Thursday, May 31, 2012

I select Baba Brinkman!

WOW! is all I have to say about the newly released Evolution Rap; a guide to artifical selection. This video was specially released to coincide with the World Science Festival for which I am happily blogging, tweeting, opinionating away.  Tom Paine's Ghost proudly presents - Baba Brinkman. Read Baba's full write up over at the WSF group blog!

This post comes to you direct from the north reading room at the lovely New York Public Library. When you visit the city I would put this place on your list for a nice free place to stop and rest :)

Monday, May 28, 2012

Good for Goodness' Sake?

I have decided to focus my "homework" leading up to the World Science Festival on E.O. Wilson and his recent change of mind regarding a long-held tenet of evolutionary biology - inclusive fitness. The theory of inclusive fitness provides a logical and mathematical framework to rationalize kin-selection. Kin-selection explains why behavioral traits such as self-sacrifice come to be in certain species. Although it appears an organism is sacrificing their life for the "greater-good" they are really just behaving that way so that their genes can be passed on through their relatives who they are trying to help survive. Wilson has abandoned the idea that altruistic behavior emerges out of the struggle for existence as previously explained by a simple equation championed by none other that HIMSELF at an earlier stage in his life. The equation is rB>C. In which r is a relatedness factor B is the fitness Benefit to the altruistic organism and C is the Cost of genetic fitness to the organism for carrying out the act of altruism. This equation was put forth and formalized by the British evolutionary biologist W.D. Hamilton in the 1960's.

So why has Wilson changed his mind about inclusive fitness? In a 2010 paper in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Wilson, along with colleagues Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita claim there is not enough evidence in the real world of organisms who display altruistic behavior that follow the rule rB>C. They go further to say that the factors in the equation, B and C are too difficult to quantify.  Wilson admits the equation is simple, elegant, and alluring however he maintains that it is too simple and needs revision.

Wilson's flip-flop (btw, I am not using flip-flop in a negative way here as I think in science changing one's mind is a virtue not a vice) has caused an uproar in the scientific community drawing heavy criticism from some of the most vocal evolutionary biologists including Jerry Coyne and Richard Dawkins.  Wilson's critics have said he is using his authority to make assumptions without backing up his claims with real-world data (though Wilson does cite termite and ambrosia beetle societies). Wilson fires back at them with the same criticism, saying they have a lack of data on their side (though they do cite sawfly, wasp and bee societies). This makes for the juiciest kind of intellectual debate, one that sends scientists out in the field in search for more evidence.

Meanwhile, Wilson's apparent embrace of "group-selection" has opened the flood-gates for scholars from the humanities to jump on board the cooperation-train and use "group-selection" to explain social phenomenon like the persistence of religion in human society and the rapid growth of social networks. Among these are psychologist Jonathan Haidt and social commentator David Brooks. The worry here is that the scientific debate over evidence will be overlooked by the hungry mobs of humanitarians so eager to extract rationale for morals out of biology. 

I am excited to go into this debate and try as I might to filter out the wheat from the chaff when it comes to sound-science.  It gets particularly noisy when morals get involved. I have seen this before at the World Science Festival as I covered the last "Faith and Science" discussion panel in 2010. My big worry is that the conversation will devolve into a silly argument about the participants underlying motives as the festival is in large part funded by a controversial organization called the John Templeton Foundation.  Compounding this fear of mine is that Matin Nowak (the Austrian born, Harvard mathematician, and co-author of E.O.Wilson's) has received many millions of dollars form the Templeton foundation for his research.  Indeed, many of the intellectuals in the Wilson camp are notorious in the scientific community for receiving money from Templeton (Jonathan Haidt winning the Templeton prize in 2001.)  My hope is that the conversation can stick to the science and not get railroaded by money and politics. 

This post has been entered into the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center's travel award contest. Winner's will receive money to help pay for the travel expenses for attending the Science Online conference to be held at the end of January 2013 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Apply for the travel award here!

What is the World Science Festival?


To cultivate and sustain a general public informed by the content of science, inspired by its wonder, convinced of its value, and prepared to engage with its implications for the future. The World Science Festival takes science out of the laboratory and into the streets, theaters, museums, and public halls of New York City, making the esoteric understandable and the familiar fascinating. 

So said my volunteer handbook last year anyway. I am excited to be going back this week for a third consecutive year of blogging the World Science Festival. Please have a look at the event list and help me decide where to focus my attention while on Manhattan. My love affair with this smörgåsbord of science continues to mature. From my first year of volunteering where I darted back and forth over the island, via bus, subway, or taxi carrying VIP packages to festival speakers, to last year's adventure blogging about the nature of uncertainty, the Moth Story-telling series at the Player's Club, and the troubled history of portrait two chemists. The ubiquity of the maestro overseeing it all - Brian Greene - like a symphony conductor with an entire city as his stage, has been a perpetual pleasure to observe. I have no doubt that this year will be filled with as many new connections, dialogues, and overall syntheses as year's past.

Bonus! This year I will be there for the famed Manhattanhenge! Score :)

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Stalagmite from HELL

Is that sulfuric acid in your sugar, or are you just happy to see me :)

Friday, May 18, 2012

The Paradox Behind the PRKCA Gene

A guest-post by Phillip Moore

The PRKCA gene is a paradox of sorts in that it has been identified by European researchers to improve memory, but also to increase the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The magazine Nature just recently released a fascinating article that highlights the curse of possessing a good memory in certain traumatic situations. Let's examine the important details of this study conducted by Dominique de Quervain of the University of Basil in Switzerland and then explore future work that must be done to better understand the PRKCA gene.

Brief Details of 3-Part Study

Dominique de Quervain and his colleagues recruited 700 healthy young European volunteers in order to obtain their DNA samples to analyze the sequence of their PRKCA gene. This gene is just one of many known to impact our emotional memories. The researchers displayed emotionally disturbing images to the participants and then soon after asked them to write brief descriptions of the images. The participants either carried two copies of the A allele or two copies of the G allele, both of which are variants within the PRKCA gene. Those participants who carried two copies of the A allele remembered the most details about the traumatic images, while participants who carried two copies of the G allele remembered the least.

The researchers then recruited 394 other participants to perform the same task while undergoing brain imaging. The study also confirmed that variations in the PRKCA gene impact emotional memory. The brain imagine scans revealed that the A allele was affiliated with enhanced activity in the lateral and medial prefrontal cortex, both of which are regions involved in the encoding of memories.

Finally, the researchers explored the distribution of the A allele among the 347 survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide who fled the civil war. This results of this study were consistent with the other two studies in that survivors who possessed two copies of the A allele were almost twice as likely to suffer from PTSD.

Moving Forward

The PRKCA gene is just one of many known to influence our emotional memories. It is important to examine the role that other genes play in shaping our memories. Massive genomic studies will likely reveal a multitude of other gene variants associated with the greater risk of developing PTSD. Also, more research must be done to understand exactly why the A allele leads to differences in brain activity during the process of memory encoding.

The research conducted by Dominique de Quervain and his colleagues really demonstrates that a good memory can be both a blessing and a curse.

Phillip Moore is an online instructor and coordinator for The College City. As a molecular biologist, Phillip was very interested in this European based study and wants to conduct his own research on the PRKCA gene.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Corn, Beans, and Squash - Three Sisters

Planted together corn, beans, and squash form a "holy trinity" of cooperative growth. By living in close quarters they provide each other with physical protection and nutritional abundance. As the corn emerges high above the others the stalk provides a living scaffold the beans can coil their vines around as they seek the sun. Meanwhile at ground level the squash act as living mulch by preserving moisture under shady leaves and monopolizing sunlight that might otherwise go to nefarious weeds. The prickly stems of the squash provide a defense system against raccoons and other pests that might otherwise "help" harvest the corn.

Underneath the soil the balancing act continues. The beans are legumes - famous for their ability to reduce nitrogen to nitrates by using their root nodules filled with nitrogen fixing bacteria. Corn is notorious for sucking nitrates from soil at a high rate. In the context of large scale farming, corporations get around this by dumping tons of nitrate fertilizers on the corn fields. To fix nitrogen artificially fertilizer producers need to use copious amounts of fossil fuels. This demonstrates that our current food supply relies on ever-evaporating cheap fossil fuels. Another pressing reason to remember and respect the wisdom of the three sisters.

The origin of this wisdom is not a university laboratory but the pre-Columbian fields of present day New York State. The Iroquois or Ho-de-no-sau-nee stumbled upon this beautiful triumvirate sometime during the millenia they lived and played there. So central was this horticultural combination to their sustenance that it became intertwined with their spiritual world-view.

Lewis Henry Morgan writes in League of the Iroquois (First published 1851).

"These plants were regarded as a special gift of Ha-wen-ne-yu (The Great Spirit); and they believed that the care of each was entrusted, for the welfare of the Indian, to a separate Spirit. They are supposed to have the form of beautiful females, to be very fond of each other, and to delight to dwell together. This last belief is illustrated by the natural adaptation of the plants themselves to grow up together in the same field, and perhaps from the same hill. Their apparel was made of the leaves of their respective plants; and in the growing season they were believed to visit the fields, and dwell among them. This triad is known under the name of De-o-ha-ko, which signifies Our Life, or Our Supporters. They are never mentioned separately, except by description, as they have no individual names."

Depending on where you live the time to plant these varies but on average the span between April 20th and mid May marks the optimal planting window. As an added bonus cultivating a garden in your yard or containers in your apartment with your children boosts their veggie intake and physical activity.

Did you like this article? If so please help out my blog however you can. You can donate as much or as little as you like, even just a few pennies. By supporting Tom Paine's Ghost you are helping me bring interesting topics to your beautiful eyes :) Click the MuCash button below. Thanks!

For a much more in-depth look at the practical aspects of cultivating the three sisters see this article by the homesteader John Vivian.

Tom Vilsack can't be all bad if he appreciates this wisdom.

HERMANN, J., PARKER, S., BROWN, B., SIEWE, Y., DENNEY, B., & WALKER, S. (2006). After-School Gardening Improves Children’s Reported Vegetable Intake and Physical Activity Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 38 (3), 201-202 DOI: 10.1016/j.jneb.2006.02.002

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Fair & Balanced? Good Grief!

The bias in this headline is far too blatant to let Fox get away with using their "fair and balanced" tag-line ever again.  Check out the editors trying to tone down the "war on" catchphrase since their rhetoric is coming back to bite them. Obama and his press people are proving to be skilled in the art of rhetorical Judo - claiming "Obamacare" as a positive phrase and using the fox "war on" as a battle cry.  Nice work.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Extra Soma, Extended Phenoptype

How do you think technology projects our respective genotypes? Is this blog part of my extra soma? My extended phenotype? If you comment is it part of yours?

Thanks be to Matteo for showing me this video and introducing me to Jason Silva.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Talking with the Devil

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Charter Schools - Opinion

By Kristopher Hite

When I say I do not like charter schools I mean it. I mean it because I see their proliferation as a shift towards privatization in general. I perceive privatization as an all-encompassing ideological philosophy of many politicians; Margaret Spellings, George W. Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld to name a few. I agree with the Democrats who were outraged at W for slipping in "school vouchers" to his last re-signings of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

From the Washington Post -
"Democrats in Congress assailed the plan -- which also would allow low-performing schools to override union contracts or become charter schools despite state laws limiting their creation -- and expressed concern that the politically charged proposals could delay the reauthorization, which is scheduled for this year." ~ from July 2007. 
I see school vouchers as a more extreme version of charter schools - a move away from public schooling as traditionally understood. While reading about NCLB I came across several provisions of the act leading to increased number of charter schools.

"A fifth year of failure results in planning to restructure the entire school; the plan is implemented if the school fails to hit its AYP targets for the sixth year in a row. Common options include closing the school, turning the school into a charter school, hiring a private company to run the school, or asking the state office of education to run the school directly."
It seems as though all roads out of NCLB lead to a privatized world which upsets me. To me, many of the most powerful Republicans somehow swoon over the teachings of a man with whom I vehemently disagree - Milton Friedman.

From the school voucher wiki -
 "Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman argued for the modern concept of vouchers in the 1950s, stating that competition would improve schools and cost efficiency. The view further gained popularity with the 1980 TV broadcast of Friedman's series Free to Choose for which volume 6 was devoted entirely to promoting "educational freedom" through programs like school vouchers. In some Southern states during the 1960s, school vouchers were used as a method of perpetuating segregation. In a few instances, public schools were closed outright and vouchers were issued to parents. The vouchers, in many cases, were only good at privately segregated schools, known as segregation academies. Today, all modern voucher programs prohibit racial discrimination."

This brings me full circle to my stance on charter schools vouchers and NCLB in general. I perceive NCLB as a well intentioned act of congress carrying a Trojan horse filled with little pro-privatization Milton Friedman time-bombs. I see these privatization ideals as detrimental to communities throughout our educated democracy.

Did you like this article? If so please help out my blog however you can. You can donate as much or as little as you like, even just a few pennies. By supporting Tom Paine's Ghost you are helping me bring interesting topics to your beautiful eyes :) Click the MuCash button below. Thanks!

Maher on Mitt and Mormon "charity"

As a country I think it is time we redefine "charity."