Field of Science

Pivar's pure fantasy published

ResearchBlogging.orgStuart Pivar has his own lab in New York, Synthetic Life Lab, and he has recently published his first peer-reviewed article in The International Journal of Astrobiology. That's a Cambridge University Press journal, but apparently that does not guarantee a decent review-process at all. As PZ details, the paper is complete bogus, with no link between reality and Pivar's hypothesis that vertebrate embryos form on the surface of spheres. The paper, The origin of the vertebrate skeleton, is chock full of Pivar's drawings, without any explanation of how he made this dicovery.

Here's a good example of his hypothesis, which is, however, demonstratively false:

We know - by looking at actual embryos developing - that this is just not the way a skull forms. And yet the paper was accepted and printed in a serious journal (though, as PZ notes, not really a journal that's a good fit for developmental biology). It will be very interesting to see what happens next. The editor has got some serious explaining to do.

My real interest here, however, is how Pivar's enterprise got off the ground in the first place. And lazy as I am, I'm going to do the unscientific thing of stopping right after my initial hypothesis, with apologies (got real work to do, too).

The paper is two and a half pages of words followed by 18 pages of hand drawings of vertebrate skeletons. The figures have no explanations, and I think this is key to the mystery. My suspicion is that Pivar is an artist who really like to make drawings of skeletons. Like this one, which is the last in the paper:

There's no conceivable explanation for including this drawing. It's just a drawing of a juvenile human skeleton, and it adds absolutely nothing to the thesis of the manuscript. Could it possibly be that Pivar spun a tale of vertebrate embryogenesis based on his own drawings, and then the whole enterprise took off - likely with a multitude of adoration from fellow New Yorkers urging him on - and the fact-checking was relegated to an irrelevant aside?

Pivar, S. (2010). The origin of the vertebrate skeleton International Journal of Astrobiology, 1-21 DOI: 10.1017/S147355041000025X

Update 11:14 am:
In a 2004 NYT article about Pivar and his art collection, it says this about his wife/companion, Ms. Matsos:
Ms. Matsos, 39, is a biophysicist with a special expertise in looking for fossil life in Martian meteorites. She is a consulting researcher at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the editor in chief of Astrobiology Magazine, an Internet publication based at the Goddard Institute of Columbia University.
I wonder what her ties to The International Journal of Astrobiology might be, then...

Whale poo

The newest edition of Scientia Pro Publica - the science blog carnival for the people - are up. One of the posts is about a paper with a new good reason to save the whales, and that's all right, but this time it's a little curious fact that I find adorable. It's not that I don't like the big picture. I do. I love it. It's great. It's so big! But I also adore the facts, and in this post on Mola mola I just learned that whale poo is rich in iron. That may not immediately seem so consequential, but while it is (go there and find out), it is also one of those fun facts that you can drive people nuts with at parties.

And this whale-fact is also a fantastic segue into my new favorite joke:
So I'm at the Wailing wall, standing there like a moron, with my harpoon.
-- Emo Phillips.

And don't forget that Carnival of Evolution is very much forthcoming on Friday (October 1st).

New feature at Carnival of Evolution (Oct. 1st)

The upcoming edition of Carnival of Evolution will be hosted by myself on Carnival of Evolution. With this 28th edition I am planning to initiate a new feature, which will not be about bugs. Rather, in addition to the regular blog-entries about any topic in evolution hosted on the many great blogs that at least occasionally feature evolution, I will feature one particular blog that I think features many good posts about evolution. Whether this feature feature will continue will be entirely up to the hosts to come (for a list, go to Blog Carnival and click on 'future hosts' on the CoE widget - also available on this page).

Which blog will be featured, you ask? Well, I'd be a fool to give it away, I think, so just stay tuned.

And the next edition is scheduled for October 1st, so there is just enough time to submit one (good) or two (better) posts about evolution through the online form. And on that note, I'd like to encourage everyone to also submit posts on evolution that they didn't write themselves. There is nothing wrong with passing on a great post to share with everyone else.

After taking over the administration of CoE from Irradiatus in the beginning of 2010, I have been thinking about ways to expand the carnival. I have not had too much success with this, but I am happy to observe that we are at least surviving, thanks to yourselves. However, I do wonder if we are all there is. Does this email list (which currently contains almost 80 emails of people who have either previously contributed, asked to be on the list, or could potentially contribute to CoE) represent everyone in the blogosphere who blog about evolution, or is there perhaps some segment that we have not yet reached? Do any of you know of blogs that should obviously participate in bringing evolution to the masses? If so please let them know of CoE, or shoot me an email so I can do it.

WebmedCentral and Ginger Pee

Can you imagine what would happen in the creationist community if creationists could get their papers published in a scientific journal without peer-review? I can. There would be much rejoicing, I think the correct term is. And now they can, in WebmedCentral.

WebmedCentral is post publication peer review: the papers are first published and then reviewed online as readers can add their comments. I am not kidding.

The harm? The harm is that there is now nothing stopping creationists of all stripes from publishing shoddy papers concluding that evolution is wrong and creationism is correct. Even if someone knowledgeable takes the time to write a review to destroy the paper, it is still published, and that fact is guaranteed to be touted to no end. The ensuing dismal reviews will be relegated to an admission that there is a controversy, but that would not be news in the slightest, and therefore not really significant for creationists.

It's a very, very bad idea. Even if it is aimed at biomedical research, creationists can still publish in the fields of zoology and bacteriology, for example.

Here's a research article in the subject of Chinese Medicine: Analysis of volatile components in rhizome zingibers, zingiber officinale roscoe and ginger pee by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry and chemometric resolution.

Note that this title is copied and pasted as is on WebmedCentral. Yes, it says ginger pee in the title! (It should be 'ginger peel'). Here's Ginger Pee:

Grace with background Ginger Pee.

Is there any way that I could be wrong, and this enterprise will not turn out badly for serious science? Please do tell.

Update 9/23: Never mind. Seems like PLoS ONE is doing it already.

George Williams on pleiotropy

Another great evolutionary biologist, George Williams, died recently. Carl Zimmer quotes himself from a 2004 interview:
One reason that the book was so effective was that Williams demonstrated how natural selection could influence the full course of a species’ life history. It wasn’t necessary to think of growing old as being for the good of the species, for example. Instead, Williams argued that the decline of old age could be caused by pleiotropy–in other words, the harmful side effects of genes selected for advantages they offered during youth. Just as long as the advantages of these genes outweighed the disadvantages, they would become widespread. Ironically, cancer, declining stamina, deteriorating vision, and various diseases of old age could all be the result of natural selection, says Williams: “Pleiotropy is the ultimate reason for all these things.”
Pleiotropy is indeed possibly the reason why people get cancer, etc. I think of pleiotropy as this crazy wild card with which all sorts of weird and unexpected traits can evolve. A disadvantageous trait, which natural selection under normal circumstances would purge, may exist in a population (go to fixation) because an allele (i.e., a version of a gene) wholly or partly responsible for the disadvantageous trait also affects another trait that is advantageous. If the combined effect of the two (or more) traits is that the organism has higher fitness, then the disadvantageous trait will evolve. Many organisms have traits that some people propose evolved because they initially were adaptations, like big brains or feathers. And many of these may well be, but it isn't out of the question that they initially evolved via a pleiotropic effect.

Pleiotropy may aid in adaptation when epistatic interactions create a rugged fitness landscape. In a rugged fitness landscape, it will sometimes be the case that in order to adapt, a lineage/population must cross through a valley in the fitness landscape before it can reach higher ground. When several mutations are necessary to change a gene (or a set of genes) enough that the organism becomes fitter than the original, and the intermediate genotypes are of lower fitness than both beginning and end product, then pleiotropy may rescue the situation by negating (or attenuating) that negative effect, such that the lineage can manage crossing the valley (which then really isn't a valley, when the second function of the gene (or set of genes) is taken into account).

After having to explain the meaning of epistasis and fitness landscapes to some people who have zero background in biology and evolution, I have become keenly aware just how strange the above may sound when one is unfamiliar. Apologies. Questions are welcome.

I am hosting the next edition of Carnival of Evolution myself over on Carnival of Evolution on October 1st (submit your posts here). Perhaps in memory of Williams?

Boycott Koch Industries

A recent article by Jane Mayer in the New Yorker is making some splash. It describes the political influence of the Koch brothers, owners of Koch Industries. When you buy their products you are supporting a right-wing political agenda. Unfortunately, it's pretty difficult to boycott them, when they make their money on fertilizers, petroleum, pipelines, engineering, investments, pulp and paper, chemicals, real estate, and minerals, to mention just a few. Personally, I'm not in the market for either.

The article proceeds to detail the influence that Charles and David Koch have on American politics. It's substantial. You are hereby urged to read the whole thing. For example, the Koch's are the founder of both the Cato Institute and the Mercatus Center - both conservative/libertarian think tanks that have been and are hugely influential, I am sad to say. The tanks that tell people what to think are completely indifferent to real world, but live to bend the facts the way that suits the purpose of corporations, such as those owned by the two Koch brothers. For example:
Ed Crane, the Cato Institute’s founder and president, told me that “global-warming theories give the government more control of the economy.”
He is implying that global warming is a lie perpetrated with the intent of giving the government more control, and in that he's got it backwards. It's pretty standard libertarian fare (and I guess that's due to these think tanks in the first place).

The hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is not a means to give more power to the government, but a real issue that needs to be dealt with, and the best way to do that is through governmental regulations. The libertarian approach to politics is a puerile dream of times that used to be, but cannot exist anymore in our modern society, which is far to complex and have far too great an impact to be left to laissez-faire capitalism. It is imperative that the common goods (air, water, land, forests, etc.) are protected from rampant exploitation. I don't claim that it is the goal of the libertarian ideology to exploit the commons to extinction, of course, but the libertarian ideology reserves the right to do so, and the result will exactly be that, namely the destruction of the resources that sustain us all.

The fact that the Kochs, and all others of a libertarian mindset, can literally fool themselves into believing that freedom to trade and utilize natural resources at will and without restriction will lead to increased benefit for all, is enormously puzzling. That's not to say that they all think that it will benefit all, and David Koch is of the opinion that he doesn't care about all people, but really only about his own ability to do business any way he wants, and without having to share with the less affluent through taxes.

Honestly, anyone with a decent amount of power of observation should be able to fathom that no governmental control over human affairs will lead to chaos and anarchy, rather than some silly utopian ideal where everything sorts out for the best in the end, as long as people are free to optimize their own wealth. It may be true that some stable state would be reached after a while, but not until lots of people will have suffered and died, and not before and even greater amount of species and ecosystems will have been destroyed.

I like freedom to do whatever I want as much as the next guy, but that doesn't mean that I can't realize what a supremely hellish place this would be if the libertarian ideology reigned. We just so happen to be this many people, and that is the constraint that is imposed upon us. The needs of 6+ billion people and a world of limited resources are simply what we have to deal with, and it can only be done through top-down regulation. A bottom-up approach leads to the tragedy of the commons (a hugely important concept that cannot be emphasized enough), and that means the destruction of the commons.

Needless to say, when filthy-rich libertarians make up their views of the world, they do so such that the world fits with their own vested interested (i.e., freedom and money for themselves):
David Koch told New York that he was unconvinced that global warming has been caused by human activity. Even if it has been, he said, the heating of the planet will be beneficial, resulting in longer growing seasons in the Northern Hemisphere. “The Earth will be able to support enormously more people because far greater land area will be available to produce food,” he said.
The Koch brothers, being among the ten richest Americans, puts their money where their mouthes are: Against global-warming measures.
The fight over a November ballot initiative to suspend California's global warming law has escalated sharply with the Koch brothers, oil billionaires and "tea party" backers, making a million-dollar entry into the fray.


California's global warming law, known as AB 32, is designed to cut the state's emission of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the end of this decade. A significant chunk of the reductions would come through regulations aimed at fostering alternative fuels and generating electricity from solar, wind and other alternative energy sources.
David Koch is also no surprise when it comes to religion. He clearly lives in the same mental fog as the majority of right-wing conservative Americans:
In 1991, David Koch was badly injured in a plane crash in Los Angeles. He was the sole passenger in first class to survive. As he was recovering, a routine physical exam led to the discovery of prostate cancer. Koch received treatment, settled down, started a family, and reconsidered his life. As he told Portfolio, “When you’re the only one who survived in the front of the plane and everyone else died—yeah, you think, ‘My God, the good Lord spared me for some greater purpose.’ My joke is that I’ve been busy ever since, doing all the good work I can think of, so He can have confidence in me.”
That God had seen fit to kill lots of people but David Koch, and that Jesus was a laissez-faire libertarian seems a bit of a stretch, but, quite frankly, I don't see the choosing and picking passages from the Bible to suit your liking here any different than what mainline protestants do - both are done totally ad hoc, and since the Bible itself doesn't tell you which parts to take seriously, and which to base public policy on, who am I to favor one approach over another (the answer so clearly is to spurn it all, imo). So, here's a whack to all of those who select, and another to those who think it is possible at all to get away with taking it all literally, too (but anyway, this was a digression).

After being diagnosed with cancer, David Koch has given millions to research and institutions, and that's a good thing, but then...
Koch’s corporate and political roles, however, may pose conflicts of interest. For example, at the same time that David Koch has been casting himself as a champion in the fight against cancer, Koch Industries has been lobbying to prevent the E.P.A. from classifying formaldehyde, which the company produces in great quantities, as a “known carcinogen” in humans.
What up with the double standard? Nothing, probably. It's just that good business is more important to these guys than human health, after all. Besides, Koch himself was cured, right? He had the money for the best treatment, and my bet is that while this libertarian principle of freedom in all matters is important for Koch, it's really more important that he is free and able to do whatever he wants, and less important that the same opportunities and freedoms apply to everyone else. Or prove me wrong.

Update 10/14/10: As a commenter says below, Koch Industries do make boycottable products. Like Quilted Northern, Angel Soft, and Soft 'n Gentle toilet papers:

Carnival of Evolution #27 – Feed Your Head Edition

It's that time of the month, again. A new edition of Carnival of Evolution has just been posted at 360 Degree Skeptic. Andrew Bernadin present an appetizing menu of evolutionary items that's (not) guaranteed to satisfy anyone's palate.

A sample (never has that been a fitter term):
8. The Thoughtful Animal is hungry, so we’ve got a two-course feast featuring spotted hyenas, matrilines, and female preference. First, Silver Spoon Hyenas? Followed by Silver Spoon Hyenas: Maternal Social Status Affects Male Reproductive Success. Bravo, Jason G. Goldman.

Would-be scholar says Obama is a Muslim

Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa has before written provocative and interesting commentaries on what it means to be human. Now he has written something that makes me think he is completely off his rockers. In a post on his blog on Psychology Today, he argues that there is no denying that Obama is as Muslim as Michael Jackson was black. That because Obama's father was a Muslim, so is obama himself also necessarily. Kanazawa claims that being a Muslim is in Obama's genes, and that he can call himself a Christian all he wants, but he will always only be what his genes prescribe.

Crazy, right?

To think that the religion one identifies with is inherited in one's genome, and that it has nothing to do with belief or choice.
Similarly, the fact that Barack Obama’s father was a Muslim Kenyan, descended from a long line of Muslims, will remain true until the day he dies, and nothing he ever does in his life can change half of his genes that he inherited from his father. His genes are for keeps. The fact that he has attended Christian church for the past 20 years is not going to change that. Michael Jackson looked white much longer than Barack Obama sat in the pews of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church. Obama is still as (half) Muslim as the day he was born.
Quite frankly, I find it embarrassing that a scholar would conflate what it means to be a Muslim with genetics. Kanazawa can define what it means to be a Muslim any way he wants, but if he doesn't define it as based on what one believes in, then he just isn't communicating well with the rest of us. If Kanazawa would have his way, there would be no need for missionaries and rules of death against apostasy. You could not convert to Christianity at all, then. Can I not be an atheist, because ancestors of mine were Christians, then?

Pure idiocy, if you ask me.

P.S. Given such views, I find it unsurprising that Kanazawa has elected not to allow comments on his blog.