It’s not just the genes, it’s the links between them


Once upon a time, I was one of those nerds who hung around Radio Shack and played about with LEDs and resistors and capacitors; I know how to solder and I took my first old 8-bit computer apart and put it back together again with “improvements.” In grad school I was in a neuroscience department, so I know about electrodes and ground wires and FETs and amplifiers and stimulators. Here’s something else I know: those generic components in this picture don’t do much on their own. You can work out the electrical properties of each piece, but a radio or computer or stereo is much, much more than a catalog of components or a parts list.


Electronics geeks know the really fun stuff starts to happen when you assemble those components into circuits. That’s where the significant work lies and where the actual function of the device is generated—take apart your computer, your PDA, your cell phone, your digital camera and you’ll see similar elements everywhere, and the same familiar components you can find in your Mouser catalog. As miniaturization progresses, of course, more and more of that functionality is hidden away in tiny integrated circuits…but peel away the black plastic of those chips, and you again find resistors and transistors and capacitors all strung together in specific arrangements to generate specific functions.

We’re discovering the same thing about genomes.

The various genome projects have basically produced for us a complete parts list—a catalog of bits in our toolbox. That list is incredibly useful, of course, and represents an essential starting point, but how a genome produces an organism is actually a product of the interactions between genes and gene products and the cytoplasm and environment, and what we need next is an understanding of the circuitry: how Gene X expression is connected to Gene Y expression and what the two together do to Gene Z. Some scientists are suggesting that an understanding of the circuitry of the genome is going to explain some significant evolutionary phenomena, such as the Cambrian explosion and the conservation of core genetic processes.

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Underworld: Evolution

Dr Beckinsale visits the Discovery Institute

I saw the movie Underworld: Evolution last night. Stop looking at me like that—it was research. It has the word “evolution” in the title, doesn’t it? Besides, I have this idea to improve the promotion of science by having all of our spokespeople be dangerously nubile armed women with good cheekbones, full lips, and very sharp teeth. I figure the two things we’ve been lacking in our presentations to the public are lust and fear, and if we can just bring those into play, we’ll have an unbeatable combination.

As I learned at this movie, too, if you’ve got gorgeous women and slimy, ravening beasts confronting each other with big guns, nothing in the story has to make any sense at all. There was no plot: instead, there are a series of set-pieces strung together in which Our Heroine is placed in someplace dark, wet, and seedy with a supply of weapons and hapless allies/fang fodder to confront a suitably snouty or batty SFX playtoy. They aren’t even consistent in how these conflicts are resolved. Big bad immortal vampires get shot multiple times at point blank range with a shotgun, and shake it off with a snarl; but when Sir Derek Jacobi, following in the fine British tradition of slumming in some well-paying American trash, finds the movie so embarrassingly bad that he has to get out, the movie makers decide that the way to have his immortal character die is to poke him with something pointy, followed by a languorous death scene in which Jacobi completely turns off his ability to act. It was impressively flat, a cinematic vampire death scene that ranks right up there with Pee Wee Herman’s in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, yet utterly different.

Somehow this murky, muddled mess of a movie got made, and got people (like, say, me!) to attend. There’s a lesson here.

I’m going to have to get a skin-tight vinyl body suit for my next presentation.

I’ll let you guess whether I’m trying to inspire lust or fear.

How do we win these battles?

I’m going to back up John Lynch on this one. The Flock of Dodos guy, Randy Olson, has a list of “TEN THINGS EVOLUTIONISTS CAN DO TO IMPROVE COMMUNICATION”, and I have to say I’m not excited about them. While they’re well-intentioned and would be good things to do, it’s too glib and unrealistic. I’ve got a couple of comments over there, but I’ll just repeat one here to summarize my complaint.

I think another twist on this is to point out that maybe one reason you found it so easy to list problems is that you’ve picked the obvious, including some problems that we’re already well aware of. It’s like having a general inspect the army and create lists of shortcomings—they’re too few in number, they don’t have enough ammo, the new recruits are poorly trained—and just declaring “fix those, and we’ll win.” Well, yeah. Finding weaknesses is easy. Declaring that the way to achieve victory is to be flawless in all matters is obvious.

What is more useful and far more difficult is to rattle off a list of strengths (I suspect science might have a few) and explain how those might be exploited in spite of deficiencies elsewhere to achieve that victory.

That’s what we’re looking for now. Telling scientists that they have to be witty and humorous and media-savvy and rich and less intellectual is nice (maybe we should also all have ponies, too, and hey, Very Large Breasts are always a plus), but it doesn’t help. What we need are accurate assessments of what we do have, and what we can capitalize on.

Maybe it’s my own high dork factor talking, but I’m not too receptive to people telling me I need movie star qualities to be able to support science, or that we have to pander to superficial sensibilities to communicate a message. Our strengths are depth, intelligence, evidence, history, the whole damn natural world, and just plain having the best and most powerful explanation for its existence. Don’t tell us to dumb it down and glitz it up—I think people should be smart enough to understand it, and there’s grandeur enough in it that dressing it up in rhinestones is just silly. We need to know how to communicate real science, not Hollywood cartoon science, to people.

Not the Social Affairs Unit, again…

I must immediately urge the Social Affairs Unit to consider confining their essays to social matters, or affairs, or units, because dang, when they start chattering about science, it’s like watching monkeys do philosopy—they really aren’t suited to it, and it all boils down to a comic-opera poop-frolic no matter what.

The latest effort is by one Myles Harris…the same Myles Harris who invented bogus criticisms of evolution a while back. Now he’s written a little misbegotten parable about a medieval kingdom where a strange artifact is dug up: a “box made of an unknown, shiny metal” with “an arrangement of what look like keys,” and inside, “a network of tiny green boards covered in gold, copper and silver wires.” He’s trying too hard to be clever; just say a laptop computer and be done with it. After all, he’s willing to plainly call the truth-quashing villains of his story “evolutionists”—this is a primitive kingdom with a ‘priesthood’ of evolutionists, apparently.

The box, evolutionists say, is obviously a product of chance. The common people should not, just because it is so complex, be misled into thinking it is anything else than a sophisticated natural object. If they do they will be falling for the “watch heresy”. Many years ago a noted theologian suggested that if you came across a pocket watch in a forest you would be correct in thinking it was designed by an intelligent hand. This was proved to be quite wrong because many natural objects are far more complicated than a pocket watch, and they arose by chance. Because this object was a million times more complicated did not mean it was designed. Evolution was perfectly capable of creating objects even more complicated than the metal box.

It’s embarrassingly bad, full of obvious logical flaws. If a machine-like artifact, even one whose principles of operation were sophisticated beyond our comprehension, were dug up, “evolutionists” wouldn’t be arguing that the rules of the biological world applied to it unless it exhibited properties resembling those of life. Harris is reduced to inventing characters with views stupid enough that he is capable of coping with them (which means they have to be awfully dim), such as this idea that evolution is about complicated things arising by chance.

Harris himself sent me the link to it. I guess he likes attention, even if it is of the sort we give to circus monkeys. Weird little people over there at SAU…

Richard Cohen, advocate for ignorance

Here is a serious problem:

Here’s the thing, Gabriela: You will never need to know algebra. I have never once used it and never once even rued that I could not use it. You will never need to know—never mind want to know—how many boys it will take to mow a lawn if one of them quits halfway and two more show up later—or something like that. Most of math can now be done by a computer or a calculator. On the other hand, no computer can write a column or even a thank-you note—or reason even a little bit. If, say, the school asked you for another year of English or, God forbid, history, so that you actually had to know something about your world, I would be on its side. But algebra? Please.

That’s Richard Cohen, who is supposedly the ‘liberal’ columnist for the Washington Post, giving advice to a young girl.

It’s outrageous.

Because Richard Cohen is ignorant of elementary mathematics, he can smugly tell a young lady to throw away any chance being a scientist, a technician, a teacher, an accountant; any possibility of contributing to science and technology, of even being able to grasp what she’s doing beyond pushing buttons. It’s Richard Cohen condescendingly telling someone, “You’re as stupid as I am; give up.” And everything he said is completely wrong.

Algebra is not about calculating the answer to basic word problems: it’s about symbolic reasoning, the ability to manipulate values by a set of logical rules. It’s basic stuff—I know many students struggle with it, but it’s a minimal foundation for understanding mathematics and everything in science. Even more plainly, it’s a basic requirement for getting into a good college—here, for instance, are my university’s mathematics entrance requirements.

Three years of mathematics, including one year each of elementary algebra, geometry, and intermediate algebra. Students who plan to enter the natural sciences, health sciences, or quantitative social sciences should have additional preparation beyond intermediate algebra.

This isn’t what you need to be a math major. It’s what you need to just get in, whether you’re going to major in physics or art. Richard Cohen is telling Gabriela to forget about a college education.

I’m sure that he has never once rued not being able to use algebra. If I had never heard a poem or listened to a symphony or read a novel or visited Independence Hall, I could probably dumbly write that I don’t miss literature, music, or history…never heard of ’em. Don’t need ’em. Bugger all you eggheads pushing your useless ‘knowledge’ on me!

That kind of foolish complacency is what we’d expect of the ignorant, but it takes the true arrogance of the stupid to insist that others don’t need that knowledge…especially after you’ve dismissed the utility of algebra because they can just use calculators. What, Mr Cohen, you don’t think the engineers who make calculators need algebra?

Cohen insists, though, that algebra is useless and doesn’t even teach reasoning.

Gabriela, sooner or later someone’s going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not.

That’s easy enough for a man to say, especially when his very next sentence is an example of the quality of the reasoning he believes he mastered with his ability to write.

The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence.

Maybe it’s because I was bamboozled by all those teachers who taught me algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus, but I don’t think a bogus anecdote (seriously—the college prep crowd at my high school were taking math, languages, English, etc., and doing well at all of them) is “proof” of much of anything.

It’s about what you’d expect of a fellow who brags elsewhere in his essay that his best class in high school was typing. That’s right, figuring out mindless, mechanical reflex action, rote memorization, and the repetition of stock phrases from a book were the height of intellectual activity in Richard Cohen’s academic career. And the highlight of his elementary school education must have been mastering breathing. This is the man whose advice about education should be taken seriously?

After all, education isn’t important to live a happy, contented life.

I have lived a pretty full life and never, ever used—or wanted to use—algebra.

If sheep could talk, they’d say the same thing.

Yeah, a person can live a good, bland life without knowing much: eat, watch a little TV, fornicate now and then, bleat out opinions that the other contented consumers will praise. It’s so easy.

Or we could push a little bit, stretch our minds, challenge ourselves intellectually, learn something new every day. We ought to expect that our public schools would give kids the basic tools to go on and learn more—skills in reading and writing, a general knowledge of their history and culture, an introduction to the sciences, and yes, mathematics as a foundation. Algebra isn’t asking much. It’s knowledge that will get kids beyond a future of stocking shelves at WalMart or pecking out foolish screeds on a typewriter.

We’re supposed to be living in a country built on Enlightenment values, founded by people who knew the importance of a well-rounded education—people like Thomas Jefferson, who had no problem listing the important elements of a good education.

What are the objects of an useful American education? Classical knowledge, modern languages, chiefly French, Spanish and Italian; mathematics, natural philosophy, natural history, civil history and ethics. In natural philosophy, I mean to include chemistry and agriculture; and in natural history to include botany, as well as the other branches of those departments.

Note “mathematics”, which would have included geometry and algebra. In Richard Cohen we have a 21st century man insisting that an 18th century education is too much for our poor students.

While Cohen may think a little more English or history is an adequate substitute for elementary mathematics, Jefferson would suggest otherwise…and if anything, this sentiment has become more true in these modern times.

[I have] a conviction that science is important to the preservation of our republican government, and that it is also essential to its protection against foreign power.

I can’t resist. I have to let Jefferson dope-slap Cohen one more time.

If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.

(via the SciAm blog)

This is a disturbing coda to the story. Gabriela gave up on school and got a job at the local Subway sandwich shop, but now she has new aspirations:

“I don’t want to be there no more,” she said, her eyes watering from raw onions, shortly before she quit to enroll in a training program to become a medical assistant.

Ahem, what? She can’t do basic algebra, and she’s going to be a medical assistant? That is terrifying—remind me not to ever get sick anywhere near LA.