Another book I can skip

Not that I expected much, but this review of Sam Harris’s latest with Maajid Nawaz confirms what little I did expect.

It quickly becomes clear, however, that Sam Harris is illiterate when it comes to history. He has a tendency, both in his online writings and in this book, to reduce all 1,400 years of the Islamic past to jihad. The world, he says, witnessed “a thousand years of jihadism” before Bin Laden sent airliners to mutilate the New York City skyline, and Islam spread “primarily by conquest, not conversation.” The historian Zachary Karabell wrote an entire book refuting this simplistic repackaging of history.

At one point, Harris even bizarrely rationalizes the Crusades. Remember, he tells readers, the Crusades “were primarily a response to 300 years of jihad” — the emphasis here is his. The Crusades were a “reaction,” he laments, and in any event, holy war was a “late, peripheral” development within Christianity. This ought to be news to the flayed bodies and burned heretics and massacred dissidents put to death by Christianity’s sword. Muslim empires were authoritarian, as were Christian empires. Muslim clerics gave fatwas declaring jihad, and Pope Urban II gave his own decree explicitly calling on Christian subjects to take up arms and reclaim the Holy Land from the Mohemmadans. Why Sam Harris feels the need to take sides in the fanatical squabbles of our barbaric ancestors eludes me.

All of this can be excused, but only up to a point. What is inexcusable, and what should preclude Sam Harris from participating in any more projects on Islamic Reformation, is his complete lack of awareness about Muslims as they actually live today. He censures American Muslims for paying more attention to the coldblooded massacre of three American Muslims at the University of North Carolina than to the crimes of ISIS — proximity to Raleigh over Raqqa may explain why — before going on to say that hate crimes against American Muslims are “tiny in number, often property-related, and still dwarfed five-fold by similar offenses against Jews.” Reread that sentence and take in the moral callousness of this thinker.

At least I enjoyed the review.

An honest appraisal of evo devo

In a review of a new book edited by Alan Love, The evolution of “evo-devo”, Adam Wilkins makes a few telling criticisms of the sub-field I enjoy.

Evo-devo has come a long way since 1981 though the Dahlem Conference laid some of the important groundwork for what followed and was, indeed, widely appreciated as having done so. Yet, troublingly, the field remains, for many evolutionary biologists, something of a side-show, a “boutique” subject within evolutionary biology as a whole. Several of us, in the 1990s, warned that this might happen. This is in contrast to some of the early expectations, which involved positing a coming central role for this discipline within evolutionary biology as a whole. A few of the contributors evidently feel that it has achieved such a position but I think that a broad survey within biology would reveal that not to be the case. If it failed to develop its full potential, why? Opinions will vary but my own hunch is that one factor is that the field has largely avoided incorporating much of the rich material that developmental genetics offers for understanding developmental and morphological change. The one general concession to such genetics, noted in passing in one of the chapters, is the insistence that most developmental change in evolution involves alterations in cis-regulatory elements for regulatory genes. There is, of course, good evidence for this but it is not the whole story and ignores both other mechanisms and the possible dynamics of the incorporation of such change in populations. That last thought, however, introduces what is, in my view, the second weakness of the field: evo-devo remains largely a zone devoid of population thinking. The great strength of classical evolutionary biology was that it focused on the nature of transformation of populations over time – both genetically and phenotypically – and provided a crude general mechanism for understanding such transformations. Its corresponding failing was that it largely ignored the details of the source materials for such change. Evo-devo’s main strength and weakness are just the reverse. These reciprocal differences in emphasis amount to perceptual and intellectual differences about what is important in considering evolutionary change. Such differences in attitude continue to create a divide between evo-devo and classical evolutionary biology. This volume does not address this issue at all and I think that is a regrettable omission.

I’ve highlighted the two key points, although I think they’re both rooted in the same problem. 1) I think there is a superficial focus on developmental genetics, but what we’re missing is the experimental perspective. 2) True enough that there is a lack of population studies (I can think of the stickleback work on recent evolution of small populations as a counter-example), but there the problem is that if you’re focusing on the great grand questions of evolution, like where the notochord came from, you’re simply not going to find much variation within extant groups. All fish have notochords. All zebrafish populations have notochords. You’re just not going to have any material to work with if you try to study how the expression of notochords vary in a population that is over half a billion years removed from an ancestral population that did have interesting differences in a nascent structure.

The key problem is that the field has long been interested in morphological and molecular differences at the phylum and class level. What we need to do is ask better questions that are appropriate on a smaller scale, and are more amenable to experiment and genetic analysis. Narrow the scope, more work on differences in fruit fly wings and in the circuitry of tissue specification in closely related species of echinoderms, for instance.

Of course, the appeal of evo-devo is often in those gigantic huge intractable questions that involve comparing fruit flies and echinoderms. Evo-devo without the grandiosity is harder to market.

Wilkins AS (2015) The evolution of “evo-devo”. BioEssays 37(12):1258–1260.

Building a chordate: the notochord


I know this is a horrible photo — I just snapped a picture of the journal hardcopy, which I own, instead of grabbing a PDF from the web, because it’s from 1985 and I’d have to pay to get a copy of my own paper — but this is what I was doing in grad school. I started as somebody who was interested in neurons and the nervous system, so what you’re seeing is a transverse section of the spinal cord of a zebrafish, with a couple of motoneurons labeled black with a tracer enzyme. I spent most of my time teasing apart how those cells grew and made connections.

But all the while there was this one prominent feature of the animal that kept trying to distract me. See that big clear white space below the spinal cord? That’s the notochord. It’s huge, a long transparent cylinder built like a stack of glass coins, running from the neighborhood of the hindbrain all the way back to the tip of the tail. The image from Stemple below is much clearer, since the notochord has been painted pink.


Its superficial function is obvious: it’s a springy rod that the muscles of the fish’s body act upon for swimming and escape behaviors. While I was just doing neural circuitry work, that was sufficient — it’s part of the motor apparatus. Neurons make muscles twitch which flexes the notochord and generates the back and forth motion that propels the animal through the water. Case solved.

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Slow down!

Just a reminder for this time of year: drive carefully.

I live where there’s lots of snow and ice, so when I was watching that video, well before there was any accident, I was trying to choke back yelling at the screen. Why are you driving so fast? Why are you trying to pass? Aren’t you paying any attention to the road conditions, you idiot?

The first rule of bad weather driving is…don’t. The second rule is…if you absolutely must, go slowly.

Japan and the awesome Christmas miracle

Toyama Bay got a visit from a mythological being, all dressed in red, on Christmas day. It was beautiful.

It seems to be Architeuthis dux, and is about 4 meters long. It just cruised in, ambled about, and the authorities plan to just let it swim away. If it can — giant squid on the surface tend to be sick and unhappy. But still…! I’m waiting for the day one swims up the Pomme de Terre river to bring me presents.

There’s more discussion about this squid (in English!) on TONMO.

Only ten?

It’s a start, anyway. Here are Ten Facebook Pages You Need to Stop Sharing. They are:

Eat Clean. Train Mean. Live Green.
Joseph Mercola
Prevention Magazine
Natural News
Collective Evolution
Spirit Science
The Mind Unleashed

There’s a lot of pseudo-nutrition and quackery in there, and also a fair bit of “spirituality”. But there are so many other pages that are about as bad! I bail when I see the words “spirit”, “detox”, “cleanse”, “toxins”, as well as anything to do with religion.

Are imperialism and colonialism funny now?


When last I commented on one of the UK’s battier climage change denialists, James Delingpole, it was to ridicule his “joke” about executing environmental scientists. He’s back with a new “joke” — I really think he ought to give up on the humor thing. He’s not very good at it.

His new idea is to erect a giant golden statue in Africa to honor…Cecil Rhodes.

The idea is to build in the middle of Africa a gigantic golden statue of the mighty British imperial hero Cecil Rhodes – a really big one, about four miles high, so that Kilimanjaro doesn’t get in the way – to remind all the locals for miles around what a complete and utter toilet their malarial, tsetse flyblown continent would have been if it hadn’t been for all the 19th century explorers, miners and pioneers and nation builders and District Commissioners in their white pith helmets who brought them civilisation, the rule of law and economic progress.

Yeah, racist asshole thinks the entire continent of Africa is a a complete and utter toilet and that the appropriate way for Britain to signal their attitude towards Africans is to build a giant “fuck you” in the continent. Charming. Hilarious. Not.

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Saturn Run


Yesterday was Christmas, so I did nothing much at all. Well, I did a few things.

I have rediscovered the joy of a pair of good thick wool socks. Seriously, people! Warm wool on a cold day? You cannot go wrong.

We spent the evening in the big city of St Cloud, having a traditional Christmas dinner with our son at a Chinese restaurant.

And I spent most of the day reading a book. Not any of the science books piled up on my desk, but a thriller. I felt a bit guilty about it, but then decided that nah, I get to take a full day off and screw around. It’s good for the brain to take a break. Also, cozy warm feet take an amazing amount of tension out of your life.

If you’ve visited the Pharyngula store, you may have noticed that one of the items on my “What I’m reading now” is Saturn Run, by John Sandford and Ctein. A little backstory: my daughter knows Sandford’s son (he was at her wedding, for instance), and he has indulged us with his father’s books. We got sent the whole catalog of Sandford’s novels several years ago, and I went through them all like popcorn. Going on a trip? Grab a random paperback out of the Sandford box. They’re a good, fast read: serial killers and maverick detectives, you know the genre, set in Minneapolis.

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