Tag Archives: rhetoric of 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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NASA beauty pageant/Organizational communication of sexism

Image from Artifacting.

For a few years in the late sixties and early seventies NASA ran beauty pageants.  There isn’t much information about the contests but the internet has generated a handful of pictures of the winners set next to a series of space artifacts.  The images stuck with me and a few ideas are worth probing, perhaps not focusing on the beauty pageants, but instead turning the lens toward NASA.

–> At what point does an organization focused ostensibly on the investigation of outer space find itself running an earthly beauty contest?  One answer is that lots of organizations do charity or events to raise their public profile.  I can imagine a car dealer having a book drive for a local library.  But obviously a car dealer probably wouldn’t raise funds for a bicycle learning center.  The choice of secondary advocacy/charity/public relations campaigns speaks (in a slightly obscured way) about the priorities of the organization.
–>Considering the context of the time, these images are generated a few years after the 1969 human landing on the moon.  The space race between the United States the Soviet Union is in motion.  The recruitment of scientists and engineers is presumably a government priority.  Reading the NASA history chapter on social and cultural legacies gives some incredible insights into the very serious struggles to challegne institutional sexism and racism at NASA.  In 1973, when the beauty pageant photo was taken, there was no women’s bathroom at the Kennedy Space Center.  Apparently women could be objectified at the space command, but they couldn’t take a piss.

–> A quote from the above mentioned NASA History:

Admitting women into the Astronaut Corps did require some change in the NASA culture, recalled Carolyn Huntoon, a member of the 1978 astronaut selection board and mentor to the first six female astronauts. “Attitude was the biggest thing we had to [work on],” she said. Astronaut Richard Mullane, who was selected as an astronaut candidate in 1978, had never worked with professional women before coming to NASA. Looking back on those first few years, he remembered that “the women had to endure a lot because” so many of the astronauts came from military backgrounds and “had never worked with women and were kind of struggling to come to grips on working professionally with women.”


Although I like the inclusion of the topic of sexism in the NASA workplace, I have to question the choice of the editors of this piece to focus on a male astronaut to explain the problem of sexism.  Particularly beneficial to the institution of NASA is the suggestion that the problem of discrimination comes down to the attitudes of a few astronauts.  Compare this with the actual history of NASA in which the first director of Equal Employment Opportunity for NASA (Ruth Bates Harris) declares the attempt to recruit women and people of color “a near total failure.”  Harris was fired by the director of NASA and congress had to force NASA to reinstate her under threat.  It seems like the attitude problem wasn’t limited to a few astronaut candidates.  (Admittedly this information came from the same NASA produced text).

–> Mary Daly includes some discussion about the 2-dimensional representation of women who sustain the men of the space race in Gyn/Ecology.  She describes wives and mothers who are captures in photographic (and video-graphic representation) in order to enable men to fly into space.  There is something amazing about the choice of these NASA pageant images — of beautiful women who have competed for the approval of obscure NASA officials — the winners placed awkwardly into scientific scenes.  As if to suggest their intrusion and difference.  Consider the woman above who is dressed precisely to be as un-astronaut as possible.  As if to suggest that the only way a woman would get into NASA is on the arm of a person who legitimately was welcomed there — as a wife or girlfriend.

–> It is logical to note that these particular representations proliferate the moments when women are asking to get access to equal employment.  We could describe them as a targeted responses intended to resist cultural changes.

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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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