothing will change. Different celebrities will die. The sneering orange sphincter will continue to make horrible political decisions. This is simply the new normal. Get used to it. There will be no transition to a less depressing state. There is no hope.

How to lie about a science paper

J. Andrew Armour is a Canadian physiologist who has published quite a few papers on the regulation of the heart — a very complex subject. There are hormonal and external neuronal controls, and a specific tracery of internal neurons and neuron-like fibers that generate patterned muscle contractions. And muscle, of course, is itself called an excitable tissue because it has electrical properties that are essential for its function. There is a lot of cool stuff going on in cardiac research.

So, in 1991, Armour published on Intrinsic Cardiac Neurons in the Journal of Cardiac Electrophysiology. It’s solid work that summarizes these complex interactions, and explains how the heart has its own independent and relatively sophisticated independent electrical properties.

Physiological evidence indicates that afferent neurons, local circuit neurons, as well as efferent sympathetic and efferent parasympathetic neurons, are located in the mammalian intrinsic cardiac nervous system. Complex interneuronal interactions can occur between these neurons, as well as between such neurons and other intrathoracic and central nervous system neurons. A variety of neurochemicals have been proposed to be involved in such interneuronal interactions. Thus the electrophysiologic properties and synaptology of intrinsic cardiac neurons may be more varied than has been appreciated accounting, at least in part, for the variety of neuronal responses that in situ intrinsic cardiac neurons are capable of displaying. The various interactions that occur between intrinsic cardiac neurons and other intrathoracic neurons, as well as between neurons in all intrathoracic ganglia and the central nervous system, will have to be characterized in order to clarify the role of the autonomic nervous system regulating the heart throughout each cardiac cycle.

This is not revolutionary. It had all been pretty well known for decades, although Armour did a fine job of synthesizing all the pieces of the story.

In 2007, he also published a review of the importance of understanding cardiac circuitry, Potential clinical relevance of the ‘little brain’ on the mammalian heart, in Experimental Physiology. Again, this is good, useful, substantive stuff.

It is hypothetized that the heart possesses a nervous system intrinsic to it that represents the final relay station for the co-ordination of regional cardiac indices. This ‘little brain’ on the heart is comprised of spatially distributed sensory (afferent), interconnecting (local circuit) and motor (adrenergic and cholinergic efferent) neurones that communicate with others in intrathoracic extracardiac ganglia, all under the tonic influence of central neuronal command and circulating catecholamines. Neurones residing from the level of the heart to the insular cortex form temporally dependent reflexes that control overlapping, spatially determined cardiac indices. The emergent properties that most of its components display depend primarily on sensory transduction of the cardiovascular milieu. It is further hypothesized that the stochastic nature of such neuronal interactions represents a stabilizing feature that matches cardiac output to normal corporal blood flow demands. Thus, with regard to cardiac disease states, one must consider not only cardiac myocyte dysfunction but also the fact that components within this neuroaxis may interact abnormally to alter myocyte function. This review emphasizes the stochastic behaviour displayed by most peripheral cardiac neurones, which appears to be a consequence of their predominant cardiac chemosensory inputs, as well as their complex functional interconnectivity. Despite our limited understanding of the whole, current data indicate that the emergent properties displayed by most neurones comprising the cardiac neuroaxis will have to be taken into consideration when contemplating the targeting of its individual components if predictable, long-term therapeutic benefits are to accrue.

Here’s a diagram from that paper that might give you a visual depiction of what he’s talking about. It will look familiar to everyone who has taken a college level physiology course.


Now just take a moment and think about this. Here’s a piece of credible, robust science. How would an ignorant wackaloon interpret the story? Just close your eyes and let your imagination run riot for a while. Maybe you’ll come up with a wacky enough story that will make you rich. Or maybe you’ll come up with what you think is a crazy idea, but someone has already beaten you to it and published it.

After you’ve thought about a minute, you can go on and read the story of Gregg Braden. If you’ve got a loonier interpretation than he does, maybe you too can make good money on the New Age circuit!

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Fidel Castro is dead, and I don’t care

He was a repressive tyrant and terrible gerontocrat who fought against the previous repressive tyrant and the malign influence of US capitalism. That he’s dead just means one less dictator in the world, and unfortunately there’s a long line of them waiting to take over everywhere.

I might care more if his absence made a difference for the people of Cuba, but his brother is already holding the reins of power.

I share Jeff Shallit’s opinion. He murdered thousands of dissidents. He gathered up gay people and put them in labor camps. He was dictator for life, and passed power to his brother, who is the new dictator. You can point to a few good things he did for Cubans, I’m not denying that, but in general, he was a tyrannical monster who seized power for himself and never let it go.