Archives For genetics


When we think of ancient biological killers, we typically think of a Black Plague or a smallpox, an often recurring disease that wipes out millions of people and has been recorded since humanity started recording things. The plague killed more than a third of all Europeans in outbreaks from the fall of Rome while smallpox killed well over a billion people over the last 10,000 years. What rarely gets brought up in this pantheon of ancient killers, however, is cancer. It’s been with us a very long time, found in Egyptian mummies over 4,000 years old and named by Greek doctors puzzled by patients who died of “crab-like growths” as they were described, from which we get the disease’s name. But cancer doesn’t just affect us. It kills all living things. Even dinosaurs got tumors because cancer isn’t one disease but abnormal cell growth that is often fatal. If you’re a complex multicellular organism, chances are that there’s a cancer you can develop in time.

One of the most common alt med tropes employed to convince you to buy some new snake oil preaches that frequent cancer diagnoses are a result of our world becoming too polluted and a toxic cocktail of Cthulhu-knows-what circulating through your tissues is to blame. In reality, the reason why so many people get cancers today is because humans are living longer than ever, and are armed with the technology and knowledge to catch more varieties of it earlier, allowing them to subdue it and extend their lifespans even further. In fact, someone I personally know is a survivor of three cancer diagnoses, each a different type, and each was cured with outpatient surgeries. Just a few decades ago, this person would’ve been diagnosed too late and die swiftly even after surgery and chemotherapy, and it’s very likely that with age, there will be yet another cancer diagnosis because cancer is degenerative. The longer you live and the more cells are in your body, the more chances there are for a tumor to spawn after a botched cell division.

But it seems that no one told that to our pachyderm friends, who, despite being large and with fairly long lifespans, have cancer mortality rates half to a fifth of ours. How? Is their blood full of chemo drugs? Not exactly. Their secret weapon against cancers is their genome. Instead of a single copy of the gene encoding the protein p53 like we do, they have 38 in 20 versions. Since this is a protein used to suppress tumor growth, it’s critically important for fighting cancer during its first and most vulnerable stage. More versions of it means better ability to recognize growths that could turn cancerous and a chance to destroy all affected cells earlier. Elephant cells prune such mutations so aggressively, it’s difficult for a new tumor to take hold and this results in their much lower susceptibility to the disease. Given that we’re currently experimenting with medical gene therapy, a hypothetical pop sci afficionado might wonder, could we engineer our very own versions of p53 encoding genes to create a similar resistance to cancers and deal our decisive blow to nature’s murderous defect that’s plagued us since the dawn of complex life?

Sadly, probably not. These p53 variants evolved in elephants against types of tumors that often affect them and which went through millions of years of trial and error in pachyderms, not in us, which means that whether our own gambit to follow this strategy would be successful is unclear at best. Instead, humans could more easily adopt the biochemical strategy employed by naked mole rats, which uses p53 alongside several other mechanisms, including a special sugar, that simply prevent cells from clumping together, breaking up cancerous tumors as a side-effect. It’s a more viable method of combating earliest stage cancers and wouldn’t require inserting some dozen new genes into our DNA, a cocktail of drugs could change how existing genes work. We should continue to study the elephants’ genome to see if we can actually figure out a way to be more proactive with our own evolution to help resist cancer, but for now, we need to take what certainly is a very neat little tidbit of information and keep in mind that anyone in the media who tells us that we could just edit our genes to be more like a pachyderm’s — which we all know will happen sooner rather than later nowadays — is using coming book science for attention…

egyptian wall

Sometimes, you have to go out of your way to look for post material. Sometimes, ideas brew in the back of your head until you have a complete thought that works. And sometimes, the exact blog fodder you didn’t even know you sought until you saw it arrives in your inbox on its own. In the years this blog has been up and running, the number and the frequency of posts while I am actively writing, gave plenty of journalists and PR agents the idea that this is my full time job. It’s not, as should be clear from my short bio, but nevertheless, unsolicited press releases, offers to do interviews, and review copies of books get sent to me on a regular basis. Most of the books in question won’t be blockbusters flying off the shelves at your local bookstore, or on back order from your favorite online retailer, i.e. Amazon, so I seldom mention them. But this one, while not destined for the bestseller list as well, is actually noteworthy in its own, very bizarre way.

Across the ufology and ancient alien theory community, there’s a pervasive idea of human-alien hybrids either living among us, or being with us in the past. When the whole idea was just being distilled into von Daniken’s books, the most popular alternative history of humanity held that we were all of alien origin, engineered to be slaves to an extraterrestrial civilization known to us as the Anunnaki. Compared to other species on this planet, the theorists argued, we were way too smart for our own good and biology alone can’t explain the sudden leap in intelligence. Until the alien part would’ve come up, you could’ve sworn you were reading a creationist tract. But as of late, there’s been a bit of a refinement along the lines of David Icke’s ideas. Humans evolved on their own, just as we were taught in a proper science class. It’s just that some humans had very unconventional families in which mom or dad was an alien from the otherwordly ruling caste. I’d like to think of it as a classic fairy tale but the prince or princess is a lizard from Tau Ceti.

Problem is that the original theory makes more sense than the emerging one because we can’t possibly hybridize with an alien life form, even if we consider the implications of panspermia for some sort of common origin for our species. No matter how closely the organic compounds that gave rise to human and any hypothetical alien life would match, the entire hereditary machinery would depend on the chemistry of their home star system. Even something as basic as DNA on another world could look familiar, but have radically different fundamental elements. Usually, an evolutionary path which took place on the same planet, forking fewer than a million years ago is a requirement for even the idea of successful hybridization, though the degree of success could vary wildly, and most offspring would end up sterile a few thousand generations into it. Should a spacecraft in our far future ever land on a planet around another star where other humans with whom we’d successfully procreate live, a lot of very interesting questions will need answers, but that’s pretty much the only way we could reproduce with any functionally alien species.

But you see, the theorists have thought of that. No matter how radical the differences in DNA or underlying physiology are, a sufficiently advanced civilization could manipulate it to produce the desired effect. We’re already starting to get a good handle on genetic engineering, so shouldn’t star-traversing aliens be even more adept at the technology? And that’s pretty much the vein in which ufologist and cryptozoologist Nick Redfern argues in the aforementioned book, that rare, complex human blood types called Rh negative are the result of Annunaki genetic engineering, and that pregnancies in which the mother is Rh+ and the fetus is Rh- are a telltale sign that the incompatibility isn’t a quirk of biology, but of alien tinkering. He goes even further to attribute the blood group to Rhesus monkeys and posit that by the theory of evolution, an Rh- human would have had to deviate from our normal evolutionary past. After all, how would you possibly argue with the forces of evolution and genetics without denying a century of scientific progress?

Well, you do it by pointing out that pretty much everything underpinning Redfern’s idea is a very drastic oversimplification strapped to the Hyperbole Rocket™, and blasted into space, fueled by a pseudoscientific word salad on its way into orbit. There is nothing so terribly mysterious about the Rh blood group that any deviation from norm could only be alien in origin, the Rh+ and Rh- designation is actually just a flag as to whether the blood cell proteins have something typically known as the D antigen, one of some 50 other antigens in the Rh group. The group was named after the Rhesus monkey because chemical reactions with its blood were used to help scientists study the group and find out how to treat Rh factor incompatibilities during pregnancy. It’s really kind of a misnomer to bring up these monkeys, according to the NIH. To say that about 10% of humanity lacking a single antigen in about 50 during a single test can only come about through alien intervention sounds somewhat absurd in this light. While we’re at it, what about the CCR5 mutation which renders less than 1% of us immune to HIV? Is this proof of aliens as well?

Rather than only being logical that every human should share the same evolved traits, that can only happen through cloning. Should you look hard enough at the 0.5% of the genes making us unique individuals created by sexual reproduction rather than budding or self-fertilization, and a whole lot of differences emerge. For example, those living in the Andes and Himalayas evolved completely different ways to cope with living at extreme altitudes. Native Africans seem to have less in common with each other than with Eurasians, genetically speaking. And one in as many as 8 million children may suffer from progeria, a genetic mutation that accelerates aging. Using the same logic as Redfern, we could point to any rare or peculiar fact in human genes and then claim them to be a side-effect of alien genetic engineering because they’re rare or peculiar. But that would make just as little sense. So should you ever find out that you’re Rh-, don’t worry, an investigation into your genetic lineage won’t uncover a great-to-the-500th-degree-grandma who came to Earth in a flying saucer. Chances are that every ancestor you had was very human.

flu virus

Scientists are now raising the dead and enslaving them to serve the needs of the living. This is not really much of an exaggeration because that’s exactly what happened when researchers in need of a suitable virus for gene therapy applications decided to create an extinct version of a modern virus by reverse-engineering its evolution and printing the now lost DNA into an empty capsid waiting to be activated. Let’s pause for a second and consider that this is the world that we now occupy. We can traverse the evolutionary tree of an organism and order up the DNA of its ancestors to be 3D printed on command. Beyond being basically horror movie fodder in real life though, this experiment isn’t just an exploration into seeing what’s possible. No, this turning back of the clock might become wildly effective cures for diseases and conditions for which the current treatment just isn’t enough or doesn’t really exist by producing a virus that our immune systems haven’t seen yet, and which repairs our genomes to fix what may one day kill us.

Now, I’ve talked about gene therapy and its promise before. It could combat complex disorders like cystic fibrosis, shrink, or at least arrest the growth of cancers, and eliminate problems that can be traced to single genes by altering them once and for all. While the very first human tests did get off to a rocky start, the technology is now much safer and much better understood, and has been showing some promise. In one inspiring trial, the engineered HIV virus sent an acute strain of pediatric leukemia into remission and showed evidence that precise targeting for gene therapy was definitely possible. However, current approaches have a major limitation before we can get really consistent results and that limitation is us. To be more specific, our immune cells pick up on the viruses’ signatures and attack them before they can do any good. This means a lot of good engineering that would have worked never makes it to its target and the patient just doesn’t react to the therapy. Considering that out immune systems have faced at least some of the strains we can use as therapeutic vectors, there’s not much else we can throw at them.

Or at least not much else that exists, thought the researchers in question here. Our bodies had not seen the viruses they brought back through their modern evolutionary history, so bringing a long lost ancestor back from the dead by identifying which mutations happened over the many generations and reversing them, would find our bodies defenseless. Which is exactly what we’d want for gene therapy. Before our bodies can mount a defense, the infection has spread so far and wide that the therapeutic edits should have had their intended macro effect. Just think of it as sending high altitude stealth bombers and special operations teams instead of flying enough conventional fighter planes and tanks against formidable defenses to get at least some through enemy lines. Just far cooler because it involves resurrecting extinct genomes. But rest easy for now if you’re worried about scientists trying to create a real Jurassic Park with this method. The technology we have now can’t just create mammoth and dinosaur DNA we can use to grow full creatures. Well, at least not yet, though we may have to revisit that question soon enough…


Anti-vaccine activists would have us believe that autism is the result of some sort of undefined, or scary sounding toxicity and should be cured by a gluten-free diet and detoxification typically conducted by a profiteering quack. However, the real scientific evidence points to genetics and brain development, meaning that no one develops autism or turns autistic, but is born this way and will fall at some point along the spectrum when the condition can be diagnosed. Recently, another study provided additional evidence for this theory by comparing how modified skin cell cultures taken from those with autism, reverted into stem cells, and induced to grow into micro brains developed to skin cells from their non-autistic parents, subjected to the same treatment. Right away, the researchers noted an over-abundance of inhibitory neurons which created the roadblocks to forming necessary connections for sensory and social input processing.

While this isn’t confirmation that this is in fact what causes autism, it’s a substantial step toward identifying the culprits. It also narrowed down the gene responsible and gave the researchers a good idea for how to control its expression. While some pop sci outlets trumpet this as work we can use to develop a cure for autism, I’m not so sure that it’s so simple. After all, autism isn’t a structural disorder in which an excess of inhibitory neurons blocks important functions and pills or even gene therapy would suddenly turn autistic individuals into neuro-typical ones. With their brains affected from birth, their lives have been built around their neurons compensating for all the neurotransmitter dead ends. It would take many years for their brains to re-wire themselves and fashion a new personality. And while those with severe autism would greatly benefit, would this be a desired, or even an ethical treatment for high functioning autistic people?

If autism shapes how you see the world and you have always had it, yes, it can make life really confusing and difficult. But when one learns to overcome, to recognize one’s problems and find coping mechanisms, the journey has made this person who he or she is today. It’s tempting, in the words of autism quacks to “fix” them, but considering how integral autism has been to how they became who they are, the “fix” in question would mean undoing a lifetime of learning, and in some way undoing what they are today for the ability to better process certain stimuli, social interactions, and better emotional coping skills. Again, for low functioning autistic people, there are arguments in favor of the benefits outweighing the risk, but for those who’ve learned to see this condition as a part of who they are and can easily function on their own, even benefiting a little from some of its positive side effects, being “cured” won’t always be the best choice…


According to a widely reported paper by accomplished molecular geneticist Jerry Crabtree, the human species is getting ever less intelligent because our society removed the selective drives to nurture intelligence and get rid of mutations that can make us dumber. This is not a new idea by any means, in fact it’s been a science fiction trope for many years and had it’s own movie to remind us of the gloom and doom that awaits us if we don’t hit the books: Idiocracy. Crabtree’s addition to it revolves around some 5,000 genes he identified as playing a role in intelligence by analyzing the genetic roots of certain types of mental retardation. Then, he posits that because we tend to live in large, generally supportive communities, we don’t have to be very smart to get to a reproductive age and have plenty of offspring. Should mutations that make us duller rear their ugly heads in the next few thousand years, there’s no selective pressure to weed them out because the now dumber future humans will still be able to survive and reproduce.

Evolution does have its downsides, true, but Crabtree ignores two major issues with his idea of humanity’s evolutionary trajectory. The first is that he ignores beneficial mutations and that just two or three negative mutations won’t necessarily stunt our brains. Geneticists who reviewed his paper and decided to comment say that Crabtree’s gloom and doom just isn’t warranted by the evidence he presents, and that his statistical analysis leaves a lot to be desired. The second big issue, one that I haven’t yet seen addressed, is that Crabtree doesn’t seem to have any working definition of intelligence. These are not the days of eugenicists deluding themselves about their genetic superiority to all life on Earth and most scientifically literate people know that survival of the fittest wasn’t Darwin’s description of natural selection, but a catchphrase created by Herbert Spencer. Natural selection is the survival of the good enough in a particular environment, so we could well argue that as long as we’re smart enough to survive and reproduce, we’re fine.

This means that Crabtree’s description of us being intellectual inferiors of our ancient ancestors is at best, irrelevant and at worst pointless. However, it’s also very telling because it fits so well with the typical assessment of modern societies by eugenicists. They look at the great names in history, both scientific and creative, and wonder where our geniuses are. But they forget that we do have plenty of modern polymaths and brilliant scientists and that in Newton’s day, the typical person was illiterate and had no idea that there was such a thing as gravity or optics and really couldn’t be bothered to give less of a damn. Also, how do we define genius anyway? With an IQ test? We know those only measure certain pattern recognition and logic skills and anyone could learn how to score highly on them with enough practice. You can practice test your way to be the next Mensa member so you can talk about being in Mensa and how high your IQ scores were, which in my experience tend to be the predominant activities of Mensa members. But they are members of an organization created to guide us dullards to a better tomorrow after all…

But if IQ scores are a woefully incomplete measure of intelligence, what isn’t? Depends on who’s doing the measuring and by what metric. One of the most commonly cited factoids from those in agreement with Crabtree is how much time is being spent on Facebook an watching reality TV instead of reading the classics and inventing warp drives or whatnot. But is what we usually tend to call book smarts necessary for survival? What we consider to be trivial knowledge for children today was once considered the realm of brilliant, highly educated nobles. Wouldn’t that make us smarter than our ancestors because we’ve been able to parse the knowledge they accumulated to find the most useful and important theories and ideas, disseminate them to billions, and make things they couldn’t have even imagined in their day? How would Aristotle react to a computer? What would Hannibal think of a GPS? Would the deleterious genetic changes Crabtree sees as an unwelcome probability hamper our ability to run a society, and if so, how?

Without knowing how he views intelligence and how he measures it, all we have is an ominous warning and one that single-mindedly focuses only on potential negatives rather than entertain potential positives alongside them, and making conclusions about their impact on a somewhat nebulous concept which isn’t defined enough to support such conclusions. In fact, the jury is still out on how much intelligence is nature and how much is nurture, especially when we consider a number of failed experiments with designer babies who were supposed to be born geniuses. We can look at families of people considered to be very intelligent and note that they tend to have smart kids. But are the kids smart because their parents are smart or because they’re driven to learn by parents who greatly value academics? We don’t know, but to evolution, all that matters is that these kids secure a mate and reproduce. To look for selection’s role beyond that seems more like an exercise in confirmation bias than a scientific investigation into the origins of human intelligence. That research is much more complex and elaborate than gene counting…

A while ago, I wrote about anti-science attitudes on the far left being just as strong as on the far right, with only a few strains of them being called out because the anti-science on the far left is seldom as organized as creationism and religious morality movements. For an example of this anti-sceince, I followed up with a post on a popular article boiling over with pretentious New Age drivel and compared it to creationist rhetoric for a little study of just how unsettlingly similar the tactics of modern woo-meisters and fundamentalist zealots can be when they’re proselytizing. Now, thanks to a post from UK science blogger Martin Robbins, we can have a look at another example of anti-science on the far left, a theme it treats in much the same way that the far right treats global warming. I’m talking about genetically modified foods, the research avenue despised by a whole lot of environmental activists with such fervor that they destroy experimental crops, threaten researchers, and hold rallies protesting what they ironically call "Frankenfoods" in reference to a creature killed not by a callous scientist who thought human life had no value, but by angry and ignorant villagers who saw it as a threat.

First, let’s address the elephant in the room straight away. Genetically modified foods hold potential for some very real abuse by companies who will own the patents on them and there are certain companies that engage in very unethical business practices when it comes to selling GM crops, just like there are companies that will engage in unethical practices in any industry and put profit over safety, customers, and basic decency. But the actions of the companies that do or would abuse GM crop technology don’t mean that modifying crops to have greater yield or be more resistant to certain pests in their environment is invalid. We’ve been modifying staple foods for millennia, steering the evolution of the crop species we farm by artificial selection and now, we have the tools to directly inject the changes we want. But surely that means we could inject something horrible into the crops’ genomes, something that could kill us all or cause cancer, right? We ran the same risk by tweaking how crops grow in the past because we had no way to analyze what they really did during our manipulation of their environment and couldn’t guarantee they wouldn’t spawn a dangerous toxin. Of course we could have an expert try to address the environmental activists’ concerns about this. Oh wait, no, no we can’t.

… Nor did [the protestors at Rothamsted] want to listen to any scientists: an attempt by researcher Jules Bristow to ask for a right of reply was met with “we’ve heard it all before” after which she was loudly shushed. (After I’d left a few people came over for more constructive chats, but they seem to have been very much in the minority.) Debate was unwelcome for the most part. [S]cientists were just another part of the [GMO] conspiracy, and placards took absolute positions like “Nature does it better” — try telling that to plague victims, or anyone with wisdom teeth.

Hmm, I wonder where the idea of scientists being sinister conspirators propagating lies for profit was just as popular? Oh right, with global warming conspiracy theorists who believe that a UN-led New World Order is out to steal their homes and turn them into farming co-ops, you know, just like those dang commies would do if they won the Cold War. Real science is rarely completely cut and dry on every possible issue and there’s always a gotcha, a rounding error, or a model that needs to be corrected, which is why an ideologue can take something that sounds vaguely scientific and run with it to justify a particular fear or push a pet agenda which may or may not actually follow what the scientific consensus actually says. This is how warnings that what we emit into the air is raising global average temperatures and that this requires our attention gets turned into an urgent call to go 100% renewable and green tomorrow or the Global Warming Monster will rip your face off or play hacky sack with your spleen on one side, and witch hunts to root out those behind the conspiracy to undermine America’s sovereignty and defraud taxpayers with bogus studies on the other. Likewise, the last word on GMOs is twisted to mean that greedy international conglomerates are paying scientists to justify their scheme to poison billions of people for fun and profit.

Of course GM foods are not a panacea for hunger in the developing world, that’s a far more complex issue in the first place, but they have their uses and research into their creation and safety should happen without the threat of Luddite vandals demolishing the research specimens just like the ignorant villagers killed a bizarre creature they didn’t understand and which, with the right safeguards and care, may have offered new ideas to defeating death were it to be handled by experts. Do we know everything about how GMOs reproduce or how safe they are? No. But we don’t know everything there is to know about the organic food that so many virulently anti-GMO protesters eagerly inhale at the dinner table and recommend as the ultimate goal of all farming. We need to continue experimenting with GM crops to find answers to the difficult questions that anti-GMO crowds raise. But of course these activists don’t really care about the answers. They’re too busy projecting their fear of profit-minded corporate malfeasance into the GM debate, just like global warming denialists are busy trying to project their fear of socialism and international legal bodies into climate models…

When it comes to biology, everyone can name the key molecule for life as we know it. Scientists mine it for all sorts of tantalizing clues about our past and possible future while creationists effectively worship it as proof of a deity as some sort of programmer of all living things. But what if I and Ed Yong were to tell you that DNA isn’t the only molecule capable of passing down hereditary information and serving as a key mechanism for basic evolutionary changes? In fact, there’s a whole class of so-called XNA molecules in which deoxyribose can be easily replaced with a whole host of other sugars like cyclohexane, therose, hexose, and glycol to create new kinds of hereditary molecules called CaNA, TNA, HNA, and GNA, respectively. The X in XNA is basically just a placeholder for any sugar that will form a stable helix to contain the nucleic acids to be read. Considering that so many sugars can step up to bat and create a double helix enabling living things to develop and evolve, it’s actually kind of a mystery as to why deoxyribose won out at the dawn of time and prompts one to wonder if we would still be around with say, an ANA which used arabinose instead of the DNA we know and love today?

Now, oddly, the answer seems to be yes because they function the same way and there’s no reason why we couldn’t exist with such a substitution to our cellular chemistry. It’s too late now of course because a life form using an XNA wouldn’t be able to replicate with a DNA utilizing organism. In fact, the researcher who identified these possible permutations of hereditary molecules wants to use them to safeguard us from synthetic life, making sure that it could still be hearty enough to survive competition from bacteria that have been around for billions of years while being unable to actually interfere with our current ecosystem. And as Ed points out, the divergence doesn’t stop there as some scientists are adding even more bases to hereditary molecules to try and coax synthetic life forms into producing very unusual amino acids that would be of use to us. Now, this is all obviously pretty cool because this is quite literally tinkering with the foundations of life, both as we know it, and as we think we might know it, but what can it say about the future and the implications of this work? A very straightforward application could be in astrobiology and the probes sent to other worlds could be instructed to detect a wide array of sugars used in XNAs in soil samples, hopefully indicating some alien biota.

But there’s a potential for a different application. Today, we can engineer fairly harmless viruses which deliver small bits of interfering RNA to shut down gene expression in certain disorders, halting their progression to make them easier to treat. One of the ultimate possibilities of this siRNA technology is to keep cancer tumors in stasis, though considering the recent findings that each tumor may house more than ten different strains of harmful genetic anomalies, we need to figure out how to effectively customize them to attack all those different harmful genes first. It’s a tall order to be sure, but the important thing is that we have a plan and there’s a lot of research into this type of genetic engineering underway. Ultimately, this could even open to door to modifying our own gene signaling to drastically improve our quality of life with age, and perhaps even increase life span by manipulating the biology complicit in making us weaker and more prone to death. Nature doesn’t have the expiration date for an organism stamped into its genome which makes it much harder to delay death, but we know that after a while, the repair of wear and tear slows and damage continues to build up until we get weak enough to be taken out by something that might not have killed us if we were younger or a vital organ starts to fail after accumulating too much damage to continue working as it is. A thorough understanding of how genes and gene expression work can help us find ways to repair or even reverse all that damage…

For as long as we’ve known about genomes, we’ve been trying to link just about everything we do to a certain sequence of nucleobases, often with mixed results. But even though the most our genes can offer us are an incomplete, basic idea of what may be going on with our bodies and clues about their evolutionary history, it’s not discouraging some researchers into looking at genetic differences in different cultures. For example, what could be the role of OXTR, a gene that acts as a receptor for neurotransmitters triggered by social interaction, in a more formal and tight lipped Korean culture, vs. how it plays out in the behavior of more vent and gossip- tolerant Americans? Since the G variety of OXTR generally tends to be associated with deeper social bonding, if a culture tends to clam up, one would think the people who live in it have fewer versions of this gene, right?

Well, not really, if you go by a recent survey published in PNAS. It’s not that there’s a shortage of the G variety of the OXTR gene, but it’s that those with the G type that tend to be the most hesitant to talk about problems or seek help in Korea, while Americans with the same gene type tended to be more open and willing to consult others. The explanation for the finding is that since the Korean culture is more formal and reserved, opening up could be taken a sign of weakness or a lack of good social graces, hence those who want help suppress their natural urges to open up to others. When that restriction is removed, the G types will happily talk about a vexing problem with family and friends. So what exactly did the study find that was new or surprising? It would seem like a survey confirming the obvious, just with a little genetics inserted into it for good measure. But the study’s write-ups are boasting that it’s actually looking at how genetics and culture interact. Take the reaction of neuroscientist Joan Chao about the survey’s implications…

“This [study] is breaking new ground. It’s one of the first to show that cultural norms themselves are environmental factors that interact with genes. That brings together two branches of science that have a long history of separation. We’re making really important and concrete steps toward bridging [gaps between] culture and biological sciences. That’s going to ultimately pay off in our understanding of physical and mental health factors that we all care about.”

Um, far be it from me to heckle the Dr. Chao, but how exactly does this study determine that culture interacts with genomes? If it did, wouldn’t we expect to find the less social A variant of OXTR in Koreans? It anything, it just shows that people who tend to be most concerned about social bonding in a culture which limits it, try to adhere as closely as possible to the dictated norm. The culture itself has no visible effect on the genomes or gene expression, it simply shows how it affects those who are naturally more social, and how some ideas of how we should interact are at odds with our evolutionary and biological inclinations. Why Dr. Chao would say that we now have proof that culture is mutagenic, I don’t know. Sure, culture could influence long-term genetic trends by dictating the rules for reproduction, as it has done for thousands and thousands of years, but that’s something we already knew and study quite extensively. This survey adds practically nothing to what we know about a culture’s effects on those who live by its customs, and declaring otherwise seems to stretch credulity quite a bit more than I’d feel is warranted considering its results.

Usually, when this blog mentions creationists, the emphasis tends to be on fervent Christian fundamentalists like the staff at Answers in Genesis, or on promoters of theistic pseudosciences like the Discovery Institute and the Templeton Foundation. But we shouldn’t forget that Muslim creationists can be just as bad and are in fact noteworthy players in global evolution denialism. In an effort to demonstrate the problems with creationist arguments across the spectrum of faiths, today we’ll be taking a look at a truly odd paper written by Professor Pallacken Abdul Wahid, who has a PhD in agriculture and a passion for armchair theology. According to a few of his musings, the universe is actually a computer program ran by Allah and he intends to demonstrate this concept with such a thorough mangling of genomics, he will literally lead us back to the Garden of Eden in a supposedly scientific paper about the structure and function of chromosomes, and hereditary information.

Ok, we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here. To properly appreciate Wahid’s attempt at shooting down the modern understanding of biology, we need to start with his arguments. First he says that an organism’s cells all carry the same information but come in different types, something he insists that genetics can’t explain. It’s pretty clear that somebody hasn’t looked up how differentiation happens during an organism’s development. There’s a number of very accessible popular science books and shows which talk about genetic toolkits and how turning certain genes on and off produces an impressive variety of cell types which go on to form organs and body parts. So far, so bad. Then, we’re hit with another terrible argument. Wahid notes that after death, an organism’s genetic code is the same as it was in life, therefore, genetics can’t account for things like life and death. And this already ridiculous argument is made even worse with the following display of ignorance…

Added to that is the failure of the synthetic genome to spring to life. A team of molecular biologists at the J. Craig Venter Institute, U.S., artificially produced the complete genome of an organism [ … ] This is a landmark achievement in biology .. it proved [that a] genome cannot come to life implying that genome is not genetic information. This experimental evidence also confirms that life cannot be produced from non-life.

Talk about not even wrong. Since when has death been genetic? Organisms die when their bodies wear out, not according to a killer gene that determines lifespans. Now, if Wahid tackled the lack of a fixed lifespan limit in our DNA, I could see where he would be able to take this line of reasoning. But just pointing out you’ll find a living organism and its dead counterpart carrying the same genes and considering it a good enough base for stating that genetics can’t explain life or death and therefore, the science behind it is terribly flawed, could only show a total lack of relevant knowledge on the author’s part. That goes double for his argument that if you put together a synthetic genome, this genome will come to life, and if it doesn’t, you’ve disproved abiogenesis. It’s an absurd notion from start to finish because hereditary information is very important in organisms, but so are all the other biological structures they have. DNA by itself is a very long molecule carrying hereditary patterns. It has to be interpreted and its codes translated into proteins. Without machinery for that, a replicated genome is not going to suddenly come to life as Wahid seems to believe it should.

So what does the good doctor make of our chromosomes and the DNA contained within it? That we’re all “bio robots” and the nuclei of our cells get divine programming to carry out daily functions. Just to put this in proper perspective, we have a person who doesn’t know the difference between an organic molecule and a living cell go forth and rule out abiogenesis on the basis of of an experiment in which DNA didn’t get up and do a dance in a test tube, but it’s not too big of a stretch for him to consider that Allah is downloading divine software to the chromosomes in our cells. Talk about having your head in the clouds. And then, just to add to the combination of ignorance and sweeping, wild claims, he decides to throw in the idea that human chromosomes look like a pair of ribs and therefore, when Genesis and the Qu’ran talk about Eve coming from Adam’s rib, it’s really just a metaphor for Allah booting up the first woman’s “biosoftware.” I’m just going to say that if you were to look at an actual micrograph of a chromosome, you would not be thinking of little, floating ribs and leave you to come up with all the ways to count the approximate amount of absurdity in his statements.

Obviously, the world of Dr. Wahid and that of actual biologists are very, very different. It’s a fanciful place where gods download mysterious “biosoftware” into rib-shaped chromosomes and strands of DNA are required to routinely come to life on their own to prove the validity of genomics. It’s also wrong from top to bottom and just begs me to issue kids a warning to stay in school and keep studying for those science tests. Though maybe, pass on Kerala Agricultural University, since they seem to have a given a PhD to someone who clearly doesn’t know how to use it or even how to do some very simple research for a public paper.

[ original story via PZ Myers ]

Science reporter Nicholas Wade just published a book which boasts that his insights into the evolution of the human predisposition to supernatural beliefs offer some sort of new or one of a kind explanation for why we have religion in society. To help promote his case, he wrote an article in the New York Times which makes a reference to the hypothetical God gene, some sort of innate component that makes us believe in deities. As you might imagine, the article offers no revelations. We know that religion evolved and stuck around through natural selection and we have a timeline of how it happened. Wade’s truncated account of our transitions from a scattering of hunter-gatherer tribes with shamans leading animistic rituals to modern megachurches, only warrants real attention because he argues that all our religious predispositions must be biological in nature.


If you’ve furrowed your eyebrows and wonder about the validity of that statement, you’re not alone. Yes, we can argue about the nature of our predisposition to religion. However, we do need to learn the tenants of a certain faith. Otherwise, what exactly would we believe? This is one of the biggest problems with arguing that there’s an actual religion gene because so many of our beliefs are highly organized and people are indoctrinated into religion through childhood. More than that, people change their religions and some give it up altogether. So if we accept that Wade is right and there is a genetic nature to our religious belief, we would also have to find an explanation for the current rise in self-professed atheism which involves the religious genes in question being muted through natural selection.

I would even go as far as offer myself as an example against the argument of natural religious tendencies. In my childhood, there was never any emphasis on religion and I grew up without strong religious beliefs. True, there was a time when I sifted through theology because I was exposed to some esoteric ideas and wanted to get a better grip on them but it was an outside stimulus that prompted me to do so, not some innate urge that many theists love to describe. Does this mean I’m some sort of mutant? You could counter my account with a frequently used meme about how many atheists and agnostics start off as theists but you would be using a very contaminated sample because many households in which atheists are born tend to be religious and as the would-be non-theists grow up, they’re bombarded with religious messages until it becomes a part of their culture. Then, they go through a separation process and become non-theists. What happened to the genes in these cases? Did they suddenly deactivate after they made the conscious decision that their religion no longer made sense to them? Clearly, the natural religion argument is fraught with countless problems.

And there’s something rather bizarre about Wade’s column. Almost straight into it, we see what might seem to be a shot across the bow at atheists and agnostics based on the theist canard of their anti-religiosity

For atheists, it is not a particularly welcome thought that religion evolved because [faith] conferred essential benefits on early human societies and their successors. If religion is a lifebelt, it is hard to portray it as useless.

Pardon me Mr. Wade, but what in the FSM’s noodly appendage are you talking about? Are you trying to do an eye-opening, legitimate scientific exploration of religion or just trying to stick it to the atheists? We know that a society based around the same beliefs would have more social cohesion. We know that civilizations wielding religion as a tool for inspiration and social unity did very well. But we also know that any belief would do that, as long as it’s shared. Religion wasn’t useless when it appeared. This was never an argument advanced by the most prominent atheists out there. Instead, the argument was that today, with a decent grip on the basics of science, we’re hitting the point of diminishing returns when it comes to religion. Antibiotics cure diseases, faith healing offers solace. Holy texts offer navel-gazing ruminations, science offers the chance to find the real answers. And while religions probably won’t go anywhere, the ones we have now are outdated, being slowly replaced by New Age spin-offs and science fiction-esque transhumanism just like Christianity and Islam took their sweet time in replacing pagan traditions over the course of centuries.

Expect Wade’s book to be widely used by anti-atheist crusaders who love to mention how religion has to be a human trait and all atheists do is suppress their originally godly nature. Since the press loves to stir up some sort of big nature vs. nurture debate on religion, even if it has to make one up, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the hypothesis being advocated here to get plenty of time in the spotlight.

[ shaman illustration by Maria Trepalina ]