Friday, September 23, 2016

A philosopher's view of random genetic drift

Random genetic drift is a process that alters allele frequencies within a population. The change is due to "random" events. It differs from natural selection where the change is due to selection for alleles that confer selective advantage on the reproductive success of an individual. Here's one description,

If a population is finite in size (as all populations are) and if a given pair of parents have only a small number of offspring, then even in the absence of all selective forces, the frequency of a gene will not be exactly reproduced in the next generation because of sampling error. If in a population of 1000 individuals the frequency of "a" is 0.5 in one generation, then it may by chance be 0.493 or 0.505 in the next generation because of the chance production of a few more or less progeny of each genotype. In the second generation, there is another sampling error based on the new gene frequency, so the frequency of "a" may go from 0.505 to 0.501 or back to 0.498. This process of random fluctuation continues generation after generation, with no force pushing the frequency back to its initial state because the population has no "genetic memory" of its state many generations ago. Each generation is an independent event. The final result of this random change in allele frequency is that the population eventually drifts to p=1 or p=0. After this point, no further change is possible; the population has become homozygous. A different population, isolated from the first, also undergoes this random genetic drift, but it may become homozygous for allele "A", whereas the first population has become homozygous for allele "a". As time goes on, isolated populations diverge from each other, each losing heterozygosity. The variation originally present within populations now appears as variation between populations.

Suzuki, D.T., Griffiths, A.J.F., Miller, J.H. and Lewontin, R.C.
in An Introduction to Genetic Analysis 4th ed. W.H. Freeman (1989 p.704)

A theology student doesn't like Jerry Coyne's book Faith vs. Fact

A theology student named Derrick has written a review of Jerry Coyne's book Faith vs. Fact. He didn't like it very much. (Duh!) You can read his review at: Jerry Coyne, Faith Vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.

Before reading that review, let's make sure we understand Jerry's position. Here's what he says on page xx of his book.
My main thesis is narrower and, I think, more defensible: understanding reality, in the sense of being able to use what we know to predict what we don't, is best achieved using the tools of science, and is never achieved using the methods of faith. That is attested by the acknowledged success of science in telling us everything from the smallest bits of matter to the origin of the universe itself—compared with the abject failure of religion to tell us anything about gods, including whether they exist.

Can we ever know if god exists?

A recent issue of New Scientist (Sept. 3-9) is billed as "The Metaphysics Issue: How science answers philosophy's deepest questions." This is probably not going to make philosophers happy.

Several of the articles are devoted to the "big questions." According to New Scientist these questions are normally left to philosophers but the editors go on to say, "Now, though, scientists are increasingly claiming them as their own ..." Let's look at one of the questions: Can we ever know if God exists?. Here's the part I want to discuss ...
No one has proved that God exists, but then no one has proved there is no God. Is working out the truth a supernatural feat?

... Gallons of ink and blood have been spilled over this question but have largely got us nowhere. Belief in a god or several gods is a leap of faith. So is disbelief. The only coherent and rational position is agnosticism.
Really? Disbelief in Thor, Zeus, Quetzalcoatl, and Gitchi Manitou is a "leap of faith"? I have not been convinced by any evidence that these gods exist. Is that irrational and incoherent?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Ten adaptationist stories about recent human evolution

Does this video contribute to the general understanding and appreciation of science?

  2. Lactose tolerance: PROBABLY A TRUE ADAPTATION
  4. Losing wisdom teeth: PROBABLY FALSE ADAPTATION
  5. Smaller brains: LIKELY FALSE ADAPATION
  6. Getting shorter: ALMOST CERTAINLY FALSE
  7. Malaria resistance: CERTAINLY TRUE
  8. HIV Resistance: TRUE BUT TRIVIAL

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

An Anglican says that science and religion don't conflict

Are you surprised to hear a religious person say that science and religion are not in conflict? Of course you aren't. That's just what you expect religious people to say.

Why in the world would Nature publish an article where an Anglican makes such a claim? [See Religion and science can have a true dialogue] And why in the world should its readers pay any attention at all to the nonsensical first paragraphs ...
I work for the Archbishops’ Council in the Church of England, and this summer I did something that many people would think is impossible. I sat in a dark lecture theatre engrossed in a computationally generated 3D journey through the Universe. Virtual stars whizzed past and seemed narrowly to miss colliding with my head as we accelerated through galaxies and past exploding stars. I listened to cosmologists speak on research into dark matter, particle physics, the rate at which the growth of the Universe is accelerating and the possibi­lity of multi­verses. I asked questions and they responded.

According to the popular narrative on the relationship between science and religion, this event should not have happened. The entire audience was made up of bishops and church leaders. Science and faith, we are constantly told, are in conflict and have little in common.
Really? What "popular narrative" says that Anglican church leaders can't learn about science? What "popular narrative" says that Anglicans cannot accept the findings of physics and cosmology? Who says that?

The problem here is not the ridiculous false claim but the fact that it's published in a leading science journal. I'm not aware of any Nature articles on the conflict between science and religion and the claim that belief in god(s) is not compatible with a scientific way of knowing. Why is Nature getting involved in this debate and why is it taking sides?

Read Jerry Coyne's take on this article at: Fulsome accommodationism in the journal Nature.1

1. Keep in mind that Jerry uses the word "accommodationist" to mean anyone, atheist or theist, who thinks that science and religion are compatible. In its original sense, the word "accommodationist" referred only to those people who Dawkins referred to as "Neville Chamberlain evolutionists." These appeasers were atheists who argued that science and religion are compatible. Only atheists can be accomodationists according to this original definition—they one I still adhere to. I don't think it's noteworthy that religious people try to make science and religion compatible.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Atheism is a catastrophe for science according to Michael Egnor

Michael Egnor doesn't like atheists. He got a bit upset about a recent post by PZ Myers so he responded on Evolution News & Views (sic) with: Atheism Is a Catastrophe for Science.

Modern theoretical science arose only in the Christian milieu. Roger Bacon, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, Faraday, Pasteur, Maxwell and countless other pioneers of the Scientific Enlightenment were fervent Christians who explicitly attributed the intelligibility in nature to God's agency, and even 20th-century scientists like Einstein and Heisenberg and Schrodinger and Rutherford and Planck attributed nature to intelligent agency. Einstein famously explained his quest: "I want to know God's thoughts..."

Vanishingly few great scientists have attributed the world to "undirected processes." Atheism, in fact, has a dismal record in science. For much of the 20th century, a third of humanity lived under the boot of atheist ideology. What was the great science produced by atheist scientists in the Soviet Union? What are the scientific contributions of Communist China and Cuba and Vietnam and Albania? Compare the scientific output of East Germany (atheist) to that of West Germany (Lutheran and Catholic). Compare the scientific output of North Korea (atheist) to that of South Korea (Christian and Buddhist).

The fact is that during the 20th century atheist ideological systems that "assum[ed] that the world is a product of natural, undirected processes" governed a third of humanity. What's the scientific "track record" of atheism? Atheism had its run: it heralded a scientific dark age in any nation unfortunate enough to fall under its heel. Atheism is as much a catastrophe for science as it is a catastrophe for humanity. The only thing atheist systems produced reliably (and still produce reliably) is corpses.
Google is my friend. I found a Wikipedia article on List of nonreligious Nobel Laureates. Here are the Nobel Laureates in science who didn't believe in any gods. This is part of the "scientific track record of atheism."

Svante Arrhenius
Paul D. Boyer
Frédéric Joliot-Curie
Irène Joliot-Curie
Richard R. Ernst
Herbert A. Hauptman
Roald Hoffmann
Harold W. Kroto
Jean-Marie Lehn
Peter D. Mitchell
George Andrew Olah
Wilhelm Ostwald
Linus Pauling
Max Perutz
Frederick Sanger
Michael Smith
Harold Urey

Zhores Alferov
Hannes Alfvén
Philip Warren Anderson
John Bardeen
Hans Bethe
Patrick Blackett
Nicolaas Bloembergen
Niels Bohr
Percy Williams Bridgman
Louis de Broglie
James Chadwick
Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar
Marie Curie
Pierre Curie
Paul Dirac
Albert Einstein
Enrico Fermi
Richard Feynman
Val Logsdon Fitch
James Franck
Dennis Gabor
Murray Gell-Mann
Vitaly Ginzburg
Roy J. Glauber
Peter Higgs
Gerard 't Hooft
Herbert Kroemer
Lev Landau
Leon M. Lederman
Albert A. Michelson
Konstantin Novoselov
Jean Baptiste Perrin
Isidor Isaac Rabi
C. V. Raman
William Shockley
Erwin Schrödinger
Jack Steinberger
Igor Tamm
Johannes Diderik van der Waals
Eugene Wigner
Steven Weinberg
Chen-Ning Yang

Physiology and Medicine
Julius Axelrod
Robert Bárány
J. Michael Bishop
Francis Crick
Max Delbrück
Christian de Duve
Howard Florey
Camillo Golgi
Frederick Gowland Hopkins
Andrew Huxley
François Jacob
Sir Peter Medawar
Jacques Monod
Thomas Hunt Morgan
Herbert J. Muller
Élie Metchnikoff
Rita Levi-Montalcini
Hermann Joseph Muller
Paul Nurse
Ivan Pavlov
Richard J. Roberts
John Sulston
Albert Szent-Györgyi
Nikolaas Tinbergen
James Watson

Saturday, September 17, 2016

"The Soul of the Matter"

Meet Bruce Buff. He's a big fan of the Discovery Institute as he explains in this video.

Bruce Buff has written a novel (fiction) called The Soul of the Matter. The Intelligent Design Creationists are all over it. So far they've put up two posts advertising the novel: Excerpt: The Soul of the Matter, Chapter 3; Excerpt: The Soul of the Matter, Chapter 4.

Here's the description from the publisher's website ...
A scientist’s claim that he’s found the secrets of the universe's origin encoded in DNA sparks a race against time to uncover the truth in this fast-paced thriller of science and faith, power and murder, loss and redemption.

Dan Lawson, a former government cyber-intelligence analyst, is surprised to be contacted by his estranged friend Stephen Bishop, a renowned geneticist. Stephen says that he’s discovered amazing information within DNA, including evidence of a creator, and needs Dan’s help to protect his findings. Dan is skeptical and wonders whether he is being manipulated, or if the recent illness of Stephen’s only child, Ava, has caused his childhood friend to fall back on religion for answers to questions best left to science. Spurred by his desire for proof that life has meaning, however, Dan puts aside his doubts and agrees to help.
I haven't read the book but there may be a clue on the cover. I think the amazing information might be that the DNA helix is left-handed instead of right-handed [On the handedness of DNA ]. It's a little hard to tell from the image on the cover.

Monday, September 05, 2016

How many lncRNAs are functional: can sequence comparisons tell us the answer?

A large percentage of the human genome is transcribed at some time or another during development. The vast majority of those transcripts are very rare transcripts that look very much like spurious products of accidental transcription initiation at sequences resembling true promoters. They have been rejected by genome annotators. They do not define genes. They are junk RNA. Pervasive transcription does not mean that most of the genome is functional.

Among the transcripts is a class called long non-coding RNAs or lncRNAs. These are usually defined as capped and polyadenylated transcripts longer than 200 nucleotides. Many of them are processed by splicing. They look a lot like mRNA except they don't encode any polypeptides.1

We don't know how many of these RNAs exist because different labs use different criteria to describe them. Some databases exclude low abundance lncRNAs and some include non-polyadenylated RNAs. There is general agreement that they number in the tens of thousands. A common number in the scientific literature is 60,000 lncRNAs.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Splice variants of the human triose phosphate isomerase gene: is alternative splicing real?

Triose phosphate isomerase (TIM) is one of the enzymes in the gluconeogenesis pathway leading to the synthesis of glucose from simple precursors. It also plays a role in the degradation of glucose (glycolysis). The enzyme catalyzes the following reaction ....

Triose phosphate isomerase is found in almost all species. The structure and sequence of the enzyme is well-conserved. It is a classic β-barrel enzyme that usually forms a dimer. The overall structure of a single subunit is classic example of an αβ-barrel known as a TIM-barrel in reference to this enzyme.

To the best of my knowledge, no significant variants of this enzyme due to alternative promoters, alternative splicing, or proteolytic cleavage are known.1 The enzyme has been actively studied in biochemistry laboratories for at least eighty years.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Understanding Michael Behe's edge of evolution

It's been about twenty years since Intelligent Design Creationism rose to prominence. Just last week the Center for Science and Culture celebrated it's 20th birthday [Twenty Years Ago Today, Did This Change the Evolution Debate Forever?]. In all that time, the best that ID proponents can come up with is some work by Michael Behe that attempts to discredit evolution.

The first book by Behe was Darwin's Black Box where he developed the notion of irreducible complexity. The definition of irreducible complexity has changed over the years but the basic idea is that some biological structures are very complex and the removal of any one part will render the complex nonfunctional. This presents an enormous problem for evolution, according to Behe, because all the presumptive intermediates will be nonfunctional.

The conclusion is that it's impossible to evolve an irreducibly complex structure. Evolutionary biologists have no problem accepting the existence of irreducibly complex structures. They see them all the time. What they object to is the idea that irreducibly complex structures cannot have arisen by evolution. Behe's conclusion has been shown to be false and he has admitted on multiple occasions that irreducibly complex structures can arise by purely natural means (evolution).

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Do you believe what's written in the introduction to this paper?

I came across this paper while doing research on alternative splicing. The introduction annoyed me. It illustrates what to my mind are some serious problems with modern scholarship.

Scotti, M.M. and Swanson, M.S. (2016) RNA mis-splicing in disease. Nature Reviews Genetics 17:19–3 [doi: 10.1038/nrg.2015.3]
Here's part of the first paragraph in the paper.
Recent analysis from the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (ENCODE) project (GRCh38, Ensembl79) indicates that most of the human genome is transcribed and consists of ~60,000 genes (~20,000 protein-coding genes, ~16,000 long non-coding RNAs (lncRNAs), ~10,000 small non-coding RNA and 14,000 pseudogenes). Although this gene inventory will change with further analysis, the number of protein-coding genes is surprisingly low given the proteomic complexity that is evident in many tissues, particularly the central nervous system (CNS). High resolution mass spectrometry studies have identified peptides encoded by most of these annotated genes, but the number of isoforms expressed from this gene set has been estimated to be at least 5–10-fold higher. For example, long-read sequence analysis of adult mouse prefrontal cortex neurexin (Nrxn) mRNAs indicates that only three Nrxn genes produce thousands of isoform variants. This diversity is primarily generated by alternative splicing, with >90% of human protein-coding genes producing multiple mRNA isoforms.
Here are some of the problems I have with this introduction. My opinions on these issues differ from those of the authors.
  1. I think that pseudogenes are not genes.
  2. I think there are NOT ~16,000 lncRNAs and ~10,000 small-noncoding RNA genes. Instead, there are approximately this many putative or predicted genes, many of which will undoubtedly turn out not to be genes. Some of them will be pseudogenes.
  3. I don't think there's a discrepancy between the known number of protein-coding genes and proteomic complexity; therefore, it is misleading to say that the number of protein-coding genes is "surprisingly low."
  4. I'm pretty sure that nobody has ever proposed a truly scientific "estimate" of isoforms showing that the number should be 5-10-fold higher than the number of genes. This is all speculation and guesswork based mostly on deflated egos.
  5. It is not true that >90% of human genes produce multiple mRNA isoforms by alternative splicing. What IS true is that for every human gene researchers have detected low levels of non-canonical splice events upon careful analysis of the transcriptome. We do not know whether these represent true biologically relevant alternative splicing or simply splicing errors. All available evidence suggests that the vast majority are splicing errors.
The authors are certainly entitled to their opinion ... even if it differs from mine!

But surely there has to be a better way of expressing this opinion to make it clear that they aren't stating facts but just their own personal views based on their own interpretation of the literature? This becomes very important if there's widespread scientific controversy over some of these opinions. (It's not so important if there's widespread agreement, or consensus, in the scientific community. In those cases, you aren't obliged to mentions alternative views held by kooks.)

I believe that scientists have an ethical obligation to distinguish between fact and opinion and to make it very clear in their writings which is which. I don't know whether Scotti and Swanson know about the controversial aspect of their statements and are deliberately avoiding any mention of them, or whether they actually believe that their statements are factual. Either way, we have a problem.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Twenty "sciencey" questions for Trump and Clinton is a group that wants a "science" debate between Presidential candidates in the upcoming American election. That's not going to happen so the next best thing is to demand that the candidates answer their 20 questions about Science, Engineering, Technology, Health, and the Environment. I would not answer these questions if I were a candidate. Many of them require extraordinarily complex answers. Some of them are based on false premises. Several are loaded. Some of the problems can't be dealt with in any realistic way by a President of the United States. Quite a few cannot be answered in any meaningful way without writing a book.

I'm not sure what this group expects. This seems to be a colossal waste of time. It also seems to be very low on the priority list given all the other problems with Trump and Clinton. The questions don't inspire confidence in ScienceDebate, in my opinion. Here are the questions from: 20 Questions.
  1. Science and engineering have been responsible for over half of the growth of the U.S. economy since WWII. But some reports question America’s continued leadership in these areas. What policies will best ensure that America remains at the forefront of innovation?
  2. Many scientific advances require long-term investment to fund research over a period of longer than the two, four, or six year terms that govern political cycles. In the current climate of budgetary constraints, what are your science and engineering research priorities and how will you balance short-term versus long-term funding?
  3. The Earth’s climate is changing and political discussion has become divided over both the science and the best response. What are your views on climate change, and how would your administration act on those views?
  4. Biological diversity provides food, fiber, medicines, clean water and many other products and services on which we depend every day. Scientists are finding that the variety and variability of life is diminishing at an alarming rate as a result of human activity. What steps will you take to protect biological diversity?
  5. The Internet has become a foundation of economic, social, law enforcement, and military activity. What steps will you take to protect vulnerable infrastructure and institutions from cyber attack, and to provide for national security while protecting personal privacy on electronic devices and the internet?
  6. Mental illness is among the most painful and stigmatized diseases, and the National Institute of Mental Health estimates it costs America more than $300 billion per year. What will you do to reduce the human and economic costs of mental illness?
  7. Strategic management of the US energy portfolio can have powerful economic, environmental, and foreign policy impacts. How do you see the energy landscape evolving over the next 4 to 8 years, and, as President, what will your energy strategy be?
  8. American students have fallen in many international rankings of science and math performance, and the public in general is being faced with an expanding array of major policy challenges that are heavily influenced by complex science. How would your administration work to ensure all students including women and minorities are prepared to address 21st century challenges and, further, that the public has an adequate level of STEM literacy in an age dominated by complex science and technology?
  9. Public health efforts like smoking cessation, drunk driving laws, vaccination, and water fluoridation have improved health and productivity and save millions of lives. How would you improve federal research and our public health system to better protect Americans from emerging diseases and other public health threats, such as antibiotic resistant superbugs?
  10. The long-term security of fresh water supplies is threatened by a dizzying array of aging infrastructure, aquifer depletion, pollution, and climate variability. Some American communities have lost access to water, affecting their viability and destroying home values. If you are elected, what steps will you take to ensure access to clean water for all Americans?
  11. Nuclear power can meet electricity demand without producing greenhouse gases, but it raises national security and environmental concerns. What is your plan for the use, expansion, or phasing out of nuclear power, and what steps will you take to monitor, manage and secure nuclear materials over their life cycle?
  12. Agriculture involves a complex balance of land and energy use, worker health and safety, water use and quality, and access to healthy and affordable food, all of which have inputs of objective knowledge from science. How would you manage the US agricultural enterprise to our highest benefit in the most sustainable way?
  13. We now live in a global economy with a large and growing human population. These factors create economic, public health, and environmental challenges that do not respect national borders. How would your administration balance national interests with global cooperation when tackling threats made clear by science, such as pandemic diseases and climate change, that cross national borders?
  14. Science is essential to many of the laws and policies that keep Americans safe and secure. How would science inform your administration's decisions to add, modify, or remove federal regulations, and how would you encourage a thriving business sector while protecting Americans vulnerable to public health and environmental threats?
  15. Public health officials warn that we need to take more steps to prevent international epidemics from viruses such as Ebola and Zika. Meanwhile, measles is resurgent due to decreasing vaccination rates. How will your administration support vaccine science?
  16. There is a political debate over America’s national approach to space exploration and use. What should America's national goals be for space exploration and earth observation from space, and what steps would your administration take to achieve them?
  17. There is a growing opioid problem in the United States, with tragic costs to lives, families and society. How would your administration enlist researchers, medical doctors and pharmaceutical companies in addressing this issue?
  18. There is growing concern over the decline of fisheries and the overall health of the ocean: scientists estimate that 90% of stocks are fished at or beyond sustainable limits, habitats like coral reefs are threatened by ocean acidification, and large areas of ocean and coastlines are polluted. What efforts would your administration make to improve the health of our ocean and coastlines and increase the long-term sustainability of ocean fisheries?
  19. There is much current political discussion about immigration policy and border controls. Would you support any changes in immigration policy regarding scientists and engineers who receive their graduate degree at an American university? Conversely, what is your opinion of recent controversy over employment and the H1-B Visa program?
  20. Evidence from science is the surest basis for fair and just public policy, but that is predicated on the integrity of that evidence and of the scientific process used to produce it, which must be both transparent and free from political bias and pressure. How will you foster a culture of scientific transparency and accountability in government, while protecting scientists and federal agencies from political interference in their work?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A refreshing admission on Uncommon Descent

Some of us have been debating Intelligent Design Creationists for many years. Some of us have even visited the creationist blogs like Uncommon Descent where we discover that no facts and no logic will ever shake their obsession with proving evolution wrong and promoting their gods. That's why it was refreshing to read the following comment by William J. Murray in his post on "The Benefit of Arguments at UD." I only had time to read the first few lines but you get the gist ...

Probably one of the most daunting aspects of carrying on debates either about proper critical thinking, theism vs atheism, or intelligent design and its implications is the seeming implacable nature of those we debate here and elsewhere. It most often seems that no amount of logic, evidence or even reasonable discourse makes one iota of difference ...

Thursday, August 04, 2016

This anti-science creationist could be Vice-President of the United States of America

Thanks to PZ Myers for digging up this speech by Mike Pence in the House of Representatives [Mike Pence, creationist]. I think Pence is trying to make America great again by returning the country to the stone age.

Why are academics such bad writers?

Not all academics are bad writers but the exceptions are few and far between. Several recent articles in The Chronicle of Higher Education have attempted to explain why we can't write. There are two types of academic writing. The style you use in your academic papers differs from the style you use in writing for a general audience. There's absolutely no debate about the style of writing in the academic literature: it is horrible and it needs to change.

I want to talk about the other kind of writing; the kind where academics try to explain things to non-academics. I'll concentrate on science writing although I'm sure the same issues apply to history, philosophy, and all the other academic disciplines. I'm particularly sensitive to this problem since I'm working on a book about genomes and junk DNA and it's very different than writing a biochemistry textbook.

The latest (Aug. 1, 2016) article is an interview with Steven Pinker, the well-known Harvard psychologist. He's published seven trade books and is widely perceived to be a good example of how academics should write for a general audience [Scholars Talk Writing: Steven Pinker].