Brave Old World

[Edit: I’m going to brazenly steal from my friend Keith and rename this post. Once I slept on it and my rage cooled, it became apparent that “Are you !@#$% me?”, while emotionally totally appropriate, wasn’t the most…precise title in the world.]

Can you believe this? A family correlation taken as a genetic link–for a predisposition to crime. This is so simplistic it’s like 1910 all over again. It’s not back to the future–it’s ahead to the past.
http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-32221589

Cesare Lombroso

h/t Alexandra Stern

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Professor of Astro-what?

Today, the Library of Congress and NASA announced my new gig for next year, as the Baruch Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology at the LC. From October 2015 through September 2016, I’ll be resident at the Library.

LucyLawlessXenaHandsUpWhy astrobiology? My next project is a biography of DNA. One key part of the book will be the story of how we’ve come to understand the origins of DNA and the origin of life in an RNA world. So I’ll be using the unparalleled resources of the Library to write the history of origins research since the genome project, as well as working on the rest of the book.

Looking forward to joining the excellent people at the Library!

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“Fascist Park” Recreates Thrills of Tyranny’s Golden Age

Imagine going “on safari” across Europe in 1939. Out of a nearby bunker steps none other than Adolf Hitler. He goose-steps in your direction, glowering. His little mustache twitches. Now you must choose: Siegheil! Or run!

In the latest of a new breed of extreme entertainment such as “Tough Mudder,” the biotech company Tyro-Scene has announced that it plans to recreate the twentieth century’s most vile tyrants and let them compete for resources in a naturalistic setting, while paying customers experience an afternoon of terror, repression, and the threat of genocide. Riffing on the iconic dinosaur-cloning movie series, they are calling it “Fascist Park.”

Inspired by current research into the recreation of extinct species such as the Woolly Mammoth, a company spokesman says Tyro-Scene will create scenarios that will enable customers to truly live the worst horrors of the twentieth century, including Nazism, Stalinism, apartheid, and Maoist communism. No one under 18 is permitted, and the experience is not advised for adults with heart conditions or psychological “triggers.”

idi aminFor those up to the challenge, the park promises to get your pulse racing. At any moment, Benito Mussolini, Josef Stalin, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, or even Hitler himself may pop out from behind a tree and attempt to oppress or even exterminate you.

Fascist Park will be located on nearly 10,000 desolate acres in southeastern Utah. Efforts are underway to terraform the landscape into regions resembling various tyrannical eco-systems, including central Europe, North Korea, Uganda, Libya, and Siberia. Customers will ride through the region in armored light patrol vehicles equipped with an add-on landmine protection kit and driven by a former Navy SEAL. Further protection will include issuing all customers an AK-47 rifle and requiring them to watch a fifteen-minute safety video before setting out.

The courageous will have opportunities to leave the vehicle and get “up close and personal” with some of history’s most vile human beings. Guests may be interrogated, waterboarded, or shot at. And because they may drive over land mines, pass through mists of chemical or biological weapons, or give chase, they are urged to wear loose, washable clothing and sturdy shoes.

Reanimating the twentieth century’s most fearsome tyrants may seem like mindless entertainment, but it has both scientific and historical value, the company insists.

“By recreating these dictators in a controlled but naturalistic environment, we can study the biological basis of an array of important human traits, from systematic violence to megalomania to a taste for large, dark sunglasses,” the spokesman said. “Understanding how these genes are shaped by the environment is a crucial step toward preventing genocide going forward.”

Indeed, the park will also be available to research teams who wish to study the dictators in their natural habitat. The Canadian anthropologist Woot Derbyshire, often referred to as “the Jane Goodall of messianic assholes,” plans to be first in line. “So far, I’ve had to rely on computer simulations for my work,” he said. “There’s still so much we don’t know about these sons of bitches, from their mating rituals to their grooming habits.”

Behind the scenes, Fascist Park will be an industrial research park. More than one hundred scientists will labor to maintain stocks of fresh dictators; in the wild, they inevitably impinge on one another’s plans for world domination. This leads to thrilling battles, coups, and sabotage—but it also requires regular replacements.

The park plans to open in November, 2018, with a gala opening featuring a simulated Kristallnacht. Tyro-Scene is already thinking about expanding the franchise. Action figures and plush toys are in the works, as well as customized genealogical DNA kits that will allow customers to find out which dictator they are related to. Also planned is a movie tentatively starring Ellen DeGenerate and George Cloney.

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Tweeting the life of the mind

Academic colleagues of mine who are only slightly or not at all involved with social media often ask me why I do it, while those of us who are involved often seem to find ourselves defending or proselytizing (see special essay series…). Yet one of the most important reasons for me is that it gets me out of the ivory tower for a bit of fresh air.

My Twitter feed is only maybe 20% historians of science and medicine. I follow and am followed by scientists, journalists, novelists, biotech executives and marketing types. I’m pretty sure my feed has a better racial and gender mix than my university, as well as a wider spectrum of political views and commitments. In short, Twitter broadens me.

Another reason I do it, though, is community service. I think that we who stroll the groves of Academe have a duty to get out and engage with the wider world somehow. One of my colleagues does political work in Latin America. Another raises consciousness about climate change. Yet another helped break the story about North Carolina’s official eugenic sterilization program—a story that led to an official apology from the state and reparations to at least some of the victims’ families. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a place in the Academy for the dreaming scholar, alone with her books, researching esoterica. Supporting the gathering of knowledge for its own sake strikes me as a pretty good use of money. But those of us who are moved to do so can help keep the life of the mind vital and relevant by getting out and getting our hands dirty.

Regular Genotopia readers know that fighting genetic determinism is among my main causes. “Gene-for” explanations have a way of supporting the status quo, reinforcing existing power hierarchies, blaming the victim. When social problems are explained away with genetics, it tends to divert attention from environmental solutions. It lends an aura of power and inevitability to racism, sexism, and homophobia. The genetic determinist says, Black/Hispanic/poor people are innately less intelligent; why bother fixing the schools? Such arguments have been around in almost exactly the same form for a century or more. More data doesn’t seem to make a dent. Among the public, the popularity of genetic determinist thinking stems mainly from our desire for simple explanations and from the cultural authority of science. When scientists do it, it’s mostly because when all you’ve got is a sequencer, everything looks like a gene.

And yet lots of people use this kind of language without having insidious political ideologies. It’s easy, it’s ubiquitous, we’re conditioned to think this way. But when we use determinist language, inadvertently or not, we’re making real social change more difficult. So when I see such language in the popular press or in the scientific literature, I call it out—gently if I think it’s accidental, with a bit of a bite if I don’t.

My daily dose of determinism last Friday was in a piece by the science writer Greg Jenner. If you don’t know him, he does the BBC’s “Horrible Histories” and is the author, most recently, of the brand new book, A Million Years in a Day. He writes about science and history in a jokey, easily accessible way and has a large following, in several different media. The piece, published on his blog and tweeted by @erocdrah, was about the acquisition of language. It brought together data on the evolution of linguistic ability in Homo sapiens and other data on the absence of language in people with autism. I choked on one sentence, fairly far down in the piece, where he discussed evidence from the gene FOXP2, a potent gene that has been implicated in language—it has even been called “the Twitter gene.” Jenner wrote,

“Why can homo sapiens speak so eloquently, yet Neanderthals possibly couldn’t? The likeliest cause is genetics.”

This looked like a job for Anti-Genetic Determinism Man.

I tweeted that I wished he wouldn’t write sentences like that, and followed up with a respectful compliment to show that I wasn’t a troll. What followed was among the most rewarding experiences I’ve had on social media. I’ve storified the conversation:

After this exchange, Jenner sent me a direct message saying that he always wanted to avoid deterministic language and was happy to hear any other suggestions I had for how to improve the piece. I had to sign off for the evening though, and by the time I got back to it he’d already made his own edits. Not only did he change the offending sentence but he added several other tweaks to make sure it was clear that a trait as complex as speech does not—cannot—have a single cause. Here are the key paragraphs:

Why can homo sapiens speak so eloquently, yet Neanderthals possibly couldn’t? One factor is perhaps genetics. In 1990, scientists were introduced to the KE family (a label applied to protect their identity), who were three generations of Londoners struggling with an unusual medical condition. About half of them lacked fine motor control over their facial muscles, lips and tongues – making their speech unintelligibly slurred – and they also found grammar highly problematic. We now know that this family carried a faulty version of a gene called FOXP2 that regulates the expression of other genes, and seems to be crucial to speech. In fact, when given the human version in a recent experiment, the squeaks of mice dropped to a strange baritone sound. Admittedly, it’s not as if the rodents suddenly stood up on their hind legs and quoted the romantic poetry of William Wordsworth, but it’s still remarkable.

Whether a Planet of the Apes scenario of articulate chimps might be theoretically possible seems unlikely, as humans have also evolved descended larynxes and the crucially-positioned hyoid bone, both of which are vital components in producing our array of vocal sounds. But the fact remains that our ability to deliver a Shakespearean soliloquy is, in large part, the by-product of a lovely evolutionary accident. Had another gene mutated instead, you and I might possess glow-in-the-dark skin, or blue nipples as long as our index fingers. But, then again, maybe not. We have to be careful with our desires to apply a simplistic determinism to genetics, no matter how tempting it is to say “this is a gene for *insert thing*…”.

Ain’t that fine? That last sentence almost made me cry—and then I’d have had to dab my eyes with my long blue nipples. The entire piece is here. Afterward, Jenner wrote me to thank me for my comments and said he appreciated my expertise. I took care not to lecture, though, and I hope that the respectful tone I tried to strike helped keep him receptive. Pedantry is endemic among academic faculty and is a real barrier to wider engagement.

So. Thanks to Greg Jenner and all smart, skillful journalists who are receptive to a stuffy old professor. Thanks to the scientists who will talk with a humanist and to the private-sector executives who engage with an idealistic egghead. And thanks to everyone else on social media who use that platform, so crammed with idiocy and hate and bunk, to discuss serious ideas with civility and humor.

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Human Theome Project

This is one of the most serious pieces ever posted on Genotopia. As the shooting at the French humor magazine Charlie Hebdo shows, satire can be dangerous business. It is also one of the most important forms of speech—both provocative and healing. We are reposting this feature, originally posted in 2011 and lightly edited, to lock arms with the staff and writers at Charlie Hebdo and with satirists everywhere. We hope it offends someone and are glad that our home address is not public.

Joe and Mary Juke are models of piety. They attend services twice a week, are active in faith-based charity organizations, and their house brims tastefully with Christian iconography and literature. They describe themselves as “fundamentalists,” although Joe is quick to emphasize, “We’re moderate fundamentalists—we don’t bomb clinics or anything.” They are planning to have a family, and they are making sure to create a pious environment for their children. They know that the setting in which a child is raised helps determine the kind of adult he or she becomes.

But for the Jukes, books, icons, and saying “Grace” are not enough. In what is being cited as a milestone in personal genomics, Joe and Mary have taken steps to ensure their baby is religious—by selecting its genes.

 photo gods-dna-church.gif

From Poor Old Spike’s photobucket

 

Using preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), a combination of genetic screening and in vitro fertilization (IVF), Joe and Mary are loading the genetic dice for their progeny, selecting embryos that carry the traits they want in little Joe Jr. (or mini-Mary). Modern techniques allow them to select for a wide range of qualities, from avoiding hereditary diseases, to selecting eye, hair, and skin color, to shaping aspects of personality. For example, choosing a combination of half a dozen genes allows them to add a cumulative 40 points to their unborn child’s IQ. Many of these tests have been available for years, although they have only recently begun to be available to consumers. But the most striking decision in their family-planning process was to expressly select for embryos that will grow up to be religious, because they carry the allele known colloquially as the “god gene.”

“It kind of gives a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Chosen One,” Mary says.

Sequencing the human theome

The gene, which was identified statistically in twins in a study published in 2005, was recently cloned and sequenced, as reported in the online journal Nature Theology. Dubbed yhwh1, the gene correlates strongly with feelings of religious fervor. Studies show that the gene encodes a protein that is expressed in a part of the brain called Chardin’s area 86, long associated with religious activity and, strangely, anterograde amnesia. One famous patient was Guineas Phage, a virologist who suffered an injury with a pipetteman that resulted in a plastic tube being driven precisely into area 86; he spent the last two decades of his life on a constant pilgrimage along US Route 66 between Kingman and Barstow, accompanied by his wife, Winona, whom he continually left behind at gas stations.

Particular expression of religiosity in a given individual varies according to environment; what is inherited is the capacity for intense religious experience and evangelism. First described in the Amish in a classic study of the 1960s, the trait was described as an autosomal recessive with high penetrance, and was linked to a rare inherited form of dwarfism. Recent analyses have also found the trait occurring at high frequency among charismatic ministers, shamans, and suicide bombers.

The yhwh1 allele is one of the latest findings in the burgeoning field of “theomics,” which aims to identify all genes associated with the practice of preaching, as well as general feelings of spirituality. The Human Theome Project overran its projected completion date of December 21, 2012—the date, according to ABC News, the world as we know it might have come to an end. All things considered, then, researchers are content with their progress.

Here are some of the most exciting new findings of the HTP:

▪   Scientists estimate that at least 400 genes are involved with religious feelings or activity. Thus far, more than 100,000 variants have been described. Easing the task of studying these genes is the fact that they cluster into “ecclesiotypes” — groups of religion genes that tend to segregate together. A research team at Mystic University in Connecticut is coordinating an effort, called the “EccMap project,” to characterize them.

▪   The EccMap project consists of 400 trios  (deity, parent, and child) representing each of the five dominant world religions—christianism, judaishness, islamian, confusianity, and pastafar-I. Researchers say these explain 80% of genetic variation for religious belief.

▪   Polytheism is more common than had been thought. Ninety-five percent of all trios in the EccMap project have genes for at least two religions. Since phenotype is almost always monotheist, this suggests that the environment may play some role in fine-tuning religious beliefs.

▪   A related project seeks to uncover the epigenetics of evangelism, which is thought to be caused by methylation of regions of the X chromosome, a reversible process that can profoundly affect gene expression. Researchers hope this may provide therapeutic targets for drugs or gene therapy to “de-program” those who become convinced, against thousands of years of recorded history, that theirs is the only path up the spiritual mountain.

▪   A newly discovered kinase, called Bub666, is strongly correlated with atheism. It seems to be responsible for the breakdown of yhwh1, suggesting that biochemists are approaching a mechanistic explanation of religious experience.

▪   Rocker Ozzy Osborne has had his genome sequenced. Preliminary results show 85% homology with a Presbyterian minister from Des Moines.

“It’s tremendously exciting research,” said Mary Magdalene-Gohdtsdottir, a senior researcher in the University of Utah’s Department of Omics. “Just think of it: the genes for God! Isn’t that cool?” Indeed, the federal government thinks so. NIH Director Francois Colon, a molecular biologist and born-again Christian, has recently created a National Institute of the Molecular Biology of Yahweh (NIMBY), with an annual research budget of $400/year, as part of the government’s effort to support faith-based initiatives in biomedicine.

 

But is it science?

Some critics have called the Jukes’ actions a step toward eugenics, described in the 1920s as the “self-direction of human evolution.” They see religiosity as a gift, not something that can be ordered from a catalog. “This is an outrage,” said the Reverend Reginald S. Inkblot, of Southboro Baptist Church in Onan, Kansas. “Religion can’t be in your genes. Science can’t explain it. It’s just a part of who…you…um, are. It’s just in your…uh, yea…” He brightened and added, “If God had wanted us to be religious, he would have….oh, wait. Damn!—I mean, darn!”

Others are appalled that religion would receive scientific consideration from scientific foundations at all. Dick Dorkins, President of the atheistic Society for the Prevention of Intelligent design, Theology, Or Other Nonsense (SPITOON), calls the entire effort a “travesty.” “If I must check my brain at the church-house door,” he said in a Skype interview, “then you must check your soul at the laboratory door. Come on—be fair.

Dorkins worries that should the procedure become widespread, it could lead to nonreligious persecution. If those chosen by PGD tend to express genes such as yhwh1, scientists predict, it could lead to changes in gene frequency across the population. Dorkins envisions a dystopian scenario in which an atheistic underclass washes the wineglasses and polishes the pews for their genetic spiritual superiors. “It will be GATTACA crossed with The Ten Commandments,” Dorkins said, an audible quiver in his voice.

Evolution in religious hands

Some theologians have condemned in vitro fertilization because it normally results in the destruction of unused embryos. However, new gene therapy techniques make it possible to link a “suicide gene” to alternative forms of the desired genes in Joe’s sperm samples; thus, only sperm that carry the traits they want survive to fertilize Mary’s eggs. No embryos are destroyed in the process. This makes in vitro fertilization acceptable to many pro-life Christians.

Joe and Mary dismiss critics who say they are taking evolution into their own hands. “That’s just your theory,” says Joe. They view their decision to choose the religiosity of their unborn child as a command from above. “WWJC?,” Mary asks. “Who would Jesus clone?”

Ironically, as Biblical literalists, the Jukes dismiss Darwinian evolution as “unproven.” To them, the earth is 4,000 years old, and all the types of animals in the world today were on Noah’s Ark. They see themselves as spearheading a Crusade of believers into biomedicine.

His eye acquiring that spark of evangelism that is a tell-tale sign of heavy methylation at Xq66, Joe’s voice deepened and he intoned, “The heresy of modern science will only be righted when human evolution is safely in the hands of people who do not believe in it.”
Read more at http://scienceblog.com/76171/human-theome-project/#07U8Wl33hcVj3mjI.99

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Usmanov: ‘I don’t need no stinking medal’

It’s pledge week again on National Public Radio. Imagine if Bill Gates had called in and told them, “What’s your fundraising goal for this drive? I’ll meet your target right now if you’ll call off the drive”– and NPR said, “Thanks but no thanks—we’ll see what we can get on the phones.”

Alisher Usmanov (from Wikipedia)

It turns out that’s what happened with Watson’s Nobel medal. Christie’s whispered word about the auction in several countries before the sale. Alisher Usmanov, the richest man in Russia, contacted Watson before the auction and made an offer for a financial contribution to the Lab, on the condition that Watson call off the auction, according to the latest report by Anemona Hartocollis in the New York Times (she’s had the Watson auction beat). But Watson turned down Usmanov’s offer. Hartocollis reports that Watson wanted to see how much he could get for the medal.

So Usmanov let Watson hold the auction and then bid on the medal, determined to win—but to not take home his thank-you coffee mug. As one astute Genotopia commenter observed, things have reached a strange state when a Russian oligarch takes the moral high ground.

This latest twist is vintage Watson. I can well imagine him waving away the rotund Russian and his “boring” (my imagining of Watson’s word) offer of a straight gift. I think the thrill of the gamble caught him. Crick (‘s family) got $2.1M for his. Watson was confident he could beat that. But by how much? At the auction, he watched the bidding intently, grinned broadly when it crossed $4M, and celebrated afterward.

In remarks at Christie’s before the auction, he told the audience to always “go for gold.” Silver was never enough, he said. It turns out that he had something specific in mind: he wanted not the “silver” of Usmanov’s initial offer, but the maximum gold he could get for his gold. The gamble, the risk, the competition, the publicity. The chance to take the stage once again, to rile people up, confuse them, yank the public’s chain. It became about him, not the gift.

Watson enjoys playing the scoundrel and he chose, with classic perversity, to punch a few holes in this clichéd last refuge. The reasons to undertake philanthropy are to be–or at least appear–moral, generous, selfless, humane. As the dust settles on this latest bizarre event in Watson’s long career, he ends up seeming competitive, avaricious, and childish. Of all the reasons he gave for wanting to sell the medal, the most oddly touching was the wish to rehabilitate his image. Alas, he has only reinforced it.

 

 

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