Mae-Wan Ho and Suzan Mazur: the blind leading the blind about evolution

Mae-Wan Ho is a scientist known, to me at least, for unproductive work: dissing GMOs and biotechnology and, especially, relentlessly attacking “neo-Darwinism”, the modern theory of evolution. Ho is also head of an unfortunately named organization; as Wikipedia notes:

Ho is the director of the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), an interest group that campaigns against what it sees as unethical uses of biotechnology. The group published about climate change, GMOs, homeopathy, traditional Chinese medicine, and water memory.

In reviewing the organisation, David Colquhoun accused the ISIS of promoting pseudoscience and specifically criticised Ho’s understanding of homeopathy.

Colquhoun’s piece on ISIS, which appears on his site “DC’s Improbable Science,” says this:

At first sight, its theme of “science, society and sustainability” sounded right up my street. It seems to be predominantly an anti-GM, pro-organic farming, organisation. Although some of their contributors seem to be somewhat paranoid, there is much that I can agree with in what they say about that.

But they completely ruin their case by including quite barmy homilies about homeopathy (and here), water structure and traditional chinese medicine. There is also an amazing piece of sheer pseudo-scientific nonsense, “Homeopathic Medicine is Nanopharmacology” by Dana Ullman (though elsewhere on the site, nanotechnology gets a bad press).

Most of the nutty content seems to be written by the director of the Institute herself. Dr Mae-Wan Ho, who is listed as “Reader in Biology at the Open University” (that’s odd -no trace of her on the Open University web site). In fact some doubts have been cast on her biography. Wikipedia says “She is former head of the Bio-Electrodynamics laboratory at the Open University in Milton Keynes after either having been fired for incompetence or resigning because of personal reasons.” Whatever the truth in that may be, she clearly doesn’t understand homeopathy.

Be sure to look at the links on homeopathy, which are seriously nutty, suggesting ways that water could really retain a memory of molecules that are no longer in it.

Ho’s lucubrations on evolutionary biology, as revealed in an interview she gave to Suzan Mazur at PuffHo, are just as bad.  The piece, “Mae-Wan Ho: No boundary really between epigenetic and genetic”, is replete with misstatements, errors, and distortions on the part of both interviewer and subject. Mazur, as you may recall, is a gonzo journalist driven by one Big Obsession: modern evolutionary biology is wrong and she’s going to show how rotten it really is. Mazur tried to win renown by reporting on the infamous “Altenburg 16,” a group of biologists who convened a meeting in Austria, originally intending to debunk the Modern Synthesis, but later retracted their claws and claimed only to “extend” the synthesis. The result of that meeting was an eminently forgettable symposium volume that sunk without a trace, leaving no perceptible influence on the field. As I wrote about Mazur’s reporting at the time:

Her thesis has been not only that modern evolutionary biology is rotten to the core, but that we evolutionists all know it and are desperately trying to cover up a crumbling paradigm.  Her interviews with people like Stuart Pivar and my old boss, Dick Lewontin, are really funny: Mazur desperately wants them all to admit that evolutionary biology is bankrupt, no matter what they think. Instead of finding out what they think, she presses and presses them to agree with her. It seems that most of these hilarious interviews have disappeared from the internet, but you can get a taste of them here and here.

And that, more or less, is what she does with Mae-Wan Ho, pressing her to admit the intellectual vacuity of modern evolutionary theory. Ho, for her part, is more than glad to comply. It’s all an excercise in bad science, but since it appeared in PuffHo, the general reader might get the impression that there’s something to it. (If PuffHo would deign to pay its writers, I’d try to offer a corrective in its pages. As it is, the aggregator website delights in publishing misguided pieces by people like Jim Shapiro and Stuart Newman exposing the so-called weaknesses of evolutionary biology.)

Here’s some of Ho’s mistaken contentions:

Epigenetics invalidates the modern synthesis. In modern parlance, “epigenetics” refers to the modification of some DNA bases, usually by the attachment of methyl groups to them (“methylation”). Such modification can be important in evolution: modified DNA can act differently from unmodified DNA, for example in determining whether it produces proteins at all, or when and where that DNA is transcribed. All of the important epigenetic modification that we know about in evolution, however, is coded for by the DNA itself: that is, there are bits of the DNA code that say “allow other parts of the DNA to be methylated.” In that sense, epigenetics is not something that radically revises our view of genetics and evolution, for it’s something that some parts of DNA do to other parts of DNA, and those instructions have evolved by natural selection.

However, some epigenetic modification of DNA comes not from instructions by other DNA, but from the environment itself. Starvation or stress can itself act to methylate DNA. Indeed, in some cases, environmentally-induced methylation can be passed to the next generation, or even a few further generations (it eventually disappears). That observation has led people to speculate that epigenetics can allow a kind of “Lamarckian inheritance,” whereby the environment itself induces an adaptive change in the DNA that can then be passed on to future generation—the inheritance of an acquired characteristic. If this happened often, it would seriously revise our notion of how evolution works.

Unfortunately for the many proponents of “epigenetics as a driver of evolution,” like Ho, that doesn’t seem to happen. The epigenetic modifications of DNA induced by the environment don’t persist, for the modifications gradually fade away, sometimes by the next generation. Further, we know of not a single adaptation residing in an organism’s DNA that was induced by the environment and then persisted as a real genetic/evolutionary adaptation. The changes we see are temporary and largely nonadaptive.

Nevertheless, those Kuhnians eager to overthrow the modern view of evolution persist in touting epigenetics as a New Paradigm over and over and over and over again, ad nauseum. (See my many critiques of this tactic here.) One of these revolutionaries is Ho (spurred on by Mazur):

Suzan Mazur: Doesn’t epigenetics throw into question just how vertical the transfer of information is?

Mae-Wan Ho: Yes, exactly. We know, for instance, when we eat food nucleic acids can get into our cells. Also, there is a theory that our cells in the body keep sending out nucleic acids and one theory has it that it seems to correct the mistakes that other cells have suffered from mutations. . . .

Suzan Mazur: You’ve written that it does get into the germline.

Mae-Wan Ho: Yes. This is why the whole genome is a more radical concept than just epigenetics because there is no boundary really between the genetic and epigenetic .

The emphasis is Mazur’s here, not mine. And of course if you mean that epigenetic changes can be inherited over one or a few generations, then in that sense they are “genetic.” But that doesn’t mean that environmentally (as opposed to DNA-coded) modifications of DNA are important in evolution. And if they’re not, then there’s no problem for neo-Darwinism. Sadly, Mazur and Ho don’t like that conclusion (my emphasis in the following):

Suzan Mazur: The Third Way of Evolution is different from Altenberg in the sense that many scientists on the page are talking about replacing neo-Darwinism.

Mae-Wan Ho: It was really in the 1970s when I started thinking about this with Peter Saunders. We began criticizing neo-Darwinism, and wrote a paper: “Beyond neo-Darwinism: The Epigenetic Approach to Evolution.” That brought a lot of controversy. I was branded neo-Lamarckian, communist, Marxist, all sorts of things.

People found us too radical. They retreated because we were already saying in that paper — well, look, you might as well forget about natural selection because what does it mean “selection” when the organism keeps changing according to environmental conditions?

We now know that at the molecular level that is precisely what happens. There are these epigenetic changes that respond to the environment. . . .

I think the Modern Synthesis has got to be completely replaced, and unfortunately, those people who are very attached to neo-Darwinism won’t look at the evidence. A lot of them don’t know molecular genetics at all. Or like [Richard] Dawkins, they will say, I just don’t believe it. They’re not scientists.

Denis Noble is very interesting because he’s come to this, if I might say so, rather late. He’s right and has got the zeal.

People like Peter Saunders and I, who’ve been arguing about this since the 1970s, think things have moved on to such an extent in evolutionary science, and that the world beyond neo-Darwinism is so creative and beautiful, that we now don’t really care about trying to convince the neo-Darwinists.

What’s wrong with this? First, the ridiculous dismissal of natural selection based on the supposed epigenetic changes that are produced in DNA by the environment itself.  But even those changes, if they were adaptive, would have to spread through a population via natural selection. There’s no way around natural selection, so we can’t “forget about it” even under Ho’s erroneous theory. But we needn’t even think about that possibility since there’s no evidence of permanent genetic and adaptive change in organisms induced by the environment.

Finally, it’s incorrect to say that those who criticize the importance of environmentally-induced epigenetics in evolution aren’t scientists. Among those critics are not just Dawkins (a scientist), but myself, Matthew Cobb, Doug Futuyma, David Haig, Joe Felsensetein, and others. We’re all scientists, too. And I reject the notion that none of us know molecular genetics. Besides, you don’t have to know much molecular genetics to see that there’s no evidence for environmentally-induced DNA modification playing even a minor role in evolution.

The DNA-centered view of evolution is wrong.  This is an extension of the “epigenetics” paradigm, but also a favorite trope of ideologues who resent the notion that the DNA is a “master molecule.” Ho espouses a kind of nebulous “holism,” perhaps connected with her pseudoscientific views about homeopathy:

Suzan Mazur: There’s a debate about whether viruses are alive or not. What position do you take?

Mae-Wan Ho: The moral of all that is that this DNA-centered view is really completely mistaken and outmoded. There is no DNA determinism. DNA or RNA does not equal life. They are kind of like memory molecules but the memory gets rewritten.

Well, nobody thinks that DNA is absolutely deterministic in what traits you develop, but it’s damn important! And in some cases it is deterministic. If you have the sickle-cell gene in two copies, you get sickle-cell anemia, period. That’s not caused by the environment, and while it can be mitigated by medicine, it can’t be eliminated in any environment we know about. DNA is deterministic of many traits, in that you’ll develop a genetically coded trait no matter what environment you develop in. Ho is thus badly wrong when she says this:

[Mazur]: But what about the misunderstanding of how evolution works, that it’s gene-centered. Is this part of the reason why drugs to treat one problem can result in 25 side effects?

Mae-Wan Ho: Absolutely, yes. I think we have a completely obsolete medical system. It’s committed to this gene-centered approach. A lot of money has been spent on sequencing genomes, etc. They really have got to keep the myth going. They’ve got to say, well we’re going to find the genes that make you ill or predispose you to all kinds of illnesses. But they never can find them. This just goes on and on.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but at first it was genomics and then transcriptomics, proteomics, epigenomics, etc. Because they don’t know what else to do. It’s really mind-numbing.

With cancer, for example, they keep sticking to this idea that it’s caused by gene mutations. Again, they’re chasing their own tail. That’s why we have such a horrible medical system. The best thing to do is to avoid it.

What? There are no genes that make you ill or predispose you to illness? I refer you to Online Mendelian Inheritance in Man®, an extensive catalogue of genetic traits, disorders, and diseases in humans. There are literally hundreds of them. Sickle-cell anemia, Huntington’s chorea, the breast-cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2, hemophilia, phenlyketonuria: the list is long. (Wikipedia gives a huge compilation.) In many of these cases we know not only the precise gene where the disease resides, but know the exact lesion that causes the disease.

But wait—there’s more. Woo!

[Ho]: For instance, if you take stem cells or cells in culture — you’re very careful to clone them, etc. — but as soon as you put them in culture you get chromosomal abnormalities, mutants.

Suzan Mazur: It’s the organism as a whole that’s keeping them stable.

Mae-Wan Ho: It’s the whole system. It’s almost like a field, a field that keeps both the field and the shape of the organism intact.

People have called it by different names. Developmental biologists have long referred to it as a morphogenetic field. It’s a holistic influence. I won’t go into the biophysics of it, but it can be thought of as a causal field. This is why neo-Darwinism cannot be enough, it cannot explain such things.

These “holistic causal” fields are produced by genes and are almost certainly the result of natural selection that acts to keep development on track and suppress those things that could throw it out of whack. Calling it a “field” or something “holistic” merely obscures this fact.

Young people are dispirited by the neo-Darwinian paradigm.:

Suzan Mazur: What is the danger of not replacing the gene-centered Modern Synthesis?

Mae-Wan Ho: The people who suffer most are the young people because they are bored out of their minds in today’s laboratories. There is no inspiration with neo-Darwinism, it dulls the mind.

I don’t know what universities are like in the US now, probably they have improved. But I stay away from universities because I find them so decadent and dispirited.

Suzan Mazur: They’ve become business and banking centers. Obsessed with expansion and real estate.

Young people bored out of their minds? I don’t know which students Ho deals with, but I don’t see young people who are left “uninspired” by modern evolutionary ideas. On the contrary: the journals are brimming with papers, new journals are starting up, we are training more students than we have jobs for, and students are beginning to use the largesse of DNA sequencing to study evolution, including the obsolete view that Ho calls “natural selection.” I suspect, too, that the reason Ho stays away from universities is not that she wants nothing to do with them, but the reverse.

The universe is conscious.  Here we see Ho spouting views that could have been taken from the Deepak Chopra playbook:

Suzan Mazur: Do you have a definition for life?

Mae-Wan Ho: I would define it as a quantum coherent system. It is a circular thermodynamic system that can reproduce.

Suzan Mazur: How do you think about origin of life?

Mae-Wan Ho: I think there was an origin of life. If you look at water, which has been the subject of my research for a number of years — the physics of life depends on water in a very fundamental way. Water has all the characteristics of consciousness. It’s very sensitive, it’s flexible. It responds to light. Electromagnetic fields, etc.

Suzan Mazur: Have you commented about electrons and consciousness?

Mae-Wan Ho: It was Alfred North Whitehead’s idea that electrons had consciousness. Whitehead, to me, was a really important philosopher. He was also a mathematician. He had the idea that you cannot really understand nature except as an organism and with the sensitivity of the organism. To Whitehead everything in nature was an organism to varying degrees, from electrons, fundamental particles to galaxies. It’s a very beautiful idea actually.

Well, a beautiful idea is not a correct idea, and this one is just loony.

The consciousness of water, of course, plays right into her group ISIS’s approval of homeopathy. As for water and electrons having consciousness, well, I think the evidence shows that some kind of fairly complex nervous system is required for consciousness, and nobody has yet observed neurons in water molecules or electrons.

The fact that HuffPo publishes this kind of nonsense shows how pathetic that rag really is. They’ll publish stuff like this that is palpably wrong, just so they have something to fill their columns. It’s not just their fault, either. More blame goes to Ho and especially to Mazur, who thinks that Ho’s ridiculous ideas are somehow newsworthy.

There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the upshot is that the public is duped about the consensus among biologists.  In that sense Ho and Mazur, driven by their ambition and their false view that they have a Big New Story that is suppressed by scientists, are guilty of misleading the public.

Mae-Wan Ho:maxresdefault

70 Comments

  1. moleatthecounter
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    From the ‘Water Structure’ link…

    “Predictions from quantum chemistry calculations and state of the art cryogenic electrospray ionization infrared spectroscopy provide evidence that water exists as pentagonal dodecahedron clusters based on the golden ratio, the magic number woven into the fabric of the universe and consciousness”

    It’s like Deepak Chopra has a twin in chemistry!

    • Timothy Hughbanks
      Posted April 12, 2015 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      They threw in the quantum chemistry for pizzazz – or because density functional calculations are now easy enough to do that you can input things and get out possibly correct results without actually knowing what any of it means. Methane clathrate structures, for example, are well known to encapsulate methane molecules within dodecahedral water cages with pentagonal faces. Being pentagons and all, that naturally does involve the golden ratio. But then that’s not a secret to any kid who watched Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land fifty years ago. Since clathrate structures allow for local near-tetrahedral water molecule environments (each water donates its two hydrogens in hydrogen bonds and accepts two as well), they’re not a big surprise. Only the last two words are total bullshit in your quote – that’s actually a lot better than Deepak. The rest is just jargon put there for lay readers so they’ll buy into the bullshit.

      • moleatthecounter
        Posted April 12, 2015 at 10:10 am | Permalink

        Agreed. But two incorrect words in a so-called scientific statement are fatal!

      • jaxkayaker
        Posted April 12, 2015 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        I love Donald Duck in Mathemagicland

  2. GBJames
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    Oh, Lordy, it burns!

  3. bobkillian
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Has anyone done an experiment to see what percentage of the population is so gullible that they’ll believe *any* conspiracy theory?

    Clearly the Posterous Era has not yet arrived. We are still being entertained by the lunacies of the pre-Posterous.

    • Filippo
      Posted April 12, 2015 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

      Or is it post-preternatural?

  4. Jeff Rankin
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    Yikes what a goofball.

    IANAS, but even my BS detector starts pinging when I read stuff like:

    “It’s the whole system. It’s almost like a field, a field that keeps both the field and the shape of the organism intact.”

    and

    “I would define it as a quantum coherent system. It is a circular thermodynamic system that can reproduce.”

    Whoa – paging Dr. Deepity!

    • Posted April 12, 2015 at 11:23 am | Permalink

      Quantum coherent system
      -noun

      1. A system known to be coherent but the contents cannot be known with certainty.
      2. A system in which the contents are known but the coherence cannot be demonstrated.

  5. jaxkayaker
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    It’s deepities all the way down.

  6. muffy
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Thank you for explaining the role, or non-role, rather, of epigenetics in evolution. I recall reading about the Dutch Hunger Famine of 1944, and how third trimester fetuses from that period became unhealthy, overweight, diabetes prone adults. However, it doesn’t make sense that such a change would persist indefinitely in all future generations. It was just a temporary reaction to starvation, and once the environment improves for future generations, the “adaptation” will disappear.

    Hope I got that right. I am an ignoramus – a layman at heart.

    • Posted April 12, 2015 at 9:55 am | Permalink

      Yes, you have it absolutely right, with the exception that the adaptation disappears not because it’s selected against, but because epigenetic modifications of DNA gradually disappear–usually within a generation.

  7. Posted April 12, 2015 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    Nutso!! And what’s with the claws?

  8. Kurt Lewis Helf
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 10:00 am | Permalink

    Appropo of this post is a post on The Panda’s Thumb website, titled “Evolutionary medicine: Studying disease in a Darwinian context” http://pandasthumb.org/archives/2015/04/what-do-darwin.html

    • Kurt Lewis Helf
      Posted April 12, 2015 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      Opening paragraph:
      “What do Charles Darwin, wisdom teeth, and cancer have in common? They are all related to an emerging field called evolutionary medicine, the application of evolutionary principles to understanding why and how organisms get sick. Scientists in the field believe that an evolutionary perspective can help improve our diagnosis and treatment of disease.”

      • Derek Freyberg
        Posted April 12, 2015 at 10:32 am | Permalink

        “Panda’s Thumb” is actually pretty sensible in my opinion; though the first paragraph you quote does look like clickbait.
        As for ISIS, anyone who provides a forum for Dana Ullman is asking for ridicule on that ground alone – the rest is just icing on the cake.

  9. Randy Schenck
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    It is amazing how quickly things happen on the net. While looking up Mae-Wan Ho and then Suzan Mazur specifically, guess what you see just a few lines down. Prof. Coyne’s post is already there on google.

    I guess in someway, you get published faster than we know.

  10. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    My God! It’s full of deepities!

    Actually, the one thing I kind of like is the reference to DNA and RNA as ‘memory molecules’. It sort of tickles my innards. But I can see how such a label could then inspire “brilliant” minds like Ho and Mazur into realizing that that memories are stored in DNA, or that DNA can deliver memories. This information must not get out! We scientists must repress that information at once!

  11. Jeff Rankin
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 10:58 am | Permalink

    I’m reading about this Suzan Mazur, and I find her intriguing in a “Is she a BS artist, a nut, or both?” kind of way. She has a book out:

    The Origin of Life Circus: A How To Make Life Extravaganza

    I had to read this title a number of times to understand that it’s meant to be read like this:

    The Origin of Life Circus: A “How To Make Life” Extravaganza

    And if you dare to Google this volume, the cover alone should offend your design sensibilities, as it did mine.

    She seems to view the study of evolution as an “industry” (in a pejorative way) with scientists desperate to cover its deficiencies (as PCC suggests above). She doesn’t seem to be a scientist herself.

    Fascinating and odd.

    • Posted April 12, 2015 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      How life circus originated?

      /@

      • Posted April 12, 2015 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

        That’s yet to be resolved; all we know for sure is that the center ring is indeed a cross-section of a pentagonal dodecahedron.

        With all that that implies.

  12. Barry
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    Did I read that Colquhoun quote right? When he said he saw much to agree with in what they said about that, was he referring to anti-GM nonsense? Is Colqohoun an anti-GMer? Please don’t disappoint me by saying yes.

  13. DrBrydon
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 11:55 am | Permalink

    I am not going to get a chance to read this in detail until this evening. (Although, my hackles are already up over “water memory”: how do you test for that in homeopathic drug production quality assurance, and how come the memory of all the other things that are in the water isn’t still there?) But I do have to say that that picture of Mazur is priceless. Is she a super-villain?

  14. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Wow. Life emerged because homeopathy. Who knew!?

    And I love how blithely these successful wooers define life out of existence, “a quantum coherent system” clashing with its classical nature. (Except in rare lab situations, where viruses and now cells, I think, can be pushed into non-classical states.)

    They don’t get evolution, and they don’t get physics – Deepak territory. Their mastery of conspiracy theory gets an A+ though.

    … those Kuhnians eager to overthrow the modern view of evolution persist in touting epigenetics as a New Paradigm over and over and over and over …

    I hear you.

    It reminds me of the deep desire to ‘modify’ gravity, because gravity is known to be incomplete and modifying it is an alternative to semiclassical physics where gravity is weak.

    Despite that each instance of a colliding galaxy cluster would need its own ‘modified gravity’ theory to replace simpler standard cosmology of gravity + particle fields, the fringe interest persists.

    And, wouldn’t you know, I am just reading up on Planck’s latest finds on cosmology and especially inflation. Simplest inflation is, you guessed it, gravity + particle fields (of the “inflaton”). But apparently there are now modified gravity scenarios yet again (so called “galileon” inflation).

    And here we can only observe inflation once. Well, maybe this time these ideas are correct. They are decidedly not fringe – yet. (But … “over and over and over and over” …)

  15. Richard Bond
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    Of course water has a memory! Trouble is, it decays in no more than 50 fs (see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15758995), which would mean that getting memorised water from your mouth to your throat would need it to travel at 10^13 m/s. I think that I see a problem. Of course, you could invoke time dilation, but then you would have to accept relativistic mass increase, and face the prospect of your spine being blown apart.

    • Richard Bond
      Posted April 12, 2015 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      Whoops! 10^11 m/s. But what is a couple of orders of magnitude when woo is concerned?

      • Timothy Hughbanks
        Posted April 12, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        No, you were right the first time.

      • Posted April 12, 2015 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

        Phew, only10^11 m/s. Piece of cake!

        • winewithcats
          Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

          The cake can travel at much lower speeds, due to the dilution of the water by sugar and chocolate and such.

          • Posted April 13, 2015 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

            But what quantity of the water would be quantum?

  16. Les Robertshaw
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    “There is no DNA determinism.”

    I know from personal experience with the BRAC1 gene, that this woman is WRONG. Dangerously wrong. She is a public menace like the anti vaxxers. And there are always some who will buy into her nonsense

  17. Larry Smith
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this! I haven’t digested the whole thing, but went to the Mazur-Lewontin “interview.” Very much impressed with Lewontin saying “I don’t know what that means” and sticking to it. I loved his advice about turning off one’s hearing aid when people start spouting theories!

    • Posted April 12, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

      That interview was rather epic, wasn’t it? Something tells me I’d really like him — and it’s obvious that Jerry learned a great deal from his teacher.

      Hmmm…Jerry, any time you’d like to turn your living room over to him for a guest post, I’m sure we’d all get a kick out of it….

      b&

  18. Michael Hart
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Mazur’s piece in HuffPo includes a link to the January 2015 special issue of the Journal of Experimental Biology. That issue includes the lead article by Dennis Noble in which he argues for overturning the Modern Synthesis, and ending the emphasis on genes & vertical inheritance for understanding adaptation. Unlike the whiny plea for attention from epigeneticists in Nature last fall (which Jerry discussed), this series of papers seems to deserve to be taken seriously (maybe with the exception of Noble’s). At least some of the authors in the special issue are serious people. The two reviews of vertical inheritance of epigenetic marks in nematodes, and the paper on paternal epigenetic effects on offspring physiology in marine broadcast spawners, might be worth reading.

  19. Mark R.
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Lots of ingredients in her word salad. Even a dictionary won’t help you understand a sentence like I would define it as a quantum coherent system. It is a circular thermodynamic system that can reproduce. Yeah sure you betcha.

  20. Eduardo
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Can anyone tell me what the mechanism for inheritance of environmentally induced methylation is? I’ve been trying to find an answer to this but haven’t been able to. I lack a formal education in biology but have been reading about evolution for decades, so I believe a “college level” answer would suffice. Thank you.

    • Michael Hart
      Posted April 12, 2015 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

      See 18. above. Two papers from Journal of Experimental Biology review some of this evidence. I haven’t read them closely and don’t know how good the evidence is.

      doi: 10.1242/​jeb.107318
      doi: 10.1242/​jeb.108340

    • Michael Hart
      Posted April 12, 2015 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

      Sorry I realize that’s not quite an answer to your question about the mechanism of inheritance. I think generally the proponents of this idea assume that some gametes experience environmentally-induced methylation of bases in the chromosomes of those sperm or egg cells. If those gametes with modified bases are involved in a successful fertilization, then it’s assumed the methylated bases can be copied over in that offspring after fertilization.

      Then the question is whether or how that methylation persists through later generations despite demethylation processes that are known to strip methyl marks from bases during meiosis in the offspring’s germ line. Methylation is a common cellular mechanisms for regulating gene expression, and is reset at meiosis.

      So the question is about persistence of environmentally induced methylation over many generations, not so much about inheritance over one single generation. At least that’s my understanding of the controversy or the uncertainty about how the mechanism could work.

      • Eduardo Sibils
        Posted April 12, 2015 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        Thank you, Michael.
        The Journal papers were helpful. I understand more of the process, but my ignorance remains about the mechanism by which patterns of environmentally induced methylation are replicated after the first generation. We know very well the mechanism by which chromosomal base sequences are replicated, but for what I read I don’t think we have an answer for the former yet.
        I believe this is summarized by a sentence in the last paragraph before the summary of the second paper about epigenetic inheritance of traits in C. elegans: “To date, no mechanism has been identified to underlie this behavioral epigenetic effect, but studies of other transgenerational epigenetic effects in C. elegans offer a number of great candidate genes to begin the investigations.”

      • StephaJL
        Posted April 13, 2015 at 7:07 am | Permalink

        Very helpful. Thank you!

  21. Posted April 12, 2015 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

    In grad school at UCLA I would take the Sunset Blvd bus home to Hollywood and sit near a fellow I recognized from the facilities department so I could observe his study method.

    He would spend the ride home poring through UFO literature, highlighting passages and feverishly scribbling notes in a theme book. Sometimes I could make out what had caught his eye and what he wrote about it – none of it ever made sense to me and I honestly could not tell if he was looking for supporting details or trying to debunk UFOs (though his ardor and generally alien-looking features made me think he was on the trail of The Big Proof).

    You meet kooks like that from time to time, and in Hollywood they’re all around you all the time. The woomeisters like ISIS always make me think of those folks, because their ideas are whack but also because I’m sure their target audience is composed of the same kind of credulous pseudo-scientists.

    The subject could be cosmology, physics, nutrition, spitituality, biology, or world history, the underlying animus is always the same: Big Science is suppressing THE TRUTH to keep us in the dark while simultaneously missing THE TRUTH because of their self-imposed epistemological limitations. They always ignore the most obvious truth because it obviates their whole program: how much money and notoriety would flow to researchers, say the folks at Yale with their impressive-sounding “cryogenic electrospray ionization infrared spectroscopy,” were they to show that water clusters are the Ineffable Ground of Being and Secret to All Life? All the money and all the fame! They want to think researchers are determined to uphold the Establishment line when in fact the opposite is true: everyone would like to be the guy or gal who turns his or her field on its head!

    We have a similar phenomenon in the world of high tech startups: I can’t count the number of times a founder or true believer has noted how odd it is that the “big guys” are overlooking the opportunity only they have uncovered. And they always find out the hard way that the truth is the “big guys” missed the opportunity, or considered it and moved on, because it doesn’t work. It’s understandable people find the thought intoxicating, to be the source of a breakthrough that changes everything. The step they tend to skip is the hard work of understanding the status quo and the true nature of the marketplace. Innovation can come from working outside the system (in theory; I can’t think of a modern example where it has), but working outside the system does not mean that you are innovating. It very likely means that you are full of sh**t.

    • Posted April 12, 2015 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      We have a similar phenomenon in the world of high tech startups: I can’t count the number of times a founder or true believer has noted how odd it is that the “big guys” are overlooking the opportunity only they have uncovered. And they always find out the hard way that the truth is the “big guys” missed the opportunity, or considered it and moved on, because it doesn’t work.

      Not always. All today’s big guys started that way. Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, and the rest…they made it big when IBM and AT&T and HP and Motorola and the rest were the big guys overlooking opportunities they well could have made it big with.

      b&

      • Posted April 12, 2015 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I thought about that. YouTube came to mind as well. I think the difference may be that each of the true originals didn’t necessarily start out knowing quite how revolutionary they would be (Apple being a major exception, but there is only one Steve Jobs), but were started with a better solution to an existing problem that people actually had.

        If you look at C++ and Linux, arguably even more significant than corporate achievements since they are the foundation of all that followed, their origins were in solving problems that the founders themselves had.

        I guess more accurately I might say it’s the 1 in 10,000 (100,000?) idea that makes real waves. And I don’t think today’s icons started out from a position of contempt for universities and established science, which is the feature I was trying to highlight. And to the extent they may have done, they were entitled to that view from hard-earned experience wrestling with existing solutions. Woo-science very much seems to grow out of a failure to succeed at real science rather than an informed frustration with its limitations.

        • Posted April 12, 2015 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

          All good points.

          It does seem to be the case, though, that revolutionary evolution generally tends to come from outside the established players. Electric and self-driving vehicles are going to come to the mass marked in a big way not from Detroit or its overseas counterpart, but Tesla. Rooftop solar is coming to us not from the power companies but Solar City. Just as personal computers came not from IBM but Apple….

          b&

          • Posted April 12, 2015 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

            The original comparison falls a bit flat; how many revolutionary technology companies arose from turning the computer science field in its head? Apple, Google, FB, Microsoft, et al., are all revolutionary companies because they stood on the shoulders of giants that established the field before them. In fact, I’d be hard pressed to find a discovery that revolutionized a scientific field while simultaneously revolutionizing society. The practical application of discoveries almost always trails the theory by decades, if not centuries.

            What the woo peddlers are trying to do is not the equivalent of what Apple of Google did. They are trying to discover a better than binary search algorithm while not having a tradeoff in memory. A free hash map without the need to have sorting or other overhead. You get the picture. Yes, it is still far fatched, but the next tech giant could start in a garage. It’s happened before but as tech becomes a more well established field, the odds of this type of revolutionary idea by a couple guys playing in their home made lab becomes lower. I’d still bet the odds of this are far better than two guys in a garage turning the Standard Model on its head. If that happens, it is virtually guaranteed to come from a well funded research facility just as is the case with any breakthroughs in computing theory. Hell, as one prime example I remember a talk from Harvard several years back demonstrating the now ubiquitous intuitive touch technology. That didn’t come from Apple or Google; they just happen to be very good at monetizing it.

            • Posted April 12, 2015 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

              *that is, of course, “Apple or Google,” not “Apple of Google.” Clearly, neither has revolutionized grammar checking to account for a couple of Sunday afternoon cocktails…

            • Gregory Kusnick
              Posted April 12, 2015 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

              That didn’t come from Apple or Google; they just happen to be very good at monetizing it.

              It’s worth remembering that even Apple’s core technology — the Mac — didn’t originate with Apple, but was developed from technology invented at Xerox in the 1970s. Apple’s success was a result of Steve Jobs’ willingness to bet the company on ideas that “the big guys” originated but didn’t know what to do with.

  22. Posted April 12, 2015 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    The idiots over at Idiot Central (aka Uncommon Descent), especially the head writer, a failed Canadian “journalist”, have been pushing Mazur’s interviews hard for a couple of months. What is interesting is that they never link to the full interviews, rather selectively quote whatever parts that support their own myopic ID views. I rely on them for providing my several times weekly need for belly laughs.

  23. Gregory Kusnick
    Posted April 12, 2015 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    I confess I’m somewhat unclear on the distinction between “DNA-coded” methylation and “environmentally induced” methylation.

    I get that environmental factors (stress, starvation, or whatever) can influence the cell’s biochemistry and thereby alter the probability of methylation at a particular site. But the actual attachment of the methyl group is still carried out by enzymes coded in the DNA, correct?

    So it seems to me (as a non-expert) that this isn’t much different than any other sort of phenotypic plasticity, in which the expression of particular genes may vary with environmental conditions. Methylation is just one of several mechanisms by which that can happen.

    Or am I missing something?

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted April 21, 2015 at 7:26 am | Permalink

      Sounds right to me. It’s at least a much more correct usage of the term ‘phenotypic plasticity’ than in that shape-shifting frog article.

  24. Bill Price
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 4:58 am | Permalink

    I have a question about Ho’s conjecture, but my Google-fu isn’t strong enough top find her answer. (I refuse to abuse the term hypothesis, much less theory, to characterize this [ummm] stuff.)

    If epigenetics allows almost-immediate adaptation to environmental stress, why did Lenski’s E. coli populations take 41,000 generations to adapt to the high-citrate, low-glucose environment? Also, why did only one clade make this adaptation, when it was available to all?

    From the material above, I would not be surprised if she used the standard Egyptian riverine technique to address Lenski’s work.

  25. Diane G.
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    “It’s the organism as a whole that’s keeping them stable.”

    Sounds like Gaia at the organism level.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted April 21, 2015 at 7:29 am | Permalink

      ‘Cept Lovelock’s Gaia was a mechanism, not hand-wavey woo.

  26. StephaJL
    Posted April 13, 2015 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this post, Dr CC; it is most useful. I’ve encountered a surprising number of people — & not intellectual slouches, either — who use epigenetics to justify arguments regarding the ‘inherent inferiority’ of certain ethnic groups, & related nastiness. (For instance, a lawyer of my acquaintance insists that it is a fact that all Canadians of East Asian descent are terrible drivers. When I called him on this b.s., he appealed to epigenetics to justify the claim. Last year, I heard a similar argument from a fellow grad student regarding Jews & financial acumen). The better my understanding of the actual mechanisms, the easier it is to refute such dross.

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      My not-so-bright hardwood floor installer said that it was a fact that East Asians couldn’t drive because of their lack of peripheral vision…and then did that lovely skanting his eyes with his fingers😩

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 9:06 am | Permalink

      My Welsh friend, who was married for many years to a mainland Chinese man ( till he died), told me that apparently many Chinese get relatives to take their driving tests for them back home and then send them an international driver’s license, from which thry can get a Canadian one sans test. My Guatemalan friend said her parents’s gardener took the test for her back home and then sent her a license in California…

      • Derek Freyberg
        Posted April 13, 2015 at 11:37 am | Permalink

        It’s notoriously difficult to get a driver’s license in Japan starting from scratch, though easy for foreigners if you bring in a license you have had for a while – back when I lived there, all I had to take was an eye test based on my New Zealand license, since NZ and Japan both drive on the left. I believe US and other drivers need to take a driving test. Anyway, a Japanese friend of mine who grew up around the world (father was a diplomat) got her Japanese license by first getting one in Afghanistan: as you can imagine, this was some time ago.

        • merilee
          Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

          And which side of the road do they drive on in Afghanistan, the middle??

    • Posted April 13, 2015 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

      I refer to all drivers from New Jersey as inferior as evidenced by attempting to drive at a reasonable length behind any other vehicle on the Jersey Turnpike. No need for epigenetics.

  27. Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Anyone who mentions new fields in any factual science has two, overlapping choices IMO:

    1) Rigorously study them and produce very clear evidence for their existence. (Faraday.)

    2) Based on some evidence, write some plausible field equations and then do a bit more of (1) style stuff. (Maxwell, Hertz.)

    I see nobody of the caliber of those folks involved …

  28. Posted April 13, 2015 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    It was Alfred North Whitehead’s idea that electrons had consciousness. Whitehead, to me, was a really important philosopher. He was also a mathematician. He had the idea that you cannot really understand nature except as an organism and with the sensitivity of the organism. To Whitehead everything in nature was an organism to varying degrees, from electrons, fundamental particles to galaxies. It’s a very beautiful idea actually.

    Beautiful example of word salad. And an appeal to authority. So many of these people talk this way, vague wavings in the direction of deepities. Gak!

    But people continue to eat it up (cue the Deepakity).


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