Re: Haldane vs. Lysenko

In the comments on my epic post about J.B.S. Haldane, somebody else named Jeremy (not me, I swear) links to a fantastic video of Haldane’s scientific colleague (and fellow former British Communist) John Maynard Smith, discussing Haldane’s opposition to Lysenkoism. Specifically, what Haldane said in private within Communist circles, versus what he didn’t say in the broader public.

I think it’s quite clear that Haldane should have objected to the politicization of Lysenko’s bunk science much earlier and more forcefully than he did. Whether it would’ve made a difference behind the Iron Curtain is less certain.

Science online, mysterious extra vertebrae edition

Wow. Lots of links this week. I’m using Google Reader again, so evidently getting better at aggregation and/or wasting valuable dissertation-completion time.

Sundews catch insects on their sticky leaves, potentially putting them in competition with web-spinning spiders. Photo by petrichor.
  • Shape up, Dad. Female rats are more prone to develop diabetes if their fathers were obese—through an inherited metabolic disorder. (Neurotic Physiology)
  • Also useful for studying how lizards rebel against their creators. To study how lizards communicate, build a robotic lizard. No, really. (The Thoughtful Animal)
  • Sounds like the basis for a very strange odd-couple sitcom. Can a spider and a plant be competitors? Maybe, if the plant is carnivorous. (It Takes 30)
  • A species in the genus Rosa by any other taxonomic identifier … Rod Page contemplates the importance of taxonomic names to biological research, and how to handle them in modern data structures. (iPhylo)
  • Nobody could’ve predicted. BP’s cost-cutting and rapid corporate expansion probably contributed to a corporate culture prone to accidents. (ProPublica)
  • One more way in which sloths are weird. Almost all mammals—giraffes included—have seven vertebrae in their necks. But sloths have up to 10. A new developmental study suggests how those extra vertebrae evolved. (NY Times, h/t Mike the Mad Biologist)
  • Every little bit helps. A new study suggests that, without modern conservation efforts, the ongoing extinction crisis would be even worse. (Southern Fried Science)
  • Um. Doesn’t that defeat the purpose? Placebos are used all the time in pharmaceutical research, but very few published studies actually report what the placebo was made of. (Helen Jacques)
  • The salmon of doubt. The inaugural article in the Journal of Unusual and Serendipitous Results casts doubt on interpretation of functional MRI readings—when its authors find brain activity in a dead fish. (Byte Size Biology)
  • But it looks so cool when Don Draper does it. Dave Munger ponders the ultimate effectiveness of smoking bans and warnings. (SEED Magazine)
  • “Aspergirls” is one catchy neologism. Steve Silberman continues his exploration of human experience on the Autism spectrum with comedienne Rudy Simone—and opens an ongoing conversation with her at The Well. (NeuroTribes)

More sloth weirdness on video: they can swim! But the water’s a dangerous place, as David Attenborough will tell you.

J.B.S. Haldane and the case of the revivified head

ResearchBlogging.orgHere’s a nicely gruesome image for the week of All Hallows’ Eve.

“I dreamed I was in a dark room,” said Jane, “with queer smells in it and a sort of low humming noise. Then the light came on … I thought I saw a face floating in front of me. … What it really was, was a head (the rest of a head) which had had the top part of the skull taken off and then … as if something inside had boiled over. … Even in my fright I remember thinking, ‘Oh, kill it, kill it. Put it out of its pain.’ … It was green looking and the mouth was wide open and quite dry. … And soon I saw that it wasn’t exactly floating. It was fixed up on some kind of bracket, or shelf, or pedestal—I don’t know quite what, and there were things hanging from it. From the neck, I mean. Yes, it had a neck and a sort of collar thing round it, but nothing below the collar; no shoulders or body. Only these hanging things. … Little rubber tubes and bulbs and little metal things too.”
—Jane describes the disembodied Head in That Hideous Strength

Before he started The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis tried his hand at science fiction. Lewis’s Space TrilogyOut of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength—is like H.G. Wells dunked in (by modern American standards) gentle British Christianity. As in Narnia, Lewis wrote the Space Trilogy with a thesis in mind. The villains of Lewis’s imagined universe are materialistic scientists. In the first two books, the protagonist fights the scientists to preserve prelapsarian conditions among the intelligent inhabitants of Mars and Venus, respectively. The third book returns to Earth, where the evil scientists are plotting to take over the planet in the service of a demon-possessed disembodied head kept alive by technology that would’ve put Frankenstein off his lunch.

J.B.S. Haldane. Photo via limjunying.

Lewis derived the scientists’ ideology, and one of the evil scientist characters in particular, from the writings and person of the evolutionary geneticist J.B.S. Haldane—which is not surprising, since Haldane was something of the Richard Dawkins of his day, a visible public advocate for the scientific worldview. What is surprising, though, is that Lewis may have had a perfectly good reason to connect Haldane to an artificially resurrected head: five years before the publication of That Hideous Strength, Haldane had narrated a film depicting just such an experiment.

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Grad student eating in style: Super simple marinara sauce

Edit, 25 October 2010, 0845: Added an omitted word or several in the directions.

One of the ways I’ve managed to keep my sanity through six years of graduate school is cooking. Working in the kitchen uses some of the same organizational skills as working in the lab, but at the same time it’s a nice mental break from thinking about abstract things like ecological opportunity and the grades my mammalogy lab students are likely to receive on their midterm. And I get to eat the results!

Scicurious’s ongoing series of cheap and easy recipe posts, Grad Student Eating in Style, is a tribute to the other benefit of cooking in grad school: savings. I known I’m spending less on breakfast since I started baking a batch of her amazing scones (or a loaf of banana bread) every week. When Sci invited contributions for a carnival of student-budget-friendly recipes, I knew I had to contribute. I thought I’d go with a recipe that really is a staple in my diet: a nice, basic, marinara sauce.

I like a little pasta with my sauce. Photo by jby.

The recipe

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Two (2) small onions,
  • One (1) bell pepper in whatever color you prefer,
  • At least two (2) cloves of garlic,
  • About one (1) tablespoon of olive oil,
  • Two (2) 28-ounce cans of diced tomatoes in sauce,
  • A few pinches of allspice,
  • Salt and pepper to taste, and
  • About half of one (1) bundle (bouquet? nosegay?) of fresh basil.

Chop up the onions and pepper, mince the garlic, and sauté them all together in the olive oil using a saucepan big enough to handle all the ingredients. When the veggies are nicely sautéed, add the diced tomatoes, and stir it all together. Bring everything to a low boil, and then turn down the heat to keep it simmering. Stir in the salt and pepper, and add the allspice. (The allspice is something of a secret ingredient; lots of people use sugar to cut the acidity of the tomatoes, but allspice will do the trick just as well.) Let the sauce simmer uncovered until it cooks down to a consistency you like—usually, I let it simmer until my pasta finishes cooking. A few minutes before you take the sauce off the heat, chop up the fresh basil leaves and stir them in.

The main ingredients. Photo by jby.

I like the sauce over whole wheat pasta, with a little fresh-grated Parmesan cheese, as pictured above. The recipe makes 6-8 servings of sauce, depending on how much you like on your pasta (I like a lot).

Running the numbers

The cost of the whole recipe, if you’re shopping at the discount grocery store I patronize in north Idaho, is as follows: $0.68 for the pepper; $0.26 for the onions (about 1/6 of a 3-pound bag costing $1.58); $0.12 for the garlic (less than 1/4 of a bulb costing $0.48); $0.23 for the olive oil (1/24 of a 24-ounce bottle costing $5.46); $1.90 for the tomatoes ($0.95 per 28-ounce can), and $1.49 for the basil. (The cost for the salt, pepper, and allspice is negligible on a per-pinch basis.) Total: $4.68, or $0.69 per serving.

But wait, I hear you saying, at that same north Idaho discount grocery store I can buy a jar of Newman’s Own tomato sauce, containing five servings, for a mere $1.98, or $0.40 per serving. True enough, Dear Reader. But those five servings are half a cup apiece. Who eats only half a cup of tomato sauce on a bowl of pasta? That’s just sad. If my idea of a serving is more like one cup, that’s $0.79 per serving. And, with all due respect to Mr. Newman, his sauce doesn’t contain fresh basil.

If you add in the cost of that whole wheat pasta ($1.38 for a box containing seven servings, or $0.20 per serving), that’s $0.89 for a hearty bowlful of tomato sauce and pasta. Not too shabby! A full recipe of this sauce will refrigerate nicely for a week or so—or you can freeze it in plastic bags for long-term storage.


The great thing about this sauce is that it’s a good starting point for improvisation. Add oregano and parsley, and you’ve got a good basic pizza sauce. Throw in a handful of chopped olives and a few capers, and you’ve got puttanesca. You can also substitute something a little stronger for the bell pepper—when they’re in season at the local farmer’s market, I love to throw in spicier heirloom peppers. Or try adding cubed, sautéed eggplant to give the dish a little more heft. Or, of course, you can use a couple cups to make Sci’s Scicuriously Lazy Healthy Stuffed Cabbage even more budget-friendly and delicious.

Denim and Tweed has been assimilated

Resistance was futile. I’ve had the “followers” widget from Google/Blogger for quite awhile now, and it’s clear it’s not seeing a tremendous amount of use. I infer that at least part of this is because it requires readers to use a login that they don’t have, or don’t use very frequently.

So I’m going to experiment with the current lingua franca of the social internet: Facebook, via Networked blogs, which I’ve seen used to good effect on several larger, more respectable science blogs I follow. Now, if you read Denim and Tweed, and if you like it, and if you want to like it in some sort of visible manner,* you can just click on the big blue button at the bottom of the new box on the right, as illustrated here.

Seriously, please click. My little thumbnail avatar looks so lonely right now.

* Feel free to speculate about the probability values in the Drake equation implied by that sentence.

Science online, electrifying history edition

A hagfish. Photo by kinskarije.
  • But there’s no mention of the mouse who helped him. Dr. Skyskull unwinds the history of Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment, drawing on original reports in Proceedings of the Royal Society. (Skulls in the Stars)
  • $%@!!?#! Saying an expletive aloud actually helps you tolerate pain. (Neurotic Physiology)
  • I’m guessing that animated tattoos will be first. Stretchable sheets of micro-electronic components will have all sorts of science-fictiony medical applications. (All that matters)
  • It’s an even longer way to amphioxus than we thought. MicroRNA analysis suggests that hagfish, long thought to be the most deeply-diverged relatives of vertebrates, aren’t. (Wired Science)
  • On the wrong track. Dave Munger suggests that the same cognitive bias revealed by the “trolly car” dilemma may underlie people’s willingness to believe pseudoscientific explanations for autism. (SEED Magazine)
  • Like calcium carbonate shells, scansion breaks down at low pH. The perils of ocean acidification, explained in (mostly) rhyming couplets. (Deep Sea News)
  • The king of the Red Queen is dead. Leigh Van Valen, originator of the Red Queen hypothesis, died last weekend. (dechronization)
  • There’s so many, we really ought to have some sort of systematic way to classify them. John S. Wilkins tackles species concepts. (Evolving Thoughts)

Video this week is the supplementary information for a recent study of sloth locomotion [$a] (via Wired Science)—the research found that, although they do it upside-down, sloths move a lot like other mammals.

Butterfly, heal thyself! (Or thy kids, anyway.)

Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus. (Flickr: Martin LaBar)

ResearchBlogging.orgUsing specific compounds to cure disease seems like a fairly advanced behavior—it’s necessary to recognize that you’re sick, then know what to take to cure yourself, then go out and find it. You might be surprised to learn, then, that one of the best examples of self-medication behavior in a non-human animal isn’t another primate species, or even another vertebrate. It’s none other than monarch butterflies. Female monarchs infected with a particular parasite prefer to lay eggs on host plants that help their offspring resist the parasite [PDF].

(I first heard about this discovery at this spring’s Evolution meetings, and learned that the article had been published online last week via Bora Zivkovic‘s link to coverage by Scientific American.)

. A monarch caterpillar. (Flickr: Martin LaBar)

Most natural monarch butterfly populations are infected, at varying rates, with the protozoan parasite Ophryocystis elektroscirrha. Monarch larvae become infected when they eat parasite spores laying on the leaves of their food plants; the parasites reproduce inside the growing larvae form more spores while the larvae undergoes metamorphosis. Infected adults emerge from their chrysalises covered in O. elektroscirrha spores, which they spread to their mates and to their own offspring.

Infection reduces monarchs’ lifespans and damages their flight performance [PDF]. This creates a selective tradeoff that prevents the parasites from becoming too damaging—gimpy (or dead) monarchs are less effective at spreading spores [PDF]—but the butterflies are still better off if not infected at all. It’s convenient for monarchs, then, that the plants they prefer to eat can also fight Ophryocystis elektroscirrha.

Monarch caterpillars are well-known to eat milkweeds, which defend themselves by producing organic compounds in a class called cardenolides—literally “heart poisons.” These deter lots of insect herbivores, but monarch caterpillars have evolved physiological mechanisms to store up cardenolides without suffering ill effects, which in turn makes each caterpillar, and its later adult phase, toxic to predators. (Lots of specialist herbivores evolve tolerances to, or even preferences for, their host plants’ defensive chemistry.)

It turns out that cardenolides are also bad for monarchs’ parasites. In an experiment published in 2008, de Roode et al. raised monarch caterpillars on two milkweed species that produced differing amounts of cardenolides, Asclepias curassavica and A. incarnata. They found that infected caterpillars fed the more toxic A. curassavica suffered fewer ill effects of infection [PDF].

This result is remarkable enough on its own. It suggests that the effects of infection by Ophryocystis elektroscirrha might vary in natural monarch populations depending on something separate from the monarch-parasite interaction itself—the toxicity of the locally-available milkweed species. But what if monarchs could choose more toxic milkweed to fight infection?

A female monarch feeds on butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa. (Flickr: donsutherland1)

This possibility of self-medication by monarchs is the focus of the latest result in the monarch-parasite system. In the new study, a team of researchers at Emory University and the University of Michigan offered infected and uninfected monarch caterpillars leaf cuttings from both of the milkweed species used in the 2008 experiment. However, infected caterpillars showed no greater preference for the more toxic milkweed.

Caterpillars might not be well-suited to self-medication anyway; they’re not very mobile, and so stuck with the host plant patch in which they hatch. Adult female monarchs, on the other hand, can fly—and seek out a patch of parasite-fighting plants on which to lay their eggs. In a second experiment, the team offered infected and uninfected adult females the opportunity to lay eggs on a single plant of each milkweed species, placed at opposite ends of a flight cage. And, indeed, infected female monarchs looked out for the best interest of their offspring, laying a larger proportion of their eggs on the more toxic plant.

This sort of trans-generational self-medication raises some very interesting questions, particularly, how do infected monarchs know they’re infected? How does local diversity of milkweed species in natural populations alter the coevolution of monarchs with Ophryocystis elektroscirrha? There’s still a lot to learn about this fascinating behavior, which may be happening in backyards across North America.

To conclude, here’s a great video produced by Emory University, in which Principal Investigator Jaap de Roode talks about monarchs in general, and the new discovery in particular.


Bradley, C., & Altizer, S. (2005). Parasites hinder monarch butterfly flight: implications for disease spread in migratory hosts. Ecology Letters, 8 (3), 290-300 DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2005.00722.x

de Roode, J., Pedersen, A., Hunter, M., & Altizer, S. (2008). Host plant species affects virulence in monarch butterfly parasites. Journal of Animal Ecology, 77 (1), 120-6 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2656.2007.01305.x

de Roode, J., Yates, A., & Altizer, S. (2008). Virulence-transmission trade-offs and population divergence in virulence in a naturally occurring butterfly parasite. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105 (21), 7489-94 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0710909105

Lefèvre, T., Oliver, L., Hunter, M., & De Roode, J. (2010). Evidence for trans-generational medication in nature. Ecology Letters DOI: 10.1111/j.1461-0248.2010.01537.x

Science online, chasing the rainbow edition

Photo by dachalan.
  • In case you missed it the first time around. BoingBoing marked National Coming Out Day this Monday with great pieces by Maggie Koerth-Baker and Steve Silberman documenting the experiences of sexual minorities in the sciences. See also the personal story of the gay son of a physics professor who called himself “a proud homophobe”, an article in Science Careers, and a forthcoming study of LGBT experiences in engineering [PDF].
  • Lucky for them, they never invented jet travel. Sea anemones—whose common ancestor with humans lived about 600 million years ago—possess some of the same physiological features that give us our circadian rythym. (Dave Munger for SEED Magazine)
  • Gesundheit! A universal flu vaccine may be possible, in the not-too-distant future. (Virology Blog)
  • Congratulations! Ed Yong wins a National Academies Communications Award for Not Exactly Rocket Science.
  • Being somewhat wrong is better than knowing nothing at all. Estimates of the rates at which species arise based on phylogenies still work pretty well if there is uncertainty or error in the phylogeny. (dechronization)
  • Oy. Nature‘s science news feature mistakenly refers to platypuses (platypi? platypodes?) as marsupials. (The Tree of Life)
  • Fossil forests! In commemoration of Wednesday’s National Fossil Day, Anne Jefferson presents a virtual field trip to the John Day Fossil Beds in eastern Oregon. (Highly Allochthonous)
  • To be fair, hoverflies are not very bright. Orchids pollinated by aphid-feeding hoverflies smell like aphids. (LabSpaces)

Preach it!

Dan Savage has had it with moderate Christians who complain about his emphasis on the bigotry of the fundamentalists.

I’m sick of tolerant, accepting Christians whispering to me that “we’re not all like that.” If you want to change the growing perception that “good Christian” means “anti-gay”—a perception that is leading many people to stop identifying themselves as Christian because they don’t want to be lumped in with the haters—stop whispering to me and start screaming at them. Until there are moderate and “welcoming” Christian groups that are just as big, well-funded, aggressive, and loud as the conservative Christian organizations, “welcoming” Christians are in no position to complain about the perception that all Christians are anti-gay. Your co-religionists have invested decades and millions of dollars in creating that perception. You let it happen.