Reminder: I’m answering questions at 11am Central time today

Today I’m going to answer some patron/reader questions:

• Viruses replicate? Does that mean they mutate in infected people, too?
• Given the choice between a vaccine that stops spread but does nothing to reduce lethality and a vaccine that allows spread but eliminates lethality, what would be a better strategy for us?
• Hey, what about that old germ layer theory? It’s 205 years old, is mesoderm still a thing?

I’ll also try to answer any other questions that come up.

For a grand finale, today is the day I nuke my Facebook account. It won’t be too exciting: click, click, click, click, click, click (etc.), it’s gone. At least, it better not be exciting, I won’t be too happy if the Facebook police show up at my door.

Iä! Iä! Teilhard de Chardin fhtagn!

I knew it. For years I’ve seen the “dinosauroid” trotted out as an illustration of how dinosaurs could have evolved, if only that little space rock hadn’t messed up their progression. To me, it was symptomatic of a deplorable strain of teleological thinking in biology, and I thought it was totally bogus from the first glance.

Why would anyone think a coelurosaur would gradually converge on an anthropoid form? So much of our morphology is a consequence of variations in our ancestors — ancestors that would not have been shared with dinosaurs. Yet here is this imaginary beast with ape-like details. How would it have acquired those?

Darren Naish has tracked down the history of this bizarre mannequin, and I am totally not surprised: we can blame Teilhard de Chardin, who had a pernicious influence on Dale Russell, the scientist who built it.

I’m confident that another factor contributed to the construction of the dinosauroid, but it’s something more controversial than everything discussed so far and is also harder to establish with any degree of certainty. I think that Dale Russell’s specific personal views on the nature of the universe and the position of humans within it played a role in everything that happened.

We know from the recollections of his colleagues that Dale Russell was religious, with an active spiritual life committed to Catholicism. We also know from statements made by Robert Bakker and others who discussed religion with him that Russell was fond of the ideas of Jesuit priest and palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin (Campagna 2001, p. 7, Noble 2016, p. 41). Chardin (1959) argued for a directionality in evolution, that humans represent a point close to (but not at) the pinnacle of evolution, and that a humanoid stage was inevitable for those organisms approaching evolution’s final stage. Add to this the fact that Russell stated in correspondence his idea that “the human form might be a natural target for selective pressures” (as Russell wrote to anthropologist Noel Boaz in August 1984), and his implication – made several times in interview – that humans (and, by extension, other humanoids) are not simply additional animals (Russell 1987, p. 130, Psihoyos & Knoebber 1994, p. 252). We’re talking here about what’s been called the ‘inevitable humanoid proposition’, a concept often linked both to religiosity and to an anthropocentric view of the universe.

My personal opinion is that the dinosauroid was not, then, the honest experiment in speculative evolution that some authors have implied (e.g., Losos 2017; reviewed here at TetZoo). Instead, Russell had already decided that he wanted to showcase the possibility that human-shaped non-humans were ‘inevitable’, and that they might have a special place in the design of the universe.

Do not, under any circumstances, ever try to read Teilhard de Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man. I did, and it was the closest real-world experience to the horror movie trope of reading the Necronomicon aloud in a cabin in the woods. It contains damnable prose and arcane leaps of logic that defy rational thought. It is infuriatingly stupid.

You’re all going to try and read it now, aren’t you?

Before you throw yourself into that pit of madness, at least read Peter Medawar’s review. Be forewarned. Make sure you have a chainsaw and a shotgun near at hand.

What’s weird, though, is how so many discussions of this idea are gentle, almost apologetic in addressing Teilhard de Chardin’s and Dale Russell’s strange religious bias. Don’t take this stuff seriously — it’s Time Cube level of wrong, pure garbage in defiance of the scientific consensus with no evidence to support their interpretation. Worse, that delicacy in treating the teleological imperative has had some embarrassing influence — Carl Sagan’s worst book, The Dragons of Eden, was rife with it.

Also infected with the Teilhard de Chardin disease: Simon Conway Morris. The tentacles of that mad Frenchman extend everywhere, bringing insanity to all who view them.

A libertarian perspective on science funding

What a bizarre Twitter conversation. I have stirred up the Aubrey de Grey cultists who have been arguing at me that de Grey and his SENS foundation are doing great work and must be supported. When I ask why, there’s one point they constantly bring up: he recently got $25 million dollars of funding! Therefore, it must be worthy work.

If he’d received funding from NIH, then yeah, I’d be predisposed to suspect that there must be some core ideas that survived peer review by qualified scientists (peer review is not perfect, I hasten to add…it’s just better than no peer review). However, that $25 million came from some cryptocurrency donations called “Pulse Chain Airdrop, whatever that is, not scientific review, and all of the funding is coming from wealthy donors who have no scientific qualifications at all. So they’re trying to tell me that it is an unmitigated good that billionaires are supporting science — my concern is that this is about billionaires dictating what science gets done.

And then, this jaw-dropping statement:

As long as the scientists being paid to do the research are capable and knowledgeable, the scientific literacy of the funders themselves are pretty irrelevant.

Also realistically, the funders likely do understand the research on a basic level, otherwise, why would they find it?

Two points:

Scientists aren’t employees being paid to achieve a specific goal by a wealthy patron. This is a disastrous approach to funding science, especially since they admit that the scientific literacy of the people holding the purse strings is irrelevant. Right now science funding is weakly isolated from the ignorant with power; congress gives a block of money to scientific institutions that then determine by peer review how it is disbursed. Relying on authoritarian rich people to decide what science is worth pursuing is a huge step backwards.

I doubt the funders actually understand the research. Why would they fund it? Because some charismatic gomer promises them that their money will work to help them live forever. They don’t know how, but the con artists are good at babbling sciencey words. It is such a naive assumption that rich people only spend money on things they understand at a “basic level”, especially when you realize that Jeff Bezos is rumored to own a $400 million dollar yacht (at least, someone owns that beast). $25 million is a crumb, and for that, we want to allow billionaires to dictate what science should be done?

I think I spy a libertarian non-scientist who thinks expertise is irrelevant.

The morning harvest

Never,ever dust or clean, that’s my motto. We looked over our neglected sun room and garage, and look what we found:

That’s a Parasteatoda egg sac, which probably contains between 20 and 100 spider embryos.

But that’s not all. We collected seven egg sacs and 4 fertile mamma spiders, all from two rooms in my house, and now sitting in vials while I anxiously await the Hatchening. Which will probably occur next week.

I’m kind of dreading this — it’s like everything happens all at once, and then I’ve got a gigantic swarm to maintain. I better set up some more fly bottles today, they’re born hungry.

Respect the Appalachians

They’re old. The reason that they’re not as craggy and tall as the Rockies or the Himalayas or even the Cascades is because they’ve been eroding for 480 million years. Follow this Twitter thread for an entertaining geology lesson.

If only the rest of Twitter could be that informative!

We’re going to the Moon again?

While all the headlines have been about the ego-trips of a trio of billionaires, it seems I failed to notice the substantive plans of an international coalition of space agencies. They have some ambitious goals for the coming decade.

Among the different initiatives:

  • The first launch of the SLS is slated for this year, with a human landing on the moon earmarked for 2024. NASA has christened this new wave of lunar exploration its Artemis program.
  • Russia and China have recently announced a similar collaborative effort. They plan to build the International Lunar Research Station somewhere on the moon. The hope is to have human visitors by the mid-2030s.
  • The European Space Agency (ESA) has started Project Moonlight, an effort to build a constellation of satellites around the moon for navigation and communications.

Some observers have spoken of a “second space race” pitting the United States against China and Russia.

“I think that’s alarmist rhetoric; it has a lot of baggage,” says Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. “The previous space race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was an outright competition about being first. Now, it’s … about who’s going to have the best coalition of countries.”

The Artemis program seeks to lay down guiding principles for the civil exploration and use of space, starting with the moon but extending to Mars, asteroids, and comets. To date, 12 countries have embraced the Artemis Accords.

Russia and China, meanwhile, are inviting international partners to join them in their moon-base project.

Let the rich boys play with their toys — or rather, don’t, tax the space dilettantes and make them stop their stupid efforts at putting their stupid dicks into brief spurts of parabolic flight. This is the real deal: taking the effort to build scientific infrastructure in space, which could be a useful foundation for more science. Cooperative efforts by multiple nations to do science? Yes, please. I could support that. I think in the long run Space Socialism will be better and more productive than the current Space Capitalism. I will also be impressed if humans return to the Moon in — checks calendar — just two years? For real? Make it so.

Unfortunately, I do have some reservations, ala Gil Scott-Heron.

Francis Becenti

I have to temper that concern with the statement that all of science is a kind of luxury, an investment in long-term thinking, and you can always make a legitimate argument that we have more pressing problems to spend our money on. However, I also believe that it’s a worthy goal if it is done equitably, if all people have the opportunity to participate, and if the benefits are spread far and wide, rather than being a big funnel to drain more money into the pockets of the already wealthy, or an excuse for billionaires to mug for the camera.

I mean, really, the Republicans hate evolution so much they’ll kill everyone out of spite

If you’re looking for some fun summer beach reading, I can’t recommend this article, The origins and potential future of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern in the evolving COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a summary of the past year of the pandemic.

One year into the global COVID-19 pandemic, the focus of attention has shifted to the emergence and spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern (VOCs). After nearly a year of the pandemic with little evolutionary change affecting human health, several variants have now been shown to have substantial detrimental effects on transmission and severity of the virus. Public health officials, medical practitioners, scientists, and the broader community have since been scrambling to understand what these variants mean for diagnosis, treatment, and the control of the pandemic through nonpharmaceutical interventions and vaccines. Here we explore the evolutionary processes that are involved in the emergence of new variants, what we can expect in terms of the future emergence of VOCs, and what we can do to minimise their impact.

Oh, right, I really don’t want to hear about how “several variants have now been shown to have substantial detrimental effects on transmission and severity of the virus”, but they do, and it’s a worry. Here, for example:

So the reassuring (and unsurprising) fact is that the virus isn’t really being selected directly for lethality. Doesn’t that make you feel better? All the virus ‘cares’ about is increasing the number of viruses, of increasing the viral load, and it could do that by having milder effects on their host. The B.1.1.7 variant isn’t doing that. It is increasing the load in your cells with no ameliorating mutations, and so is having more severe effects.

In case you were wondering, B.1.1.7 is going by the common name of the Alpha variant. It’s not nice. At the end of that excerpt, it says a bit about the B.1.167.2 variant, which is even nastier, with 64% greater transmissibility. You probably know it better as the Delta variant, which is now the dominant strain in the US.

You know there are also Beta, Kappa, Theta, and Zeta variants, right? I can’t keep track of them all. I guarantee that more will be arising. Isn’t evolution amazing? If only we lived in a country where the power of evolution was appreciated.

The article tries to be encouraging in its conclusion.

As COVID-19 transitions from a pandemic to an endemic disease, VOCs present new global challenges to health by virtue of increased transmissibility and virulence and evasion of natural and vaccine-induced immunity. In this article we have explored the selective forces that shape how VOCs emerge and become established. We also identify possible steps that we can take to limit their emergence and, when they do arise, their impact. Moving forward, we must also consider how SARS-CoV-2 transmits to and amongst other animal species, placing both them and us at further risk. It will therefore be important to adopt a multidisciplinary One Health approach for future pandemic management that accounts for the interrelated nature of human, animal, and ecosystem health.

Oh, good, steps to limit the emergence and impact of variants…[quickly flips back a few pages to see what those are].

More broadly, we can reduce the rate of emergence of new VOCs and slow the spread of existing ones by reducing overall case numbers through vaccination at a global scale and by maintaining or enhancing the non-pharmaceutical interventions that have contributed to controlling the pandemic (case detection and isolation, contact tracing and quarantine, masking and personal distancing, and improved ventilation). Having low case numbers makes it easier to test and genotype a high fraction of cases and increases the efficacy of contact tracing measures to stop onward transmission. Furthermore, mathematical models predict that measures that reduce contact rates with susceptible individuals will not only slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 overall but will also reduce the relative advantage of variants that have a transmission advantage. Thus, the measures taken to reduce contacts and limit the number of COVID-19 cases may have the added benefit of slowing the rate at which VOCs with a transmission advantage overtake the wildtype. This predicted pattern, with selection weakening as stringency measures are increased, appears to be borne out in data for B.1.1.7 from England and British Columbia.

So, all we need to do is vaccinate everyone, keep wearing masks and maintain social distancing…how is that working out for you, America? It’s basic stuff, it’s all within our reach, but it’s Republican policy to deny every one of those actions. Keep it in mind that their policies aren’t just killing their constituents, they’re also increasing the likelihood of new variants that will harm non-Republicans, even in Democratic states, and even in foreign countries that want nothing to do with our contemptible politics.

To be fair, I shouldn’t blame only Republicans. My university is opening up in the fall with no vaccination requirement, and is debating reducing the social distancing requirement.

Oh no. Richard Lewontin has died

This is terrible news. He was so influential on my thinking about biology, personally.

If I had my way, one of his books would be required reading in our introductory biology course (we decide on books as a group, so no, I’m not in charge). My only problem would be picking which one?

Fortunately, I do have total control over your reading habits (I don’t want to know if that’s not true), so I shall command you all to run out and buy and read all of these to do honor to the man.

OK, if you are resisting my influence, pick at least one. The first two are slim books, short and easy; if I were to foist any book on my students it would probably be The Triple Helix. They’re all good, and they all represent a perspective that our society needs right now.