Aglitter in the Net: Sparkly things from the past week or so


A team from the Antarctic Heritage Trust found some century-old negatives from the Shackleton’s 1914-1917 expedition. Some lovely photos, like that above, amidst them. Note the artful use of three men at varying distances to capture a sense of depth the photo would otherwise lack. Shackleton took some good photographers. Story at Imaging Resource. Also check out the Heritage Trust site, which has many other riches.

Speaking of Antarctica and riches: Guardian science correspondent Alok Jha is currently on a research boat that has become stuck in the Antarctic ice. The experience is drawing from him some spectacular work.

The Electric Typewriter has some nice choices for its 50 Best Articles of 2013.

Dienekes Anthro blog briskly summarizes a rather amazing year for ancient DNA, including revelations of more hanky-panky between ancient hominids. For a field guide to those, do check out John Hawks’ Infographic Field guide to Pleistocene hookups.

Gladwell’s David and Goliath in 600 words.

“The Dark Matter of Psychiatric Genetics”, by Carl Zimmer, looks at what psychiatry might extract from “an emerging understanding of the human genome that [Zimmer] explored in a recent story for the New York Times: each of us does not carry around a single personal genome, but many personal genomes.” Zimmer is riffing off a commentary in the journal Molecular Psychiatry by Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institutes of Mental Health.

Psychologist Tal Yarkoni on What we can and can’t learn from the Many Labs Replication Project, which sought to replicate some classic psychology experiments. Tarkoni’s smart write-up includes a review of a strange dust-up in which Dan Gilbert either did or did not diss journalist Ed Yong for his recent write-up of psychology’s replication issues in Nature.

The Times looks at the state of Connecticut’s final report on the Sandy Hook killings. Nothing really big here, but a chilling look at how very isolated the killer was in the months before the shooting.

Thirty months old but new to me, and utterly magnificent: Remembering Horace Judson, at Last Word on Nothing.

Speak, Butterfly. Mary Ellen Hannibal looks at how butterflies tied together Vladimir Nabokov’s home, science, and writing. “A modern taxonomist straddling a Wellsian time machine.”

Is 2013 the year open access reaches critical mass? Hilda Bastian takes a look. Meanwhile, a Washington Post article reminds us why so many want science to open up.

And don’t miss Ed Yong’s back-to-back best-of collections for the year: Top Science Longreads of 2013 and Hidden Gems of 2013.

Small Town Noir: One town’s criminal treasures

I wish I could remember who pointed this out on Twitter: Small Town Noir. A wonderland of strange stories and mug shots, from back in the day.

On the back of Harold Kelty’s mug shot, a police officer wrote, “With Bill Harlan and John Hawk, stuck up Hutchinson Gas Station near New Wilmington, Pa.” The ink growing thin, he dipped his fountain pen in the ink pot, and continued a moment later, in darker script: “Age 17 at time. Married Capt Smith’s daughter—Golf Course. Much family trouble.”

via Small Town Noir | Small-time true crime from New Castle, Pa..

Genes, Drugs, Autism, Crime, Suicide, Play: Selected Articles 2013

Library, Trinity College, Ireland

For posterity and ease-of-finding, here’s a chrono list of my more substantial publications of 2013. Fifteen pieces published elsewhere; one here at Neuron Culture; 30,000 some-odd words, not counting the interviews. A lighter year than some, since I was working mainly on The Orchid and the Dandelion, which I should finish in 2014 for publication in 2015.

My headline here makes the year sound much grimmer than it was. I actually find most of these articles optimistic.

Restless Genes, National Geographic (cover story), January 2013. How genes, culture, and luck made humans extraordinarily successful explorers.

David Quammen on turning research into story, Part I  and Part II, The Open Notebook, January 2013A talk with one of our best writers about how he gets it done. The two-part transcripts cover both a live interview and a continued conversation we had by phone.

Elsevier and Mendeley: Why the Science-Journal Giant Bought the Rebel Start-Up, The New Yorker, 12 April 2013. “When scholarly publishing behemoth Elsevier gobbled up London software start-up Mendeley earlier this week, many Mendeley users felt as if the Galactic Empire had coöpted the Rebel Alliance.” Can the Rebel Alliance change the Empire from inside?

David Dobbs on science writing: ‘hunt down jargon and kill it’.  The Guardian, 19 April 2013. On writing.

Zeal for Play May Have Propelled Human Evolution  The New York Times, 22 April 2013. How play makes us great.

Psychiatry: A very sad story, Nature, 2 May, 2013. A review of Gary Greenberg’s raucous account of the making of the DSM-5. Nature version is paywalled. Archive at Neuron Culture is free.

A Trudge to the Roots of Autism, The New York Times, 13 May 2013. My review of Temple Grandin’s The Autistic Brain.

Why Autopsy Gandolfini? Death Is Certain; Its Cause Is Not, Nautilus, 21 June 2013. Why would you autopsy someone when you know how they died? Because there’s a good chance you don’t.

Clues in the Cycle of Suicide, The New York Times, 24 June 2013. It may seem perverse that the period of spring and early summer should contain what Kay Redfield Jamison calls “a capacity for self-murder that winter less often has.” Yet it does.

“Exquisite wisdom can be hard to follow,”  MediumAn interview with Bobbie Johnson about writing, reading, George Smiley, and whiskey.

Genes Aren’t Just Architects; They’re Actors, Neuron Culture, 27 August 2013. On expanding our view of what genes are up to.

The Social Life of Genes: Shaping Your Molecular Composition, Pacific Standard, 3 Sept 2013Your genes are in constant conversation with your environment. It appears they pay special attention to your social life.

Genetics: The Rite Of Passage. Slate, 27 October 2013. Fine a gene, slap high-fives around the lab, publish to huzzahs, and then … uh-oh. On the humbling of genetics, and how the field is like Michelangelo’s David.

The F.D.A. vs. Personal Genetic Testing. The New Yorker, 27 Nov 2013. How 23andMe came a cropper.

Die, Selfish Gene, Die: Why it’s time to lay the selfish gene to rest, Aeon, December 2013. For decades, the selfish gene metaphor let us view evolution with greater clarity. Is it now blinding us?

Terrible Twos Who Stay Terrible, The New York Times, 16 Dec 2013.  “Dangerous criminals don’t turn violent. They just stay that way.”


“Thank God toddlers don’t carry guns.” On the roots of violence.

My latest at the New York Times looks at the work of child psychologist Richard Tremblay, who finds that violent criminals don’t become violent — they just stay that way.

To understand the violent criminal, says Richard E. Tremblay, imagine a 2-year-old boy doing the things that make the terrible twos terrible — grabbing, kicking, pushing, punching, biting.

Now imagine him doing all this with the body and resources of an 18-year-old.

You have just pictured both a perfectly normal toddler and a typical violent criminal as Dr. Tremblay, a developmental psychologist at University College Dublin in Ireland, sees them — the toddler as a creature who reflexively uses physical aggression to get what he wants; the criminal as the rare person who has never learned to do otherwise.

In other words, dangerous criminals don’t turn violent. They just stay that way.

How so? They fail to get civilized, as Huck Finn might put it. And in this, Richard Tremblay sees opportunity. Get the whole thing at Terrible Twos Who Stay Terrible, at The New York Times Mind column

Remembering The Worst Journey In the World

As today is the anniversary of Amundsen’s win of the race to the South Pole, it’s a good time to remember a related failed journey — not Scott’s running up, but a side trip from Scott’s expedition taken by three men who set out to collect some eggs for science, suffered beyond belief, found the eggs, later found disappointment and then death, but showed a humility and forebearance so essential to true victory that it’s a victory in itself. It was The Worst Journey in the World, remembered by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in a book of that title. I wrote this up a while back. Teaser below. Whole thing here.

They Froze For Science – But Got the Eggs

Bowers, Wilson, and Cherry-Garrard just before departure, June 27, 1911.

In winter I sometimes warm up by reading books with real cold. For a few years years I shuttled between Rick Bass’s Winter, about his first winter in Montana in the 1980s, and R.M. Patterson’s magnificent, shivering Dangerous River, of his days trapping the Yukon in the 1920s. Last week, partly to commemorate the centenary of Robert Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, I re-read The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s beautifully written account of that mission and of a strange mission within it. For six weeks in the darkness of polar winter, with temperatures running between -40F and -70F (-40C to -56C) — a hundred degrees of frost — Cherry-Garrard and two other men drag a heavy sledge of supplies across the Ross Ice Shelf. They hope to reach a bay on Cape Crozier so they can collect the eggs of the Emperor penguin, for science.

Nothing beats this trip for cold. No trip could deliver more misery, for even a gram more would have killed them and ended it. They expected such daily.

On 29 June the temperature was -50° all day.… Owing to the weight of our two sledges and the bad surface our pace was not more than a slow and very heavy plod.… That night was very cold, the temperature falling to -66°, and it was °-55 at breakfast on 30 June.

Some nights it dipped below -70F. At night the men’s sweat and breath condensed and saturated the tent and turned their clothes and gear to stone. Each morning they had to pound one another’s clothes and sledge harnesses for as long as an hour to get the harnesses on so they could pull the sledge;  “sometimes not even two men could bend the [harness] into the required shape.” Each evening it took 3 to 4 hours to make camp and dinner and get into their bags. Each morning it took 3 to 4 hours to start the stove, make and breakfast, get their icelike boots on, and break camp. Then into harness.

Frostbite was routine. The worst was the hands. Even within his thick fur mittens, Cherry-Garrard’s frostbitten fingers developed blisters running their length. The blisters filled with fluid, and the fluid froze.

To handle the cooking gear or the food bags was agony; to start the primus was worse; and when, one day, I was able to prick six or seven of the blisters after supper and let the liquid out, the relief was very great.

Get the rest at They Froze for Science — But Got the Eggs.

Roboroach, anesthesia, and consciousness

RoboRoach, courtesy Backyard Brains

Though not all at once. Two fine and unusual angles one consciousness, that most ephemeral thing without which not much seems to happen.

First, Brandon Keim, at Aeon, asks Do cockroaches have a form of consciousness?:

These days I don’t much like to think of those ant-massacring mornings, but I did after reading about Backyard Brains, a Kickstarter-funded neuroscience education company. The company’s flagship product is RoboRoach, a $99.99 bundle of Bluetooth signal-processing microelectronics that’s glued to the back of a living cockroach and wired into the stumps of its cut-off antennae. Cockroaches use their antennae to detect objects; they react to electrical pulses sent through these nerves as though they have bumped into something, allowing children to remote‑control them with smartphones. Other experiments involve measuring nerve activity in severed roach legs.

Given that few people spare a second thought to kitchen cockroach-stomping or classroom ant farms, the experiments might not seem too troubling. But using the insects like this, rather than killing them or watching them, is a different proposition. Some bioethicists have criticised Backyard Brains for encouraging children to think of living beings as tools, existing not for themselves but for our entertainment and edification. Those misgivings resonated with me. High-school students might do this in biology classes — but children, on the low end of the company’s suggested age‑appropriateness?

[via Do cockroaches have a form of consciousness? – Brandon Keim – Aeon.]

And, separately, Maggie Koerth-Baker, at The New York Times Magazine,  looks at what less-than-perfect anesthesia (you’re aware but can’t tell anyone) can tell us about consciousness:

Studies of anesthesia awareness are full of … horror stories, because administering anesthesia is a tightrope walk. Too much can kill. But too little can leave a patient aware of the procedure and unable to communicate that awareness. For every 1,000 people who undergo general anesthesia, there will be one or two who are not as unconscious as they seem — people who remember their doctors talking, and who are aware of the surgeon’s knife, even while their bodies remain catatonic and passive. For the unlucky 0.13 percent for whom anesthesia goes awry, there’s not really a good preventive. That’s because successful anesthetization requires complete unconsciousness, and consciousness isn’t something we can measure.

via What Anesthesia Can Teach Us About Consciousness –

Both of these are quite rich and highly recommended.

“Die, Selfish Gene, Die” Has Evolved

Hopper or locust? Photo by scarymonkeyshow.
Hopper or locust?

This morning Aeon published a revised version of my story “Die, Selfish Gene, Die,” which originally ran last Tuesday. The title is the same, the subtitle altered:

Die, selfish gene, die

For decades, the selfish gene metaphor let us view evolution with new clarity. Is it now blinding us?

In the original (as in the revised) I argued that the “selfish gene” model and meme popularized by Richard Dawkins’ lovely book, The Selfish Gene, is outmoded and threatens to impoverish the way both scientists and the rest of us view genetics and evolution.

I didn’t expect to convince everyone this is the case, and I haven’t. But I had hoped to make my argument clear, and soon after the story’s publication I saw that I had not. Quite a few readers were confused, and others misunderstood me. For this I apologize. I take seriously and highly value my readers’ efforts to understand what I write; I’m deeply sorry if even a few well-meaning readers tried and failed to take my meaning because I muddled it. In this case it was more than a few.

Thus the revised and expanded article posted this morning, which seeks to clear up the main muddles. I also added a version highlighted and one with links. Here’s a guide:

  • The expanded version is here at Aeon.
  • The original is archived here.
  • If you primarily want to see the most substantive additions and alterations (because you’ve already read the original), I’ve supplied a PDF in which those sections are highlighted. (Note: That document highlights probably 80-90% of the changes, and all the most vital, but not quite a few smaller ones that go along the same lines. It may also have a few small differences from the published version. Please don’t quote from it without checking against the latest published version.)
  • And here is a version with links to sources and such (which don’t appear in the Aeon version).  

Above all, the revision also seeks to make dead clear a point that I failed to make emphatically enough the first time around:

I am not saying that the all the science described or suggested by the ‘selfish gene’ model is wrong. I am observing that while the selfish gene story is adept at taking in new findings and ideas from genomic studies, anthropology, and other evolutionary studies, it does so these days with increasing discomfort to both host and guest. And I am asking, in an age when such new ideas and discipines are flourishing and new tools are revealing astounding new things about the genome, whether the selfish gene story remains the best way to account for or inspire them.

As I put it in the revised article:

Does it make sense to attach these proliferating findings and ideas to the selfish-gene story as appendices? Or is it time to find another story? It may be that the gene is always a player. But it is rarely the only player. And —  may I speak metaphorically? — it may (or may not) be that the gene always behaves as if it were selfish. But that doesn’t mean it always gets its way.

The story has small changes scattered throughout. The most extensive additions and changes in two places:

  1. in the section starting with “Like what other ways?” and ending with the paragraph quoted above. This added section looks at research areas I argue are in tension with the selfish-gene model. Their absence allowed many people to conclude I was offering another single dynamic, genetic accommodation, as a global replacement to conventional genetic selection.
  2. In the “fast hunter” section about genetic assimilation (called genetic accommodation in the original; assimilation is more exact, since in some usage it’s one kind of accommodation). This passage starts with “One way in which the gene follows…”. The main new emphases here are that the process is most definitely not Lamarckian, and that genetic assimilation is just one example (along with the many named in change #1 above) of a dynamic does not fit comfortably within the selfish gene story.  

Again: You can find those spots most easily if you consult the PDF in which they are highlighted. I hope these passages clarify things for any readers that the original confused or misled. If not, please read the whole thing, for the many smaller tweaks I’ve made address these issues too.

Thanks for reading.

Comment policy: As always, free, civil discussion of ideas is welcome, while insults or ad hominem attacks are not. Discuss ideas and arguments, not their vehicles. Thanks.

Photo by scarymonkeyshow. Some rights reserved.


Is Everyday Math The Worst Math Program Ever?

Does this add up?

Everyday Math is drill free. It’s jargon full. Complaints are widespread that it is confusing for parents and children. And it doesn’t build on concepts or scaffold understanding. It has children learn 2 plus 2 in 500 different ways, many of which involve answering questions like, “How did Tanya add two plus two?” Um, with her brain? The program refers to the path the students trace through this maze as “spiraling.” But to where does the spiral lead?

How effective or ineffective is this new math, this famously fuzzy math? I’m glad you asked.

Answer is on Emily Willingham’s desk:  Is Everyday Math The Worst Math Program Ever? – Forbes.

Jerry Coyne Mucks Up and Misreads “Die, Selfish Gene, Die”

Below is a corrective comment I left below Jerry Coyne’s second of two posts (his first is here) critiquing “Die, Selfish Gene, Die,” my recent article in Aeon about complaints from some biologists that the “Selfish Gene” framing of genetics and evolution was hindering both public and scientific understanding of genetics and evolution. This is rather a tempest in a testy teapot, quite likely of little interest to most readers, but I post it for the record. I apologize for what might seem a combative tone. I’ve been so very pleased with the open, fair-minded, construction of quite a few geneticists who found my story either muddled or wrong or both; I thank some of them in clarification yesterday, My TL,DR version of “Die, Selfish Gene, Die”. As I say there, they do science well by assuming we’re all after the same thing: accounts of nature that are both compelling and as true as can be made at the time. Alas, some have responded to my article by seeking to dismiss rather than debate, and to crush rather than merely correct, take them where it may.

Dr Coyne, allow me to offer a correction and a question. No, make that a correction, a rhetorical question, and a correction.

The first correction is fairly minor: You say I quoted West-Eberhard as saying Dawkins would end up “on the wrong side of history.” I did not. That quote, attributed to another geneticist who said it in reference to Dawkins’ resistance to expanding more flexibly the gene-centric paradigm, appeared in the article only briefly. A few hours after the story was published, the source quoted contacted me and argued, convincingly, that while the quote was accurate, its close proximity to a different quote from West-Eberhard might make some people think that the source was allied with West-Eberhard in a broader sense (which he is not), rather than just about this resistance to altering dominant framings of genetic evolution. I found that a completely reasonable concern. The source and I very briefly discussed whether to use the quote elsewhere, but as the source had a truly all-consuming family situation to deal with, and it might take some time to find another right spot for the quote, we agreed that the most sensible thing to do was just cut it. So I cut it.

I point this out so that no one puts in West-Eberhard’s mouth words that she did not say.

The idea of putting words in mouths brings me to my question and second correction:

Where o where, in my account of the quickening hunters that you excerpt above, do I say the faster-running hunters gene-expression changes were passed to offspring in some Lamarckian way? Look for it. It’s not there and never was. I never said or wrote or thought any such thing. Having described how the parents grew faster through gene-expression changes due to what amounts to steady training, I continued the scenario by describing how the kids in each generation grow up running faster essentially because they started training earlier, and this phenotypic change is then locked in when a friendly mutation shows up in a grandchild. I thought that would be clear, but apparently it’s not. But even if things in this passage are less than dead clear, I do not see any reader, except one who hopes to see me advocating a Lamarckianism inheritance, can conclude that I said the parents passed their training-increased speed on via some Lamarckian voodoo. Here are the words in question:

“Your kids, hunting with you from early on, soon run faster than you ever did. Via gene expression, they develop leaner torsos and more muscular, powerful legs.”

I then describe how, in the next generation, a mutation arose that essentially locked in that change. (Just as a similar gene that was available via standing variation could have done the same.)

You say that passage “postulates … .a Lamarckian inheritance of change.” It says no such thing. Nowhere. You have to force such a meaning on the passage. Yet you do. And then you build much of your dismissal around a statement I never made and a postulate I never offered.

THIS is what I meant, in my comment below your first post on my story, by deliberate misreading. And it’s everywhere in both of your posts. And your misreadings are not peripheral to your argument; they are central and necessary to most of it.

You lead this post, for instance, by stating I contend “that conventional natural selection, in which existing genetic variation is sorted out according to the gene copies’ ability to replicate, is wrong.” This is every bit just as manufactured as my non-existent call on Lamarck. Nowhere do I say conventional natural selection is wrong. I simply point out, first, other ways that sharply different traits can be built during a lifetime via gene expression changes (no news to geneticists, but complete, startling, and exciting news to many lay readers), and, second, other ideas about how a trait can develop first through gene expression changes and then be locked in via a gene distinctly friendly to that trait. As both you and Dawkins have said, those dynamics and ideas are utterly compatible, from a what’s-happpening-in-the-organism point of view, with conventional views of genetic natural selection. And while I do argue that the Selfish Gene’s gene-centric framing discourages most nonscientists from seeing these dynamics, I never say these other ideas disprove or should shove aside genetic selection. Only that the emphasis on selection can obscure them.

I never said genetic natural selection is wrong. I never said anything close. Yet you accuse me flatly and plainly of saying exactly that. You seem determined to paint me as rejecting all of established conventional genetics. And you do so despite this passage, which comes immediately after a sentence saying that Dawkins’ “gorgeous argument” is wrong. I truly don’t see how an attentive reader, especially one who reads my article curious about whether I’m rejecting all of conventional genetics or Dawkins’ ideas, reads this and decides I’ve’ done so:

Wray and West-Eberhard don’t say that Dawkins is dead wrong. They and other evolutionary theories … have been calling for an ‘extended modern synnthesis’ for more than two decades. They do so even thought they agree with most of what Dawkins says a gene does.”

Read the last sentence twice if you have to. Then try to square it with your thesis statement, which is that I contend “that conventional natural selection, in which existing genetic variation is sorted out according to the gene copies’ ability to replicate, is wrong.”

You can’t square it. Your main thesis here is a fabrication and a strawman. And it’s wrong.



23andMe Ceases Providing Health-Risk Info; Ancestry Only Now

The company announced today that in reaction to the FDA’s order to marketing health-related information based on its genetic testing, it will cease providing that information to anyone who signed on after the FDA sent its letter on November 22, 2013.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–23andMe Inc., the leading personal genetics company, today announced that it will comply immediately with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s directive to discontinue consumer access to its health-related genetic tests during the ongoing regulatory review process. The company will continue to provide consumers both ancestry-related information and raw genetic data without interpretation. In addition, the company will continue to conduct research using its database of genetic and phenotypic data, and also will continue its educational efforts.

“Our goal is to work cooperatively with the FDA to provide that opportunity in a way that clearly demonstrates the benefit to people and the validity of the science that underlies the test.”

“We remain firmly committed to fulfilling our long-term mission to help people everywhere have access to their own genetic data and have the ability to use that information to improve their lives,” said Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of 23andMe. “Our goal is to work cooperatively with the FDA to provide that opportunity in a way that clearly demonstrates the benefit to people and the validity of the science that underlies the test.”

Update for Customers:

Current 23andMe customers who received health-related results prior to November 22, 2013 will continue to have access to that information.

Customers who purchased kits before November 22, 2013 will still receive health-related results.

Customers who purchase or have purchased 23andMe’s Personal Genome Service (PGS) on or after November 22, 2013, the date of the Warning Letter from the FDA, will receive ancestry information, as well as their raw genetic data without interpretation. These new customers may receive additional health-related results in the future, dependent upon FDA marketing authorization. Customers who purchased kits on or after November 22, 2013 will be eligible for a refund. 23andMe will be sending an email with refund instructions to all eligible customers.

via 23andMe, Inc. Provides Update on FDA Regulatory Review | Business Wire.

For context, see my Nov 26 story in the New Yorker, How 23andMe Broke the Rules: The F.D.A. Versus Personal Genetic Testing : The New Yorker