A brief overview of Hox genes


In previous articles about fly development, I’d gone from the maternal gradient to genes that are expressed in alternating stripes (pair-rule genes), and mentioned some genes (the segment polarity genes) that are expressed in every segment. The end result is the development of a segmented animal: one made up of a repeated series of morphological modules, all the same.


Building an animal with repeated elements like that is a wonderfully versatile strategy for making an organism larger without making it too much more complicated, but it’s not the whole story. Just repeating the same bits over and over again is a way to make a generic wormlike thing—a tapeworm, for instance—but even tapeworms may need to specialize certain individual segments for specific functions. At its simplest, it may be necessary to modify one end for feeding, and the opposite end for mating. So now, in addition to staking out the tissues of the embryo as belonging to discrete segments, we also need a mechanism that says “build mouthparts here (and not everywhere)”, and “put genitalia here (not over there)”.

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Secular horror?


Remember Melinda Barton and that awful piece on the Raw Story? It was taken down, and now it’s back up with a few changes, I think. The editors asked me to submit a rebuttal. It’s online at the Raw Story now, along with that lovely icon to the right (“Secular Horror”?). You can read it there, or if you are so annoyed at the Raw Story that you never ever want to visit their site again, I’ve put a copy below the fold.

I’ll just add that the first comment over there makes me regret being nice. No, I do not retract or regret anything I originally said about Barton’s hacky work, and that is not why I did not expand on my point-by-point rebuttal. I thought I’d been sufficiently thorough to begin with, and wanted to get a positive view of secularism out there.

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This god must be one evil mofo

This is not funny.

Five children between 9 and 16 years old died and several others suffered burns when lightning struck a white-painted metal cross set on a hill in the town of Santa Maria del Rio early on Sunday, according to two newspaper reports.

If they’d paid as much attention to science as they did to piety, though, there would be a little less grief in the world today.

I am not here

Hurtling1 down the road in my black Chevy2, I laugh maniacally3. “Time to kick creationist butt4,” I say, “and test the mettle of the Cheeseheads.5

I’m heading off to the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point to minister to the heathen today, so my online presence may be limited. I’ve got a lecture to give in their Evolution Sunday series. Here’s a copy of the PowerPoint file6, just so I have an online backup.

I’m racing right back early Monday morning, though. I’ve got a hellish week or two of grading and exams and classes and more travel, and I’ve got to get an early start on it all.

1Never exceeding the speed limit, though—the highway out of Morris is a notorious speed trap.

2With a few dents and dangling bits of scrap. Yeah, Connlann, thanks for dinging up the EvolutionMobile every time you come home.

3Or titter gratingly…it’s a matter of perspective.

4In front of a friendly crowd of godless freethinkers.

5They aren’t going to be mad about being called cheeseheads, are they?

6Don’t peek, Stevens Pointers! You’ll learn all the punchlines.7

7Actually, probably not. My PowerPoint files tend to be a little on the cryptic side, so you may not learn too much from it.

Kent Hovind at St Cloud State University

After sitting through Hovind’s talk, I have seen the light. I’ve always been awfully hard on Christianity and Christians here, despising their beliefs and making mock of their nonsensical ideas and backwards social agenda. But this evangelist really reached out and grabbed me.

I now feel a great pity for them.

Hovind is one of the leading lights of fundamentalist Christianity in this country; the large auditorium was packed full, and they had to put up folding seats on the stage behind him to handle the crowd. They were enthusiastic and laughing and cheering and shouting “Amen!” throughout his talk. All I could think through it all was sorrow and sympathy for all the Christians who have willingly afflicted themselves with this clown, who have gullibly swallowed his lies. I am so sorry, Christians. I’m very embarrassed for you.

On a purely objective level, evaluating the presentation and the skill of the speaker, I was surprised: it was an exceptionally bad talk. You will often hear these creationist speakers praised for their rhetorical ability, if not their grasp of science, but I’m afraid Hovind was awful. We have weekly student seminars at my university, and sometimes students do a less than stellar job at this public speaking business…but I have never heard a speaker as incompetent as Hovind.

Yes, he spits out words fast with little fumbling, and he lards his talk with well-practiced folksy jokes, but it’s all so poorly organized and clumsily presented that it has no persuasive power at all. He is doing nothing but affirming the prejudices of his audience—he’s effective at that—but he’s not communicating any information at all effectively. I imagined him giving this talk to an informed audience, rather than the bussed-in church groups that were here, and his schtick would fall flat, and fall hard. Scientists have this expectation that they will learn something from a talk, you see, and that they’ll be able to evaluate the process by which the conclusions were arrived at; there was nothing like that here.

Even if you are sympathetic to Hovind’s claims, here is an indicator of what a poor speaker he is. This was scheduled to be a one hour talk. He showed up with a power point presentation containing over 700 slides. My personal rule of thumb for a good hour presentation is that if you’re a bit lazy and fill it chock-a-block with bullet points and text slides, 30 or 40 is about right; better talks pare it down to 20 or fewer data-rich slides and spend some time discussing each one. 700+ is practically criminal; it’s a declaration of rapid-fire superficiality, that you intend to steamroller the audience with no consideration for thought. Hovind is the anti-Tufte.

He also went over his allotted time—he talked for almost 2 hours. He knew it, too; at the hour mark, he mentioned that he was going to say just a few more things quickly, and then instead he went on and on, going all the way to the end of his list of power point slides. It was agonizingly bad. Again, though, his audience was predisposed to favor him, so nobody showed up with a hook.

What about his style? It was nothing but corn-pone jokes. He warmed up the audience beforehand with a continuous display of ‘witticisms’ projected on the big screen. Things like “Why is the third hand on a watch called a second hand?” and “Where does the light go when it goes out?” It was calculated, I’m sure, to rot the brains of the audience before the ringmaster came on. The audience actually laughed at these things. I was ready to leave, and he hadn’t even started talking.

That was the tone in the talk, too. He’d rant a bit about the awful lies scientists pack into textbooks, and then he’d trot out some tired old joke. It was like watching Hee Haw—I half-expected Junior Samples to show up.

(Hovind seems completely incapable of changing his tone. In the beginning, he was introducing his family in this same jokey way, when he pointed to a picture of his son-in-law in one picture and mentioned that he’d died of cancer just a few weeks ago. One serious and sad mention, then zip, right back to the jokes. It was very jarring, and brought one word to my mind: psychopath.)

In addition to dropping a joke everytime his brain lost its train of thought, he was incessantly plugging his videos—they were on sale in the lobby. Money was a constant theme, which is also not something I’ve seen at science talks. Maybe we need to start. I didn’t buy any of his videos, of course—this one lecture convinced me I don’t need to hear any more Hovind, especially not a Hovind babbling on for several hours in each of a dozen tapes. I really don’t know how Matt survived his experience with them.

As for the content of his talk: that wasn’t the point. This was an mutual backslapping session for creationists, not an evening of substance. The talk itself was irony-rich garbage. His message was that science textbooks, yea, even the ones in use at SCSU, were full of lies, and he, lover of science that he was, only wanted to see those lies removed. In order to do this, he gave a talk that was full of lies. About 700 of them, actually.

In those 700 slides, he raced through an incredible number of creationist canards: polystrate trees disprove gradualism, non-existence of the geologic column, fossils date the rocks and rocks date the fossils, the Grand Canyon is young, microevolution, not macroevolution, humans don’t have gill slits, mutations only destroy information, yadda yadda yadda. Seriously. They were all dead arguments presented at such a rapid clip that there was no time to think about them, let alone rebut them. And the lies were just so painfully blatant: as an example, he claimed that trilobites weren’t old and they weren’t extinct, and to ‘prove’ his claim, he showed a picture of an arctic isopod and announced that there it was, alive and crawling, proof that the biology professors have all been lying to you.

It was almost too much to take: Hovind was inciting the audience to tear pages out of biology books, to protest to the university about the lyin’ professors there, and he was doing it by lying non-stop.

I didn’t ask any questions. Once he shut up, I left; I don’t think there would have been any point to trying to rebut him, any more than there is any point to trying to rebut Hee Haw.

Oh, and one more thing: St Cloud State should feel a little shamefaced. We had a creationist visit UMM, and he was politely but forcefully out-argued by our students, and even though at least one church group was brought in, they were totally outclassed by the students. This event was more heavily stacked with family and church attendees, but the SCSU students seemed to be heavily pro-creationist. That’s not a good sign for a healthy university, unless they’re cynically aiming to recruit from the poorly educated pool. It might make economic sense, in the short run, but it’s very unfortunate to see my son’s degree cheapened that way just as he’s ready to graduate.

Friday Random Ten: Bored silly in the Cities

My schedule is knocked all to heck today—there was some mess of an accident on I94 that cost me an extra hour and a half coming into the cities, and the cops in the U district sent me wondering all over the place in order to maximize congestion and protect some sporting event—so I’m not sure what I’ll be doing this evening now. I’m killing time in a coffeeshop, waiting for #1 Son to complete this interview thing, and then I’ll do something. I guess.

Oh, well. Here’s the weekly noise.

Roland The Headless Thompson Gunner Warren Zevon
Working for the Man PJ Harvey
The View Modest Mouse
Haiti The Arcade Fire
Suvetar (Goddess Of Spring) Gjallarhorn
Miss Kate Rusby Battlefield Band
Rouge Sang Saian Supa Crew
Forever Young Chris Isaak
Wanna get next to you Rose Royce
Sacred Darling Gogol Bordello

Department of not getting it

Be amused. The malevolent clown at Billy Dembski’s blog has joined the blithering clown at Telic Thoughts in calling for my head, because I’ve admitted that I will vote on matters of substance and scientific validity in tenure decisions. This will not do! Why, if college professors hinder the advancement of fools in academia, creationists will have more difficulty pretending to be credentialed scientists! What can they do?

My thoughts are that the University of Minnesota needs to censure Associate Professor Paul Myers and assure the public that he will not be allowed to participate in tenure decisions.

He also wonders if anyone wants to sue my university.

One does have to wonder how we’re supposed to make tenure decisions if the clown team has their way, and judging our science colleagues on the basis of their ideas about science isn’t allowed?

P.S. Sorry, I’m not linking to them, either. Don’t give ’em tenure, don’t give ’em links…it’s like I’m strangling the poor sad fellows.