That revolting article about earwax and smegma


Not all the email I get is from cranks and creationist loons. Sometimes I get sincere questions. In today’s edition of “Ask Mr Science Guy!”, Hank Fox asks,

I was thinking recently about the fact that wax collects in one’s ears, and suddenly thought to be amazed that some part of the HUMAN body produces actual WAX. Weird. Like having something like honeybee cells in your ear.

And then I started to think about what sorts of other … exudates the human exterior produces. Mucus, possibly several different types (does the nose itself produce more than one type?). Oils, possibly several different types. That something-or-other that hardens into your fingernails. Saliva, if you wanted to count our frequently-open mouth as sort-of exterior. What else?

Of course I know something about this subject, having taught physiology for a few years. My years of experience have also led me to notice that it is always the guys who ask about disgusting secretions. Why is that?

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Hovind in Dover

Kent Hovind has been giving his creation “science” seminars in Dover, and it’s a fairly revolting situation. He’s glib, he’s amusing, he’s popular, and he’s lying constantly. David Neiwert discusses his roots as a “right-wing extremist with a penchant for promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories”.

The sad thing about the accounts are the little kids who are getting suckered by this shameless fraud.

Chance and regularity in the development of the fly eye


What has always attracted me to developmental biology is the ability to see the unfolding of pattern—simplicity becomes complexity in a process made up of small steps, comprehensible physical and chemical interactions that build a series of states leading to a mostly robust conclusion. It’s a bit like Conway’s Game of Life in reverse, where we see the patterns and can manipulate them to some degree, but we don’t know the underlying rules, and that’s our job—to puzzle out how it all works.


Another fascinating aspect of development is that all the intricate, precise steps are carried out without agency: everything is explained and explainable in terms of local, autonomous interactions. Genes are switched on in response to activation by proteins not conscious action, domains of expression are refined without an interfering hand nudging them along towards a defined goal. It’s teleonomy, not teleology. We see gorgeously regular structures like the insect compound eye to the right arise out of a smear of cells, and there is no magic involved—it’s wonderfully empowering. We don’t throw up our hands and declare a miracle, but instead science gives us the tools to look deeper and work out (with much effort, admittedly) how seeming miracles occur.

One more compelling aspect of development: it’s reliable, but not rigid. Rather than being simply deterministic, development is built up on stochastic processes—ultimately, it’s all chemistry, and cells changing their states are simply ping-ponging through a field of potential interactions to arrive at an equilibrium state probabilistically. When I’d peel open a grasshopper embryo and look at its ganglia, I’d have an excellent idea of what cells I’d find there, and what they’d be doing…but the fine details would vary every time. I can watch a string of neural crest cells in a zebrafish crawl out of the dorsal midline and stream over generally predictable paths to their destinations, but the actions of an individual melanocyte, for instance, are variable and beautiful to see. We developmental biologists get the best of all situations, a generally predictable pattern coupled to and generated by diversity and variation.

One of the best known examples of chance and regularity in development is the compound eye of insects, shown above, which is as lovely and crystalline as a snowflake, yet is visibly assembled from an apparently homogenous field of cells in the embryo. And looking closer, we discover a combination of very tight precision sprinkled with random variation.

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Watch out for the mudghah on the sidewalk

Weirder. This is quite possibly the most stupid thing I have read yet on development from a creationist, from The Quran on Human Embryonic Development.

The next stage mentioned in the verse is the mudghah stage. The Arabic word mudghah means “chewed substance.” If one were to take a piece of gum and chew it in his or her mouth and then compare it with an embryo at the mudghah stage, we would conclude that the embryo at the mudghah stage acquires the appearance of a chewed substance. This is because of the somites at the back of the embryo that “somewhat resemble teethmarks in a chewed substance.”

Prepare to laugh or weep…here is the figure accompanying this pseudoscientific absurdity. I’ve tucked it below the fold to prevent fatalities; click through only if you are well-prepared and braced, aren’t elderly, infirm, or an infant, and have had all your vaccinations.

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A creationist pest

A certain creationist has been spamming me lately with these same questions over and over. I’ll answer them here, and I’ll send the link to JASE3217 and see if we can’t get him over here to “handle the truth.”

From: JASE3217
Sent: Fri, 10 Mar 2006 17:23:10 -0500
Subject: About evolution?

1. Is a theory a fact or a belief?

2. Where did the gases (big bang theory) come from?

3. After the water was formed, what was the first creature to come out of it?

4. Was it amphibious? Or did it run in and out of the water until it developed lungs?

5. If, yes why would it develop lungs under water?

6. What are the true mathematical odds (ask someone in your physics department) of something evolving? Of course you won’t because you don’t like the physics department, because they always prove biologist wrong.

7. If any of these questions are answered with a no, then using science they can not be facts at all!

This would make the cartoon completely hypocritical. You see if you just simply BELIEVE in evolution, then you have a religion! The religion maybe Darwinism, but if you answer I don’t know to any of the questions above then you have a faith based concept of how we as a planet came about. Not a fact based!

I would challenge you to answer these questions, and give me a reply! I doubt you will, because most of you people are only interested in your truth and not actual truth. Try reading LEE STROBEL, “A Case for Christ.”

I see you won’t answer my questions, but I figured you wouldn’t because most liberals can’t handle the truth.

Ho hum. I’ve put my answers below the fold.

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Godless Sunday

Can you take a little more godlessness?

  • Sean Carroll has a nice discussion of this remarkable article in the San Antonio Star-Telegram. Atheists…in Texas? A newspaper article that writes sympathetically about the godless? How gratifying!
  • Religion as an addiction—an excellent summary of the real problem.

    Yet, if we’re going to think clearly about the right-wing juggernaut’s use of religion, and not function as its enablers, we must realize that we’re dealing with an addict. Right-wing political-religious fundamentalism can destroy us too if we’re like the dependent spouse who protects, defends, and covers-up for the family drunk.

    Read the whole thing. That’ll make a few people hyperventilate.

  • Heliologue has found a list of the religious beliefs of comic book superheroes. There aren’t many atheists, I’m afraid, but there is actually a hero called The Atheist, whose super-power is “a voracious and uncompromising logic that lets him cut through any problem like a scalpel”.