Saturday, October 31, 2009

Book review: Why Evolution is True

This is one of those great science books that the people who need to read it the most will never touch.  It is, as the dust jacket blurbs promise, a succinct and thorough evaluation of evolutionary theory written in terms a nonscientist can easily understand.  The author, Jerry A. Coyne, summarizes the Charles Darwin's 19th century work in early development of evolutionary theory, lays out the theory's key ideas -- evolution, gradualism, speciation, common ancestry, natural selection, and the recognition that processes other than natural selection can cause evolutionary change -- and then explicates in detail each of those concepts.  The book explains evolution clearly, concisely, and stacks up so much supporting evidence it's guaranteed to make a creationist's head explode.

Coyne begins with the basics:  what is a theory in science?  One of the mantras of the creationists is that evolutionary theory is "just a theory."  Saying that labels the speaker immediately as someone who lacks a basic understanding of science and how science works.  Of course evolutionary theory is just a theory, just as gravitational theory is just a theory; so what?  In science a theory is a possible explanation or collection of related explanations used in an attempt to understand a fact or phenomenon.  Evolution is a fact; the evidence is all around that organisms evolved and continue to evolve; evolutionary theory explains evolution. 

But more than explain a phenomenon, a scientific theory has other properties:  it has to be testable, or potentially falsifible.  In the case of evolutionary theory, when we're surrounded by ongoing, continuous evidence of it happening (pandemic influenza A(H1N1) 2009 being the most recent example to spring to mind), what would falsify it?  Finding fossils known to be from organisms that lived in one distinct geologic era embedded in rock side by side with organisms from another could do it.  An obvious example would be fossilized mammals, which first appeared about 250 million years ago, embedded in geologic strata from a much earlier time period, like the Silurian (over 400 million years ago).  This is one reason some creationists will go to extraordinary lengths to try to prove that humans co-existed with brontosaurs (they apparently think The Flintstones was reality tv). 

Another way to disprove a theory is to use it to make predictions -- and if the predictions don't come true, then the theory may be fatally flawed.  Unfortunately for the doubters, evolutionary theory to date has proved remarkably accurate in its predictions.  A criticism of evolutionary theory used to be that various transitional forms did not exist, e.g., if, as scientists claimed, creatures like whales evolved from land mammals then there should be fossilized whales with legs.  I know a few folks who were quite proud of making that argument 20 or 30 years ago.  Bad news for them:  paleontologists have found a veritable plethora of legged whales, the transitional forms between land mammals and marine.  Evolutionary theory predicted not only that such forms would be found, but in what geologic era.   

In short, Coyne's book explains evolutionary theory and provides numerous examples to support it. The book is extremely readable and loaded with interesting tidbits from the history of science and the natural sciences.  Unfortunately, as Coyne himself admits, even though one would think so much compelling evidence would help to change a few minds, it probably won't. 

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Obesity epidemic, again

Still thinking the only reason kids are getting fatter is they're lazy and eating junk food?  The New York Times had an interesting article today that kind of debunks that theory:
Young children and adolescents who take the newest generation of antipsychotic medications risk rapid weight gain and metabolic changes that could lead to diabetes, hypertension and other illnesses, according the biggest study yet of first-time users of the drugs.

The study, to be published Wednesday (today) in The Journal of the American Medical Association, found that 257 young children and adolescents in New York City and on Long Island added 8 to 15 percent to their weight after taking the pills for less than 12 weeks.
Considering the way Big Pharma keeps pushing drugs like Abilify and suckering parents and other adults into controlling kids through medication, I don't find it particularly surprising childhood and adolescent obesity are becoming more common.  What is particularly disheartening is that the medications apparently also lead to changes in lipid levels (aka cholesterol), and once lipid levels are elevated it can be hard to get them to come back down to a healthy range even if a person loses weight.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pulitzer Project: The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey is one of those wonderful, lyrical books that you pick up meaning to just read a few pages at a shot and in a remarkably short time realize you've read the entire thing.  Granted, it is a small book -- the edition I read was perhaps 145 pages in length -- but it's also extremely well-written.  It flows

The premise of the book struck me as rather odd before I began reading.  Five people are crossing an old Inca-built bridge in the Spanish colony of Peru, the bridge fails, and they fall to their death.  A monk, Brother Juniper, decides to explore their lives.  He's convinced there must be a reason, that there should be a way to calculate scientifically why God decides some people live while others die.  He wants to work out a mathematical formula that will both explain God's will and prove God's existence.  He refuses to believe it was simply bad luck, chance, random coincidence that put those five people on the bridge when it broke.   

The narrator, the omniscient author's voice, then notes that although the monk invested tremendous amounts of time, accumulated hundreds of pages of notes, and eventually wrote an enormous book describing the victims' lives, he didn't get it right.  There were things about all five that were known only to themselves, and, of course, to the omniscient author telling us their stories. 

Wilder naturally invests more pages of narration for some characters than others.  The eccentric elderly female aristocrat has a lot more back story to explore than the adolescent orphan girl who had been raised in a convent, for example.  In the end, though, they all walk out on to the bridge and die.  What they have in common is something that can't be reduced to a rational calculus -- their humanity, and the love and memories of those who survive them.  We may never truly know what another person is thinking or believing, but we can all love. 

The book does have some structural flaws.  The chronology (continuity?) seems off in places, but that's a minor quibble.  Overall, this is a lovely book:  beautifully written with layers of meaning and with absolutely no wasted words.   

The Bridge of San Luis Rey won the Pulitzer in 1928.  Next up?  Scarlet Sister Mary by Julia Peterkin, a book and an author I'd never heard of until I began reading the prize winners.  I have a sinking, vaguely apprehensive feeling that it's not going to be nearly as good as Wilder's work.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sunday annoyances

Television surprised me today.  Usually C-SPAN has me ranting about tinfoil and  hurling epithets at the screen.  This morning it was Charles Osgood and CBS Sunday Morning.  Charles Osgood!  The man is normally valium in human form.  I switched channels to avoid listening to Newt Gingrich engage in his usual revisionism and self-serving smarminess on C-SPAN and got treated to ~90 minutes of obsessing about the nonexistent obesity epidemic and Death Fat on CBS.  Apparently all our health care cost concerns will be resolved if we can just get all the fatties in this country to drop a few pounds. The fact that diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease are chronic conditions associated almost as much with old age as with they are with obesity is apparently irrelevent -- live long enough, and odds are that you'll develop Type II diabetes or hypertension even if you're built like Callista Flockhart, but that gets conveniently forgotten when people are looking for simplistic answers.  Or, even better, convenient scapegoats that can function as distractions from the real problems. 

Like poverty.  The thing that absolutely infuriated me the most was not one of the segments bothered to explore the relationships between poverty and diet.  Osgood put up a map showing the areas where the Death Fat is the deepest:  the three "fattest" states in the country are Mississippi, Alabama, and West Virginia.  You don't have to be a sociologist to recognize what else those states have in common:  poverty.  When you're poor, you're shopping at Aldi, not Whole Foods, and you're planning meals around your USDA commodities (macaroni, cornmeal, "processed cheese food").  I see people at Kroger buying Top Ramen by the case -- I don't think they're getting it because they love the taste so much.  They're getting all those noodles because they're cheap. 

CBS managed to hit all the other clueless bases, too, when it comes to weight and health -- genetics got short shrift, there was the usual lame "exercise more, eat less" mantra accompanied by the assumption that anyone who is bigger than a size 0 is living on Big Macs and super-sized fries, the tacit assumption that being thin automatically means a person is both healthy and eating right, bariatric surgery was presented with no mention of possible side effects (nonstop diarrhea, vitamin deficiencies, assorted infections), etc. -- but putting up that map with no discussion of what might be causing the higher rates in some geographic areas than in others definitely annoyed me the most.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Is the stimulus working?

Don't know, but I did see an awful lot of these signs in my recent travels, including a fair number in states where right-wing politicians had been very vocal about not taking any of the money:

Since getting back from the tundra, I've had a hard time getting motivated.  Work is the same old same old -- all swine flu (or, as we're forced to refer to it, pandemic (H1N1) 2009) all the time.  There's nothing quite like being forced to edit yet another report about some research team measuring genetic distances and comparing influenza viruses from New Caledonia with influenza viruses from Costa Rica to put a person to sleep at the keyboard in record time.  I'm missing the parasites, the 30-foot long tapeworms living in sushi aficionados, and other entertaining infections. Influenza's gotten old. 

Of course, when it comes to the flu, it is kind of fun to watch the competing packs of hysterics on the news:  the anti-vaccine crowd that is totally convinced flu vaccine will do absolutely nothing except introduce "toxins" into one's body, and the must-have-vaccine-immediately group that is panicking because there aren't a zillion doses available at their corner Walgreen's.  We are such a schizophrenic country.  We don't trust the government to do anything right while simultaneously expecting them to save our collective sorry asses everytime something goes wrong. 

Thursday, October 22, 2009


I'd been noticing that the stray cat and squirrel populations around the apartment complex seemed to be dropping.  I wonder if this guy perched on the light pole next to our apartment building is the reason why?  I know broad-winged hawks are one of the smaller raptors, but they're not much smaller than red-tailed hawks, and we used to watch red-tails hunt rabbits in the vacant lot next to the NPS regional office in Omaha.  If a red-tail can carry off an adult cottontail rabbit, I don't think a broad-wing would have much of a problem with a kitten. 

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Heading north

I'm about to disappear for about a week.  No work, no internet, just a couple good books and the S.O.

Update:  Wish me luck. The S.O. just reminded me to pack my mittens because snow is predicted for Sunday.  Quite a change from Atlanta where we're still running around in flip flops. 

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Can we get a giant tinfoil hat for the whole country?

Saturday morning.  C-SPAN.  Health care reform debate. And caller after caller saying, yes, we need reform -- but no way in hell should an illegal alien ever get any health care on the taxpayer's dime.

Bizarre.  Truly bizarre. 

Personally, when I'm buying food (grapes picked in California, meat packed in Nebraska, whatever) where the odds are most of the workers handling it until it landed in the supermarket cart were 'illegals,' I'd prefer that those workers were able to see a doctor when they sneeze, have a chronic cough, or run a fever.  Ditto when I'm eating at a restaurant -- go behind those swinging doors into the kitchen in almost any restaurant in an urban area and you're going to find undocumented workers.  When they spit on my salad, I'd rather not have that spit laced with mycobacterium tuberculosis.  To me it makes no sense to actively campaign for putting roadblocks to health care in the way of the people who work most intimately with our food supply.  But apparently I'm in the minority. 

And, yes, it's also the humane, decent thing to do to ensure that everyone in a society, no matter what their position (social, economic, ethnic, citizen or not) has access to health care -- but if we're not willing as a society to behave like civilized people for moral reasons, how about simple pragmatism and some enlightened self-interest? 

Thursday, October 1, 2009

What part of "he pled guilty" is a mystery?

I hadn't planned to say anything at all about the Polanski mess.  Kate Harding did such a great job at Salon that I figured it was pointless.

But there is some true stupidity floating around out there in the blogosphere, and it annoys the crap out of me.

Quick summary, Roman Polanski raped a child. It wasn't "sex with a minor;" it wasn't even remotely consensual, it was a brutal, unabashed rape. He drugged her, he ignored her protests, and then he engaged in multiple sex acts, including both vaginal and anal intercourse.  Sodomy.  He was 44; the victim was 13.  And then he admitted it all.  His attorneys managed to work out a plea bargain, and he pled guilty to the one remaining charge to avoid a trial (had there been a trial, he'd have been wearing prison orange long ago).  Then, while awaiting sentencing, he skipped the country.  He didn't run to avoid a trial; he ran to avoid jail. 

I don't care how long it's been since the crime occurred, or how much the poor man has suffered being forced to live in hellholes like Paris, France, subsisting on meals from 4-star restaurants, I want the state of California to drag his sorry ass back to L.A., hand him an orange jumpsuit, and let him rot.  Because the bottom line is Roman Polanski raped a child.