Cells and Natural Selection

Over at the shillelagh-wielding Mike Flynn’s Blog, he posts some fascinating thoughts on natural selection and molecular biology. Read that. Here’s a comment I made:

You hit upon a whole bunch of issues I’ve been pondering for years. First off, the Darwinism of Dawkins (and E.O.Wilson) was a response to the happy-happy talk of the proto-environmentalist, who wanted to see harmony in nature, even in natural selection. Wilson and Dawkins were defenders of orthodoxy (and reason) against what might be called a misguided teleology of environment – that the various competing parts of an environment *want* to be in harmony.

So, we get the Selfish Gene. And then, the Extended Phenotype, which takes the concept of a the genes of within an individual member of a species – and extends it to the environment. Hmmm. To be sure, Dawkins is not trying to reestablish the hippy-dippy harmony he and Wilson just shot down on a more rational, mechanistic basis. Rather, he’s trying to show how some of the odder behaviors and structures in nature can be explained within his theory.

But, it seemed to me – and here’s the tie-in with your thoughts above – he didn’t go far enough. And here I must apologize, for I am not nearly as widely read as you on this topic, and have not yet had a chance to review the materials you’ve linked to above. Perhaps this all is discussed at great length in literature I’ve yet to read.

Molecular biology is the place to start any evolutionary discussion, because it is the molecules that make up the cells and creatures that have undergone whatever mechanisms are at play for the longest time and under the most varied circumstances. Even a single celled organism represents, under Darwin via Dawkins, an apex of evolution – it is the inconceivably complex result of *some* processes, having taken place over at least a billion years. Unlike modern animals and plants, a single-celled organism is dealing directly with an environment chock full of free-floating genetic stuff, stuff which can invade or be invited into a cell. Such invasions and invitations, along with mergers and acquisitions, as it were, were and are where the action is, and has been for a couple billion years, and at least potentially accounts for ‘mutations’, whatever that term means is this context. Evolution, under any mechanism, should first and primarily be concerned with how cells, or even smaller units such a viruses, deal with this.

All the characteristics that Darwin observed, all the diversity and behaviors in animals and plaints, are like the paint on a house. The fundamental interesting part about a finch cracking seeds is really how it is that the finch can digest those seed and build ‘finch’ out of them. Read once about how mammals replaced birds as the apex predators in South America a few million years ago due, they supposed, to a slight advantage in metabolism. And how placental mammals have replaced marsupials almost everywhere, and for the same reason. How many other ‘survival of the fittest’ battles have been decided based on how well some fundamental molecular interaction, including the exclusion, inclusion or repair of genetic materials, takes place? All of them? Continue reading “Cells and Natural Selection”


Another Hobbit Review

Caught this at the local multiplex at opening midnight showing.

It was OK, so long as you came for the stunning visuals and a Middle Earth trip down memory lane. Way overblown action sequences were still OK after the manner of their kind. I didn’t leave or fall asleep.

So, where’s the problem? It’s not primarily in the Jack$on’s s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g out of a kid’s book into a 9-hour extravaganza, although that’s not helping. No, it’s in his inexplicable deafness to Tolkien’s deft development of Bilbo’s character and motivation in the opening scenes – his meeting with Gandalf and, later, the dwarfs.

Bilbo exhibits all good features and charm of a solid English petty country land holder – gracious, polite, curious, conservative and a man of honor. He considers his duty to be welcoming to guests so sacred that he not only tolerates the dwarfs’ unexpected arrival, but in fact extends to them a welcome which, under such ridiculous conditions, is all but heroic.

But the key point, the key to understanding Bilbo’s actions throughout the rest of the story, is that he is proud. It’s that curious sort of pride that grows out of honor – part of being honorable is to honor being honorable itself. So Bilbo defends his personal honor in part as a defense of the worthiness of being honorable in general. Pride may still be a sin even in this case, but it is a sin very near to nobility.

That pride, coupled with his sense of duty, is what drives his actions. So, when opportunities come up for Bilbo to run away, he never does it. He holds his life and comfort less dearly than he holds his honor and duty.

Jackson, somehow, misses all this. That Bilbo joins the company is simply baffling, as Jackson tells it. That he doesn’t flee at the first opportunity seems as much the product of happenstance as anything else – duty doesn’t figure into it much, especially at first.

The same peculiar deafness – striking in such a good storyteller as Jackson – also applies to the dwarfs and even to Galdalf, whose motivation in the early scenes is strangely flat, as opposed to Tolkien’s telling, where it is mysterious.

This would be the kiss of death in a movie less beautiful to look at. As it is, I suspect Tolkien fans are unconsciously filling in the gaps in their minds so as to not break the spell, and non-readers are just swept up in the visuals and, eventually, the action.

Conclusion: will probably catch the next movie in the theaters, and then see how I feel about movie 3 after that.

Boxing Day Breakfast

The 17 year old and 15 year old decided to fix breakfast for the family and a guest:

Yep. Love my kids – when your teenagers have intense discussions on how much Hollandaise sauce to make, or over the proper amount of fresh lemon juice to use, life is good. On the dark side, did have to hit 3 stores before we found one that still had Canadian bacon in stock the morning of the day after Christmas. Small price to pay.

Latest Home Improvement Project:

Hanging in the stair well, a bow rack for the kid’s bows, arrows and accoutrements:

Room for 7 bows, 3 recurves and 4 compounds – we have 2 recurves and a junior compound today.

This is one of those projects that looks good from a few feet away.

Son #2 donated a piece of antler he found for the drawer pull.

As long as you don’t look too close or subject it to any significant stress, it’s a good-looking piece! (Like so many projects, by the end I’m thinking: if I ever have to make another one of these, I’ll get it right! Yet, turns out one needs few dining room tables or bow racks in a lifetime….)

Salt Assault and Failing to Match Policy to Data

So, stuck in traffic this morning, heard this offering on NPR about salt being evil evil bad bad, except in tiny, tasteless doses. But, wait, I thought: isn’t this whole salt thing a classic canard? SciAm seems to think so

Got work to do, so I’ll (cop out alert!) leave it as an exercise for the reader to track down some links, but I recall having looked into this about 15 years ago, when my blood pressure first got elevated enough for my doctor to notice. What I recall is that research showed *some* linkage between salt intake and blood pressure, but only for a minority of the population – something like 30%. For 70% of people, there doesn’t seem to be a link between salt intake and blood pressure at any realistic level of salt consumption.

But check out what happens: across populations, if any measurable minority is adversely affected by consumption of X, then the outcome for the entire group will be better if X is reduced for everyone  – *even if* reducing X has no effect on the vast majority of people. If people enjoy X, a policy to restrict X across the population is annoying and pointless for most people, but does achieve a better result *for the population* because it helps a few people, whose results roll up to the population as a whole.

The sane policy would be to seek a reliable way to tell if a given person falls into the group affected by X, and then having them reduce their consumption of X *only if* they belong to that group. Then unaffected people get to enjoy their X in peace, outcomes are better for those affected by X, and – outcomes for the whole population are better as well as each person’s individual outcomes are rolled up into a general measure.


But with salt, the policy has never been let’s find out *if* someone is sensitive to salt intake – instead, the medical field (as personified in my doctor) tell us all it would be a good idea to reduce our salt intake prior to knowing if, in fact, it will make any difference for that particular patient.

Now, this would be utterly trivial except for a couple things:

1. For most people,  changing their diets is hard, as in really, really hard. What we eat is among our oldest, most ingrained habits. So, what is being asked for here is not, subjectively, some trivial thing.

2. There’s this idea of personal capital – a doctor, and the medical establishment in general, have a somewhat limited amount of capital with each of us patients, and asking us to do stuff uses some of it. In such an environment, doctors should spend their capital carefully – if they make a big deal out of salt consumption, they may get less compliance on things of more  importance. As someone who ultimately has to sell stuff for a living, I keep this rule always before my eyes: you can only ask for so much of somebody’s time and energy, don’t waste it.

There are political implications from this line of thought as well, but gotta get back to work.

Here We Go Again: Science! Headlines of Insanity



Four planets in ‘habitable zones’ spotted within spitting distance of Earth.


‘Spitting distance’ sounds really close. How close? One system is 12 light years away, the other 22. So, um, if you can spit at the speed of light – unlikely – and were a very, very good aim, you could conceivably besmirch  a planet orbiting one of these stars in a mere couple of decades or so.

Piece of cake.

However, since we don’t have warp drive, even on the drawing table, it seems that ‘spitting distance’ must mean something along the lines of: theoretically close enough for the great grandchildren of the initial astronauts to reach, assuming people can even live that long and reproduce healthy, fertile offspring in space.

These words – I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

Nonetheless, if you can get past the breathless, nonsensical headlines, this is actually real news about an important technique: astronomers have created a method to check for planets on nearby stars by statistically analyzing the star’s spectrum over time. I assume that, as the star and its planet(s) orbit around their common center(s) of gravity, the star appears to wobble slightly, with its spectrum shifting around – it’s a red-then-blue shift as the star alternately moves away from and then towards us as it swings back and forth around the center of gravity. But the article doesn’t spell that out. Could be something else entirely, but I can’t imagine what at the moment.

So, while the light – and the spectrums – from stars fluctuates all the time, the particular rhythmic fluctuations caused by planets should be detectable. To do so, you’d need to filter out somehow all the random noise – sunspots, who knows what – and that’s what the statistical analysis does. Somebody far better than I am statistics would need to explain how that works – I have an idea, but should keep my mouth shut on such matters.

So, despite the goofy headlines, sometimes Science! does march on! Woo Hoo!