And not just any aquarium, but one with a vision for meeting an educational need for the San Joaquin Valley. The previous post reminds me that cnidarians, especially corals, are among the organisms most threatened by environmental change today. I've just recently become a member of the Aquarius Aquarium Institute. You can read about their activities on the link and consider becoming a charter member. This is a non-profit that already has forged some significant links with the local business community, acquired land bordering riparian habitat and is currently raising funds to realize their vision.
As someone who has taught Earth Science, I see a crying need for this facility. High school students who take Earth Science are expected to master standards in oceanography, but (obviously) the Central Valley is not exactly coastal! A dedicated, world-class aquarium with a significant educational mission could greatly enhance the ability of local public school teachers to address those standards.
There is a fascinating article in the recent Science about some of the surprises associated with the genome of the sea anemone Nematostella venctisis. The paper concludes that the sea anemone genome is complex, with features more akin to contemporary vertebrates than to other, well-characterized invertebrate genomes (fruit flies and nematodes). This suggests that "the genome of the eumetazoan ancestor was similarly complex."
One of my readers, an evolutionary skeptic, has drawn my attention to it and makes an interesting argument. In effect, he asks how this complexity could've been retained for hundreds of millions of years while lying "unexpressed"? After all, natural selection only operates on the phenotype, so how could it act to preserve introns?
I happen to think my reader is confusing the genes we see expressed now in sea anemones with the capacity to build modular regulatory networks that facilitate and control such gene expression. I think this capacity has been strongly conserved in sea anemones, not so much in other invertebrates. This is a finding that cries out for some sort of explanation, but not necessarily one that contradicts the modern synthesis.
But, ya know, I could be wrong. I invite readers who know more about this topic to comment, and I will also see if I can track down a reaction to this concern from one of the paper's primary authors. In the meantime, here's an exciting new clearing-house for information on Nematostella, which is emerging as an important model organism in evo-devo and other fields.
As T.S. Eliot said, "The naming of cats is a difficult matter/It isn't just one of your holiday games."
And so it is with skeptics. As my friend Richard suggests, their motto should be, "Whatever it is, I'm against it." Still, unanimity on all points would be pretty boring. I've met some pretty neat people in my time, and our local 'herd of cats' is a good example of why I have the emblem 'Friend of A' on my blog. Tomorrow night our little enclave of skepticism is going to get a new handle. Should be interesting. I'd like to encourage all who are interested in learning more about this to check it out. As the group's token faith-head, I'll be abstaining from the actual voting, but whatever it's called will have my support.
If you can't figure out what I'm talking about, here's the down-and-dirty!
I think I failed to make clear that the previous post was not intended to be a part of my 'debate' with Vox, but just an attempt to provide some context. And, judging by this post, I need to give Vox more time to digest previous arguments and not pile one cannon ball after the other. Bad form on my part, I suppose, and I ask everyone's indulgence.
Really, that's like saying how much good can one person do? And the answer is always, quite a bit. As Margaret Mead said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does.”
With that in mind, click on this link. Read it. View the video. And consider these words of John Wesley:
Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.
Vox has made some interesting claims about Soviet style-Marxism’s debt to Darwin and been met with much scorn on both his site, and that of ‘fellow scientist’ PZ Myers (Pharyngula). One of them is to cite Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the architects of the Modern Synthesis, as a product of the young Soviet Union’s commitment to evolutionary biology and (presumably) Darwin. He's the fellow on the left, in a picture taken just eight years after he emigrated from Russia.
I don’t speak or read Russian, so I’m at a bit of a loss for primary sources on Vavilov and others, but as it happens Dobzhansky did leave a first-person account in English of his experiences as a budding scientist in the U.S.S.R. I’ll let the late geneticist speak for himself, in these excerpts from an article he wrote, “The Birth of the Genetic Theory of Evolution in the Soviet Union in the 1920's”, which appears in a collection of essays edited by Ernst Mayr, The Evolutionary Synthesis: Perspectives on the Unification of Biology.
Dobzhansky was asked to write this essay in part to explain the circumstances in which himself, Chetverikov and other Russians made important contributions to genetics. Dobzhansky begins by noting that at about the same time the Origin was published Russia was “entering a period of political reforms and a ground swell of radicalism amongst its intelligentsia.” He further observes that evolution was resisted by the conservative elements of pre-Revolutionary Russia, and that it came to be seen as part of a progressive, even radical agenda, but notes: “The polemics of the debate were published neither in scientific or religious journals, but mostly in general literary and sociopolitical journals intended for broad circles of educated readers.” In other words, from its infancy evolution in Russia was heavily politicized by the revolutionary climate of the times.
Dobzhansky continues, in an elegiacal tone:
“Among those who accepted evolution as part of the new gospel, some had reservations about certain parts of Darwin’s theory. The struggle for existence seemed to have particularly undesirable connotations: already Chernyshevsky held the Lamarckian ‘transformism’ superior to Darwin’s natural selection . . . The checkered career of neo-Lamarckism in Russia has been well-analyzed by Gaisonovich (1968) and Bliakher (1971). The polemics about Lamarckism versus Darwinism and genetics became a caricature of scientific discussion when the problem was taken over by Marxist philosophers in the 1920's and early 1930's. The Timiriazev Institute was working on “the study and propaganda of the scientific foundations of dialectical materialism.” The Communist Academy had a Section of Natural and Exact Sciences. The Faculty of Medicine of Moscow University had a Society of Materialist Physicians. The criterion of validity of theories of evolution was their congruity with dialectical materialism as construed by different authorities. I remember the frustration I felt discussing some problems of genetics or evolution with Serebrovsky, an excellent geneticist and a convinced Marxist, in late 1926 or 1927. His clinching argument was, “Your reasoning is undialectical.” The debates among the high priests of dialectics were often impassioned but inconclusive. Both Lamarckians and Darwinians claimed to be faithful dialecticians. These polemics had however a wholly unintended effect: they prepared the ground for Lysenko’s simplistic brand of dialectics, which for almost a generation swept away much of biology in Russia.”
Hardly a fertile field for science. Despite that, Russian scientists who were not ideologically oriented were eager to keep up with the developments outside the U.S.S.R. “Genetics,” writes Dobzhansky, “started tardily, but developed with great elan once it did start. The first course of genetics was given in the University of St. Petersburg by Philipchenko in 1913. 1 I never had a course of genetics at the University of Kiev, although my teacher....was an adherent of the chromosome theory of heredity. 2 At that time I was an entomologist specializing in the taxonomy of Coccinellidae (lady beetles). Mendel’s laws were occasionally mentioned, though not in an evolutionary context.”
Dobzhansky then reminds us that, due to the rise of Mendelian genetics and other factors, Darwin’s “theory of natural selection had reached its nadir of its repute amongst evolutionists in the early twentieth century.” The situation was not that Russians were especially skeptical at that time, but that the young field of biology worldwide was debating more than one theory of evolution at the time of the Revolution, and Darwin’s was far from the most popular.
The very slowness of the Russians to adopt Western-style genetics, however, may have initially insulated them from those debates and made the eventual introduction of genetics into Russian science all the more exciting. Dobzhansky recalls that while the “concept of mutation was still rather unfamiliar to at least the older generation of biologists in the 1920's” that by 1919 Philipchenko had published “excellent reviews of the works of the Morgan school on the genetics of Drosophila. To me, these reviews were a revelation. To most senior biologists Drosophila mutants were a collection of monstrosities, of no significance for evolution." 3
So, by Dobzhansky’s account, Russian intellectuals embraced evolution rather enthusiastically for ideological reasons as much as for its scientific merit, and at the very same time that confidence in Darwin’s particular theory for how evolution happened (natural selection) was most unpopular, not just in Russia, but worldwide. In the 1920's, young Russian scientists such as himself were eager to ‘catch up’ to the genetics being taught in the West, but the more senior scientists were inattentive and unlikely to make the connection between the genetic evidence for variation and Darwin’s theory. The future seemed rife with possibility for these young geneticists, but that window of open investigation closed very quickly, again for ideological reasons. By 1927 a frustrated Dobzhansky emigrated to the West and took up a position in Morgan’s laboratory, never to return, and for much of the next four decades his name was “used in the Soviet Union only with derogatory epithets.” 4
For those interested in learning more about Theodosius, here's a wonderful resource.
1. Context: Mendel’s work was rediscovered in 1900. Theorists quickly proposed that the fact of mutations inferred from (in part) DeVries’ work with primroses could prove an alternative to Darwin’s theory of evolution. Thomas Hunt Morgan, to whose lab Dobzhansky would eventually gravitate, began experimenting with Drosophila in 1908. Morgan expected to provide evidence for the ‘mutationist’ theory, but ended up discovering sex-linkage and crossing-over instead in addition to providing much of the raw data for the field of population genetics, which was ushered in by R.A. Fisher’s landmark 1918 paper which showed that the discontinuous genes studied by Morgan’s group could be the basis of the almost entirely continuous variation observed in natural populations—thus providing mathematical support for the idea that the observed frequencies of various alleles within a population could be the result, as Darwin foresaw, of selection.
2. More context: Dobzhansky entered the University of Kiev in 1917. He moved to the newly-christened Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in 1924 after the Soviets finally established a fruit fly lab 16 years after Morgan’s work.
3. Much of Dobzhansky’s most interesting work concerns the study of variation and evolution of Drosophila populations in situ, including one of the first demonstrations of a speciation event, a classic which can be read here.
4. From Krementsov, I. Review of Kolchinskii, et al. (2002) “At the roots of academic genetics at St. Petersburg.” Isis 95: 4, pg. 726-728.
Posted by Scott Hatfield . . . . at 8:07 PM
I thought that Vox and I were in pretty substantive agreement when it comes to distinguishing between the science of evolution and the ideologically-motivated misapplication of that science. Curious, then, that he has expended several thousand words over at his site as to which Nazi wore which belt buckle, or whether the Soviets were 'inspired' by Darwin. I can't blame Vox entirely for returning to this line of questioning, since it suits his interests and his strengths: he is, after all, something of a professional when it comes to pushing ideology.
But all of that stuff has nothing to do with the question of what the science actually is, of whether "TENS is the only serious game in town at the moment." (Which is is!) Vox admits that he is "in no way opposed to its continued refinement and application in the field of biology," and wants people to know he's never been opposed to it. Well, Vox, let me say that you've got a funny way of showing it. I'll give you the benefit of the doubt, though, since I'm pretty sure that most of your snide remarks are really at the expense of Dawkins and other committed evolutionists, rather than the actual science.
And----speaking of the actual science----don't you think it's time we focused on it? Vox continues to argue that what he calls 'backtesting' casts doubts on the reliability of TENS, with respect to my posts on the chimpanzee chromosome:
Now, look at this wording: "the first SUGGESTION that... MIGHT'VE BEEN PRODUCED" is not at all equivalent to the "testable prediction"
Oh, Vox, of course it is. Lejeune et al suggested telomeric fusion as a possible explanation back in 1973. That's a hypothesis. That hypothesis clearly implies that signatures of the fused telomeres and that of an inactivated centromere, if they still exist, should be found in the DNA sequence (which at the time was unknown). That's a prediction (actually two predictions) that were verified by later research. No one who actually understands this research would disagree with this claim. Not a soul.
It's entirely possible that the "testable prediction" was made prior to the tests, but we still haven't seen proof of it.
Vox, you are just playing word games here rather than addressing the science on its own merits. Back in 1973, LeJeune and other researchers proposed a radical hypothesis (telomeric fusion) to explain the banding patterns they saw. Subsequent analysis of the DNA sequence could've provided evidence against this interpretation. The banding patterns which seemed to suggest the fusion of two separate chromosomes could've been artifacts of other types of chromosomal change. The sequences, when examined, could've failed to line up with homologous sequences in the two chimpanzee chromosomes. The presence of pericentromeric regions within chromosome #2, the signature of an ancestral chromosome's inactivated centromere, could've failed to appear upon closer investigation.
None of those things happened. Why do you think that is? Please try to form an answer that refers to the science, rather than another attempt at derailing the clear implication of this line of work. Do you want, as you said before, to learn something from this 'debate' about the real science, or do you just want to play a game of semantic dodge ball?
Posted by Scott Hatfield . . . . at 8:21 AM