A bright blue tarantula

Have a look at this lovely blue tarantula from Brazil. The species is Pterinopelma sasimai, named after Dr. Ivan Sazima, a Brazilian zoologist who discovered the species in 1971 but didn’t formally name it. He had a blue female which died during molting. Here are two videos:

The species wasn’t in fact formally named until 2011, in a paper by Rogério Bertani et al. in Zootaxa (link and free access below).  Finding it was hard work; as the first link above notes:

The 3 researchers were only able to rediscover the species after 5 years of intensive work, due to the fact the area she lives in is very harsh. All species were found on high altitude with poor vegetation and extreme weather conditions (10-35°C), experiencing periods of extreme precipitation and drought.

The intriguing thing about this gorgeous creature (how many blue spiders can you think of?) is that it is the females who are blue while the males are a drab brown. You can see this from the figure below, taken from the Zootaxa paper (see caption):

(From paper): FIGURES 14─16. Pterinopelma sazimai sp. nov. (14) Female, holotype. (15) Male, paratype. (16) Juvenile. Photos: 14, 16, C. S. Fukushima; 15, R. Bertani.

Here are its habitat and range:

What’s intriguing about the paper on this species, and several descriptions, is that there is no speculation I’ve seen about the big difference in color. (The sexes described as so different in color weren’t really different species, for you can see them mating, as in the video below.) Usually when one sex is brightly colored or ornamented in animals, while the other is less conspicuous, it’s almost always the males who are colored or ornamented. That, of course, is because of sexual selection, which results from a differential parental investment that makes females a scarce resource for which males must compete. So why is the female blue here? Your guess is as good as mine.

Here’s the mating; you can find a lot of other videos on YouTube from people keeping these as pets or for research, and they’re not at all easy to take care of compared to many tarantulas.


Bertani, R., H. Nagahama, and C. S. Fukushima. 2007. Revalidation of Pterinopelma Pocock 1901 with description of a new species and the female of Pterinopelma vitiosum (Keyserling 1891) (Araneae: Theraphosidae: Theraphosinae). Zootaxa 2418: 1-18.

Gender- and race-based ticket pricing in Canada

According to yesterday’s Toronto Sun, some Canadian filmmakers are charging people different amounts of money for tickets to see their productions, with the charges based on both race (a social construct?) and sex.

Organizers for the Victoria [British Columbia] premier of “Building the Room” used “justice pricing” when tickets went on sale last week, with white males being charged $20, while others paid $10.

Sid Mohammed, a spokesman for the production, says organizers wanted to address the fact that white males tend to have more purchasing power than other demographics.

But he says they received a “huge amount” of backlash on the pricing, including emailed death threats and accusations that the practice was racist and constituted discrimination.

Organizers have responded by lowering the admission price for white males to $15 and announcing that any profits from the door will be donated to the Native Friendship Centre of Victoria and the Victoria Pride Society.

First, this issue is no reason for death threats. But there’s case to be made that it involves race and gender discrimination.

As the article notes, this isn’t the first time men have been charged more than women, though apparently race didn’t figure in an earlier case in which a feminist vegan cafe in Melbourne, Australia charged men 18% more than women, on these grounds:

The 18% figure comes from a 2016 Australian government Workplace Gender Equality Agency report which found the average difference between a man and woman’s full-time weekly wage is about 18%.

I’m not really down with this because it punishes or rewards entire classes based on averages rather than individual incomes. If a cafe wants to give a poor person a free meal, or charge less for somebody who earns less, I have no problem with that—unless your penuriousness is due to a disinclination to work. Differential charges should be based on differential incomes. But to assume that all men make 18% more than all women (or, in the case of the Victoria theater, twice as much) is to fall into the fallacy that an individual should be treated not on his or her qualifications or salary, but on group differentials.  And really—$20 as opposed to $10?

I’m wondering what readers think of this.  It shouldn’t be dismissed offhand simply because you’re using group averages to deal with individuals because, after all, that’s how affirmative action policies work Regardless of how “privileged” an upper-middle-class black family is, their child will get preferential admission at many American colleges. I still favor this policy as it increases diversity, which is an inherent good, though I recognize the problems with it as well.  But differential ticket and meal pricing does nothing to increase diversity. In fact, I’m not sure exactly what it does, except serve as a demonstration of virtue. If you really wanted to create a level playing field, charge people according to their income. Of course, that wouldn’t work in practice!

And, at least in the U.S., I think it’s illegal. I remember when women brought lawsuits against dry cleaners for charging women more than men to clean essentially the same garment, a practice which is deeply unfair. (I can’t recall the outcomes of those lawsuits.) Women also seem to pay a lot more than men for getting the same haircut, which is also unfair.  At least in America, I don’t think you’d be able to get away with charging people more or less for such things based on either their race or sex. Why isn’t this illegal in Canada?

h/t: Michael

New survey shows American students’ disturbing ignorance of and attitudes towards free speech

There’s a new article in the Washington Post by Catherine Rampell reporting a survey of American college students’ views about free speech. The results aren’t pretty. Click on the screenshot below to go to the piece, and you can see other survey results on the Brookings Institution site here.

The take-home message: students in college don’t know much about the First Amendment or how it’s interpreted, and a distressingly large number of them favor either shouting down “offensive” speakers or even committing violence when such speakers appear.




According to the article, the survey was conducted by UCLA professor and Brookings senior fellow John Villasenor, and was supported by the Charles Koch Foundation. Before you start crying “Conservatives!”, note that Rampell says this: “Financial support for the survey was provided by the Charles Koch Foundation, which Villasenor said had no involvement in designing, administering or analyzing the questionnaire; as of this writing, the foundation had also not seen his results.” Villasenor has so far given the results only on the Brookings site, but plans to incorporate them into a larger paper.

The survey used data from 1500 students, all U.S. citizens, at American four-year colleges; the data have a margin of error (for a 95% confidence interval) of between 2% and 6%.

I give the salient results in bullet points; the questions posed to the students are given in the figures below, which are taken from the Post‘s article.

  • Many students—and more women than men—believe that hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment. Of course it is, and Villasenor cites the relevant Supreme Court decisions. There’s a smaller difference between political groups, and it’s well within the margin of error. While 51% of men say that the First Amendment protects hate speech, only 31% of women hold that view. Further, 49% of women say the First Amendment doesn’t protect hate speech, in contrast to just 38% of men.

I have no explanation for the sex difference, but perhaps readers can offer hypotheses.

  • More than half of students—and far Democrats than Republicans—think it’s okay to shout down controversial speakers so they can’t be heard. Here are the data:


It distresses me that Democrats exceed Republicans by a full 23% in the data (Independents are closer to Republicans), but it doesn’t surprise me. I have heard few examples of right-wing students trying to shout down Leftist speakers, but, as the FIRE “disinvitation database” suggests, most of the suppression of speech on college campuses over the last five years has been done by the Left. To my mind, it’s never okay to shout down a speaker, for that amounts to censorship, preventing the speaker from even being heard. A speaker who’s invited has a right to speak, and the audience has a right to hear what she says. Shouting down speakers eliminates both of those rights.

  • A surprisingly large number of students (about one in five, irrespective of political affiliation) think that it’s okay to use violence to disrupt talks by a controversial speaker. In this case the suppressive instincts are greater in males: 30% of men approve of violence compared to only 10% of women. That’s not surprising given the inherently greater tendency of men than women to engage in violent behavior. But although violence may be “acceptable” to these people, but it’s also illegal and counterproductive. I can’t imagine a group thinking it’s tactically useful to shout down someone who offends them, or approves of violence to prevent someone from speaking. That might have “worked” in the old days, but these things are now recorded and disseminated instantly via social media, and, as you know from the videos from The Evergreen State College, Middlebury Colleges, and many other places, shouting down someone or running amok because you’re offended doesn’t look good.

Here are the data, which, despite the sex difference, show no difference with regard to political affiliation:

  • About 60% of all students think, wrongly, that if an organization hosts a speaker making controversial and offensive statements, it has a legal requirement to host someone with an opposing view. These data come from the Brookings site, reporting this question asked to the students:

Consider an event, hosted at a public U.S. university by an on-campus organization, featuring a speaker known for making statements that many students consider to be offensive and hurtful. A student group opposed to the speaker issues a statement saying that, under the First Amendment, the on-campus organization hosting the event is legally required to ensure that the event includes not only the offensive speaker but also a speaker who presents an opposing view. What is your view on the student group’s statement?

And here are the results broken down by sex, type of college, and political affiliation:

Now you almost certainly know that there is no legal requirement for counterspeech, and I wouldn’t even say there’s a moral requirement; the counterspeech has to come from either the nature of the organization, and whether it intends to have the equivalent of a debate, or students acting privately in opposition to the speaker. What’s disturbing is the uniformity: between 58% and 66% of students, regardless of school, sex, or politics, misinterpret what the First Amendment requires.

  • About half of all students, regardless of college, gender, or politics, favor a learning environment that prohibits expression of viewpoints that are “offensive or biased against certain groups of people” as opposed to a more open learning environment where no speech is prohibited.  Here’s the question asked, followed by the results:

If you had to choose one of the options below, which do you think it is more important for colleges to do?

Option 1: create a positive learning environment for all students by prohibiting certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people

Option 2: create an open learning environment where students are exposed to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people?

Across all students, the restrictive environment was preferred 6% more often. There was no difference between men and women, nor those in private versus public schools, but there is again a difference between Democrats and Republicans—and not in the Dems’ favor. Only 39% of Democrats favored the “open” learning environment as opposed to 53% of Republicans, while the differences were reversed for the “censorious” environment: 61% vs. 47%, respectively. This jibes with the data above and the FIRE data: Democrats are more censorious than are Republicans.

An obvious reason for this is because Democrats have a stronger tradition of favoring the underdogs and the oppressed than do Republicans, and feel that banning speech that attacks those groups is a moral thing to do.  But that admirable tendency is being expressed in the wrong ways, for censorship of opposing viewpoints is not part of the liberal agenda, either, and was the reason why social progress was impeded in civil rights and women’s rights. With students having attitudes like this, it will be seen as offensive to either criticize religions (especially Islam), or to be pro-Israel. The definition of “hate speech,” as we’ve learned, is pretty damn elastic, and is adopting the meaning “speech I don’t like.”

But this isn’t just a problem of what happens to these students once they get to college, for the Post article reports this, with a link:

What’s more, colleges alone are not to blame for these findings. Other data suggest that freshmen are arriving on campus with more intolerant attitudes toward free speech than their predecessors did, and that Americans of all ages have become strikingly hostile toward basic civil and political liberties.

Colleges provide a crucible for America’s increasingly strained attitudes toward free discourse. But they are just the canaries in the coal mine.

Here’s some of the data from that link, which reports a survey of college freshmen:

The obvious question is what do we do about this?  Well, reform starts at home, so think about the First Amendment, how well it’s worked, and how the courts have interpreted it. My advice would also be that if you see other Leftists, like certain atheist bloggers or Tweeters, who advocate punching or shouting down speakers, call them out on it. Do not let people undermine an amendment that becomes useful only when it protects speech seen as offensive.

And clearly better education of students in secondary schools is needed. There is a consistent interpretation of this vital Constitutional provision, one that’s been held up by both conservative and liberal courts. We not only need to impart that information, but teach students why that interpretation has come about.  My own view would be to have students read Mill’s On Liberty in high school (and read it yourself if you haven’t yet), and then discuss it, along with discussing hypothetical situations. Watching this video featuring the eloquent Christopher Hitchens may also be useful.

While there may be people reading this post that aren’t worried by this trend, I think most of us are, and we have to speak up against the bowdlerizers, censors, shouter-downers, and Nazi-punchers. Who wants to live in a country where multiple viewpoints are not allowed to be expressed?

h/t: Grania, Diane G.

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ straight talk

Here’s today’s Jesus and Mo strip, called “little”. The email came with a note from the artist:

I once saw a video of Medhi Hasan responding to a point made by a debating opponent by saying, “That’s really patronising.” This prompted a big cheer from his supporters in the audience – as if he had just made an knock-out point. But
that wasn’t not a point at all. It was just an admission that he was capable of being be patronised. If you don’t want to be patronised, stop being so patronisable.

Likewise, it’s not a “point” to say “I’m offended.”

The artist has a Patreon account, and you might consider throwing a few bucks his/her way.

Readers’ wildlife photos

I have a comfortable backlog of photos now, but please keep sending them in. Good ones, please. They don’t have to be professional quality (some readers think they have to match the very best photos that have appeared on this site), but they should be appealing and well composed–and in focus! Please add the Latin binomial of any species you send.  Thanks!

Reader Damon sent us a variety of photos; his notes and IDs are indented. And there’s a bobcat!

Attached are some photos of wildlife from South Texas that I took over the summer.
This the best photo of a Bobcat (Lynx rufus) that I’ve taken so far. The cat was focused on a cottontail rabbit on the opposite side of wire fence. The bobcat was so focused on that rabbit that I was able to observe him and take photos for about 10 minutes before the bobcat noticed me. This is the last photo that I took. The bobcat retreated into the brush once it noticed me. I’ve wondered if the cat would have actually charged the rabbit. Perhaps it wasn’t able to visually perceive the fencing?
A male Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginianus):
Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja):
 Groove-billed Ani (Crotophaga sulcirostris):
Loggerhead Shrike (Lanius ludovicianus):

Two photos of a male Bronzed Cowbird (Molothrus aeneus). My impression is that this brood parasite is now more common in South Texas than its relative the Brown-headed Cowbird (M. ater):

Texas Spotted Whiptail (Aspidoscelis gularis aka Cnemidophorus gularis). These lizards are abundant on the university campus where I work. The whiptails are not tame but they are also not very fearful of humans.

Black Caterpillar Hunter (Calosoma sayi):


Wednesday: Hili dialogue

It’s Wednesday, September 20, 2017; I am still suffering from insomnia, have my last day of hand therapy today, and apparently have lost my duck to her migratory instincts. Am I kvetching like an old Jewish man? Well, that’s what we do! It’s National Rum Punch Day, and I’m betting that not one reader will have that drink. It’s Korean Martyrs Day, memorializing over 8000 Korean Christians killed for their faith in the 19th century. Hearing stuff like pains me twice: people killing others because of their religion (note: not their culture), and people dying because they wouldn’t give up their superstition. Speaking of superstition, it’s also the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Though I don’t celebrate it, I have an off-color joke about the shofar: the ram’s horn blown on this holiday. Since this is a family-friendly site, I can’t post it, but perhaps some reader will.

On this day in 1519, Ferdinand Magellan left Sanlúcar de Barrameda in Spain to begin his circumnavigation of the globe (he didn’t make it, but his ship did). The town, by the way, is famous for producing manzanilla, a type of very dry sherry comparable to fino.  On September 20, 1848, the American Association for the Advancement of Science was created. They are too accommodationist for my taste, so I never joined, but of course I do read their journal Science.  Here’s one of their official statements:

The sponsors of many of these state and local proposals seem to believe that evolution and religion conflict. This is unfortunate. They need not be incompatible. Science and religion ask fundamentally different questions about the world.

Many religious leaders have affirmed that they see no conflict between evolution and religion. We and the overwhelming majority of scientists share this view. [JAC: That’s probably a lie.]

On this day in 1909, the UK Parliament passed the South Africa Act 1909, forming the nation of South Africa by amalgamating the British Colonies of the Cape of Good Hope, Natal, Orange River Colony, and the Transvaal Colony. On September 20, 1962, African-American student James Meredith was barred for the third time from entering the University of Mississippi because of his race. He sued and won in the Supreme Court, entering school in late September, which promptly caused rioting. We’ve come a long ways since the governor, Ross Barnett, said that the University of Mississippi would never be integrated as long as he remained governor. He was wrong.

And do you remember what happened on this day in 1973? Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the famous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in the Houston Astrodome. As I recall, she beat him in three straight sets. On September 20, 1984, a car-bomb attack at the U.S. embassy in Beirut killed 22 people. Finally, it was exactly six years ago today that the U.S. military ended its “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, allowing gays to serve openly in the military.

Notables born on this day include James Dewar (1842), Upton Sinclair (1878), Sophia Loren (1934) and Jim Al-Khalili (1962).

Here’s Sophia Loren with my dad and some other Army officers in Athens, a photo I’ve shown before. They’re standing before the Parthenon in about 1955, when she would have been only around 21 or 22. My dad is second from the left, standing on Loren’s right.

Those who died on this day include Chidiock Tichborne (1586), Jacob Grimm (1863), Annie Besant (1933), Fiorella La Guardia (1947), Jean Sibelius (1957), Jim Croce (1973), Steve Goodman (1984) and Sven Nykvist (2006).  I was a bigh fan of both Croce and Goodman, so let’s hear from both of them:

I loved this Croce song, and still do, but I don’t recognize the other musician:

And this song, “The Dutchman,” by Michael Smith—about an old man with dementia—always brings a tear to my eye. This is truly one of the greatest pop songs of our era. (The original recording, a masterpiece, is here. Michael Smith’s version can be heard here.) Goodman died in 1984 0f leukemia at only 36, but at least I saw him once live, in the No Name Coffee House in Harvard Square:

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili once again has dreams above her pay grade:
Hili: A veritable jungle.
A: Little tiger, little jungle.
In Polish:
Hili: Kompletna dżungla.
Ja: Jaki tygrys, taka dżungla.

2017 World Yoyo Champion

I had a Duncan yoyo as a kid, but barely managed simple tricks like “walking the dog”. Have a look at what Shu Takada, the world yoyo champion can do. (The contest was in Reykjavik in August.)

Theistic evolution is not science: More misrepresentation of a survey on British beliefs about evolution

Yesterday I wrote a brief post about a story published in the Guardian (really The Observer, but they post on the same site) called “Would you Adam and Eve it? Why creation story is at the heart of a new spiritual divide”. It also bore the invidious subtitle, “Major survey reveals that it’s atheists who perpetuate the conflict between religious belief and science.” The YouGov survey and its analysis was funded by the Templeton Religious Trust and distorted written up in the Observer by Catherine Pepinster, a diehard Catholic. The point the article tried to make was that British atheists have an abysmal knowledge of what British Christians believe, thinking wrongly that the vast majority of the religionists are Biblical creationists. In that way, claimed the piece, atheists are largely responsible for promulgating the fiction that there’s a conflict between religion and science.

But the very data of the article—showing that many Christians, but few unaffiliated people or atheists, accept a form of God-driven “theistic evolution”—shows that the conflict is alive and well.  (There were also data that I didn’t mention, showing that a lot more believers than nonbelievers think that human consciousness and “the origin of human beings” cannot be explained by “evolutionary science” or “evolutionary processes”: 54% and 37% of religious people, respectively, see these phenomena as defying evolution). The lesson: many British Christians, but not nearly as many unaffiliated people or atheists, accept a watered-down form of evolution that not only invokes God’s action, but also claim that phenomena like human consciousness can’t be explained by evolution.

Theistic evolution, explained in the survey as “a process guided by God,” means that God somehow designed the process to go a certain way or, if you interpret the words explicitly, tweaked it from time to time to attain a given end. Thus the statement of ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams below is simply false:

“Christians need to be clearer about what the doctrine of creation does and doesn’t mean,” he said. “To say that all things depend unilaterally on the eternal action of God is not the same as saying that specific steps in the universe’s history must be the direct result of divine intervention.”

Williams also said this:

According to the British Attitudes Survey, religious belief is continuing to decline in Britain, but the former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord (Rowan) Williams, says the YouGov survey confirms that a presumed incompatibility between science and religion is “a phoney war”.

“The number of mainstream Christians – certainly in this country – who have qualms about evolutionary theory is very small indeed,” said Williams. “But perceptions are different, and the presence of US-style fundamentalism in the popular imagination means that a growing number who know nothing of the actual history of intellectual discussion of these questions assume that all religious believers must be committed to combating scientific accounts of the universe’s beginnings.”

But the large proportion of religious Brits who accept a role for God in evolution (68% of “religious/spiritual people” compared to 18% of “not religious/spiritual” folk and only 7% of atheists) does indeed show that there is a real divergence among these groups, and that believers are not, as Williams implies, completely down with naturalistic science.

But I want to refer you to an article by a reader here, “coel”, who’s analyzed the YouGov survey—and what believers say about it—in much greater detail. In a post on his/her website, coelsblog, “What Christians believe about evolution and the supposed naivety of atheists“, coel makes the following points (I’ll be brief because you need to read that not-too-long piece):

  • The article’s author, Catholic Catherine Pepinster, claimed that “According to the research, nearly two-thirds of Britons — as well as nearly three-quarters of atheists — think Christians have to accept the assertion in Genesis that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.”  This is a gross distortion. As coel shows, the real statistic is that 72% of British atheists and 60% of all Brits think that “a member of the public who is religious would have some degree of difficulty in accepting evolutionary science.” And they’re right! Even more than half of British Christians agreed with that statement, too! It’s simply a fact that far more religious Brits see God (or some other non-naturalistic process) as having had a hand in evolution (68%) than accept naturalistic evolution (24%). Nearly 7 out of ten British religionists, then, have a problem with naturalistic evolution, compared to people who are “not religious/spiritual” (18%) and  atheists (only 7%).

Pepinster, then, pretends that these dumb atheists see British religionists as young-earth creationists, but the real data reveal the indisputable fact that religionists have a problem accepting naturalistic evolution. These claims are not the same thing, and Pepinster either knows that and distorted it, or simply didn’t understand the results of the survey. This gives the lie to Rowan William’s claim, “The number of mainstream Christians – certainly in this country – who have qualms about evolutionary theory is very small indeed.” No, it’s not small: it’s 68%.

  • Having caught Pepinster in a misstatement (coel had to tweet her before they actually added the data to the survey’s results) concludes this:

 But Catherine Pepinster’s article overlooks this fudged compromise. As she reports it there are only two options, fully accept evolutionary science or be a Biblical literalist creationist:

According to the research, nearly two-thirds of Britons — as well as nearly three-quarters of atheists — think Christians have to accept the assertion in Genesis that God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.

That is not what people said: they didn’t say that to be a Christian one would have to accept Genesis literally; they merely said that Christians would have some level of difficulty in fully accepting evolution. And that’s true, that’s what religious people say about themselves! Just over half of self-described religious people in the survey said that they themselves had difficulty accepting that humans had evolved and that human and apes had a common ancestor.

Yes, only 16% are full-blown creationists, but many more religious people are distinctly reluctant to accept the full findings of evolutionary science. Thus Catherine Pepinster completely misrepresents what atheists believe about religious people, because she totally ignores all the middle ground between fully accepting science and Biblical literalism.

Coel adds this:

The article then quotes Guy Hayward, research fellow at the Scientific and Medical Network, saying:

“It is clear from this survey by Newman University that non-believers have very little idea about what believers believe”.

Well no, not at all. The non-believers seem to be pretty accurate in assessing what religious people believe. When interpreted properly the survey results reveal a great deal of fudge and hesitancy in what religious people believe about evolution, and also show that non-believers are fairly perceptive in recognising that.

  • Finally, coel analyzes why religious people, at least in this case, are so eager to portray atheists as naive about religion. I’ll let you read the conclusions yourself. All I can add is that surveys show consistently that atheists know more about religious scripture and beliefs than do religious people themselves. That’s partly because many atheists were former believers, and left because they couldn’t deal with the palpable falsities of scripture and exegesis.

Let me close with some statements that we need to embrace (I’ll put this all in caps because I’m peeved):



As Laplace is supposed to have said, “We have no need of that hypothesis.” But many British Christians apparently do.

h/t; Stephen Law

Happy 60th birthday, central dogma!

JAC Intro: Today is precisely 60 years after Francis Crick, more of a genius than you realize, gave a famous lecture in London laying out what’s been called the “Central Dogma” of biology—about how information gets from genes to proteins via RNA intermediates. I asked Matthew, who wrote a very nice book  about the history of molecular genetics (Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code), to give us a piece about Crick’s great contribution. It’s below. He also wrote a PLOS Biology article about Crick’s lecture and its sequelae, a reference given at the bottom of this post. There Matthew tells us that the Central Dogma has often been mischaracterized as “DNA makes RNA makes protein.”

Finally, Matthew appeared on the BBC Radio 4 today to talk about Crick and the Central Dogma. Click on the screenshot below to get to the program, and then start listening at 1:23:00.  As usual, Matthew does an excellent job, though they gave him but three minutes.


by Matthew Cobb

[This article about Francis Crick’s lecture 60 years ago is slightly adapted from one written for the BBC website, so it is in a style that is a bit simpler than that we sometimes use on this site.]

Sixty years ago this week, one of the greatest British scientists, Francis Crick, gave a lecture in London in which he accurately predicted how genes work, setting the course for the genetic revolution we are now living through. According to the American author Horace Freeland Judson, in this talk Crick ‘permanently altered the logic of biology’.

Only four years earlier, Crick and the young American Jim Watson had solved the double-helix structure of DNA, using data from Rosalind Franklin. Aged 41, Crick was still five years away from winning the Nobel Prize for this work, but he had a reputation as a powerful and profound thinker.

His lecture, entitled ‘On protein synthesis’, was given at University College London for the Society for Experimental Biology. In it, Crick spoke about how genes do what they do. At the time, this subject was still very murky – some scientists were not even convinced that genes were made of DNA.

Fig 2a

Crick speaking about the central dogma in 1963. (C) Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Library.

Crick came up with four key predictions about genes and their link to proteins. In each of these ideas, he was right.

Crick started with the main thing that genes do: they control the production of proteins.

The problem Crick explored was that the DNA in a gene is simply a string of chemical bases – A, C, T, G. Crick had to explain how the cell could get from the one-dimensional sequence of bases in DNA to the complex three-dimensional structures of proteins, which can take nearly any shape.

Crick’s answer was simple: the order of bases in the gene – what he called ‘genetic information’ – corresponded to the order of the amino acids that make up each protein, and nothing more. There was no 3-D structural information about the protein encoded in the gene, he claimed. He called this the sequence hypothesis.

Somehow, the cell read off the information in the gene and assembled the amino acids together like beads on a string. Then the protein molecule spontaneously folded itself into its final 3-D structure. We still cannot easily predict the 3-D structure of a protein from the order of its amino acids, but Crick’s sequence hypothesis remains good.

To explain how the cell assembles the protein, Crick predicted there must be small molecules  – he called them ‘adaptors’ – that could recognise each of the 20 different amino acids in the body, and would bring them to where they could be turned into a protein in the right order. As Crick gave his talk in London, this molecule was being identified in an American laboratory. It is now called “transfer RNA”.

The French geneticist François Jacob was in the audience. He recalled Crick’s lecture in his memoirs:

“Tall, florid, with long sideburns, Crick looked like the Englishman seen in illustrations to 19th century books about Phileas Fogg or the English opium eater. He talked incessantly. With evident pleasure and volubly, as if he was afraid he would not have enough time to get everything out. Going over his demonstration again to be sure it was understood. Breaking up his sentences with loud laughter. Setting off again with renewed vigour at a speed I often had trouble keeping up with. . . Crick was dazzling.”

The most controversial and influential part of the lecture was what was called the central dogma. Crick explained that as proteins are synthesised, information is taken from the DNA molecule, first into an RNA molecule, and is then used to make a protein.

Before the lecture, he drew a little diagram to explain what he meant. The arrows show what Crick called the flow of information going from DNA to RNA to protein. DNA and RNA could also copy themselves, so there are also arrows going from DNA to DNA and from RNA to RNA.

Fig 1

Crick’s first description of the central dogma, from 1956. (C) Wellcome Library.

Because the experimental data were not clear, Crick accepted it might just be possible that DNA could directly lead to the production of proteins, so he drew an arrow there, too (this is not in fact the case).

The most important point was that, as Crick put it, once the information had gone from DNA into a protein, it could not get back into your DNA. There was no biochemical route for a protein to change your DNA sequence.

Crick thought it might be possible for information to go from RNA to DNA, and this later turned out to be the case, when it was discovered that some RNA viruses can get into our DNA. But the route from protein to DNA is impossible.

This central dogma emphasises that our DNA sequence cannot be changed by our proteins, or by how they are changed by experience. Over the last 60 years this has proved to be correct. Darwin thought that an individual’s experience changed the characters they transmit to their offspring – for example, he thought it self-evident that blacksmiths have children with big arms.

In the case of humans, and most other animals, this is not possible because the cells that produce our offspring (eggs and sperm) are completely separate from the cells that make up our bodies. This was shown by August Weismann at the end of the 19th century.

But in some animals, and in plants, fungi and all single-celled organisms, this separation does not exist. Nevertheless, Crick’s central dogma shows that there is no biochemical route from protein to DNA. Your experience cannot ‘rewire’ your DNA.

Despite the excitement about what is called epigenetics, which explains how genes can be turned on and off by the environment, this never leads to a change in our DNA sequence. Crick’s dogma was absolutely right.

Crick later cheerfully admitted that when he coined the phrase, he didn’t know what a dogma was. What he really meant was that it was a basic assumption about how genes worked. Whatever its name, it still guides scientists today.

Crick’s final brilliant prediction was to suggest that in the future biologists would use sequence data to understand evolution, by comparing the sequences of different species.

In 1957, when Crick was speaking, protein sequences were known from only five species, while DNA sequencing was science fiction and 20 years in the future. But this is exactly what happened, and we can now understand how organisms evolved in unprecedented detail, by comparing their sequences, just as Crick suggested.

Crick’s lecture, which was published the following year, continues to be read and cited by scientists all over the world. It is a monument of clear and penetrating thinking by one of the 20th century’s greatest minds. In all his key predictions, Francis Crick was right, and he did indeed change the logic of biology.


JAC: Matthew has a nice paper in PLOS Biology giving a lot more details as well as references. The piece, free online, is referenced below along with a link. Besides Crick’s incredibly prescient hypothesis about the way DNA carries and translates the “code of life,” he also proposed in that lecture that one could use the sequence of DNA (and, by extension, of proteins), to work out evolutionary relationships between species. Here’s Crick’s quote form the lecture:

“Biologists should realise that before long we shall have a subject which might be called ‘protein taxonomy’—the study of the amino acid sequences of the proteins of an organism and the comparison of them between species. It can be argued that these sequences are the most delicate expression possible of the phenotype of an organism and that vast amounts of evolutionary information may be hidden away within them.”

What a smart guy he was! And here’s the reference to Matthew’s paper:

Cobb, M. 2017. 60 years ago, Francis Crick changed the logic of biology. PLOS Biology, online, published: September 18, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.2003243



New Mexico school standards water down evolution, geology, and climate change

Mother Jones has an article by Andy Kroll about how the state of New Mexico has watered down a widespread and excellent secondary school science curriculum (grades kindergarden through 12): the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) developed in conjunction with National Research Council, the National Science Teachers Association, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  The state’s public education department released a document (here) that proposes changes to its existing standards that have changed some of the NGSS guidelines.

And these changes aren’t random: in the main, they water down evolution, remove evidence for the age of the earth, and imply that global warming is a “fluctuation” rather than a trend. Glenn Branch of the NCSE reacted:

“These changes are evidently intended to placate creationists and climate change deniers,” says Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit group that defends the teaching of climate change, evolution, and other scientific-backed subjects in the classroom. The proposed changes, Branch added, “would dumb down New Mexico’s science education.”

You can read the article for yourself, but I’ll give some screenshots of how the language was changed. Mother Jones crossed out words from the original NGSS guidelines and put in bold the new, added words. This is a really bad one that gives the state’s hand away:


Whitewashing of global warming:


One more on evolution, which replaces “process of evolution” with “biological diversity”. It leaves in the concept of natural selection, but omits that it’s an important cause of evolutionary change:

And a Republican sop to local technology—a question for students to answer:

I’m not sure what’s going on overall because they did miss some chances to further denigrate evolution; this, for example, remains in the document:

(10)       Natural Selection and Evolution

(a)        HS-LS4-1: Analyze, interpret, and communicate scientific information that common ancestry and biological evolution are supported by multiple lines of empirical evidence.

That, in fact, is a good thing: a way to show that evolution is supported by many areas of biology. But the changes above—particularly the replacement of “4.6 billion year old” history of the Earth with “geologic history” of the Earth, is clearly a blatant attempt to avoid telling kids how old their planet is. After all, we don’t want to offend those Christians who think it’s 10,000 years old!

According to Mother Jones, the public can give comments on this proposal, and there’s a hearing in Santa Fe on October 16. I hope the science teachers of New Mexico are aware of this, and will weigh in as the teachers of Texas did when a similar attempt to bowdlerize state science standards occurred a few years back. If you’re one of these New Mexico teachers (or university professors), do something!

Oh, and the state government is firmly behind this. A quote from the article:

In April, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, vetoed legislation that would have forced the state to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards. Martinez said the law was too strict and that the state’s education department was already in the process of crafting its own science standards—the standards the department released earlier this week.

Of course she’s a Republican: I haven’t seen any Democrat engage in such shenanigans. Finally, Mother Jones contacted the state’s  Public Education Department for a comment, and here’s the spokeswoman’s response. It’s a masterpiece of saying nothing in a lot of words:

“The PED has and will continue to listen and respond to input from all of New Mexico’s stakeholders across the state when putting together new content standards, from the fine arts to the STEM fields, that haven’t been updated in the last decade. It is time for New Mexico to again raise the bar. We must come together and push forward so that our kids can prepare to advance in their career prospects in the 21st century,” said Deputy Secretary of School Transformation Debbie Montoya. “As science, technology, and engineering advance in concert with our business and industry partners, New Mexico is working hard to ensure that children have access to the most rigorous standards and assessments while also expanding science resources and opportunity for schools and educators.”

Pardon my French, but that’s just complete bullshit—a statement worthy of Sean Spicer.

h/t: Charleen