My interview at TAM

December 16, 2013 • 10:08 am

When I spoke at TAM last July, I was interviewed (along with many other speakers) by the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Reader Lesley called my attention to the fact that they have just posted the video (part 1). For better or worse, here it is, but remember that at the time I was pretty sick with a stomach bug (I can’t bear to watch this now). I’m not sure whether there will be a part 2; we certainly taped more than this.

The interviewer, who did a good job, was Joel Guttormson, Outreach and Event Coordinator for the RDFRE.

This bit is on the evidence for evolution, though my talk at TAM was about the incompatibility of science and religion.

20 thoughts on “My interview at TAM

  1. The beginning of the video, there is text that reads “Part 1 of 3” so presumably there will be two more videos!

  2. Very entertaining but also shocking.

    Only 15% of Americans accept evolution? I thought it was taught in most schools although not certain southern states. I must be wrong.

    I wanted to say thanks for introducing the Human Evolution course a few months ago. It is really great and I am loving it. It’s part nostalgia for my 1st degree in zoology 35 years ago and part new knowledge in a fast moving field.

    I never learnt much about junk DNA – is it really junk or is it that we have not found a role for it yet?

    When I was at university the gut flora and fauna was largely regarded as commensal but the concept of the microbiome today would seem to view it more as symbiotic. It’s great how stuff changes!

    1. I never learnt much about junk DNA – is it really junk or is it that we have not found a role for it yet?

      My go to persons on junk DNA are T. Ryan Gregory [ ] and to some extent Larry Moran [ ]. Unfortunately Gregory seems to have changed website, so it would take a while to dig the basic descriptions up. (But Maybe Moran’s articles can substitute.)

      “… lots of non-coding DNA is probably non-functional. However, lots isn’t. It’s not either-or.”

      “How much is functional? I don’t know, but I can say that since there very beginning — in the first detailed discussion of “junk DNA” ever published — the proposed figure was higher than the current data suggest:

      “These considerations suggest that up to 20% of the genome is actively used and the remaining 80+% is junk. But being junk doesn’t mean it is entirely useless. Common sense suggests that anything that is completely useless would be discarded. There are several possible functions for junk DNA.”
      – Comings (1972)

      I don’t know how to state it any more clearly than this.”

      [ Gregory on the myth that “junk DNA” (a term he doesn’t like) was ever majorly dismissed; ]

      1. So, oh, actual numbers. IIRC “the current data suggest” at least 8 % active use (functionality) but no more than 12-15 % (?), and perhaps 80 % ‘use’ (activity, such as random transcription at very low rates; per ENCODE).

        1. Well, if you look to sites like that of Larry Moran (see above) you will certainly find that the term ‘junk’ is still very much OK, and not just with him. The term has gotten a lot of historical baggage stuck on it now, which is too bad.

        2. The term “junk” was used as a sort of in house short hand by scientists discussing this back at least as early as the 1960s, particularly in Cambridge. It’s a lot easier than saying “the large amount of nucleic acid that never finds its way out of the nucleus, which does not fit in with the old categories of genes and messages” (Tim Hunt’s description) every time you want to refer to this stuff. It was handy because most people can draw a distinction between “junk”, and “rubbish”. I know lots of people with a junk draw somewhere in their house, but no one with a rubbish draw where they store garbage against future possible use. By the early 1970s the term had become so common in many molecular biology labs that it started slipping into scientific papers, because everyone knew what it meant.

          Well it used to be that every biochemist/ molecular biologist knew what this term meant. There now appears to be a deliberate campaign to conflate it with non-coding DNA, which has never been its meaning, and to simply lie about the history of our knowledge of legitimate roles for sequences that are not directly translated into protein. Particularly from some members of the ENCODE team, who keep saying we’ve only discovered function for this non-coding DNA in the last decade (or sometimes, 2 decades). This is despite their constantly being reminded that Nobel Prizes were awarded for such discoveries back in the 1960s.

          Some links you might find interesting:

 (a lot more on bladderwort and its relatives)

  3. Joel did okay — indeed, he did a good job for somebody who’s not a professional or experienced interviewer.

    It’s not fair to him to make the comparison, but, having recently watched some YouTube one-on-one sessions between Richard and Lawrence Krauss and Steven Rose…well, I found myself really wishing that Richard was the one who did the interviewing.

    That reminds me: are we going to get video of your recent appearance with him in Chicago?




  4. Dr. Coyne, I wanted to ask about your decision to not have very much about the DNA evidence for evolution in the WEIT book. I had long harbored a secret wish that you might one day come out with an expanded version of the book with that topic as an added chapter, a book that I (& I think many others) would buy immediately as a 2nd copy. Although you explain why you chose to not include the chapter in this interview, I hope that you might reconsider anyway.

    Although the general public may know that working homologous genes are similar in proportion to relatedness of species, they are probably not aware that related species also share identical patterns of random stuff in their DNA. These features are really immune to creationist disinformation that species carry similar genetic instructions if they are similar in design.
    One could communicate that there are identical patterns of random transposon and retrovirus insertions among related species. There are also pseudogenes that harbor identical disabling mutations among related species. The synteny patterns of chromosomes is another area, where the chromosomes between species can be aligned gene for gene, and where related species share the same chromosomal inversions and translocations. Sure, these facts are not ‘evidence for evolution’ like the fossil record, but they are an avalanche of DNA testimony that species today share common ancestry.

    1. Before watching Jerry’s response on that, I would have agreed that the DNA evidence deserves more respect.

      But he changed my mind, and he did it with a very important point.

      You need highly specialized training to be able to independently understand and verify the DNA evidence. Even if you trust somebody else to properly record the genome, you’re just left with a string of billions of Gs, Cs, Ts, and As. Now you need to find the genes in that sequence. And now you need to line up those genes with ones from other species. And now you can finally get to the point where you can start to do some really sophisticated number-crunching to figure out degrees of change, the ticking of molecular clocks, and the rest.

      Damned few people even with a doctorate in biology are going to be qualified to do that sort of analysis. Hell, I don’t even know if Jerry could do it without some serious study of subjects I don’t think he’s had a professional need to employ — he’s an evolutionary biologist, not a molecular biologist. (He’s also a biology polymath, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that sort of thing already is on his resume.)

      On the other hand, line up a series of fossils in chronological order and even a young child can see what’s going on. All you need to explain at that point is dating techniques, and that’s not hard. The geologic column is easy to explain, and that gets you the ordering, which is the important part. Radiometric dating might be a stretch for some people, but when you couple that with dendrochronology, ice core samples, ocean-floor magnetic pole reversals, and that sort of thing, people can see that the figures are in the right ballpark. At that point, the precision of radiometric techniques isn’t something that’s important to question; nor is it a stretch to go along with it, since it fits with everything else.

      Same thing with biogeography. Put the skeletons on a map. Bang-whammo, done.

      I think the most that I’d go with DNA is to note that the same principles that we use to determine human familial relationships — which nobody has any trouble accepting — also show more distant familial relationships with everything else with DNA we’ve analyzed, and that the family tree revealed by DNA has proven — just like in humans — to be more true-to-life than the older ones based just on what people / organisms look like. At that point it’s only fair to note that DNA analysis is a very sophisticated subject that requires a degree of specialization to critically engage in. If you yourself have said specialization, great, go for it, and use it as an excuse to teach one of your favorite subjects to a willing victi…er, audience. If not, leave it at that and move on.



      1. You need highly specialized training to be able to independently understand and verify the DNA evidence.

        Even reading the introduction of books on cladistics (a taxonomic practice on which the statistical methods of handling large sets of characteristics – including DNA data, but potentially also including (say) different versions of Shakespeare’s plays or the Buybull) is enough to give me a headache. Actually grokking it in depth … I’ve not finished the book yet, because it hurts!

      2. Well, I am going to disagree. Understanding DNA and genes can be explained to a lay audience, and as proof one only has to look at other books like those written by Sean Carroll. The hardest bit is explaining that its all about sequences of bases ATCG. One can then show an example of how these sequences are mostly identical between related species, and less identical between different species. A tree is drawn to show how these comparisons naturally fall out (and no, you do not need to get into cladistics or bootstrapping (!). What one teaches to non-science majors would do fine. I have done this many times.
        A lot of what I suggested above does not even need to show sequences at all. Specific sequences of DNA, like a series of jumping gene insertions, are traditionally shown as a line of rectangles. To show that jumping gene insertions match between species, one simply duplicates the drawing to represent the 2nd species’ insertions, and then you line them up to show they have the same insertions in the same chromosomal locations. Although highly schematic, this is how this sort of thing is done.

        1. Mark, I’m not arguing against the practicality of summarizing the DNA evidence. And I agree that that’s absolutely something that should be taught to relevant students and included in suitable works written for popular audiences. It’s vitally important and fascinating knowledge.

          The quibble here is that — like Quantum Physics — going beyond high-level summaries requires serious study, and those who haven’t done such study are left with “Trust me, this is what you’ll learn after you put in all those long hours.”

          In contrast, the fossil record is like Newtonian mechanics. You can do the “Which falls faster?” experiment with kindergardeners, and they can verify for themselves that size and weight make no difference in how fast things fall. Hell, for that matter, you could probably translate almost all of Newtonian mechanics into experiments that kindergardeners could independently verify for themselves. And, of course, it’s the same with fossils: line them up and show where they were found. Lesson over.

          So…as far as knowledge of biology that all competent adults should have, yes, absolutely, a high-level overview of the evolutionary framework of DNA analysis deserves a prominent place on that list.

          But it’s not especially useful as a pedagogical technique for convincing people why evolution is true.



          1. You’re also just summarizing the fossil evidence, Ben. Without going into geology and the mechanisms of the various aging technologies, when you line up those skulls you’re basically telling your audience, “Trust me, these are in the right order.”

            1. That’s why I addressed the geologic column in an earlier response. That’s something that’s easy to explain, with photographs from around the globe showing the layers lining up.

              At that point, the only trust is that the fossils were found where the researchers said they did, that they didn’t fabricate the fossils, and the like. Somebody paranoid enough to question the integrity of all archaeologists in all of history is probably hopeless, but, even then, a few field trips would be all the evidence required to reasonably satisfy such doubts.

              You don’t even need to date the layers in the column, but it’s also not hard to show how that’s done. Dendrochronology is, again, something kindergardeners can do, and ice core samples are a small step up from that, and the magnetic pole reversals recorded in the seabeds yet another minor step up again. At that point, it’s not unreasonable to resort to your first bit of handwaving and stating that these other methods and more have been used to calibrate each other, and those calibrations agree with radioisotope decay dating methods, and that radiometric dating is the tool most commonly used in the field.



    1. I was sick all summer & I’m still not right. I’m getting a scopin’ done soon. I’m hoping it’s nothing serious but I’m a little freaked out. I wonder if I had this too.

      My dad had it at the same time as me and he recovered normally (and he’s in his 70s & just had thoracic surgery for cancer)

    1. Ha, ha, yes–didn’t we read somewhere recently about the importance of using the word bug correctly? 😀

      I know, Jerry, just a common metaphor…the old metaphor refuge…Argh, digging the hole deeper here.

      (Sorry, just too tempting. 🙂 Not at all meaning to minimize your dis-ease from said bug! And I get that your edict only applies to creepy-crawlies.)

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