Thoughts of the day

I’ve created a separate blog (with the creative title “Michael Hawkins Maine”) where I’ve gathered the random ‘Thought of the day’ posts I’ve made here and elsewhere. The topics range from science to politics to hiking to my hatred of spicy food. It’s more a collection for me since I like to go back to some of my writings to get thinking about a topic that may have been out of my mind for a little awhile, but I hope it’s at least mildly interesting to other people.

Check it out.


One way to help developing nations

The ways in which a person can make a difference in a developing nation are seemingly endless. Peace Corps, donating, fund-raising, awareness-raising, volunteering, and on and on it goes. But one of the best ideas I’ve heard has to do with cookware.

Quality nutrition is one of the biggest problems facing any developing nation. Every year people die from malnutrition, especially children. Others go blind from things such as vitamin A deficiency – something which can be remedied quickly and easily, if caught early enough, with a single shot that lasts years (because vitamin A is stable in the human body, and thus we are able to store it). And then others suffer from iron deficiency, something many of us avoid without even realizing it every time we eat our Wheaties in the morning. This last point is where the cookware enters the picture.

It was once common for pots and pans to be made of heavy iron, but soon after the industrial revolution took hold and steel and other metals became cheap, manufacturers began putting out lighter, and often more aesthetically pleasing, cookware. One effect of this was the need for greater iron in the diets of some people because the iron from their pots was no longer making its way into their spaghetti and potatoes and whatever else they were cooking. I think the next step here is obvious: Encourage greater use of iron cookware in developing nations. Of course, there is a cost associated with this, but the great thing is that this is a long-term solution for some people. Iron pots and pans tend to last a long time, after all.

Now, this is just one idea for one issue. There are plenty of more ways to address the poverty and problems of developing nations – for instance, more infrastructure – but a good place to start is by taking a look at the Millennium Development Goals set forth by the U.N. There really is so much to be done.

Mosquito genocide

Whenever I find myself under attack by mosquitoes, I will tend to remark to another person how much I would enjoy a mosquito genocide. Sure, a midge and/or horsefly genocide would be lovely as well – not to mention a whole host of other insect holocausts – but it’s the mosquito I really hate. I mean hate. I would eat raw onions and celery for the rest of my life if I could do away with the little bastards.

The natural response I get from people when I express my desire for mosquito eradication is, “Wouldn’t that really mess up the food chain?” I respond, half-jokingly, that I’m willing to make that sacrifice. Of course, along with most other people, I have always believed that the death of all mosquitoes, or at least the ones that bite humans, would have long-reaching ecological ramifications. And, again, along with most other people, I naturally don’t want to see that happen. But as it turns out, maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all:

Most mosquito-eating birds would probably switch to other insects that, post-mosquitoes, might emerge in large numbers to take their place. Other insectivores might not miss them at all: bats feed mostly on moths, and less than 2% of their gut content is mosquitoes. “If you’re expending energy,” says medical entomologist Janet McAllister of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colorado, “are you going to eat the 22-ounce filet-mignon moth or the 6-ounce hamburger mosquito?”

With many options on the menu, it seems that most insect-eaters would not go hungry in a mosquito-free world. There is not enough evidence of ecosystem disruption here to give the eradicators pause for thought.

At this point in the evolution of life, any significant hole left open by one species will quickly be filled by another. Even when the world has seen mass extinctions, life has been quick to fill in the gaps. And that’s with broad gaps. The loss of mosquitoes would be a very narrow niche to cover.

But there are other mosquito-reliant organisms. The question, however, is, how reliant are they? Mosquitoes make up a lot of the biomass in both aquatic and summer arctic environments. In aquatic environments it’s their larvae that contribute to the ecosystem, bringing about greater variation in other organisms while also producing nutrients for plants. In the arctic, they are food for migratory birds. But in both cases other organisms could easily take their place. Though mosquitoes have co-evolved with so many other species, so have so many other insects and microorganisms. They aren’t unique except in their high level of annoyance.

Attempts at Genocide

When the French attempted to build a canal in Panama, one of their major setbacks was disease carried by mosquitoes. It wasn’t until shortly after they started construction that it was even known that mosquitoes were vectors for diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. And even then, it wouldn’t be for some time – about when the French gave up – that it was known just how much mosquitoes could spread disease.

Enter the Americans.

When the U.S. set to construct the canal, measures were taken to drastically cut down on the mosquito population in the area. Standing pools and ponds of water were drained near construction and living areas. High grasses were cut down to create fields mosquitoes were less likely to cross. Oils were added to difficult to drain ponds. Acids and caustic sodas were even spread in great quantity. And what effect did this have on the ecology of the surrounding area? Apparently none. (At least none as a result of the loss of the mosquito.) Of course, this wasn’t an eradication, and it didn’t impact all areas, but it was a massive effort and the mosquito population was reduced significantly.

So could we do something like that, but for all mosquitoes, in all areas? Probably not. Many places in the South have programs where standing buckets of water and other common mosquito breeding grounds are destroyed. Other places spread sprays which kill mosquito larvae. These methods help, but they aren’t enough to fix the problem. And in all likelihood, there are no practical methods available that could bring about the Great Mosquito Genocide. Really, I trust that if humans could get rid of this pest, we would have long, long, long ago.

But don’t let our inability to destroy these little bastards take anything away from the dream of mass mosquito murder:

“They don’t occupy an unassailable niche in the environment,” says entomologist Joe Conlon, of the American Mosquito Control Association in Jacksonville, Florida. “If we eradicated them tomorrow, the ecosystems where they are active will hiccup and then get on with life. Something better or worse would take over.”

The erosion of progress by fundamentalism

I found this great video with Neil deGrasse Tyson where he talks about the rise in intellectual accomplishments by those in the Middle East between the years 800-1100 and how everything went downhill shortly thereafter. The rise was brought forth through free thought and inclusiveness of ideas from all walks of life. Unfortunately, one influential fundamentalist Muslim convinced people that mathematics was the work of the devil around 1100. From there everything started to fall apart. To make his point, Tyson notes that there are well over a billion Muslims in the world while there are about 15 million Jews. And how many Muslims have won Nobel prizes? A couple. How many Jews? Probably close to a quarter. It isn’t because there’s something inherently superior in the intellect of Jews; it’s because fundamentalism erodes scientific (and social and moral) progress. We face the same problem with intelligent design creationism today. If as a society we were to follow the course of the Christians (and Muslims and sometimes Jews and others) who advocate for that sort of anti-scientific/anti-science position, we would find ourselves down a very worrying path indeed.

Two final points. One, my post title is different from the video title because Tyson is not talking about religion in general. Two, you’ve got to love what he says at the end:

I want to put on the table not why 85% of the National Academy [of Science] rejects God, I want to know why 15% don’t.

Celestial Bauble

Hubble has another great capture. This one is being called a celestial bauble. And just in time for Christmas. What a crazy coincidence, I know. (SpaceDaily thought it prudent to dumb down the article title a bit.)

Celestial Bauble

This is called SNR 0509, which means it’s a supernova remnant. It’s located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which looks a little something like this.

Large Magellanic Cloud

(None of this is here for or because of human existence, by the way.)

Butchering science

Creationists hate science. They hate its conclusions, they hate its methods, they hate that it doesn’t support their silly beliefs. It’s that hatred that motivates them to butcher scientific articles and papers.

One recent butchering comes from Jack Hudson. I’m sure regulars here remember him. If not, it isn’t important. He’s a creationist with a background in introductory biology courses from 20 years ago. It’s doubtful he has much experience reading scientific papers, but that doesn’t stop him from trying.

In his post he butchers two articles. I’m going to focus on the first one, but I’ll briefly mention the second one. In that one researchers found that some negative mutations don’t change the protein sequence yet they are still negative. This one is simple. The entire sequence of a gene is not devoted to just the protein sequence. A mutation can therefore change one aspect of a gene without changing another – but it can still change another process that is important in forming proteins. Alter shape in one place and you have a good chance of seeing change somewhere else as a result. Biology is still all about shape.

The second paper, though. Woo. What a doozy of a butchering. First let me summarize the paper.

In asexual populations alleles can become fixed rather quickly. Their evolution is more straight forward because they aren’t mixing and matching genes. They produce offspring with the exact same genome, less there be a mutation. If there is a mutation, it can become fixed because things are generally less complicated with asexual populations and thus more black and white. Is this mutation good or bad? As the paper says and as Jack repeats upon hearing the term for the first time, alleles sweep through a population.

But when it comes to sexually reproducing populations, things become more complicated. And this is what the paper is about. The question is, do alleles sweep through populations in sexually reproducing populations like they do in asexual populations? The answer is no.

Now, if we’re to believe Jack, this means that evolution has failed because, why, evolution predicts an advantageous allele to reach 100% fixation, of course. Except it isn’t so black and white with sexually reproducing populations. (Nor does evolution predict that anyway.)

What the researchers did was study over 600 generations of fruit flies. They let them breed naturally, but then selected out the eggs which were produced the most quickly. This led to significantly faster reproducing populations. They then tracked specific alleles to see if they would become fixed. What they found was that they don’t.

Signatures of selection are qualitatively different than what has been observed in asexual species; in our sexual populations, adaptation is not associated with ‘classic’ sweeps whereby newly arising, unconditionally advantageous mutations become fixed. More parsimonious explanations include ‘incomplete’ sweep models, in which mutations have not had enough time to fix, and ‘soft’ sweep models, in which selection acts on pre-existing, common genetic variants. We conclude that, at least for life history characters such as development time, unconditionally advantageous alleles rarely arise, are associated with small net fitness gains or cannot fix because selection coefficients change over time.

The conclusion here is that selection for a particular trait in sexually reproducing populations acts upon many different aspects and genetic variants within the genome, not merely a single gene or SNP.

This suggests that selection does not readily expunge genetic variation in sexual populations, a finding which in turn should motivate efforts to discover why this is seemingly the case.

This is the actual conclusion of the paper. To put it another way (and to repeat myself), advantageous variants do not wipe out other genetic variants in a sexually reproducing population, instead acting on variation in a more subtle and complicated way. The big conclusion here is that there is a difference in how genes become fixed (or not fixed) in asexual populations versus sexually reproducing populations.

And Jack’s conclusion?

In short, if the activity failed to occur in the lab under optimal conditions, it is unlikely that traits are going to be transmitted this way in nature.

The traits are still being transmitted through natural selection working on variation. Jack’s conclusion has little to no connection to anything from the paper. In fact, it is abundantly clear that he read an article somewhere, figured out how to butcher it, and then went and read a few lines from the original paper.

I’ve said in the past that what takes a creationist 30 seconds to say takes an educated person 3 hours to correct. This post and the research required for it didn’t take that long, but the sentiment remains true – it’s a real hassle to untangle the carelessly mushed writings of a creationist.

Lying about climate change to sell papers

“Climategate” was a load of hooey that featured a bunch of denialists twisting scientific research, fact, and even phrasing in order to push a pro-business agenda. Those who actually thought a few emails that weren’t written for the laymen proved anything about the mounds and mounds and mounds of data supporting anthropomorphic climate change were either being dishonest or getting hoodwinked. Unfortunately, it’s going to stay that way for awhile for a lot of people – even though newspapers are retracting their lies.

In perhaps the biggest backpedaling, The Sunday Times of London, which led the media pack in charging that IPCC reports were full of egregious (and probably intentional) errors, retracted its central claim—namely, that the IPCC statement that up to 40 percent of the Amazonian rainforest could be vulnerable to climate change was “unsubstantiated.” The Times also admitted that it had totally twisted the remarks of one forest expert to make it sound as if he agreed that the IPCC had screwed up, when he said no such thing.

Crazy that.