Evo-devo wars

Fellow scienceblogger Evolgen has seen the light—evo-devo is wonderful. He’s attending a meeting and listening to some of the bigwigs in the field talk about their work, in particular some research on the evolution of gene regulation. While noting that this is clearly important stuff, he also mentions some of the bickering going on about the relative importance of changes in cis regulatory elements (CREs) vs. trans acting elements, transcription factors. I’ve got a longer write-up of the subject, but if you don’t want to read all of that, the issue is about where the cool stuff in the evolution of morphology is going on. Transcription factors are gene products that bind to regulatory regions of other genes, and change their pattern of expression. The things they bind to are the CREs, which are non-coding regions of DNA associated with particular genes.

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Maybe she has a really good saving throw, though

I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news for Clara Jean Brown.

Worried about the safety of her family during a stormy Memorial Day trip to the beach, Clara Jean Brown stood in her kitchen and prayed for their safe return as a strong thunderstorm rumbled through Baldwin County, Alabama.

But while she prayed, lightning suddenly exploded, blowing through the linoleum and leaving a blackened area on the concrete. Brown wound up on the floor, dazed and disoriented by the blast but otherwise uninjured.

She said ‘Amen’ and the room was engulfed in a huge ball of fire. The 65-year-old Brown said she is blessed to be alive.

The bad news is that God hates her and is trying to kill her. The good news is that he’s gotten incompetent in his dotage. I mean, lightning and a fireball? And both missed? Hey, God, here’s a suggestion: next time, use Magic Missile. It doesn’t do as much damage, but it never misses, and heck, she’s a little old lady—she probably doesn’t have much in the way of hit points.

(via Phil)

Is there a teratologist in the house?


Call me perverse, but my first thought on seeing this kid was that I desperately want to see an x-ray of the pectoral girdle. It looks to me from this one picture that the lower arm must lack a scapula or a clavicle, or at best have fragments with screwy and probably nonfunctional connections. I don’t understand why the doctors are even arguing about which arm could be more functional, if the article is correct. Or why they’re even considering it important to lop one off: if there aren’t circulatory defects or it isn’t impairing the function of the ‘best’ arm, why take a knife to him?

Poor kid. It does look like a very weird and fascinating developmental aberration, though, and it sounds like there are other internal asymmetries that are going to make life rough for him.

GTA, meet LB:EF

Are you ready for the hot new game of the 2006 Christmas season, Left Behind: Eternal Forces?

Imagine: you are a foot soldier in a paramilitary group whose purpose is to remake America as a Christian theocracy, and establish its worldly vision of the dominion of Christ over all aspects of life. You are issued high-tech military weaponry, and instructed to engage the infidel on the streets of New York City. You are on a mission – both a religious mission and a military mission — to convert or kill Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, gays, and anyone who advocates the separation of church and state – especially moderate, mainstream Christians. Your mission is “to conduct physical and spiritual warfare”; all who resist must be taken out with extreme prejudice. You have never felt so powerful, so driven by a purpose: you are 13 years old. You are playing a real-time strategy video game whose creators are linked to the empire of mega-church pastor Rick Warren, best selling author of The Purpose Driven Life.

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One more thing!

I almost forgot: there was another comment in the Karen Armstrong interview that I found irksome…but my complaint is mainly with the interviewer. Here’s one question he asked her, and her answer.

But certainly there are a lot of people — both scientists and religious people — who speculate about whether there’s some cosmic order. For the evolutionary biologists, the question is whether there’s some natural progression to evolution.

Who knows?

Her answer is a kind of weak cop-out, but it’s acceptable…avoiding a question on which you are ignorant is not a problem. The question, though…jebus.

For evolutionary biologists, that isn’t the question at all. We have a darned good mechanism that doesn’t involve teleology, and while some may speculate, there’s no supporting evidence for any kind of purpose or progress (in the sense of change towards a goal) in evolution. Biologists don’t even ask that kind of question.

Note that this is not the same as saying we avoid the issue: it’s that there hasn’t been any reason to invoke teleology in evolution. Explanations are thought up to explain observations, not the other way around, and there aren’t any observations yet that require purpose in an explanation. All I can imagine here is that the interviewer has some weak and muddled view of the Intelligent Design creationists having some legitimacy, and that kind of dribbled out into his question.

Finding vindication in utter confusion

Salon has an interview with Karen Armstrong, and I don’t know whether the interviewer just did a poor job or whether her ideas really are that sloppy and confused. She definitely has interesting ideas about religion, but while she’s dismissing simplistic ideas about gods and the afterlife on the one hand, she’s also clinging desperately and irrationally to nebulous beliefs about religion and spirituality and the art and poetry of myth. Armstrong is smart enough to see the hokum in dogma, but she’s still so strongly wedded to the idea of religion that she struggles to contrive fuzzy justifications for it.

Armstrong does say some things with which I can agree, and some might be a little surprising.

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Rabbi Avi Shafran wants to argue

I’ve received a personal email from Rabbi Avi Shafran—the fellow whose graceless and ignorant opinion piece I criticized a while back. It’s a peculiar thing: he wrote a public editorial, I criticized it publicly, and now he asks that we have a private discussion on the matter. I won’t post his whole email, but I will put up the main point, what he plainly says is the main point and a restatement of the thesis of his original editorial, and address that here.

If Rabbi Avi Shafran wants to continue the discussion, he should do it publicly. I’m not going to convert him, and he’s not going to convert me, so a private conversation would be futile—let’s let the readers see our arguments and make up their own minds.

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