Embryology: The Biology of Development

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Brilliant video from Edge.org.

Lewis Wolpert, Professor of Biology as Applied to Medicine in the Department of Anatomy and Developmental Biology of University College, London, gives a brief walk-thru of some of the latest developments in embryology.

Cell biology is among the most mysterious and fascinating areas in science. So how do cells know to grow a hand instead of an elbow? Wolpert suggest a “buffer zone” that directs anatomical construction based on timing. The experiments referenced in the video support the hypothesis – just amazing!

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There is No Shame is Self-Publishing

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

A little article today in the New York Times about the still growing business of self-publishing.

It has become increasingly common and is, like online dating, no longer something to be ashamed of. The traditional publishing industry is crumbling in large measure for the same reason that newspapers continue to do so. They are victims of the democratization of media.

You are now the gatekeeper. Writers should utilize all the tools at their disposal to reach their audience without the stifling interference and failing business model of big publishing.

In a tangentially related editorial, David Swensen and Michale Schmidt, write about newspapers seeking endowments and not-for-profit status to survive. A brilliant idea this commentator has been suggesting for a couple of years.


Race and IQ

Saturday, December 6, 2008

James Flynn (the Flynn effect demonstrates that IQ improves over generations, indicating the influence of environmental factors in forming IQ) wrote in New Scientist a couple of months ago about African-Americans and IQ. The article is only available to subscribers, but the Cambridge University Press blog has the whole piece.

On average over the last 30 years, African-Americans score 15 points lower on IQ tests than whites. Flynn believes, and there is considerable evidence to support this, that the cause of this difference is not related to genetics, but to environment.

His main point?

I believe we must show that the environments in which black children are raised are on average less cognitively demanding than those of most other ethnic groups.

He goes into a long (I believe flawed) analysis of the “black marriage market.” His take:

Government statistics show that at birth there are 104 black boys for every 100 girls. Between ages 25 and 45, six more men than women are dead, leaving 98 men for every 100 women. Of these 98 men, nine are in jail, eight are missing and 21 are employed less than half-time. That leaves 60 “promising” black men – men who are alive, employed and not convicted felons. Also consider that promising black men living with a non-black partner outnumber white men with a black partner by three. That leaves only 57 black men for every 100 women in a position to be a permanent partner.

Out of 100 black women, 43 face the choice of either having a child by a black man who is unlikely to settle down with them or going childless.

This, of course, assumes that of the 100 women he started with all are “promising.” I don’t disagree with his general thrust, but surely the numbers are overly stark. In any case, he points this problem out to make the case that:

There is a strong case that black Americans suffer from a series of disadvantageous environments. Studies show time and again that before they go to school, black children are on average exposed to a smaller vocabulary than white children, in part due to socioeconomic factors.

Obviously, an incredibly sensitive issue, because it’s an indictment. But it also is a cause for some hope, because the problem – a cultural and environmental one – is not fixed and can be changed.

Flynn sums up:

I believe that America, however, has been reluctant to really examine the cause of the racial IQ gap or the factors that create the black marriage market, let alone come up with credible plan to deal with it. Perhaps those who strongly object to my views will show how American society can be affecting black IQ without doing something extremely tough and unpleasant to the immediate environment black children experience.

Shouts about class will not do, nor will claims of test bias or stereotyping. America will have to address all the aspects of black experience that are disadvantageous, beginning with the regeneration of inner city neighbourhoods and their schools. A resident police office and teacher in every apartment block would be a good start. Only heresy can give an environmental explanation of the black IQ deficit. To run away from debate is like unilateral disarmament: it leaves the enemy in possession of the field.


Tunneling Nanotubes

Friday, November 21, 2008

From New Scientist:

HAD Amin Rustom not messed up, he would not have stumbled upon one of the biggest discoveries in biology of recent times. It all began in 2000, when he saw something strange under his microscope. A very long, thin tube had formed between two of the rat cells that he was studying. It looked like nothing he had ever seen before…

…At the time, it was not clear whether these structures were anything more than a curiosity seen only in peculiar circumstances. Since their pioneering paper appeared, however, other groups have started finding nanotubes in all sorts of places, from nerve cells to heart cells. And far from being a mere curiosity, they seem to play a major role in anything from how our immune system responds to attacks to how damaged muscle is repaired after a heart attack.

Essentially, these nanotubes allows animal cell interiors at some distance to “communicate” so that they act can in concert. This had previously been thought nearly impossible as cell communication seemed to occur almost entirely by releasing chemicals that can be detected by receptors on the surface of other cells.

There are potentially enormous implications for this discovery, not least in immunology. For instance, there is speculation that HIV may avoid an immunological response by traveling through nanotubes. Another fascinating aspect is this:

Using fluorescent proteins, the team also discovered that relatively large cellular structures, or organelles, could move from one cell to another through the nanotubes.

You have to understand the basic structure of a cell to grasp what this means. The human cell is a like micro-machine that generates it’s own energy and functions like a little organism, producing proteins to perform all sorts of activities including making new cells. To be able to pass an organelle from one cell to another is something like (but not quite) one human being being able to pass a kidney to another human being without the fuss of surgery.

Cell biology and immunology are among the most fascinating areas in science. I am not practiced enough to write about these topics at length, but if you want to understand how beautifully strange and complex life is, cell biology and immunology is a great place to start.


The Historical Bible

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Wonderful Nova episode last night on PBS about trying to connect archaeological findings with the history of the Bible.

This is not an area where I feel well versed, but the show was eye-opening. Among biblical scholars, historians, and archaeologists, there seems to be a general consensus that the Israelites were originally Canaanites (that seems politically expedient, too) and that a small group emerged from Egypt and fused with these Canaanites in the central highlands (what is now the Westbank) to create the Jewish people.

The story of Exodus was likely brought by this small group. There is some evidence that indicates these migrants worshiped a god with the name Yahweh.

This took place between roughly 1300 and 1000 BCE.

Fascinating stuff. And, naturally, subject to some dispute. For my money, this kind of scholarship, divorced from the prerogatives of belief, is essential for human cultural evolution. The Bible is a complex and unmatched tapestry of myth and history. It is not, by any stretch, the word of God. The more we learn, the clearer that becomes.

The episode will be available on the PBS website later today. Here is a supporting interview from the site with Carol Meyers, an archeologist and professor of religion at Duke University.

Worth watching.


Why Francis Fukuyama is Voting Obama

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

From the American Conservative:

I’m voting for Barack Obama this November for a very simple reason. It is hard to imagine a more disastrous presidency than that of George W. Bush. It was bad enough that he launched an unnecessary war and undermined the standing of the United States throughout the world in his first term. But in the waning days of his administration, he is presiding over a collapse of the American financial system and broader economy that will have consequences for years to come. As a general rule, democracies don’t work well if voters do not hold political parties accountable for failure. While John McCain is trying desperately to pretend that he never had anything to do with the Republican Party, I think it would a travesty to reward the Republicans for failure on such a grand scale.

Works for me.


Retail Sales Down 1.2% in September

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Auto sales were a big part of this, but it was still double analyst estimates. For an economy that runs on consumer spending, these figures are a clear indicator pointing towards recession.

Wholesale inflation was also up.

For an overview on the crisis, watch the Prophet of Doom, Nouriel Roubini, on Bloomberg:

P.S. You know what I like about Roubini besides that fact that he has been an accurate and truthful forecaster? His tie is always undone. Watch his interviews. He just can’t stand that tie around his neck.