The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Junkyard genes

I've already cited Richard Dawkins' review of Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True, and now I'm going to do it again, because it has (ha!) a genomics connection:
The molecular genetics revolution, which began in 1953, would have taken Darwin’s breath away and filled him with exultation. Every living creature carries within each of its cells a voluminous textual recipe for making itself. Nowadays, we can read these messages, accurately and with a completeness that is limited only by (rapidly shrinking) costs and time. Because the DNA texts of all animals and plants use the identical four-letter code, we have a gold mine of opportunity for comparison. In his own time, Darwin could compare, say, the wing of a bat, the flipper of a whale and the spade of a mole, and spot the relationships among a handful of bones. Today – and more cheaply in the near tomorrows – we can do it on an altogether grander scale, lining up billion-letter DNA texts from bat, whale and mole, and literally counting the single-letter discrepancies and resemblances. Moreover, we don’t have to limit our comparisons to one group, such as the mammals. The universal genetic code allows us to make letter-for-letter textual comparisons across plants, snails and bacteria, as well as vertebrates. This not only provides evidence for the fact of evolution that is orders of magnitude more solid even than the powerful evidence Darwin could muster. We can also construct, finally and definitively, the complete tree of all life, the universal pedigree. And we can find, in huge numbers, the molecular equivalents of vestigial evolutionary relics like the human appendix and the kiwi’s wings.

For the genome is littered with dead genes. Huge wastes of DNA territory comprise a graveyard of discarded, superseded old genes (plus meaningless sequences of nonsense DNA that never functioned) with occasional islands of current, extant genes that are actually read by the translating machinery and turned into action. Dead, untranslated genes are called pseudogenes. The reason our sense of smell is poor, compared with, say, that of dogs, is that most of our ancestral genes for smelling have been rendered inactive. We still have them, but they are dead. Molecular biologists can still read them – serried ranks of molecular “fossils” – but the body does not.

It is wonderful enough that we can construct a tree of life based on active genes, and find that different genes agree on the same pedigree. It is even more convincing that we get the same pedigree with dead genes, whose DNA sequences represent nothing, and must be regarded only as the inert legacy of history. How would creationists explain that? How would they explain the very existence of pseudogenes? Why would the creator litter the genome with useless, untranslated variants of genes, and locate them, moreover, in exactly the right pattern around the animal and plant kingdoms to give the impression – the deceptive impression, as a creationist would presumably have to admit – that they evolved and were not created?
This is all true, of course, but as always there are devils in the details: via The Panda's Thumb, here's a lucid explanation of why gene trees and species trees are not necessarily quite the same.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

Gaza event

Edinburgh's radical bookshop, Word Power, has organised a fund-raising event for educational projects in Gaza. The event features readings and performances by, among others, Alasdair Gray, Kathleen Jamie, Ron Butlin, Allan Cameron, Regi Claire, and Tom Leonard.

Edinburgh, Scotland, Saturday 28 February 2009 from 1.00pm to 11.00pm. Details.


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Lost World events

Two forthcoming events are part of the Lost World Read.

The first, on Thursday 26 February at the Pleasance Cabaret Bar, is the Writers' Bloc public reading event Doyle M for Murder. Like any other event from the Bloc's toilers on the fiction front, this can be relied upon to lower the tone.

The second (raising the tone) is a public lecture at Napier University on Monday 2 March by Professor Steve Jones on 'Lost Worlds and Worlds to Come', linking Darwin's theory to Conan Doyle's vision, as well as 'today's science fiction's preoccupation with an unhappy future rather than a noble past.'

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

News from the science front

Every day at the Genomics Forum an email with a web-crawled roundup of genomics-related news stories pops up in my inbox. Checking even the most interesting ones, let alone blogging about them, could be a real time sink, so I won't be doing this every day. But as an experiment, turning a selection of these stories into an Avedon-style linky post might be worth a try.

'Why should all our children be at risk because a few middle-class idiots have conspiracy theories against the medical establishment?' asks a column in the Daily Mail, the paper arguably more responsible than any other for this public health disaster.

The Telegraph runs a fascinating autobiographical account of the early years of neuropsychiatry, by the son of one pioneer. Lithium works but can't be patented, because it's a mineral.

The first nanobot with two arms has been built from DNA. The annual conference of the AAAS has heard papers on clues from synthetic biology to the origin and evolution of life and the evolutionary history of modern humans in Africa.

Richard Dawkins reviews Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True. Oddly enough, I think you'll find Dawkins tends to agree with Coyne.
Even if we bend over backwards to concede that scientific truth is no more than that which enables you to pilot your way reliably, safely and predictably around the real universe, it is in exactly this sense that – at the very least – evolution is true. Evolutionary theory pilots us around biology reliably and predictively, with a detailed and unblemished success that rivals anything in science. The least you can say about evolutionary theory is that it works. All but pedants would go further and assert that it is true.
Finally, a nice example of what selfish genes can do: carry out their own genetic engineering.

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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Digital Evolution

A report of the Digital Evolution event is now up at my Genomics Forum page. Most of the piece is what I said (because I had notes beforehand) about how I came to use the idea of evolution of artificial life in The Star Fraction, back in the late 80s and early 90s - an answer to 'where do you get your ideas from'? In this case, William Poundstone and Richard Dawkins, the latter of whom I felt wasn't getting enough publicity. Read it there, comment here!

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Saturday, February 14, 2009


The Night Sessions has made the 2009 Arthur C. Clarke Award longlist, as well as the BSFA Award shortlist and the Locus 2008 Recommended Reading list. The Clarke long list is of all books submitted for the award, so it's a vote of confidence from Orbit, for which I'm grateful. The list, which has several other Orbit titles including two (two!) from Charlie, is a strong one - which, for anyone on it, means the usual mixed feelings of it's-an-honour-just-to-be-nominated versus um-not-much-of-a-chance-up-against-this-lot-then. As mixed feelings go, that's a good mixed feeling to have.


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Annals of alternate aviation

In honour of St Valentine's Day, and via the ever-fascinating English Russia, we bring you Russian brides! And just to drive the hits up even further, a pic from the same site of a Soviet flying fortress meeting a Nazi flying saucer.

Oddly enough, my only use of the 'Nazi flying saucer' trope was in The Sky Road. My Sidewise Award-winning novella of Western, democratic flying saucers, The Human Front, is currently being translated into Italian by Salvatore Proietti, who is asking me some interesting questions on awkward points of translation: Gaelic and Scots usages, obscure political and military references, and obsolete racial slurs have all come up. I can't help wondering what someone made of all these when they pirated the novella into Estonian.
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Friday, February 13, 2009


Belatedly, I can report that the Digital Evolution event last Saturday evening went well. About seventy people turned up, and discussion was lively. I'll probably write up what I said for my forum page. Less belatedly, last night's Darwin Day event was a smashing succes, with a crowd of hundreds in the McEwan Hall to hear a very distinguished panel. The University is also promoting the City of Literature Trust's Lost World Read, which will let you get (among other things) the new Darwin graphic bio for free.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Another 'Who knew?' moment

Fascinating post on the WPA's 'make-work projects' by the Infamous Brad. (Via.)
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Friday, February 06, 2009

Frankenstein and Co

I've written an introductory article on Sociology, Genomics, and SF which is now up at the Genomics Forum site. It is, I suppose, remotely possible that the article is not the last word on the subject, and even that it could be improved.

While you're there, have a look around the site - and don't forget the short story competition.



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Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Forbidden Planet, Lost World

My good friend Joe Gordon (the official, and prolific, Forbidden Planet blogger has kindly flagged up the Digital Evolution event, and reminded me that he's also blogged about the new 100-page comic book Darwin: A Graphic Biography by Simon Gurr and Eugene Byrne, to say nothing of the nifty new City of Literature edition of The Lost World.


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Monday, February 02, 2009

More evolution

In association with IoI, Humanism Scotland, and the National Library of Scotland
Should schools teach creationism?
Venue: National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, George IV Bridge, EH1 1EW
Date: February 11, 2009
Time: 18.30
Tickets: Free
Booking: Reservation required from 0131 623 4675 or email


Alex McLellan, Founder and Executive Director of Reason Why
Dave Perks, Head of Physics at Graveney School in London
Christopher Brookmyre, Novellist, including Boiling a Frog
Julian Baggini, writer and philosopher
Marc Surtees, Paradigm Shift
Chair - Dr Tiffany Jenkins, Institute of Ideas

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Working in the spaceship yards

Jo Walton re-reads The Sky Road over at It's great to see she's still as enthusiastic about it as she was on rec.arts.sf.written, way back in the 20th Century.

Starship Sofa has a podcast of my short story 'Jesus Christ, Reanimator', excellently read by SF writer and podcaster Matthew Wayne Selznick, and with a witty piece of cover art by Skeet. The actual reading starts at about 47 minutes in to the mp3, but listen to the whole thing.
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Digital Evolution

The Genomics Forum and local listings mag The Skinny have got together to sponsor an evening discussion of what computer games can tell us about evolution at the Drill Hall in Dalmeny Street, Edinburgh. This free but ticketed event is on Saturday 7 Feb at 7 p.m.

Spread the meme.


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