Writing synopses of science articles is hard

Really, it’s harder than you think. Individual science papers typically build on a larger body of knowledge and don’t stand alone; it is assumed that the reader has significant amounts of training in the subject at hand so that the authors don’t bother to fill in all the background. When writing a summary of the article for a general audience, one has to provide a lot of context, without simply reiterating the contents of, for instance, a molecular biology textbook and a year’s worth of upper level biology education. And if someone writing a summary of an article lacks that knowledge altogether, the misinterpretations can be disastrously wrong.

Take this article in TechTimes, Massive Genetic Study Reveals 90 Percent Of Earth’s Animals Appeared At The Same Time. The title alone is creationist clickbait, and the author of the story clearly didn’t understand the article at all. She gets it all wrong.

Landmark new research that involves analyzing millions of DNA barcodes has debunked much about what we know today about the evolution of species.

In a massive genetic study, senior research associate at the Program for the Human Environment at Rockefeller University Mark Stoeckle and University of Basel geneticist David Thaler discovered that virtually 90 percent of all animals on Earth appeared at right around the same time.

More specifically, they found out that 9 out of 10 animal species on the planet came to being at the same time as humans did some 100,000 to 200,000 years ago.

No, it didn’t. The paper says nothing of the kind.

The paper is an analysis of DNA barcodes. DNA barcoding is a process that uses a short stretch of mitochondrial DNA to map an individual organism to a species — it’s a technique that lets you look at a sample of a few cells, amplify and sequence a single gene (COI or COX1 are commonly used in animals), and then unambiguously identify the specific species those cells came from. Being able to do this relies on an interesting property of a species: there is limited variance in the barcode sequence within the species, but there has to be greater variance of that sequence from other, even closely related species. In other words, DNA barcodes form tight little clusters of similarity that correlate well with other criteria for defining a species.

That raises questions. You can read the original article, Why should mitochondria define species?, for yourself and see. The question is about why variations within a species should cluster so tightly. Stoeckle and Thaler propose a couple of hypotheses to explain that phenomenon.

Either 1) COI barcode clusters represent species-specific adaptations, OR 2) extant populations have recently passed through diversity-reducing regimes whose consequences for sequence diversity are indistinguishable from clonal bottlenecks.

It’s a meaty paper that goes through the evidence for both of those hypotheses, and I’m wishing I’d seen this paper last semester, when I was teaching evolutionary biology — there is a lot of useful evolutionary thinking going on here. Maybe I can revoke all of my students’ degrees and tell them they have to come back for one last thing? I think we can go through the paper adequately in about a week, so I’m sure they won’t mind.

Their final conclusion, after analyzing millions of barcodes, is fairly straightforward, I think.

The simple hypothesis is that the same explanation offered for the sequence variation found among modern humans applies equally to the modern populations of essentially all other animal species. Namely that the extant population, no matter what its current size or similarity to fossils of any age, has expanded from mitochondrial uniformity within the past 200,000 years.

This is not saying that there was a single instant in the last 200,000 years from which all modern species arose simultaneously. It’s a statement about the process of speciation: species arise from isolation of a limited subset of an existing population, which is why they have limited variation in their DNA barcodes, followed by an expansion of the new species’ population, during which the DNA barcodes accumulate variation slowly.

No, they did not find out “that 9 out of 10 animal species on the planet came to being at the same time as humans did some 100,000 to 200,000 years ago”. New species arise continuously, but they do so by going through a population bottleneck in geologically recent times. Homo sapiens arose as a distinct species between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago, but that notorious London Underground mosquito may have evolved in the 18th century…which is still within the past 200,000 years, you may notice.

It’s a bit like reading a statement that almost all people are less than 100 years old, and then wondering, publicly and in print, about what happened in 1918 to cause every human being on Earth to have been suddenly born in that year. That must have been some orgy to celebrate the end of the Great War.

We all have to have our little niche

If you’re one of the multitudes writing to tell me about that goofy squid panspermia article, I done already covered it. I do find it interesting how these weird stories have a kind of tidal popularity — the attention just comes in surges.

I’m also gratified that whenever a squids from space story appears, so many people immediately think of me.

Squids from SPAAAAAAAAACE!

I was reading this article with a provocative title: Cause of Cambrian Explosion – Terrestrial or Cosmic?. It set my alarm bells ringing from the title onward.

Look at those authors! So many, yet the paper itself is so empty of data. Most I don’t know. Steele I’ve heard of — he was promoting neo-Lamarckism in the 1980s, and thinks the Cambrian explosion was caused by retroviruses squirting new complex genes into the ancestors of all animals. Brig Klyce I’ve bumped into a few times on the internet…he’s a panspermia fanatic. Milton Wainwright is the guy who used an EM to look for odd blobs and declared they are evidence of alien life. The Wallis’s were part of a time that announced that diatoms came from outer space. Oh, and Chandra Wickramasinghe…yes, we have crossed paths multiple times. He published a lot in the Journal of Cosmology, with an editor, Rhawn Joseph, who really, really doesn’t like me.

Wickramasinghe has been making bank on this nonsensical idea that genes for complex intelligent life have periodically rained down on the Earth from outer space. There is no evidence for it, and no reason to invoke this random phenomenon to explain biology — we have random phenomena enough, thank you very much, and none of them have the extreme weirdness of the space virus explanation.

I guess I have heard of quite a few of the authors! And it’s a most unsavory stew of notorious crackpots.

Let’s take a look at the abstract for this gem of a paper, shall we?

We review the salient evidence consistent with or predicted by the Hoyle-Wickramasinghe (H-W) thesis of Cometary (Cosmic) Biology. Much of this physical and biological evidence is multifactorial. One particular focus are the recent studies which date the emergence of the complex retroviruses of vertebrate lines at or just before the Cambrian Explosion of ~500 Ma. Such viruses are known to be plausibly associated with major evolutionary genomic processes. We believe this coincidence is not fortuitous but is consistent with a key prediction of H-W theory whereby major extinction-diversification evolutionary boundaries coincide with virus-bearing cometary-bolide bombardment events. A second focus is the remarkable evolution of intelligent complexity (Cephalopods) culminating in the emergence of the Octopus. A third focus concerns the micro-organism fossil evidence contained within meteorites as well as the detection in the upper atmosphere of apparent incoming life-bearing particles from space. In our view the totality of the multifactorial data and critical analyses assembled by Fred Hoyle, Chandra Wickramasinghe and their many colleagues since the 1960s leads to a very plausible conclusion — life may have been seeded here on Earth by life-bearing comets as soon as conditions on Earth allowed it to flourish (about or just before 4.1 Billion years ago); and living organisms such as space-resistant and space-hardy bacteria, viruses, more complex eukaryotic cells, fertilised ova and seeds have been continuously delivered ever since to Earth so being one important driver of further terrestrial evolution which has resulted in considerable genetic diversity and which has led to the emergence of mankind.

It’s a moderately long paper, because it’s really easy to layer on thick coats of bullshit when you don’t care about the quality of the evidence. So I’m just going to look at — can you guess? — his second focus, “the remarkable evolution of intelligent complexity (Cephalopods) culminating in the emergence of the Octopus”.

It’s garbage.

There are novelties in cephalopod evolution, and I’ve written about them before. In particular, cephalopods carry out a significant amount of gene editing, that is, they use enzymes to modify a few of the bases in RNA before it is translated into protein. This is not a shocking surprise — it’s not a universal modification of every RNA, but it has been observed in phyla all across the animal kingdom — although some gullible sources claim it is a violation of the central dogma (they’re wrong). But the key thing is that it’s not unique to cephalopods, lots of organisms have the enzymes, so you can’t use it as evidence for the claim that gene editing came from outer space.

In particular, there is no reasonable justification for this claim:

Thus the possibility that cryopreserved Squid and/or Octopus eggs, arrived in icy bolides several hundred million years ago should not be discounted (below) as that would be a parsimonious cosmic explanation for the Octopus’ sudden emergence on Earth ca. 270 million years ago. Indeed this principle applies to the sudden appearance in the fossil record of pretty well all major life forms, covered in the prescient concept of “punctuated equilibrium” by Eldridge and Gould advanced in the early 1970s (1972, 1977); and see the conceptual cartoon of Fig. 6. Therefore, similar living features like this “as if the genes were derived from some type of pre-existence” (Hoyle and Wickramasinghe, 1981) apply to many other biological ensembles when closely examined. One little known yet cogent example is the response and resistance of the eye structures of the Drosophila fruit fly to normally lethally damaging UV radiation at 2537 Å, given that this wavelength does not penetrate the ozone layer and is thus not evident as a Darwinian selective factor at the surface of the Earth (Lutz and Grisewood, 1934) and see Hoyle and Wickramasinghe (1981, p.12e13). Many of these “unearthly” properties of organisms can be plausibly explained if we admit the enlarged cosmic biosphere that is indicated by modern astronomical research e discoveries of exoplanets already discussed. The average distance between habitable planets in our galaxy now to be reckoned in light years e typically 5 light years (Wickramasinghe et al., 2012). Virion/gene exchanges thus appear to be inevitable over such short cosmic distances. The many features of biology that are not optimised to local conditions on the Earth may be readily understood in this wider perspective.

We’ve gone from a few viral genes raining down on Earth and getting incorporated into life, to frozen squid eggs drifting from Alpha Centauri to Earth in icy meteors and somehow crashing into our oceans and surviving to populate the seas. I don’t think the authors understand the word “parsimonious”. If this were true, cephalopods would represent an entirely novel lineage, and more than having a few molecular novelties, they would be completely unrelated to any other animal lineage on the planet. They would not be related to other molluscs. They would not be protostomes. They would not be eukaryotes. They would be totally alien.

The authors even seem to be superficially conscious of this problem. Here is the “conceptual cartoon of Fig. 6”.

This diagram is what you get when you pretend that lineages are made solely of apomorphies, or the derived traits that distinguish each species from other organisms, and close your eyes to the plesiomorphies, or shared similarities. A phylogenetic tree is not “forced”, it is produced by identifying shared traits. The octopus has molecular similarities to snails, and the two together have similarities to other invertebrates, and all of them have shared attributes with all animals. You don’t get to just ignore all that! This is equivalent to saying that octopuses have tentacles, therefore octopuses are from outer space, completely neglecting the fact that octopuses have homologous genes linking them to insects and sea cucumbers and people.

To back up the remarkable assertion that cephalopods fell from space, they present no evidence, other than a flurry of citations of … N. Chandra Wickramasinghe. It’s an embarrassingly masturbatory display. Wickramasinghe and his associates have been churning out these useless, garbage papers for decades, and now they use the volume of shit he has produced as evidence that his shit is valid. He occasionally sprinkles in references to other authors, which he gets wrong: Stephen J. Gould would not recognize figure 6 as an accurate representation of punctuated equilibrium. This is not how science is supposed to work. It’s simply fraudulent.

Wickramasinghe used to be associated with Cardiff University — they fired him and closed his astrobiology ‘department’, which turns out to have been a bit of a Potemkin village anyway. It was run entirely by Wickramasinghe as a part-time employee, and the entirety of the staff were “honorary”, unpaid volunteers.

“It was only costing them between £14,000 and £15,000 (about $24,000) a year to retain me as a part time director of the centre.

“All the other staff, totaling about 12, is honorary research fellows and associates who were not costing the university anything at all. They have brought a huge amount of credit to Cardiff University and so it amazed me that the university would discontinue their support for astrobiology. “What they did to me is a travesty of normal university practice and I still don’t understand the motive. I can’t believe for a moment that they are strapped for £15,000 a year to maintain a centre that has, for good or bad, a very high profile internationally. “We continue to make headlines in various things that we do. Some of our work remains controversial but it is in the nature of science to promote controversy as long as it is intelligent controversy. That’s within the rules of the game. If people agree 100 per cent what they’re doing then science becomes a bit insubstantial. “I just fail to understand why they do this. It could be ageism because, at 71, I’m over the retirement age by a couple of years, but I’ve been around for years and have published many papers. I was Sir Fred Hoyle’s longest-running collaborator from the time I was a student at Cambridge.”

Cardiff claims the closure was entirely due to budgetary reasons, but I rather suspect that, contrary to Wickramasinghe’s claim, his slack work and low standards of evidence have frequently brought discredit to the university.

Don’t cry for Chandra, though. He was snapped up by the University of Buckingham to form a “centre for astrobiology”. I think that might mean he was allowed to host a webpage on their site, because he’s never had a real research unit, and I doubt that he’s been given the funds for one now.

But yeah, if you see his name on anything, or apparently any of the names in that long list of articles, you’ve found a treasure trove of pseudoscience.

Esoteric: intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest

Even a small cult can be incredibly profitable. There’s this freaky alternative medicine quack in Australia who runs a scam called Universal Medicine — his specialties are “esoteric breast massage”, “esoteric ovary massage”, and “connective tissue therapy”. My first objection has to be that he doesn’t understand what “esoteric” means.

The esoteric principle is that we are love – innately and, unchangeably. The principles of the esoteric way of life date back to the oldest forms of knowledge and wisdom. Whilst ancient in their heritage, the principles of the esoteric life in human form have not out-dated themselves in relation to what is required of mankind to live in harmony and thus arrest any wayward conduct that does not build brotherhood within and amongst our communities everywhere.

The esoteric means that which comes from our inner-most. It is the livingness of love that we all carry equally deep within and it is this livingness that restores each and every individual back into the rhythms of their inner-harmony and thus from there, the love is lived with all others.

You want to know more? Here’s a short documentary on Serge Benhayon, the guy who founded it. He’s a bankrupted ex-tennis coach with no medical degree, not even the slightest training, and he came up with the idea for his ‘therapy’ while sitting on the toilet. But he’s also the reincarnated spirit of Leonardo da Vinci, so you can trust him. Right.

He’s raking in $2 million a year, and he has 700 followers. I’ve got more followers than that! You slackers have not been sending me a sufficient fraction of your income. All you have to do is go to my donation page and type in the amount of $3000 and click send, and if 700 of you do that, I’ll have made somewhat more than Serge Benhayon. Even better, unlike Serge, I promise not to fondle your breasts and groin or stick you with acupuncture needles.

Ick. That sounds like a threat. Even if you don’t send me any money, I promise not to do that. I think I just realized why I’m not getting rich. I’m not extortionate enough.

Anyway, one of his many laughable comments in that video is this one:

I can’t be brainwashing intelligent people and educated people.

Ha. Intelligent and educated people are just as easy to fool as anyone else. You just need the right hook, and you can sucker ’em right in. (Damn, again — just realized another reason I’m not making a fortune is that I’m not tapping enough suckers with the right bait.)

Case in point: it turns out that Benhayon has followers in the University of Queensland medical school who have been pissing pro-UM stories into the scientific literature.

Mr Benhayon’s acolytes include Christoph Schnelle, a UQ faculty of medicine researcher who was the lead author of three articles on UM health practices.

He and eight co-authors are now under scrutiny for an alleged failure to declare their roles in what has been described as “a dangerous cult” by Professor Dwyer, who is now based at the University of New South Wales.

The ABC has obtained video of four of the researchers publicly advocating UM practices, including two doctors.

Two more researchers are presenters at the Benhayon-founded College of Universal Medicine.

The others are a naturopath and a psychologist who practice at UM’s Brisbane clinic, and a director of its UK-based charity.

See? You can fool educated people.

By the way, Benhayon calls the ‘esoteric’ practices of Universal Medicine the “Way of the Livingness”. More like the Way of the Banality.

That’s quite the just-so story you’re selling, Atlantic

Are your eyes in need of a little rolling exercise? Get ready to read The Evolutionary Case for Great Fiction. Here’s how it begins:

Picture this: It’s 45,000 years ago and a small Pleistocene clan is gathered by a campfire. The night is bone cold and black and someone—let’s call him Ernest—begins telling a story.

Lips waxy with boar grease, Ernest boasts of his morning hunt. He details the wind in the grass, the thick clouds overhead, the long plaintive wail of the boar as his spear swiftly entered its heart.

The clan is riveted.

Among them sits a moody, brilliant devotee of campfire stories. Every now and then she pipes up to praise or decimate a tale. Tonight she says, “Excellent work. Unsurpassed.” Ernest breathes a sigh of relief.

Let’s call the girl Michiko.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ridge, there’s another tribe, where John is telling his hunting story. Except he sucks, and the story falls flat, and everyone shrugs and goes to bed.

And then, later, John’s tribe goes extinct. The end.

That’s it. No evidence, no data, no actual measurements of any survival benefit to storytelling, one invented number (is there a benefit to good storytelling? “If it increases your offspring by only 1%—yes”), and the author comes to the conclusion that good stories enhances survival and makes the talespinner sexy (well, an author would say that, wouldn’t they?)

It is literally a just-so story, and nothing more. Nothing. It’s someone sitting at a keyboard fantasizing about how important their writing skills are on an evolutionary scale, and inventing a series of rationalizations.

It’s terrible.

I guess I’m going to have to predict the imminent extinction of every member of the tribe who writes for the Atlantic, if this story were true.

By the way, after being named, Michiko doesn’t appear in the story any more. The first critic, and she doesn’t even make it to the next page.

Charles Teo has a lucrative racket

Teo is an Australian surgeon who has a brilliant scheme for anyone with a bit of surgical skill and a complete lack of conscience. He performs surgery on inoperable brain tumors in kids dying of cancer, and then ships them off to the Burzynski clinic in Texas to get injected with urine and die.

You’ve got to admit, marshaling the resources of a hospital, opening up a child’s skull, and diddling about with a knife inside without killing them is an amazing feat of impressive showmanship, sure to make devastated parents think something is being done worth $20-60,000 — even if there is no evidence at all that poking a glioblastoma with a pointy object offers any therapeutic benefit at all. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Teo is actually a very skilled surgeon. The problem is that brain surgery is not a panacea, and sometimes it is a totally inappropriate approach to deal with some cancers.

That he then sends his dying kids off to bankrupt their parents in a futile gesture at the Burzynski clinic suggests that this is a guy who knows how to crack skulls but actually knows nothing at all about cancer.

(Also on FtB)

Horrifyingly delusional anti-vaxxers in Australia

Take a look at the ad copy for this evil book by a friend of Meryl Dorey, the anti-vaccination kook.

i-ce4ff688bea5275423b795b5d5779041-marvellousmeasles.jpeg

“Marvellous measles”? “Embrace childhood disease”? This is rank madness. Here is what WHO says about measles:

  • Measles is one of the leading causes of death among young children even though a safe and cost-effective vaccine is available.
  • In 2008, there were 164 000 measles deaths globally – nearly 450 deaths every day or 18 deaths every hour.
  • More than 95% of measles deaths occur in low-income countries with weak health infrastructures.
  • Measles vaccination resulted in a 78% drop in measles deaths between 2000 and 2008 worldwide.
  • In 2010, about 85% of the world’s children received one dose of measles vaccine by their first birthday through routine health services – up from 72% in 2000.

Measles kills children. The reason these loons can babble about measles as if it were a harmless game that strengthens your immune system is that world-wide vaccination campaigns have been so effective in reducing the incidence of the disease, and because children who are healthy and have good nutrition are very likely to survive it. So what Stephanie Messenger and Meryl Dorey propose to do is to put sick, immuno-compromised, and hungry children at far greater risk of death, and make their own spoiled children miserable and contagious for a few days to a week, and also put them at a lesser risk of death, all so they can smugly promote their hare-brained cause.

Something else that irritates me about these people is that often they align themselves with the left — it’s gormless liberals who readily buy into this nonsense. Another scandal developing in Australia is that the Woodford Folk Festival has invited Meryl Dorey to speak. It looks like a big event, and there among the environmentalists and local foods proponents and polynesian and aboriginal singers, is this great stinking turd of a woman advocating infecting small children with awful diseases. This Meryl Dorey:

She has described measles (the disease which has killed more children than any other in the history of the world) as “benign;” she suggested the slogan “Shaken Maybe Syndrome” as a way of implying that Shaken Baby Syndrome does not exist but is always damage caused by vaccines; she provided strong support to a man imprisoned in the US for the murder of a ten-week-old boy, her support being based on the idea that the dreadful injuries to the child had to be the effects of a vaccine, not the actions of a violent man; she is on record as an AIDS denier; she said on television that “whooping cough didn’t kill us thirty years ago and it’s not kill anybody today”. If she isn’t implacably opposed to vaccinations then she hides any other position well.

The festival sounds like fun, but if I were in the region, nothing could persuade me to attend — it’s poisoned through and through by its endorsement of a child-killing monster who will be given a stage to lie from.

(Also on FtB)

Bad science in the British Journal of Psychiatry

Would you believe that “”the largest, most definitive analysis of the mental health risks associated with abortion, synthesizing the results of 22 studies published between 1995 and 2009 involving 877,181 women, of whom 163,831 had abortions” has determined that “abortion harms women’s mental health”? It concludes that “10% of all mental health problems and 34.9% of all suicides in women of reproductive age” are caused by abortion. Here’s the author’s own summary of the results.

Women who had undergone an abortion experienced an 81% increased risk of mental health problems, and nearly 10% of the incidence of mental health problems was shown to be attributable to abortion. The strongest subgroup estimates of increased risk occurred when abortion was compared with term pregnancy and when the outcomes pertained to substance use and suicidal behaviour.

Those numbers are so extravagantly extreme that there ought to be alarm bells going off in your head right now, and the research had better be darned thorough and unimpeachably clean.

As it turns out, it isn’t. The author of the paper, Priscilla Coleman, is an anti-abortion advocate, and 11 of the 22 studies sampled for the meta-analysis are by…Priscilla Coleman. Methinks there might be a hint of publication bias there, something that has been confirmed statistically by Ben Goldacre.

Jim Coyne has carried out a thorough dissection of the paper, exposing the statistical games she played with the data.

If you examine Figures 1 and 2 in Coleman’s review, you can see that she counts each of her own studies multiple times in her calculation of the effects attributable to abortion. This practice was also roundly criticized in the E-letter responses to her article because each study should only be entered once, if the conditions are met for integrating results of studies in a meta-analysis and providing a test of the statistical significance of the resulting effect size. This may sound like a technical point, but it is something quite basic and taught in any Meta-Analysis 101.

Coleman’s calculation of overall effect sizes for the negative mental health effects of abortion involve integrating multiple effects obtained from the same flawed studies into a single effect size that cannot accurately characterize any of the individual effects – anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide – that went into it. Again we are encountering a nonsensical statistic.

And just how good were the papers that Coleman chose to include in her meta-analysis? She claims they were the best, and that others were excluded because of their poor quality, but it seems other investigators hold her work in low esteeem.

…an APA task force report did find that Coleman studies–the ones she included in her meta analysis–had inadequate or inappropriate controls and did not adequately control for women’s mental health prior to the pregnancy and abortion. A similar verdict about Coleman’s work was contained in the draft Royal College of Psychiatrists report that also considered the bulk of her work too weak and biased to be entered into an evaluation of the effects of abortion on mental health.

I did find this comment by Jim Coyne bitterly amusing.

Readers should be to assume that the conclusions of a meta-analysis published in a prestigious journal are valid. After all, the article survived rigorous peer review and probably was strengthened by revisions made in the authors’ response to a likely “revise and resubmit” decision.

Obviously, you can’t assume that. This is a case where the editors and reviewers failed to do their jobs, and that happens way too often…and now this study has been thoroughly politicized and is being touted by the anti-abortion wackaloons to argue that abortion must be banned…for the good of the women. Which is probably one of the few times they’ve given a damn about the women involved.

But if you want a good, straightforward summary of why Coleman’s paper should have been rejected, that last link is it.

(Also on FtB)

Science overwhelmed by self-defeating awe

This video by Alexander Tsiaras is simultaneously lovely and infuriating; it’s a product of technology and science, and the narration is profoundly anti-science.

There are some technical issues that annoy me about the video — it’s a mix of real imagery and computer animation, and it doesn’t draw a line between what is observed and what is fabricated — but it’s visually stunning and otherwise fairly accurate.

But Tsiaras’s running commentary…it’s mystical airy-fairy glop. It takes awe and turns it into a celebration of ignorance.

Even though I am a mathematician, I look at this with marvel of how do these instruction sets not make these mistakes as they build what is us? It’s a mystery, it’s magic, it’s divinity. Then you start to take a look at adult life. Take a look at this little tuft of capillaries. It’s just a tiny sub-substructure, microscopic. But basically by the time you’re nine months and you’re given birth, you have almost 60,000 miles of vessels inside your body. I mean, and only one mile is visible. 59,999 miles that are basically bringing nutrients and taking waste away. The complexity of building that within a single system is, again, beyond any comprehension or any existing mathematics today.

And that instruction set, from the brain to every other part of the body — look at the complexity of the folding. Where does this intelligence of knowing that a fold can actually hold more information, so as you actually watch the baby’s brain grow — and this is one of the things that we’re doing right now. We’re actually doing the launch of two new studies of actually scanning babies’ brains from the moment they’re born. Every six months until they’re six years old — we’re going to be doing actually to about 250 children — watching exactly how the gyri and the sulci of the brains fold to see how this magnificent development actually turns into memories and the marvel that is us.

And it’s not just our own existence, but how does the woman’s body understand to have genetic structure that not only builds her own, but then has the understanding that allows her to become a walking immunological, cardiovascular system that basically is a mobile system that can actually nurture, treat this child with a kind of marvel that is beyond, again, our comprehension — the magic that is existence, that is us?

It’s not magic, and it’s sure as hell not divinity — it’s chemistry. And it certainly does make mistakes: half of all conceptions end in a spontaneous abortion, and about 15% of all pregnancies where the mother knows she is pregnant spontaneously terminate.

I genuinely despise the tactic so widely used by intelligent design creationists, and here by Tsiaris, of reciting really big numbers and babbling about complexity, complexity, complexity. Yes, it’s complicated. But you can build complicated structures with simple rules, and if you look at these systems, what you find are iterative properties and variation induced by local conditions. And if it’s beyond mathematics today, what are all those mathematicians and biologists doing modeling angiogensis?

And then there’s the rampant assignment of agency to everything. “Where does this intelligence of knowing that a fold can actually hold more information” in the brain come from? It doesn’t. The expansion of the cortex is a consequence of selected variation in mitotic regulators for that region of the brain — it expands like bread dough because the cells are replicating to large numbers, and the confines of the skull cause it to buckle and fold. It’s neurogenesis; there aren’t little angels folding pastry in there.

That entire last paragraph beginning from “how does the woman’s body understand to have genetic structure” is total nonsense. The answer is no, the woman’s body does not “understand”. There is no “knowing” there. There are physical/chemical processes guided by a molecular biology that has been shaped by a few billion years of variation and selection to produce a functional outcome. It’s not magic. It’s not guided by intelligence and intent.

THIS. IS. BIOLOGY.

Yet here is this intelligent, accomplished, technically skilled loon painting it with useless, mystical, misleading bullshit.

That kind of delusion has consequences. Right now, that video is getting featured on anti-maternal-life websites all over the internet. Here’s a self-selected sample of responses to Tsiaras’s work:

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”

“Pro-choicers vanquished by Science.”

“This truly is amazing.”

“How could anyone get an abortion after watching this?”

“To say that this is a must see or fantastic is an understatement of the truth.”

I am most amused by the claim “Pro-choicers vanquished by Science.” I’ve been familiar with the developmental series shown in that video for about 30 years, and it confirms to me that there is nothing magical or special about human development that demands that we privilege the human embryo as deserving the full rights of an adult, aware, thinking person. It is meat in motion, driven by unthinking processes. Cow embryos go through the same events, and through the first month or so would be indistinguishable from a human embryo; does this somehow compel the anti-woman brigade to shun steaks?

Here, I have a video of zebrafish development. I don’t have all the gadgets and animation tools that Tsiaras has at his disposal, just a microscope, a video camera, and Quicktime software, but still…this truly is amazing. It’s a must see or fantastic.

Wow. How did a fish embryo know how to do that?

The answer is that it doesn’t. We don’t grant human beings a privileged place in our cultural ethics because they develop from embryos, or because they have a heart that beats with many miles of capillaries, or because we don’t understand every minuscule detail of their formation. If that were the case, the anti-choicers would have to be rushing to protect the fruit flies growing on the bananas in their kitchen and be picketing the battery farms producing chicken eggs. Witnessing development shouldn’t turn rational people into irrational knee-jerk defenders of embryos…it should turn them into developmental biologists who are awed at the grandeur of growth and differentiation, who will spend their lives working to figure out how it all works.

Where Tsiaras sees ineffable unapproachable mystery, I see interesting problems to be solved.

(Also on FtB)

Burzynski going ka-boom

First, a nice bit of news: Marc Stephens, the lunatic who stirred up the recent blogospheric buzz with his clumsy thuggery, no longer has a “professional relationship” with the Burzynski clinic, that warehouse of quackery. One thing about charlatans is that they have a fine-tuned sense of who might be hurting their bottom line.

But the damage has already been done. The Burzynski clinic is getting scrutinized.

Josephine Jones is tracking all the commentary.

And this is rich: Jen McCreight digs into the Burzynski publications list. Would you believe it’s a collection of marginal, low-impact journals and unreviewed conference presentations? Yeah, I knew you would.

(Also on FtB)