The Human Story Retold Through Our Genes

Now there’s an ambitious title: Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived. It’s a substantial book, but I would have thought it would have had to be a bit longer to cover everyone, and really, a biography of every individual who ever lived would probably get a bit repetitious.

Fortunately, this isn’t a collection of actuarial tables and obituaries. It’s something much more useful: a description of how we know what we know about humanity, from the perspective of genetics, with a solid awareness of the limitations and capabilities of such an approach. That’s helpful — one of our big problems right now is the abuse of genetics by the ignorant to advocate for an impossibly deterministic and racist view of human history. This book counteracts that by describing the methodology accurately, and you’ll learn a lot by reading it. But don’t panic, it’s not a textbook — it does tell the stories and is a good read.

If you doubt me, a revised chapter has been made freely available, A New History of the First Peoples in the Americas, just for us provincial Americans (the full book has a far more global perspective). This one focuses on some of the historical and scientific controversies around efforts to pigeonhole American Indians into one ill-fitting racial category or another.

The idea that tribal status is encoded in DNA is both simplistic and wrong. Many tribespeople have non-native parents and still retain a sense of being bound to the tribe and the land they hold sacred. In Massachusetts, members of the Seaconke Wampanoag tribe identified European and African heritage in their DNA, due to hundreds of years of interbreeding with New World settlers. Attempting to conflate tribal status with DNA denies the cultural affinity that people have with their tribes. It suggests a kind of purity that genetics cannot support, a type of essentialism that resembles scientific racism.

The specious belief that DNA can bestow tribal identity, as sold by companies such as Accu-Metrics, can only foment further animosity—and suspicion—toward scientists. If a tribal identity could be shown by DNA (which it can’t), then perhaps reparation rights afforded to tribes in recent years might be invalid in the territories to which they were moved during the 19th century. Many tribes are effective sovereign nations and therefore not necessarily bound by the laws of the state in which they live.

When coupled with cases such as that of the Havasupai, and centuries of racism, the relationship between Native Americans and geneticists is not healthy. After the legal battles over the remains of Kennewick Man were settled, and it was accepted that he was not of European descent, the tribes were invited to join in the subsequent studies. Out of five, only the Colville Tribes did. Their representative, James Boyd, told The New York Times in 2015, “We were hesitant. Science hasn’t been good to us.”

Data is supreme in genetics, and data is what we crave. But we are the data, and people are not there for the benefit of others, regardless of how noble one’s scientific aims are. To deepen our understanding of how we came to be and who we are, scientists must do better, and invite people whose genes provide answers to not only volunteer their data, but to participate, to own their individual stories, and to be part of that journey of discovery.

A book about human genetics with a humanist perspective? That debunks 19th century dogma about race and intelligence? Yeah, it’s good. I’ve been trying to think of ways I could fit it into my already packed-full genetics course, or whether I could offer a non-majors course that incorporated it as a text.

But at least I can tell you all that you need to read it.

There will be a test. Not that I’ll be giving it, but rather that our entire culture seems to be testing you on this subject right now. You should read the book so you can answer it correctly.

Hooray for random mail deliveries!

It must be Christmas. Got a pile of packages in the mail all at once today, including some lab stuff (not shown).

I’m looking forward to Twilight of the Gods (maybe this weekend, if I’m a good boy and get my grading done), but does anyone know anything about the Theodora book? I’m always up for learning about Byzantine empresses, but this is one of those things where I didn’t request it, a prescient publisher just thinks I should take a look at it.

You’re telling me dinosaur reconstructions contain assumptions?

They do, and they always have. Here’s an interesting way to illustrate that: make reconstructions of modern animals as if we had no idea about the expected distribution of fat and other soft tissues. Here’s a baboon drawn from its bones while pretending ignorance of hair and lips and such unfossilized stuff:

This is from a book by John Conway, CM Kosemen, and Darren Naish, called All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. I’m going to have to add it to my list.

Unburying some Secrets: Peter Godfrey-Smith’s evolution of consciousness

This is a guest post by Joshua Stein, a doctoral student at the University of Calgary and @thephilosotroll on Twitter.

Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness is, like it’s subject, a strange animal. It is accessible to a broad and general audience; it also deals with a lot of technical literature in comparative psychology and philosophy of mind. I think the book can be deeply enjoyable for a broad lay-audience, but it is even better with a little bit of background and explanation of where Godfrey-Smith fits into the literature and what he’s saying about consciousness. I want to provide some of that background, to illustrate why this book is so interesting and show some colleagues in philosophy and psychology why the book should be regarded as a philosophical success.

There are some things about mind and consciousness that Godfrey-Smith takes for granted. The first is that we can study and discuss consciousness as an empirical issue. Most folks are probably familiar with the claim that “we can’t study consciousness” for some reason or other. The claim comes up an awful lot, even in some philosophical literature. (The most noteworthy advocate is the disgraced Colin McGinn.) I won’t get into the objections to this position, but it is basically set aside by most philosophers.

There are two approaches to evaluating minds; one is to look directly at the nervous system and extrapolate about how it works from the internal mechanisms, while the other is to look at how the organism behaves in the environment. There’s a long history around these two approaches, often regarded as in tension; it is increasingly common, though, to use both methods in order to a build a more satisfying theory. Godfrey-Smith uses both throughout the book: he’ll often discuss the ways he sees octopuses behave, and then shift to talking about mechanisms in the central and peripheral nervous system.

Godfrey-Smith uses the book as an opportunity to offer a rich, and technically sound, story about consciousness. There are two features that he discusses at length in the book, returning to them over and over, and these two features are pretty prominent in modern theories of consciousness. The first is that consciousness involves the integration of different sorts of sensory information (pp. 88-90); the second is that consciousness involves the temporal ordering of events (91-92), and allows those orderings to be made available in action.

Godfrey-Smith writes. “I see ‘consciousness’ as a mixed-up and over-used but useful term for forms of subjective experience that are unified and coherent in various ways.” (97) Unlike many contemporaries, Godfrey-Smith doesn’t offer a specific theory of consciousness; however, he does involve existing theories and shows how they play a role in discussing consciousness in radically different minds; obviously, in the book, he’s concerned with cephalopods.

There are some other features that show up in Godfrey-Smith’s story of consciousness that make the story so satisfying, but before I get to this, I think it is useful to note that the two prominent features play a part of an old philosophical tradition. The Anglophone philosophers David Hume and John Locke each came up with stories about what consciousness is that involved rich experience and temporal ordering, respectively.

For Hume, consciousness was about the vivid and integrated character of experience; an auditory experience isn’t a two-dimensional thing. It has pitch and timbre and tone, and there’s noise that has to be filtered out. Part of what it is to have a conscious experience of a piece of music is to experience the different dimensions of that piece, all laced together into a multidimensional sensory experience.

For Locke, consciousness was about the autobiographical constitution of identity; people are continuous over time and have a unified psychological story that extends back into their pasts, and includes certain features of possible futures. This gives us something like the temporal ordering feature.

Godfrey-Smith isn’t committal to any such view being decisive. Rather, he’s open to the possibility that both of these things are true of and involved in facilitating consciousness. His story rather illustrates that many of the inherited theories (now far more technical and closely aligned with certain findings in neuroscience and cognitive psychology) are mutually reinforcing in valuable ways.

Because Godfrey-Smith isn’t committed to a particular theory about consciousness, he’s open to pointing out how different theories illustrate different features of consciousness. One instance, present from the very beginning of the book, is the role of attention; an organism that attends to a feature of its environment for a period of time illustrates both features of consciousness (because they perceive the feature over time and integrate information about changes in that feature). He notes that this is common with octopuses who see and attend to him when he is diving to watch them; it comes up regularly in his anecdotes.

Initially, I wondered if Godfrey-Smith considered that attention is instrumental in a popular theory of consciousness (actually, the one I more-or-less subscribe to). He invokes things that look curiously like classic tasks in joint-attention (57-58), only performed by octopuses instead of children or chimpanzees; the giveaway that he’s taken this into consideration is his invocation of Jesse Prinz (91-91), whose 2012 book The Conscious Brain articulates and explores the attentional theory of consciousness.

Another feature is embodiment. While Godfrey-Smith expresses skepticism of a certain view of embodiment (74-75), he also gives a lot of the stock arguments for why embodied cognition is so important. For example, cuttlefish can’t process color visually (due to a lack of individuation in light receptors used for color vision) but still respond to differences in color in their environment through features in the skin; a version of this approach (though for object-vision and not color) has been used to develop vision substitutes for the blind. (80-81) Even as a skeptic about certain strong views of embodiment, Godfrey-Smith shows how many theories that focus on embodiment as something that shapes conscious experience get certain bits right.

I could go on with the various different features that Godfrey-Smith picks up and illustrates, but at that point I would risk summarizing a huge portion of the observations he makes in the book; it’s worth reading for yourself to see how these different elements fit together and provide a broad and interesting theory of consciousness.

The last point I want to make, which is of special interest to readers here familiar with PZ’s various criticisms of evolutionary psychology, is something that I think Godfrey-Smith does particularly well.

One way of criticizing a lot of the literature in evolutionary psychology is that it puts together a specious “just-so story” about how certain features of the brain (and therefore the mind) evolved in ways that are not as responsive to things like the environment, interaction with conspecifics, and other features that we know (from developmental psychology) play a huge role in how any particular member of a species develops.

Claims about the evolutionary history of a particular behavior, for example, and selection pressures influence the development of tools and their prospective role in reproductive success (just google “sexy handaxe theory” if you’re wondering what I’m talking about) are difficult to evaluate, for both philosophical and scientific reasons, but Godfrey-Smith’s constant focus on the contemporary role of the various functions for octopuses (for example, the way that attention helps them to interact with their environment, or the way that peculiarities in the peripheral nervous system help in hunting) makes the story much more plausible, and much easier to evaluate, rather than focusing on the buried secrets.

The 2017 Hugo awards are out

The winners have been announced, and they are NK Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, Ursula Vernon, Amal El-Mohtar, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Marjorie Liu…hey, wait a minute, those are all lady names. Obviously, this must mean that women are genetically predisposed to write the best science fiction and fantasy. The evidence is right there! I’m sure the people who argue that existing sex differences in anything can’t possibly be caused by socio-cultural factors will agree because they hate that kind of stuff. They’re just going to have to acknowledge that women are biologically better writers.

Oh, there was the usual effort by the Sad/Rabid Puppies to get some of their nominees on the ballot, and they did have a few works they pushed — none of them won. Not even the transparent attempt to steal credit from good authors by naming them succeeded. They nominated, for instance, China Mieville, Neil Gaiman, and the movie Deadpool…they lost, too. I suspect there might be some weak negative effect, even, where attaching Vox Day’s recommendation to an otherwise good book causes some negative votes. Not that it matters; all the winners were rewarded fairly on their own merits.

One interesting twist: the Puppies, for some reason, really really hate Rachel Swirsky’s If you were a dinosaur, my love, which was nominated for a Hugo in a previous year. I like that story a lot, so I don’t quite get the hatred, but OK, they’re allowed…but this year they intentionally went looking for an opposing story, something with dinosaurs in it, so they could simultaneously sneer at both Swirsky and Chuck Tingle. They picked Alien Stripper Boned From Behind by the T-Rex, by Stix Hiscock. You can’t hold that against Hiscock, though.

Hiscock also said she didn’t know anything about Beale, and seemed to be unaware (before the interview) that he was responsible for Alien Stripper getting on the ballot. She was a little hurt that he would use her novelette as a way to mock the Hugos, especially since it doesn’t seem like he’s even read it. (It’s possible Beale picked it specifically because of the Rabid Puppies’ hatred of the award-winning novelette If You Were A Dinosaur, My Love.) “I guess I’ll cry a little, laugh a little. But I’ll be ok. Jokes are pretty hilarious sometimes,” Hiscock said.

Still, Hiscock said it’s an honor to be nominated, even though she probably won’t be able to attend the ceremonies in Helsinki because of the expense. And even though Beale might’ve gotten Alien Stripper on the ballot due to sheer pettiness, the bank error is definitely in Hiscock’s favor. Book sales of Alien Stripper Boned From Behind by the T-Rex are through the roof.

It didn’t win, even though the author is a woman, and we now know that women naturally have superior writing skills.

But I ordered a Kindle copy of Alien Stripper Boned From Behind by the T-Rex anyway. It was free. The author seems nice. Besides, I’ve already read all the winners.

A.N. Wilson: stale, unoriginal, banal, cliché-ridden hack

It was a good weekend for fools. Someone tried to claim that manspreading was an anatomical feature of the male skeleton; a biological anthropologist slapped that nonsense right down. The alt-right continues to express their indignation at the idea that the Roman empire was ethnically and racially diverse; no less an expert than Mary Beard splattered that one, with an amusing amount of politeness and incredulity. Against all that, the appearance of yet another loon declaring that Charles Darwin was a fraud and evolution is wrong is comparatively mundane and routine, but I guess I’ll take a poke at it.

It’s an article written by a guy named A.N. Wilson, published in the Evening Standard. Wilson also publishes in the Daily Mail, so you kind of know where he is coming from. He declares that he has spent the last 5 years working on a book about Darwin, which is less of a mark of distinction than you might think — he previously wrote a biography of Hitler that was panned scathingly.

Novelists (notably Mann) and literary scholars (such as J P Stern) have sometimes managed to use a novel angle of approach to say something new and provocative about Hitler, the Nazis and the German people. However, there is no evidence of that here, neither in the stale, unoriginal material, nor in the banal and cliché-ridden historical judgements, nor in the lame, tired narrative style; just evidence of the repellent arrogance of a man who thinks that because he’s a celebrated novelist, he can write a book about Hitler that people should read, even though he’s put very little work into writing it and even less thought.

I have no idea of his status as a novelist, but apparently he thinks he can write a book about Darwin that people should read, even though he’s put very little work into writing it and even less thought. We know this because his little op-ed is a steaming pile of ill-informed garbage. His research seems to have consisted of scouring the creationist literature.

Funnily enough, in the course of my researches, I found both pride and prejudice in bucketloads among the ardent Darwinians, who would like us to believe that if you do not worship Darwin, you are some kind of nutter. He has become an object of veneration comparable to the old heroes of the Soviet Union, such as Lenin and Stalin, whose statues came tumbling down all over Eastern Europe 20 and more years ago.

You know, evolutionary biologists will all tell you that Darwin was a smart man who had a remarkably powerful insight, but that he was born over two centuries ago, lacked the biological background we now take for granted, and made a few mistakes himself. We can appreciate the great contributions he made to science without granting him godhood. Yet it’s common in the creationist literature to claim that ‘Darwinists’ worship the man in the same way they worship Jesus.

It’s also a common creationist trope to tie the contemporaries Darwin and Marx together (they also usually include Freud) in a kind of sympathetic magic — they lived at the same time! Marx’s communism collapsed! Therefore, Darwin’s evolution will also collapse! Any day now. Just you wait.

That was his first paragraph, and he’s already got everything wrong and is basically lying about the science. How can it get worse? Someone, hold his beer.

Darwinism is not science as Mendelian genetics are. It is a theory whose truth is NOT universally acknowledged. But when genetics got going there was also a revival, especially in Britain, of what came to be known as neo-Darwinism, a synthesis of old Darwinian ideas with the new genetics. Why look to Darwin, who made so many mistakes, rather than to Mendel? There was a simple answer to that. Neo-Darwinism was part scientific and in part a religion, or anti-religion. Its most famous exponent alive, Richard Dawkins, said that Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist. You could say that the apparently impersonal processes of genetics did the same. But the neo-Darwinians could hardly, without absurdity, make Mendel their hero since he was a Roman Catholic monk. So Darwin became the figurehead for a system of thought that (childishly) thought there was one catch-all explanation for How Things Are in nature.

Darwinism is exactly science as Mendelian genetics are. Darwinism: a rough pencil sketch of the process of biological change, written out with a few examples, that was subsequently greatly expanded with a century of more detailed work. Mendelian genetics: a rough pencil sketch of the process of inheritance, written out with a few examples, that was subsequently greatly expanded with a century of more detailed work. Contrary to Wilson’s implications, Mendelian genetics is a great oversimplification, important for getting us on the right track, but one of the early arguments against it was that it didn’t seem to apply to most of the patterns of inheritance we see. Mendel made mistakes, too: I can give you exceptions to all four of his “laws”. Mendel did not finish all of genetics. Trust me, every year I get a crop of students who think that because they understand the terms “dominant” and “recessive” and can draw a Punnett square, they fully understand genetics.

The comparison of Darwin and Mendel is actually apt: two guys who had a profound insight that established a scientific framework for understanding an important biological process that led to an explosion of research that refined and expanded upon their early observations. Also, evolution is no more going away than is genetics.

As for the canard that we don’t like Mendel because he was Catholic…bullshit. I play up the importance of Mendel and specifically address the revolution in thinking about inheritance that he discovered to my classes, and I’m a goddamned atheist. Meanwhile, Darwin spent most of his life waffling on the god question, decided he was an agnostic, and simply avoided ever addressing it in public — and I tell my students that Darwin was not an atheist. Religion just isn’t a factor here, and is more of a personal complication than a key component of our interpretation of their work.

OK, Wilson, keep the nonsense flowing.

The great fact of evolution was an idea that had been current for at least 50 years before Darwin began his work. His own grandfather pioneered it in England, but on the continent, Goethe, Cuvier, Lamarck and many others realised that life forms evolve through myriad mutations. Darwin wanted to be the Man Who Invented Evolution, so he tried to airbrush all the predecessors out of the story. He even pretended that Erasmus Darwin, his grandfather, had had almost no influence on him. He then brought two new ideas to the evolutionary debate, both of which are false.

Evolution was an inevitable theory — both Wallace and Darwin came up with the idea, and it is true that there were predecessors who came close. But for someone who “wanted to be the Man Who Invented Evolution”, Darwin was awfully reluctant. Sitting on your marvelous idea (and he knew exactly how important it would be) for 30 years is not exactly a symptom of ambition. Also, being eager to be fair to Wallace and giving equal credit to him to the Royal Society doesn’t fit Wilson’s characterization.

But most of those predecessors did not actually identify the central principle of evolution: that it is a property of populations, not individuals. Most of those others saw evolution as the product of individual striving, rather than shifts in the frequency of kinds of individuals in a population. That’s the insight that had people smacking their foreheads and wondering why they didn’t think of it before, because it was so obvious once you accepted that frame.

But what, pray tell, are Darwin’s two false ideas?

One is that evolution only proceeds little by little, that nature never makes leaps. The two most distinguished American palaeontologists of modern times, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge, both demonstrated 30 years ago that this is not true. Palaeontology has come up with almost no missing links of the kind Darwinians believe in. The absence of such transitional forms is, Gould once said, the “trade secret of palaeontology”. Instead, the study of fossils and bones shows a series of jumps and leaps.

Oh, please, this is another creationist trope: that punctuated equilibrium is anti-Darwinian, and that the “missing links” are missing. Gould and Eldredge were arguing that the pace of evolutionary change, and the infrequency of fossilization in small populations, would mean that most of the changes would be invisible to us. Every evolutionist groans at the words “missing links” because we don’t believe in them — every population is a gemisch of variation, speciation is complex and messy, and there is no single thread of change. The very idea is a betrayal of the key concept of evolution, of thinking in terms of populations.

When people talk of “missing links”, I just want to ask who, among the 7 billion people on Earth, do they think is the “missing link” to the population of Homo sapiens who will be living here in the year 2100? Do you think that if we dig around in 19th century graveyards we can find the skull of the missing link between Victorians and the Disco generation?

Hard-core Darwinians try to dispute this, and there are in fact some “missing links” — the Thrinaxodon, which is a mammal-like reptile, and the Panderichthys, a sort of fish-amphibian. But if the Darwinian theory of natural selection were true, fossils would by now have revealed hundreds of thousands of such examples. Species adapt themselves to their environment, but there are very few transmutations.

There are lots of transitional forms. Again, this is standard issue creationist bullshit, and blatantly so, of the type I was debating against in the 1980s.

And what is Darwin’s second grievous error?

Darwin’s second big idea was that Nature is always ruthless: that the strong push out the weak, that compassion and compromise are for cissies whom Nature throws to the wall. Darwin borrowed the phrase “survival of the fittest” from the now forgotten and much discredited philosopher Herbert Spencer. He invented a consolation myth for the selfish class to which he belonged, to persuade them that their neglect of the poor, and the colossal gulf between them and the poor, was the way Nature intended things. He thought his class would outbreed the “savages” (ie the brown peoples of the globe) and the feckless, drunken Irish. Stubbornly, the unfittest survived. Brown, Jewish and Irish people had more babies than the Darwin class. The Darwinians then had to devise the hateful pseudo-science of eugenics, which was a scheme to prevent the poor from breeding.

We all know where that led, and the uses to which the National Socialists put Darwin’s dangerous ideas.

OH GOD. THIS MAN IS WRITING A BIOGRAPHY OF DARWIN? Darwin did not propose that Nature was always ruthless. Darwin is the guy who also came up with the idea of sexual selection, and as Wilson has already pointed out, favored a more gentle, gradual pattern of incremental change (we even call it “gradualism” now). He was a man of his times, which were far more brutally racist than those ideas of Darwin’s — he was prejudiced, but he was relatively less so than many of his contemporaries. We can not excuse his biases, but when you call out the abolitionist and blame him for Nazism, while ignoring the whole damn edifice of Victorian-era colonialism and exploitation, I think you’re missing the mark.

Evolutionary theory did not lead to National Socialism — the Nazis despised Darwin, banned his books, and instead praised the church as a unifying moral force in the country. Look to Houston Stewart Chamberlain for a philosophical foundation of Hitler’s ideas — he hated Darwin. He loved Goethe.

Meanwhile, the Nazis admired the American policy of extermination of the Indians, which, unless you think Europeans waited until 1859 to begin the slaughter, was pre-Darwinian. Eugenics was only named by a Darwinian, but it had been practiced for millennia by farmers. This is just another creationist cliche that is anachronistic and wrong.

For a more balanced perspective, read Robert Richards’ Was Hitler a Darwinian (pdf), which is an excellent critique of this whole line of nonsensical thinking.

In order to sustain the thesis that Hitler was a Darwinian one would have to ignore all the explicit statements of Hitler rejecting any theory like Darwin’s and draw fanciful implications from vague words, errant phrases, and ambiguous sentences, neglecting altogether more straight-forward, contextual interpretations of such utterances. Only the ideologically blinded would still try to sustain the thesis in the face of the contrary, manifest evidence. Yet, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay, there is an obvious sense in which my own claims must be moot. Even if Hitler could recite the Origin of Species by heart and referred to Darwin as his scientific hero, that would not have the slightest bearing on the validity of Darwinian theory or the moral standing of its author. The only reasonable answer to the question that gives this essay its title is a very loud and unequivocal No!

Wilson apparently has not read any of the credible historical or scientific literature on Darwin, but that doesn’t stop him from scribbling up his biases into a whole book that someone is seeing fit to publish. This opinion piece is apparently an attempt to publicize that book (it’s coming out next month!), but it is bad PR for what is obviously going to be drivel. The good news is that Richard Evans will be able to change a few proper names and recycle his previous review of a Wilson book, which will make it easy: while some people could say something new and provocative about Darwin, “there is no evidence of that here, neither in the stale, unoriginal material, nor in the banal and cliché-ridden historical judgements, nor in the lame, tired narrative style”.

Don’t buy it, obviously.

If only we could all find the doorway in our hearts

I’m about to depart for the airport to pick up my best beloved and bring her back home after a week long absence, which means I’m going to be tied up with driving for the next six hours (it’s OK, it’s worth it). I’m going to recommend some reading for you while I’m occupied.

I was blown away by Every Heart A Doorway, by Seanan McGuire. It’s a genuinely original fantasy story that steals from a lot of familiar fantasy tropes. You know there are all these stories about kids who are magically transported to a strange and unfamiliar world, like Narnia or Oz or Wonderland? What if this was a relatively common occurrence, with many strange worlds that are much weirder or scarier than the familiar fantasy lands? And most importantly, what happens to the children who have been shaped in their formative years by alien places with inhuman residents?

That’s the focus of the story: these children would be really different, with a different sense of self and different yearnings and different behaviors, and they’ve returned to our culture, which can’t even deal with something as mundane and normal as gay kids. What you find is that most of the parents of these children can’t cope and want to somehow reshape and indoctrinate the children to be more ‘conventional’, causing all sorts of misery for everyone involved. The lucky ones find themselves at a school in this story, run by a woman who had stumbled through a portal to a fantasy land and returned, who now runs her home as a refuge for these strange children.

So the main character, Nancy, is ace, and this is a minor metaphor for her true strangeness, which is that she lived in a world of ghosts who disliked the business of the living, so she has learned to retreat into statue-like stillness. The character I identified with most was Jack, who was trained on a world of mad scientists and horrible experimentation. Jack, by the way, is a girl — try not to impose your gender expectations on any of the people in the book, because you’ll probably get them wrong, or at best will be focusing on irrelevancies.

Also don’t think that a school that favors tolerance and openness will be free of tension and conflict. The whole story is about the way all these different people, different to a degree much greater than anything we experience in everyday life, have to struggle to resolve those differences, and how unhappiness can find a home anywhere you let it.

It’s fabulously well-written and thoughtful — it’s not really escapist fare. It’s also the first in a series which I’m looking forward to. Also, this is not your usual fantasy story that inevitably gets drawn out into an overlong trilogy of ten books or whatever. The main characters in this one achieve resolution of their various conflicts, for good or ill (no spoilers, but for some there are no happy endings, and for others, what they consider a happy ending might not make you happy at all), and I think the next book will focus on different kids or different sides of the story. I don’t know! Isn’t that wonderful when you find a book that doesn’t always trundle down familiar tracks?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Too much Oprah

I watched the new HBO movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I hate to say it, but I didn’t much care for it. I very much liked the book, enough that I’ve made it assigned reading in some of my classes, but I wouldn’t use the movie in the same way. And, weirdly, what I consider a serious failing of the movie is considered a strength by other reviewers. Here’s Variety, for instance:

The HBO movie about this trio [Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, and Deborah Lacks] makes only one of the women truly memorable, but it’s worth seeing in order to witness Oprah Winfrey give one of the best performances of her career. Winfrey is mesmerizing as Deborah Lacks, whose quest to connect with the history of her mother, who died when she was a baby, forms much of the spine of Skloot’s book. (Henrietta’s cancer cells were unusually hardy, and became the source of the kind of useful cells that labs need in order to perform key biological experiments.)

See that last sentence? That covers in its entirety all of the science in the movie, completely. If you want to learn more about HeLa cells and their history and use in the laboratory, it’s not here. If you want to learn more about Henrietta Lacks, there are a few brief vignettes scattered here and there, but otherwise, it’s not here. If you want to learn more about the ethics (or lack thereof) of biomedical research, it’s alluded to, but otherwise, it’s not here. This is all about Oprah and her Emmy-deserving performance.

It’s not just me. Vulture, USA Today, The Ringer, LA Times, Time, and basically everyone who has reviewed it, says the same thing: Oprah was excellent, and she stole the show. I agree. But I think that’s a shame.

If you want to see a movie with some fine acting, with an impressive character study, with a singular character who sucks all the air out of the room when she’s on screen (which she is, most of the time), then The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO is the show for you, enjoy it for what it is. If you want a richer, more complicated story of the intersection between science and culture and how it affects one larger family, then read the book…which, I notice, is out in a new edition with a new cover that replaces the photograph of Henrietta Lacks with a close-up of Oprah, and that’s a perfect metaphor for the movie.

I don’t wanna make book recommendations

It’s that time of year when I think everyone got Amazon gift cards and then they go asking me to make book recommendations. It’s hard. Writing a science book is even harder. And there are a lot of bad science books out there.

One problem is that everyone wants the shortcut: there’s a hot new science topic, lots of people are curious about it, they want to know more, the publishers see an opportunity, so they commission a flashy pop sci book that will sate that curiosity. And it’s garbage, because it’s written by people who don’t know the basics, or because it’s written for people who want to hear that the answer is magic. Case in point: there are no good popular books about epigenetics right now, as far as I can see. If it’s got “epigenome” in the title, just scratch it right off your list. This may change, I hope it will change, but it’s an example of a topic where the situation is rather dire. That’s unfortunate, because it’s an important topic.

At the other extreme, there are the textbooks. There is a reason that textbooks exist, and it isn’t just the venality of publishers and the conservative nature of professors: they are dense repositories of basic knowledge. My genetics class uses Klug’s Concepts of Genetics, it’s not light reading, and to get the most out of it you should actually sit down and do the problems at the end of each chapter. Does that sound like fun? How does the $196 price tag sound to you?

There is a sweet spot in popular science writing where the author manages to simultaneously explain the basics and get them right, while also getting the big picture explained in an interesting way. Carl Zimmer consistently hits that target, Sean B. Carroll is good, Adam Rutherford’s Creation does a fine job of covering biotech and the origin of life, Nick Lane is always amazing. The microbiome was one of those buzzwords that spawned a lot of crap books, like the word “epigenetics” now, but Ed Yong rose above the dross and came out with a good general science book on the subject.

But it’s still really difficult to address requests for recommendations. Usually it’s because someone wants an answer that they can digest in a couple of days of light reading, and often, that can’t be done.

The correct answer is that what you need to do is register at the University of Minnesota and sign up for my classes. I’ll whip you into shape in 15 weeks of harsh discipline.

Tom Wolfe’s great contribution to literature

Wolfe wrote this execrable book in which he denied evolution, among other very silly things. It was simply entirely wrong and built on a foundation of shoddy scholarship and vainglorious ignorance.

But I do have to credit him with one thing: he has inspired some of the most entertaining book reviews ever. I haven’t seen stuff like this since Twain’s review of Fenimore Cooper. Go enjoy EJ Spode’s review of The Kingdom of Speech.