Jonathan MacLatchie collides with reality again

Jonathan MacLatchie, the creationist who challenged me to answer his questions about development in Glasgow, has posted his account of our encounter and his problems with evolution. It is completely unsurprising — he still doesn’t understand any of the points.

Of his 10 questions, 7 were quickly dismissable and were more than thoroughly addressed in my talk. They rest on a deep misconception that is shared with Jonathan Wells and many other pseudoscholarly creationists; I can summarize it with one standard template: “Since Darwinian evolution predicts that development will conserve the evolutionary history of an organism, how do you account for feature X which doesn’t fit that model?” To which I can simply reply, “Evolution does not predict that development will conserve the evolutionary history of an organism, therefore your question is stupid.” It doesn’t matter how many X’s he drags out, given that the premise is false, the whole question is invalid. But they can play that rhetorical game endlessly, citing feature after feature that doesn’t fit their misunderstanding of the science, making it sound to the clueless like they’ve got a legion of contradictions with evolution. Unfortunately for them, their objections are to creationist evolution, which has very little relationship to real evolution.

The gist of my talk was that Haeckel was wrong, that there was no recapitulation of developmental stages. Variation can and does occur at every stage of development; early and late stages vary greatly; evolution does not proceed primarily by terminal addition of new stages, as Haeckel postulated; but there is an interesting and real convergence on the broad, general outlines of the body plan at one point in development that needs to be explained.

MacLatchie’s response, greatly abbreviated, is to say that recapitulation doesn’t occur; variation occurs at every stage of development; early and late stages vary greatly; and look! I have papers from the peer-reviewed scientific literature that agree with me! Well, yes. That’s what I said. That is the conventional, ordinary, normal, well-understood, evolution-compatible side of the story from the scientists, like I’d been saying. Is there an echo in here, or do you just not understand what you heard or what you read, that you think the facts are evidence against evolution?

Apparently, in the Q&A for my talk (which you can now listen to; MacLatchie is first up), he asked me, I think, question #3 from his list, but I couldn’t really tell. As is typical, he turned it into a long-winded turgid mess, and I’ll be honest, I really couldn’t grasp what he was trying to ask, and I think he was actually getting at two different things. One is that there are differences in the embryological origins of some organs; this bothers him, apparently, because he’s sitting there expecting that there shouldn’t be any differences in how, for instance, the neural tube forms, because it’s a primitive structure, and therefore, because development is supposed to recapitulate evolution, they should be identical. I missed that; I was trying to see a more intelligent question in his verbiage. Now that I’ve read the papers he was waving around, I can answer a little differently: yes. There are differences in how different organs form in different species.

So?

It is not a tenet of evo-devo that primitive structures must follow identical ontogenetic pathways. We actually understand that divergence can occur at all stages of development.

The other thing he was getting at was something I thought I understood when I tried to get him to focus on one example, and suggested neural tube formation. There what we see despite differences between species is a widely conserved molecular homology — that there is an interplay between BMP and Dpp in defining the prospective nervous system in flies and vertebrates. These deep homologies in organization were not expected and not predicted by evolutionary biology, but their presence does imply evolutionary affinities. That there are differences — for instance, a frog will form a hollow tube by folding the sheet of the neural plate, while a fish seems to submerge the sheet into the body and then secondarily cavitate* — are real, but relatively superficial. And differences are not precluded by evolutionary theory!

I wish I could get that one thought into these guys heads: evolutionary theory predicts differences as well as similarities. Finding a difference between two species does not send us rocking back on our heels, shocked that such a thing could be.

There’s another weird thing in that clip that is so typical of creationists. He pointed at those papers of his, dropped a few scientists’ names, and claimed they all supported his position. They do not. He gave me copies of three of them afterwards; two I’d already read and was fairly familiar with. Come on, he was citing Pere Alberch, the great synthesizer of development and evolution, in support of intelligent design creationism?

MacLatchie doesn’t even understand the paper. What Alberch is doing in it is arguing that many efforts to use developmental information in systematics go wrong because they have a creeping Haeckelian interpretation, that the sequences of events in development should preserve the evolutionary sequence. They don’t, he said, and as I also said, Haeckelian recapitulation is false. So, once again, MacLatchie was confronting me with a paper that confirmed what I had said as if it somehow showed I was wrong. I really don’t get it.

It’s also a subtle example of quote-mining. In the paper, Alberch gives two examples of developmental variation in vertebrates, describing differences in toe number and in the mode of neural tube formation. MacLatchie quotes him this way:

According to the Alberch paper (the claims of which remain true to this day), it is noted that it is “the rule rather than the exception” that “homologous structures form from distinctly dissimilar initial states.”

First, it’s a slightly odd quote: the two phrases are from two different paragraphs, and are in the reverse order from how they’re written here. He doesn’t substantially change the meaning, though, so it’s not quite as nasty as the usual scrambling. (However, it is peculiar that this same exact cut & flip quote can also be found in the works of Harun Yahya, and who knows where he got it; it’s just another example of creationists copying each other.)

However, this is where it gets devious. MacLatchie omits to mention the very next sentence after part of that quote:

The diversity of tarsal morphology, as well as the variation in ontogenetic pathways leading to the formation of the neural tube, reflect variations in developmental parameters or initial conditions within conserved developmental programs. [emphasis mine] There is structural organization in this scheme that should be amenable to systematic analysis but the information in not in the ontogenetic sequence.

You see, that’s the point of his paper: it’s a criticism of naive interpretations of developmental processes that are built on Haeckelian assumptions that the sequence of stages will be evolutionarily conserved. They aren’t. This does not represent a denial of evolutionary relevance; quite the contrary, he goes on to propose better ways of examining the role of development. After giving some examples, he explains that better methods “share the common emphasis on regulation within a resilient developmental program, and they emphasize the need to go beyond the perception of ontogeny as a sequence of discrete developmental stages.”

It’s actually surprisingly offensive to see creationist citing the late Alberch as somehow supporting their lunatic views. I suddenly feel like I was not rude enough to MacLatchie at that talk.

It’s a superficial ploy creationists play. They don’t have any scientific literature of their own, so they go rummaging about in the genuine scientific literature and start pulling out fragments that show disagreement and questions in the evolutionary community. And that is so trivial to do, because they don’t grasp something obvious and fundamental: every science paper has as its throbbing heart a question and an argument. Seriously. Every single paper on evolution is arguing with evolution, probing and pushing and testing. I am not at all impressed when some clueless dingbat pulls up Alberch’s paper titled “Problems with the interpretation of developmental sequences” and crows about finding a paper that talks about “problems”. Problems are what we’re interested in.

In an attempt at turnabout, MacLatchie also tries to claim that I distorted Jonathan Wells’ position by implying that Wells does not try to use Haeckel’s errors to undermine the foundations of evolution, because Wells openly explains that Haeckel was discredited by his peers.

A casual reading of chapter 3 of Wells’ The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design (which was cited by Myers) reveals that Wells, in fact, tells us that “Haekel’s fakery was exposed by his own contemporaries, who accused him of fraud, and it has been periodically re-exposed ever since.”

Why, yes, it’s part of Wells’ game. He declares that Haeckel’s theory has been thoroughly rubbished, and therefore the foundations of ‘Darwinism’ have been destroyed. Note the sneaky substitution: Haeckel’s theory is not the foundation of evolution. We can kill it, kick it when it’s down, run it through a woodchipper, and it just doesn’t matter — it’s not part of evolutionary theory. I’ve dealt with this subterfuge at length, so I don’t really need to go into it again, do I?

*Which has since been found to be less of a difference than thought before. The fish neural tube does fold, but the cells are more tightly adherent to one another so you don’t see the central ventricle forming as obviously.


I said 7 of the 10 questions are blown to smithereens by the simple fact that they are built on false premises — MacLatchie doesn’t really understand that Haeckelian recapitulation is not part of evolutionary theory. I’ll quickly answer the remaining three right here.

4) Could you please explain the near-total absence of evidence for evolutionarily relevant (i.e. stably heritable) large-scale variations in animal form, as required by common descent? “Near-total”, that is, because losses of structure are often possible. But common descent requires the generation of anatomical novelty. Why is it the case that all observed developmental mutations that might lead to macroevolution (besides the loss of an unused structure) are harmful or fatal?

This is just like the standard creationist claim that there are no transitional fossils: there are no transitional mutations, either! When we see variations in morphology between populations of organisms, how did those changes get there, were they implanted by angels? As clear examples of “transitional mutations”, I’d point to polyphenisms, cases where there are discrete differences between genetically identical individuals based entirely on their environment.

I also suspect that the poorly explained basis of his question is that lab-generated mutations tend to be changes of very large effect on single genes. Polygenic phenomena are much harder to pick up and harder to analyze, and subtle variations in a fly or a worm are hard for us humans to detect, so the reason we see big, harmful mutations in the lab is because we’re looking for big, harmful mutations.

One more thing: look at sticklebacks. We find gross variations in form, armor, and spines that are caused by tiny changes in gene regulation.

8 ) On your blog, you have defended the central dogmatist (gene-centric) view that an organism’s DNA sequence contains both the necessary and sufficient information needed to actualise an embryo’s final morphology. If your position is so well supported and the position espoused by Jonathan Wells (and others) is so easily refuted, then why do you perpetually misrepresent his views? For example, you state “These experiments emphatically do not demonstrate that DNA does not matter … [Wells’] claim is complete bunk.” Where has Jonathan Wells stated that DNA “does not matter”? Moreover, contrary to your assertions, the phenomenon of genomic equivalence is a substantial challenge to the simplistic “DNA-is-the-whole-show” view espoused by the majority of neo-Darwinists. Cells in the prospective head region of an organism contain the same DNA as cells in the prospective tail region. Yet head cells must turn on different genes from tail cells, and they “know” which genes to turn on because they receive information about their spatial location from outside themselves — and thus, obviously, from outside their DNA. So an essential part of the ontogenetic program cannot be in the organism’s DNA, a fact that conflicts with the DNA-centrism of neo-Darwinism. Some attempts to salvage DNA programs (e.g. Rinn et al.) rely on “target sequences” — molecular zipcodes, if you will — of amino acids that direct proteins to particular locations in the cell. But such “molecular zipcodes” do not create a spatial co-ordinate system, they presuppose it.

This one is totally hilarious. First sentence: he claims I advocate a central dogmatist (gene-centric) view that an organism’s DNA sequence contains both the necessary and sufficient information needed to actualise an embryo’s final morphology, and to support that, links to one of my articles where I supposedly get all totalitarian for dogmatic genecentrism. Go ahead, follow the link. I say exactly the opposite.

10) Why do Darwinists continue to use the supposed circuitous route taken by the vas deferens from the testes as an argument for common descent when, in fact, the route is not circuitous at all? The testes develop from a structure called the genital ridge (the same structure from which the ovaries develop in females, which is in close proximity to where the kidneys develop). The gubernaculum testis serves as a cord which connects the testes to the scrotum. As the fetus grows, the gubernaculum testis does not, and so the testis is pulled downward, eventually through the body wall and into the scrotum. The lengthening vas deferens simply follows. And, moreover, before the vas deferens joins the urethra, there needs to be a place where the seminal vesicle can add its contents.

Wait, what? The route isn’t circuitous? I don’t know about you, but my testicles dangle down right next to my penis, yet the plumbing connecting them has to go back up into my torso, then down and around to exit in just the right place, a few inches away. And yes, there has to be a fluid contribution from the prostate, but again, that organ is tucked away inside, away from the action. And why do the testes have to be dangling anyway? Put ’em up next to the prostate. It would make far more sense.

Sure, you can put together physiological explanations for why each of those organs is in its particular place, but it doesn’t change the fact that the whole assemblage is a contingent kluge stuck together opportunistically.

The fundamental cowardice of creationists

The Geological Society of America is the major national professional organization for geologists, and they recently had a meeting in Denver where, in addition to the usual scientific meeting stuff, they did what geologists do for fun: they took organized field trips to look at local rocks. Among these trips was a tour of the Garden of the Gods Natural Landmark in Colorado Springs, which sounds quite nice, except for one thing: it was organized by a team of young earth creationists who were attending the meeting, and they didn’t tell anyone. They were quite careful to hide their agenda.

Many attendees seemed unaware of the backgrounds of the five trip co-leaders: Steve Austin, Marcus Ross, Tim Clarey, John Whitmore and Bill Hoesch. Austin is probably the most well-known; he is chair of the geology department at the Institute for Creation Research, which describes itself as the “leader in scientific research from a biblical perspective, conducting innovative laboratory and field research in the major disciplines of science.” Austin has been very active in promoting a Noah’s Flood interpretation of the geology of the Grand Canyon.

Ross is a former Discovery Institute fellow, currently an assistant professor of geology at Liberty University in Virginia (the self-proclaimed largest Christian university in the world). The University of Rhode Island granted him a doctorate in geology in 2006 even though he professed that Earth was at most 10,000 years old. Clarey is a geology professor at Delta College, a community college in Michigan. Whitmore is a geology professor at Cedarville University, a liberal arts Christian college in Ohio. Hoesch is a staff research geologist with the Institute for Creation Research.

During the trip, the leaders did not advertise their creationist views, but rather presented their credentials in a way that minimized their creationist affiliations. Austin introduced himself as a geologic consultant. Hoesch said he worked “in a small museum in the San Diego area” (referring to his job as curator of the Creation and Earth History Museum in Santee, Calif., which was founded by the Institute for Creation Research and is now operated by the Light and Life Foundation). Likewise, Whitmore did not offer that Cedarville’s official doctrinal statement declares, “We believe in the literal six-day account of creation” and requires that all faculty “must be born-again Christians” who “agree with our doctrinal statement.”

This is deeply dishonest and cowardly. The clear presentation of a hypothesis is essential to doing good science; no rational scientist writes a presentation or paper in which he or she simply lists a bunch of observations, and then asks the audience to guess what he’s arguing about. If you’ve got a controversial hypothesis, you state it, you give your evidence, and then you listen and try to rebut challenges to your idea; you expose yourself to criticism, so that ideas are either discarded or strengthened. Austin, Ross, etc., were afraid to face a counter-argument.

Even more despicably, they then went home and crowed triumph, claiming that they had persuaded the scientists.

As the conference started, Whitmore and four of his colleagues, including Cedarville adjunct professor Steve Austin, Ph.D., took the Cedarville students and 40 other geologists on a field trip to Garden of the Gods near Pike’s Peak, Colorado. During the trip, the Cedarville leaders talked about alternative views for how the rocks formed, emphasizing short time spans and catastrophic formation of the rocks rather than slow formation over millions of years.

“The experts were skeptical,” said Whitmore, “but in the end, they conceded that the rocks we examined were deposited quickly and were deposited in water. We let the data speak for itself.” Whitmore also said the Cedarville students interacted positively with others holding opposing viewpoints. A peer-reviewed scientific paper was published describing the field trip stops and the new interpretations regarding the sites they visited.

They lied by implication. I’m sure many of the attendees on that field trip would be dismayed to hear that their authority is being used to endorse the patently ridiculous claim that the earth is less than 10,000 years old.

Joe Meert also attended that same conference, and attended a talk by Marcus Ross. Ross is the fellow who got his degree from the University of Rhode Island for work on the distribution of mosasaurs in the Cretaceous — over 65 million years ago — while simultaneously claiming at creationist church meetings that the earth was young. He did the same thing here, presenting a credible science talk about “using ammonites as a correlation tool to put his mosasaur fossils in a stronger temporal framework”. His entire talk was about putting the data together to confirm the timing to many millions of years ago! So Meert confronted Ross directly in the Q&A.

After his talk, I asked the following question; “How do you harmonize this work with your belief in a 6000 year old earth on which a year long global flood took place?”. He was immediately flustered and then a bit tersely replied “My talk had nothing to do with a global flood or a 6000 year old earth so your question is irrelevant”. I then pointed out the fact that indeed his talk was completely counter to his public statements/creationist position because he showed correlation between strata/fossils, millions of year ages, evolution of mosasaurs and hiatuses in the rock record. He then replied (and I am paraphrasing to the best of my recollection) “Ok, for everyone in the audience who doesn’t know it, yes I am a young earth creationist who believes the Earth is 6000 years old and a global flood took place. However, I am not speaking as a young earth creationist here. When I speak at young earth creationist meetings I use a different framework than when I speak at the Geological Society of America meeting.”

Shorter Marcus Ross: I am a hypocrite and a liar.

I’m sure that the creationists will cry that he had to do this, because science defends a dogmatic orthodoxy and won’t let them speak otherwise. This is totally false. If someone wants to defend heterodox ideas, they should state them openly, not hide them and present theories they do not believe so they can acquire false authority in a field, as Ross tries to do, or so that they can lie and pretend that they had convinced an audience, as Austin did.

And that’s all Marcus Ross is trying to do. He’s trying to build up credibility by presenting all of the data and interpreting it in a rational framework (he learned something at URI!) at scientific meetings, only so he can turn around and spend that reputation to endorse laughable absurdities at creationist meetings. It is contemptible.

The hubba-hubba theory of human evolution

Not again. Oh, no, not again. It’s more garbage from the Journal of Cosmology, with an article titled Sexual Consciousness: The Evolution of Breasts, Buttocks and the Big Brain. Hang on a moment before you click to rush over there, though. Here’s the abstract:

As first proposed and detailed by Joseph (1992a, 1993, 1996, 2000a,b), the evolution of human consciousness is directly related to the evolution of human female sexuality and full time sexual availability signaled by the evolution of a permanent enlargement of the female breasts and buttocks thereby mimicking the signs of estrus in other primates, and her ability to choose her sex partners. When females became fully bipedal the breasts expanded in size, mimicking the patterns of the buttocks, thereby signaling to males and females alike her sexual availability when walking on two legs and standing upright. Through sexual selection breasts and buttocks expanded in size and became the norm. Female sexual choice served to weed out the most brutal, frightening, and less intelligent males who were denied opportunities to breed, whereas continual sexuality receptivity motivated male possessiveness and a willingness to provide females and her offspring with meat and protection on a full-time basis; all of which led to and corresponded with the establishment of a semi-permanent home base heated by fire and the first hearths for the cooking of food which became easier to chew thereby allowing the jaw to decrease in size. Coupled with improved nutrition and female sexual preference for the more intelligent males who would provide for her, the cranium and the brain increased in size. Female sexual choice also contributed to the evolution of an enlarged male penis which could also be easily viewed when standing upright. The female pelvis also increased in size to accommodate the birth of big brained babies, and which resulted in a permanent enlargement of the female hips and buttocks. With the evolution of breasts, buttocks, the big brain, and human intelligence, sexual consciousness evolved, and human females began mirroring the signs of estrus in other primates by inventing and applying cosmetics and perfume to their bodies. Males were also becoming domesticated, civil society began to evolve, and modern human consciousness emerged–a direct consequence of the first sexual revolution and the liberation of female sexuality. This article is a review of the evidence and theories first proposed and published by Joseph.

Before you look, a warning: it’s an article full of soft-core porn (literally—they look like a random assortment gathered from google with safe-search off) photos of women and chimpanzees in estrus. The photos are entirely gratuitous; there’s no data gathered from them, they often aren’t even referenced in the text, they’re just freely sprinkled throughout. Women have large breasts! And whoo-eee, look how big they are! And now here’s a gelada baboon in heat just so you know this is serious zoology.

Here’s an example of the level of sober science presented here.

The human female is the sexiest female on the planet, and she continually signals this fact as she has evolved an enlarged derriere and prominent breasts which remain swollen even when she is not pregnant, lactating, or sexually aroused. Those swollen breasts, and posterior protuberance, her buttocks, have been driving males wild with sexual desire for over half a million years.

This passage is followed immediately by some cheesecake of two nearly naked (one is wearing garter belt and stockings, admittedly) women posing next to a bright red car.

And there you have it, the totality of Joseph’s theory, which is his and he’s welcome to it: human women are really, really sexy — they are also multi-orgasmic and sexually insatiable — and this has driven the evolution of the big male brain, and also, our penises (“the human female is aroused by the sight of the male penis and the bigger the penis, the more aroused she becomes”). Unfortunately, he fails to present any evidence that intelligence is linked to sexiness, or even that human females are even sexier to human males than female rabbits are to male rabbits, or female cockroaches to male cockroaches. I mean, sure, you can make me drool by showing me pictures of lovely naked women, but so what? The scent of a female cat in heat has an even more dramatic effect on the local tomcats, but you don’t see them using tools and writing sonnets.

i-cbfcd95478975ee8fa0f9926b5900309-martians_love_earth_women.jpeg

Maybe his thesis would have been better supported if he’d shown this data: that even alien monsters from another planet are driven mad with horniness at the sight of scantily clad Earth women. It’s no worse than any of the other ‘evidence’ he flashes at us for his hypothesis.

Maybe he needs to get together with James Watson to refine his ideas.

Is your cell phone cooking your brain?

The World Health Organization had a recent meeting in which the feeble data suggesting a possible link between cell phones was reworked and massaged, and have now come up with a press release in which they announce that maybe possibly cell phones could increase the frequencies of certain kinds of cancers. My doubts are massive. My willingness to accept this conclusion is not helped by arguments like these.

“What microwave radiation does in most simplistic terms is similar to what happens to food in microwaves, essentially cooking the brain,” Black said. “So in addition to leading to a development of cancer and tumors, there could be a whole host of other effects like cognitive memory function, since the memory temporal lobes are where we hold our cell phones.”

Is anyone out there really chatty? Could you call up my microwave breakfast burrito and yak at it for a while? How long do you think it will take, I’m getting hungry?

That is simply sensationalistic nonsense. No, your cell phone doesn’t cook your brain. When was the last time you saw someone with a cell phone burn on their face? “Cooking” has rather more obvious effects than the kinds of subtle, difficult-to-detect, epidemiological results the press release describes. There could be a real effect — you are, after all, holding a small transmitter of electromagnetic radiation right next to your skull — but previous studies have been all over the map and lack any consistency, but generally fall on the side of no observable effect. People have done things like stick cell phones on top of petri dishes of cultured human cells, and nope, the cells don’t cook, they live and thrive just fine, and most studies report no change in cellular activity (some have reported a slight increase in activity).

Maybe this one, representing a coalition of many researchers in many countries gathering together to share data, has finally found a smoking gun? I don’t know. One problem here is that all we’ve got is a brief press release, no data, with a promise of a scientific paper to be published in The Lancelet Oncology in a few days. Here, almost nothing is reported: they have a one paragraph conclusion.

The evidence was reviewed critically, and overall evaluated as being limited among users of wireless telephones for glioma and acoustic neuroma, and inadequate to draw conclusions for other types of cancers. The evidence from the occupational and environmental exposures mentioned above was similarly judged inadequate. The Working Group did not quantitate the risk; however, one study of past cell phone use (up to the year 2004), showed a 40% increased risk for gliomas in the highest category of heavy users (reported average: 30 minutes per day over a 10‐year period).

“Limited” and “inadequate” are the strongest words they use to describe their own data. They mention one study with the strongest effect…in other words, they highlight the outlier. That’s odd and makes me instantly suspicious.

Also, I recognize those numbers: this is a reworking of the INTERPHONE study from last year, in which the final conclusion was that there was no credible evidence of a cancer risk. What happened? Why has their assessment changed? There is no explanation. That study had methodological problems that an epidemiologist for Nature summarized this way:

“There are standard criteria for assessing whether data from epidemiological studies show causality or not,” says Swerdlow. “The results for this study don’t get close to passing the standard tests for whether the results show causation.”

I’m going to agree with Orac on this one: not very likely. Show me some new evidence, maybe I’ll change my mind.

We’ve settled what you are, now we’re just haggling over the price

The scientific animation company, XVIVO, has had their work ‘appropriated’ by creationists before, and I hate to say it, but there is a reason for it. Although their animations of cellular and molecular processes are spectacular and beautiful, they are also annoyingly purposeful: they show tubulin making a beeline across microns of distance to assemble a microtubule, for instance, while kinesins stride determinedly down the cytoskeleton. There isn’t the slightest hint of the stochastic nature of the biochemistry, and they are seriously misleading in that sense — which, no doubt, is why creationists love them so much.

Now XVIVO is really pushing the edge. They are a commercial company, and they have to do this work to make money, but they have accepted a commission from Deepak Chopra to create an animation showing how “healing visualization” can “enhance the immune system’s response to cancer”. It shows no such thing, of course. It seems to show macrophages devouring cancer cells, then blue lymphocytes all zooming in towards an antigen presenting cell and getting energized (they glow on the inside!), and then swooping off in a squadron to touch red cancer cells, which promptly wither and die.

Once again, we have the trademark purposeful, directed cells of all XVIVO productions, but this time I guess we’re supposed to imagine magical meditation auras controlling the biochemistry.

Bleh. Sell-outs.

I guess even Psychology Today has limits

Among the many reasons that I detest evolutionary psychology, one has a name: Satoshi Kanazawa. He has a blog on Psychology Today called The Scientific Fundamentalist, and earlier he published this charming article: Why Are Black Women Rated Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?. Don’t bother trying to follow the link, the article has mysteriously disappeared from the site…although you can still find a copy here, if you really must.

I’m a little surprised that it’s gone. After all, Psychology Today had no problem with his loving look at American politics in which he wanted Ann Coulter for president, because she would have nuked the Middle East on 12 September 2001. That’s just the kind of guy he is.

In order to make his determination that black women are ugly, he draws on The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health) which I now learn to my surprise has a subjective component in which the people doing the survey make judgments about the subjects’ appearance.

Add Health measures the physical attractiveness of its respondents both objectively and subjectively. At the end of each interview, the interviewer rates the physical attractiveness of the respondent objectively on the following five-point scale: 1 = very unattractive, 2 = unattractive, 3 = about average, 4 = attractive, 5 = very attractive. The physical attractiveness of each Add Health respondent is measured three times by three different interviewers over seven years.

Good grief…shades of Francis Galton! For those of you who don’t know, creepy old man Galton ogled women and judged them for looks.

I may here speak of some attempts by myself, to obtain materials for a “Beauty Map” of the British Isles. Whenever I have occasion to classify the persons I meet into three classes, “good, medium, bad,” I use a needle mounted as a pricker, wherewith to prick holes, unseen, in a piece of paper, torn rudely into a cross with a long leg. I use its upper end for “good”, the cross arm for “medium,” the lower end for “bad.” The prick-holes keep distinct, and are easily read off at leisure. The object, place, and date are written on the paper. I used this plan for my beauty data, classifying the girls I passed in streets or elsewhere as attractive, indifferent, or repellent. Of course this was a purely individual estimate, but it was consistent, judging from the conformity of different attempts in the same population. I found London to rank highest for beauty: Aberdeen lowest.

Because, as we all know, beauty is easily measured in a linear scale with no possibility of subjective bias (I say sarcastically). I’m quite pleased that no one in my family is a participant in Add Health, because I’d have to kick them out of my house when they came around. Same with Galton. Fortunately, his leering pseudo-statistical brain is now dust and slime.

Kanazawa is the kind of guy who looks at such shaky subjective evaluations, and without even considering the biases of these self-appointed judges, declares that

It is very interesting to note that, even though black women are objectively less physically attractive than other women, black women (and men) subjectively consider themselves to be far more physically attractive than others.

Wait a moment there…where in this study is the objective evaluation of attractiveness? Because Kanazawa can stack up a bunch of scores and make graphs does not mean that they have suddenly acquired the property of objectivity.

Can Kanazawa make his interpretations even worse? Yes, he can. He has a real talent for this. He generously concedes that, although black women are fat and blacks are less intelligent, their shortcomings in those areas, which are associated with the perception of beauty, are inadequate to explain why black women are so ugly, especially since black men are judged attractive, and lord knows, they have inferior IQs. But then, no loss: he also thinks Africans are too dumb to live.

It seems to have been purged from Psychology Today, but I suspect this article will soon find a happy home on the pages of Stormfront and other such aryan racist tripe.

And then there’s this idiocy:

There are many biological and genetic differences between the races. However, such race differences usually exist in equal measure for both men and women. For example, because they have existed much longer in human evolutionary history, Africans have more mutations in their genomes than other races. And the mutation loads significantly decrease physical attractiveness (because physical attractiveness is a measure of genetic and developmental health). But since both black women and black men have higher mutation loads, it cannot explain why only black women are less physically attractive, while black men are, if anything, more attractive.

That makes no sense. My ancestors, your ancestors, and Kanazawa’s ancestors were all African — we share mutations with all Africans from before the time our European and Asian ancestors left Africa, and those ancestors then accumulated new mutations at the same rate as the populations left behind in the ancestral homeland. We European/Asian folk inherited a subset of the totality of human genetic variation, but there’s nothing that implies Africans are or have been mutating faster than anyone else.

I know that not all evolutionary psychologists are this bad; more of them need to stand up and repudiate this bigoted clown and his ridiculous interpretations of sloppy data.

Mike Adams: pretentious git, slandering liar

Mike Adams, the cranky quack naturopath, has been exploring “the field of quantum physics” and “consciousness”. He says this in his silly pseudo-documentary, “The God Within”, after praising physicists and their selfless search for the truth, all while ghostly equations float by in the video. He does this a lot, panning over equations or showing stock photos of people standing in front of transparent sheets of glass with illegible scribbles all over them; but it’s obvious that he doesn’t actually understand math, knows nothing about physics, and is just holding this stuff up in front of his face like a witch-doctor’s elaborate mask. Ultimately, it turns out, he hates physics and wants to run away as fast as he can from its damnable consequences, all the while pretending to be a scientist.

The video isn’t really about quantum physics. What it’s about is that he read Hawking and Mlodinow’s book, The Grand Design (sorta — as he babbles about it, it becomes clear that he didn’t actually read much of it at all), and he’s very, very unhappy that Hawking is satisfied with the sufficiency of science and sees free will as an illusion. So his video is more like the bad book report by the sixth grader who skimmed a few chapters the night before it was due, only in this case the sixth grader also has video editing software and has stolen a lot of sciencey-looking clips to gussy up his pathetic efforts.

He claims that “conventional” physics is just like “conventional” medicine—its practitioners are all in a conspiracy of silence to refuse to admit the existence of anything beyond, like god or the mind. What he ends up doing is rejecting all of physics while parading about in his ignorance.

For instance, he defines the Copenhagen Interpretation as “Shut up and calculate, but don’t ask anything too spooky”, which I’m sure will be a surprise to the physicists. The theory of everything is trotted out as an example of hubris — apparently, Mike Adams think it is such an exhaustive goal that it will allow physicists to calculate the contents of hot dogs, rather than integrating all of physics.

The real distortions, the active lies that go beyond mere ignorance, take place later in the video, where Adams expresses his revulsion at the idea that there is no free will. Hawking does not believe in free will (neither do I, for that matter), but Adams goes further and claims that Hawking argues that there is no mind and no consciousness, either. I’ve read The Grand Design. I’ve got it on my iPad, and even did a search for those contentious terms. Mike Adams is making crap up.

Further, Adams claims that physics is all about enforcing an idea of absolute determinism, which will lead to a dystopian society in which all crimes are justifiable with the excuse that “we are just robots”, and all actions are absolvable…all said over a shot of a young thug pointing a handgun at the viewer.

He also claims that technology could allow us to try people for “pre-crime” — we’d just plug their brain into a machine and it would predict everything they would ever do, and you could get sent to jail for something you haven’t done. At the same time, life would be so cheap and valueless, that we could commit genocide without remorse — we’re mere biological animals, after all. And we’d do this while “calling it all scientific, and clutching Hawking’s books as if they were Bibles”.

As you might guess, Adolf Hitler makes an appearance, with The Grand Design crudely photoshopped into his hand.

None of this nonsense is in the book. There is no denial of consciousness or the mind, and there is no advocacy of the kind of cartoon determinism Adams invents. Here’s a relevant quote direct from the book that rebuts Adams’ bizarre claims.

It is hard to imagine how free will can operate if our behavior is determined by physical law, so it seems we are no more than biological machines and that free will is just an illusion.

While conceding that human behavior is indeed determined by the laws of nature, it also seems reasonable to conclude that the outcome is determined in such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make it impossible in practice to predict. For that one would need knowledge of the initial state of each of the thousand trillion trillion molecules in the human body and to solve something like that number of equations. That would take a few billion years, which would be a bit late to duck when the peron opposite aimed a blow.

Because it is so impractical to use the underlying physical laws to predict human behavior, we adopt what is called an effective theory. In physics, an effective theory is a framework created to model certain observed phenomena without describing in detail all of the underlying processes.

That’s near the beginning of the book, at the 14% mark, which also gives us an upper limit on how far Adams read.

Adams also claims that “Stephen Hawking is a strong proponent of denying people their humanity”, which again is nowhere in the book, is not even a reasonable interpretation of anything in the book, and sounds like blatant slander to me — and coming on top of outrageous assertions that Hawking’s ideas would be used to justify another Jewish Holocaust, is particularly vile.

But then, that’s Mike Adams all the way: a vile, lying moron.

Squid in space

The last mission of the space shuttle will contain a student-initiated experiment: a collection of bobtail squid embryos will be launched into space. Which is cool, I suppose. I like squid, I like space, I like science, I like student research, let’s just throw them all into one big tossed salad of extravagantly expensive tinkering.

So why am I so disappointed?

Because the experiment is so trivial and uninteresting. The squid Euprymna has a commensal relationship with the luminescent bacterium, Vibrio. Early in their development, special organs in the squid are colonized by the bacteria; the squid provides a privileged environment for Vibrio growth, the bacteria give Euprymna a glowing organ that is thought to camouflage itself when viewed from below against a moonlit sky. This is a really cool phenomenon that has engaged the interest of many researchers, and there is serious work being done on the genetics and development of the symbiosis.

But, you know, I’ve never seen any speculation that gravity is a significant factor in the interaction. There’s cilia, and there are secreted amino acids, there is a mucus trap, and there’s a venting process, but gravity? Why would that matter?

I suspect the experiment was chosen because it’s easy for the shuttle engineers and technicians. Load up some chambers with embryos, launch it into space where it will require minimal attention from the crew, assay the results, that is, the development of the light organ, when it returns to earth. The results don’t matter. NASA will check off an item on a list, and say, yep, we did experimental embryology on the shuttle, and we gave a little bit of space to a student research project.

And what will the results be? Most likely, the light organ will be colonized and develop perfectly normally, because there’s no reason to think that microgravity will affect it. Or there will be abnormalities, which could either be because delicate embryos do not take well to the abuse of a shuttle launch, so we’re seeing the effect of stress, or there will be some surprising peculiarity in development that suggests maybe microgravity does make a difference, but repeating and expanding the experiment to puzzle out what’s going on will be out of the question.

I get the impression that NASA is simply filling a quota of interdisciplinary research for PR purposes, with only a nominal investment in the project. I wish I could be more of a cheerleader for the combination of space and developmental biology, but I haven’t yet seen an engaging project that would actually help me understand anything. There’s good science that we do because we really want to find an answer, and there’s lazy science that we do just because we can. This is an example of the latter, I’m sorry to say.

Aaargh! Physicists!

I read this story with mounting disbelief. Every paragraph had me increasingly aghast. It’s another case of physicists explaining biology badly.

It started dubiously enough. Paul Davies, cosmologist and generally clever fellow, was recruited to help cure cancer, despite, by his own admission, having “no prior knowledge of cancer”.

Two years ago, in a spectacularly enlightened move, the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) decided to enlist the help of physical scientists. The idea was to bring fresh insights from disciplines like physics to help tackle cancer in radical new ways.

Uh, OK…I can agree that fresh insights can sometimes stimulate novel approaches. Cancer is an extraordinarily complex process, but maybe, just maybe, the scientists studying it are so deep in the details that they’re missing some obvious alternative avenue that would be productive to study. I can think of examples; for instance, Judah Folkman’s realization that inhibiting angiogenesis, the process by which cancers recruit a blood supply from healthy tissue, would be a clever way to attack cancers beyond just bashing the cancer cells themselves. But then, Folkman wasn’t ignorant of cancer…he came up with that strategy from a deep understanding of how cancers work.

So I’m doubtful, but prepared to read something that might be new and interesting…and then I read Davies’ suggestion. Gah.

A century ago the German biologist Ernst Haekel pointed out that the stages of embryo development recapitulate the evolutionary history of the animal. Human embryos, for instance, develop, then lose, gills, webbed feet and rudimentary tails, reflecting their ancient aquatic life styles. The genes responsible for these features normally get silenced at a later stage of development, but sometimes the genetic control system malfunctions and babies get born with tails and other ancestral traits. Such anomalous features are called atavisms.

Charles Lineweaver of the Australian National University is, like me, a cosmologist and astrobiologist with a fascination for how cancer fits into the story of life on Earth. Together we developed the theory that cancer tumours are a type of atavism that appears in the adult form when something disrupts the silencing of ancestral genes. The reason that cancer deploys so many formidable survival traits in succession, is, we think, because the ancient genetic toolkit active in the earliest stages of embryogenesis gets switched back on, re-activating the Proterozoic developmental plan for building cell colonies. If you travelled in a time machine back one billion years, you would see many clumps of cells resembling modern cancer tumours.

The implications of our theory, if correct, are profound. Rather than cancers being rogue cells degenerating randomly into genetic chaos, they are better regarded as organised footsoldiers marching to the beat of an ancient drum, recapitulating a billion-year-old lifestyle. As cancer progresses in the body, so more and more of the ancestral core within the genetic toolkit is activated, replaying evolution’s story in reverse sequence. And each step confers a more malignant trait, making the oncologist’s job harder.

I’m almost speechless. I’m almost embarrassed enough for Davies that I don’t want to point out the profound stupidities in that whole line of argument. But then, there’s this vicious little part of my brain that perks up and wants to leap and rend and gnaw and shred. Maybe it’s an atavism.

Please, someone inform Davies that Haeckel was wrong. Recapitulation theory doesn’t work and embryos do not go through the evolutionary stages of their ancestors. We do not develop and then lose gills: we develop generalized branchial structures that subsequently differentiate and specialize. In fish, some of those arches differentiate into gills, but those same arches in us develop into the thyroid gland and miscellaneous cartilagenous and bony structures of the throat and ears.

It’s better to regard embryos as following von Baerian developmental trajectories, proceeding from an initially generalized state to a more refined and specialized state over time. Limbs don’t reflect our ancient aquatic ancestry in utero, instead, limbs develop as initially blobby protrusions and digits develop by later sculpting of the tissue.

Sure, there is an ancestral core of genes and processes deep in metazoan development. But Davies seems to think they’re lurking, silenced, waiting to be switched on and turn the cell into a prehistoric monster. This is not correct. Those ancient genes are active, operating in common developmental processes all over the place. You want to see Proterozoic cell colonies? Look in the bone marrow, at the hematopoietic pathways that produce masses of blood cells. The genes he’s talking about are those involved in mitosis and cell adhesion. They aren’t dinosaurs of the genome that get resurrected by genetic accidents. but the engines of cell proliferation that lose the governors that regulate their controlled expression, and go into runaway mode in cancers.

But even if their model were correct (which is such a silly way to start a paragraph; it’s like announcing, “If the Flintstones were an accurate portrayal of stone age life…”), it doesn’t help. We don’t have tools to manipulate atavisms. We don’t see any genetic circuits that can be called atavistic. The Flintstones might have made record players out of rocks, but that doesn’t imply that the music recording industry can get valuable insights from the show.

Oh, well, I shouldn’t be so negative. I’m alienating possible sources of work here. I understand the physicists have encountered some peculiar results lately. Have they considered bringing in a biologist consultant with no prior knowledge of particle physics? I have some interesting ideas that might explain their anomalies, based on my casual understanding of phlogiston theory and ætheric humours.

The new palmistry

I am a gorgeous hunk of virile manhood. How do I know? I looked at my fingers.

Research has shown that men whose ring finger on their right hand is longer than their index finger are regarded as better looking by women, possibly because their faces are more symmetrical.

There is no link, however, between this finger length and how alluring women find a man’s voice or his body odour, the study found.

Guys, you may be looking at my picture on the sidebar and thinking there must be something wrong here…but no, I assure you, my right ring finger is distinctly longer than my right index finger, and I will waggle that in your face and tell you to ignore the schlubby, hairy, homely middle-aged guy attached to that hand — the fingers don’t lie.

Right now I know a lot of you fellows are staring at your hand, and some of you are noticing that you have a long index finger, a sure sign that you are a hideous beast, unlike me. And others have nice long ring fingers, and you get to join me in my club of attractive manly men, no matter what the rest of your body looks like. We’ll get together and make the ladies swoon.

Except, well…I’ve been looking at some of the data, and I’m distinctly unimpressed.

It’s not the idea that digit ratios vary, though: that looks to be well established, with observations first made in the 19th century that men have relatively longer ring fingers, while women have relatively longer index fingers. There does seem to be an entirely plausible (but small) side-effect of testosterone/estrogen on digit development. There is even some rather noisy looking data that suggests that we can use digit length ratios as a proxy for embryonic testosterone/estrogen exposure.

The problem, unfortunately, is that there seems to be a little industry of scientific palmists who are busily cross-correlating these digit ratios with just about anything, and I think they are drifting off into measuring random noise. It’s amazing what can get published in respectable journals, and subsequently get loads of attention from the press. Look at the methods for this study of attractiveness, for instance.

The team studied 49 Caucasian men aged between 18 and 33 years of age. They measured their finger ratio, got them to recite into a voice recorder, took a photograph of them with a neutral expression and got the non-smokers to wear cotton pads under their armpits for a day. The men were then evaluated for attractiveness, facial symmetry and masculinity by 84 women, and the results are published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Wow. Tiny little sample size, probably drawn from the usual limited population of college students, one straightforward objective measure (the digit ratio), and a subjective evaluation…and from this the authors try to infer a general rule. And sometimes they get a positive correlation with one thing, and no correlations with other things.

This is not only rather uninteresting, it’s also not very reliable. But it’s easy to do!

But wait, you might say, statistics is a powerful tool, and maybe those correlations are awesomely solid. This could be, so I went looking for papers that showed some of the data, so I could get a feel for how robust these effects were. Here, for example is a chart comparing number of the number of children to the ratio of index finger length to ring finger length (2D:4D ratio) for English men, where we’d expect low ratios to be a consequence of higher testosterone and therefore more virility, and for English women, where we’d expect a reversal, because fertile womanly women would of course have more estrogen. And it works!

i-8503b112c3131577f253e4a4c1fc90d7-digitratio1.jpeg

Look at the slopes of those lines, and they actually fit the prediction. But then…look at the actual data points, and I think you can see that knowing the length of the fingers of any individual tells you absolutely nothing about how many children they have. You can guess why: it’s because there are a great many factors that influence how fecund you are, and small variations in hormones are only going to be a tiny component of such decisions.

You may also notice the outliers. Look at that man with most womanly hands of the entire group, having a 2D:4D ratio of 1.1 — he also has the second largest brood of the whole sample, with 5 kids. And the woman with man-hands with ratio somewhere around 0.87? Four kids.

It’s also a good thing that these data are collected in two separate graphs, because if you put the men and the women on the same chart, they’d overlap so much that you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. While the sex difference may have been documented since the 19th century, it’s clearly not a big and obvious difference, and the overlap between the sexes is huge.

Or how about these data?

i-6306184888fb70c3bc4cf6c2e90a9252-digitratio2.jpeg

That’s the splat you get when you compare 2D:4D ratio in women against another classic magic number associated with attractiveness, the waist-hip ratio. A correlation emerges out of that mess, too, and it turns out that more estrogen exposure (as indirectly measured by looking at digit lengths) is correlated with relatively thicker waists. Sort of. I guess. Yeah, it’s statistics all right.

How these sorts of data are interpreted is to see them as suggesting the presence of sexually anatagonistic genes, that is, genes that respond to high testosterone with expression patterns that are beneficial to males, and genes that respond to high estrogen with expression that favorably biases morphology towards typically female variants. I can believe that such phenomena exist, and that doesn’t bother me in the slightest; what does, though, is this I’ve-got-a-hammer-so-everything-looks-like-a-nail approach, using an easily measured metric that is indirect and variable, and the neglect of the particular for the useless general. This is clearly a situation where testosterone/estrogen levels are only one relatively minor variable, and the more interesting factors would be allelic variations, genetic background, and social/cultural effects. But hey, we can measure fingers with calipers, easy, and then we can through questionnaires or easy, fast, noninvasive tests at a handy population, and look! Numbers! Must be science, then.

Except that we don’t really learn very much from it, other than that I’m really beautiful, despite what I actually look like.


Ferdenzi C,
Lemaître J-F,
Leongómez JD,
Craig Roberts SC (2011)
Digit ratio (2D:4D) predicts facial, but not voice or body odour, attractiveness in men.
Published online before print April 20, 2011, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2011.0544 Proc. R. Soc. B

Manning JT, Barley L, Walton J, Lewis-Jones DI, Trivers RL, Singh D, Thornhill R, Rohde P, Bereczkei T, Henzi P, Soler M, Szwed A. (2000) The 2nd:4th digit ratio, sexual dimorphism, population differences, and reproductive success. evidence for sexually antagonistic genes? Evol Hum Behav. 21(3):163-183.