Science online, don’t drink the sapa edition

Wood thrush, or mercury-poisoning canary? Photo by dermoidhome.


Counterfactualizing for truth

Something kind of incredible is going on over at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s place: Bouncing off some typically reprehensible and ahistorical remarks by Ron Paul—who apparently thinks that (1) the U.S. Civil War was started by the North, (2) for the express purpose of ending slavery, even though (3) nonviolent means, such as “compensated emancipation,” could have accomplished that end—Coates is not simply rounding up the contrary evidence, but actually trying to work out whether and how a nonviolent end to the “peculiar institution” could have worked. It’s like a Harry Turtledove novel, except fascinating and good and informative.

Nevertheless, the saving of people is, indeed, a noble goal, and Paul is not without at least the rudiments of a case. Enslaved black people were constructed into an interest representing $3 billion. ($70-75 billion in 21st century money.) But including expenditures, loss of property, loss of life (human capital,) the war, according to Ransom, costs $6.6 billion.

The numbers are clear–the South’s decision to raise an army, encourage sedition among its neighbors, and fire on federal property, was an economic disaster for white America. Moreover, the loss of 600,000 lives, in a war launched to erect an empire on the cornerstone of white supremacy and African slavery, was a great moral disaster for all corners of America.

In the most crude sense, it would have been much “cheaper” for the government to effect a mass purchase. But how?

Spoiler alert: compensated emancipation doesn’t look very practical, especially considering that Southern slaveholders were pretty damned hostile to the idea. But getting to that conclusion is enlightening, and the discussion in Coates’s famous comments section is as well worth your time as the posts. ◼

Baby steps versus long jumps: The “size” of evolutionary change, and why it matters

Evolution can make leaps—but how frequently? Photo by Flavio Martins.

ResearchBlogging.orgDoes evolutionary change happen in big jumps, or a series of small steps? The question may seem a little esoteric to non-scientists—how many mutations can dance on the head of a pin?—but it has direct implications for how we identify the genetic basis of human diseases, or desirable traits in domestic plants and animals.

That’s because the evolutionary path by which a particular phenotype, or visible trait, first evolved in a population is closely related to the genetics that underlie the trait in the present. Phenotypes that arose in a single mutational jump will probably remain connected to one or a few genes with large effects; phenotypes that evolved more gradually do so because they are created by the collective action of many genes. So what kind of evolutionary change is most common will determine which kind of gene-to-phenotype relationships we should expect to find.

In an excellent recent review article for the journal Evolution, Matthew Rockman, a biologist with the Department of Biology and Center for Genomics and Systems Biology at New York University, makes the case that the era of genomics has, so far, been much too focused on finding genes of large effect. Fortunately, Rockman also sees the beginnings of a new movement towards acknowledging the importance of small-effect genes—one which may ultimately make genomic association studies more useful.

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Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Making sense of the origins of multicellularity

Experimental evolution of multicellularity. Photo by Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!

In this week’s new post at the group blog Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!, Sarah Hird discusses the recently published experimental evolution study that used laboratory yeast to tackle one of the biggest questions in reconstructing the history of life:

Some of the biggest questions in evolutionary biology deal with the origin of life. For example, if I go back one generation, I find my parents. Two generations, my grandparents. Ten generations are human beings who may or may not have looked like me. Five hundred thousand are, oh, I don’t know. Maybe a bipedal hominid? Anyway, if we continue going backward like this, we inevitably get to time zero and encounter some big-time questions that can really cause a brain to cramp up.

I promise you, if you read the whole thing, you will not experience brain cramps. Quite the opposite, in fact.

In other news, Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! has put out a call for guest contributors. If you work in biology—anything from medicine to plant breeding—and you’ve been thinking about giving this science blogging thing a try, send us an e-mail!&nbsp ◼

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Did humans send North America’s large mammals to extinction?

Are ancient humans to blame for mammoths’ extinction in North America? Photo by W9NED.

After a beginning-of-semester scheduling hiccup, the group blog Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! is up and running for the spring, starting with a great post by contributor Noah Reid. Noah breaks down a big, complex study that applied species distribution modelling, paleontological data, and ancient DNA analysis to try and determine whether humans were responsible for the mass extinction of North America’s ancient large mammals.

With the ending of the ice age, which began around 21,000 years ago, many of these species experienced dramatic declines or went extinct. Woolly Rhinos, Mammoths, Glyptodon, and Megatherium went completely extinct, while Bison, Reindeer, Musk Oxen and wild Horse went through serious declines and range contractions.

These population declines roughly coincided with another major event in earth’s history, the global expansion of modern humans. Because of this synchronicity, there has long been debate about whether either is the cause. Did humans fuel their global expansion by hunting these animals to extinction, were they victims of a changing climate, or was it some combination of the two?

To find out, go read the whole thing. ◼

Science online, missing #Scio12 edition

How many eggs shall I lay? I’ll ask the neighbors. Photo by yanajen.
  • Raise a glass (or two or three) for us absentees. I couldn’t make it to Research Triangle Park this year, but the #Scio12 hashtag is nicely busy.
  • With, hopefully, lots of extra lives. Why classes should be a little more like video games.
  • Keeping up with the neighbors. Flycatchers decide how many eggs to lay in a given season by watching other birds.
  • Awkward! Yes, that ostrich is indeed flirting with you.
  • Sound advice. When choosing graduate advisers, prioritize personalities over projects.
  • I am become life … One of the most enthusiastic funders of synthetic biology is the U.S. military. One goal: greener munitions.
  • The truth, putting its boots on. Assessing the fallout from The Atlantic’s bunk report on miRNAs and GM food.
  • Eureka! Yeast that clumps! Multicellularity, evolved in a test tube.
  • Boom. With citations. In which Kate Clancy and Scicurious bury Jesse Bering’s “deep-thinking hebephile” column under a great big pile of data.
  • For straight couples, that is. The per-coital act risk of HIV transmission, calculated.


On strike against PIPA

If you like this whole Internet thing we’ve got going, let me suggest that you take the time while your favorite sites are on strike to call your Congresspersons, and tell them to vote against PIPA.

Legislation called the PROTECT-IP Act (PIPA) in the Senate and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) [Ed: the House version, SOPA, is no longer a going concern.] in the House are purported to be a way to crack down on online copyright infringement. In reality the bill is much broader. It would empower governments and corporations to take down virtually any website, create new liabilities and uncertainties for web innovators, and make the web less safe. According to the varied and multitudinous reasons large numbers of sites and individuals are opposed to the bill, it betrays basic American tenets, such as free speech, prosperity, and national security.

Thanks. ◼