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now, at the university where I teach, I have two students who are beginning
research projects with an endangered tree species the bark of which has
antibacterial properties. One of them already develops and sells botanical skin
care products and wants to develop one that incorporates extracts from this
species (without knowing anything about the active ingredient/s). The other is
a chemistry major who knows how to conduct research on the active ingredient/s.
Despite the depressing overall political climate, I am encouraged by the (what
appears to me sudden) interest in botany and conservation among some of my
students. This bill, in the unlikely event that it passes, will come too late to
help my botany majors with their student loans etc.
I have also posted a YouTube video on this subject here
there are any Neanderthals reading this blog, I must ask, can you possibly
forgive me? I had you all wrong. My voice joined in with the scientific
establishment, led by such great scholars as Chris Stringer, in claiming that
Neanderthals had no culture. This is very much the image that I presented in my
Encyclopedia of Evolution.
Apparently we were wrong.
course, my dear Neanderthals, I could not believe that a hominin with a brain
as large as yours could be stupid. I never said you were stupid—put down that
club, I’m trying to explain myself here—but just that you used your
intelligence for something other than culture. Like maybe figuring out better
ways of hitting each other over the head with clubs—oops, I think I went a
little too far right then. But I wrote a novel manuscript (as yet unpublished)
in which the heroine was an intelligent Neanderthal woman who lived in
Minnesota in the late twentieth century. I can prove that I wrote this! I have
a notarized copy of the manuscript from [date]. I’ve been defending your
dignity, after a fashion, for many years now. But, you gotta admit,
Neanderthals left no cave paintings or artifacts that might suggest art and
religion, in stark contrast to the thousands of artifacts and massive painted
caves of the Cro-Magnon modern humans.
the accuracy of the non-cultural view of Neanderthals depends to a large extent
on the interpretation of a set of artifacts that are not exactly part of
American discourse, not even of intellectual snobs like me—the Châtelperronian
artifacts. These artifacts, found in France, date to about forty thousand years
ago, right about the time that dark modern humans came up from Africa and
encountered the light-skinned, red-haired Neanderthals. The artifacts were
found in a deposit that appeared to be of Neanderthal origin. They included
some really well-made stone tools and, most fascinating, various bones and
shells with holes drilled in them, which were apparently used in necklaces. Most
of us scientists preferred to believe that such decorations could not possibly
be Neanderthal. We wanted to think that the deposit was actually of modern Homo sapiens origin. Or, if the deposit
was from Homo neanderthalensis, we
speculated that you Neanderthals stole them from modern humans, or if you made
them you were just imitating modern humans.
we could get DNA from the human bones at this site, we could maybe settle the
question. Svante Pääbo has elucidated the Neanderthal genome. But apparently
thirty thousand years is about the limit to get DNA from old bones. To get
enough DNA from the Châtelperronian bones, it would be necessary to almost
completely destroy them. But it turns out that collagen (the protein in
cartilage) does not decompose as readily. It was collagen that Mary Higby
Schweitzer found in 70-million-year-old
T. rex bones. Geneticists Matthew
Collins and Frido Welker were able to get enough collagen from the
Châtelperronian bones to analyze (Science, 23 September 2016, page 1350).
Previous studies have shown that human collagen is rich in the amino acid
aspartate, while Neanderthal collagen is rich in asparagine. The
Châtelperronian bones had asparagine-rich collagen, identifying them as
course, errors are possible in the reasoning used above. But the most
straightforward interpretation, according to Jean-Jacques Hublin, Collins’s and
Welker’s collaborator, is to say that Neanderthals made the artifacts.
forward a link to this essay to any Neanderthals you know.
software changes the spelling of names, sometimes it’s a hoot, and sometimes noot.
me introduce you to Connie Maculatum, the poison hemlock plant.
the name is Conium maculatum, but
apparently certain Microsoft programs automatically change scientific names
into words that the programs think should be there. One of the best-selling
books of the Christmas 2016 season, and one which I received as a present,
contained this error. I doubt that the authors or editors intended the text to
read “Connie.” But apparently, even after the correct name is written, Microsoft
changes it from scientific accuracy to one of its standard, approved list of
words. This might happen even after an author reverses the change.
gets personal sometimes. One of my lab students last fall had the last name
Cotten. In case your software changed it, the name ends with an -en. I had to
write this twice in order to get Word to accept this spelling. But when we
recorded her grades in Excel, it kept changing the spelling to Cotton no matter
how many times we tried to correct it. We apologized to the student. She,
however, has had this experience so many times that she hardly reacted. Her
birth certificate, the IRS, and the university might have her name with the
correct spelling but, dammit, Microsoft is determined to change her name to Cotton.
reported that twenty percent of genetics articles that have been published
online contain incorrect names of genes because Excel automatically changed
them—and refused to unchanged them. One example is the gene septin-2,
abbreviated SEPT2, which Excel changed to September 2. This happens even in the
top journals. Notice: twenty percent
is supposed to be our servant, but it determines the framework of reality. You
have no choice but to enter information into Microsoft software in a prescribed
format and to accept whatever form it comes out.
centuries, people have had to accept occasional and embarrassing misspellings.
The nineteenth-century report that Edgar Allan Pee had published a new book is
probably apocryphal; in fact, I might have made it up. But at least newspaper
and book publishers had the option of spelling it correctly.
studied, and am now trying to rescue, an endangered plant species: the seaside
alder, Alnus maritima. If I see this
plant referred to on websites as Alnus maritime one more time, I think I am
going to scream.
don’t mind Microsoft underlining words that it “thinks” are misspelled, so long
as I have the option of overriding its “decision.” It’s the automatic, silent,
and unstoppable changes that I hoot.
this title is going to take some explaining. It comes from a web link
publicized by Science magazine.
until about 1000 CE, the Catholic Church did not make a big deal about eating
meat on Fridays and certain holidays. But after that time, probably as a direct
result of the papal edict, there was a market for chickens. Farmers bred
chickens that were plumper and which laid eggs all year long rather than just
seasonally. These characteristics are associated with a gene variant known as
thyroid stimulating hormone receptor (TSHR), which is now found in virtually
all commercial chickens. Archaeologists (for whom DNA sequencing is now a
standard tool) sampled twelve sites in Europe ranging from 280 BCE to the
eighteenth century and found that the TSHR allele was rare in chickens before
about 1000 CE.
it too much of a stretch to say that the whole modern chicken industry exists
as a result of papally-enforced religious dogmas from a thousand years ago?
Just remember the Law of Unintended Consequences: this is certainly not what
the Catholic Church was trying to do.
an earlier essay, I speculated that, despite Trump’s attack on science
education and research, insisting that both education and research should be
focused entirely on his loudly-stated beliefs rather than on any data from the
real world, there would probably be no mass exodus of scientists out of the
United States into (for example) China.
But events of recent weeks have caused me to rethink this.
announced the appointment of his chair of a task force that will recommend
reforms for higher education.
That man is Jerry Falwell, Jr. Yes, the president of Liberty University, and
the son of its late former president, Jerry Falwell. Jerry Falwell Jr. has said
that he will redesign higher education so that it is focused on the Bible, and
will bring higher education “back to some form of sanity.” And what this
undoubtedly means is that, in order for students to receive loans to attend
colleges and universities, they will have to attend colleges and universities
that promote the utter and absolute truth of Creationism. Science education
will quickly collapse, and therefore science educators will quickly leave the
United States (this is my plan) or else find some other kind of job (I have not
ruled out the possibility of being a science-education supermarket produce
stocker, leading customers on economic botany tours in the produce section). If
the entire function of science education is to indoctrinate college students in
creationism, then scientific research will quickly collapse in the United
States. Other countries, more welcoming to science, will benefit immensely from
the inevitable brain drain.
could possibly go wrong?
creationists do not really want to see God, Jesus, or the Bible exalted in
science education. They do not want the Bible to be taught. They want their interpretation of the Bible to be
taught. Creationists consider themselves personally
inerrant, incapable of error, when they open a Bible and start talking.
There have been many interpretations of Genesis 1, for example, and the history
of these interpretations goes back hundreds of years. But creationists consider all these other interpretations of the Bible to be
wrong. The creationists, and they alone, are chosen by God to tell people what
to believe about the Bible. Jerry Falwell Jr. thinks that we should all bow
down and revere Him, Falwell, as the single
approved explicator of God’s truth.
don’t have a problem with Jesus. I don’t have a problem with the Bible, which
may be inspired by God or may be an historical record of people trying to
understand God. I have a problem with creationist Republicans elevating
themselves to Godlike status and pushing God out of the way. This is the “form
of sanity” that Falwell intends to impose on all scientists, educators, and
teach about evolution, biodiversity, and global warming. Will I soon be
considered an enemy of the state? History is full of scientists who have been
crushed by religious power, from Galileo to Vavilov.
may not be naturally more honest than other people, but the scientific method
enforces honesty when it is followed, as it usually is, at least in the
underfunded ecological and organismic sciences. Actually, scientists are, on
average, more honest partly because the scientific enterprise attracts honest
people—that is, people who do not want their reputations tainted by dishonesty.
For preachers and presidents, of course, the more taint the better. So keep
grabbing that p***y, Trump! And all you evangelical Christians, keep praising Trump for doing so!
of my major projects is that I have kept records on the spring budburst dates
of almost 400 trees (22 species) for the last twelve years in southern
Oklahoma. While my data set is not the biggest in the world, it is one of the
major on-the-ground data sets (as opposed to satellite imagery), and certainly
the best one for hundreds of miles around where I live and work. On January 30
and 31 of this year, almost all of the sweetgum trees (Liquidambar styraciflua, in the Altiginaceae family) burst their
buds—that is, the bud scales separated enough that I could see the green
underneath. But there was one tree I missed. It was way over across campus, not
close to any other trees in my data set. Since it is surrounded by brick walls,
creating a warm microenvironment, I assumed that its buds had opened also. This
was a statistically valid assumption. But if I wanted to make this tree a data
point (datum) in my study, I had to go look at it. I did so—it was a nice 73
degree F day, like many other winter days in southern Oklahoma (itself an
indicator of global warming)—and found that, indeed, I was correct. All this,
for one datum out of several thousand.
honesty is in striking contrast to the ruling junta in Washington, where the
worshipers of Donald Trump believe that they can just make up “alternative
facts”, assertions that God Himself is obligated to accept. My data clearly
show that budburst over the past twelve years has occurred about three weeks
earlier—more in some, less in other, species. But Trump can just make up an
alternative fact, and say that this has not happened, and that simply sweeps
aside my thousands of data and the millions of data worldwide not only of
global climate change but of organism responses to it. I fear—and I hope I am
wrong—that Trump and his junta will force federal research facilities to make
up data to prove that global warming is not occurring, and cut off grant
funding for anyone who does not agree with Him. This won’t hurt me; I just keep
records on the trees I see when I walk to work or drive down to the park. All I
need is statistical software, which the university provides (don’t tell Trump).
The ascendancy of “alternative facts” or Trump-truths is one reason I believe
that the very scientific way of thinking is under assault in America.
not in France. They have their own political mess right now, but even the
right-wingers over there appear to accept global climate change and the
importance of doing something about it. There is more than one way of being
wrong. You can be in error, or you can be abusively wrong. The former, in
French, is se tromper (to deceive
oneself) (Trump le trompe), I think.
The latter is avoir tort (Trump a tort).
Perhaps the best description of Trump is Trump
nous trompe—Trump deceives us. He should be ashamed, but Trump n’a jamais honte.