On science blogs this week: Embryos and evolution

Embryonic stem cells, the law and the money. NASA, psychologist to Chilean miners. Conservapedia finds Einstein relatively wrong. Part 2 on kin selection, group selection, and the evolution of eusociality.


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DICKEY-WICKER, ONCE AGAIN A STICKY WICKET FOR RESEARCH ON EMBRYONIC STEM-CELLS. If you are catching up on what it means that Judge Royce C. Lamberth, of the Federal District Court for the District of Columbia, has granted an injunction halting federal spending for human embryonic stem-cell research, Jeanne Loring explains angrily at Science Progress.

The judge ruled that funding for human embryonic stem-cell research violates the Dickey-Wicker amendment, which prohibits public funding for research in which a human embryo is destroyed, discarded, or knowingly subjected to risk of injury or death. The National Institutes of Health has been trying to get around that restriction by funding research on human embryonic stem cells only after they have been extracted from human embryos by some privately funded entity.

If that obfuscatory line of reasoning strikes you as weaseling, you're not alone. Even some who don't oppose embryonic stem-cell research find the rationale repellent. At the Bioethics Forum, Dena Davis argues for ending Dickey-Wicker but says

if it is abhorrent to participate in embryo destruction, it is equally abhorrent to support research on stem cells that can only be obtained by embryo destruction.

PZ Myers, who famously minces no words at Pharyngula, agrees, declaring

much as I deplore the decision, Judge Royce Lambeth was legally correct, I think, to pull the plug.

"The effect of the ruling was dramatic, and almost immediate," writes Peter Boyer in his New Yorker profile of NIH director Francis Collins.

Collins and his staff spent much of the week notifying researchers in labs across the country that, in some cases, their work would have to shut down within days. Researchers who had already received funding could continue their work, but would not be able to apply for renewed funding. Fifty promising projects that were up for peer review were pulled. Another dozen projects, which had scored highly in peer reviews and were awaiting final approval, were suspended. Twenty-two grants that were coming up for annual renewal in September were frozen.

The US Justice Department has appealed the ruling. As Meredith Wadman recounts at The Great Beyond, the appeal asks, among other things, that scientists who've received research money but not yet spent it should not lose their funding. Government lawyers have requested a ruling on their appeal by September 7, next Tuesday.

STEM CELLS: FOLLOW THE MONEY. Despite the high-minded rhetoric about protecting human life vs stifling the progress of life-saving research, much of this case revolves around plain old money-grubbing. Some blogging, like Loring's, has emphasized the destructive effect the ruling could have on the US competititve position in world embryonic stem cell research. Similarly, at 13.7, Adam Frank says the ruling

represents a potentially disastrous setback for the field ... We are ceding our leadership in the most vital world arenas of technological innovation to others with stiffer political will and discipline.

The money-grubbing motive may be partly national, but it concerns personal finances too. The judge also ruled that National Institutes of Health funding for the human embryonic cell work might harm other federally funded researchers who were working with adult human stem-cells. That would be the two plaintiffs in the case, who complained that their adult cell work could be damaged if researchers working with embryonic cells competed successfully for grant money.

Mike the Mad Biologist extrapolated on the judge's agreement that the plaintiff's chances of funding were harmed by the existence of embryonic stem-cell research. Why, Mike asks, couldn't that decision be applied to any NIH realloction of research dollars? If, for example, NIH boosted funding for research on microbes suitable for biological warfare, could microbiologists who work on other organisms sue?

I could definitely imagine universities suing over large program grants worth millions or tens of millions of dollars.

MEANWHILE, DEEP UNDERGROUND IN CHILE. The trapped miners seem in no immediate danger, and blog talk is not much focused on the horrific engineering problem of getting them out. Instead it's the miners' mental health they're fixated on. What's the secret to staying sane when stuck underground until Christmas?

Antonio Regalado reports for ScienceInsider that, since being trapped in a mine is not unlike living in space, confinement experts from the National Aeronautics and Space Agency have been called in for advice. Regalado notes that NASA has just published a study of long-duration space operations

that advised crew members to keep journals, prepare special meals, and "distribute tedious and housekeeping tasks as evenly as possible among the crew."

Which is why at the moment the go-to blog is Keith Cowling's NASA Watch. That unofficial but excellent source of NASA news and speculation is providing links and excerpting relevant snippets from all over: Bloomberg, the Washington Post, and Jack Stuster's book Bold Endeavors: Lessons from Polar and Space Exploration (1996: US Naval Institute Press), which is mostly about polar exploration exigencies and how they might apply to space travel. See here and here.

EINSTEIN'S THEORY OF RELATIVITY IS A PLOT TO ... DO SOMETHING AWFUL. BUT WHAT? At his blog Of Cabbages and Kings, Joel Shurkin muses on why Andrew Schlafly, a lawyer who created Conservapedia as an alternative to that left-wing propaganda machine Wikipedia, is arguing that Einstein's theory of relativity is (a) part of an ideological plot; and (2) wrong.

There's no clear answer, but there is certainly an intriguing question. As Shurkin points out, Schlafly has degrees from Princeton and Harvard Law, so presumably he knows better. OTOH, if he's just out to make more trouble for Obama and "the liberals," then Einstein and relativity are very odd topics to choose as a vehicle.

Creationism makes a kind of sense because the geological time implicit in evolution does directly contradict the literal Bible. For folks who think the Bible is a history book, evolution can't possibly be right. But Einstein's ideas don't (to me) have any anti-religious implications. If anything, they encourage the idea that there is much in the universe that is deeply mysterious and perhaps unknowable. So it's hard to imagine what Schlafly thinks he's up to.

THE EVOLUTION OF LAST WEEK'S DEBATE ABOUT KIN SELECTION, GROUP SELECTION, AND EUSOCIALITY. I noted last week that this week I would look for more bloggery about the new paper by E.O. Wilson and colleagues. That's the one that strove to show mathematically that the Hamiltonian notion of kin selection was not necessary to account for eusociality, the special winner-take-all reproductive arrangements found in some organisms (mostly social insects).

I found it. At Denim and Tweed, Jeremy Yoder nicely presents the relevant evolutionary concepts in ordinary language with pop references and Sesame Street videos. He notes also

The key insight of the new model is that, in evolving from a non-social insect to a eusocial one, the natural selection that matters affects not the individuals evolving into workers, but the individual who would be Queen ... a female who evolved the ability to lay "worker" eggs — females that grow up not to found their own nest, but to help in their mother's — would have greater fitness than females without such helpful offspring.

Yoder says that when evolutionary biologists posit concepts like kin selection and group selection they are seeking to explain the evolution of cooperative behavior. But the model proposed by the new paper

looks more like enslavement. I can't learn anything about how unselfish behavior can spontaneously evolve in a population by looking at a population that has had unselfishness imposed upon it.

The paper, he concludes, may present a good model for the evolution of eusociality, but, if so, then "eusociality is a bad model for the evolution of cooperation."

Yoder also adds, in a shocked footnote, that Wilson & Co.

do something I've never seen in a scholarly paper before — in dismissing empirical studies of kin selection, they defer substantive discussion to the Supplementary Information. There are, in fact, 43 pages of SI for this 6-page paper, including two major mathematical models and the discussion of empirical kin selection studies. This is a problem ...

It may be a problem, but it's also also a data point, or maybe several, in the recent argument over the Journal of Neuroscience's decision to drop supplementary information. For a serious roundup of the pros and cons of SI, see Martin Fenner's Gobbledygook.

THE HEAVYWEIGHTS WEIGH IN. I knew that John Hawks would have to comment on Wilson & Co, and here he is.

The weird part of the paper is the way it describes inclusive fitness as some kind of theoretical afterthought, useful only as an ad hoc explanation for eusocial insects. It contrasts the inclusive fitness concept with "standard natural selection" as if it were possible for organisms to erase the fact that they're related to each other! And the authors imply that they have fatally damaged the concept of kin selection.

Hawks links to two counterarguments by evolutionary stars. At Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne views Wilson more in sorrow than in anger, but produces plenty of reasons why there's nothing new in the paper. With refs.

The main problem is that Wilson & Co

see the failure of asymmetrical relatedness to explain social insects as a general failure of kin selection to help us explain those groups — or anything at all. That's just wrong. There are alternative explanations for how relatedness explains the evolution of social insects ... [and] there are many aspects of eusociality that have been profitably investigated, and explained, by inclusive fitness theory.

Richard Dawkins read a preprint of the paper a while ago and has posted notes written at the time at his site, The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. He sniffs

Edward Wilson was misunderstanding kin selection as far back as Sociobiology, where he treated it as a subset of group selection (Misunderstanding Two of my 'Twelve Misunderstandings of Kin Selection': Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie 1979).

So the heavyweights are, well, weighing in. Bet your boots that this battle will keep evolutionary biologists at their invective-hurling for some little while. Whether the arguments — be they substantive or simply name-calling — will provide unesoteric fodder of more general interest for those of us who get paid by the word seems doubtful. Wait, I take that back. Some outlets will probably want a piece or two on the name-calling.

Sep. 3, 2010