Look who’s coming to town

Minnesotans are going to be a little less above average in October, when a gaggle of evil morons hit the state: James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and Gary Bauer are having a rally in St Paul to “motivate pro-family conservative Christians.” It may also help motivate us pro-family liberal atheists.

Andy wonders which Minnesota politicians will show up for these hucksters for fascism: would Michele Bachmann be a safe bet? Mike Hatch better not; I’ve seen a few of his ads, and his gun-totin’ bird-killin’ pseudo-populism is almostas annoying as Mark Kennedy’s badly acted family dramas that play up his ‘credentials’ as a CPA—if Hatch sucks up to Dobson, he’ll lose my vote. I will rip his sign out of my yard.

Friday Cephalopod: Septopus!

Go ahead, count ’em. Since there were some comments about octopuses with an odd number of arms, here’s an example. Males of this species have a highly modified arm (the one they use for sex) that is tucked away in a pouch, so they have the appearance of a seven-armed octopus.

Haliphron antlanticus, the seven-arm octopus

Figure from Cephalopods: A World Guide (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), by Mark Norman.

Intelligent Design strikes out at the Vatican

There’s no official declaration of the Pope’s recent consult on evolution, but news is leaking out…and the good news is that Intelligent Design is not going to have a place at the table, and didn’t figure in the discussions at all. Catholic News has one source:

A participant at the Pope’s closed door symposium on creation and evolution, Jesuit Fr Joseph Fessio, has denied speculation about a change in the Church’s teaching on evolution, saying nothing presented at the meeting broke new ground and that American debates on Intelligent Design did not feature in discussions.

Declan Butler, in this week’s Nature, also reports on the impression of the only biologist at the meeting (isn’t that peculiar in itself, that they’d have a conference on the status of evolution in the church, and only have one informed attendee?):

Schönborn was one of four invited speakers at the meeting, which also included Robert Spaemann, a conservative German philosopher, and Paul Erbrich, a Jesuit priest who questions the random nature of evolution. The fourth speaker, the only working scientist present, was Peter Schuster, a molecular biologist and president of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.

In a break with tradition, the proceedings of the meeting will be published later this year, says Schuster, with a preface written by the Pope. The message will be to promote dialogue between faith and reason, Schuster says. Given the power struggles within the Church, however, the precise outcome of the overall debate is impossible to predict, he says: “We have to wait.”

But discussions at the meeting suggest that the Church will probably affirm a form of theistic evolution, which posits the general principle that biological evolution is valid, although set in motion by God. At the same time, it seems likely to reject the fundamental intelligent-design principle that God was a watchmaker, intervening in the details. “Intelligent design as an intervention of God during evolution will not be an outcome,” predicts Schuster. “I got the impression that there was general agreement that evolutionary biology is a undeniable science and not a hypothesis.”

A few thoughts on the decision:

  • It is good news that ID is not going to get any official endorsement from the Catholic church. The Discovery Institute has taken a beating lately, and this is not the time to slacken the pressure or give them any succor; we need to throttle that toxic weed until it is dead.
  • Backing a form of theistic evolution, while still insupportable nonsense, is the best we could hope for from the Pope, I suppose. My dream that Ratzi would go into a conclave and emerge to announce that it was all a mistake, the papacy was dissolved, and good Catholics should all embrace an enlightened materialistic naturalism hasn’t come true just yet.
  • While we can be pleased that the Vatican hasn’t found common cause with another institutional enemy of good science, ultimately their decision is irrelevant. “Eppur si muove,” and all that—the world keeps spinning, the alleles keep changing, biological history has happened, and all the dogma of old men in funny hats won’t change that.

Butler, D (2006) When science and theology meet. Nature 443:10-11.

Wait—I’m in the same building with a bunch of chemists

I’m having second thoughts about the virtues of proximity to my colleagues of that other discipline after watching this video of people plunking alkali metals into water. Cesium looks…interesting.

Fortunately, my chemistry pals aren’t British, or I might have trouble understanding their comments. What the heck does “the dog’s nuts of the periodic table” mean, anyway?

Good for the Godless Party

The Secular Coalition for America has put together a Secular Scorecard for our representatives in both houses of congress, evaluating them for how they voted on issues of importance (separation of church and state, science, funding religious organizations, that sort of thing) in the past year. It’s interesting in a sad way in how it’s split along party lines: the lesson is that the godless should never, ever vote Republican, but that Democrats are only mostly safe. There are a few screwballs like Salazar and Nelson of Nebraska that throw off the general rule that you can divide them neatly by party, but generally you see disparities like this, for Minnesota.

MINNESOTA Party RC130 RC131 RC132 RC133 RC1 RC2 RC158 RC159 RC163 RC206 Score

Coleman, N

R 0

Dayton, M

D + + + + + + + + + + 100

Even if Democrats aren’t godless themselves, they’re mostly on our side on the issues that count.

Sadly, I suspect that rather than being proud of their voting record, this is one endorsement they’ll struggle to hide.

What? No cephalopod genome project?

I was reading a review paper that was frustrating because I wanted to know more—it’s on the evolution of complex brains, and briefly summarizes some of the current confusion about what, exactly, is involved in building a brain with complex problem solving ability. It’s not as simple as “size matters”—we have to jigger the formulae a fair bit to take into account brain:body size ratios, for instance, to get humans to come out on top, and maybe bulk is an inaccurate proxy for more significant matters, such as the number of synapses and nerve conduction velocities.

There’s also a growing amount of literature that takes genomic approaches, searching for sequences that show the signatures of selection, and plucking those out for analysis. There have been some provocative results from that kind of work, finding some candidate genes like ASPM, but another of the lessons of that kind of work seems to be that evolution has been working harder on our testis-specific genes than on our brains.

The encouraging part of the paper is that the authors advocate expanding our search for the correlates of intelligence with another group of organisms with a reputation for big brains, but brains that have evolved independently of vertebrates’. You know what I’m talking about: cephalopods!

The Cephalopoda are an ancient group of mollusks originating in the late Cambrian. Ancestors of modern coleoid cephalopods (octopus and squid) diverged from the externally-shelled nautiloids in the Ordovician, with approximately 600 million years of separate evolution between the cephalopod and the vertebrate lineages. The evolution of modern coleoids has been strongly influenced by competition and predatory pressures from fish, to a degree that the behavior of squid and octopus are more akin to that of fast-moving aquatic vertebrates than to other mollusks. Squid and octopuses are agile and active animals with sophisticated sensory and motor capabilities. Their central nervous systems are much larger than those of other mollusks, with the main ganglia fused into a brain that surrounds the esophagus with additional lateral optic lobes. The number of neurons in an adult cephalopod brain can reach 200 million, approximately four orders of magnitude higher than the 20-30,000 neurons found in model mollusks such as Aplysia or Lymnaea. Cephalopods exhibit sophisticated behaviors a number of studies have presented evidence for diverse modes of learning and memory in Octopus and cuttlefish models. This learning capacity is reflected in a sophisticated circuitry of neural networks in the cephalopod nervous system. Moreover, electrophysiological studies have revealed vertebrate-like properties in the cephalopod brain, such as compound field potentials and long-term potentiation. Thus cephalopods exhibit all the attributes of complex nervous systems on the anatomical, cellular, functional and behavioral levels.

Unfortunately, the purpose of the paper is to highlight an unfortunate deficiency in our modern research program: there is no cephalopod genome project. The closest thing to it is an effort to sequence the genome of another mollusc, Aplysia, which is a very good thing—Aplysia is a famous and indispensable subject of much research in learning and memory—but it’s no squid. The authors are advocating additional work on another animal, one with a more elaborate brain.

A parallel effort on a well-studied octopus or squid should provide insights on the evolutionary processes that allowed development of the sophisticated cephalopod nervous system. For example, have cephalopods undergone accelerated evolution in specific nervous system genes, as has been suggested for primates? Have specific gene families undergone expansion in the cephalopod lineage and are these expressed in the nervous system? Are there clear parallels in accelerated evolution, gene family expansion, and other evolutionary processes between cephalopods and vertebrates? Answers to these and related questions will provide useful perspectives for evaluation of the processes thought to be involved in the evolution of the vertebrate brain.

I’m all for it—let’s see a Euprymna genome project!

Jaaro H, Fainzilber M (2006) Building complex brains—missing pieces in an evolutionary puzzle. Brain Behav Evol 68(3):191-195.

Maybe it’s an Australian custom

I’ve been asked if this is a common occurrence at scientific conferences: at an Australian conference on climate change, the entertainment at a social dinner was a burlesque show. And the answer is…no. Every meeting dinner I’ve attended has had some white-maned elder statesperson of the discipline do the ‘entertainment’, which is usually thin on the bare flesh and the humor, thick with jargon and historical detail. It can be fun—I recall one talk by JZ Young that was full of squid and voltages that I really enjoyed—but I don’t think it would have been improved if he’d been up on the podium wearing nothing but balloons.

It’s an odd story. The cabaret was cut short after 10 minutes, so I think it’s clear that a significant number of attendees must have expressed their disapproval immediately, and that this was a bit beyond the pale, even for wild ol’ Australia. Some organizer somewhere made a very, very bad decision, I think.