Tag Archives: representation and science

Challenging the idea of the selfish gene

I enjoyed an essay by David Dobbs in Aeon Magazine about genes.  Key to the argument is a call for  more complex understanding of the relationship between genes and evolutionary change.

The gene-centric view is thus ‘an artefact of history’, says Michael Eisen, an evolutionary biologist who researches fruit flies at the University of California, Berkeley. ‘It rose simply because it was easier to identify individual genes as something that shaped evolution. But that’s about opportunity and convenience rather than accuracy. People confuse the fact that we can more easily study it with the idea that it’s more important.’

The gene’s power to create traits, says Eisen, is just one of many evolutionary mechanisms. ‘Evolution is not even that simple. Anyone who’s worked on systems sees that natural selection takes advantage of the most bizarre aspects of biology. When something has so many parts, evolution will act on all of them.

‘It’s not that genes don’t sometimes drive evolutionary change. It’s that this mutational model — a gene changes, therefore the organism changes — is just one way to get the job done. Other ways may actually do more.’

via Why it’s time to lay the selfish gene to rest – David Dobbs – Aeon.

It seems to me that the arguments that the genetic code are read in different ways most challenges the notions about predictable genetic modification.

Describing Mary Jane West-Eberhard’s arguments about genes, Dobbs notes:

She does have her pithy moments. ‘The gene does not lead,’ she says. ‘It follows.’

There lies the quick beating heart of her argument: the gene follows. And one of the ways the gene follows is through this process called genetic accommodation.

I appreciate that it comes down to a battle of articulation — simple vs. complex.  Communication, it always comes back to communication.  Some ideas corrode against others and in this case the gene-centric model pushes out the ability to explain that ideas like the selfish gene . . . might be a little more complex than we think.

Yet West-Eberhard understands why many biologists stick to the gene-centric model. ‘It makes it easier to explain evolution,’ she says. ‘I’ve seen people who work in gene expression who understand all of this. But when they get asked about evolution, they go straight to Mendel. Because people understand it more easily.’ It’s easy to see why: even though life is a zillion bits of biology repeatedly rearranging themselves in a webwork of constantly modulated feedback loops, the selfish-gene model offers a step-by-step account as neat as a three-step flow chart. Gene, trait, phenotype, done.

via Why it’s time to lay the selfish gene to rest – David Dobbs – Aeon.

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Science can be awesome

This is the University of Maryland’s Gamera II, a human-powered helicopter breaking a world record for human-powered flight.

Yep human -powered.

It makes me want to quit my job and start building my own Max-o-copter.

Of course yesterday while women scientists were helping to make the Gamera II fly for the extra couple of seconds it takes to break the world record, the European commission decided to unveil their “science: it’s a girl thing” campaign.  I won’t insult you with a link, but it is a stunningly sexist take on why women might be interested in science.  Pink clothes, music videos and lip gloss.

s.e. Smith has the insightful analysis of this video over at Tiger Beatdown:

This patronising, pathetic campaign in which science was swaddled in pink sparkles and packaged as something girls can totally do was ridiculous and self-defeating. The video focused entirely on fashion and cosmetics, and the organisation’s site was littered with pinkness and more cosmetics promotion, even though the actual profiles of real women scientists on the site focus on topics like veterinary virology and food security, all of which are fascinating and interesting and might attract interest from young women who would be totally turned off by the offensive framing, and thus are unlikely to see them.

Young women and girls do not in fact need everything to be wrapped in pink in order to be interested in it, nor do they need to see highly traditionalised performances of femininity to believe that something is ‘for them.’ In fact, for girls thinking about science, such displays could be a turnoff; maybe they aren’t interested in performing femininity, or they aren’t conventionally attractive, or, hey, they’re actually smart and independent enough to care about science regardless as to what scientists look like and what they wear in the damn lab, because they’re interested in the research, not the clothes.

via Tiger Beatdown › This may be the most patronising attempt to get girls involved in science ever.

In contrast to the human-powered copter, this misstep seems particularly noxious.  Rather than simply including women in science projects, mentoring women, and encouraging all students to be inquisitive about the world around them, the desire to condescend helps to protect the sciences as the realms of sexism.

Humans are pretty awesome animals and when we get thinking creatively, wonderful stuff emerges.  Cheers to those who believe that everyone is an intellectual.  Cheers to those who trust and like women.  Cheers to those who build flying machines without oil.  And cheers to Zombie Marie Curie who told us all about this years ago . . .

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