Field of Science

Organic foods aren't more nutritious

ResearchBlogging.orgSo if you purchase organically grown food (crops and meat) because you think they are more nutritious, then you might be disappointed to learn that there is no evidence that it is.

In a huge survey of the literature on organic food from the last 50 years, the overall message is that no difference in nutritional value is to be found between organically and conventionally grown foods. [1] (By the way, I hope some day those terms will be replaced by "conventional" for what is now termed organic, and "sprayed" or perhaps "chemical" for what is now called conventional.)

The only differences found was that conventionally produced crops had more nitrogen (that's good), and that organic crops had more phosphorus (an essential element for our cells). That's it!

So why do you buy organic food? I have also heard people say it's more healthful (actually, they say "healthier", but that's would be to the food), but I like to do it because it is better not to use pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics (anything else?), since those harm us, as well as other species, such as sexually challenged frogs [2]. If no one can find any evidence that those chemicals are bad for humans to ingest, then I would be very surprised (but then again, I wouldn't be surprised to be surprised).

[1] Dangour, A., Dodhia, S., Hayter, A., Allen, E., Lock, K., & Uauy, R. (2009). Nutritional quality of organic foods: a systematic review American Journal of Clinical Nutrition DOI:10.3945/ajcn.2009.28041


Update July 30th:
It is interesting to see the diversity of the few comments below. Tom points out that the study didn't look at micronutrients, Rachel remarks that organic farmers do in fact use pesticides and herbicides that are also not good for you, and an almost mandatory anonymous conspiracy-theorist comment that this study was funded by big agro (implying it has no validity). All I could find in the paper about finding was this:
2 The funding organization had no role in the study design, data collection, analysis, interpretation, or writing of the report. The review team held 6 progress meetings with the funding organization.
3 Supported by the UK Food Standards Agency (PAU221).
I have contacted the first author for a clarification.

Update july 31st:
Alan Dangour got back to me and confirmed that the UK Food Standards Agency was the only agency funding this study. That seems to put any concerns about big agro influencing the results to rest.

The evolution of tebirkes

Whenever I am back in Denmark I eat copious amounts of tebirkes. Tebirkes is a Danish pastry quite unlike anything else (recipe). Closest living relative that most people know would probably be the croissant, but they are definitely different species.

The vacation in Big Sur and San Francisco that I have just returned from took us by Solvang, CA. It's a quaint village in Santa Barbara County settled in 1911 by Danes, and it now serves as a tourist attraction. Most things there, however, aren't very Danish anymore. The bakeries, however, still make quite decent bread and pastries. I'm somewhat of a connoisseur. More of a gourmand than a gourmet, I suppose.

So I had a tebirkes at Mortensen's Bakery, and I have to tell you straight away that it wasn't the big thrill I had hoped for. It was too bready, rather than crunchy like good pastry is supposed to be (you can tell American bakers, but it won't make any difference - a 'danish' here is looks like the real thing, but the bread-part is more like a bun than the laminated dough it should be). On top of that, it was topped off not by poppy seeds, but by sesame seeds. Weird. I was hungry (that's normal), so it went down, and it wasn't really bad. In fact it was great, because it made me think about the evolution of tebirkes.

Consider that when a small population of tebirkes moved from Denmark to California, there was essentially a founder effect (small part of a larger population emigrates), which then carries with it only part of the variation of the original population. The tebirkes that founded the California population in Solvang probably already differed somewhat phenotypically from the mean Danish population. However, that is unlikely to explain the breadyness and the sesame seeds. I suspect that this is due in part to gene flow between related native California breads, which are more bread-like than pastry-like, and in part due to mutations. At one point a mutation from poppy to sesame occurred, and was lucky enough to get fixed in the population, either by natural selection or genetic drift. Since the founding population is likely to have been rather small, both selection and drift are likely contributors to the fixation of sesame. I hypothesize that when this occurred early in the tebirkes settlement of Solvang, a native bread-tebirkes hybrid, which probably had lower fitness due to outbreeding depression, had the highly favorable poppy-to-sesame mutation, which outweighed the disadvantage of the breadyness.

A more in-depth survey of the Solvang tebirkes would be imperative to assess the validity of the bread-pastry hybrid sesame mutation hypothesis. It is my intention to secure funds for a three-day weekend in the near future.

Lastly, notice that while I have deep knowledge of the original Danish tebirkes population, a systematic study might reveal that the natural history of the Danish population isn't as simple as one might expect. At the moment there are definitely two sub-types of tebirkes: the non sweet and the semi sweet (i.e. without and with remonce, respectively). It is possible that the Solvang tebirkes descends from the non sweet type, and that the remonce is a later occurrence - either by mutation or, more likely, by hybridization with other pastry species that have the remonce phenotype. Statistical methods for elucidating the natural history of the original Danish tebirkes would include a biogeographic analysis of the current population. Additionally, in recent years the Danish tebirkes population has seen a shift in morphology. There are reports of subpopulations that vary considerably in size, and, more importantly, in consistency and flavor. My suspicion is that this is a separate immigration of breads from other parts of Europe and the Middle East, which we have seen an influx of in recent years. However, due to the closeness to the original tebirkes, my hunch is that this is caused by horizontal gene transfer from breads such as the pita and the baklava. Alternatively, it could be caused by hybridization with the frøsnapper, another pastry of more recent origin, but with similar texture and abundant poppy seeds (though these are always the dark type, while Danish tebirkes can be with either light (picture) or dark poppy seeds).

It is my hope that an investigation into the natural history of the tebirkes, both in the Solvang and Denmark populations, will contribute both to our understanding of the dynamics of pastry-speciation, as well as to the conservation of the rich diversity of these unique pastries.

Belief in evolution

In an interview published August 1st, 2009 [sic!], Eugenie Scott explains why we must not say "believe in evolution:"
So you urge scientists not to say that they “believe” in evolution?!

Right. What your audience hears is more important than what you say.… What [people] hear is that evolution is a belief, it’s an opinion, it’s not well-substantiated science. And that is something that scientists need to avoid communicating.

You believe in God. You believe your sports team is going to win. But you don’t believe in cell division. You don’t believe in thermodynamics. Instead, you might say you “accept evolution.”
I have been pondering this issue on and off all day, and now I have resolved why it is that I disagree.

I accept that it is politically correct to not say "believe in evolution." I mean that literally, that it's the correct thing not to say because of politics, if the political goal is for people to accept that evolution is to be taught in science classes in schools. That's Scott's job, to defend the teaching of evolutionary biology.

However, the thing that I have today resolved is that science is an endeavor that owes its success in part of of being politically neutral. Yes, of course scientists are not neutral on the question of whether they want evolution or creationism taught in science classes, but rather, science has succeeded because of the insistence on calling things by their right name. To tell it like it is. That goes for theories that people don't much care for for political reasons (something that E. O. Wilson had to deal with in excess in reaction to Sociobiology, especially by the hands of Marxist colleagues Richard Lewontin and Stephen J. Gould), and it also goes for the use of words, because it is by these words we share that we share the ours ideas about nature. It is important for communication that we use the same words to mean the same things, and that implies that we can't change the meaning of words already in use (at least, it isn't easy). To "believe" is one such word, and Scott's difficulty is of course that when scientists say they believe in evolution, some laymen will take it to mean that the scientists believe in evolution in the same way that they believe in God, namely by faith (meaning belief regardless of evidence). I used to think of belief have two different meanings like this, but I don't anymore.

Take, for example, a die. Before you roll it, you may say that you believe that you will get a six. This would be contrary to the evidence (which is that the chance that it will be a six is only 1/6), so I would never say that I believe I will get a six - rather, I believe I will not get a six. This of course is true for any of the possible outcomes, which thus looks like I believe none of them will happen. But that's not the case, of course. I believe very strongly that I will get one of the numbers 1 through 6. So, whether I base my guess about the outcome on evidence (in this case probability theory and observations of many previous rolls of dice) or faith, they are both called belief.

I can hold a belief about the world, and it is called "belief" whether it is based on evidence, not on evidence, or contrary to evidence. But I will not stop saying the semantically correct phrase "I believe in evolution" just because I should be afraid that it will be taken to mean the wrong thing, namely that since it's just belief, then it isn't based on evidence.

I believe in evolution because there is so much evidence for it.

New word: Faitheist

Jerry Coyne has found a winner in his contest to come up with a new word for those atheists who think we should all make out with the theists.
Provide a snappy, one-word name for those atheists who are nonetheless soft on faith (i.e., atheist accommodationists). You know them — the kind of people, like Michael Ruse, who say, “I am an atheist, but . . .”. In other words, the folks who, says Daniel Dennett, have “belief in belief.” That’s a snappy phrase, but it ain’t one word.
And the new word, soon to make an appearance in Webster's and the OED, is


Unbelievably, on Coyne's blog there is a discussion about how it should be pronounced. It's from 'faith' and 'theist,' and people are discussion whether the first t should be pronounced!?

What makes the supernatural natural?

Sean Carroll (the Caltech physicist) has a blog at Discover magazine. Yesterday, in a readworthy post by the title What Questions Can Science Answer?, he wrote
Here is my favorite example question. Alpha Centauri A is a G-type star a little over four light years away. Now pick some very particular moment one billion years ago, and zoom in to the precise center of the star. Protons and electrons are colliding with each other all the time. Consider the collision of two electrons nearest to that exact time and that precise point in space. Now let’s ask: was momentum conserved in that collision? Or, to make it slightly more empirical, was the magnitude of the total momentum after the collision within one percent of the magnitude of the total momentum before the collision?

This isn’t supposed to be a trick question; I don’t have any special knowledge or theories about the interior of Alpha Centauri that you don’t have. The scientific answer to this question is: of course, the momentum was conserved. Conservation of momentum is a principle of science that has been tested to very high accuracy by all sorts of experiments, we have every reason to believe it held true in that particular collision, and absolutely no reason to doubt it; therefore, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that momentum was conserved.

A stickler might argue, well, you shouldn’t be so sure. You didn’t observe that particular event, after all, and more importantly there’s no conceivable way that you could collect data at the present time that would answer the question one way or the other. Science is an empirical endeavor, and should remain silent about things for which no empirical adjudication is possible.

But that’s completely crazy. That’s not how science works. Of course we can say that momentum was conserved. Indeed, if anyone were to take the logic of the previous paragraph seriously, science would be a completely worthless endeavor, because we could never make any statements about the future. Predictions would be impossible, because they haven’t happened yet, so we don’t have any data about them, so science would have to be silent.
All that is completely mixed-up, because science does not proceed phenomenon by phenomenon. Science constructs theories, and then compares them to empirically-collected data, and decides which theories provide better fits to the data. The definition of “better” is notoriously slippery in this case, but one thing is clear: if two theories make the same kinds of predictions for observable phenomena, but one is much simpler, we’re always going to prefer the simpler one. The definition of theory is also occasionally troublesome, but the humble language shouldn’t obscure the potential reach of the idea: whether we call them theories, models, hypotheses, or what have you, science passes judgment on ideas about how the world works.
And that's precisely right. I like to say that science is about building models; build models to explain a collection of facts, and the most parsimonious model wins.

But then Carroll says something that I think is slightly wrong:
Could science, through its strategy of judging hypotheses on the basis of comparison with empirical data, ever move beyond naturalism to conclude that some sort of supernatural influence was a necessary feature of explaining what happens in the world? Sure; why not? If supernatural phenomena really did exist, and really did influence things that happened in the world, science would do its best to figure that out.
What I think is wrong with that statement is not a problem of what science can handle, but rather what is meant by 'supernatural.' I agree that too much blood has been spilled over definitions, but being a swashbuckler aficionado, I like blood. If a phenomenon can be studied by science, then it is by definition a natural phenomenon. If supernatural phenomena really did exist, we would not call them supernatural. In fact, it is the job of science to make all things supernatural natural. Carroll gives an example of angels, with scientists struggling to come up with models that explain them, but all fail.
Eventually, they agree that the most compelling and economical theory is one with two parts: a natural part, based on unyielding rules, with a certain well-defined range of applicability, and a supernatural one, for which no rules can be found.
I find this hard to swallow. Not the angels (well, that too), but that scientists would ever give up. Michael Shermer likes to ask what evidence would convince a hardened atheist of God's existence. Suppose "God" personified appeared before you in a flash, cut off your right arm, and then made it grow back in a second. Would that convince you that God existed? Well, not really. Appearing in a flash could very well happen by some trickery that we have not yet invented. Who knows what we will have learned a thousand or a million years from now. It is not hard to imagine that a technology that could make someone appear suddenly could be invented that far down the line. Same thing for regrowing an arm. We know other species who can do exactly that (albeit not that fast), so perhaps with medical advances it will one day become possible. And such theories would be more parsimonious that positing a supernatural being, which would take much more explaining than limb regeneration on steroids:
Mammals like us can regenerate skin or fuse broken bones back together, but salamanders can replace a lost limb in a few weeks, regrow damaged lungs, mend a severed spinal cord and even replenish lost chunks of brain.
Then what evidence would you need? I have thought about this at length, and can also not find anything that would convince me for sure that God exists. If truly supernatural-looking strange things happen, it can always be posited that they are illusions of the mind (think The Matrix). I know some people will argue that this is a cop-out, but the truth is that the real cop-out is the position that there is a supernatural being that made it all.

If anyone has a good example of conclusive evidence for a supernatural being, please share it!

Taking the First Amendment seriously

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is suing to not have "In God We Trust" engraved on a new governmental building, the Capitol Visitor Center in Washington.

From the Associated Press:
The Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation's lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in western Wisconsin, claims the taxpayer-funded engravings would be an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.
Whatever else people are saying, I find it really hard to see it any other way than this.
The lawsuit says both the motto and the words "under God" in the pledge were adopted during the Cold War as anti-communism measures. Engraving them at the entrance to the U.S. Capitol would discriminate against those who do not practice religion and unfairly promote a Judeo-Christian perspective, it says.

Of course republican representatives would object:
"This lawsuit is another attempt by liberal activists to rewrite history and deny that America's Judeo-Christian heritage is an essential foundation stone of our great nation," said Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa.
Essential? Liberal activists? Rewrite history? Can you say republican hyperbole?

"In God We Trust" has been the national motto since 1956 and has appeared on U.S. currency since 1957. Those words did not appear on money at the time of the founding fathers, so evidently they did not think it belonged there - which I'm also saying because they did write the First Amendment.

Stepwise macroevolution

How do you get from the Australopithecus on the left to Homo sapiens on the right in a hundred thousand generations?

Like this, perhaps?

Via Pharyngula.

After watching the video, the really funny thing is to slide the cursor through the whole evolution in a few seconds. Try it.

Notice, I am well aware that Australopithecus is not necessarily a direct ancestor of humans, but the point remains the same, that it takes very little change every generation for big changes to occur over long periods of time.

Best ever NIH grant application

I forgot to mention last week that a Joel Grus has written the greatest grant application that I have ever seen on his blog, YOUR RELIGION IS FALSE. With Francis Collins going to be the new director of the NIH, he should stand a fair chance of getting it.

We will collect a large assortment of scientists and randomly assign them to visit hydrological features, including aquifers, beaches, catadupae, drainage basins, endorheic basins, flood plains, infiltration basins, losing streams, percolation trenches, riparian zones, streams, and waterfalls. (I, for instance, will be randomly assigned to the “beach” treatment.)

Each scientist will be measured both before and after his trip using the Dawkins Scale of Religiosity, after which we will use some type of computer (which we will purchase with the grant money) to make graphs and play Minesweeper draw conclusions.

Based on the results of this first experiment, we will repeat on a larger scale, expanding the subject pool to include non-scientists, monkeys, kangaroos, and human embryonic stem cells.

If all goes well, I think we can get our work published in one of the InterVarsity Press science journals. We’d also present at some of the Campus Crusade science conferences, of course. And we’d be happy to facilitate inclusion of our results in the science curriculum in Texas.
Words in print rarely make me laugh out loud, but this os one of them. Bravo!

Defeat Roy Moore for Governor in Alabama

Human Events™ - Headquarters of the Conservative Underground - sent me this email from Judge Roy Moore of Alabama. He's running for governor in 2010. My comments in red:
Dear friend, [Well, I'm signed up on their email-list to get the inside scoop, but trust they wouldn't call me 'friend' if they got to know me.]

My name is Roy Moore and you may know me for the battle I waged over a display of the Ten Commandments. [Sure, we remember you were unanimously removed from office by Alabama's Court of the Judiciary in 2003. (I admit I had to look that up.)]

I recently made one of the biggest decisions of my life. I want to tell you personally why I have decided to seek the Republican nomination for Governor of Alabama. [Okay, I can understand why that is a big decision, but he also ran (and lost) in 2006.]

Today I am writing to ask you for your help.

I have chosen to run, quite simply, because our country is careening off course. And neither President Obama nor his advisors have the foggiest notion how to steer her back. [Is there a template that prospective governors use when they write these letters?]

We face challenges in every sphere of American life today-economic challenges, social challenges, foreign policy challenges, leadership challenges, corruption challenges, and challenges to our freedoms. [Don't forget tolerance challenges, equality challenges, universal health insurance challenges, and challenges to the American way of defending the rich against the the rest.]

Please take a moment to support my candidacy by pledging your support. [How about I "support" you through blogging? I saved the whales that way, you know.]

When Barack Obama was elected to the office of President, he promised change - well, we got change! - change social and ecnomic [sic!] conservatives can't believe in, can't live with, and cannot in good conscience pass on to our children and grandchildren. [Well, you know, democracy has a way of ruling against the minority. But don't worry, universal health care will cover conservative bigots all the same.]

My likely Democratic opponent will be Rep. Artur Davis, a good friend of Barack Obama since their days together at Harvard Law School. [Yeah!]

As a good friend of mine said, "Davis fully supports the insanity being promoted by Obama's administration. He's cheering it on. He's supporting it in Congress. He will no doubt be the beneficiary of millions of dollars in campaign contributions from the Obama machine." [What insanity? Everything in the Obama administration is just insane? Like shutting down Gitmo?]

Thats why I'm writing you today, to ask for your support. I know you love America just as much as I do. I'm proud of our godly heritage, our accomplishments, and our form of government. [And proud of never having had a passport, I can only assume. Take a look at the world around you for a different perspective. (I know the world outside America isn't one of the biggest interests of many American conservatives.]

As a graduate of West Point and a Vietnam veteran I knew men who gave their lives for our country. We must not allow others to take from us the rights and liberties for which they died. Duty, Honor, and Country are more than meaningless words and phrases; they give us our national framework and set our country apart, as a city shining on a hill. [Here comes the CV. West Point. Vietnam veteran. Nothing is more esteemed in Alabama than that.]

As former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, I have the highest regard for the United States Constitution and our state Constitution, both of which every elected official in my state is sworn to uphold. The Bill of Rights was meant to protect our rights of life, liberty and property. We cannot give it up without a fight. [I assume Rep. Artur Davis' regard for those comes in second. That would then be "mediocre regard" for the constitutions.]

Finally, as a husband, father of four, and President of the Foundation for Moral Law in Montgomery, Alabama, I have fought aggressively to eliminate pornography, crime, and drugs while upholding the most critical building block of our society, the traditional family. [This is the juicy bit. Wanna bet that Moore will go missing in Argentina or will be soliciting favors in an airport restroom within the next year? Seems like the Foundation for Moral Law is all about Moore's Ten Commandments display.]

I am prepared to fight. I hope you will join me. [I though he was going to say "pray you will join me."]

Your generous gift will help me restore faith, family, and freedom in Alabama and across our great nation. You can help restore America, one state at a time. [Arh!, the three f's. How can I resist sending you my money?]

I am aware that such a challenge will demand great financial resources, so I appreciate your prayerful willingness to contribute. [My what willingness?]

The battle is not to the strong alone, it is to the vigilant, the active and the brave. Together, we will prevail, and with God's blessings we will preserve our civil and religious freedoms for the sake of our children, our grandchildren and our country. [Tell me again why it is that God would tweak the numbers in your favor? And, can we trust that whatever the outcome, it is what God wanted?]

Thank you and May God Bless you and your family, [What's with the capitalizing?]

Roy Moore
Former Chief Justice
Alabama Supreme Court
A call for Alabamians: Support whatever candidate is running against Roy Moore.

How psychology gives evolution a bad name

Of course our minds are shaped in part by our evolutionary history. Our instincts are in our brains, so to speak; at least some of those instincts are patently adaptive; the brain evolved. But, not only do I see some problems with the ways many evolutionary psychologists go about doing science, concluding that this and that behavior is adaptive without really testing it, I also do see lots of really bad science reporting on these very sexy topics.

Case in point is one of the shoddiest pieces of quick and easy blurbs titled Study Shows An Evolutionary Response Towards Protecting Infants on written by an 'olivia'. I don't really know the site or who the contributors are, but I'm glad that it at least isn't in a major newspaper this time.

Here it is in its entirety, with my comments in red:
A new study has shown that humans have developed an evolutionary instinct [What does that even mean, 'evolutionary instinct'? Are there any other kinds?] towards infants that may explain how morality factors in to genetic coding. [This kind of study really would never explain how morality is encoded in genes.]

In the study, 240 wallets were left in Edinburgh streets. All but 80 contained pictures, with 40 of each has either a picture of a baby, a puppy, a family, or an elderly couple. Of the other 80, half had no photos but contained papers confirming an act of charity (such as a paper slip showing a monetary contribution), and the other half were control wallets with nothing. All wallets had information to allow them to be returned to their owners.

Almost half of all wallets were returned intact, but of those the highest percentage came from those with baby pictures.

“The baby kicked off a caring feeling in people, which is not surprising from an evolutionary perspective,” research lead Dr. Richard Wiseman was quoted by The Times Online. [True, that wouldn't be surprising at all. But it also isn't tested at all, so someone might as well say that it is not surprising given my personal creation myth: God made humans more caring of infants from day one (or is that day six?).]

He argues that the instinct to protect children, especially infants, is one that has been strongly developed [make that 'evolved'] through the evolutionary process in an attempt to protect future generations of the human race. [No, not to protect future generations. Evolutionary processes do not have such foresight, because there is no mechanism by which it could. Rather, such an instinct would increase the fitness of the parents that have it, nothing more. That's also all it takes for the instinct to spread.

And again, the story (when phrased correctly) sounds plausible, and I could believe it, too. But as long as this hypothesis isn't tested, the statement is guesswork, and not science.]

He also pointed out that it likely triggered a response within the brain that saw the child as the person’s own, which created a greater empathetic link with the parents as well. [Likely schmikely.]

The next largest group, interestingly, were the puppy photos, then the elderly couple. The family photos scores slightly lower then the elderly couple, and the charity and control wallets had the least returns.
This kind of uneducated reporting (and dare I say ditto on the scientist's statements about evolution?) does not do any good for the public understanding of evolution. First off, people often equate evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology (and they aren't the same things). The latter often isn't rigorous enough, and that gives the former a bad name. And, of course, reporting like this leaves the reader with the impression that the scientist here knows something about our evolutionary past from experiments with human subjects. No, he has learned something about the human psyche. It's a psychological experiment and nothing more.

Evolving the threatening number response

Exactly how long would that take?

Click to read more PartiallyClips - best comic strip on the... anywhere.

Dentists skew Pew poll

Only 97% of scientists believe humans and other living things have evolved over time, according to a new Pew Poll. Full report is here. The survey was conducted online among 2,533 members of the AAAS from May 1st to June 14th this year.

My question is, why only 97%? I do realize that something like that was to be expected in the U.S. But still - seriously. Who are these people? The AAAS has 127,000 members, which gives 3,800 scientists who do not believe in evolution. So I wonder, what kind of scientists are they? (Membership of the AAAS is voluntary.)

But then I looked at the 24 sections:
The AAAS has 24 "sections" with each section being responsible for a particular concern of the AAAS. There are sections for agriculture, anthropology, astronomy, atmospheric science, biological science, chemistry, dentistry, education, engineering, general interest in science and engineering, geology and geography, the history and philosophy of science, technology, computer science, linguistics, mathematics, medical science, neuroscience, pharmaceutical science, physics, psychology, social and political science, the social impact of science and engineering, and statistics.[15]
And so it became immediately clear who those 3,800 scientists are: the dentists.

I do not say this because I have a low regard for dentists, because I don't have that (only intense fear). It's because American dentists have a proven track record of looney beliefs: Dr. Jobe Martin and Don McLeroy.

But seriously, folks, I really would like to know who those 3,798 other members of the AAAS are.

Ideology in science is not an option

A few days ago I commented on Sharon Begley's article in Newsweek. I'm not the only one to have done so by far. Two great responses are by Gad Saad and David Sloan Wilson.

Gad Saad makes this comment to Begley, who dismissed evolutionary psychology in her article:
I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture in the annals of recorded history where parents were overwhelmingly more concerned about their son's chastity as compared to their daughter's. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture where on average men have had a sustained preference for mating with post-menopausal women. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture where individuals who possess asymmetric facial features are judged to be more attractive and desirable than their symmetric counterparts. I challenge Ms. Begley to find a culture where on average women have had a sustained preference for lazy, submissive, apathetic men as prospective mates.
Well put, Dr. Saad. It may be very hard indeed to verify, for example, the hypothesis that men's preference for younger women is an adaptive trait, but the trait is there, and so is the theory. Denying those is folly. We may not like nature's influence on our behavior, but I guarantee it's here to stay.

David Sloan Wilson's article in the Huffington Post is fairly thoughtful. He is very critical - in a paternal sort of way - of Tooby and Cosmides, two of the founders of evolutionary psychology, and counts the ways that they went wrong back in the day:
Let me count the ways: 1) They portrayed the mind as a collection of hundreds of special-purpose modules that evolved to solve specific problems in the EEA. 2) Their conception of the EEA was limited to the range of environments occupied by humans during their evolution as a species, which they acknowledged to be diverse. However, it did not stretch back in time to include primate, mammalian and vertebrate adaptations; nor did it stretch forward to include rapid genetic evolution since our hunter-gatherer existence. 3) They emphasized a universal human nature, or rather separate male and female natures, while minimizing the importance of adaptive genetic variation that cuts across both sexes. 4) They dismissed open-ended, domain-general psychological processes as a theoretical impossibility, creating a polarized worldview with "Evolutionary Psychology" at the positive end and "The Standard Social Science Model (SSSM)" at the negative end; 5) Their blueprint had almost nothing to say about culture as an open-ended evolutionary process that can adapt human populations to their current environments. They did not deny the possibility of transmitted culture, but they had almost nothing to say about it. Their most important point was that what seems like transmitted culture can instead be an expression of genetically programmed individual behavioral flexibility (evoked culture).
Hey! Don't skip that. Read the whole quote.

It may sound like it, but Wilson is not out for a kill. Rather, he wants to fix these problems by taking back the terms to their right meaning:
Take back the terms! Terms such as "sociobiology" and "evolutionary psychology" have straightforward meanings: Sociobiology is the study of social behavior from an evolutionary perspective. Evolutionary psychology is the study of psychology from an evolutionary perspective. Unfortunately, there is a tendency for these terms to become associated with particular schools of thought and endorsed or avoided accordingly. Thus, the study of social behavior from an evolutionary perspective has never been more active, but the term "sociobiology" is avoided because of the controversy surrounding the publication of E.O. Wilson's Sociobiology in 1975. The study of psychology from an evolutionary perspective has never been more vigorous or rigorous, but the term "evolutionary psychology" is avoided by those who disagree with the particular school of thought that arose in the late 1980's.
I have just finished reading E.O. Wilson's autobiography, Naturalist, and walked away thoroughly offended by what other professors and students subjected him to in response to Sociobiology. Particularly two fellow professors at Harvard, Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, comes off as particularly nasty in their attempt of academic castration, based not on the lack of merits of Wilson's theory, but on the ideological implications of it, which didn't square of well with Lewontin's and Gould's Marxist views.

It's time (in fact it is way over) to throw away criticisms of scientific theories that do not attack the science. We may not like what we take to be the implications of a theory, but the only proper way to discredit it is to find its scientific flaws. Ideological angles are never an option.

Scientia Pro Publica #7

A new edition of Scientia Pro Publica is up on Greg Laden's Blog.

Especially recommended comes a post at PodBlack Cat about sleepwalkers. From the paper: "Common features of sexsomnia include sexual arousal with autonomic activation (e.g. nocturnal erection, vaginal lubrication, nocturnal emission, dream orgasms)." That's not exactly what comes to mind when thinking of sleepsex, I suppose, but still a fascinating topic.

Independence for the Uighurs

Yesterday I gave a speech on Independence. I said that nations with minorities should grant those minorities independence, if that's what the minorities want. Examples are Tibet and Taiwan. To my shame, I forgot another minority that wants it (at least by some accounts they do), namely the Uighurs. Incidentally, the Uighurs are a Chinese minority, too.

Now there have been demonstrations ending in fights between Uighurs and the police. Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, blames all on the demonstrators, of course. Can that news agency be trusted on anything remotely related to this sort of incident? Of course not. For one thing, "[Xinhua] says three people were killed and more than 20 injured (...)". Other sources says over 140 dead (LA Times, BBC News (video)). (I do realize the numbers could be an artifact of when those reports were made.)

The Uighurs are a Muslim minority of 8 million people in north-west China, an area which, unfortunately, is rich in oil. Therefore China will not grant them independence. There could be other reasons, such as that the Chinese government just cannot stand losing face (correct me if I'm wrong, but that is supposed to be a fairly well-known Chinese trait in general?).

Let those people go!, if that's what they want.

My 4th of July speech

On this 4th of July allow me to quote that famous sentence from the Declaration of Independence:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

I personally disagree and agree with everything said in that sentence at the same time. Those truths are not self-evident. They must be arrived at. They aren't truths to me, and yet they are all goals worth pursuing. All men (humans?) are not created equal, but some are born into slavery, poverty, or born with mental or physical disabilities. However, they should be treated with equal respect and compassion. Since there is no Creator to endow us with anything, nor to uphold any rules (the latter, at least, is evidently true), then rights are something that we humans instill by law, and nothing else. A "right" to life doesn't even make any sense, but that we afford, by law and compassion, everyone with the help they may need to live, that would be a worthwhile effort (hopefully we'll get there eventually). Liberty is a human concept, thus we decide what we want of it. And it is safe to say that nearly everyone living in this country (that's the USA) agrees to uphold the law, and thereby forego some of that very liberty. Freedom is good, but only partially so*. Same for pursuing happiness, granted you don't diminish anyone else's, I would say.

In summary, those words can be interpreted with good meaning, but are so horribly written that they allow themselves to be used with favor by anyone anywhere on the political spectrum.

In regards to independence, I value it as much as - equate it to, even - Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. I say on to ye, let these proud nations be free to govern themselves. Free Tibet, if that's what they really want (by majority). Let Taiwan go. Let the measure of China be whether nations want to be part of them. If not, take it up for consideration, and change in ways that will entice others to join you. Why is larger better, anyway? Greenland ceased to be a Danish colony in 1953. If they want independence, I say let them have it. Iceland got their independence from Denmark in 1944. Good for them. The Faroe Islands, like Greenland, is a part of the Danish Kingdom, and has been stirring with thoughts of independence. If they can ever make a decision, let them them go too, if that's what they decide. Then get a proper football team.

*Who said "Free as a bird. The next best thing to be."?

Bodypainted airline staff ad

Air New Zealand staff have nothing to hide. And yet, those very things are accurately hidden in this ad with bodypainted staff (mostly male, to my huge disappointment).

I have watched it again and again - mostly for the upbeat tune.

And on that note, how about a bodypaint campaign for your local university? I'd be game. Right after I go to the gym.

Homeopathy 101

This is simply too good not to share. It's like a complete lesson on homeopathy, only it's also funny.

"Bottle of basically just water in one hand, and a huge invoice in the other."
They covered it all.

Via Bruce M. Hood.

Carnival of Evolution in the road

A sample of posts from the Carnival of Evolution #13:
  • genetic drift in Andean contemporary and prehistoric populations
  • video of a bird dancing
  • FOXP2 and how it relates to human linguistic abilities
  • thermodynamics and brain evolution
  • climate change and African grain crops
  • giggling chimps
  • evolution of central nervous systems
  • "Why You Don’t Want To Do It With A Duck"
The last title is meant to be sung to the tune of McCartney's Why don't we do it in the road.

Playboy: "Why Don't We Do It In The Road?"
Lennon: That's Paul. He even recorded it by himself in another room. That's how it was getting in those days. We came in and he'd made the whole record. Him drumming. Him playing the piano. Him singing. But he couldn't—he couldn't—maybe he couldn't make the break from the Beatles. I don't know what it was, you know. I enjoyed the track. Still, I can't speak for George, but I was always hurt when Paul would knock something off without involving us. But that's just the way it was then.
Playboy: You never just knocked off a track by yourself?
Lennon: No.
Playboy: "Julia"?
Lennon: That was mine.[2]

Stochastic cell differentiation my ass

Jean-Jacques Kupiec est un scientifique français. He has a new book out by the title The Origin of Individuals (2009), and Eric Werner reviews it in the latest issue of Nature.

Kupiec's idea is that there is a stochastic element to development which dominates over determinism:
In the standard view, development is controlled by the binding of protein transcription factors to promoters that activate genes in the DNA. These genes in turn generate proteins, including other transcription factors and signalling molecules that activate yet more genes. A cascade of gene activation results, leading to the proliferation and differentiation of cells that ultimately generates the organism. Assuming that molecular interactions and gene activation are predictable, the development process should be deterministic. [My emphasis.]
Kupiec disagrees. Rather, the inherent stochasticity at the level of molecules implies, to him, that cell differentiation (= cellular development) is also stochastic:
Kupiec argues that this picture is wrong. Gene activation is inherently stochastic, he says, and, therefore, cell differentiation must also be stochastic. Transcription factors attach with certain probabilities to many binding sites in gene promoters, implying that chance plays a dominant role in gene activation and expression. Similarly, cell signalling pathways, and thereby cell interactions, are stochastic, as proteins may bind promiscuously to many partners with various odds. Many interactions and pathways are possible. [My emphasis.]
What he is saying here is that since the processes that activate the expression of genes - which in turn make proteins for the different parts of the cell - have a random element (imagine a soup with different molecules bouncing around in a stochastic fashion, turning expression on and off when they come into contact with promoters and enhancers), then the outcome of that cell must also be random. And this is fundamentally wrong.

The big lesson from thermodynamics is that when you put a lot of molecules together, each will be controlled by random (i.e. non-deterministic) effects, but the properties of the gas or liquid are deterministic. There is a transition between stochasticity and determinism when random critters are joined to form a mob. This will surprise no one who has taken high school physics (and listened).

In fact, if we take Kupiecs argument seriously, then all higher level processes are also therefore stochastic. When you play baseball, whether you hit the ball or not must also a random process. Whether you get to have offspring or not must be a random process. This is clearly absurd to the nth degree.

Thus, Kupiec bases his whole book (at least according to Werner's review) on a totally wrong assertion. Had he been better informed from the beginning, so much time could have been saved. And if you think that a year or two to write a book with a provocative idea isn't that much, then consider that Kupiec has had this idea for at least 26 years:
Kupiec Jean-Jacques, A probabilist theory for cell differentiation, embryonic mortality and DNA C-value paradox, Specul Sci Technol, 1983;6:471-478.

A second minor quip with the review (I'm not sure if this is due to Werner or Kupiec) is a very common mischaracterization of what constitutes evolution:
Put simply, evolution requires two processes — variation and selection. An organism's offspring each varies slightly; natural selection picks out those that survive to generate more such organisms, again with their own subtle variations.
That wouldn't be how to put it simply. That would be how to put it wrong. Evolution requires variation and heritability. Selection is not required. Random effects will lead to evolution, too, by changing the frequencies of traits within the population. Selection is sort of an added bonus, really, which makes things a lot more interesting. But it isn't required.

Evolutionary toys

The problem with evolution is that it takes so damned long for things to change enough that we can recognize it. Unlike many other fields of science, evolution is not very experiencable, which is one reason why there is so much resistance against it (there are more than one). This also makes it hard to teach it to children, which is one cause of scientific ignorance and the conflict with creationists.

A Rhode Island company, Charlie's Playhouse, has started up with evolutionary toys. As of now, there are only four products: two time-line posters, ancient creature cards, and t-shirts. It's a start. What I'd really like to see are games that illustrate the evolutionary process through mutation and natural selection. More mechanisms could be added, but these two are the bare minimum. This way children would experience just how these processes work, and thus get a familiarity with them, which would help them avoid those emotions of incredulity that we see in too many adults who argue that natural processes cannot lead to an increase in complexity, cannot lead to the origin of the cell, etc., etc.

Edward Current epic win

I'm surprised no one ever mentions the male beard as a proof of design.

Explanation is not justification

In an interesting article in Newsweek, Why Do We Rape, Kill and Sleep Around?, Sharon Begley promotes the argument that we can not blame our bad behaviors on our ancestors, but must look to ourselves to explain why we rape and kill.

Begley is a senior editor and science journalist at Newsweek, and you might just be familiar with her if you read Pharyngula.

This time, she is out to demolish, no less, evolutionary psychology (EP). So what's wrong with that field of science? Well, basically that it really isn't science, is what I would say. Whenever I find myself with someone who argues for the virtues of EP, I can't help but point out the significant flaws in many studies by evolutionary psychologists. For example, David Buss, in his textbook Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind (2007), begins by explaining how not every human behavior need be a trait that has been under positive selection. For example, just because it is conceivably beneficial to rape, it doesn't mean that that behavior evolved as an adaptation. But then Buss spends all the remaining chapters assuming that this and that behavior is an adaptation, without any other justification. On the other hand, when detractors criticize EP for being completely unscientific, then I tend to balk, noting that the researchers may not always test every hypothesis they make, but it could at least in principle be done (see earlier posts I wrote about this).

Begley takes the side of those who criticize EP for making justifications for human behavior. Randy Thornhill, coauthor of A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion (2001) is taken to task for justifying rape:
Over the years these arguments have attracted legions of critics who thought the science was weak and the message (what philosopher David Buller of Northern Illinois University called "a get-out-of-jail-free card" for heinous behavior) pernicious. But the reaction to the rape book was of a whole different order. Biologist Joan Roughgarden of Stanford University called it "the latest 'evolution made me do it' excuse for criminal behavior from evolutionary psychologists." Feminists, sex-crime prosecutors and social scientists denounced it at rallies, on television and in the press.
I cannot emphasize how deeply repugnant I think such behavior is. Accusing Thornhill for justifying rape is deeply unsettling. Whenever this sort of accusations fly, it makes me really worried that scientists interested in explaining why humans are as we are must fear for their careers because what they find might not please everyone. Accusing evolutionary biologists for justifying eugenics is exactly as deplorable (science cannot justify anything, it can only explain, and if you don't like a conclusion, your only option is to attack it with scientific arguments, not rallying against it as a common mob). Basically, it is a mark of scientific immaturity on any would-be scientists who ever confuses explanation with justification. Ptui!
For years the loudest critics have been social scientists, feminists and liberals [my emphasis] offended by the argument that humans are preprogrammed to rape, to kill unfaithful girlfriends and the like. (This was a reprise of the bitter sociobiology debates of the 1970s and 1980s. When Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson proposed that there exists a biologically based human nature, and that it included such traits as militarism and male domination of women, left-wing activists—including eminent biologists in his own department—assailed it as an attempt "to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race, or sex" analogous to the scientific justification for Nazi eugenics.)
Well, there you go. I consider myself a liberal, though I am neither a social scientist nor a feminist, and yet I strongly distance myself from anyone who makes such accusations of justification. If you are offended by scientific arguments, then you do not belong in science. Simple as that. Full disclosure: I have myself been subject of such criticism in the past, but can assure all that I was as adamant, though perhaps not as emotional, before that particular incident as I am now. (Here is that criticism, and here is the discussion that started it all.)

Additionally, Begley cherry picks quotes and studies with the aim of dismantling the science of EP, but seems to think that this only holds for those nasty male behaviors:
"That makes the likelihood that rape is an evolved adaptation extremely low," says Hill. "It just wouldn't have made sense for men in the Pleistocene to use rape as a reproductive strategy, so the argument that it's preprogrammed into us doesn't hold up."
But where rape fails the litmus test, jealousy is "obviously" adaptive:
Critics of evo psych do not doubt that men and women are wired to become jealous. A radar for infidelity would indeed be adaptive.
Please inform me of the difference between the two claims. Why is rape just not an adaptation, while jeaslousy so clearly is? This is blatantly bad science on the part of the critics of EP, and really bad reporting on the part of Begley.