PZ Myers Archives

It’s Paul Nelson Day, again


Solemn greetings, all. Today, as the more reverent among you know, is Paul Nelson Day. Today is the 12th annual feast day of St Nelson, patron saint of obtusity and procrastination, and we honor his contributions to science by...well, by not doing much of anything at all. You could make grandiose claims today and promise to make good on them tomorrow, a tomorrow that stretches out into a decade or more, I suppose, but that's too much work. Instead, maybe we should all just shrug and say we'll think about celebrating later.

Oh, jeez, shrugging? I don't have time for that. How about if we don't and just say we did.

I also thought about suggesting waffles as the perfect food for this day, but nah, I'd have to cook them, or go to a restaurant. I'm just going to say "waffles!" and put it off to some other day.

Anyway, if you don't know the story, Paul Nelson is a creationist who attended the Society for Developmental Biology meetings in 2004, with a poster in which he claimed to have developed this new evo-devoish parameter, Ontogenetic Depth, that supposedly measured the difficulty of developmental complexity to evolve. I quizzed him on it, and specifically asked him to explain how I could measure it in my zebrafish, for example, and he couldn't tell me, even though he seemed to be saying that he and a student had been doing these 'measurements'. But he promised to send me a paper he was working on that explained it all. Tomorrow! A tomorrow that never came.

So now we remind him of his failure every year. It's a good thing to point out to Intelligent Design creationists that they don't seem to be very good at fulfilling their grand promises.

He seems to sometimes notice that he's being mocked, at least. Last year, he tried to trot out Ontogenetic Depth 2.0, which was just as impractical and ill-conceived as the first non-existent version. Maybe he'll have a new beta for us this year, too?

Unlikely. Too much work. Not in the spirit of the day.

Don't you hate it when you get up in the morning and the first thing you read on the internet is the news that your entire career has been a waste of time, your whole field of study has collapsed, and you're going to have to rethink your entire future? Happens to me all the time. But then, I read the creationist news, so I've become desensitized to the whole idea of intellectual catastrophes.

Today's fresh demolition of the whole of evolutionary theory comes via Christian News, which reports on a paper in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution which challenges the ape to human evolutionary theory. Wait, that's a journal I read regularly. What did I miss?

Musings from the mind of a mouse


Casey Luskin is such a great gift to the scientific community. The public spokesman for the Discovery Institute has a law degree and a Masters degree (in Science! Earth Science, that is) and thinks he is qualified to analyze papers in genetics and molecular biology, fields in which he hasn't the slightest smattering of background, and he keeps falling flat on his face. It's hilarious! The Discovery Institute is so hard up for competent talent, though, that they keep letting him make a spectacle of his ignorance.

I really, really hope Luskin lives a long time and keeps his job as a frontman for Intelligent Design creationism. He just makes me so happy.

His latest tirade is inspired by the New York Times, which ran an article on highlights from the coelacanth genome. Luskin doesn't think very deeply, so he keeps making these arguments that he thinks are terribly damaging to evolution because he doesn't comprehend the significance of what he's saying. For instance, he sneers at the fact that we keep finding conserved elements in the genome, because as we all know, there are lots of conserved elements.

The coelacanth genome has been sequenced, which is good news all around…except that I found a few of the comments in the article announcing it disconcerting. They keep calling it a "living fossil" — and you know what I think of that term — and they keep referring to it as evolving slowly

The slowly evolving coelacanth

The morphological resemblance of the modern coelacanth to its fossil ancestors has resulted in it being nicknamed 'the living fossil'. This invites the question of whether the genome of the coelacanth is as slowly evolving as its outward appearance suggests. Earlier work showed that a few gene families, such as Hox and protocadherins, have comparatively slower protein-coding evolution in coelacanth than in other vertebrate lineages.

Honestly, that's just weird. How can you say its outward appearance suggests it is slowly evolving? The two modern species are remnants of a diverse group — it looks different than forms found in the fossil record.

Happy 9th Paul Nelson Day!


It's a dying holiday, I'm sorry to say -- I completely forgot it last year. But I was reminded this year, so I'll mention it again. I think the proper way to celebrate it is simply to laugh at a creationist today.

The source of the holiday is a remarkable exhibition from Paul Nelson, who like several other creationists, loves to register and present at legitimate science conferences. The barriers are low, and many conferences are intended to give students an opportunity to present, so you'll often find that all you have to do is send in a fee and an abstract and you'll be allowed to put up a poster in an allotted space for a few hours of time. So Nelson showed up at the Developmental Biology meetings in 2004 with a poster titled "Understanding the Cambrian Explosion by Estimating Ontogenetic Depth" in which he and Marcus Ross claimed to have been collecting data measuring some parameter called "ontogenetic depth" in various organisms.

I was at that meeting. I asked him about that in person, and also in blog posts afterwards. How do you measure ontogenetic depth? Share your procedure so I can assess and replicate it, which is what scientists are supposed to do. He hemmed and hawed and hmmphed and in typical Nelsonian fashion babbled and burbled on, and the upshot was that he couldn't tell me just then, but he had something he was writing and he'd polish it up and get it to me the next day, 7 April. He didn't. We've been watching the 7th of April pass by for nine years now.

I think he's felt the sting of mockery. In 2010 he announced that my criticisms were invalid, but he was inventing Ontogenetic Depth 2.0, which still isn't defined and still doesn't have a procedure.

In 2011 he posted some more essays on his fictitious method, in the first of which he announced that ontogenetic depth is A Biological Distance That's Currently Impossible to Measure. Yeah? So why was he presenting a poster at a serious scientific meeting in which he and his colleague claimed to have been measuring it? Sounds like scientific fraud to me.

But then, Intelligent Design creationism has been scientific fraud all along, so I guess he was just following hallowed tradition.

The science of antediluvian plushies


One creationist claim that's commonly laughed at is this idea that 8 people could build a great big boat, big enough to hold all the 'kinds' of animals, and that those same 8 people were an adequate work force to maintain all those beasts for a year in a confined space on a storm-tossed ark. So the creationists have created a whole pseudoscientific field called baraminology which tries to survey all of taxonomy and throw 99% of it out, so they can reduce the necessary number of animals packed into the boat. Literally, that's all it's really about: inventing new taxonomies with the specific goal of lumping as many as possible, in order to minimize the load on their fantasy boat.

In the past, I've seen them argue that a biblical 'kind' is equivalent to a genus; others have claimed it's the Linnaean family. Now, Dr Jean K. Lightner, Independent Scholar (i.e. retired veterinarian), has taken the next step: a kind is equivalent to an order, roughly. Well, she does kind of chicken out at the Rodentia, the largest and most diverse group of mammals, and decides that those ought to be sorted into families, because otherwise she's reducing the number of animals on the ark too much.

The ducks are gonna get you


Some poor young girl, deeply miseducated and misled, wrote into a newspaper with a letter trying to denounce homosexuality with a bad historical and biological argument. She's only 14, and her brain has already been poisoned by the cranks and liars in her own family…it's very sad. Here's the letter — I will say, it's a very creative argument that would be far more entertaining if it weren't wrong in every particular.

I've transcribed it below. I couldn't help myself, though, and had to, um, annotate it a bit.

The ENCODE delusion


I can take it no more. I wanted to dig deeper into the good stuff done by the ENCODE consortium, and have been working my way through some of the papers (not an easy thing, either: I have a very high workload this term), but then I saw this declaration from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

On September 19, the Ninth Circuit is set to hear new arguments in Haskell v. Harris, a case challenging California's warrantless DNA collection program. Today EFF asked the court to consider ground-breaking new research that confirms for the first time that over 80% of our DNA that was once thought to have no function, actually plays a critical role in controlling how our cells, tissue and organs behave.

Both Andrew Sullivan and Kevin Drum are wrong, but I think Drum is infuriatingly wrong.

They're arguing over a statistic, the observation that about 46% of Americans believe the earth is 6000 years old and that a god created human beings complete and perfect as they are ex nihilo. Andrew Sullivan sees this as a consequence of the divisiveness of American politics, that they're using it as a signifier for red vs. blue.

I'm not sure how many of the 46 percent actually believe the story of 10,000 years ago. Surely some of them know it's less empirically supported than Bigfoot. My fear is that some of that 46 percent are giving that answer not as an empirical response, but as a cultural signifier. That means that some are more prepared to cling to untruth than concede a thing to libruls or atheists or blue America, or whatever the "other" is at any given point in time. I simply do not know how you construct a civil discourse indispensable to a functioning democracy with this vast a gulf between citizens in their basic understanding of the world.

Congratulations to Eugenie Scott


Genie has been announced as the recipient of the 2012 Richard Dawkins Award, which will be delivered at the Denver meeting of the Atheist Alliance of America on Labor Day weekend. Everyone be there to applaud wildly!

Good news! The gorilla genome sequence was published in Nature last week, and adds to our body of knowledge about primate evolution. Here's the abstract:

Gorillas are humans' closest living relatives after chimpanzees, and are of comparable importance for the study of human origins and evolution. Here we present the assembly and analysis of a genome sequence for the western lowland gorilla, and compare the whole genomes of all extant great ape genera. We propose a synthesis of genetic and fossil evidence consistent with placing the human-chimpanzee and human-chimpanzee-gorilla speciation events at approximately 6 and 10 million years ago. In 30% of the genome, gorilla is closer to human or chimpanzee than the latter are to each other; this is rarer around coding genes, indicating pervasive selection throughout great ape evolution, and has functional consequences in gene expression. A comparison of protein coding genes reveals approximately 500 genes showing accelerated evolution on each of the gorilla, human and chimpanzee lineages, and evidence for parallel acceleration, particularly of genes involved in hearing. We also compare the western and eastern gorilla species, estimating an average sequence divergence time 1.75 million years ago, but with evidence for more recent genetic exchange and a population bottleneck in the eastern species. The use of the genome sequence in these and future analyses will promote a deeper understanding of great ape biology and evolution.

I've highlighted one phrase in that abstract because, surprise surprise, creationists read the paper and that was the only thing they saw, and in either dumb incomprehension or malicious distortion, took an article titled "Insights into hominid evolution from the gorilla genome sequence" and twisted it into a bumbling mess of lies titled "Gorilla Genome Is Bad News for Evolution". They treat a phenomenon called Incomplete Lineage Sorting (ILS) as an obstacle to evolution rather than an expected outcome.

The problem with evo devo


Last week, I gave a talk at UNLV titled "A counter-revolutionary history of evo devo", and I'm afraid I was a little bit heretical. I criticized my favorite discipline. I felt guilty the whole time, but I think it's a good idea to occasionally step back and think about where we're going and where we should be going. It's also part of some rethinking I've been doing lately about a more appropriate kind of research I could be doing at my institution, and what I want to be doing in the next ten years. And yes, I want to be doing evo devo, so even though I'm bringing up what I see as shortcomings I still see it as an important field.

I think of myself as primarily a developmental biologist, someone who focuses on processes in embryos and is most interested molecular mechanisms that generate form and physiology. But I'm also into evolution, obviously, and recently have been trying to educate myself on ecology. And this is where the conflicts arise. Historically, there has been a little disaffection between evolution and development, and we can trace it right back to Richard Goldschmidt and the neo-Darwinian synthesis.

I've been guilty of teaching bean-bag genetics this semester. Bean-bag genetics treats individuals as a bag of irrelevant shape containing a collection of alleles (the "beans") that are sorted and disseminated by the rules of Mendel, and at its worst, assigns one trait to one allele; it's highly unrealistic. In my defense, it was necessary — first-year students struggle enough with the basic logic of elementary transmission genetics without adding great complications — and of course, in some contexts, such as population genetics, it is a useful simplification. It's just anathema to anyone more interested in the physiological and developmental side of genetics.

The heart of the problem is that it ignores the issue of translating genotype into phenotype. If you've ever had a basic genetics course, it's quite common to have been taught only one concept about the phenotype problem: that an allele is either dominant, in which case it is expressed as the phenotype, or it's recessive, in which case it is completely ignored unless it's the only allele present. This idea is so 19th century — it's an approximation made in the complete absence of any knowledge of the nature of genes.

I have read the entirety of Hamza Andreas Tzortzis' paper, Embryology in the Qur'an: A scientific-linguistic analysis of chapter 23: With responses to historical, scientific & popular contentions, all 58 pages of it (although, admittedly, it does use very large print). It is quite possibly the most overwrought, absurdly contrived, pretentious expansion of feeble post hoc rationalizations I've ever read. As an exercise in agonizing data fitting, it's a masterpiece.

Here, let me give you the short version…and I do mean short. This is a paper that focuses with obsessive detail on all of two verses from the Quran. You heard me right: the entirety of the embryology in that book, the subject of this lengthy paper, is two goddamned sentences, once translated into English.

We created man from an essence of clay, then We placed him as a drop of fluid in a safe place. Then We made that drop of fluid into a clinging form, and then We made that form into a lump of flesh, and We made that lump into bones, and We clothed those bones with flesh, and later We made him into other forms. Glory be to God the best of creators.

Seriously, that's it. You have just mastered all of developmental biology, as taught by Mohammed.

In my previous post, I described the misguided approach Gauger and Axe have taken to criticizing evolution, and one of the peculiarities of their criticism is that they cited another paper by a paper by Carroll, Ortlund, and Thornton which traced (successfully) the evolutionary history of a class of proteins. Big mistake. As I pointed out, one of the failings of the Gauger/Axe approach is that they're asking how one protein evolved into a cousin protein, without considering the ancestral history …they make the error of trying to argue that an extant protein couldn't have directly evolved into another extant protein, when no one argues that they did.

The tactical error is that right there in the very first paragraph of their paper, Carroll, Ortlund, and Thornton point out the fallacy of what the creationists were doing.

Direct comparisons among present-day proteins can sometime yield insights into the sequence and structural mechanisms that underlie functional differences. Such "horizontal" comparisons, however, cannot determine which protein features are ancestral and which are derived, so they are not suited to reconstructing the events that produced functional diversity.

They don't mention Gauger and Axe, of course — this paper was written before the creationists wrote theirs — but a methodological flaw is still spelled out plainly, the creationists reference it so I presume they read it, and they still charged ahead and did their flawed study, and then had the gall to claim their work was superior.

The Discovery Institute has me on a mailing list for their newsletter, Nota Bene. That's probably unwise: usually I just glance at it, see another ignorant bit of fluff from Luskin or Nelson or one of the other usual suspects, and I snigger and hit 'delete', but sometimes they brag about how they're really doing science, and I look a little closer. And then I might feel motivated to take a slap at them.

The latest issue contains an article by Ann Gauger, babbling about her recent publication disproving Darwinism, written with her colleague Douglas Axe, published in their tame 'science' journal, Bio-complexity, and edited by Michael Behe. It's not work that could survive in a real journal, I'm afraid.

Magnificent momma


This is one beautiful plesiosaur, Polycotylus latippinus.

(Click for larger image)

(A) Photograph and (B) interpretive drawing of LACM 129639, as mounted. Adult elements are light brown, embryonic material is dark brown, and reconstructed bones are white. lc indicates left coracoid; lf, left femur; lh, left humerus; li, left ischium; lp, left pubis; rc, right coracoid; rf, right femur; rh, right humerus; ri, right ischium; and rp, right pubis.

Xiaotingia zhengi


A lovely new dinosaur fossil from China is described in Nature today: it's named Xiaotingia zhengi, and it was a small chicken-sized, feathered, Archaeopteryx-like beast that lived about 155 million years ago. It shares some features with Archaeopteryx, and also with some other feathered dinosaurs.

That's not hyperbole. I really mean it. How else could I react when I open up the latest issue of Bioessays, and see this: Cephalopod origin and evolution: A congruent picture emerging from fossils, development and molecules. Just from the title alone, I'm immediately launched into my happy place: sitting on a rocky beach on the Pacific Northwest coast, enjoying the sea breeze while the my wife serves me a big platter of bacon, and the cannula in my hypothalamus slowly drips a potent cocktail of cocain and ecstasy direct into my pleasure centers…and there's pie for dessert. It's like the authors know me and sat down to concoct a title where every word would push my buttons.

The content is pretty good, too. It's not perfect; the development part is a little thin, consisting mainly of basic comparative embryology of body plans, with nothing at all really about deployment of and interactions between significant developmental genes. But that's OK. It's in the nature of the Greatest Science Papers Ever Written that stuff will have to be revised and some will be shown wrong next month, and next year there will be more Greatest Science Papers Ever Written — it's part of the dynamic. But I'll let it be known, now that apparently the scientific community is aware of my obsessions and is pandering to them, that the next instantiation needs more developmental epistasis and some in situs.

This paper, though, is a nice summary of the emerging picture of cephalopod evolution, as determined by the disciplines of paleontology, comparative embryology, and molecular phylogenetics, and that summary is internally consistent and is generating a good rough outline of the story. And here is that story, as determined by a combination of fossils, molecular evidence, and comparative anatomy and embryology.

A little cis story


I found a recent paper in Nature fascinating, but why is hard to describe — you need to understand a fair amount of general molecular biology and development to see what's interesting about it. So those of you who already do may be a little bored with this explanation, because I've got to build it up slowly and hope I don't lose everyone else along the way. Patience! If you're a real smartie-pants, just jump ahead and read the original paper in Nature.

A little general background.


Let's begin with an abstract map of a small piece of a strand of DNA. This is a region of fly DNA that encodes a gene called svb/ovo (I'll explain what that is in a moment). In this map, the transcribed portions of the DNA are shown as gray shaded blocks; what that means is that an enzyme called polymerase will bind to the DNA at the start of those blocks and make a copy in the form of RNA, which will then enter the cytoplasm of the cell and be translated into a protein, which does some work in the activities of that cell. So svb/ovo is a small piece of DNA which, in the normal course of events, will make a protein.

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