A monument to lab mice

This photo, from a site apparently called 9gag, is labeled as “In Novosibirsk there is a monument to all the lab mice who lost their lives in DNA research”.



h/t: Arno M.

Sociologist rebukes Dawkins for not seeing humans as “sacred”

Oh, the indignities suffered by poor Richard Dawkins! The latest is a rebuke by John H. Evans, a professor of sociology at the University of California at San Diego. Evans’s article in last August’s New Scientist found its way to me today (click on screenshot to get partial article; it’s not free), though for some reason its title has changed to “When human rights become human wrongs.”


The answer to Evans’s question is, according to New Scientist’s increasing goddiness, “Yes!” The point Evans makes, using experimental surveys, is that if we see humans as simple biological machines, we’re likely to go down the path of eugenics, torture, and the selling of organs.

Evans first concocts three ways to “define” humans:

Today, there are three influential and competing definitions. The first is the Christian theological view that humans are made in the image of God. The second is a more philosophical position that defines humans as possessing certain capacities, such as self-consciousness and rationality. Finally, there is the biological view, where humans are defined — and differentiated from animals — by their DNA.

Well, I’m not sure that the second definition differs materially from the third, since rationality and self-consciousness are products of our DNA, and in fact I doubt that we’re the only species that is self-conscious. (We’re certainly not the only species that is rational!) And the DNA “definition” seems a bit ambiguous. Regardless, Evans then asked 3500 Americans which of the definitions they most accepted, and then asked them questions about how to treat other humans: whether we could allow the sale of organs, suicide for the terminally ill “to save money”, torture of suspected terrorists, and so on. The results are as expected:

What came out was very striking. The more a respondent agreed with the biological definition of a human, the more likely they were to see humans as being like machines and the less likely they were to see them as special, unique or all of equal value. On the human rights questions, they were less willing to stop genocides and were more likely to accept buying kidneys, suicide to save money and taking blood from prisoners.

In contrast, those who agreed with the theological view were less likely to agree with suicide to save money and taking blood from prisoners against their will.

Shockingly, then, the critics appear to be right. People who agree with the biological definition of a human are also more likely to hold views inconsistent with human rights.

This isn’t that surprising: advocates of human exceptionalism, especially those of the theological variety, are surely going to value people more, especially if they’re seen to have souls. I wonder what the results would have been had they asked questions about animal rights? After all, animals suffer, too—they just can’t articulate it like humans can. There is something to be said for Peter Singer’s view that human exceptionalism and its moral consequences are fictions: we rest on a sliding scale with other species in our ability to suffer, and of course there’s no limit to the amount of animal suffering that many people will accept in the name of medical research (after all, you can kill millions of mice to save 100 humans), of factory farming, and of entertainment in zoos and aquariums.

Evans concludes that “these findings suggest a real problem for those who subscribe to both the biological view of humanity and to human rights.”  In the end, though, the proof of the pudding is in the behavior of people, not in how they answer sociology questions right after they are asked to agree with a definition. Are the “biological definitionists” really more immoral? We don’t know.

Given that humans are biological machines—albeit complex ones that can articulate physical and emotional pain—what are we supposed to do? Promote religion? Keep emphasizing human exceptionalism? Evans apparently prefers the second solution, and then high-handedly lectures Richard Dawkins on what he should do to stop this debasing of humanity (my emphasis):

The most influential person in that position today is Richard Dawkins. He is an advocate of the view that humans are DNA-based machines. He is also an honorary vice president of the British Humanist Association, which promotes human rights and recognises “the dignity of individuals”.

In light of my results, many humanities scholars would see some tension between these two positions. I do not doubt anyone’s sincerity in believing in both the biological definition of the human and in human rights, but promoting the former risks undercutting public support for the latter.

What is to be done? If Dawkins’s priority was human rights, he could switch to teaching us that we are made in the image of God. This isn’t going to happen, and it shouldn’t; nobody should change their view of what a human truly is. In any case, Christian definitions of the human have not always been a recipe for the humane treatment of others.

The answer, I think, is for influential people like Dawkins to try to sever the link the public apparently makes between definitions and treatment. The way to do this is to promote the idea that however a human is defined, humans are sacred.

This sacredness does not have to be of the religious variety: it could be based on secular ideas of dignity found in many European constitutions, treaties and human rights documents. (Incidentally, I suspect that if my study was replicated in a secular European country, it would get similar results. Fewer people would subscribe to the theological view, but attitudes to human rights would be tempered by secular notions of dignity found in those constitutions and treaties).

Therefore, whenever we talk about the biological view of humans, we must also say that it does not mean we should treat people like machines. Dawkins, to his credit, often does this in interviews, but he should redouble his efforts. Yes, the public is apparently making the mistake of mixing up an “is” (what humans are) with an “ought” (how they should consequently be treated). But academics need to be attuned to the fact that some ideas have unintended consequences.

I suppose there’s at least something to be said for Evans’s article, in that it emphasizes the values of secular humanism. But in fact most of us who subscribe to the biological view of humans as a hypercerebralized species also adhere to humanism. If you have to single out one on a questionnaire to which you most adhere, you may get the result that Evans got. But I suspect most of us can simultaneously adhere to a biological view of humans and to humanism as well. If we couldn’t, scientists would be a cold and evil lot—the worst moiety of humanity.

As for Evans’s tut-tutting of Dawkins, who constantly emphasizes humanism, it’s just patronizing and reprehensible.

h/t: Nicole Reggia


The secret of zebra stripes solved—or so scientists say

Over the past five years I’ve written several posts on the long-standing and vexing question, “Why on earth do zebras have stripes?” (See posts here, here and here.) If you’ve read those posts, you’ll know about the experiments that seemed to settle the issue, or at least that gave a good indication of the evolutionary forces that promoted the evolution of this striking pattern.

One clue is shown below: a figure from a paper that I described in an earlier post (my emphasis). The top part shows the distribution of various striped equids in Africa (the green and orange are unstriped Asian equids) and the bottom shows range maps of two groups of biting flies: tabanids (horseflies) and Glossina, the tsetse fly; both of these carry equine diseases and also promote infections and blood loss. As I wrote at the time (my emphasis):

Here’s the association between the historical (not present!) ranges of equids and of tabanids and tsetse flies; equids at top (zebra ranges striped!) and flies at bottom. Note that tsetse flies (Glossina) aren’t found outside Africa. E. kiang is an unstriped wild ass, E. africanus is the African wild ass, having thin stripes on its legs, E. hemionus is the onager, an unstriped wild ass, and E. ferus przewalskii is Prezewalski’s horse, a rare wild horse thought to be the closest living relative of the domestic horse.

The correspondence is pretty good, although not perfect, since flies live in some areas where zebras don’t. The crucial observation, though, is that biting flies always occurred in areas where zebras lived.

Note, too, that unstriped equids don’t generally coexist with either kind of fly, though the African wild ass, which does have thin striping on its legs, does live in areas with horseflies.


This is a correlation, not a causation, but an earlier experiment (link given below) showed that these flies indeed do avoid landing on striped surfaces. We’re not quite sure why.

Now the entire issue, and all the various hypotheses that have been raised, are discussed in a new book, Zebra Stripes by Tim Caro, which itself is summarized in a new piece in Wired magazine, “The man in the zebra suit knows the secret of the stripes.” The book is shown below, but, as Wired notes, it’s not written for the layperson:

This is not a book for casual pop science readers. It is a book about doing science, full of every detail you’d need to reproduce any of the experiments done in the book: distances for viewing pelts; reflectance values for zebra hair; thermal camera settings for taking infrared pictures; speaker settings for playing predator noises; histograms, leaf and tree diagrams, scatter plots; page after page of references. This book is for scientists, or those who wish they’d become scientists. And as treats for the latter, there the anecdotes of Caro’s scientific antics: Tales of how he systematically worked through each hypothesis until he figured out the secret of the stripes.


But that’s okay, for if you’re not a scientist, the Wired article is a good description of all the hypotheses raised about the pattern (Alfred Russel Wallace was the first to consider its evolutionary advantage) and how they were tested and refuted, winding up with what seems to be the correct idea. I’ll just list the leading hypotheses and you can read about the tests at Wired.

  • Hiding from predators (breaking up the animal’s outline). Nope.
  • Warning predators: an “aposematic” pattern indicating that zebras are dangerous to attack. Nope.
  • Confusing predators by making it difficult to single out an individual to kill. Nope again
  • Social recognition: a way to enable one zebra to recognize a member of the same species. Still nope.
  • Temperature regulation: the contrast between heat-absorbing black stripes and heat-reflecting white ones might create a convection current to cool the animal. Not likely.
  • Avoiding flies (something I hinted at above). Experiments described in my earlier posts show that flies simply don’t like to land on a striped pattern.

And indeed, the last hypothesis seems to be the right one. As the Wired article notes, Caro did a cool experiment, though he risked incarceration! (There were of course other experiments too.)

Looking back on how he wound up walking down a dusty Tanzanian road in the midday sun draped in a zebra pelt, Caro admits he should have consulted an insect expert. “I knew from the literature that certain kinds of biting flies didn’t like landing on black and white surfaces,” he says. He also knew that the insects were attracted to movement. So, he would put on the pelt, trudge for an hour, and have his assistant count the number of tsetse flies that had landed on him. For science, he did the walk again, draped in a wildebeest hide.

And? “I really started to see results at this point,” he says. The flies did not like the stripes! “It was an elevating experience, at last after ten years working on this project I started to see a positive effect on one of these hypotheses.” He did more experiments, including setting up striped fly traps (no more walking down dusty roads). With each new experiment, the evidence lined up to support the anti-insect hypothesis. Eventually, Caro and his colleagues did a map analysis, overlaying the ranges of various biting flies and insects with the places where zebras, and their non-striped cousins like the Asiatic wild ass, ranged. “It’s a slam dunk, if you like,” he says. “You find striping where you have high biting fly abundance.”

Caro has no lingering doubts about the connection between flies and stripes. Now, he wants to find out exactly how the flies forced the stripes’ evolution. One question is about the flies—why are they repulsed by black and white? Another is whether the zebras adapted this anti-fly defense because they are particularly susceptible to blood loss, or to diseases the flies carry. Not so annoying anymore.

I summarized Caro and his colleagues’ 2014 Nature paper on the fly hypothesis (the paper was tersely called “The function of zebra stripes“) in an earlier post, from which the range maps above were taken. (See also a suggestive 2012 paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology by Ádám Egri et al.)

I think Caro’s conclusion is pretty strong, but not quite so strong as to say, “We needn’t do any more experiments.” Still, the Fly Hypothesis is the best one going, and if you take no other lesson from this post, just remember that zebras probably have stripes to ward off biting flies.

Here’s Caro in his zebra suit, looking for all the world like an escaped prisoner. What sacrifices we make for science!


h/t: Greg

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ brain scans

Today’s Jesus and Mo strip, called “drugs” is based on a Daily Mail report on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brains of 19 “devout Mormons” (what—no other faiths?). When the Mormons were scanned while undergoing religious experiences, like reading scripture or watching Mormon videos, the fMRIs (which show blood flow to various parts of the brain) revealed activation of several parts of the brain, notably including the “nucleus accumbens”, a bit that also lights up during hedonistic experiences like taking drugs or listening to music. (You can read the paper in Social Neuroscience here, though I haven’t done so.)

At any rate, Jesus is willing to see how other stimulants affect him, but of course Mo is forbidden from drinking or listening to music. My suspicion is that Jesus’s “drug”, which appears to be a Guinness, isn’t strong enough.


Secular conference on freedom of conscience and expression: London, 22-23 July

On July 22 and 23 of this year, there’s an International Conference on Freedom of Conscience and Expression in the 21st Century in London, featuring a diverse and distinguished panoply of speakers.  The description:

Join notable free-thinkers from around the world for a weekend of discussions and debates on freedom of conscience and expression in the 21st century at a spectacular venue in central London during 22-23 July 2017.

The exciting two-day conference will be a follow up to the historic 2014 International Conference on the Religious-Right, Secularism and Civil Rights and will discuss censorship and blasphemy laws, freedom of and from religion, apostasy, the limits of religion’s role in society, LGBT and women’s rights, atheism, secular values and more.

Speakers from countries or the Diaspora as diverse as Algeria, Bangladesh, Canada, Egypt, France, India, Iran, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, Ireland, Lebanon, Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria, Norway, Pakistan, Palestinian Territories, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, Turkey, Tunisia, UK, Ukraine, US and Yemen will gather in London to defend freedom of conscience and expression and argue that freedoms are not western but universal.

The conference will highlight the voices of people on the frontlines of resistance – many of them persecuted and exiled – as well as address challenges faced by activists and freethinkers, elaborate on the links between democratic politics and free expression and conscience, promote secular and rights-based alternatives, and establish priorities for collective action.

Art and culture will be integral to the event as will lively debate with the dauntless use of the free word.

Tickets for each of the two days, which you can buy here, are £85; and if you want the full experience, including dinner and drinks, it’s between £230 and £260. What struck me is the list of participants, which I’ll give in full:

A C Grayling, Philosopher
Abdalaziz Alhamza, Co-founder and Spokesperson of Raqqa is being Slaughtered Silently
Ali A. Rizvi, Pakistani-Canadian Writer, Physician and Musician
Aliaa Magda Elmahdy, Egyptian Feminist Activist
Alya Al-Sultani, British-Iraqi Vocalist and Composer
Ani Zonneveld, Founder and President of Muslims for Progressive Values
Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, Co-Presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation
Benjamin David, Editor-in-Chief of Conatus News
Bonya Ahmed, Activist, Writer and Blogger at Mukto-Mona
Cemal Knudsen Yucel, Co-Founder and Chair of Ex-Muslims of Norway
Chris Moos, Secular Activist
Clive Aruede and Lola Tinubu, Co-Founders of London Black Atheists
Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists
Deeyah Khan, Filmmaker
Djemila Benhabib, Author and Activist
Elham Manea, Yemeni-born Author and Human Rights Campaigner
Faisal Saeed Al Mutar, Iraqi Founder of Global Secular Humanist Movement
Fariborz Pooya, Bread and Roses TV Presenter and Editor
Fauzia Ilyas, Founder of Atheist & Agnostic Alliance Pakistan
Gina Khan, One Law for All Spokesperson
Gita Sahgal, Director of Centre for Secular Space
Gona Saed, Co-Founder of Kurdistan Secular Centre
Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Award-winning Playwright
Halima Begum, Ex-Muslim Feminist Researcher and Blogger
Hassan Radwan, Agnostic Muslim Khutbahs blog
Houzan Mahmoud, Culture Project Co-Founder
Ibn Warraq, Writer
Imad Iddine Habib, Founder of Council of Ex-Muslims of Morocco
Inna Shevchenko, FEMEN Leader
Iram Ramzan, Journalist and Founder of Sedaa
Ismail Mohamed, Egyptian Atheist and Founder of Black Ducks Talk Show
Jane Donnelly and Michael Nugent, Atheist Ireland’s Human Rights Officer and Chairperson
Jodie Ginsberg, CEO of Index on Censorship
Karima Bennoune, UN Special Rapporteur in the Field of Cultural Rights
Karrar D. Al Asfoor, Co-founder of Atheist Alliance Middle East and North Africa
Kate Smurthwaite, Comedian
Kenan Malik, Author and Broadcaster
Lawrence M Krauss, American Theoretical Physicist and Cosmologist
London Humanist Choir
Maajid Nawaz, Founding Chairman of Quilliam Foundation
Marieme Helie Lucas, Algerian Sociologist and Founder of Secularism is a Women’s Issue
Mario Ramadan, Co-Founder of Freethought Lebanon
Maryam Namazie, Iranian-born Rights Activist, Writer and Conference Organiser
Nadia El Fani, Tunisian Filmmaker
Nasreen Rehman, Co-Founder and Chair of British Muslims for Secular Democracy
Nina Sankari, Polish Secular Activist
Noura Embabi, Muslim-ish President
Peter Tatchell, Human Rights Campaigner
Pragna Patel, Director of Southall Black Sisters
Rana Ahmad, Head of the RDF Arab Atheist Community
Rayhana Sultan, #ExMuslimBecause
Richard Dawkins, Author and Scientist (subject to availability)
Sadia Hameed, Spokesperson of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain
Sanal Edamaruku, Founder and President of Rationalist International
Sarah Peace, Nigerian Artist and Director of Fireproof Library
Savin Bapir Tardy, Counselling Psychologist for The Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation
Shelley Segal, Singer/Songwriter
Sukhwant Dhaliwal, Founder and Editorial Collective Member of Feminist Dissent
Tasneem Khalil, Swedish-Bangladeshi Journalist and Editor of Independent World Report
Teresa Gimenez Barbat, MEP, Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe and Euromind
Usama al-Binni, Arab Atheists Network Activist
Victoria Gugenheim, Award-winning Body Artist
Waleed Al Husseini, Palestinian Writer and Founder of Council of Ex-Muslims of France
Yasmine, Confessions of an ExMuslim
Yasmin Rehman, Women’s Rights Campaigner
Zehra Pala, President of Atheism Association of Turkey
Zineb El Rhazoui, Moroccan-born Columnist for Charlie Hebdo

I know some of these people, and have heard of many others, and I wish I could go. The only issue I have is how, with so many speakers, everyone’s going to get a chance to talk! I count 67 people on the list above, and even if there were 8 hours per day of talks, that’s a maximum of 15 minutes per speaker. Perhaps there will be panels.

Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Joshua Lincoln sent us some lovely photos of damselflies; his notes are indented:

My friend Wally once said that birds are a gateway drug for dragonflies.  I don’t think that it could be put any better than that.

I will include some Anisopterans (dragonflies; aniso=different ptrery=wing; the front and back wings are different in shape) next time and some Zygopterans (damselfliesl zugos=even ptery=wing; the front and back wings are essentially the same), now. All except the Argia translata are from Vermont (where I live), the A. translata is from Mission, Texas.

Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile) female. Possibly the most widely distributed damselfly in North America. The Familiar Bluet flies until later in the season than many other damselflies.

Enallagma civile

Enallagma civile

Lilypad Forktail (Ischnura kellicotti) immature. This isn’t a great photograph, but I like this composition. I couldn’t figure out why the immature Lilypad Forktails look so different from the adults.  After I saw this, I wondered no more.
Ischnura kellicotti

Ischnura kellicotti (immature)

Lilypad Forktail (Ischnura kellicotti) male adult. These guys become pruinose (chalky) as they get more mature. Females are orange and black.
Ischnura kellicotti

Ischnura kellicotti (adult)

Vesper Bluet (Enallagma vesperum) male and female vesper=evening. Another Narrow Winged damselfly. This genus Enallagma (American Bluets) is the largest genus of damselflies in North America.  Typically they are blue, hence the name bluet, however this one is one of the exceptions. These guys are easy to miss as they come out mainly when the sun is going down (hence the name). 
Enallagma vesperum

Enallagma vesperum

American Rubyspot (Hetarina americana) male. One of the broad-winged damselflies, Caloptyrigidae (kalos=beautiful ptery=wing). The wing attachment of this family is broader than the typical narrow or petiole-like wing attachment present in other damselflies.

While not uncommon in dragonflies, the Calopterygidae are the only damselfly family that “obelisk” (when an odonate points their abdomen towards the sun to thermoregulate).  By doing this they minimize the portion of their bodies receiving a direct hit, which keeps them cooler.

Hetaerina americana

Hetaerina americana

Spotted Spreadwing (Lestes congener) female. One of the spreadwing family of damselflies, Lestidae (Leste=plunderer). This family holds their wings open (usually).  However at night, when the weather is bad or when they’re threatened, they close their wings.

Lestes congener

Lestes congener

Dusky Dancer (Argia translata). One of the Narrow Winged or Pond Damsel Family of damselflies, Coenagrionidae. Members of the genus Argia (Dancers) fly in a bouncy jerky movement through the air more than bluets, forktails and other pond damsels.
Arrgia translata

Arrgia translata

Wednesday: Hili dialogue

Good morning! Ii’s Wednesday, crassly known as “hump day”, January 18, 2017. It’s Gourmet Coffee Day (that does not mean double caramel macchiato lattes with whipped cream), Peking Duck Day, and also the first day of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.  I doubt anyone reading this will be praying for such a thing—or praying period. And we have only two more days of Barack Obama as President. I will not mention what will happen then. I will mention this report from CNN:

President Barack Obama will leave office Friday with his highest approval rating since 2009, his presidency largely viewed as a success, and a majority saying they will miss him when he is gone.

A new CNN/ORC poll finds Obama’s approval rating stands at 60%, his best mark since June of his first year in office. Compared with other outgoing presidents, Obama lands near the top of the list, outranked only by Bill Clinton’s 66% in January 2001 and Ronald Reagan’s 64% in January 1989. About two-thirds (65%) say Obama’s presidency was a success, including about half (49%) who say that was due to Obama’s personal strengths rather than circumstances outside his control.

On this day in 1535, Francisco Pizarro founded the city of Lima, Peru. In 1884, Wikipedia recounts a bizarre event on this day:  “Dr. William Price attempts to cremate the body of his infant son, Jesus Christ Price, setting a legal precedent for cremation in the United Kingdom.” Jesus Christ Price? In 1943, the first uprising of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto began, and, in 1967, the Boston Strangler was convicted. Finally, on this day in 1993, Martin Luther King Day was first celebrated in all 50 of America’s States. (I well remember the opposition to that holiday in the South—nothing to do with race, of course.)

Notables born on this day include physicist Paul Ehrenfest (1880), who made big contributions to quantum mechanics and then, afflicted with depression, shot both his son and himself in 1933. A. A. Milne was born on this day in 1882, Jacob Bronowski in 1908, Danny Kaye in 1911, and David Ruffin, lead singer of the Temptations, in 1941 (he died of drug use at age 50). Those who died on this day include Rudyard Kipling (1936), Curly Howard of the Three Stooges (1952), and Glenn Frey (2016). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili, contemplating identity politics, is not having any of it, despite being an oppressed member of another species, and a female as well:

A: What are you thinking about?
Hili: About identity.
A: And?
Hili: I won’t let anybody hoodwink me. I’m me.
In Polish:
Ja: Nad czym myślisz?
Hili: Nad tożsamością.
Ja: I co?
Hili: Nie dam się wrobić, jestem sobą.
Out in frigid Winnipeg, Gus is having a nap on his Katzenbaum.



And lagniappe: a tw**t found by Grania showing a miscalculating cat:

Monster gator in Florida

Readers Michael (and contributor Matthew Cobb) sent a video of a monster American alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) crossing a path near Tampa, Florida. It was estimated to be 13-15 feet long, but they can get up to 20 feet.

As you can imagine, it’s gone viral on social media.

The lichen story and the guy who revised it

A story I wrote in July of last year described a huge change in our understanding of one of the best known cases of symbiosis: the view that a lichen is a symbiotic partnership between a fungus and an alga. That happens to be true—the alga photosynthesizes, producing food for the fungus, while the fungus provides support, water, and minerals for the alga. But there’s more.

The alga/fungus partnership was discovered in 1868 by the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener, and it’s what all of us who took biology were taught—until last year. For that’s when a paper came out in Science by Toby Spribille et al. (see my summary of it here) showing that there was a third partner in the symbiosis: another fungus, but a basidiomycete (a group that includes yeasts) along with the well-known ascomycete (the two groups of fungi diverged about 400 million years ago),

A piece by Ed Yong in last year’s Atlantic, called to my attention by reader Hempenstein, tells how Spribille, raised in a trailer park in Montana, came to the discovery that overturned over 150 years of conventional wisdom.  It’s a cool tale, involving sequencing the genome of two lichens that seemed to involve the same species of ascomycete fungus but one of which appeared to contain basiodiomycete genes as well.  The failure to recognize this third partner in the relationship explains why scientists had encountered difficulties trying to make synthetic lichens by combining the constituent ascomycete and alga in the lab. They were simply missing a partner.

Of course Spribille wasn’t working by himself: there are 12 other authors on the Science paper describing the finding. And we’re not sure if all lichens have these three constituents: so far Spribille has found this situation to obtain in most of the “macrolichens”, but not all of them. And there are other groups of lichens that haven’t yet been examined. Finally, this whole revision may lead to a revision of what each of the partners provides for the others. Clearly the algal role is well defined, but what about the two types of fungi?

At any rate, the story shows the surprises that await us, and how easily long-established paradigms can change in an instant—especially now that we have the ability to sequence DNA. I’ll give just one excerpt from Yong’s piece, “How a guy from a Montana trailer park overturned 150 years of biology”. (I have to say that’s a bit clickbait-y given that Spribille did get a Ph.D. and did his work in a great lab (the McCutcheon group) working on symbiosis; and, moreover, it was a collaboration and not just the work of one guy.)

Down a microscope, a lichen looks like a loaf of ciabatta: it has a stiff, dense crust surrounding a spongy, loose interior. The alga is embedded in the thick crust. The familiar ascomycete fungus is there too, but it branches inwards, creating the spongy interior. And the basidiomycetes? They’re in the outermost part of the crust, surrounding the other two partners. “They’re everywhere in that outer layer,” says Spribille.

Despite their seemingly obvious location, it took around five years to find them. They’re embedded in a matrix of sugars, as if someone had plastered over them. To see them, Spribille bought laundry detergent from Wal-Mart and used it to very carefully strip that matrix away.

And even when the basidiomycetes were exposed, they weren’t easy to identify. They look exactly like a cross-section from one of the ascomycete branches. Unless you know what you’re looking for, there’s no reason why you’d think there are two fungi there, rather than one—which is why no one realised for 150 years. Spribille only worked out what was happening by labeling each of the three partners with different fluorescent molecules, which glowed red, green, and blue respectively. Only then did the trinity become clear.

Here’s a photo from the science paper showing the yeasts:


(from paper): Figure from paper. (A) B. fremontii, with (B) few FISH-hybridized live yeast cells at the level of the cortex. (C) B. tortuosa, with (D) abundant FISH-hybridized cortical yeast cells (scale bars, 20 μm).

And the mysteries that remain:

“But really, we don’t know what they do,” says McCutcheon. “And given their existence, we don’t really know what the ascomycetes do, either.” Everything that’s been attributed to them might actually be due to the other fungus. Many of the fundamentals of lichenology will need to be checked, and perhaps re-written. “Toby took huge risks for many years,” says McCutcheon. “And he changed the field.”


A macrolichen. (Source here).

Eight people have as much money as the poorest half of the world

When I talked to Dave Rubin yesterday morning, he asked me, if Americans are so resistant to the facts of evolution, what could I do to get people to accept it as truth? I told him that we’d have to get rid of those forms of religion (read: most religions) that make people resistant to evolution, and to do that would require mitigating the conditions that promote religion: social dysfunction. I added this: “If I could wave my hands and make two social changes in the world (besides dispelling religion) that would promote the acceptance of evolution, it would be to reduce income inequality and install universal medical care.” Those, I think, would go a long way toward reducing the need for religion and therefore the resistance to evolution, but of course their salubrious effects would be far more important than just getting people to accept evolution. Creationism is a long shot from being the worst thing that religion does.

Rubin looked a bit startled when I talked about income inequality, and asked me if I meant that everyone should have the same income. (He’s a libertarian, and I doubt that libertarians would favor that.). I quickly added that, no, I don’t favor everybody making the same wage, but that something had to be done to raise up the poorest people in the world, and perhaps pare down the exorbitant amount of money that the hyper-rich make, perhaps by increasing taxes.

And, shortly thereafter, I read a story in USA Today taken from an Oxfam report (“An economy for the 99%”; see also the PuffHo report) which gives data on the dire nature of income inequality in the world and the devastation it wreaks on well-being. The Oxfam report, for examples, says these things (my emphasis)

  • Since 2015, the richest 1% has owned more wealth than the rest of the planet.
  • Eight men now own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of the world.
  • Over the next 20 years, 500 people will hand over $2.1 trillion to their heirs – a sum larger than the GDP of India, a country of 1.3 billion people.
  • The incomes of the poorest 10% of people increased by less than $3 a year between 1988 and 2011, while the incomes of the richest 1% increased 182 times as much.
  • A FTSE-100 CEO earns as much in a year as 10,000 people in working in garment factories in Bangladesh.
  • In the US, new research by economist Thomas Piketty shows that over the last 30 years the growth in the incomes of the bottom 50% has been zero, whereas incomes of the top 1% have grown 300%
  • In Vietnam, the country‟s richest man earns more in a day than the poorest person earns in 10 years.

Left unchecked, growing inequality threatens to pull our societies apart. It increases crime and insecurity, and undermines the fight to end poverty. 10 It leaves more people living in fear and fewer in hope.

Frankly, I was startled to read this, particularly the bit in bold. Granted, people like Gates and now Zuckerberg give a lot of their money to good causes, but few of the rich (i.e., Trump) have Gates’s sense of obligation. I’m not sure yet where I come down on the issue of inheritance (the third point). There is inheritance tax, but some think that nobody should be allowed to give any of their wealth to their offspring. (After all, the human trait that shows the most “heritability”—fidelity of transmission from parent to offspring—is not height or IQ but wealth, which of course is not a genetic trait at all.) But many people work just so they can create a family legacy, and leave their children better off. Readers can weigh in below on all of this, but particularly on taxing the ultra-rich and on the laws of inheritance.

Here are the RICHEST EIGHT; how many can you name? (Answer below.)



The Ultra Rich in the pictures above (text from PuffHo):

Six of these billionaires, from Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people, are American entrepreneurs: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Berkshire Hathaway chairman and CEO Warren Buffett, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Rounding out the list are Carlos Slim, the Mexican tycoon, and Amancio Ortega, the Spanish founder of a retail conglomerate that includes clothing chain Zara. Together their net wealth ― assets minus debts ― amounts to $426 billion.

Their wealth (from USA Today): Bill Gates ($75 billion, source of wealth Microsoft); Amancio Ortega ($67 billion, Zara); Warren Buffett ($60.8 billion, Berkshire Hathaway); Carlos Slim Helu ($50 billion, Telecom); Jeff Bezos ($45.2 billion, Amazon);  Mark Zuckerberg($44.6 billion, Facebook); Larry Ellison ($43.6 billion, Oracle); and Michael Bloomberg($40 billion, Bloomberg LP).


h/t: Randy