I suppose it would also make sense if our goal was to kill EVERYONE

I was challenged to address a moral dilemma brought up by Kevin Drum.

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that we had pretty good intelligence telling us that a bunch of al-Qaeda leaders were in the house we bombed. And let’s also assume that we did indeed kill al-Masri and several other major al-Qaeda leaders. Finally, let’s assume that the 18 civilians killed in the attack were genuinely innocent bystanders with no connection to terrorists.

Question: Under those assumptions, was the attack justified? I think the answer is pretty plainly yes, but I’d sure like to see the liberal blogosphere discuss it. And for those who answer no, I’m curious: under what circumstances would such an attack be justified.

The attack was not justified, under any circumstances. I don’t understand how anyone can answer “pretty plainly yes.”

OK, actually, maybe I can. If the objective of the war is to mete out harsh justice to a select, well defined group of individuals, then yes, go for it. It’ll bring the war closer to an end. It seems a rather primitive view of war as an agent of almost Biblical retribution, though, and I don’t think civilized states should engage in it. I’m surprised that that is how Kevin Drum sees the conduct of the war.

Alternatively, if the objective of the war is to pacify a region in strife and bring its population into the ranks of the community of nations, treating its innocent population as targets is counterproductive. On purely utilitarian grounds, it seems idiotic to me. People will not forget that America rode roughshod over their relatives, friends, and neighbors to simply exterminate their enemies.

Tristero berates me for taking hokum seriously.

A rising starlet in evo-devo


Nematostella, the starlet anemone, is a nifty new model system for evo-devo work that I’ve mentioned a few times before—in articles on “Bilateral symmetry in a sea anemone” and “A complex regulatory network in a diploblast”—and now I see that there is a website dedicated to the starlet anemone and a genomics database, StellaBase. It’s taking off!

I want in!

Maybe the right wingers will be interested in expanding this UCLA program to pay student Quislings.

A fledgling alumni group headed by a former campus Republican leader is offering students payments of up to $100 per class to provide information on instructors who are “abusive, one-sided or off-topic” in advocating political ideologies.

The year-old Bruin Alumni Assn. says its “Exposing UCLA’s Radical Professors” initiative takes aim at faculty “actively proselytizing their extreme views in the classroom, whether or not the commentary is relevant to the class topic.” Although the group says it is concerned about radical professors of any political stripe, it has named an initial “Dirty 30” of teachers it identifies with left-wing or liberal causes.

I’m liberal, a partisan Democrat, and I’m also outspoken as a flaming godless atheist—a perfect target for their partisan hackwork.

I’d like to turn myself in. I’d be happy to surrender copies of my lecture notes and make tape recordings of every class for that $100 bounty. The money would come in handy (I’m sitting in the orthodontist’s office waiting for my daughter’s appointment to end…boy, would $100 help.)

Jones said he has lined up one student who, for $100 a class session, has agreed to provide tapes, detailed lecture notes and materials with what the group considers inappropriate opinion. He would not name the student or the professor whose class will be monitored. Jones characterized the work as non-commercial news gathering and advocacy that does not violate university policy.

Holy crap! It isn’t per term—it’s per class hour! I’m in class for 7 hours and 45 minutes per week, for 15 weeks per term. That would be $23,250 a year! Feeding the persecution fantasies of the wingers could be a rather lucrative occupation.

Two legged goats and developmental variation



Variation is common, and often lingers in places where it is unexpected. The drawing to the left is from West-Eberhard’s Developmental Plasticity and Evolution(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and illustrates six common variations in the branching pattern of the aortic arch in humans. These are differences that have no known significance to our lives, and aren’t even visible except in the hopefully rare situations in which a surgeon opens our chests.

This is the kind of phenomenon in which I’ve become increasingly interested. I work with a model system, the zebrafish, and supposedly one of the things we model systems people pursue is the ideal of a consistent organism, in which the variables are reduced to a minimum. Variation is noise that interferes with our perception of common underlying mechanisms. I’ve been thinking more and more that variation is actually a significant phenomenon that tells us something about where the real constraints in the system are. It is also, of course, the raw material for evolution.

Unfortunately, variation is also relatively difficult to study.

[Read more…]

I’m redundant-who needs a blogger?


There’s a lovely article in this week’s Nature documenting a transitional stage in tetrapod evolution (you know, those forms the creationists like to say don’t exist), and a) Nature provides a publicly accessible review of the finding, and b) the primary author is already a weblogger! Perhaps there will come a day when I’m obsolete and willl just have to turn my hand to blogging about what I had for lunch.

For an extra super-duper dose of delicious comeuppance, though, take a look at this thread on the Panda’s Thumb. I wrote about Panderichthys, and a creationist (“Ghost of Paley”) comes along to mangle the phylogeny and make wild negative assertions about the validity of interpretations of fossils based on work from the Ahlberg lab…when Martin Brazeau of the Ahlberg lab and author of this new paper shows up to straighten him out.

And for my next trick, let me introduce you to Marshall McLuhan

Brazeau MD, Ahlberg PE (2006) Tetrapod-like middle ear architecture in a Devonian fish. Nature 439:318-321.

Where are the spineless?

Hey! I’m supposed to host the Circus of the Spineless next week (I think on 29 January), and I’ve only received one submission so far! Someone must have written something somewhere about invertebrates, right? There is a set of rules for submissions, but it’s going to be simple: I’ll accept anything about any organisms outside the class Vertebrata.

I’ll spell it out. You can write about the phyla Acanthocephala, Acoelomorpha, Annelida, Arthropoda, Brachiopoda, Bryozoa, Chaetognatha, Cnidaria, Ctenophora, Cycliophora, Echinodermata, Echiura, Entoprocta, Gastrotricha, Gnathostomulida, Hemichordata, Kinorhyncha, Loricifera, Micrognathozoa, Mollusca, Myxozoa, Nematoda, Nematomorpha, Nemertea, Onychophora, Orthonectida, Phoronida, Placozoa, Platyhelminthes, Pogonophora, Porifera, Priapulida, Rhombozoa, Rotifera, Sipuncula, Symplasma, or Tardigrada, and that’s fine. You can even write about the Urochordata, the Cephalochordata, and the Myxini within the phylum Chordata. The overwhelming majority of animal species are fair game, so there is absolutely no excuse if anyone tries to send me a picture of their cat. Understand? Fish, frogs, lizards, birds, mammals, dinosaurs, and your baby pictures are right out.

I’m also going to accept multiple submissions, if you’ve been manic about documenting the breadth of biodiversity. We shall do our best to overcome the bias of the blogosphere for kitties and other furred and feathered and scaled beasties.

Although the tagline for the circus says it is a monthly celebration of “most anything else that wiggles”, I’m also going to break the shackles of metazoan chauvinism, so if you want to send in something about protists, lichens, fungi, plants, whatever, anything but things with a spinal column, I’ll accept them and put them in an honored category of their own.

Open Thread

Open Thread

I’m doing some traveling and touristy things with grrlscientist today, on top of somehow coping with the first week of classes (physiology and our freshman seminar in biological principles), and attending Drinking Liberally at the 331 Club tonight. I also have to get tickets to the Prairie Home Companion show that will be taped here at UMM on 11 February…it all adds up to me being a little scattered and distracted and otherwise occupied for much of today. You all are just going to have to fend for yourselves for a bit.

Here is a short list of things I should write about, but won’t get to today.

I do have some Science!!! to write about, but first I have to clear up some time in an overloaded schedule.