Saturday, February 21, 2009

What a Joke...

...the Republican Party has become. Or at least, the radical right wing, becoming increasingly synonymous with the GOP, has elucidated for the rest of us just how out of touch and desperate they have become. This week offered several revelations.

1) The latest has to be this Alan Keyes' interview.

2) Increasingly, accepting the stimulus package money has become political, with a spate of Republican governors threatening to refuse the funds. The most interesting is Bobby Jindal, whose state is facing a $1.6 billion dollar budget deficit, and who has given hints that he will turn down $3.8 billion dollars in federal funds offered as part of the new stimulus package. One could argue this is putting conservative ideology over the best interests of the state (although Charlie Crist, increasingly unpopular with the national GOP, will accept the funds). More likely, this is a clear revelation that Jindal is putting his 2012 political interests over those of his state, which is disappointing. Jindal has always appeared to be a smart, practical man, but it now seems the most high profile Indian in American politics is not above the conservative ideological fray. He's had a pretty bizarre week that includes, besides his irrelevant response to Obama's Congressional Address, his story about participating in the exorcism of a college classmate. If this is the best the Republicans have to offer in 2012, then the Democrats should enjoy a healthy majority for several more years to come.

3) I wanted to post more links, but the NYTimes' Frank Rich has penned something far more informative, so check it out.

4) I am wholly unimpressed with the U.N.'s latest campaign, and so should all of you who value freedom of speech. This isn't directly related to the week that was GOP-insanity, but it's an interesting issue nonetheless, and I sincerely hope religious zealots will one day learn to ignore what other people are saying about their religions (if you have faith, it really shouldn't matter to you when I make jokes like this:

Q: How can you recognize a well-balanced Muslim?
A: He's got chips on both shoulders.

Haha - at this point you Muslims should put away your machetes and not threaten to open up a can of Fatwa on my ass). It's funny how people of "faith" always feel threatened by those with "opposing" messages (that whole sentence is a joke). This is probably because the relevance of these religions rests on trying to correlate religion with morality, a concept that completely underestimates the ability of humans to recognize fundamental distinctions between right and wrong. The simplest example of this? If you've ever heard a child exclaim "That's not fair!", you are witnessing the most basic assessment of right from wrong, an assertion from a source that lacks an academic understanding of religious philosophy, yet is able make such a judgement nonetheless. Ultimately, religion (and ridiculous campaigns like the UN's to defend it from "profanity") undermines human intelligence and its capacity to learn and grow as it struggles to stay relevant in this information age.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Un-intelligible Design

Intelligent design proponents have long argued that certain features of the universe and living things are best explained by an intelligent cause.

If that is indeed the case, what a cluttered mind that cause must have.

When the human genome project was completed a few years ago, one of its most stunning revelations was just how few genes we had, roughly 30000 (as opposed to 100000, a number fitting a seemingly complex organism such as ourselves). To put this into some context, the roundworm, Caenorhabditis elegans, a popular model organism for biological studies (particularly development), has about 20000 genes. Drosophila, the fruit fly used widely in genetic studies, has about 16000 genes.

More interestingly, the coding regions of our DNA (the genes that code for the proteins and RNA that are the business end of genetics) make up around 1.5-2% of our entire genome. So what about the rest of our DNA?

Much of the remaining 98-99% of "non-coding" sequences consists of repeated sequences and redundancies. Most fascinatingly, a large chunk of the genome contains pseudogenes - dead copies of genes we don't use. On the face of it, this appears to be a remarkably inefficient way of organizing - or creating, if you will - the portion of the cells that is mostly responsible for who and what we are. If some entity was in charge of putting all this together, then it did a stunningly poor job.

Really, what our understanding of the genome, post-Human Genome Project, provides for us is perhaps our most relevant and comprehensive historical document. Dead copies of genes aren't there because a creator thought it would be fun; they are once-functioning remnants of evolution that allow us to trace our journey along this pathway. By studying them and comparing them with other organisms, we may be able to improve our understanding of evolutionary relationships.

This is essentially the next major challenge following the completion of the human genomic sequence. By a process called gene annotation, we can attach relevant biological information to these genes. Potentially, by better understanding pseudogenes, we may be able to reconstruct, from a genetic point of view, how we arrived at the point we did. It will provide a fascinating look at the molecular basis, and consequences of, natural selection.

The best comparison for this process may be the evolution of Microsoft Windows. Since it was initially produced in the early to mid-1980s, the Windows' code has been added to and updated, producing a behemoth that perhaps no one but the most hardcore techie geeks could appreciate. By and large, many of the problems and complaints people have with Windows is this architecture, which has led to a cluttered and (seemingly) poorly organized code. And yet, the operating system survives and thrives, problems and all (perhaps due to good marketing, but hey, that's how survival of the fittest works). And while the cluttered code has produced the best-selling operating system on the planet, I'm sure anyone would deign to call it intelligently designed.

I've found the simplest explanation is generally the best one, for many things. Rather than believe a creator has produced a genome that is nearly 99% non-coding, and significantly redundant, it simply makes more sense that our genetic code has evolved and improved by natural means over millions of years. Of course, it is perhaps with chagrin that some folks must accept being evolutionarily linked to chimpanzees and pigs. However, we've just come off of eight years of being led by George Bush; if anything, it is the the chimpanzees that should be upset by the comparison.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Allow myself to introduce....uhh...myself...

We take ourselves way too seriously.

As a scientist, I one day hope to isolate the genes responsible for making man feel he is the epitome of the universe. And then I will delete them.

Let's face it, we're really not that important. As Douglas Adams once pointed out, if you took the population of organisms in the universe and divided it by the area, you'd get basically zero. We don't even register. And yet, people somehow gain the sense that they are the center of the known universe. Clearly, there are some genes perpetrating a clever biochemical joke here, and I aim to expose this one day. In the meanwhile, I will settle for defeating the physical manifestation of this genetic pathway.

So as the title suggests, I hope to enlighten you, the captivated reader with your sponge-like brain, waiting to soak up information from a learned individual such as myself. Specifically, I'd like to focus on the sciences, and make them more accessible to you, the masses. However, no topic is off-limits, and I will inject my occasionally caustic interjections into my commentary. If I offend in the process, well then, that's kind of the point. For example:

Q: What's the difference between cowboy hats and tampons?
A: Cowboy hats are for ass holes.

This is the sort of enlightening information I wish to provide, and in the manner I wish to present it. No doubt, even now you say to yourself what an eye-opening observation that was, and how much better your life is now that you know it (especially if you are the sort of asshole who wears cowboy hats). So tune in regularly (or irregularly, in this case - I'm not very organized) and watch your IQ increase - or your money back!