There’s a right way and a wrong way to oppose cruelty to animals

Here are the indisputable facts.

Mink are voracious carnivores. They eat small mammals, birds, fish, and frogs.

Mink are also playful, social animals with complex behaviors. They are wild animals, though, and don’t generally make good pets.

Mink farming is a deplorable practice in which animals are raised and butchered for their skins. The bodies are often ground up to make pet food.

These are all true statements, but they do set up a complicated ethical problem. What do you do with a mink farm in your neighborhood? I can tell you what you should not do, under any circumstances: you do not sneak onto the farm and release them all from their cages while singing “Born Free” and cheering them on as they scamper off to nearby farms, towns, wildlife refuges, and wilderness.

But somebody did that in Eden Valley, Minnesota. They freed 30,000 mink from a farm. You know what’s going to happen now, right?

Desperately hungry carnivores are going to radiate out, killing every small animal they can find. Rabbits and mice and birds are going to get hit hard; you might want to lock up your cats for a while, too. They won’t be particularly efficient at it, I suspect, since they’ve been raised in cages, so there will be some survivors. The mink are going to be competing intensely with each other for increasingly scarce food. They’re going to fight with each other, and most of them are going to starve to death.

It sounds like another PETA-inspired bit of ignorant fanaticism that does far more harm than good.

I’m not convinced that New Scientist gets it yet

Finally, they’ve come right out and said what we knew all along: most of our DNA has to be junk. I guess that’s progress, but they’re not doing a good job of explaining it.

After 20 years of biologists arguing that most of the human genome must have some kind of function, the study calculated that in fact the vast majority of our DNA has to be useless. It came to this conclusion by calculating that, because of the way evolution works, we’d each have to have a million children, and almost all of them would need to die, if most of our DNA had a purpose.

None of the biologists I know have been arguing for ubiquitous functionality, but I know they’re out there, so that’s kind of a strange opening: it’s as if the only way they know how to frame the story is as some kind of real conflict (see also every NS article about evolution vs. creationism). I don’t know where the 20 year timing comes from, either. JBS Haldane died 53 years ago, and he worked out this argument long before his death.

But worst of all, they just plop out this claim that we’d “each have to have a million children, and almost all of them would need to die, if most of our DNA had a purpose”. OK. Reading this as a naive layman, WHY? They present the conclusion with none of the evidence or logic behind it; there is no explanation here. The key part of the story that Dan Graur explained is that we know the mutation rate of human genes, and we can calculate the cost to the population of carrying around suboptimal genes, and we can estimate how many children you’d have to have to compensate for that load of mutations, and the load is going to depend on how many genes are present. It’s easy to put an upper bound on the number of genes we have, given our mutation rate and how many children an individual can have (hint: there’s no way you can have a million kids.)

The logic is clear and convincing, but you have to present it if you’re trying to communicate the science.

I feel like I’m grading an exam. Yes, you got the correct answer, but I’m not convinced that you understand how you arrived at it, and aren’t just regurgitating something you memorized.

It’s too bad they’re Not Alone

We’re nervous about admitting this. We were made this way. We’re different. It’s scary. We’re oppressed by society. We need to be more open and honest with each other. We can’t have a bigoted society. <breaks down crying>

It’s so mean that people call us bigoted because we want to deny people basic rights just because we think they’re icky.

That’s a video from a conservative political group called Catholic Vote. It’s a strange and oblivious little organization of hidebound Catholic reactionaries that is not supported by the Catholic church at all — they really don’t like Pope Francis and his liberal ways — and are more about right-wing wing-nuttiness than they are Catholic dogma.

Apparently they don’t like the idea of empathy, either. They think you ought to have empathy for them, but they seem incapable of putting themselves in the shoes of people who actually do have their rights suppressed.

It’s an irony explosion!

The crew at Answers in Genesis, who believe in defiance of all the scientific evidence the absurd idea that the Earth is only 6000 years old, have a recent youtube episode in which they mock and disparage a certain group of Biblical literalists, who believe in defiance of all the scientific evidence the absurd idea that the Earth is a flat disc. It’s weird to watch, because they bring out all the same arguments everyone does in opposition to creationism, and they are completely unaware of the relevance of their dismissals to their own claim of a young earth. Watch this analysis and be amused.

Paul Davies is not a medical doctor

He’s not a biologist either, and in fact has no training in the life sciences at all. He keeps saying things that are flat out wrong, yet somehow, he’s treated as a credible authority on cancer. Which means he gets a lengthy, credulous puff-piece in Newsweek in which he gets to claim a new theory on cancer: what we know about how it starts could all be wrong.

Over the course of several years spent pondering cancer, Davies has come up with a radical approach for understanding it. He theorizes that cancer is a return to an earlier time in evolution, before complex organisms emerged. When a person develops cancer, he posits, their cells regress from their current sophisticated and complex state to become more like the single-celled life prevalent a billion years ago.

Oh, also…Davies is not an evolutionary biologist, and he gets evolution all wrong, too.

The evidence that cancer is an evolutionary regression goes beyond the ubiquity of the disease. Tumors, says Davies, act like single-celled organisms. Unlike mammalian cells, for example, cancer cells are not programmed to die, rendering them effectively immortal. Also, tumors can survive with very little oxygen. To Davies and his team, which includes Australian astrobiologist Charles Lineweaver and Kimberly Bussey, a bioinformatics specialist at ASU, that fact supports the idea that cancer emerged somewhere between 1 billion and 1 and a half billion years ago, when the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere was extremely low.

I’ve been covering this bullshit for years, do I need to cover all the details again? In short:

  • A standard defense against damaged or infected cells is triggering cell death. It is not surprising that cancers that survive have mechanisms to defeat the most common defense. It is also not true that all mammalian cells are programmed to die; germ line cells are also effectively immortal. Cancer does not need to roll back a billion years to find a way around apoptosis and senescence, but only have to activate genes already present for in all cells for contemporary purposes.

  • Tumors can survive in little oxygen…but this is a capability of healthy cells, too. This is not an atavistic property. Go exercise; your muscles will be starved for oxygen, and those tissues will be under low oxygen tension. Your muscles don’t die under anaerobic exercise. Brain and retina cells also have high metabolic demands, they don’t die every time you think, but just carry on with glycolysis.

Simply put, cancer behavior is not explained by some mysterious regression to a billion-year old program of the old ways. It simply exploits properties that are inherent to healthy modern cells. Inventing some kind of bizarre cellular memory of being a free swimming protist does not work and makes no sense — it’s more of a 19th century idea that has been rejected by the evidence. All of his claims are better explained by recruitment of modern, existing molecular pathways, rather than by some mysterious hidden single-celled ancestor still lurking in your genome.

Many oncologists are skeptical that it ever will. Evolutionary biologist Chung-I Wu, at the University of Chicago, calls the atavistic theory “an extreme position.” Scientists have also criticized Davies’s reference to the discredited “recapitulation theory” that human embryos develop temporary vestigial organs—gills, a tail, a yolk sac—as support for the atavistic model. “I’ve been ridiculed by the biology community,” says Davies.

Yes. Ridicule is what he deserves. Haeckel’s theory was wrong, but it’s the only theoretical foundation for his claims. Haeckel also argued that evolution proceeded by adding new layers of programming on top of deeper layers, and that peeling back recent hereditary factors would expose older patterns of development. It’s not true. Development and evolution don’t actually work that way.

Like quacks everywhere, Davies falls back on the excuse of medical venality — the doctors are all paid off by Big Medicine or Big Pharma to promote methods that don’t work, to keep the cash flowing in by prolonging the suffering of their patients. It’s not just a lie, it’s an offensive lie — Davies has no respect for the hard-earned knowledge in oncology, so he promotes his bogus treatments that, he claims, will do an end run around the failed policies of modern medicine.

Ironically, Davies now gets paid by a branch of Big Pharma.

Davies is unfazed by the objections. “My feeling is, Who cares? The idea was to come in from the outside and lend a fresh perspective,” he says. Davies sees the criticism as largely rooted in territoriality and financial concerns. “Cancer is a multibillion-dollar industry that’s been running for decades. There’s a lot of vested interests out there.” After five years with the NCI program, Davies is now funded by NantWorks, a sprawling private health care company owned by scientist and billionaire investor Patrick Soon-Shiong (who made his fortune reworking the breast cancer drug paclitaxel to be more effective) to continue his work developing the atavistic model.

He hasn’t helped a single cancer patient, but he’s profiting nicely off of them, and further, is getting these ridiculous, clueless media promotions from credulous journalists. It’s a disgrace.

Paul Davies belongs in the ranks of medical frauds, like Dr Oz or Gwyneth Paltrow or Joseph Mercola.

And dear god, I just wish he’d learn a little goddamned humility. Being a physicist does not turn one into an omniscient god, master of all sciences.

The biggest risk that we face as a civilization

You’ll never guess what it is…or at least, what Elon Musk thinks it is.

Elon Musk warned a gathering of U.S. governors that they need to be concerned about the potential dangers from the rise of artificial intelligence and called for the creation of a regulatory body to guide development of the powerful technology.

Speaking Saturday at the National Governors Association meeting in Rhode Island, the chief executive of electric-car maker Tesla Inc. and rocket maker Space Exploration Technologies Corp. laid out several worst-case scenarios for AI, saying that the technology will threaten all human jobs and that an AI could even spark a war. It is the biggest risk that we face as a civilization, he said.

We’re in the midst of total political collapse, the Antarctic ice shelf is breaking up, we’ve got roving gangs of lunatics thinking their most important right is the right to carry rifles everywhere, new diseases are creeping northwards, bacteria are evolving to make our antibiotics obsolete, mad dictators are building nukes and ICBMs, and conservative loons want to undermine all of education.

There are a great many threats that are far more pressing than fear of Roko’s basilisk. Musk needs to stop reading weird techno-libertarian fetish fantasy sites and come back down to earth.

Don’t come to America

Honestly, if you’re thinking of moving here or even just vacationing here, don’t. You’ll get shot. By the police.

They’re out of control. They’re armored up, loaded with weapons, and poorly trained. 661 people have been murdered by the police this year, so far. It’s insane.

The latest incident occurred nearby, in mild, liberal Minneapolis. An Australian, Justine Damond, was shot for no good reason. She had apparently called the police to report a disturbance in an alley.

Three sources with knowledge of the incident said Sunday that two officers in one squad car, responding to the 911 call, pulled into the alley. Damond, in her pajamas, went to the driver’s side door and was talking to the driver. The officer in the passenger seat pulled his gun and shot Damond through the driver’s side door, sources said. No weapon was found at the scene.

“Two Minneapolis police officers responded to a 911 call of a possible assault just north of the 5100 block of Washburn Avenue S. just before 11:30 p.m. Saturday,” the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said in a news release. “At one point, an officer fired their weapon, fatally striking a woman.

“The BCA’s investigation is in its early stages. More information will be available once initial interviews with incident participants and any witnesses are complete. … The officers’ body cameras were not turned on at the time and the squad camera did not capture the incident. Investigators are attempting to determine whether any video of the incident exists.”

So, like, he just accidentally fired his gun across the car, past his partner, through the door, and into a woman in pajamas? He drew a weapon, but conveniently ‘forgot’ to turn on his camera?

No, really, don’t come here. And if by some frightful series of events you happen to end up here, under no circumstances should you call the police — they’ll just show up and randomly spew bullets. It’s all they know how to do, and they aren’t even particularly competent at that.