Author Archives: Mike White

Science Denial Then and Now

George Herbert’s “Vanity (I)” (1633)

Science has always made people uncomfortable. Witness the recent comments from the U.S. House Science (Denial) and Technology Committee:

We’ve had climate change since the day the earth was formed, whenever that was, depending on whatever you believe. — Rep. Bill Posey (R – FL)

I just don’t know how y’all prove those hypotheses going back fifty, a hundred, you might say thousands or not even millions of years, and how you postulate those forward. — Rep. Randy Weber (R – TX)

These confused politicians are part of a long tradition that stretches back to the beginnings of modern science itself. George Herbert was a friend of Francis Bacon, but the pious Herbert wanted nothing to do with Bacon’s radical ideas about the natural world. Herbert’s recent biographer John Drury explains:

Long before the discoveries of Darwin and modern astrophysics, some explanation of how everything had come into existence and how it worked was required. Divine creation provided that, had no challengers, and held the field. The natural world presented no moral problems. Rather, it provided ample scope for the investigation of the heavens and the earth which was beginning to gather pace among intellectuals, led by Herbert’s older friend Sir Francis Bacon. In his early poem ‘Vanity (I)’ Herbert was chary about such ‘philosophy’ as it was called, dismissing astronomy and chemistry as too speculative to occupy the valuable time of the practical Christian.

Music at Midnight: The Life and Poetry of George Herbert, John Drury p. 12

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Did NIH budget cuts delay an Ebola vaccine?

Mike Eisen makes an excellent point about NIH Director Francis Collins’ recent claims:

But what really bothers me the most about this is that, rather than trying to exploit the current hysteria about Ebola by offering a quid-pro-quo “Give me more money and I’ll deliver and Ebola vaccine”, Collins should be out there pointing out that the reason we’re even in a position to develop an Ebola vaccine is because of our long-standing investment in basic research, and that the real threat we face is not Ebola, but the fact that, by having slashed the NIH budget and made it increasingly difficult to have a stable career in science, we’re making it less and less likely that we’ll be equipped to handle all of the future challenges to public health that we’re going to be face in the future.

You can make a better case about the direct impact of funding cuts with the shrinking budget CDC Public Health Preparedness Funding, as Judy Stone notes over at Scientific American.

No, evolutionary biology doesn’t need a rethink

Suggestions that we need a new evolutionary synthesis because of phenomenon X pop up like weeds in biology. It’s nice to see some of my favorite evolutionary geneticists – Greg Wray, Hopi Hoekstra, Douglas Futuyma, Richard Lenski, Trudy Mackay, Dolph Schluter and Joan Strassman – make a strong case that the fundamentals of evolutionary theory can accommodate the hot new phenomenon of the day (e.g, epigenetics), and that genes are not passé:

The evolutionary phenomena championed by Laland and colleagues are already well integrated into evolutionary biology, where they have long provided useful insights. Indeed, all of these concepts date back to Darwin himself, as exemplified by his analysis of the feedback that occurred as earthworms became adapted to their life in soil…

Finally, diluting what Laland and colleagues deride as a ‘gene-centric’ view would de-emphasize the most powerfully predictive, broadly applicable and empirically validated component of evolutionary theory. Changes in the hereditary material are an essential part of adaptation and speciation. The precise genetic basis for countless adaptations has been documented in detail, ranging from antibiotic resistance in bacteria to camouflage coloration in deer mice, to lactose tolerance in humans…

All four phenomena that Laland and colleagues promote are ‘add-ons’ to the basic processes that produce evolutionary change: natural selection, drift, mutation, recombination and gene flow. None of these additions is essential for evolution, but they can alter the process under certain circumstances. For this reason they are eminently worthy of study.

h/t Ed Yong

This year’s chemistry nobel in context

One of my favorite science historians, Daniel Kevles, has a brief, insightful New Yorker piece that puts this year’s chemistry Nobel Prize in context:

Trying to see the fine structure of a cell with a light microscope is akin to attempting to discern the individual trees in a forest from a jetliner at thirty thousand feet.

Kevles explains how Betzig and Hell were obsessed with breaking the “Abbe limit,” the physical principle that the resolution of light microscopes is limited to the wavelength of light. Each of them figured out how to “argue with the laws of physics,” using some brilliant tricks with fluorescence. To someone outside of biology it may sound strange, but the development of fluorescent imaging and tagging technologies is turning out to be one of the most important developments in the history of biology, at least as revolutionary as the initial development of the microscope.

Sunday Science Poem: George Herbert and our psychic connection with nature

George Herbert’s “The Storm” (1633)

Badlands2Why does nature move us? Driving through the South Dakota Badlands this summer was a moving experience. The bare, jagged landscape evoked feelings of calm, happiness, and awe — how can a bunch of rocks have such emotional resonance?

Neurobiologists have struggled to understand the biological basis of a sense of beauty. As Bevil Conway and Alexander Rehding wrote:

Insofar as beauty is a product of the brain, correlations between brain activity and experiences of beauty must exist. At what spatial scale, and within what brain regions, do we find these correlations? What functions do the brain regions implicated serve in other behaviors? What signals during development and experience are responsible for wiring up these circuits? And perhaps most critically, how does the activity of these circuits integrate across modalities and time to bring about the dynamic, elusive quality of beauty?

We don’t know what it is about natural beauty that specifically activates those circuits, or even what those circuits are. But an psychological link between nature and our brains seems to be a universal trait.

In “The Storm,” the great English metaphysical poet George Herbert links the awe-inspiring action of a thunderstorm with the movement of his conscience.

The Storm

If as the winds and waters here below
                                    Do fly and flow,
My sighs and tears as busy were above;
                                    Sure they would move
And much affect thee, as tempestuous times
Amaze poor mortals, and object their crimes.

Stars have their storms, ev'n in a high degree,
                                    As well as we.
A throbbing conscience spurred by remorse
                                    Hath a strange force:
It quits the earth, and mounting more and more
Dares to assault thee, and besiege thy door.

There it stands knocking, to thy music's wrong,
                                    And drowns the song.
Glory and honour are set by, till it
                                    An answer get.
Poets have wronged poor storms: such days are best;
They purge the air without, within the breast.

Image credit: Badlands National Park, Michael White, 2014.