Come see me speak at Town Hall Seattle this Monday!

Come see me speak at Town Hall Seattle this Monday!

I know I’ve been in a blog/speaking hibernation for a while – grad school can do that to you. But I’m happy to announce that I’ll be coming out of my cave to give a talk about my research at Town Hall Seattle this Monday, May 11. This talk is specifically tailored for non-biologists and will not be overly technical or jargony – at least, that’s my goal!  Here are the details for all of you locals:

What Makes Us Human: Decoding Our DNA
“What makes us human? Scientists and philosophers have been asking the question for years. This age-old query is also the subject of UW genome sciences student Jennifer McCreight’s research. She’ll compare the DNA of humans to chimpanzees, monkeys, and lemurs, sharing how genetic differences help paint a picture of how Homo sapiens walk, talk, and have larger brains.”

6:00PM, Monday, May 11, 2015

Downstairs at Town Hall
1119 Eighth Avenue (enter on Seneca Street)
Seattle, Washington 98101

$5, UW students (with Husky card) get in for free.
Double feature with Leonard Mlodinow’s talk “The Evolution of Scientific Discovery” at 7:30pm.This event is part of the University of Washington’s Engage program, which teaches effective communication skills to scientists who may not otherwise receive that training. I absolutely loved the class and recommend it to all UW grad students, and I’m excited that it gave me the opportunity to speak at Town Hall.

Please spread the word, and I hope to see you there!

Pokébiology 101: "Evolution" and the enigma of Eevee

Pokébiology 101: “Evolution” and the enigma of Eevee


(Click here for the introductory post to Pokébiology 101)

You know I had to start my Pokébiology 101 series with the most famously scientifically inaccurate part of Pokémon: evolution.

In the Pokémon world, “evolution” means something different from what you might have learned in your biology classes. …Well, what you should have learned in your biology classes, assuming the religious right failed to push their agenda into your science classroom. Pokémon evolution is when a Pokémon transforms into a different looking creature once some criterion is met. Most often this means reaching a certain level (levels increase as you gain experience, experience comes from participating in battles). Some Pokémon evolve under weirder circumstances like being exposed to a particular item, being traded to another player, reaching a certain level of happiness, and so on.

For example, a Bulbasaur evolves into an Ivysaur at level 16, and an Ivysaur evolves into a Venusaur at level 32.


This is not evolution. This is metamorphosis.

What’s the difference? Why are Pokémon actually metamorphosing, and not evolving? They both imply some sort of change is taking place, which is why the terms are so easily confused. But there’s a major difference in when and where that change happens:

  • Metamorphosis is the change in body structure of an individual that happens conspicuously and abruptly during their lifetime. The most common real world example is a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. This is exactly what happens in the Pokémon world. Well, instead of forming a cocoon, Pokémon flash a bright light and make cheery beeping noises…but I’m going to chalk that up to the games being from the point of view of a ten year old with an overactive imagination. Wee, shiny!
  • Evolution is the change in heritable characteristics of a population over successive generations. A characteristic is heritable if it is genetic, and thus will get passed on from parent to offspring, and from that offspring to its offspring, and so on. The key here is that this change happens over many generations and affects the whole population.

What would be a hypothetical example of actual evolution in the Pokémon world? Let’s say we’ve stumbled upon a population of Venusaurs in some jungle untouched by Pokémon trainers. Most  Venusaurs have pink flowers, but a rare individual has a gold flower because of a mutation. In case you’re wondering, this alternative color scheme exists in-game and is known as a “shiny,” and shiny Pokémon are incredibly rare. Like, “I’ve probably played 1000 cumulative hours of Pokémon games and I only found one shiny Sentret a decade ago” rare.


Now, let’s say that shiny Venusaur is very successful in producing a lot of baby Bulbasaurs for whatever reason. Maybe gold flowers attract more prey, so shiny Venusaur is well fed and can have more babies (directional selection). Maybe other Venusaurs find the rare gold flower extra sexy, so shiny Venusaur has more mates and thus more babies (sexual selection). Maybe it’s all due to random chance and shiny Venusaur just gets lucky (genetic drift). When that generation of Bulbasaurs grows up, the new generation of Venusaurs might look something like this:


If we’re still around to observe this population many generations later, it may look like this:


The shiny trait has now become “fixed” in the population – that is, every individual now has the gold flower. Now the population of Venusaurs looks different than it used to – and that is evolution! If this population is isolated from other Venusaurs and continues to evolve novel traits, one day this population might be so different that it can’t even mate with other Venusaurs anymore. And that, folks, is when you have a new species.

But back to metamorphosis. The common caterpillar example is linear: a caterpillar makes a cocoon and becomes a butterfly. But not all Pokémon have a set fate. I give you the most enigmatic example, Eevee.


Eevee is special in the world of Pokémon because it has the largest number of ways it can evolve depending on your actions. Want a Flareon? Give Eevee a Fire Stone. Espeon? Make Eevee very happy and level up during the morning or day. Leafeon? Level up while near a mossy rock.

It seems like this couldn’t possibly exist within the confines of our natural world, right? How does an Eevee have the ability to metamorphose into such different creatures just from what its exposed to in the environment? How can a Vaporeon, Jolteon, Flareon, Espeon, Umbreon, Glaceon, and Leafeon all have the same genome as their starting Eevee, but such different traits?

Not to erode Eevee’s specialness, but this happens right here on Earth.

This is known as polyphenism: when multiple discrete phenotypes (a set of observable characteristics) can come from the same genetic background because of differences in the environment. The most common example is different castes in bees. You may know that within a hive, one female gets to be the queen bee, and the other females are worker bees. A queen bee is made by feeding a larvae what’s known as “royal jelly,” which contains chemicals that alter the larvae’s development. If that larvae has a twin sister that didn’t get a special meal, sis will grow up to be a worker. They’re genetically identical, but very different thanks to their environment.

The only thing distinguishing bees from Eevees are the number of choices in development.


In which I speculate on what would happen if you gave a bee a Fire Stone or Macho Brace.

It will forever irritate me that the game designers chose the term “evolution” instead of a totally accurate, also cool-sounding alternative word. My best guess is that “Bulbasaur is metamorphosing” took up too many pixels, so “evolving” won out. Sadly, this kind of sloppy terminology can cause a lot of misconceptions about what evolution really means. But hopefully now that you’ve learned some Pokébiology, you’re less confused.



So confused.

Paleofantasy: When people act like cavemen because they misunderstand evolution

I’ve been waiting so long for someone to write this book.

Salon has a great interview with Marlene Zuk, evolutionary biologist who just wrote “Paleofantasy: What evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live.” The Paleo diet? How evolution surprisingly supports 1950s gender roles? Yeah, those ideas aren’t actually supported by evolution after all – something that should come as no surprise to my readers.

It is striking how fixated on the alleged behavior of our hunting-and-foraging forbearers some educated inhabitants of the developed world have become. Among the most obsessed are those who insist, as Zuk summarizes, that “our bodies and minds evolved under a particular set of circumstances, and in changing those circumstances without allowing our bodies time to evolve in response, we have wreaked the havoc that is modern life.” Not only would we be happier and healthier if we lived like “cavemen,” this philosophy dictates, but “we are good at things we had to do back in the Pleistocene … and bad at things we didn’t.”

The most persuasive argument Zuk marshals against such views has to do with the potential for relatively rapid evolution, major changes that can appear over a time as short as, or even shorter than, the 10,000 years Cordain scoffed at. […]

There are human examples, as well, such as “lactase persistence” (the ability in adults to digest the sugar in cow’s milk), a trait possessed by about 35 percent of the world’s population — and growing, since the gene determining it is dominant. Geneticists estimate that this ability emerged anywhere from 2200 to 20,000 years ago, but since the habit of drinking cow’s milk presumably arose after cattle were domesticated around 7000 years ago, the more recent dates are the most likely. In a similar, if nondietary, example, “Blue eyes were virtually unknown as little as 6000 to 10,000 years ago,” while now they are quite common. A lot can change in 10,000 years.

Read the whole piece, as it’s a great summary of why these sort of standard evolutionary psychology arguments are so flawed.

Now, I do think evolutionary psychology has a lot of potential. Obviously the brain evolves like any other organ, which has fascinating effects on behavior. But the field is in its infancy, and is currently propped up on arm chair speculation and frequently unfalsifiable claims (claims that are impossible to prove wrong).

My favorite example of this comes from the Evolutionary Psychology class I took in undergrad. Now, I was originally super excited about this class. As someone who was interested in human evolution, behavior, and sex, I thought that evolutionary psychology was my calling. That was until we got to a specific lecture on human sexuality. We were discussing a study that was investigating patterns of human promiscuity, and the professor asked us to come up evolutionary explanations to describe the data we could potentially see. Most people came up with something along the lines of “Female humans will not be promiscuous because pregnancy has more cost to them and they need a monogamous mate to help rear the child, where men will be very promiscuous  because they want to spread their seed as much as possible.”

I’m sure you’ve all heard that argument somewhere before. But I presented an alternative hypothesis: “Female humans have cryptic fertility – it’s hard to tell when they’re ovulating – so they will be equally promiscuous, because then no man will know if the child is theirs so they will all pitch in to help rear the child.” I presented this idea because evolutionary psychology often looks to primitive tribes for its hypotheses, and we see my scenario happening in many tribes of South America.

My professor nodded and said that was a good alternative explanation. I asked how we would be able to distinguish between the two hypotheses, but he didn’t seem to understand why that mattered. He saw evolutionary psychology as being able to explain either situation, so in his mind it only supported the field of evolutionary psychology because it was able to explain anything!

But the ability to come up with an explanation for anything is not what makes something scientific. Creationism can come up with an explanation for anything – “God did it” – and that is not scientific. To be scientific you need your predictions to be falsifiable, and unfortunately right now evolutionary psychology is closer to creationism than it is evolutionary biology.

Like I said, evolutionary psychology has a lot of potential because the brain evolves. But I think we need to establish a much larger base of information before we can even remotely accurately interpret data. We need to understand the staggering complexity of the brain and the genomic contribution to that complexity before we can really start investigating what’s going on, and even then it will not be as simple as thinking “What would cavemen do?”

Happy Darwin Day!

It’s my annual excuse to post my favorite Darwin related image:

Unfortunately I don’t have time to write up a substantial Darwin-themed post… ironically because I’ve been working on a group presentation for my Philosophy of the Genome class on the eclipse of Darwinism and the following modern evolutionary synthesis.

Are any of you taking part in Darwin Day celebrations?

What if our family tree was still around?

Sometimes I wonder what our world would be like if our evolutionary relatives were still around. How would things be different with intelligent cousins like Neanderthals in the mix? Would we just be perpetually trying to kill them off, since that’s probably what helped them originally go extinct? Would there be nations of Neanderthals or would we intermix? Would their be stigma with interbreeding (which we know sometimes happened) or general species-ist stereotypes? Would there still be tension from the genocide we inflicted on them ages ago, with reparations to current Neanderthals or monuments to those who lost their lives?

Would less intelligent cousins who still had primitive language, like Homo heidelbergensis, be relegated to a lower class? How would we treat our even more distant cousins like Austrolopithecus? Would we grant them some special rights above other animals, like we sometimes do with intelligent animals like dolphins and chimpanzees? How would the ethics of genetic testing work when trying to get samples from our cousins who are not intelligent enough to consent, but are still more intelligent that what we currently research?

…This is what a human evolution researcher with a penchant for science fiction daydreams about. I guess I’ll add it to the list of “Books I should write but probably never will.”

My research part 4: How did microRNA convergently evolve?

How could microRNA have evolved to have such similar structure and function in plants and animals after evolving independently? You must be thinking, “What are the odds?!”

If evolution boiled down to nothing but random chance, the odds seem staggering indeed. No, I’m not about to say God guided evolution. What happens is there are certain traits about the system that constrain it to act in a certain way, making similar outcomes more likely.

To understand more fully, I have to teach you a little bit about microRNA biogenesis. Awww yeeeaaah!

Adapted from Berezikov 2011

In animals, a microRNA gene is transcribed to make what’s called “primary microRNA.” This pri-microRNA forms a hairpin structure – that is, it folds over and complementarily base-pairs to itself, forming a step and loop. This pri-microRNA is trimmed by the protein Drosha and is then shipped out of the nucleus as an ~80 nucleotide precursor microRNA. In the cytoplasm, the protein Dicer cleaves the pre-microRNA to form the mature ~22 nucleotide microRNA, which will go on to be involved in gene regulation.

In plants, pri-microRNA still forms hairpins, but their size can be far more variable. Plants also lack Drosha – all of the processing is done by a Dicer homologue.

You’re probably thinking, “So they’re processed differently. This doesn’t really convince me of the odds.” But what’s important to notice is that both of these systems share a couple of key things, which make convergent evolution more likely:

  1. Both use the protein Dicer to process mature microRNA. This is thought to be an exaptation – where a trait initially evolved to have one function, but has subsequently come to have another. Dicer is thought to initially be used to cleave foreign RNA particles, for example from viruses. There’s also evidence that suggests Dicer plays a role in repairing double stranded breaks in DNA. Since Dicer was already present in plants and animals because of these more ancestral functions, it was available in both lineages to be used for something else. Plants and animals didn’t have to evolve a totally new protein to process microRNA – they used the machinery they already had sitting around.
  2. Both process microRNA from hairpins. RNA hairpins spontaneously occur all the time, and some of these spontaneous hairpins give rise to new microRNA. That’s because if a hairpin happens to process into a mature microRNA that conveys a fitness advantage to an organism, natural selection will act to perpetuate it. If a hairpin results in an unfavorable outcome like disease, purifying selection will purge it from the population. Because RNA hairpins spontaneously occur and Dicer was already around, natural selection would act favorably on a system where processing hairpins leads to a fitness benefit.
I have only one thing left to say:

This is post 9 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

My research part 3: MicroRNA in plants

Since my research focuses on primates, I don’t exactly work with plant microRNAs. But they’re still fascinating enough that I wanted to touch on them. Plant and animal microRNAs are very similar – they’re approximately 22 nucleotides in length, they’re processed from larger hairpin structures, and they function by downregulating messenger RNA. But they have a number of differences because microRNA in plants and animals evolved independently.

Yes, this similar system arose separately in the plant and animal kingdoms. No, this is not proof for God. This is an example of convergent evolution, where the same trait is acquired independently in different lineages. Think of the ability to fly in insects, birds, and bats. The evolution of microRNA is the same, it’s just more molecular instead of having an obvious effect like flight, which is visible to the naked eye.

Why do we think plant and animal microRNA evolved independently? One major piece of evidence is that there are no homologous microRNAs between plants and animals (homologous meaning shared through a common ancestor). This is especially striking when you compare it to microRNAs within animals, a number of which are homologous. There are some animal microRNAs present throughout the whole animal kingdom, from sponge to fruit fly to orangutan, that just don’t exist in plants. Plants have their own set.

Another thing supporting independent evolution is that plants and animals have different processes for generating mature microRNA. In plants, microRNA is fully matured in the nucleus before being shipped out to the cytoplasm for use. In animals, much of the processing takes place out in the cytoplasm. Animals have additional proteins that are involved in processing – I’ll touch on it a little more in my next post. Also, plant and animal microRNA differs in how it targets messenger RNA. In plants, the whole ~22 nucleotide microRNA is involved in complementary base-pairing with the messenger RNA. In animals, only a 7 nucleotide “seed region” of the ~22 nucleotide mature sequence determines which messenger RNA it’s supposed to match up with.

A final piece of evidence is that microRNAs are missing in other forms of life. They’re absent in fungi, placozoans (the most basal animal lineage), and choanoflagellates (the closest living relative to animals). It’s more likely, especially considering the other evidence, that microRNA arose twice independently, rather than microRNA being lost multiple times in the specific lineages that happen to make it look like it arose twice independently. The latter would be getting into “Satan buried the dinosaur bones to make it look like a natural process” territory!

This is post 8 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

My research part 2: MicroRNA evolution

Like I said previously, microRNA is typically highly conserved (have the same sequence) across animals because it’s involved in such important biological processes. But some microRNA isn’t conserved, which makes it particularly interesting. Is it not conserved because it just doesn’t have an important function? Is it not conserved because the divergent microRNA confers a specific fitness benefit to an organism? Or is it a rare mutation that leads to a disease like cancer?

That’s where my particular research comes in. I’m investigating microRNA variation within human populations and across the primate lineage. Here are some examples of interesting trends I may find:

  1. A microRNA is totally conserved across primates and other animals. This microRNA is likely involved in a really important biological process, like making a type of tissue.
  2. A microRNA is totally conserved within primates, but differs from other animals. This microRNA could confer some primate-specific trait.
  3. A microRNA is totally conserved within humans, but differs from other primates. This could be an example of “what makes us human.”
  4. A microRNA is not conserved at all. The more likely explanation is that this isn’t a functional microRNA at all. That’s the risk with working with such new data. Other types of small RNA can be erroneously labeled as a microRNA. MicroRNA is a specific class of small RNA because it’s processed in a very distinct manner and has a specific function.
We already know that there are some differences in microRNA between primates. In 2011, Svante Paabo’s group found a number of microRNA that were upregulated (present in higher amounts) in human brain, but not in chimpanzee brain. When they validated which messenger RNA these microRNA were targeting, they found the targets were involved in neural development. This is an exciting possibility for what shaped human brain evolution, but obviously still needs further testing.
The way my research differs is that I’ll be looking at how the sequence of microRNA differs rather than the amount. A sequence difference could totally change which messenger RNA is targeted, which is what ultimately affects the organism. I’ll be experimentally validating the effects of these sequence changes in a number of primates, including humans.

This is post 7 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

You’re invited: Genomics of Non-model Organisms

I’m on the student/postdoc-lead organizing committee for the following symposium. If the topic sounds appealing and you’re near Seattle, come check it out! As a warning, the talks won’t be tailored for a totally layman audience, but if you have some biology background or just passionate interest, it should be really great!

2012 Genome Training Grant Symposium:
“The Genomics of Non-Model Organisms”
Monday, June 11, 2012

1:00PM to 5:15PM
South Foege Auditorium (S060) on the University of Washington’s Seattle Campus
No registration or fee

Schedule and speakers:

  • 1:00-2:00PM: panel discussion with our speakers
  • 2:00-3:00PM: Cheryl Hayashi (University of California, Riverside)
    Molecular characterization and evolution of spider silk proteins
  • 3:00-3:15PM: break w/ coffee and snacks
  • 3:15-4:15PM: Katie Peichel (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center)
    Genetics of adaptation, reproductive isolation, and speciation in stickleback fishes
  • 4:15-5:15PM: Jay Storz (University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
    Natural variation and genomic architecture of high altitude physiological adaptation in birds and mammals

If you know anyone who may be interested, please invite them! We want a great crowd for our speakers.

Apples – you can’t explain that!

More tweets I get from Christians:

I replied with this link.

Next someone’s going to try to make the argument that bananas were designed by God to perfectly fit in our hands! Ha! …Oh wait.

Dear E. O. Wilson: Please retire or stick to ants

Tonight I went to a talk at Seattle Town Hall by E. O. Wilson, one of the most famous evolutionary biologists still alive today. I admit I went for two different reasons. One, Wilson is super famous and also very old, and I wanted a chance to see him speak because another chance might not come. But two, I saw that the topic was how group selection shaped human evolution, and I wanted to see what controversial arguments he would make.

Controversial because Wilson has recently been stirring the pot by trumpeting group selection and saying kin selection has been debunked. I don’t want to rehash the whole event, but Carl Zimmer has a good summary in the New York Times. The basic thing you need to know is that most biologists consider group selection to only occur in very rare and specific circumstances, and that selection usually takes place at the level of the individual or the gene.

But you wouldn’t know that from the talk. Wilson asserted that his controversial Nature paper definitively overturned kin selection theory and that “no one” responded to his critique of kin selection. This set off a red flag in my head, because I definitely remembered reading criticism of the paper at least in the blogosphere. I grabbed my phone and instantly dug up this critique by Jerry Coyne and this one by Richard Dawkins.

But maybe he meant a published critique. So I googled “response to Nowak 2010” and instantly found a list of papers also published in Nature criticizing his paper:

Abbot, P., Abe, J., Alcock, J., Alizon, S., Alpedrinha, J., Andersson, M., Andre, J., van Baalen, M., Balloux, F., Balshine, S., Barton, N., Beukeboom, L., Biernaskie, J., Bilde, T., Borgia, G., Breed, M., Brown, S., Bshary, R., Buckling, A., Burley, N., Burton-Chellew, M., Cant, M., Chapuisat, M., Charnov, E., Clutton-Brock, T., Cockburn, A., Cole, B., Colegrave, N., Cosmides, L., Couzin, I., Coyne, J., Creel, S., Crespi, B., Curry, R., Dall, S., Day, T., Dickinson, J., Dugatkin, L., Mouden, C., Emlen, S., Evans, J., Ferriere, R., Field, J., Foitzik, S., Foster, K., Foster, W., Fox, C., Gadau, J., Gandon, S., Gardner, A., Gardner, M., Getty, T., Goodisman, M., Grafen, A., Grosberg, R., Grozinger, C., Gouyon, P., Gwynne, D., Harvey, P., Hatchwell, B., Heinze, J., Helantera, H., Helms, K., Hill, K., Jiricny, N., Johnstone, R., Kacelnik, A., Kiers, E., Kokko, H., Komdeur, J., Korb, J., Kronauer, D., Kümmerli, R., Lehmann, L., Linksvayer, T., Lion, S., Lyon, B., Marshall, J., McElreath, R., Michalakis, Y., Michod, R., Mock, D., Monnin, T., Montgomerie, R., Moore, A., Mueller, U., Noë, R., Okasha, S., Pamilo, P., Parker, G., Pedersen, J., Pen, I., Pfennig, D., Queller, D., Rankin, D., Reece, S., Reeve, H., Reuter, M., Roberts, G., Robson, S., Roze, D., Rousset, F., Rueppell, O., Sachs, J., Santorelli, L., Schmid-Hempel, P., Schwarz, M., Scott-Phillips, T., Shellmann-Sherman, J., Sherman, P., Shuker, D., Smith, J., Spagna, J., Strassmann, B., Suarez, A., Sundström, L., Taborsky, M., Taylor, P., Thompson, G., Tooby, J., Tsutsui, N., Tsuji, K., Turillazzi, S., Úbeda, F., Vargo, E., Voelkl, B., Wenseleers, T., West, S., West-Eberhard, M., Westneat, D., Wiernasz, D., Wild, G., Wrangham, R., Young, A., Zeh, D., Zeh, J., & Zink, A. (2011). Inclusive fitness theory and eusocialityNature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09831

Boomsma, J., Beekman, M., Cornwallis, C., Griffin, A., Holman, L., Hughes, W., Keller, L., Oldroyd, B., & Ratnieks, F. (2011). Only full-sibling families evolved eusociality Nature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09832

Strassmann, J., Page, R., Robinson, G., & Seeley, T. (2011). Kin selection and eusociality Nature, 471 (7339) DOI:10.1038/nature09833

Ferriere, R., & Michod, R. (2011). Inclusive fitness in evolution Nature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09834

Herre, E., & Wcislo, W. (2011). In defence of inclusive fitness theory Nature, 471 (7339) DOI:10.1038/nature09835

Yeah, and he said “no one” responded. And it’s not just that Wilson is out of the loop – he came off as being purposefully disingenuous. Not only did he publish a response to the responses (Nowak, M., Tarnita, C., & Wilson, E. (2011). Nowak et al. reply Nature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09836), but during the Q&A he changed his story and said that people did respond but they were 1. Wrong and 2. In the minority. Even though 1. He never explained why their critiques were incorrect and 2. The vast majority of biologists disagree with his views of group selection and the authors of the critiques weren’t random nobodies; they were very important and accomplished researchers.

I want to give Wilson the benefit of the doubt. Maybe when he said “no one responded” he meant “no one responded in a way that we think invalidates our hypothesis.” But even then, the rest of his talk was incredibly sloppy. He asserted that human eusociality evolved via group selection, but didn’t offer a shred of evidence the whole time. No proposed mechanism, no genetic evidence, nothing. He just waved the Wand of Group Selection and asserted it happened. He asserted that humans first ate cooked meat by scavenging carcasses from wildfires. That’s one hypothesis among many, but he presented it as a known truth and gave no evidence or citation for it. He asserted that eusociality only evolved recently but again gave absolutely no evidence as to why he thought so. I mean, maybe he’s right, but eusociality isn’t exactly something that fossilizes well, so it could have possibly existed in past species. At least put some sort of qualifier or explanation of your reasoning out there.

When someone in the Q&A asked him to explain why people disagree with group selection so much, he didn’t explain the objections or why he thinks kin selection was wrong. He instead stated that his paper was reviewed by a mathematician from Harvard and that it got into the prestigious journal Nature. Therefore it is right, or something. Here’s an alternative hypothesis: Your paper got published in Nature because you’re insanely famous and it was incredibly controversial, which Nature eats up. Nature is more about prestige and sexy topics than good science nowadays. Its retraction rate has increased ten fold in the last ten years when the number of papers published in all journals has only increased by 44%.

Look, I’m not a priori against group selection. Maybe Wilson is right and group selection is applicable in more situations that we currently think. But I’m not going to accept it until he presents compelling evidence, which he utterly failed to do. You can’t just say “Harvard” and “Nature” and leave it at that.

The most irritating thing about the night was that this was a talk given to an educated general public. These people are smart enough to appreciate science and know Wilson is a famous scientist, so they’re going to believe whatever he says. On the way out people were raving about how interesting the talk was. But he presented none of the controversy, no evidence, no reasoning, no citations, no qualifiers…nothing. I understand that a talk to the general public isn’t going to get into extreme detail, but asserting your incredibly controversial ideas as scientific fact is incredibly dangerous. This talk reminded me more of stuff I’ve seen from creationists and climate denialists than scientists.

Honestly, I left feeling bad for him. E. O. Wilson made huge advances to evolutionary biology, sociobiology, and conservation. “Huge advances” is an understatement. But tonight he went outside his expertise and left science behind, and it was kind of embarrassing. I would have loved for him to give an hour long talk about ants instead.

The genetic “proof” for ancient aliens

I have a new, horrible obsession – the History Channel’s show Ancient Aliens.

On Saturday I found myself drinking with a group of my boyfriend Sean’s friends, when one of them announced that we must play an Ancient Aliens drinking game. I had no idea what the show was, but became intrigued when they started discussing the rules of when to take a drink:

  • Whenever someone being interviewed has no relevant credentials like a PhD
  • Whenever someone says the phrase “Some scientists say”
  • Whenever someone says the phrase “ancient astronaut theorists”
  • Whenever an ancient manuscript is displayed
  • Whenever there’s a terrible CGI reenactment
  • Whenever Giorgio starts talking

Me: Who’s Giorgio?
Them: Oh, you’ll know who Giorgio is soon enough.

This is Giorgio, by the way:

…That’s all I’m going to say.

They decided to reduce the list so we would wouldn’t get alcohol poisoning. But I found myself following my own rule of “drink whenever someone says something that blatantly defies logic or is a total non sequitur.” Which meant I was pretty much constantly drinking for an hour and a half. Especially when you’re jumping from pyramids, dragon drawings, Tesla coils, and the Bible all being proof of aliens (just to name a few).

For those of you who’ve never seen the show…I’m not quite sure how to summarize it. The footage looks professionally done since it’s on the History Channel, and some of the shots of the ancient artifacts are cool to see. But if I had to summarize the major theme, it would either be “Brown people never could have done <insert amazing feat here> because they were too lazy and/or stupid, therefore aliens had to help them.” I think my favorite mindblowing moment was when Giorgio explained that:

  • People worship “Gods”
  • But people only believe in things they have evidence for
  • They had written/drawn evidence for these “Gods”
  • Written/drawn evidence is always realistic and never abstract, imaginative, or metaphorical
  • But “Gods” don’t actually exist
  • Therefore they were actually aliens

Oh, Giorgio. How I wish point #2 was true.

Something about the show hooked me in its terribleness. My emotional reaction was actually very similar to the time when I visited the Creation Museum. Yes, I was mad at how they were twisting science, using terrible logic, and spreading blatant lies. But the absurdity of it all was oddly amusing. By the end you find yourself playing along, like you’re watching a fantasy novel… and not something people actually believe.

Also, being heavily inebriated helps.

So Sean and I plowed forward to episode two, since the first two seasons are conveniently available on Netflix. Our “game” was to guess what sort of bizzaro conspiracy theory the show would provide to explain a phenomena they were hyping before the show made the reveal. Sean was a little too excited when he correctly guessed the “Humans and aliens had sex and interbred” plotline. To which I replied, “But they’re an alien. Humans can’t even breed with chimps. Humans would have to actually be aliens seeded here or something for interbreeding to be possible.”

And then that’s exactly what the show said, and I nearly peed my pants laughing.

But the real kicker came when the show brought up the human genome. Sean and I both study genomics and evolution, so we exchanged a wary look. I’ll let you see it for yourself. The clip begins at 7:34 in the first video, and continues until 3:03 in the next.



In case you can’t watch the video or had trouble following that pristine argument, let me summarize:

  • Geneticists discovered the gene HAR1, which is unique to humans and plays a critical role in the development of the human brain.
  • Did it develop through evolution? Francis Crick says human genes couldn’t have evolved because there’s not enough time for DNA to evolve by accident. He said it would be as improbable as a hurricane going through a junkyard making a Boeing 747.
  • Since it couldn’t have evolved, the aliens performed a targeted mutation in HAR1 to make us “human.”
  • We only understand 5% of the genome. If you wanted to record an eternal message that could be decoded by a creature that eventually evolved enough intelligence to decode it, you shouldn’t put it in a monument or text that can be destroyed…put it in the DNA! OMFG THAT’S WHAT JUNK DNA IS! SECRET MESSAGES!

And now, for a quick debunking:

  • HAR1 is present in all mammals and birds, not just humans. But in all non-human species, the sequence is effectively the same, or conserved. The human copy in particular has a number of differences compared to other species, so we consider the human copy of HAR1 divergent. This is not at all the only human gene to be divergent. And all species have uniquely divergent genes – that’s precisely what makes things different species. But no one is arguing that marmosets or fig trees or syphilis are actually aliens with special alien genes inserted into them. Well, maybe people are arguing that. There’s four seasons of this crap, and I’m only on episode 3 of season one. Maybe the syphilis aliens are right after the episode titled Aliens and the Third Reich (I shit you not).
  • Francis Crick has always been a strong supporter of evolution and has spoken passionately about how evolution shaped his scientific investigation. He was one of the Noble laureates who advised US courts bogged down by creationists that “Creation-science’ simply has no place in the public-school science classroom.” He also was an advocate for making Darwin Day a British national holiday. While he was initially doubtful of the origin of the genetic code and wondered if panspermia could be the answer, he later published a retrospective article where he and his colleague “noted that they had been overly pessimistic about the chances of abiogenesis on Earth when they had assumed that some kind of self-replicating protein system was the molecular origin of life.” So, um, no.
  • Francis Crick did not come up with that 747 argument – Fred Hoyle did. That’s why it’s called Hoyle’s fallacy. It’s already debunked a bajillion times by biologists – Dawkins wrote two books about it – so I won’t waste time trouncing it here.
  • Whatever alien thought junk DNA would be a great place for an eternal message is a dumbass. Because junk DNA doesn’t code for a protein or have some sort of regulatory role, it’s what geneticists refer to as “neutrally evolving.” It means it’s at liberty to gather mutations because they don’t have any major effect that would weed them out via natural selection. This is especially true when the show’s premise is that the message was placed there eons ago, and had tons of time to accumulate changes. It also doesn’t explain why chimps share a lot of junk DNA with us, or why a huge proportion of junk DNA are remnants of ancient viruses. I’m sure Giorgio would say that those aliens were trying to throw us off the scent by making it seem like our genomes had evolved through natural processes.
  • They never address the fact that the hypotheses they present throughout the show aren’t even internally consistent. At one point they say all life on earth was put there by aliens, and it evolved naturally. Then they say we ARE the aliens. So what, were the aliens unicellular organisms? How can we interbreed – like they say we do – if we’re that distantly related?! But then they say the proof that we’re aliens is that we look like the aliens…so how about those billions of years of evolution?

In poking around the internet about this show, I discovered that Giorgio had a twitter account, which included this gem:

Lizard people? Total nonsense. Aliens? Of course, duhhhhh.

Oh, History Channel. How the mighty have fallen. I remember when I was little and I’d watch you with my history-buff dad, and learn all sorts of cool things about Egypt and Rome and WWII. But now I watch you to point and laugh.