Matthew’s new BBC show on recombinant DNA

July 20, 2021 • 9:30 am

I knew Matthew was writing a book on genetic engineering, and I knew he was doing a BBC radio series on the upcoming book, but I learned about the show’s first episode, now available, only from a tweet he emitted (below). You can access the 28-minute program, one of three, by clicking on the second screenshot.

Click to listen. This first part covers the advent of genetic engineering, and the huge controversy that took place when I was in graduate school. Did recombinant DNA pose serious dangers to the world. Would some engineered organism escape the lab and kill everyone? This didn’t prove to be the case, but at the time the science was at a very early stage.

The Infinite Monkey Cage takes on flies

January 11, 2021 • 2:15 pm

After an audience member demanded that the BBC’s Infinite Monkey Cage took up the subject of Drosophila, the show devoted its half-hour slot not just to Drosophila, but to flies in general (dipterans). It features not only the hosts Robin Ince and Brian Cox, but our own Mathew Cobb, Erica McAlister (a curator at London’s Natural History Museum), and “fly sceptic” David Baddiel, a British comedian.

As Matthew said, “It was a lot of fun. Erica is a hoot.”  It is a good show, and you’ll learn a lot about flies, and there’s a lot of laughing. Don’t miss the part about a botfly in the head (sadly, not the one I head).

Radio show on Cancel Culture at 10 a.m. EST

July 20, 2020 • 8:40 am

As I write this, in about 20 minutes a syndicated discussion about “cancel culture” will be played on some NPR stations. I quote reader Doug, who reported it to me (his words are indented and the show’s description doubly indented):

Just wanted to let you know of an upcoming nationally syndicated radio talk show discussion Cancel Culture today around 10 am EST.  The tagline I heard on the radio this morning was something like “Are too many voices and ideas stifled by “cancelation?” Or is this long-overdue?”
WAMU’s 1A is short for “The First Amendment”.   The show is hosted here in Washington DC but is nationally syndicated on NPR.  Let’s see if this show lives up to its name and honors the  spirit of free speech.
Here is the lead-in for the show:

Spend even a little time on social media and you’re likely to come across someone mentioning “canceling” someone, or lamenting being “canceled,” or railing against the concept of “cancel culture.”

At its core, when someone is “canceled,” it means a withdrawal of support for perceived wrongdoing. Naturally, the highest-profile cases usually involve people who are well-known.

But some celebrities, media members, analysts and writers feel as though this culture has gotten out of control. Some think that now anyone who expresses an unpopular opinion will be the subject of an online mob declaring them over.

A group of professors, authors, television personalities and other thought leaders recently signed a letter published by Harper’s. The text decried “calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought,” and addressed what the signatories considered the degradation of free and open debate.

The letter drew immediate backlash. Critics pointed out that its signatories were people in positions of power, with a platform. They added that the comments or behaviors for which they had been canceled for could cause harm. In many cases, they said, these figures hadn’t been cancelled, they simply didn’t like public criticism and its consequences.

Are too many voices and ideas stifled by “cancelation?” Or is this a long-overdue movement calling out the powerful?

Looks like they are focusing on those in power.  I do hope they give a fair representation of all sides but I am not optimistic.  The last show I heard on 1A seemed very one sided.  It was about people who suffer from extreme sensitivity to chemicals which the medical industry doesn’t acknowledge as a disease.  EMF sensitivity was also raised. I listened to nearly the entire show and I did not hear a single scientist or any discussion of the studies looking into the science behind the symptoms. It was a disheartening show that left me without any actual understanding of the issue.  Years ago on this same radio station I heard the physicist Bob Park discuss EMF sensitivity pseudoscience.  I guess things have changed.
Here are the scheduled guests, with “Perdue” university misspelled. It doesn’t teach about chicken!

Faithe Day. CLIR post-doctoral fellow in African American data curation, Perdue University

Gabe Schneider, Washington correspondent, MinnPost

Thomas Chatterton Williams, columnist, Harper’s Magazine

Where can you listen? If you want to hear the WAMU show, go here and click the blue “LIVE” button at the top. Doug adds, ” For those listening on a mobile phone I recommend using the NPR app.  There is a listen live tab and you can search for WAMU (or your local station assuming it airs it live).  I assume there is an android version as well.”

The syndication schedule for this discussion on other NPR stations can be found here.

Another ludicrous “Thought of the Day” from the BBC: The Bishop of Manchester assures us that we have libertarian free will

May 14, 2020 • 9:00 am

I’ve long known that BBC Radio 4 broadcasts a religious homily every day at a bit before 8 a.m. I’ve heard it many times, and grumble loudly at each homily. Yesterday, reader Neil called my attention to a particularly galling homily given yesterday by the Right Reverend Dr. David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester. It especially irked me because it was about free will—his idea that we have it in the libertarian form.

Click on the screenshot below to hear the three-minute dollop of religious blather (I’m not sure whether the BBC leaves these things up, so listen soon):

As you heard, Walker rejects determinism, claiming that if we have no “choice” whether or not to commit an offense (i.e., the future is preordained), then humans beings “have no moral responsibility for what we do.”  He claims that his own Christian faith accepts a God “who has created a universe that maintains a beautiful balance between the predictability of mathematical laws and the liberty and responsibility which comes with free will.”  Now that’s some god!

And to Walker, as with the bulk of the respondents in the Sarkissian et al. study I’ve mentioned several times, you can’t have moral responsibility in a world without libertarian free will.  Of course, without moral responsibility, you can’t be held accountable by God for your sins, sins that may include choosing the wrong savior, or no savior at all. Those who deny that libertarian free will is prevalent must reckon with the vast number of believers who are true libertarians.

(I’ll mention again that I believe people must be held responsible for their acts, but not  “morally responsible” if you construe that, as I do, as meaning “you could have chosen to do a different thing”. But of course I still believe in reward and punishment, though I won’t reiterate my reasons for the umpteenth time.)

Now you may try to tortuously parse the good Reverend’s words to say what he really means is a compatibilistic free will that, deep down, accept determinism of our actions. But I think you’d be dead wrong, for Walker states at the outset that he clearly rejects the mathematically-based determinism of science. No, he’s talking about pure libertarian free will—the kind that his sheep accept.

I’m surprised that, in a country where—although there’s a state church—Christianity is on a precipitous decline, the BBC still emits a “thought for the day” that is invariably religious. Seriously, my UK friends, why does this persist? Why don’t you write en masse to the Beeb demanding either that it ceases dispensing this goddy pabulum or give nonbelievers a chance to say something not only substantive, but bracing and true? Wouldn’t it be nice to hear some words that came from science, for instance?

In fact, this happened once. Richard Dawkins was invited to give the Thought for the Day. He didn’t mince words: goddy explanations were the stuff of toddlers. After that, a humanistic thought was never broadcast again. Neil reported this:

Any mainstream faith may provide the piece, but humanists are excluded, apart from on one occasion when Richard Dawkins was allowed 3 minutes to say his piece, prior to being banned forever for saying we should be more adult in our understanding than accepting simple explanations of the world.  You can read his words here:

And here’s one bit of Richard’s talk that surely irked the BBC:

Nerve cells, too, branch like trees. They are so numerous in the teeming forest of your brain that, if you stretched them end to end they would reach right round the world 25 times.

In the face of such wonders, do you fall back, like a child, on God? “It’s so wonderful, so complicated, only God could have done it.”

It’s tempting, isn’t it. But it’s not a real explanation. Not the kind of explanation that actually explains anything. And it’s nowhere near as poetic as the true explanation.

Because the beauty is that humanity has grown up. We now know the true explanation. It’s gloriously simple once you get it, and more wonderful than our forefathers could ever have imagined. It makes use of yet another tree. The family tree of life. It began with something smaller than a bacterium, and it branched and branched to give all the species that have ever lived, whether extinct like the dinosaurs, or still hanging on like our own. Evolution really explains all of life, and it needs no supernatural intervention of any kind.

The adult response is to rejoice in the amazing privilege we enjoy. We have been born, and we are going to die. But before we die we have time to understand why we were ever born in the first place. Time to understand the universe into which we have been born. And with that understanding, we finally grow up and realise that there is no help for us outside our own efforts.

Humanity can leave the crybaby phase, and finally come of age.

Now there’s a thought for more than just a day!

The crybabies are actually at the Beeb, which apparently cannot stand the idea that there may be no God, or at least don’t want to endanger public morals by promulgating such a Dangerous Idea.

Look, I know Britain has a state religion, lacks the equivalent of our First Amendment, and that the BBC is owned and run by the government. But they seem curiously immune to religious freedom and the rising tide of secularism in their land.

If you’re in the UK, have you ever complained about this daily insult to our ears and intellect? If not, why not? If a lot of people objected, would they stop it?

Here: have a libertarian free-willer:

The Right Reverend Dr. David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester

Radiolab on sexual selection in birds

February 8, 2019 • 8:45 am

Here’s the latest Radiolab podcast, this time about sexual selection in birds and about Richard Prum’s revival of the idea of “runaway sexual selection,” which he calls the “beauty happens” theory. (It’s in his book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory Shapes the Animal World—and Us.) I’ve written about Prum’s book before, and about my criticisms of his ideas—or rather, how he presents other people’s ideas—so I won’t go into that here.

I was interviewed by the Radiolab hosts last summer about sexual selection, but the show has just appeared today (click on screenshot below and then on the “listen” button to hear the 45-minute podcast). Note that the show claims to “present another way of looking at evolution.” One could construe “another way of looking at evolution”  as simply the widely accepted view that sexual selection (rather than “survival of the fittest”) explains sexual dimorphism, or, alternatively, as Prum’s view that runaway sexual selection based on “random” female aesthetic preference is the best explanation for sexual dimorphism of color and behavior instead of “good genes” models positing that such traits indicate a male’s genetic quality.

When I talked to the hosts last summer, I got the idea that they had bought into Prum’s idea of runaway sexual selection as the best explanation of sexual selection, although, of course, there are other models, as described in the review of Prum’s book in Evolution by Gail Patricelli, Eileen Hebets, and Tamra Mendelson (if you’ve read Prum’s book, you must read that review).

It turns out that this show is not entirely—or even largely—about runaway sexual selection, though that process figures heavily in the last half. Much of the show is simply about the wonders of sexual selection and the traits it creates, and features interviews with scientists working on duck penises (the show begins with a discussion of that issue, which is of course a way to attract ears) and on bowerbirds (Patricelli), and it’s not bad.

The discussion of sexual selection and Prum’s “beauty happens” model begins about halfway in, with Prum calling evolutionists’ acceptance of “good genes” models, in which male traits indicate their genetic fitness, a “flattened, dumb down and ideologically purified version of Darwin’s actual richness.” Well, that’s grossly unfair, as all of us recognize that there are a variety of models for how sexual selection works, with Prum’s “runaway” model being just one of them. (Behavioral ecologists tend to concentrate more on good genes, though.)

But, as I said, there are more than just the runaway model and “good genes” models. There are, for instance, “sensory bias” models, in which female preference is not a random phenomenon that gives the female “aesthetic” preferences, but that such preferences themselves are a product of evolution. Female may prefer certain traits or behaviors of males because (as I say in the show), those preferences are either a byproduct of evolution on their sensory system, or a direct result of selection. (Females may be attuned to some sounds more than others, for instance, because those sounds give them useful information about their environment.)  And if that’s the case, then there may be natural selection operating on female preference by itself.

And if female preferences are subject to this kind of selection, Prum’s “beauty happens” model runs into trouble, for it assumes there are no selective constraint on female preference. (This is taken up in the Patricelli et al. review). If such selection occurs, the runaway often doesn’t work.

Further complicating attempts to distinguish the models is the fact that they can work together. The paper below, for instance, shows that in many cases—at least according to theory—runaway sexual selection can create a situation in which females are also choosing males with good genes, so experiments to distinguish the runaway vs. the good-genes model for the origin of sexual selection would be hard or impossible. (Click on screenshot to go to the paper.)

When I talked to Krulwich et al. in our 90-minute conversation (they managed to insert in the podcast the noises of me sucking on a coughdrop before the interview began!), I had two aims:

1.) To point out that Prum’s “beauty happens” model was not NOT a “null model” of sexual selection that should be assumed to be true in the absence of other information. Further, I wanted to point out that there were problems with this model itself, as it makes assumptions that may not be true (i.e., that there’s no direct selection on female preference itself). While I think the runaway model is certainly plausible, and must have played some role in the evolution of male traits and female preferences, there are other plausible models as well.

2.) To point out that hard data on which model explains a given case of sexual selection are sorely lacking. It’s hard to distinguish the various models, especially because selection happened in the past and because the models can operate together. To assert, as Prum does, that we know one model explains nearly all sexual dimorphism for ornaments and calls, is to make an unwarranted claim. It’s not that we know Prum is wrong; it’s that we don’t know much about how any of these systems evolved.

How did I do? Well, my bit begins at about 35:30; you tell me. I was surprised that the show let some of my more critical remarks about the book appear. But I think it’s good that the public knows how scientists can disagree on matters where there is no dispositive data.

In the end, Krulwich goes into a soliloquy in which he seems disappointed that we don’t know the answer, and almost depressed because future research may show that different models may explain different cases of sexual dimorphism. This would mean that we don’t have a “rule” for how sexual selection works, but a series of anecdotes that give us statements about the relative frequencies of different processes.

So be it: this is evolution, not physics, and evolution works in multifarious ways. I had a few pithy statements about this issue in my phone interview, but, sadly, these didn’t make it onto the show.

As a whole, I’m not sure how well the show hangs together. I can’t listen to it as if I were a nonscientist hearing about this for the first time, so give your take below. I think the Radiolab folks will be reading this, so be civil but also be honest.



What were the first animals?

October 31, 2018 • 11:45 am

by Matthew Cobb

I’ve just finished making a BBC World Service radio programme about the first animals. Anyone, anywhere in the world, can listen to it (it’s only 28 minutes long!) – you just have to register with the BBC (free, rapid and cost- and spam-free). Click on the pic to go to the BBC website:

The programme deals with two different ways that researchers are studying this question – by looking at fossils, and at DNA. In both cases I interview researchers and – in the case of the Ediacara – get to handle some fossils. I also ate some 600 million year embryos at Bristol University (to see what they tasted like, obviously), but we didn’t include that in the programme. . .

The fossil data relate to what are called the Ediacaran biota – strange fossils from before the Cambrian, around 570 million years ago. The fossils are very hard to interpret – they don’t look like much alive today – but an amazing technique for analysing cholesterol molecules in the rock, so organic molecules preserved for all that time, has confirmed that Dickinsonia, the thing in the picture above, was an animal. Other techniques involve looking at large numbers of Ediacaran fossils and seeing how their distribution relates to those of modern animals. All the data suggest that some of the Ediacaran weirdos were indeed animals, although we cannot know if they are the ancestors of any animal alive today.

The DNA data focuses on a different question, which DNA can answer – which of the groups of animals alive today was the first to branch off the tree of life? Traditionally there has been a straightforward answer to this: sponges, which are nerveless and tissueless. But 10 years ago comparative genomic studies dropped a bombshell – they suggested that the first group to branch off were the ctenophores or comb jellies. This has caused a huge row because it would mean either that nerves evolved twice – once in the ctenophores, and once in our ancestors, after the nerveless sponges branched off – or that the huge sponge group somehow lost the genes for producing nerves.

Many biologists (myself included) don’t like either of these options, and prefer the sponges as the first model, but the data are persistent. Or are they? I spoke to experts on both sides of this argument, which has caused quite a hoo-haa in the zoological community for the past decade.

Anyway, go ahead and have a listen – download it and listen to it on public transport or while you are exercising. NB: I made the programme with ace producer Andrew Luck-Baker.

If you are a teacher, especially if you teach animal evolution, please get your students to listen to it.

Infinite Monkey Cage: Episode 100

July 12, 2018 • 8:45 am

The Infinite Monkey Cage, the entertaining BBC science and comedy show hosted by Robin Ince and Brian Cox, has just celebrated its 100th episode. You can hear the hour-long show at the link below; Matthew, who was in the audience. commented:

They have a couple of vicars on it, heaven knows why, one an ex rockstar who is always in the radio and the other doesn’t really seem to believe in the Bible at all. They got some snarky comments from Eric Idle and Alice Roberts. [JAC: One of Alice’s tweets is below.]

Here are the participants and those in charge:

To hear the show, click on the screenshot below and then the arrow at lower left:

There’s also a video version here (via @bbciplayer), but it’s not visible outside the UK. Matthew notes, “I’m in the front row next to Nick Lane next to Steve Jones. Virtually all the VIP audience members (= ex-panelists) were from University College London, but none of the panelists on this episode were.”



NPR’s interview with Anthony Bourdain

June 9, 2018 • 1:15 pm

Instead of mourning the death of Anthony Bourdain, which I doubt he’d want, let’s listen to a nice 37-minute interview he did with Dave Davies on NPR’s “Fresh Air” two years ago. Click on the screenshot to go there; it’s a nice overview of Bourdain’s life and gives you a good feel for the man:

A quote:

“I’m happiest experiencing food in the most purely emotional way. And it’s true of most of my chef friends as well. When it’s, like, street food or a one-chef, one-dish operation, or somebody who’s just really, really good at one or two or three things that they’ve been doing for a very long time, that’s very reflective of their ethnicity or their culture or their nationality — those are the things that just make me happy.

I’m spoiled, like a lot of fellow chefs. We get a lot of fine wines and dinners thrown our way and you do reach this enviable point where you just don’t want to sit there for four hours, with course after course after course. It’s too much, first of all. It doesn’t feel good at the end of that time, and it’s not interesting. And if the waiter is taking 10 minutes to describe each dish [and] it’ll only take you three to eat it, something’s really wrong. I think people lose sight of the fact that chefs should be ultimately in the pleasure business, not in the look-at-me business.”

Nick Cohen’s BBC show, “The silence of the liberals”

March 6, 2018 • 1:00 pm

“We are watching the astonishing spectacle of non-Muslims telling actual Muslims that they’re anti-Muslim bigots”

  —Nick Cohen (11:06 in the show)


I’ve often spoken how the American Left and its feminist wing largely ignore the misogyny and oppression of women in Muslim countries of the Middle East. The main reason, of course, is that Muslims are considered “people of color”, which apparently trumps the rights of those having two X chromosomes. But another excuse is that “we should deal with women’s problems closer to home and not those in distant countries.”

That excuse, however, doesn’t apply in the UK, where endemic Muslim communities also practice oppression—not just of women, but of gays, apostates, and atheists. And that’s in the West.  And as in the US, the UK Left shies away from addressing Muslim sexism and misogyny. In this BBC Radio 4 show, Observer columnist Nick Cohen, whose Leftist credentials are impeccable (read his books here and here), exposes the UK Left’s neglect of homophobia and endemic sexism among their countries’ Mulsims, as well as the Left’s lack of support for Muslim reformers like Maajid Nawaz and ex-Muslim reformers like Maryam Namazie.

Here’s the BBC’s summary:

 Observer columnist and writer Nick Cohen thinks mainstream liberal culture and left-wing politicians are failing to help progressive Muslims who want to fight inequalities endorsed by culture and religion in their their communities. He calls this the “racism of the anti-racist”.

Forty years ago, Edward Said coined the term “Orientalism” to condemn the West’s patronising representations of the “exotic” East, whose inhabitants were too irrational to handle the freedoms Americans and Europeans enjoyed.

In this programme, Nick Cohen examines evidence that this old colonial condescension is re-emerging in 2018, He interviews frustrated Muslims tackling discrimination – Muslims who feel betrayed by the Liberal left who, they say, should be their natural allies in their campaigning for women’s rights and tackling discrimination such as homophobia in Muslim communities.

In this authored documentary, Nick draws from the experiences of a range of organisations and progressive Muslim individuals – Tell Mama which supports victims of anti-Muslim hate crime, Maryam Namazie from One Law for All campaigning for women’s rights against Islamic Sharia law and Jewish Beth din courts, and Amina Lone who says her outspoken views including a campaign against young girls wearing the hijab in school led to her losing her seat as a Manchester city councillor. The local Labour party failed to re-select her, blaming her attendance record.

Tell Mama founder Fiyaz Mugal’s said that those who’raised their head above the parapet to speak out were intimidated and threatened, not only by the white far right but also by Islamist extremists, while Maajid Nawaz founder of counter-extremism organisation Quilliam was on a Jihadist’s hit list.

As Peter Tatchell notes in the show, the failure of the British Left to support Muslims reformers fighting for basic human rights has denied those Lefists the moral authority to be an effective force in British politics. Somehow, intersectionalism doesn’t intersect when the oppressed groups are a. women and b. Muslims.

Click on the screenshot to go to the 28-minute show:

h/t: Grania

Matthew on The Infinite Monkey Cage

January 30, 2018 • 10:00 am

Matthew was too reticent to tell me that he appeared on yesterday’s Radio 4 episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage with Robin Ince and Brian Cox. The 30-minute episode is “The Teenage Brain”, and you can download it by going to the site below (click on the screenshot). Besides Matthew Cobb (professor of Zoology at the University of Manchester), we have Scottish comedian Rory Bremner and Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a neuroscientist at University College London.

The topic:

 Stomping off to your bedroom, being embarrassed by your parents, wanting to fit in with your peers and a love of risky behaviour are all well known traits associated with our teenage years, exasperating parents through the ages. But new research into dynamic changes going on in the brain during these key years has revealed that it’s not just hormones that are responsible for these behaviours. Could a better understanding of what is going on during these formative years not only help teenagers themselves, but inform our education system and even help prevent many of the mental health problems that often begin during adolescence?

As usual, the show is a mixture of good-natured banter, comedy, and hard science:

h/t: Kevin