Down Syndrome Awareness Month

This month is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and while this is the most common chromosomal abnormality, there is still a lack of social understanding.

So this week’s link(s) are all going to be about the efforts to raise awareness of Down Syndrome.

As NiB has talked about raising money for scientific research (watch Jeremy get soaked with water) I’d like to encourage you to call your congress person and lobby for increased funding for scientific research.

Or make a donation to Down Syndrome research here 

Or please read this article about a parent trying to raise awareness.

Or read about and/or sign up for one of the Down Syndrome Buddy walks here.

Atlanta Falcons Jake Matthews posted a photo of his favorite Falcons fan, his sister Gwen, who has down syndrome.

Or read about other ways to become an advocate at the National Down Syndrome Society.

Or just enjoy these photos of  my adorable friend Charlotte, who is growing up beautifully.

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Science and Religion Blah Blah Blah

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A perennial question, a constant product of the click-bait-and-outrage factory known as internet, that has been, and perhaps forever will be posed, answered, yelled about, and generally used to beat the life and enthusiasm out of so many reasonably evolutionary biologists is “CAN RELIGION AND SCIENCE (PARTICULARLY EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY FOR SOME REASON) COEXIST??!?!!?!!?”

The answer is a simple no, and yes. That’s it. No, because religious belief systems often tend to include specific factual claims about the material world that turn out to be total nonsense. For example, the earth and everything on it was not created in 7 literal days. Therefore, one cannot hold both this belief and the belief that scientific inquiry was a fantastic way of generating useful, more-or-less objective knowledge about the world, because actual scientific evidence absolutely refutes such a notion.

On the other hand, yes, because arguably the most important elements of religious belief systems involve claims about immaterial things, such as the existence and nature of the human soul. On these topics, science literally has nothing to say. One cannot measure with calipers, a telescope, a mass spec, an Illumina Hi-Seq or any other tool devisable by humanity, a divine presence purported to pervade all existence. The hypothesis that a God of any sort exists can be rescued from any and every contradictory empirical finding.

Perhaps you can tell, but I’ve written this rant because I’m sick and tired of the web-traffic generating mutualism that exists between religious fundamentalists and atheists claiming to champion science. They both make equally absurd and unsupported claims about religion and science. Their statements are always absolute.

This was supposed to be a link post, so if you’d like to see the New York Times opinion piece that got me all in a rage about this, here it is. But I don’t recommend reading it.

Postscript: I am in no way religious. I also recognize that certain specific religious beliefs are both widely held, harmful, and in direct contradiction to established scientific facts. I think these beliefs ought to be combated. This does not in any way change my overall tolerance of religious belief.

Thanks, Bush and Obama!

President Obama is expanding the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument today from the wonderful 86,888 square miles President George W. Bush set up in 2009, to about 490,000 square miles. I gotta love anything involving ocean conservation. Thanks, Bush and Obama!

“This is a great moment,” said Greg Stone, chief scientist for Conservation International. “This is some of the last real tropical ocean wilderness left on the planet, so it’s good put some of these kind of reef systems aside. On top of that there are the protections for the open ocean and I’m assuming for the sea floor from mining,” he said.

From the Guardian article: “Tarawa atoll. Photograph: Richard Vogel/AP”

Best. Broader impact. Ever.

Like everyone with an Internet connection, earlier this month I heard a fair bit about U.S. 7th Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner’s ruling striking down bans on same-sex marriage in Indiana and Wisconsin. As Mark Joseph Stern put it at Slate, “Posner … sounds like a man who has listened to all the arguments against gay marriage, analyzed them cautiously and thoroughly, and found himself absolutely disgusted by their sophistry and rank bigotry.” Here’s a choice sample from the full opinion:

The challenged laws discriminate against a minority defined by an immutable characteristic, and the only rationale that the states put forth with any conviction—that same-sex couples and their children don’t need marriage because same-sex couples can’t produce children, intended or unintended—is so full of holes that it cannot be taken seriously.

What I hadn’t heard before is that Posner’s opinion also includes a short run-down on research about the biological basis of sexual orientation, and it has more than one familiar citation:

Although it seems paradoxical to suggest that homosexuality could have a genetic origin, given that homosexual sex is non-procreative, homosexuality may, like menopause, by reducing procreation by some members of society free them to provide child-caring assistance to their procreative relatives… There are other genetic theories of such attraction as well. See, e.g., Nathan W. Bailey and Marlene Zuk, “Same-Sex Sexual Behavior and Evolution,” forthcoming in Trends in Ecology and Evolution

That’s actually a reference to a 2009 review, which is online in PDF format—it covers the diversity of same-sex sexual behaviors across the animal kingdom. It hardly mentions Homo sapiens, but it is one of the sources I give to people who want a solid introduction to current scientific thinking about how same-sex attraction could have evolved. If you ask me, one could do a lot worse than having a paper cited in a groundbreaking legal ruling. And it’s a reminder to those of us studying the history of life in general that our work can have unexpected consequences beyond the lab.

The #IceBucketChallenge, and iced-up budgets for scientific research [Updated]

Ice bucket screenshot

For science!

Well, it had to happen some time, I guess. A friend tagged me on Facebook in the “ice bucket challenge” to raise funds for the ALS Association. It’s gone massively viral: post a video of yourself getting soaked in ice water, donate to ALSA, and nominate more folks to do the same. So far, it’s raised more than $70 million, and it’s not slowing down yet.

My grandfather died of ALS, so I’m all in favor of funding research to find a cure. But as a working biologist, the idea of financing research in spurts of social media enthusiasm worries me a little. As Felix Salmon notes at Slate:

You need to fund scientists year in and year out; throwing a large grant at them in 2014 and then going away would probably end up causing more harm than good. As a result, most of this money will (and should) probably end up simply sitting on the ALS Association balance sheet, maybe earning some modest rate of interest, getting doled out very slowly over many years.

In terms of bang for the buck, then, giving money to the ALS Association is not much better than giving it to Harvard. Rather than being front-loaded and effective, it’s going to be back-loaded and (sadly, given the results of the $100 million that the ALS Association has spent to date) probably ineffective.

The real foundation of science in the U.S. is funding agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. And those agencies have had a rough decade.

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HOORAY for Basic Science Research! And duck genitalia

Basic science =  scientific questions that are founded in understanding theory, or the natural world around us

Applied science = scientific research that is directly applicable to humans. i.e. Cancer research

The last few years of financial crisis have seen a rise in criticism over basic scientific research. NPR does a great job of summarizing the criticisms and explaining why seeking to understand duck genitalia is a solid biological question.

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A guide to the science and pseudoscience of A Troublesome Inheritance, part III: Has natural selection produced significant differences between races?

This is the third in a series of guest posts in which Chris Smith will examine the evolutionary claims made in Nicholas Wade’s book A Troublesome Inheritance. You can read part I here, and part II here. Chris is an Associate Professor of Evolutionary Ecology at Willamette University. He uses population genetic approaches to understand coevolution of plants and insects, and he teaches the interdisciplinary course “Race, Racism, and Human Genetics” with Emily Drew.

A Troublesome Inheritance was published in 2014 by Penguin Books. Cover image via Google Books.

This spring former New York Times science writer, Nicholas Wade, released his latest book on human evolution, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History. In it, Wade argues that genetic studies completed in the eleven years since the Human Genome Project was completed reveal real and important differences between human races. Unsurprisingly, the book’s release has been met with a sharply divided critical reception.Whereas the book has been widely embraced by those on the political right, and by the white identity movement, it has been panned by anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and population geneticists. For the last two weeks at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, I’ve been looking in depth at the literature that Wade uses to support his ideas. Last week I considered Wade’s argument that natural selection acting on the MAO-A gene – a neurotransmitter implicated in aggression and impulsivity – has led to behavioral differences between races. This week I will consider Wade’s larger claim that natural selection has produced numerous differences between races.

Throughout the book Wade continually repeats the mantra that natural selection on humans has been “recent, copious, and regional.” It would be hard to find an evolutionary biologist that would disagree with these rather vague pronouncements. Indeed, there are a multitude of studies showing that natural selection has acted on humans, and there is persuasive evidence that selection has caused evolutionary changes in human populations as we have adapted to diverse environments over the course of the last several thousand years (see, for example, Yi et al., 2010).

However, scratching the surface reveals that when he says that natural selection has been “recent, copious, and regional,” what Wade actually means is that natural selection has been “radical, complete, and racial.” By Wade’s account, natural selection has dramatically reshaped the human genome, producing major differences between races. This much more dramatic interpretation is entirely unsupported by the literature, however. In truth, Wade vastly overstates the portion of the human genome that shows evidence for natural selection, and where there has been recent natural selection acting on humans, its effect has primarily been to create genetic differences between members of the same race, and similarities between people of different races.

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