Life, um, finds a way

The LA Review of Books has just posted my review of Unnatural Selection: How We Are Changing Life, Gene By Gene—a highly accessible book about how insect pests, weeds, disease organisms, wildlife, and even cancer cells evolve in response to the chemicals and drugs we use to contain them. I particularly focus on the skin-crawling case of bedbugs:

Bedbugs are a particularly intimate example, at least from the human perspective, of the broader trend. Surveys of exterminators report that between 2001 and 2007, the number of bedbug infestations across North America increased 20-fold, concentrated in places like apartment complexes, college dormitories, and homeless shelters in major urban areas. Some of this resurgence is due to international travel. Major ports like New York, San Francisco, and Miami are epicenters of bedbug activity, and genetic surveys show that the bugs are arriving from multiple populations, not spreading from a single geographic source. Still, a large part of the bedbug revival is attributable to the fact that the bugs have developed a resistance to many of the insecticides that kept them down for decades.

Go read the whole thing, and try not to scratch.

That show you like is going to come back in style

Oh, man. This is exciting, but I also feel a sense of creeping dread, as though I’m trapped in some sort of interdimensional cineplex of televisual entertainments and, after strange ages of wondering among endless theaters showing long-form serialized dramas of violence and disturbance and vague supernatural malevolence, I’ve just brushed aside yet a crimson curtain and walked into the room where I first met that backwards-talking dwarf.

He is holding a cup of coffee.

Upside down.

Hat tip to Steve Silberman.

Manhattan is a great drama about the problems of science careers

Two bodies: Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) and Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) are both Ph.D. scientists—but only Frank works in a field useful to the Project. (WGN America)

Two bodies: Liza Winter (Olivia Williams) and Frank Winter (John Benjamin Hickey) are both Ph.D. scientists—but only Frank works in a field useful to the Project. (WGN America)

Some of the best dramatic fantasies project otherwise commonplace struggles and worries into extraordinary circumstances. Make that awkward teenage girl a vampire slayer, and put her in a high school that is literally built over a gateway to Hell. How do we feel about that military occupation if it’s reimagined as humans subjugated by their out-of-control cybernetic creations? A love affair is a lot more compelling if it involves the President of the United States and the woman who helped fix his election. So maybe it shouldn’t be all that surprising that the most compelling television show about the daily drama of academic science is a historical drama about building the first atomic bomb.

Manhattan, which airs on WGN America and streams on Hulu, follows physicists designing what will become the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, starting about two years before August 6, 1945. The project staff and their families are living in a laboratory campus built and hyper-secured by the U.S. military in the desert near Los Alamos, New Mexico, but in many respects they could be working at any research university today. Here’s my (spoiler-y) list of the parallels, which are sometimes dangerously on-the-nose:

Continue reading

My review of A Troublesome Inheritance for the Los Angeles Review of Books

World Map - Abstract Acrylic Image by Lara Mukahirn.

I’ve written (another) review of Nicholas Wade’s “science of race” book A Troublesome Inheritance, this time for the Los Angeles Review of Books. If you’ve read the my previous review for The Molecular Ecologist, you won’t find much new here, but the LARB piece is pitched at a less technical audience, and takes a somewhat different point of entry:

CHARLES DARWIN is more usually cited for his scientific discoveries than his moral insights. In the closing pages of his travelogue The Voyage of the Beagle however, he condemns the practice of slavery — which he observed firsthand in the colonized New World — in blistering, heartfelt terms worthy of an Old Testament prophet

In this testimony against the great social sin of his age, Darwin makes an observation that should unsettle us even here and now: “if the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.”

I’m extremely pleased for the chance to contribute to a great literary magazine, and I’m also quite happy to see that LARB went with my suggested, punny headline: “Cluster-struck.”

The Molecular Ecologist: I read A Troublesome Inheritance so you don’t have to

World Map - Abstract Acrylic Image by Lara Mukahirn.

Over at The Molecular Ecologist I’ve done an in-depth review of the population genetics data cited by Nicholas Wade in his book A Troublesome Inheritance, which argues that social, cultural, and economic differences between human populations are all in our genes. Digging into the book’s endnotes, it didn’t take me long to find discrepancies between Wade’s description of basic population genetic results and the actual, um, results.

First and foremost, Wade claims that when population geneticists apply a class of statistical methods called clustering algorithms to datasets containing hundreds or thousands of genetic markers, they objectively identify five geographic groups that he calls “continental races”—differentiating African, European/Middle Eastern/South Asian, East Asian, Oceanian, and American people. What he does not make particularly clear is that while clustering methods do group genetic samples without direct instructions, the algorithms do not decide how many clusters there are. The geneticists using them do.

To make me feel somewhat better for having paid actual money to read this book, go read my whole review.◼

2013, by the books

2013.06.29 - Book sale I A book-sale table at Twin Cities Pride 2013. I bought some books at the sale—but not any of these. Photo by jby.

I read 17 books in 2013. I actually have no idea how this stacks up to past years, though I did set myself the goal of 20, and that proved to be a bit ambitious. Here’s the list, more or less in chronological order, with notes about what I thought of each:

  • Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell — I read this after watching the film adaptation, and came away with a deeper appreciation for both versions of the layered, multi-generational story. As a book, it’s an endless pleasure of renewed recognition as themes and images repeat and evolve.
  • 2312, Kim Stanley Robinson — This is a really lovely, optimistic vision of humanity’s future. It has some great set-piece scenes, including one in which space-dwelling communities drop animals from orbit to repopulate the Earth’s biosphere. The actual plot—something about politics across the Solar System—is rather thin, and mostly happens in the background, but 2013 is grade-A hard science fiction with a humanist soul.
  • Children of the Sky, Vernor Vinge — A nice continuation of the series started with A Fire Upon the Deep, which explores a society reshaped by the arrival of aliens (humans!) bearing hyper-advanced technology. Unfortunately it’s a little less self-contained than the earlier books, leaving a number of plot threads loose in anticipation of a sequel.
  • Sticks and Stones, Emily Bazelon — I wrote a full-length review for this one—I think it’s a great and important collection of research.
  • On Being Different: What it Means to Be Homosexual, Merle Miller — This was a self-assigned reading in what I think of as my ongoing class in remedial Queer Studies, and it’s remarkable both for how much has changed since Miller first wrote the essay, just a couple years after Stonewall, and how much really hasn’t.
  • Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective Science Teaching, Gregory Light and Marina Micari — I reviewed this for ProfHacker. Coming from the perspective of someone who wants ideas about what to actually do in a classroom, rather than general statements of principle, I didn’t find it very helpful.
  • Matter, Iain M. Banks — Banks (who died this year, unfortunately) is my current go-to for solid, exciting space opera that doesn’t require me to stop thinking critically when I pick it up. Matter describes the interactions of a primitive culture with much more advanced ones—and the deadly outcomes of political maneuvering within each.
  • Zoe’s Tale, John Scalzi — More space opera, this time about human colonists on a new world and their efforts to avoid war with non-human intelligent natives, and hostile off-world aliens. Like Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead without any of the mystical fluff or weird sexual baggage.
  • Relentless Evolution, John N. Thompson — I reviewed this for The Molecular Ecologist, and I liked it quite a lot.
  • The Second American Revolution and Other Essays, 1976-1982, Gore Vidal — I’m ashamed to admit this was my first in-depth exposure to Vidal. He’s a bit classist for my taste, but at his catty best, he’s great. This got me wanting to write essays.
  • The Algebraist, Iain M. Banks — Another solid hit, this one a story of interstellar war in which ancient and apparently gormless, anarchic aliens turn out to be more than they seem.
  • Life at the Speed of Light, J. Craig Venter — I reviewed this for The Molecular Ecologist, and thought it was pretty good.
  • Paleofantasy, Marlene Zuk — This is a lively debunking of some recent pseudo-scientific fads, and a nice introduction to better-supported thinking about recent human evolution.
  • The Murder Room, P.D. James — The first old-school mystery novel I’ve picked up in ages. It’s a good, straightforward murder procedural.
  • Fun Home, Alison Bechtel — This graphic novel-format autobiography about Bechtel’s childhood with her closeted father may be the best thing I read all year. I blew through it in two evenings of sitting up late.
  • The Green Hills of Earth, Robert Heinlein — This was my first in-depth exposure to Heinlein (I never did make it through Starship Troopers), and I mostly liked it. Green Hills is really a collection of short stories, set over the course of humanity’s expansion across the Solar System. I like Heinlein’s focus on (mostly) men doing the grunt work of colonization, though his writing is workmanlike at best, and definitely a product of its time.
  • A Dance With Dragons, George R.R. Martin — I waited for this one until it came out in mass-market paperback, both because I’m a cheapskate and because I know I’ll have a long wait for the next book in the series. Like every entry in Martin’s “Song of Fire and Ice” since the first A Game of Thrones, this isn’t a particularly self-contained story, but it’s a good continuation, and it made for good holiday-break reading.

The Molecular Ecologist: Relentless Evolution

Medium Ground-Finch (Geospiza fortis) Darwin’s finches, like this medium ground finch, are a prime example of what John Thompson calls “relentless evolution.” Photo by David Cook Wildlife Photography.

When I was just starting graduate school, one of the first things I wanted was readings to get me up to speed on the current state of research on the evolution of interactions between species. My dissertation advisor handed me The Geographic Mosaic of Coevolution, by John Thompson (who, it should be said, had been my advisor’s postdoctoral mentor). Thompson turned out to be just the author for the job, wrangling a huge body of research into a clear, straightforward text, and all in support of his argument that metapopulation dynamics—populations linked by migration across a landscape of varied environments—are the engine driving much of evolution.

Now, Thompson’s published a new book, titled Relentless Evolution, which pretty much picks up where The Geographic Mosaic left off. And I’ve reviewed it for The Molecular Ecologist.

Gould’s “paradox of the visibly irrelevent” holds that, if we are to understand the river of evolutionary history, we must look below the spume and spray of year-to-year adaptative change to find the deeper currents that can, over time, carve canyons. In his new book Relentless Evolution (University of Chicago Press, $35.00 in paperback), John N. Thompson makes the opposing argument with gusto: To Thompson, studying the roiling eddies that Gould dimissed as transient and superficial is the only way to understand the deeper currents, and the river’s course ahead of us.

Should you run out and buy a copy? If you’re even slightly on the fence, I suggest you go read my whole review.◼

I read a book!

Scheikundeles / Chemistry class Chemistry lab. Photo by Nationaal Archief of the Netherlands.

It’s called Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching (buy it over on Indiebound). It’s about teaching science to undergraduates, which is a thing I’ve been trying to do, lately. And I wrote a review for ProfHacker.

In their new book Making Scientists: Six Principles for Effective College Teaching, (Harvard University Press, $24.95) Light and Micari argue that undergraduate education in the sciences should go beyond imparting a basic set of knowledge, and make learning science more like the experience of doing scientific research.

If teaching science to undergraduates is also a thing you do, may I suggest you go read the whole thing?◼

Bully-land

Anti-bullying Respect Tour 2009 What would it take to eliminate bullying? Photo by Working Word.

In 2006, just about when we were all starting to see the light at the end of the Bush Administration, Sarah Vowell totally rearranged my perspective on U.S. politics:

High school … is the most appropriate metaphor for life in a democratic republic. Because democracy is an idealistic attempt to make life fair. And while high school is the place where you read about the democratic ideal of fairness, it is also the place most of us learn how unfair life really is. Who you are is informed by who you were then. And every nerd has an anecdote or two to tell about how Nerds versus Jocks is not just some epic mythological struggle but a pesky if normal way of life.

Vowell’s essay “The Nerd Voice” (originally published in as part of buy it over on The Partly Cloudy Patriot) starts from the observation that the differences between Presidential candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush are neatly encapsulated in the high school archetypes of Nerd and Jock, and from that spins an entire worldview. Alongside the Nerd are the poor kid, the undocumented kid, the disabled kid, the gay kid—the Democrats’ patchwork coalition of the unpopular lunch table. Arrayed against them: the Jock’s friends the rich kid, the casual racist, the popular kid who never has time for less-popular kids, the socially powerful who need not even acknowledge that they have power. Natural-born Republicans, every one.

More than a decade later, it barely counts as a metaphor to invoke the social strata of the schoolyard in reference to politics. The image of the Bully and the Bullied—the only slightly darker angle on the Nerd and the Jock—is routinely conjured by folks on both sides of the political spectrum to directly describe the actions They want to perpetrate against Us. In this atmosphere, where bullying is simultaneously a political issue and a unifying theory of politics even as the political discourse feeds back to shape the interactions of children in the schoolyard, Emily Bazelon’s book Sticks and Stones offers the hope of understanding not just our own high school traumas, or the experiences of children who are bullied today, but the way social power is wielded in American society.

Sticks and Stones grows out of Bazelon’s extensive writing on bullying for Slate. The book is structured around three specific cases: a girl bullied by upperclassmen for (a least initially) picking the wrong haircut; a gay boy in a rural school district; and a girl accused of contributing to a classmate’s suicide. The details of each case study inform Bazelon’s accounts of the others, and all three serve as starting points for discussion of broader context: the history of public schools’ legal responsbilities to protect students from bullying, historical and ongoing social research, and the evolving role of online media in teenagers’ social lives.

Bazelon’s handling of all this material is clear, precise, and cautious, even as she maintains empathy with (almost) everyone concerned in her three case studies. Early on, she establishes a working definition of bullying (from on the work of pioneering psychologist Dan Olweus), as “verbal or physical aggression that [is] repeated over time and that [involves] a power differential.” This allows differentiation between bullying and “drama,” or jostling for social status among near-equals.

That can still be a difficult line to draw, as the accounts in Sticks and Stones demonstrate—interviewing the bullies in her first case study, Bazelon rapidly establishes that what feels like bullying to the victim is percieved, by the bullies, as normal and necessary social interaction. They’re concerned to learn that the bullied girl, Monique, couldn’t handle their taunting, but not that they’d done something inappropriate.

Monique, in the eyes of these girls … hadn’t learned how to play the game; how to mock other kids and be mocked by them. This was the key to scaling the heights of middle school, if that was your goal. If you wanted to be one of the popular kids in Aminah’s mental chart, you had to learn how to trade barbs, to give as good as you got. … “You have to defend yourself,” Gianna told me.

Sticks and Stones also draws a distinction between kids who bully from positions of social or physical strength (think Mitt Romney, the son of a governor and CEO), and those who bully to shore up a precarious position low in the social pecking order. As Bazelon recounts the case of Jacob, a gay kid dealing with anti-gay bullying in a rural New York high school, it emerges that his chief antagonist may fall into the latter category, the “bully-victim.” Jacob’s bully goes after him in a broader social climate in which queer kids are fair game—where a school administrator can shrug off reported harassment by blaming the victim: “To the extent that the child isn’t ready to project their sexuality in a responsible way, the peers may not respond appropriately, either.”

In that context, a socially marginalized boy looking to prove his toughness has an obvious target.

Bullying Photo by JLM Photography.

Bazelon also finds that the roles of bully and bullied can shift rapidly, as demonstrated in the experience of Flannery Mullins, one of several students at South Hadley High in Massechusetts who were accused of bullying a classmate, Phoebe Prince, until she committed suicide. (Bazelon wrote extensively about this case for Slate.) However, it emerges that most of what came to be understood as bullying in the wake of Prince’s suicide originated as interactions that could have looked like nothing more than standard high-school drama over dating relationships—until they interacted, tragically, with Prince’s family life and fragile mental health.

Except, what does that say about what we’re willing to consider “standard high-school drama?”

The picture built in Sticks and Stones suggests that although bullying has become strongly associated with particular parts of society—queer kids, most notably, in the era of “It Gets Better”—there is something about bullying that is quite independent of any particular characteristic that may currently attract bullying. That is, to borrow a thought from Tony Kushner, it is conceivable that some future American society might treat queer young people just the same as it treats straight young people—and still allow all its young people to bully and be bullied, as part of the “normal” cost of growing up.

In other words, the problem of bullying is not about who, specifically, suffers the slings and arrows of life at the bottom of the social ladder. It’s about the existence of the ladder, and what we—parents, school staff, peers—allow teenagers to do and say to establish and enforce their places on it. Sticks and Stones surveys efforts to change exactly these things, and while Bazelon’s description of some specific programs seems hopeful, it’s also clear that they require sustained effort by teachers, administrators, students, and parents—and everyone involved must start from the shared realization that a school’s culture needs to change.

And, on some level, cultural acceptance of bullying is not about particular schools (though, of course, some are worse than others). It’s about our expectations for the very experience of high school. Fixing that will take more than local anti-bullying programs, or legalized marriage equality, or even the best anti-bullying laws. It will require Americans to re-examine how we treat each other, and how we treat those less powerful than us, in the schoolyard and beyond.◼

I was able to read Sticks and Stones for free in advance of publication, via NetGalley.