Tag Archives: Carl Zimmer

And On The Fourth Day, Venter Said, Let There Be A Press Release

J. Craig Venter Institute:

Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), a not-for-profit genomic research organization, published results today describing the successful construction of the first self-replicating, synthetic bacterial cell. The team synthesized the 1.08 million base pair chromosome of a modified Mycoplasma mycoides genome. The synthetic cell is called Mycoplasma mycoides JCVI-syn1.0 and is the proof of principle that genomes can be designed in the computer, chemically made in the laboratory and transplanted into a recipient cell to produce a new self-replicating cell controlled only by the synthetic genome.

This research will be published by Daniel Gibson et al in the May 20th edition of Science Express and will appear in an upcoming print issue of Science.

“For nearly 15 years Ham Smith, Clyde Hutchison and the rest of our team have been working toward this publication today–the successful completion of our work to construct a bacterial cell that is fully controlled by a synthetic genome,” said J. Craig Venter, Ph.D., founder and president, JCVI and senior author on the paper. “We have been consumed by this research, but we have also been equally focused on addressing the societal implications of what we believe will be one of the most powerful technologies and industrial drivers for societal good. We look forward to continued review and dialogue about the important applications of this work to ensure that it is used for the benefit of all.”

According to Dr. Smith, “With this first synthetic bacterial cell and the new tools and technologies we developed to successfully complete this project, we now have the means to dissect the genetic instruction set of a bacterial cell to see and understand how it really works.”

Eliza Strickland at Discover:

In another step forward in the quest to create artificial life in a test tube, a team of genetic engineers led by Craig Venter has built a synthetic genome and proved that it can power up when placed inside an existing cell.

Dr. Venter calls the result a “synthetic cell” and is presenting the research as a landmark achievement that will open the way to creating useful microbes from scratch to make products like vaccines and biofuels. At a press conference Thursday, Dr. Venter described the converted cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” [The New York Times]

The technical achievement is worth crowing about. The researchers built on Venter’s trick from last year, in which he took the genome from one bacterium, transferred it the hollowed-out shell of a different bacterial species, and watched as the new cell “booted up” successfully. In this new step, the researchers built a genome from scratch, copying the genetic code from a bacterium that infects goats and introducing just a few changes as a “watermark”; then they transferred that synthetic genome to a cell. As the researchers report in Science, the cell functioned and replicated, creating more copies of the slightly altered goat-infecting bacterium–now nicknamed Synthia.

But the reactions to Venter’s accomplishment have been mixed–while some celebratory headlines trumpeted the creation of artificial life, many scientists said the reaction was overblown, and took issue with Venter’s claim of having created a truly synthetic cell. Here, we round up a selection of responses from all corners of the science world.

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan finds the philosophical ramifications of the work fascinating:

“Their achievement undermines a fundamental belief about the nature of life that is likely to prove as momentous to our view of ourselves and our place in the Universe as the discoveries of Galileo, Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein.” [Nature News]

But many experts say that since Venter copied a pre-existing genome, he didn’t really create a new life form.

“To my mind Craig has somewhat overplayed the importance of this,” said David Baltimore, a leading geneticist at Caltech. Dr. Baltimore described the result as “a technical tour de force” but not breakthrough science, but just a matter of scale…. “He has not created life, only mimicked it,” Dr. Baltimore said [The New York Times].

In addition, many experts note that the experimenters got a big boost by placing the synthetic genome in a preexisting cell, which was naturally inclined to make sense of the transplanted DNA and to turn genes on and off. Thus, they say, it’s not accurate to label the experiment’s product a true “synthetic cell.”

Peter Griffin at Science Blogs

Carl Zimmer at Discover Magazine:

Anyway–this news just hit the wires thanks to an embargo break, so I don’t have time to go into more detail. Joe Palca at NPR has posted his article on the subject. For background, please check out these stories I’ve written about this general area of research:

Tinker, Tailor: Can Venter Stitch Together A Genome From Scratch?

The Meaning of Life

The Six Most Important Experiments In The World

Artificial Life? Old News.

The High-Tech Search For A Cleaner Biofuel Alternative

On the Origin of Tomorrow

My Bloggingheads interview with Venter

Sean at Discover Magazine:

Who knows exactly what this means as yet — but it’s important! You can argue if you like about whether it’s really “artificial life” — that argument has already started, and already seems boring. There are also speculations about designing microorganisms to help us solve problems like global warming or (let’s say) massive oil spills. Not completely crazy speculations, either. But there’s a long way to go before anything like that is coming off a biological assembly line. And eventually we’ll be going much further than that, beyond designer microorganisms into much weirder terrain. This isn’t a culmination, it’s just a start.

Alex Tabarrok:

Two years ago I wrote that Craig Venter was one step closer to becoming a god.  Today it appears he has done it.

Megan McArdle:

In an earlier post on Lidar, someone said that I shouldn’t call it “miraculous”.  But it’s hard to think of another word for synthesizing life.

Rod Dreher:

Haters! Luddites! What could it hurt?

I ask sarcastically, but if scientists can make a simple organism with entirely synthesized DNA, why could they not in theory create a human being whose entire self will have been designed by a scientist? What would that say about human dignity? Do you really trust humankind not to use that power to create races of masters and slaves? I don’t. The abolition of man, indeed.

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So Easy A Caveman Can Do It

Science Magazine:

The morphological features typical of Neandertals first appear in the European fossil record about 400,000 years ago (13). Progressively more distinctive Neandertal forms subsequently evolved until Neandertals disappeared from the fossil record about 30,000 years ago (4). During the later part of their history, Neandertals lived in Europe and Western Asia as far east as Southern Siberia (5) and as far south as the Middle East. During that time, Neandertals presumably came into contact with anatomically modern humans in the Middle East from at least 80,000 years ago (6, 7) and subsequently in Europe and Asia.

Neandertals are the sister group of all present-day humans. Thus, comparisons of the human genome to the genomes of Neandertals and apes allow features that set fully anatomically modern humans apart from other hominin forms to be identified. In particular, a Neandertal genome sequence provides a catalog of changes that have become fixed or have risen to high frequency in modern humans during the last few hundred thousand years and should be informative for identifying genes affected by positive selection since humans diverged from Neandertals.

Substantial controversy surrounds the question of whether Neandertals interbred with anatomically modern humans. Morphological features of present-day humans and early anatomically modern human fossils have been interpreted as evidence both for (8, 9) and against (10, 11) genetic exchange between Neandertals and the presumed ancestors of present-day Europeans. Similarly, analysis of DNA sequence data from present-day humans has been interpreted as evidence both for (12, 13) and against (14) a genetic contribution by Neandertals to present-day humans. The only part of the genome that has been examined from multiple Neandertals, the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) genome, consistently falls outside the variation found in present-day humans and thus provides no evidence for interbreeding (1519). However, this observation does not preclude some amount of interbreeding (14, 19) or the possibility that Neandertals contributed other parts of their genomes to present-day humans (16). In contrast, the nuclear genome is composed of tens of thousands of recombining, and hence independently evolving, DNA segments that provide an opportunity to obtain a clearer picture of the relationship between Neandertals and present-day humans.

A challenge in detecting signals of gene flow between Neandertals and modern human ancestors is that the two groups share common ancestors within the last 500,000 years, which is no deeper than the nuclear DNA sequence variation within present-day humans. Thus, even if no gene flow occurred, in many segments of the genome, Neandertals are expected to be more closely related to some present-day humans than they are to each other (20). However, if Neandertals are, on average across many independent regions of the genome, more closely related to present-day humans in certain parts of the world than in others, this would strongly suggest that Neandertals exchanged parts of their genome with the ancestors of these groups.

Several features of DNA extracted from Late Pleistocene remains make its study challenging. The DNA is invariably degraded to a small average size of less than 200 base pairs (bp) (21, 22), it is chemically modified (21, 2326), and extracts almost always contain only small amounts of endogenous DNA but large amounts of DNA from microbial organisms that colonized the specimens after death. Over the past 20 years, methods for ancient DNA retrieval have been developed (21, 22), largely based on the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) (27). In the case of the nuclear genome of Neandertals, four short gene sequences have been determined by PCR: fragments of the MC1R gene involved in skin pigmentation (28), a segment of the FOXP2 gene involved in speech and language (29), parts of the ABO blood group locus (30), and a taste receptor gene (31). However, although PCR of ancient DNA can be multiplexed (32), it does not allow the retrieval of a large proportion of the genome of an organism.

The development of high-throughput DNA sequencing technologies (33, 34) allows large-scale, genome-wide sequencing of random pieces of DNA extracted from ancient specimens (3537) and has recently made it feasible to sequence genomes from late Pleistocene species (38). However, because a large proportion of the DNA present in most fossils is of microbial origin, comparison to genome sequences of closely related organisms is necessary to identify the DNA molecules that derive from the organism under study (39). In the case of Neandertals, the finished human genome sequence and the chimpanzee genome offer the opportunity to identify Neandertal DNA sequences (39, 40).

A special challenge in analyzing DNA sequences from the Neandertal nuclear genome is that most DNA fragments in a Neandertal are expected to be identical to present-day humans (41). Thus, contamination of the experiments with DNA from present-day humans may be mistaken for endogenous DNA. We first applied high-throughput sequencing to Neandertal specimens from Vindija Cave in Croatia (40, 42), a site from which cave bear remains yielded some of the first nuclear DNA sequences from the late Pleistocene in 1999 (43). Close to one million bp of nuclear DNA sequences from one bone were directly determined by high-throughput sequencing on the 454 platform (40), whereas DNA fragments from another extract from the same bone were cloned in a plasmid vector and used to sequence ~65,000 bp (42). These experiments, while demonstrating the feasibility of generating a Neandertal genome sequence, were preliminary in that they involved the transfer of DNA extracts prepared in a clean-room environment to conventional laboratories for processing and sequencing, creating an opportunity for contamination by present-day human DNA. Further analysis of the larger of these data sets (40) showed that it was contaminated with modern human DNA (44) to an extent of 11 to 40% (41). We employed a number of technical improvements, including the attachment of tagged sequence adaptors in the clean-room environment (23), to minimize the risk of contamination and determine about 4 billion bp from the Neandertal genome.

Eliza Strickland at Discover:

Researchers from Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology first sequenced the entire Neanderthal genome from powdered bone fragments found in Europe and dating from 40,000 years ago–a marvelous accomplishment in itself. Then, they compared the Neanderthal genome to that of five modern humans, including Africans, Europeans, and Asians. The researchers found that between 1 percent and 4 percent of the DNA in modern Europeans and Asians was inherited from Neanderthals, which suggests that the interbreeding took place after the first groups of humans left Africa.

Anthropologists have long speculated that early humans may have mated with Neanderthals, but the latest study provides the strongest evidence so far, suggesting that such encounters took place around 60,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent region of the Middle East [The Guardian].

The study, published in Science and made available to the public for free, opens up new areas for research. Geneticists will now probe the function of the Neanderthal genes that humans have hung on to, and can also look for human genes that may have given us a competitive edge over Neanderthals.

Erik Trinkaus, an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis, who has long argued that Neanderthals contributed to the human genome, welcomed the study, commenting that now researchers “can get on to other things than who was having sex with who in the Pleistocene”

Science Blog:

Neanderthals lived in much of Europe and western Asia before dying out 30,000 years ago. They coexisted with humans in Europe for thousands of years, and fossil evidence led some scientists to speculate that interbreeding may have occurred there. But the Neanderthal DNA signal shows up not only in the genomes of Europeans, but also in people from East Asia and Papua New Guinea, where Neanderthals never lived.

“The scenario is not what most people had envisioned,” Green said. “We found the genetic signal of Neanderthals in all the non-African genomes, meaning that the admixture occurred early on, probably in the Middle East, and is shared with all descendants of the early humans who migrated out of Africa.”

The study did not address the functional significance of the finding that between 1 and 4 percent of the genomes of non-Africans is derived from Neanderthals. But Green said there is no evidence that anything genetically important came over from Neanderthals. “The signal is sparsely distributed across the genome, just a ‘bread crumbs’ clue of what happened in the past,” he said. “If there was something that conferred a fitness advantage, we probably would have found it already by comparing human genomes.”

The draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome is composed of more than 3 billion nucleotides–the “letters” of the genetic code (A, C, T, and G) that are strung together in DNA. The sequence was derived from DNA extracted from three Neanderthal bones found in the Vindiga Cave in Croatia; smaller amounts of sequence data were also obtained from three bones from other sites. Two of the Vindiga bones could be dated by carbon-dating of collagen and were found to be about 38,000 and 44,000 years old.

Deriving a genome sequence–representing the genetic code on all of an organism’s chromosomes–from such ancient DNA is a remarkable technological feat. The Neanderthal bones were not well preserved, and more than 95 percent of the DNA extracted from them came from bacteria and other organisms that had colonized the bone. The DNA itself was degraded into small fragments and had been chemically modified in many places.

Carl Zimmer at Discover:

Ideas about our own kinship to Neanderthals have swung dramatically over the years. For many decades after their initial discovery, paleoanthropologists only found Neanderthal bones in Europe. Many researchers decided, like Schaafhausen, that Neanderthals were the ancestors of living Europeans. But they were also part of a much larger lineage of humans that spanned the Old World. Their peculiar features, like the heavy brow, were just a local variation. Over the past million years, the linked populations of humans in Africa, Europe, and Asia all evolved together into modern humans.

In the 1980s, a different view emerged. All living humans could trace their ancestry to a small population in Africa perhaps 150,000 years ago. They spread out across all of Africa, and then moved into Europe and Asia about 50,000 years ago. If they encountered other hominins in their way, such as the Neanderthals, they did not interbreed. Eventually, only our own species, the African-originating Homo sapiens, was left.

The evidence scientists marshalled for this “Out of Africa” view of human evolution took the form of both fossils and genes. The stocky, heavy browed Neanderthals did not evolve smoothly into slender, flat-faced Europeans, scientists argued. Instead, modern-looking Europeans just popped up about 40,000 years ago. What’s more, they argued, those modern-looking Europeans resembled older humans from Africa.

At the time, geneticists were learning how to sequence genes and compare different versions of the same genes among individuals. Some of the first genes that scientists sequenced were in the mitochondria, little blobs in our cells that generate energy. Mitochondria also carry DNA, and they have the added attraction of being passed down only from mothers to their children. The mitochondrial DNA of Europeans was much closer to that of Asians than either was to Africans. What’s more, the diversity of mitochondrial DNA among Africans was huge compared to the rest of the world. These sorts of results suggested that living humans shared a common ancestor in Africa. And the amount of mutations in each branch of the human tree suggested that that common ancestor lived about 150,000 years ago, not a million years ago.

Over the past 30 years, scientists have battled over which of these views–multi-regionalism versus Out of Africa–is right. And along the way, they’ve also developed more complex variations that fall in between the two extremes. Some have suggested, for example, that modern humans emerged out of Africa in a series of waves. Some have suggested that modern humans and other hominins interbred, leaving us with a mix of genetic material.

Reconstructing this history is important for many reasons, not the least of which is that scientists can use it to plot out the rise of the human mind. If Neanderthals could make their own jewelry 50,000 years ago, for example, they might well have had brains capable of recognizing themselves as both individuals and as members of a group. Humans are the only living animals with that package of cognitive skills. Perhaps that package had already evolved in the common ancestor of humans and Neanderthals. Or perhaps it evolved independently in both lineages.

Razib Khan at Discover

John Hawks:

If you had to sum up in a few words, what does this mean for paleoanthropology?

These scientists have given an immense gift to humanity.

I’ve been comparing it to the pictures of Earth that came back from Apollo 8. The Neandertal genome gives us a picture of ourselves, from the outside looking in. We can see, and now learn about, the essential genetic changes that make us human — the things that made our emergence as a global species possible.

And in doing so, they’ve taken a forgotten group of people — whom even most anthropologists had given up on — and they’ve restored them to their rightful place in our heritage.

Beyond that, they’ve taken all of their data and deposited it in a public database, so that the rest of us can inspect them, replicate results, and learn new things from them. High school kids can download this stuff and do science fair projects on Neandertal genomics.

This is what anthropology ought to be.

What did they sequence?

The Max Planck group obtained most of their genomic sequence from three specimens from Vindija — Vi33.16, Vi33.25, and Vi33.26. These are all postcranial fragments with minimal anatomical information. Green and colleagues were able to establish that the three bones represent different women, and that Vi33.16 and Vi33.26 may represent maternal relatives.

From these skeletons they got 5.3 billion bases of sequence. All this from an amount of bone powder about equal in mass to an aspirin pill.

Amazing. I mean, I know the folks at Max Planck are reading this. It’s inspiring to see what they’ve been able to do. These are three pieces of barely diagnostic hominin bone, and they’ve obtained literally hundreds of times more information than we have ever gotten from the fossil record of Neandertals.

I’ll describe the analyses of genetic similarity with humans in more detail below. As a brief summary, of those positions where the human genome differs from chimpanzees, Neandertals have the chimpanzee version around 12.7 percent of the time — meaning that across the genome, a Neandertal and a human will share a genetic ancestor an average of around 800,000 years ago. This is a couple hundred thousand years higher than the same number if we compare two humans to each other. The higher age of genetic common ancestors reflects partial isolation between the Neandertal population and the African populations that gave rise to most of our current genetic variation.

The team were able to identify 111 candidate duplications, almost all of which have some evidence of copy number variation in humans or other primates. They tentatively show that Neandertals have a bit more copy number variation than present-day humans, and identify a few loci with substantially higher copy numbers in one group or the other.

Jules Crittenden:

I recall in my own nathro days in college that was more of an open question … species or subpopulation, than it seems to have been more recently. Hawks holds puts us biologically in the same column. They are Homo sapiens, though he allows some paleontologists will disagree, based on morphological distinctions. But that, he notes, would make all non-Africans interspecies hybrids.

I kind of like the interspecies hybrid idea. It’s got an edgy sound to it. But Hawks also suggests that the 1 to 4 percent is only the currently discernable proportion. It could be higher, and sub-Saharan Africans could have some as yet undetected because it shows no variation from what we all have, part of the baseline, so to speak. I especially like his observation that genetically speaking, a minimum 1 percent Neanderthal genes in 5 billion people is the equivalent of 50 million Neanderthals “yawping from the rooftops,” which he suggests is not a bad genetic success rate for the Neanderthals. They weren’t evolutionary failures after all. Propagation of genetic material being the ultimate point of all our endeavors. Absent as yet is any indication of what discernable traits we might have inherited from them.

A lot of mind-bending aspects to this news. I’m good with it. I accepted being descended from slithering primodial bog sludge a long time ago. I mean one of those moments when you consider that, yeah, we have some successful molluscs and pretty nasty lizards to thank that we’re here, enjoying the good stuff. They lived and breathed, or whatever, just like us. More recent descent from thickset hairy low brows, that’s neither such a big surprise nor anything to sneer at. A delight that the mysterious, exotic strain known only through science and maybe vague mythic memory turns out, as Hawks says, not to have been a complete deadend. They live in us.

In fact, I was deliriously happy driving home tonight, thinking about all that grand and terrible prehistory. It’s not like anything’s changed with this news. It’s like a few years ago, when I was able to identify a location I had wondered about. The forgotten village in Kent where my father’s people … our Y chromosome … dwelt for centuries, down to the pub where they lived and poured beer, and the names of about 10 generations of them. It was like figuring out there are Saxons, Vikings, Celts and Picts up the line, and the ones who built Stonehenge, learning a little about who and what those direct barbarian forebears were. None of this past is that far in the past, after all. It all happened yesterday. And whenyou start to zero in on them, it’s a homecoming feeling: “There you are. I knew it.”

Ronald Bailey at Reason:

I will mention that my 23andMe genotype scan indicates my maternal haplogroup is U5a2a which arose some 40,000 years ago and were among the first homo sapiens colonizers of ice age Europe.

If you’re interested, go here for my column on what rights Neanderthals might claim should we ever succeed in using cloning technologies to bring them back.

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We’ve A Super Weed, Super Weed, We’re Super-Weedy, Yow

William Neuman and Andrew Pollack at NYT:

Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.

To fight them, Mr. Anderson and farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.

“We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,” said Mr. Anderson, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years. “We’re trying to find out what works.”

Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water.

“It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen,” said Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.

The first resistant species to pose a serious threat to agriculture was spotted in a Delaware soybean field in 2000. Since then, the problem has spread, with 10 resistant species in at least 22 states infesting millions of acres, predominantly soybeans, cotton and corn.

The superweeds could temper American agriculture’s enthusiasm for some genetically modified crops. Soybeans, corn and cotton that are engineered to survive spraying with Roundup have become standard in American fields. However, if Roundup doesn’t kill the weeds, farmers have little incentive to spend the extra money for the special seeds.

Roundup — originally made by Monsanto but now also sold by others under the generic name glyphosate — has been little short of a miracle chemical for farmers. It kills a broad spectrum of weeds, is easy and safe to work with, and breaks down quickly, reducing its environmental impact.

Sales took off in the late 1990s, after Monsanto created its brand of Roundup Ready crops that were genetically modified to tolerate the chemical, allowing farmers to spray their fields to kill the weeds while leaving the crop unharmed. Today, Roundup Ready crops account for about 90 percent of the soybeans and 70 percent of the corn and cotton grown in the United States.

But farmers sprayed so much Roundup that weeds quickly evolved to survive it. “What we’re talking about here is Darwinian evolution in fast-forward,” Mike Owen, a weed scientist at Iowa State University, said.

Some Room For Debate at NYT:

American farmers’ broad use of the weedkiller glyphosphate — particularly Roundup, which was originally made by Monsanto — has led to the rapid growth in recent years of herbicide-resistant weeds. To fight them, farmers are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.

What should farmers do about these superweeds? What does the problem mean for agriculture in the U.S.?

Michael D.K. Owen:

The solution to the problem for farmers who have yet to cause the evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds is to adopt a more diverse weed management program that includes tactics other than glyphosate. By altering the selection pressure on the weeds, glyphosate resistance will be slow to evolve.

For those increasing number of farmers who have glyphosate-resistant weeds, the solution is similar but more difficult: adopt alternative tactics that will control those weeds. Of course, often these weeds have also evolved resistance to other herbicides, which, again, is attributed to the historic use of one herbicide as the sole management tactic. In this case, weed control may be more challenging and costly.

Michael Pollen at Room For Debate:

A few lessons may be drawn from this story:

1. A product like Roundup Ready soy is not, as Monsanto likes to claim, “sustainable.” Like any such industrial approach to an agronomic problem — like any pesticide or herbicide — this one is only temporary, and destroys the conditions on which it depends. Lucky for Monsanto, the effectiveness of Roundup lasted almost exactly as long as its patent protection.

2. Genetically modified crops are not, as Monsanto suggests, a shiny new paradigm. This is the same-old pesticide treadmill, in which the farmer gets hooked on a chemical fix that needs to be upgraded every few years as it loses its effectiveness.

3. Monocultures are inherently precarious. The very success of Roundup Ready crops have been their undoing, since so many acres were planted with the same seed, and doused with the same chemical, resistance came quickly. Resilience, and long-term sustainability, comes from diversifying fields, not planting them all to the same kind of seed.

Marion Nestle at The Atlantic:

Yesterday’s New York Times ran an article disclosing the rise and spread across the United States of “superweeds” that have developed resistance to the herbicide Roundup. The article comes with a nifty interactive timeline map charting the spread of Roundup resistance into at least 10 species of weeds in 22 states. Uh oh.

Roundup is Monsanto’s clever way to encourage use of genetically modified (GM) crops. The company bioengineers the crops to resist Roundup. Farmers can dump Roundup on the soil or plants. In theory, only the GM crops will survive and farmers won’t have to use a lot of more toxic herbicides. In practice, this won’t work if weeds develop Roundup resistance and flourish too. Then farmers have to go back to conventional herbicides to kill the Roundup-resistant weeds.

In 1996, Jane Rissler and Margaret Mellon of the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote “The Ecological Risks of Engineered Crops” (based on a report they wrote in 1993). In it, they predicted that widespread planting of GM crops would produce selection pressures for Roundup-resistant weeds. These would be difficult and expensive to control.

At the time, and until very recently, Monsanto, the maker of Roundup, dismissed this idea as “hypothetical.”

I know this because in the mid-1990s, I traveled to Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis to talk to company scientists and officials about the need for transparent labeling of GM foods. Officials told me that Roundup had been used on plants for 70 years with only minimal signs of resistance, and it was absurd to think that resistance would become a problem. I pointed out that Roundup resistance is a “point” mutation, one that requires minimal changes in the genetic makeup of a weed.

Carl Zimmer at Discover:

Neuman and Pollack left the story of this fast-forward evolution at that–but it’s actually a fascinating tale. A century ago, Melander could only study natural selection by observing which insects lived and died. Today, scientists can pop the lid off the genetic toolbox that insects and weeds use to resist chemicals that were once thought irresistible. Stephen Powles, a scientist at the University of Western Australia, has been studying the evolution of Roundup resistance for some years now, and he’s co-authored a new review that surveys what we know now about it.

What’s striking is how many different ways weeds have found to overcome the chemical. Scientists had thought that Roundup was invincible in part because the enzyme it attacks is pretty much the same in all plants. That uniformity suggests that plants can’t tolerate mutations to it; mutations must change its shape so that it doesn’t work and the plant dies. But it turns out that many populations of ryegrass and goosegrass have independently stumbled across one mutation that can change a single amino acid in the enzyme. The plant can still survive with this altered enzyme. And Roundup has a hard time attacking it thanks to its different shape.

Another way weeds fight off Roundup is through sheer numbers. Earlier this year an international team of scientists reported their discovery of how Palmer amaranth resists glyphosate. The plants make the ordinary, vulnerable form of the enzyme. But the scientists discovered that they have many extra copies of the gene for the enzyme–up to 160 extra copies, in fact. All those extra genes make extra copies of the enzyme. While the glyphosate may knock out some of the enzymes in the Palmer amaranth, the plants make so many more enzymes that they can go on growing.

It’s also possible for weeds to evolve resistance to Roundup without any change whatsoever to the enzyme Roundup attacks. When farmers spread Roundup on plants, the chemical spreads swiftly from the leaves all the way down the stems to the roots. This fast, widespread movement helps make Roundup so deadly. It turns out that some species of horseweed and other weeds have evolved a way to block the spread. Scientists don’t yet know how they manage this. It’s possible that cells in the leaves suck the Roundup in through their membranes and then tuck it away in safe little chambers where they can’t cause harm. However they do it, the weeds can continue to grow with their normal enzymes.

What makes the evolution of Roundup resistance all the more dangerous is how it doesn’t respect species barriers. Scientists have found evidence that once one species evolves resistance, it can pass on those resistance genes to other species. They just interbreed, producing hybrids that can then breed with the vulnerable parent species.

In a recent interview, Powles predicted that the Roundup resistance catastophe is just going to get worse, not just in the United States but everywhere where Roundup is used intensively. It’s not a hopeless situation, however. Farmers may be able to slow the spread of resistance by mixing up the kinds of seeds they use, even by fostering vulernable weeds in the way Melander suggested. Resistance is a manageable problem–once you recognize the problem and its evolutionary roots.

Tom Laskawy at Grist:

Grist coverage on the issue of superweeds can be found here, here, here, here and here. Strangely, given that the New York Times Magazine recently did a story about a pair of commodity rice growers who switched over to organic methods for some of these very reasons, the current Times piece omits discussion of any organic or agro-ecological alternatives to chemically intensive agriculture.

For example, the Rodale Institute has for years been growing commodity crops in an organic, no-till style with the same or better yields as conventional and genetically engineered seed. Much of the problem relates to a lack of information on the benefits or techniques required to convert. The “conventional wisdom” among growers is that it’s too costly, in terms of labor and reduced yields, to convert to organic. Kurt and Karen Unkel, the farmers featured in the Times Magazine piece, used a sophisticated custom-built software application to arrive at the financial benefits to conversion.

Rodale itself supplies a conversion calculator right on its website. The costs of new, patented seeds from Monsanto, plus a whole host of new chemicals, plus the additional fuel costs from the need to abandon chemical no-till farming are high — the future of seeds genetically engineered to withstand six different pesticides is a particularly bleak one for eaters as well as farmers. Indeed, the competitive advantage for conventional ag may no longer exist, if it ever did.

Jack Kaskey at Bloomberg:

Dow Chemical Co. plans to add a gene to its corn, cotton and soybean seeds that will allow growers to use a second herbicide to control weeds not killed by Monsanto Co.’s Roundup product.

DHT, or Dow Herbicide Tolerance, will be combined with Roundup tolerance, allowing growers to kill problem weeds with Dow’s 2,4-D herbicide, Antonio Galindez, president of Dow AgroSciences, said today in a webcast of a UBS AG conference presentation. DHT may be available by 2012 in SmartStax corn, by 2013 in soybeans and by 2015 in cotton, he said.

“DHT will bring an unsurpassed solution for weeds that are hard to control,” Galindez said. “We want to see our DHT trait in as many acres as possible.”

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The Evolution Of A Blogginghead; Or The Ballad Of Jim And Jerry

Evolution

Earlier, we updated “B-head On The G-head” to include Jim Manzi’s post at Sully’s place on Jerry Coyne’s critique of Bob Wright’s book, “The Evolution of God.” Excerpts don’t do the debate justice, but that’s what we do here, so…

Jerry Coyne in TNR:

While many religious people have been persuaded by Darwin’s overwhelming evidence, there still remains a need to find greater meaning behind it all–to see our world as part of an unfolding and divinely scripted plan. As the theologian John Haught notes, “For the universe to transform our hearts as well as our minds it must allow itself to be read–in one way or another–as having a purpose. To say that the universe has a purpose means quite simply that it is in the process of realizing something that is undeniably good, and that this good is also in some sense imperishable.”

And so the faithful–the ones who care about science at all–have tweaked the theory of evolution to bring it into line with their needs, to make it more congenial. Although life may indeed have evolved, they say, the process was really masterminded by God, whose ultimate goal was to evolve a species, our species, that is able to apprehend and therefore to admire its creator. This progressivist and purpose-driven view of evolution, rejected by most scientists, has been embraced by Haught and other theologians, by religious biologists such as Francis Collins, and, unsurprisingly, by the Catholic church itself.

Yet the notion of guided evolution leaves a problem. What good is a God-evolved species if it must inhabit a world as messy, contingent, and stricken with unpredictable horrors as the process of evolution itself? Is there any way that we can affirm, however dimly, that the world is getting better? And if so, might this, too, have something to do with God? The journalist Robert Wright has devoted much of his career to speculating about these questions, seeking divine purpose behind what he sees as social and biological “laws.” His thesis, in The Evolution of God, is that theologies have changed over time to accommodate the increased interactions among cultures that come with a more complex world, and that this theological change has made the world a more moral place. This is a historical claim about morality’s progress. But atop this claim Wright makes a really remarkable claim, a metaphysical one, that this whole process is driven by God, who is pulling society toward moral perfection. What’s more, he says that this conclusion is not religious but scientific–that it is based on “facts on the ground” that should be obvious to any observer. In what he sees as the relentlessly progressive evolution of religion, Wright seems to find an argument for the existence of God.

Jim Manzi at Sully’s place:

Coyne is an eminent evolutionary biologist, but here makes an enormous claim about the philosophical implications of science: that evolution through natural selection demonstrates that there is no divine plan for the universe. I think this claim is, in fact, a gigantic leap of faith unsupported by any scientific findings.

[…]

It is obvious from the factory analogy that evolution does not eliminate the problem of ultimate origins. Physical genomes are composed of parts, which in turn are assembled from other subsidiary components according to physical laws. We could, in theory, push this construction process back through components and sub-components all the way to the smallest sub-atomic particles currently known, but we would still have to address the problem of original creation. Even if we argue that, as per the GA which spontaneously generates the initial population, that prior physical processes created matter, we are still left with the more profound question of the origin of the rules of the physical process themselves.

This, of course, is a very old question that far pre-dates modern science. A scientific theory is a falsifiable rule that relates cause to effect. If you push the chain of causality back far enough, you either find yourself more or less right back where Aristotle was more than 2,000 years ago in stating his view that any conception of any chain of cause-and-effect must ultimately begin with an Uncaused Cause, or just accept the problem of infinite regress. No matter how far science advances, an explanation of ultimate origins seems always to remain a non-scientific question.

Now consider the relationship of the second observation to the problem of final cause. The factory GA, as we saw, had a goal. Evolution in nature is more complicated — but the complications don’t mean that the process is goalless, just that determining this goal would be so incomprehensibly hard that in practice it falls into the realm of philosophy rather than science. Science can not tell us whether or not evolution through natural selection has some final cause or not; if we believe, for some non-scientific reason, that evolution has a goal, then science can not, as of now, tell what that goal might be.

[…]

The theory of evolution, then, has not eliminated the problems of ultimate origins and ultimate purpose with respect to the development of organisms; it has ignored them. These problems are defined as non-scientific questions, not because we don’t care about the answers, but because attempting to solve them would impede practical progress. Accepting evolution, therefore, requires neither the denial of a Creator nor the loss of the idea of ultimate purpose. It resolves neither issue for us one way or the other. The field of philosophical speculation that does not contradict any valid scientific findings is much wider open to Wright than Coyne is willing to accept.

Patrick Appel has the readers’ reaction at the Dish

Manzi responds to them:

I did not claim any evidence for “a writer”, simply that the existence of evolution through natural selection does demonstrate that there is no writer (to use your metaphor).   I think that the idea that “the ‘purpose’ of evolution (i.e., reproductive fitness) is simply a logical consequence of its existence in the first place” misses the whole point of my post.  In any relevant evolutionary context, including both what we see in the world around us and the factory GA example from my post, reproductive fitness is determined by an environment external to the organism.  Why does this environment exist as it does?  Why do the rules of the particular genetic process (e.g., crossover probabilities, etc.) exist as they do?  And so forth.  To say that “it is a logical consequence of its existence” is to avoid any such questions.

Edward Feser:

One reason so many commentators on the so-called “religion vs. science” debate don’t see the Aristotelian implications of the modern scientific ideas to which they appeal is that they simply don’t understand what Aristotelians mean by “final causality” in the first place, and in general — as I never tire of complaining — are beholden to a fossilized set of “Enlightenment”-era clichés and caricatures of what Aristotelians and Scholastics really thought. Not understanding classical philosophy (whether Aristotelian, Platonist, Thomist, or whatever) they naturally also do not understand the theology it inspired. Hence they take William Paley and his successors – rather than an Augustine, an Aquinas, or even a Leibniz – as their guides to what the divine nature must be like, if there is a God. Hence, rather than directing their arguments against the (classical philosophy-informed) classical theism that has historically defined Christian orthodoxy, they target a (currently popular but historically aberrant) anthropomorphic conception of God. Perhaps Coyne, Dawkins, et al. draw some blood when this conception is their target; and then again, perhaps not. Either way, their arguments are utterly irrelevant to the question of the existence of the God of Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas – and thus of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Santi Tafarella

Coyne responds to Manzi:

Yep, I agree that evolution doesn’t disprove a creator or purpose.  You can have a deistic creator who set things in motion and went to lunch, and you can have a purpose that is “making everything look as if it evolved by natural means.”  Beyond that, Houston, we have problems.

In  the end, Manzi fails to tell us why we should even see “ultimate origin” and “ultimate purpose” as problems, at least, as problems whose solution is God.  What is the “purpose” of a snowflake? Its marvelous “designed” appearance is the ineluctable result of natural processes acting on matter.  There is no mind, no God, behind its appearance.  The products of natural selection and evolution are like snowflakes.  There is not one speck of evidence contradicting the idea that Homo sapiens, like all species, is the result of physical processes (transmuted into biological processes) acting on matter. As to where that matter came from, well, we don’t yet know, but we might someday. Manzi, on the other hand, will never know — not as long as he forsakes science for theology.  And perhaps, if he thinks about it, he will realize that science can indeed address — and refute– some religious theories about creation and purpose.

Manzi responds to Coyne:

Coyne, in his reply to me, says this about it:

“Wrong!  What I have said — repeatedly — is that there is no evidence for a divine plan for the universe.”Well, here is the first paragraph of Coyne’s review, which I quoted in my post [Bold added]:

“Over its history, science has delivered two crippling blows to humanity’s self-image. The first was Galileo’s announcement, in 1632, that our Earth was just another planet and not, as Scripture implied, the center of the universe. The second—and more severe—landed in 1859, when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, demolishing, in 545 pages of closely reasoned prose, the comforting notion that we are unique among all species—the supreme object of God’s creation, and the only creature whose earthly travails could be cashed in for a comfortable afterlife.”He doesn’t say that there is no evidence for it, but that Darwin demolished this notion.

Coyne, in his reply, makes a lot of the fact that he doesn’t dismiss the idea of a “deistic creator that set things in motion and went to lunch”, but that certain conceptions of God are ruled out by science.  What is ruled out exactly?  It’s important here to distinguish between mechanism and purpose.  In his original essay, Coyne claims that “Charles Darwin…demolished…the comforting notion that we are unique among species – the supreme object of God’s creation”, so presumably without regard to the mechanism of just setting things in motion versus intervening frequently, Coyne believes that there can be no divine plan that makes us unique.

The key issue in our disagreement, it seems to me, is therefore not whether or not a purported God is deistic or interventionist, but rather whether evolution through natural selection precludes a purpose for the universe that privileges humans.  Coyne accepts that a position of “it’s all an incredibly ingenious façade designed by an omnipotent God to fool us” is always logically possible, but sees this as a sterile point of view.  I agree.  What we are disputing, then, could be said more practically as: Do the findings of the Modern Synthesis of evolutionary biology uniquely preclude, using the normal English meaning of words, the idea of a divine plan that privileges humans in the way we mean in normal speech as religious?

Matt Steinglass on Manzi’s response to Coyne:

I can sort of see why Jim Manzi would feel that Jerry Coyne’s response to him is intemperate, but I’m not sure how I can explain to Jim Manzi why his post really does seem extremely tedious to someone who accepts, not just the validity of the theory of evolution, but that people ought to approach the world by privileging evidence and Occam’s Razor. Essentially, Manzi has invented a new comforting notion for those who wish to believe that the universe is programmed by an intentional God. Maybe, he imagines, the universe is not a clock, as the folks who tried to rescue theism in the 18th and 19th centuries imagined, but a biological computer, like the ones that use DNA to solve problems. Those kinds of computers solve problems by setting some criteria for a solution and then running through zillions of combinations very rapidly, selecting out the more promising lines of inquiry and killing off the ones that begin to fail, until they arrive at a combination that meets the criteria established at the beginning.

[…]

The point is this: until the 19th century, the argument for God was that beings as complex and sophisticated as hummingbirds or humans could not possible have come into existence randomly; something had to have shaped them. Darwin showed that wasn’t true. Life evolves into existence constantly all around us without a creator. Once you get there, the only remaining reasons to believe in the existence of a creator are aesthetic ones, not centered on humans. The idea that humans are “unique among all species, the supreme object of God’s creation,” isn’t impossible. It’s just infinitely unlikely. I don’t see why Manzi keeps failing to get the point.

Manzi on Steinglass at The American Scene:

But a crucial point of my post is that Darwin showed no such thing. Evolution, contrary to frequent claims in the public square, does not act randomly. I won’t repeat my entire original post here, but if Matt rejects my argument for why this is not so, I think he needs to point out the flaw in my logic.

Again, to be clear, I am not claiming that somehow the theological argument from design is correct, only that evolution does not act randomly.

Noah Millman at The Scene:

I’m not 100% clear on whether Jim is making a factual or a hermeneutical claim. He presses several times on the question of randomness. “Random” is, indeed, a funny word. (Personal anecdotal aside: my first task at my first job on Wall Street was to organize regular lunches with the staff for the CEO. “The company’s now too big for me to really get to know everyone personally through normal business interactions,” he said, “so I want to meet on a monthly basis with random groups of staff to stay in touch with everyone and with all the different parts of the firm.” I asked if, rather that “random,” didn’t he really mean “mixed” groups of staff. That won me a gold star. Took a few more years to realize that, on Wall Street, you’re not competing for gold stars – you’re competing for money.) But I think the way he is using it nothing – with the possible exception of events on the quantum level – is truly random. That’s not the way we use the word normally, and I wonder whether Jim’s argument could be reduced to the statement “nothing is actually random if you believe God is behind everything.”

In any event, mutations are, in the sense that we normally use the word, random. In fact, I think they are random at least to some extent in the way that Jim means it – that is to say, they are caused by quantum mechanical events that are in principle unpredictable (because the underlying reality is actual uncertain rather than merely unknowable) rather than merely practically unpredictable (because so complex and chaotic as to be beyond human powers of calculation, even with the application of all currently engineerable technology).

Some people have also tried to make that claim that the selection process itself may be guided – that, basically, some overseeing intelligence could be determining who survives and prospers and who dies without reproducing, and thereby guiding evolution. I don’t think Jim is making that claim, but I don’t see how, in principle, it’s any different from the claim that some overarching intelligence is guiding the process of mutation. In either case, if there’s a factual claim here – that something other than chance is guiding either the mutations or the selection – that claim can, in principle, be tested. To take an overly simple example: suppose one believed that the overarching intelligence had set up the universe as a genetic algorithm to produce blue algae. You would expect some evidence of that preference – say, that mutations in green algae to produce blue offspring were more common than the other way around. In the absence of any such evidence, you’d say that, in fact, the overarching intelligence (if any) doesn’t appear to prefer either color of algae. In other words, if random mutation plus natural selection accounts for the facts, there’s scientific reason (Occam’s Razor and all that) to reject any other force in operation. And, in that case, Jim is reduced to saying that what appears to be random – and what is indistinguishable scientifically from randomness – is, in fact, caused by an overarching intelligence. This is akin to the claim that, if it were not for God, the strong and weak nuclear forces would not function, and therefore the universe would have no structure whatsoever. You can perfectly well believe that, but it’s not the kind of claim that will generate much interesting discussion.

That ends “The Ballad Of Jim and Jerry” for now. Onto “Evolution of A Blogginghead” or what happens when Science Saturday people quit.

The first controversial Bloggingheads, between Ronald Numbers and Paul Nelson

The second controversial Bloggingheads, between John McWhorter and Michael Behe

Sean Carroll:

Unfortunately, I won’t be appearing on Bloggingheads.tv any more. And it is unfortunate — I had some great times there, and there’s an enormous amount to like about the site. So I thought I should explain my reasons.

A few weeks ago we were a bit startled to find a “Science Saturday” episode of BH.tv featuring Paul Nelson, an honest-to-God young-Earth creationist. Not really what most of us like to think of as “science.” So there were emails back and forth trying to figure out what went on. David Killoren, who is the person in charge of the Science Saturday dialogues, is an extremely reasonable guy; we had slightly different perspectives on the matter, but in the end he appreciated the discomfort of the scientists, and we agreed to classify that dialogue as a “failed experiment,” not something that would be a regular feature.

So last week we were startled once again, this time by the sight of a dialogue between John McWhorter and Michael Behe. Behe, some of you undoubtedly know, is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, and chief promulgator of the idea of “irreducible complexity.” The idea is that you can just look at something and know it was “designed,” because changing any bit of it would render the thing useless — so it couldn’t have arisen via a series of incremental steps that were all individually beneficial to the purpose of the object. The classic example was a mousetrap — until someone shows how a mousetrap is, in fact, reducibly complex. Then you change your choice of classic example. Behe had his butt handed to him during his testimony at the Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial over teaching intelligent design in schools; but embarrassment is not an arrow in the ID quiver, and he hasn’t been keeping quiet since then.

[…]

What I objected to about the creationists was that they were not worthy opponents with whom I disagree; they’re just crackpots. Go to a biology conference, read a biology journal, spend time in a biology department; nobody is arguing about the possibility that an ill-specified supernatural “designer” is interfering at whim with the course of evolution. It’s not a serious idea. It may be out there in the public sphere as an idea that garners attention — but, as we all know, that holds true for all sorts of non-serious ideas. If I’m going to spend an hour of my life listening to two people have a discussion with each other, I want some confidence that they’re both serious people. Likewise, if I’m going to spend my own time and lend my own credibility to such an enterprise, I want to believe that serious discussions between respectable interlocutors are what the site is all about.

Here’s the distinction I want to draw, which might admittedly be a very fine line. If someone wants to talk about ID as a socio/religio/political phenomenon worth of study by anthropologists and sociologists, that’s fine. (Presumably the right people to have that discussion are anthropologists or sociologists or historians/philosophers of science, not biochemists who have wandered into looney land.) If someone wants to talk to someone who believes in ID about something that person has respectable thoughts about, that would also be fine with me. If you want to talk to a theologian about theology, or a politician about politics, or an artist about art, the fact that such a person has ID sympathies doesn’t bother me in the least.

But if you present a discussion about the scientific merits of ID, with someone who actually believes that such merits exist — then you are wasting my time and giving up on the goal of having a worthwhile intellectual discussion. Which is fine, if that’s what you want to do. But it’s not an endeavor with which I want to be associated. At the end of our conversations, I understood that my opinions about these matters were very different from those of the powers that be at BH.tv.

Bob Wright responds in the comments:

Sean, in your account of the phone conversation with me and Carl Zimmer and some BhTV staffers yesterday, I wish you’d included some key points I tried to drive home.

Here’s what I remember telling you and Carl yesterday:
1) Both of the diavlogs in question had been arranged without my knowledge.
2) I would certainly not have approved both of them, and probably not either of them, had I known about them.
3) The Behe diavlog, in particular, was blatantly at odds with guidelines I’d laid down to my staff more than a year ago in discussing the prospect of Behe appearing. Namely: Behe should only appear in conversation with someone who is truly expert in the relevant biological areas, and since most such matchups would yield a conversation unintelligible to a lay audience, it was hard to imagine a Behe pairing that would make sense.
4) Since these two diavlogs were arranged, I have told the staffers who arranged them that in the future they should make sure to clear diavlogs of this sort with me before arranging them.

It’s true that I didn’t give you the pledge that apparently would have kept you appearing on BhTV: No more creationists or Intelligent Design folks ever on Bloggingheads. I said that, for example, I could imagine myself interrogating ID people about their theological motivation. And I said I’d welcome a Behe-Richard Dawkins debate, since Dawkins is a rare combination of expertise and accessibility. But I also said that offhand I couldn’t imagine any other Behe pairing that would work for me (though there may be possibilities I’m overlooking).

The key thing that I tried to underscore repeatedly in our phone conversation yesterday is this: The two diavlogs in question were not reflective of BhTV editorial policy, and steps have been taken to tighten the implementation of that policy so that future content will be more reflective of it. Sean, I wish that in your post you’d conveyed this to your readers, though I realize that you had a lot of other things you wanted to say.

Carl Zimmer at Discover:

My standard for taking part in any forum about science is pretty simple. All the participants must rely on peer-reviewed science that has direct bearing on the subject at hand, not specious arguments that may sound fancy but are scientifically empty. I believe standards like this one are crucial if we are to have productive discussions about the state of science and its effects on our lives.

This is not Blogginghead’s standard, at least as I understand it now. And so here we must part ways.

I’ve written this post mainly just to put my decision in words. It may matter to very few people, and if most readers of the Loom have skipped this post to await some juicy science, I understand entirely. But the arc of this two-year experiment has got me thinking a bit about where the public discussion of science is going these days.

Bob Wright responds in comments

John Horgan:

I have enormous respect for Carl and Sean. They are extremely smart, knowledgeable, gracious men, and they upgraded the level of discourse on BHTV. I’ll be sad to see them go. But I’m staying, and I disagree, strongly, with their stance that some topics (with one exception, noted below) should be shunned on principle.

Bob Wright and I disagree, strongly, on a lot of things, as anyone who watched our recent chat about his new book knows. But I’m glad that Bob has refused to exclude, a priori, certain topics, attitudes, people from BHTV. The basic premise of BHTV, as I see it, is that dialogue and debate are intrinsically good, leading to enlightenment and progress in human affairs and all sorts of other good stuff—even though of course it doesn’t always work out that way in practice.

My placement above of things like psychoanalysis and multiverse theories alongside astrology and homeopathy was my passive-aggressive way of making the point that it ain’t always easy to draw the line between real and pseudo-science. Some titans of science have espoused wacky beliefs. Linus Pauling insisted that vitamin C could cure cancer. Fred Hoyle suspected the flu virus comes from outer space. Freeman Dyson believes in ESP and thinks global warming may be good for us. Sean Carroll thinks multiverse theories deserve serious attention.

Bloggingheads features conservatives with extremely hawkish views, which I think are potentially far more dangerous than creationism or astrology or multiverses. Should they be excluded? No! My attitude is, Let’s talk about it! I’d like to find out why you hold these views, and to tell you why you’re wrong. Maybe you’ll persuade me you’re right, although I doubt it, but at least we may achieve some mutual understanding, which can’t be bad.

John Horgan and Bob Wright at Bloggingheads on the affair

John Coyne on the controversy, here and here. He links to Phil Plait at Discovery:

Bloggingheads had full-blown creationists being interviewed, making all the same long-debunked claims while the other person talking basically supported them. And BloggingHeads called that science.

So Bzzzzzzzt! I’m done with them. I was on BloggingHeads (with Carl) a few months ago, and I won’t ever do it again either. If they want to cast creationism as science, they might as well say Holocaust denial is real history, 9/11 truthers are engineers, and Birthers are patriots. They can do that, but it’s a crock.

Folks, the debate is over, and has been for decades: creationism is wrong, and provably so. And it’s certainly not science. Portraying it as such is either breathtaking ignorance, or a lie. Sorry, BHTV, but creationism is the shark, and you’re Fonzie.

Greg Fish:

Wright needs to think about what kind of reputation he wants his site to have in the popular science world. He could allow it to become an irrelevant laughingstock that once used to host scientists, skeptics and scientific discussions of serious merit, or he could admit a mistake and allow creationists and their fawning followers to stew in their own self-congratulatory pseudoscientific muck. It’s his call.

P.Z. Myers at Scienceblogs:

Several of the commenters on Phil’s site do not think it is a good idea, because lunacy like creationism ought to be confronted whenever we can do so. I agree! The problem with bloggingheads wasn’t simply that creationists were given a venue — it was that creationists were given a venue without voices opposing their ideas. It was setting up crackpots with softball interviews that made them look reasonable, because their peculiar ideas were never confronted. That’s what has to be rejected, not the idea of arguing with bad ideas (although Sean Carroll makes a good case that some ideas are so bad they don’t even deserve debate), but a site that promised discussion yet became open mic night for loons.

Greg Laden at Scienceblogs:

One possible conclusion that could come of all this is the following: Bloggingheads.tv is practically a mouthpiece for creationism. Yes it is true that the creationists only get on Blogginheads once every year or so, but that would be like NOVA producing one or two pro-creationist one hour long specials every decade. Unacceptable and outrageous. Robert Wright and his whole team need to be driving into the swamp.

Another possible conclusion is that Blogginheads.tv is run like a half baked lemonade stand, and thus does not serve well in protecting the high standards of decision making and management that the rest of the blogosphere adheres to. They need to be punished for their inefficacious behavior. Drive them at least in the general direction of the swamp and they will surely blunder into the mire on their own. But if new management or editorial practices are demonstrated, make nice and start once again using Bloggingheads.tv as a mouthpiece for rationality and science.

Yet another possible conclusion is that the creationists have done an admirable job at getting Carl Zimmer, Sean Carrol, Phil Plait, and PZ Myers, four of the most widely heard and widely loved (or hated, depending) voices of science and of anti-creationism, to commit to never using this popular venue. Now, if the creationists can do this with, say, Public TV and some of the major news outlets, they have it made. It won’t be long after that they will be able to drive all of us into the swamp.

Coyne:

So much for the virtues of accommodationism. If you pretend that religion has something to say about science, or if you present these two magisteria as coequals, those who have genuine respect for science — and integrity — are going to flee faster than rats on a sinking ship.

EARLIER: B-head on the G-head

UPDATE: Jim Manzi at The American Scene

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