Matthew’s third (and last) installment of his BBC show on genetic engineering, 28 minutes long, takes up two topics.
The first is the controversial topic of genetically engineering of either human eggs/embryos, or of humans already born but with genetic diseases that might be ameliorated by genetically engineering only soe cells or tissus in the boy. Only editing at a very early developmental stage creates permanent and heritable genetic change (change able to be passed on to the next generation) in the “human germline”. “Somatic editing” of cells or tissues in a person isn’t able to be passed on. It turns out, as Matthew notes, that the cases in which one would even want to edit the germline are very few. What is more efficacious is somatic editing: changing the DNA of cells in the body that create the symptoms of genetic disease. This is has already been done, with some success, for sickle-cell anemia, cancer, blindness, and neurological diseases. Those changes aren’t passed on, but one can test embryos for the presence of some of these conditions and practice selective implantation of healthy embryos without having to edit the DNA of the embryo.
The second issue Matthew and his interviewees discuss is “gene drive“, which involves altering DNA in such a way that a specific gene can be preferentially passed on within a species. This can accomplish things like completely eliminating a pest species (listen to the program to see how), rendering a pest susceptible to a relatively harmless toxin, or making pest species unable to be pathogenic, like engineering mosquitoes unable to carry malaria parasites. The problem with this is the uncertainty about how it will affect the ecosystem, not only causing unpredictable effects (every species has predators and prey, for instance), but also spreading, though hybridization or horizontal gene transfer, a driving gene into other organisms.
Anyway, have a listen below.
And, like the last episode, you can win a prize by answering Matthew’s question below. The prize, I believe, is an autographed as his upcoming book about the show’s topic. Here’s Matthew’s tweet, which also links to all three of his episodes.
In 30 mins live on @BBCRadio4 you can hear the final episode of my series GENETIC DREAMS, GENETIC NIGHTMARES. A prize for anyone who can work out why I chose the intro music. In a couple of hours you’ll be able to listen again here, with the other eps: https://t.co/W2JwRfvS7V
NPR is the station I always have playing on my car radio, but I pay little attention to it save when I yell and rant when Krista Tippett comes on at 7 a.m. Sunday morning as I’m on my way to buy groceries. And of course Tippett is woke as hell, not to mention unctuous and lachrymose, but I rarely listen to other shows as I use my car infrequently.
In my post on NPR’s new ethics policy yesterday, a couple of readers took time to complain about how dire NPR has become, focusing obsessively on race and gender. Well, that’s what the New York Times and Washington Post do as well, so I’m not surprised, but I can’t vouch for NPR myself. One reader, though, called my attention to a new piece by Matt Taibbi about the decline of the station. Although Taibbi was described as a “center left journalist”, he really does a number on the lefty NPR—a column as funny and scathing as any I’ve seen lately. I’d reproduce it in its entirety, but that wouldn’t be fair, so click on the link below to read his short demolition of the station. I’ll give a few quotes to show the tenor of the piece.
Taibbi begins by showing how NPR denigrates conservative Ben Shapiro in its recent article “Outrage As A Business Model: How Ben Shapiro Is Using Facebook To Build An Empire”—not for being fake news, but for polarizing the media AND being too popular. Here’s a graph from NPR of Facebook engagement (monthly likes, shares, and comments per article) of Shapiro’s “The Daily Wire” site compared to five mainstream media (The New York Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, CNN, and Fox News, along with four conservative sites (Shapiro’s Daily Wire, Breitbart News, The Blaze, and the Western Journal). The Daily Wire tops them all by far. That doesn’t sit well with the liberal folks at NPR.
Here’s a quote from the NPR piece followed by Taibbi’s ascerbic remark:
“. . . by only covering specific stories that bolster the conservative agenda (such as negative reports about socialist countries and polarizing ones about race and sexuality issues) and only including certain facts, readers still come away from The Daily Wire’s content with the impression that Republican politicians can do little wrong and cancel culture is among the nation’s greatest threats.”
NPR has not run a piece critical of Democrats since Christ was a boy. Moreover, much like the New York Times editorial page (but somehow worse), the public news leader’s monomaniacal focus on “race and sexuality issues” has become an industry in-joke. For at least a year especially, listening to NPR has been like being pinned in wrestling beyond the three-count. Everything is about race or gender, and you can’t make it stop.
Taibbi notes that now even progressive people in the media can’t stand the nonstop wokeism on NPR (and please, readers, don’t tell me that the Republicans are worse than the Woke, as I already know that). Taibbi gives a list of recent NPR reports, accompanied by his own ascerbic comments:
“Geocaching While Black: Outdoor Pastime Reveals Racism And Bias.” Area man who plays GPS-based treasure hunt game requiring forays into remote places and private property describes “horrifying” experience of people asking what he’s doing. [JAC: preferential questionins of blacks is a real problem, but there is article after article about the problem occurring in specific instances, like geocaching and birdwatching. How many more of these do we need?]
Mixed in with Ibram Kendi recommendations for children’s books, instructions on how to “decolonize your bookshelf” and “talk to your parents about racism” (even if your parents are an interracial couple), and important dispatches from the war on complacency like “Monuments And Teams Have Changed Names As America Reckons With Racism, Birds Are Next,” “National” Public Radio in the last year has committed itself to a sliver of a sliver of a sliver of the most moralizing, tendentious, humor-deprived, jargon-obsessed segment of American society. Yet without any irony, yesterday’s piece still made deadpan complaint about Shapiro’s habit of “telling [people] what their opinions should be” and speaking in “buzzwords.”
Oy gewalt! I’m going shopping in a few minutes so I’ll listen for myself, but the drive is only ten minutes. Taibbi concludes, not mincing words, that “NPR sucks and is unlistenable, so people are going elsewhere. And they’re jealous of Ben Shapiro!
Reader Dom called my attention to today’s BBC Science in Action program, which contains several items of interest. You can hear the 35-minute show by clicking on the site below and clicking “listen now”:
There are four bits:
Start – 12:20. A discussion with Elizabeth Turner about her new evidence for 890-million-year-old animals (spongelike creatures), which I wrote about yesterday.
18:55-26:45: Prof Lesley Lyons from the University of Missouri discusses the similarity of the genome of cats to that of humans, and how that could be used for medical purposes in humans. I’m not keen on this because it implies that they’re going to experiment on cats. As she says, “they’re bigger than mice and cheaper than primates”.
26:45-end: A remembrance of Steven Weinberg, who died a week ago. There are extracts from two BBC interviews with Weinberg as well as discussions of his work by fellow scientists.
I was alerted to the appearance of Matthew’s BBC radio second show on genetic engineering from his tweet below. He’s offering a prize, too, if you understand the final music (put your guesses below or tweet them back at Matthew). I’m told the prize will be an autographed copy of Genetic Dreams, Matthew’s book that inspired this show: The book will appear next year.
Ep 2 of GENETIC DREAMS, GENETIC NIGHTMARES, on commercialisation, Genentech, GM crops etc with Boyer, Swanson, Van Montagu, Chilton, Fraley, etc. Why did we choose the outro music we did? (May be more obvious next week, when it is the intro). https://t.co/QaEDl6F2JU
Click below and then on “listen now” to hear the program. The BBC summary:
Professor Matthew Cobb looks at how genetic engineering became big business – from the first biotech company that produced human insulin in modified bacteria in the late 1970s to the companies like Monsanto which developed and then commercialised the first GM crops in the 1990s. Were the hopes and fears about these products of genetic engineering realised?
The show is based on lots of interviews—conducted by Matthew himself. It’s a good episode, beginning with the creation of venture-capital-funded genetic engineering firms, firms that made scientists wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, and eventually used recombinant DNA technology to manufacture “artificial” human insulin and growth hormone, as well as over 400 other drugs. But there was a downside of genetic engineering: interviewees complain about the secrecy it imposes on scientific research and about the fact that the technology made medicines more expensive.
The last part of the show concentrates on GM (“genetically modified”) organisms—specifically crops. We all know about Monsanto’s creation of crops resistant to the herbicide Roundup, giving companies a convenient way to sell both crop and herbicide, as well as making it easier for farmers to tend their fields. Despite these scientific advances, though, Matthew notes that GM crops haven’t led to more food being produced, all the while increasing the use of herbicides and pesticides that may have dire effects on the ecosystem. At the end, Matthew reaches a conclusion about whether GM technology has been more of a dream or a nightmare.
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.
The story of the discovery of recombinant DNA as you have never heard it before, with Paul Berg, Janet Mertz, Bob Pollack, Stan Cohen, David Baltimore and others, and featuring music from The Who, Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd. https://t.co/0dgpVS3KRR
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.
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).
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):
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?
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.
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’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.
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.