Lily's leaping lizards, that is.

This remarkable young woman is an enterpreneur, because of her ability to....(ahem) charm anole lizards, which then serve as a succedaneum for action figures.

She's demonstrated her abilities on, among other places, the Letterman Show, and she's got a whole web site of delightfully quirky lizards 'posed' like dollies. Here's one:

And, no, though I've been known to play a few lounge gigs in various bands, that's not me. In any case, the image is real, not Photoshopped. Apparently after young Ms. Capehart strokes their bellies they are docile and pliable for up to ten minutes at a time, then return to normal. It may be that holding them and stroking them in a particular orientation applies a subtle pressure to their spinal cord, resulting in temporary paralysis. I'm not a lizard expert? Any comments?


Vera, like myself, appreciates evolutionary biology but knows that this often puts her at odds with her faith tradition----which, in her case, is Seventh-Day Adventist. Two weekends ago, she went to a SDA-sponsored satellite seminar series at her local SDA church entitled 'Out of Thin Air' which I blogged about previously. I attended the first and third nights myself, and plan on blogging about it. But in the meantime, she has a series of posts and it's interesting to get the impressions of someone who has grown up in that milieu.


I posted this on another site, and after re-reading it, and after recently posting on bonobos, thought it raised too many issues not to share here, as well:

"I don't have a dogmatic response---I don't claim to know 'THE Truth' on this topic---but I do have a lot of uncomfortable questions, based on what I know about the state of biology at present.

At what point is a child not a child? We don't actually know. But we know this: gametes are potentially zygotes, and at some point in the very near future, it will be possible to clone a person from any cell, not just a gamete, so any cell will potentially become a zygote. The same thing can be said for any mammalian species.

Since that's the case, shouldn't our deliberations about what is sacred and worthy of legal protection focus on that which is uniquely human, rather than the biology we happen to share with all mammals? The scientific community can't make that determination at present, of course, but unless there is a systematic worldwide campaign to eliminate research in reproductive biology, that data will eventually emerge, I think. What will happen to the entire notion of the sacred if we have committed ourselves, in advance, to an absolutist position on the sanctity of human life?"



Some will find this precious, some will find its' frank discussion of primate sexuality vaguely disturbing. Whether or not it is suitable for work depends on your workplace, I suppose, but in any case I think everyone should know about bonobos, and this charmingly candid lady's blog is as much as diary about her life with one of our closest relatives as it is science.

She's written a book, too. And all of its proceeds, apparently, help support the very bonobo sanctuary that she's immersed in! Stop in, say hello, learn something about your 'kissing cousin' and consider making a donation if you find this kind of work laudable.



God is speaking to Mark.


Apparently someone else is talking to Mark, too. A local journalist is interested in interviewing people 28 and younger in the Central Valley who are seriously skeptical about God's existence.

Unfortunately, despite being a hopeless sucker for free publicity, I fail to qualify on more than one account. But if the above sounds like you, and you're interested in being interviewed, contact Mark on his blog for more info!


Richard Dawkins, it seems, is human and like the rest of us, occasionally stumbles when he brings up a distantly-related (but controversial) topic in the course of making an argument about something else.

In this case, as Wilkins observes, Dawkins' stumble is to conflate the 'pro-Israel lobby' with being a Jew, secular or otherwise. Dawkins did this in an article which appeared in the Guardian, here. Of course, a careful reading shows of that same article gives the lie to the imputation of anti-semitism which has been hinted in certain corners. Dawkins made his unfortunate comment in the context of promoting the desirability of atheists (another despised minority, it is implied) lobbying the government.

Still, while my high regard for Dr. Dawkins as a scientist is unshaken, what Wilkins correctly diagnoses as a 'fallacy of composition' is pretty much the sort of argument Dawkins makes when he rails against those who identify the children of observant Christians as 'Christian children', an extension of his claim that religion is a form of child abuse. Which, frankly, is true in some cases and not true in others----much like the fact that some in the pro-Israel lobby are observant Jews, and others are neither observant or Jewish. If Dr. Dawkins had been as circumspect in his categories with the latter groups, he would not be the object of the very 'consciousness-raising' he commended in another context.



Oh, yeah...

OK, this thing is totally cool! Move the slider and watch bromine convert into a gas. Play with the orbitals and see the Aufbau diagram change.

I hope my chemistry students appreciate this, because I'm going to write a homework assignment that in some way forces them to use it.



Naked, naked, naked.

Sorry, but I just had to say it. I attempted to download a wikipedia commons image of the naked mole rat through my school site computer (thankfully up and running again after a fight in my classroom). Apparently, that was too much for my school district’s firewall: the search ‘naked mole rat’ was denied and a record of my looking for such "has been logged."

Gasp! Naked mole rats, naked, naked naked----you’d think I’d stumbled on something obscene! Please don't tell the Society for the Prevention of Rodent Nudity.

(Just for the record, my chemistry students probably feel that it is the mole itself, rather than any nudity, that is so objectionable—especially after about 70 percent of them failed their first test using moles. But I digress....)

Anyway, why naked mole rats? Turning back to Vox’s last post in our exchange, he’s uncovered some (gasp!) cognitive dissonance in the example of the naked mole rat which, as NCSE trumpets, is a model example of an evolutionary ‘prediction’. Yet another reason for his famous 'intuition' that there's something wrong with TENS* to manifest itself, you see.

For those of you who are unaware, the naked mole rat is an unusual mammalian species that shows a pattern of societal organization (eusociality) more like that seen in ants and social wasps than in other mammals. The entomologist Richard Alexander (shown on the right) rather famously predicted (among other things) the functional ecology that might lead to a mammalian species exhibiting eusociality, even though:

a) he was no expert on mammals, and

b) no such species was known to exist.

This off-hand prediction was made while giving a talk at Northern Arizona University (Flagstaff) in the mid-1970's. A mammalologist on the faculty suggested that a South African rodent (Heterocephalus glaber, the ‘naked mole rat’) might be the beastie Alexander had in mind. When the matter was investigated by Jennifer Jarvis and other field workers in the early 1980's, H. glaber was found to fit many aspects of Alexander’s clever extrapolation, including eusocial behaviour. The latter is noteworthy because nothing appears to have been known about the social behavior of H. glaber when Alexander made his prediction!

A very nice success story, but Vox is back to rain on the parade. Further research now questions the extent of eusociality within H. glaber, such as the fact that some individuals are still doing things to maximize their individual fitness---as Vox, quoting Sherman, writes: "There's conflict of interest; there are individuals still striving for their own reproduction at the expense of others under the surface of this amazing apparent cooperation."

Well, gee, Vox. Alexander, Jarvis etc. never claimed otherwise. The prediction had to do with what sort of functional ecology could select for eusociality in vertebrates, not whether or not a mammal would behave as a 'superorganism', which is something of a disputed trope within biology, anyway. Even the social wasps that inspired W.D. Hamilton (shown on the left) to propose a genetic basis for kin selection are, in a sense, seeking to maximize their individual fitness. In fact, the non-reproductive females that 'practice' haplodiploidy arguably have greater fitness than, say, Wilt Chamberlain.

Vox also notes that many of the other features 'predicted' by Alexander could've been in the literature at the time of the prediction, in effect encouraging us to entertain the unpleasant prospect that Alexander might've been aware of same. Possible? I suppose, but far from probable. Like a lot of non-biologists, Vox really doesn't have a handle on the true diversity of life, and thus fails to understand how improbable that Alexander, an insect guy, would be able to stumble on just the right vertebrate species in advance that have just the right characteristics.

Consider the sheer size of the data set that Alexander would have to look at. Even if you delimited it to the vague requirement of being 'a burrowing mammal' there would still be 22 species of blesmols (African mole rats) in 6 genera alone. There are another 25-30 species of 'mole rats' among the Spalacidae, at least 35-40 species of gophers, 5 species of prairie dogs, 15 species of marmots, etc. Don't even get me started on the (literally) hundreds of species of nocturnal, burrowing rats and mice. It's a bit much to suggest that Alexander could've just happened to have dabbled in the rodent literature and pull out a species that was reminescent of the social insects he studied. And, in any case, the truly novel prediction was for eusociality in vertebrates, and that was pretty much unexplored territory at the time.

Why would Vox strain our credulity with this argument? Because he's wedded to the incorrect idea that TENS, as a 'historical science', simply doesn't make testable predictions that can be compared with those of, say, engineering. What he misses is the fact that TENS is not confined at all to historical explanations, but provides us with all sorts of testable predictions in the here and now.

Consider, for example, the field of classification. Historically, evolutionary biologists who worked in systematics built trees that inferred relatedness from the degree they shared or differed in various morphological features---which is to say, the phenotype. When comparative genomics became possible, the phylogenetic trees constructed based on genotypic similarity were, in effect, an independent test of those earlier models. In the main, the pattern inferred in previous generations by comparative anatomist and paleontologists is confirmed by the molecular biologist---but there have been, and continue to be surprises. These are falsifiable claims, and metaanalysis of the degree to which trees derived from different data sets depart from one another constitute independent tests of the entire process.

One could argue, I suppose, that all the data sets either assume or purport to demonstrate common descent, but surely Vox is not proposing that the scientific evidence supports any other conclusion. Nor does he have any other conclusion, or any other model that he wishes to share. He just has an 'intuition', and his supporting argument about lack of predictive power misses the point entirely. Chemists can't predict the final folded shape of most proteins with the degree of accuracy demanded of engineers, either, but I don't see anyone suggesting that chemistry is not a science, or a metaphysical dodge, or a paradigm whose shift is overdue!

* My personal shorthand for 'theory of evolution by natural selection'.