Wednesday, May 31, 2017

2621. CRISPR Gene Editing Can Cause Hundreds of Unintended Mutations

By, May 29, 2017
CRISPR-associated protein Cas9 (white) from Staphylococcus aureus based on Protein Database ID 5AXW. Credit: Thomas Splettstoesser (Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)
As CRISPR-Cas9 starts to move into clinical trials, a new study published in Nature Methods has found that the gene-editing technology can introduce hundreds of unintended mutations into the genome.

"We feel it's critical that the scientific community consider the potential hazards of all off-target mutations caused by CRISPR, including single nucleotide mutations and mutations in non-coding regions of the genome," says co-author Stephen Tsang, MD, PhD, the Laszlo T. Bito Associate Professor of Ophthalmology and associate professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University Medical Center and in Columbia's Institute of Genomic Medicine and the Institute of Human Nutrition.

CRISPR-Cas9 editing technology—by virtue of its speed and unprecedented precision—has been a boon for scientists trying to understand the role of genes in disease. The technique has also raised hope for more powerful gene therapies that can delete or repair flawed genes, not just add new genes.

The first clinical trial to deploy CRISPR is now underway in China, and a U.S. trial is slated to start next year. But even though CRISPR can precisely target specific stretches of DNA, it sometimes hits other parts of the genome. Most studies that search for these off-target mutations use computer algorithms to identify areas most likely to be affected and then examine those areas for deletions and insertions.

"These predictive algorithms seem to do a good job when CRISPR is performed in cells or tissues in a dish, but whole genome sequencing has not been employed to look for all off-target effects in living animals," says co-author Alexander Bassuk, MD, PhD, professor of pediatrics at the University of Iowa.

In the new study, the researchers sequenced the entire genome of mice that had undergone CRISPR gene editing in the team's previous study and looked for all mutations, including those that only altered a single nucleotide.

The researchers determined that CRISPR had successfully corrected a gene that causes blindness, but Kellie Schaefer, a PhD student in the lab of Vinit Mahajan, MD, PhD, associate professor of ophthalmology at Stanford University, and co-author of the study, found that the genomes of two independent gene therapy recipients had sustained more than 1,500 single-nucleotide mutations and more than 100 larger deletions and insertions. None of these DNA mutations were predicted by computer algorithms that are widely used by researchers to look for off-target effects.

"Researchers who aren't using whole genome sequencing to find off-target effects may be missing potentially important mutations," Dr. Tsang says. "Even a single nucleotide change can have a huge impact.”

Dr. Bassuk says the researchers didn't notice anything obviously wrong with their animals. "We're still upbeat about CRISPR," says Dr. Mahajan. "We're physicians, and we know that every new therapy has some potential side effects—but we need to be aware of what they are.”

Researchers are currently working to improve the components of the CRISPR system—its gene-cutting enzyme and the RNA that guides the enzyme to the right gene—to increase the efficiency of editing.

"We hope our findings will encourage others to use whole-genome sequencing as a method to determine all the off-target effects of their CRISPR techniques and study different versions for the safest, most accurate editing," Dr. Tsang says.

The paper is titled, "Unexpected mutations after CRISPR-Cas9 editing in vivo." Additional authors are Kellie A. Schafer (Stanford University), Wen-Hsuan Wu (Columbia University Medical Center), and Diana G. Colgan (Iowa).

2620. Blood Center to Pay Towards Care for Chimpanzees It Used For Hepatitis B Research

By James Gorman, The New York Times, May 30, 2017
Chimpanzees once used in blood center research is a sanctuary in Liberia. Photo: Zoom Dosso/Agence France-Presse--Getty Images
Two years after the New York Blood Center set off a storm of protest from animal welfare advocates by withdrawing support for a colony of chimpanzees used for biomedical research, the organization has joined with the Humane Society of the United States to guarantee their future care, pledging $6 million.

In a joint announcement on Tuesday, the two groups said the blood center would donate the money to the Humane Society, which will assume responsibility for the lifetime care of the chimps. In captivity, chimps can live 50 to 60 years.

In the statement, Dr. Christopher D. Hillyer, head of the blood center, said he was “pleased that we have found a capable organization to take care of the chimpanzees for their lifetime.” He said the agreement would allow the blood center to concentrate on ensuring the blood supply.

The donation amounts to roughly half the estimated cost of caring for the animals on their island sanctuary in Liberia, said Wayne Pacelle, the head of the Humane Society of the United States. Mr. Pacelle said he was delighted that the two groups had “found a path forward.”

Until now, that path had been hard to find.

Beginning in the 1970s, the blood center used the chimps for research on a hepatitis B vaccine, which ended in 2006. The animals were owned by the government of Liberia.

The center supported the chimps until the spring of 2015, when it cut off funds. Officials said negotiations with the Liberian government had not been productive.

At the time, Victoria O’Neill, a spokeswoman for the blood center, said that the organization “never had any obligation for care for the chimps, contractual or otherwise.”

Primatologists and animal welfare advocates reacted with outrage.

“I have studied great apes for 20 years in all contexts across the globe — labs, zoos, sanctuaries, the wild,” Brian Hare, an anthropologist and primatologist at Duke University, wrote in an email at the time. “Never, ever have I seen anything even remotely as disgusting as this.”

Protests were held at the blood center’s headquarters in New York. The Humane Society began supporting the chimps and pressuring the blood center to take on some of the financial burden.

The Humane Society and the blood center have been negotiating off and on for the last few years. The Humane Society gained the help of Bill Richardson, a former governor of New Mexico, and other prominent people in talking to the blood center, which Mr. Pacelle said had been “incredibly resistant.”

He described the agreement as “a real turnaround for the blood center” and said “the sensible voices within their organization prevailed.”

“We’re very pleased,” Mr. Pacelle added.

Robert Purvis, a spokesman for the blood center, said reaching an agreement was a complicated process. “The blood center has been looking for an organization to take on the care of the chimpanzees for the last 10 years,” he said.

Fortunately, he said, “Nobody gave up.”

2619. Beauty and Evolution of Birds

By James Gorman, The New York Times, May 29, 2017
A male pheasant courting a female.
Not long ago, a physicist at Stanford posed a rhetorical question that took me by surprise.
“Why is there so much beauty?” he asked.

Beauty was not what I was thinking the world was full of when he brought it up. The physicist, Manu Prakash, was captivated by the patterns in seawater made as starfish larvae swam about. But he did put his finger on quite a puzzle: Why is there beauty? Why is there any beauty at all?

Richard O. Prum, a Yale ornithologist and evolutionary biologist, offers a partial answer in a new book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — and Us.” He writes about one kind of beauty — the oh-is-he/she-hot variety — and mostly as it concerns birds, not people. And his answer is, in short: That’s what female birds like.

This won’t help with understanding the appeal of fluid dynamics or the night sky, but Dr. Prum is attempting to revive and expand on a view that Charles Darwin held, one that sounds revolutionary even now.

The idea is that when they are choosing mates — and in birds it’s mostly the females who choose — animals make choices that can only be called aesthetic. They perceive a kind of beauty. Dr. Prum defines it as “co-evolved attraction.” They desire that beauty, often in the form of fancy feathers, and their desires change the course of evolution.

All biologists recognize that birds choose mates, but the mainstream view now is that the mate chosen is the fittest in terms of health and good genes. Any ornaments or patterns simply reflect signs of fitness. Such utility is objective. Dr. Prum’s — and Darwin’s — notion of beauty is something more subjective, with no other meaning than its aesthetic appeal.

Dr. Prum wants to push evolutionary biologists to re-examine their assumptions about utility and beauty, objectivity and subjectivity. But he also wants to reach the public with a message that is clear whether or not you dip into the technical aspects of evolution. The yearning to pick your own mate is not something that began with humans, he says. It can be found in ducks, pheasants and other creatures.

“Freedom of choice matters to animals,” he said recently on a birding trip to a beach near his office in New Haven. “We’ve been explaining away desire rather than actually trying to understand or explain it. That’s one of the biggest shifts that the book is about.”

The book ranges from hard science to speculation, and he does not expect his colleagues to agree with him on all of his ideas. In fact, he gets a twinkle in his eye when he anticipates intellectual conflict.

“I don’t know anybody who actually agrees with me,” he said with a frank smile.
“Even my own students aren’t there yet.”

To grasp his view, a little bit of history is in order. Darwin famously proposed the idea of evolution by natural selection, what is often called survival of the fittest. To put it simply, living things vary in their inherited traits, from speed to color to sense of smell. The traits of the individuals who survive longer and have the most offspring become more common. So, over time, the faster antelope have more young, the fastest of them have more offspring, and antelope end up very speedy.

But reproduction isn’t just about surviving and staying healthy long enough to mate. You have to find a mate. And in many species, your mate must choose you. This process is sexual selection. Female birds are often the ones choosing. And their choices can produce male birds that are incredibly colorful, and some that are elaborate dancers or designers of striking boudoirs — like the bower birds. If, for example, females like males with long tails, then long-tailed males have more offspring, and the longest-tailed of those offspring reproduce more. In the end, that species becomes known for its long tails.

Maydianee Andrade, an evolutionary biologist and vice dean at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, who studies sexual selection and teaches evolution, said that “the question is basically this. You can think of females when they are choosing a mate as foraging. So what are they looking for?”

“If you’re dragging a giant tail behind you, that might tell the female something,” she said. “A male that survives carrying a large heavy tail is more impressive than a male that survives with a short tail.”

But survival might not have anything to do with it. Some female finches use white feathers to line their nest, perhaps to camouflage white eggs. In one experiment, they also liked males with white feathers stuck on their heads better than other males. This seemed to be an aesthetic choice, and also proved that there is no accounting for taste.

Darwin contended that selection-based mate choice was different from natural selection because the females were often making decisions based on what looked good — on beauty, as they perceived it — and not on survival or some objective quality like speed or strength. Scientists of that era reacted negatively, partly because of the emphasis on females. “Such is the instability of vicious feminine caprice that no constancy of coloration could be produced by its selective action,” wrote St. George Jackson Mivart, an English biologist who was at first a great supporter and later a critic of natural selection.

Alfred Russell Wallace, who came up with the theory of evolution at the same time as Darwin, preferred the idea that the colors and patterns meant something — either they were signs that this was a male of the right species, or they indicated underlying fitness. Perhaps only a strong, healthy male could support such a big, beautiful tail.

At the very birth of evolutionary theory, scientists were arguing about how sexual selection worked. And they kept at it, through the discovery of genes and many other advances.
Fast forward to the 1980s, when Dr. Prum was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, sharing an office with Geoffrey Hill, now a professor at Auburn University.
At that time, mainstream evolutionary thought took a big swing toward the idea that ornaments and fancy feathers were indications of underlying fitness. “Animals with the best ornamentation were the best males,” Dr. Hill said. This was called “honest signaling” of underlying genetic fitness. The idea, he said, “almost completely ran over what was the old idea of beauty.”

Dr. Hill, for one, was completely convinced. “I was pretty sure I could explain all ornaments in all animals as honest signaling.” But, he added, he has since reconsidered. There are some extreme forms of ornamentation that he thinks don’t signal anything, but rather are a result of the kind of process Dr. Prum favors.

“You can’t explain a peacock’s tail with honest signaling,” Dr. Hill said.

But, he said, he thought Dr. Prum had taken an important idea and gotten “a little bit carried away with it.” The book, he said, “was a great read, and I could tell he put his heart and soul into it.” But, he said, he found it “scientifically disappointing.”

Darwin himself, Dr. Hill said, “was completely unsatisfied with his work on sexual selection.” And the mainstream of evolutionary biology is not hostile to a partial role for arbitrary female choice. Dr. Hill has recently argued for combining several different processes to explain sexual selection.

Dr. Prum is indeed given to enthusiasm, and to intellectual contention. He has been on the winning side of initially unpopular ideas before.

As a graduate student, he sided with researchers who wanted to change the way animals are classified, to emphasize their evolutionary descent. The new idea was called cladistics and it is now the established idea. He has done groundbreaking research on both the physical structure and the evolution of feathers, and he was an early supporter of the notion that birds descended from dinosaurs, another new idea that is now the mainstream view.
In neither case was he a lone voice. But he is nothing if not confident, and not only in his science. Take the question of pizza.

In New Haven, pizza is something akin to a religion, and there are different sects. When I asked Dr. Prum who makes the best pizza in town, thinking he would pick one of the rival pizzerias, he didn’t hesitate.

“I do,” he said. He uses an outdoor grill with a special attachment, and he described his pursuit of the perfect pizza in some detail. When I raised an eyebrow he offered me a reference, a friend and writer who had consumed the Prum pies.

He also acknowledged that he approaches many things with single-minded intensity.
“I’m given to obsessions,” he said. Bird watching was the first and most long-lasting. Evolutionary biology may be the deepest. Cooking, opera, gardening and politics (left-wing) are others.

He has disagreed with the dominant view of sexual selection since graduate school and sees his new book, which he hopes will reach beyond scientists, as a kind of manifesto. It has too many parts to summarize. He takes a chapter, for instance, to speculate that same-sex attraction in humans evolved in our ancestors through female choices that undermine male sexual coercion. For a full account, you need to read the book.

But one particular aspect of his argument is his distress at the idea that almost all evolutionary change is assumed to be adaptive, contributing to fitness. In other words, if a fish is blue, it must be blue for a reason. The color must help it escape predators or sneak up on prey, or be otherwise useful in some way. Beauty, therefore, must be adaptive, or a sign of underlying qualities that are adaptive. Pick a behavior or an ornament or a physical trait, and it is useful until proven otherwise.

That’s backward, says Dr. Prum. Take beauty. Since animals have aesthetic preferences and make choices, beauty will inevitably appear. “Beauty happens,” as he puts it, and it should be taken as nonadaptive until proven otherwise.

In proposing this so-called “null hypothesis,” he draws on the work of Mark A. Kirkpatrick at the University of Texas, Austin, who studies population genetics, genomics and evolutionary theory and had read parts of “The Evolution of Beauty.”

“I’m very impressed that Rick is taking on this crusade,” Dr. Kirkpatrick said. He is not convinced that all aspects of sexual selection are based on arbitrary choices for perceived beauty, but, he said, if Dr. Prum can convince some other scientists to question their assumptions, “he will do a great service.”

For Dr. Prum, at least, there is a partial answer to the question posed by Dr. Prakash. Why are birds beautiful.

“Birds are beautiful because they’re beautiful to themselves.”

Sunday, May 28, 2017

2618. On the So-Called Palestinian-Israeli Peace Accord

By Diana Buttu, The New York Times, May 26, 2017
Israeli soldiers detain wounded Palestinian protesters during clashes near the Jewish settlement of Bet El, which is located near the West Bank city of Ramallah. Mohammad Torokman/Reuters.

RAMALLAH, WEST BANK — President Trump’s meeting this week with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, was pitched as an effort by the author of “The Art of the Deal” to restart the United States-sponsored peace process, long stalled. But as next month’s 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation approaches, this much is certain: The process is worse than stalled. In the face of an intransigent right-wing government in Israel, which doesn’t believe Palestinians should have full rights, negotiations are futile.

Many now question whether the Palestinian Authority plays any positive role or is simply a tool of control for Israel and the international community. The inescapable logic is that it’s time for the authority to go.

Established in 1994 under the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority was intended to be a temporary body that would become a fully functioning government once statehood was granted, which was promised for 1999. The authority’s jurisdiction has, therefore, always been limited. It is in charge of a mere 18 percent of the West Bank (divided into eight areas). Compared with Israel’s overall control of the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority’s powers are paltry.

To many Palestinians, however, the establishment of their own government was a dream realized. Finally, those who had lived under occupation since 1967 would be free from repressive Israel’s military rule to govern themselves. Palestinians clamored to assume posts in the new body and took pride in establishing institutions despite the obstacles imposed by Israeli rule. As the negotiations dragged on under Oslo, these blocks became only more entrenched.

After more than two decades, the talks have produced no progress. I spent several years involved on the Palestinian side of the negotiations and can attest to their futility. 
Palestinian delegates, who needed permits to enter Israel to participate in talks, were routinely held up at Israeli checkpoints. When we spoke of international law and the illegality of settlements, Israeli negotiators laughed in our faces. Power is everything, they would say, and you have none.

As time went on, it became clear that the authority’s budget and its priorities were primarily geared toward ensuring that Palestinians remained one of the most surveilled and controlled people on earth. In effect, the Palestinian Authority served as a subcontractor for the occupying Israeli military. The overwhelming focus on security, we were told, was necessary for the duration of peace talks. Today, fully a third of the authority’s roughly $4 billion budget goes to policing, more than for health and education combined.

These security forces do not provide a normal police service to Palestinians, but instead, aid the Israeli Army in maintaining the occupation and Israel’s ever-expanding settlements. The internationally lauded “security cooperation” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority has resulted only in the arrest and imprisonment of Palestinians, including nonviolent human rights activists, while armed and violent Israeli settlers are allowed to terrorize Palestinians with impunity. The Palestinian Authority has no jurisdiction over the settlers, and the Israeli Army almost always looks the other way.

The raison d’être of the Palestinian Authority today is not to liberate Palestine; it is to keep Palestinians silent and quash dissent while Israel steals land, demolishes Palestinian homes, and builds and expands settlements. Instead of becoming a sovereign state, the Palestinian Authority has become a proto-police state, a virtual dictatorship, endorsed and funded by the international community.

Look at its leader. Eighty-two years old, Mr. Abbas has now controlled the authority for more than 12 years, ruling by presidential decree for most of that time, with no electoral mandate. He has presided over some of the worst days in Palestinian history, including the disastrous, decade-long split between his Fatah party and Hamas, the other major player in Palestinian politics, and three devastating Israeli military assaults on Gaza.

Under his presidency, the Palestinian Parliament has become moribund and irrelevant. Many Palestinians have never voted in presidential or parliamentary elections because Mr. Abbas has failed to hold them, even though they are called for in the Basic Law governing the Palestinian Authority. The latest opinion polls show that his popularity is at its lowest ever, with two-thirds of Palestinians so discontent that they want him to resign.

An equally high number no longer believe that negotiations will secure their freedom. The Palestinian Authority institutionalizes dependency on international donors, which tie the authority’s hands with political conditions. As a result, even using the International Criminal Court to hold Israel accountable for its illegal settlement-building has to be weighed against the likely financial repercussions of such a simple act.

To remove this noose that has been choking Palestinians, the authority must be replaced with the sort of community-based decision making that predated the body’s establishment. And we must reform our main political body, the Palestine Liberation Organization, which Mr. Abbas also heads, to make it more representative of the Palestinian people and their political parties, including Hamas. Hamas has long indicated that it wants to be part of the P.L.O., and its revised charter, recently released in Doha, Qatar, affirms this aspiration.

With the negotiation process dead, why should Palestinians be forced to cling to the Palestinian Authority, which has only undermined their decades-long struggle for justice and helped to divide them?

Given that there are about 150,000 employees who depend on the authority for their salaries, I am under no illusion that closing it down will be easy or painless. But this is the only route to restoring our dignity and independent Palestinian decision-making. A reformed P.L.O., with its credibility renewed, will be able to raise funds from Palestinians and friendly nations to support those living under the occupation, as it did before the Oslo process.

To some, this may sound like giving up on the national dream of self-rule. It is not. By dismantling the authority, Palestinians can once again confront Israel’s occupation in a strategic way, as opposed to Mr. Abbas’s merely symbolic bids for statehood. This means supporting the community-based initiatives that organize nonviolent mass protests and press for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, like those that helped to end apartheid in South Africa.

This new strategy may mean calling for equal rights within a single state, an infinitely more just and attainable outcome than the American-backed process that pretended peace could come without addressing the rights of Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Already, more than one-third of Palestinians in the occupied territories support a single-state solution, without any major political party advocating this policy.

By dismantling the Palestinian Authority and reforming the P.L.O., the real will of Palestinians will be heard. Whether the endgame is two states or one state, it is up to this generation of Palestinians to decide.

Diana Buttu is a lawyer and a former adviser to the negotiating team of the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

2617. Antarctica Is Beginning toTurn Green Due to Global Warming

By Chris Mooney, The Washington Post, May 18, 2017

Researchers in Antarctica have discovered rapidly growing banks of mosses on the ice continent’s northern peninsula, providing striking evidence of climate change in the coldest and most remote parts of the planet.

Amid the warming of the last 50 years, the scientists found two different species of mosses undergoing the equivalent of growth spurts, with mosses that once grew less than a millimeter per year now growing over 3 millimeters per year on average.

“People will think of Antarctica quite rightly as a very icy place, but our work shows that parts of it are green, and are likely to be getting greener,” said Matthew Amesbury, a researcher with the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom and lead author of the new study. “Even these relatively remote ecosystems, that people might think are relatively untouched by humankind, are showing the effects of human-induced climate change.”

The study was published Thursday in Current Biology, by Amesbury and colleagues with the University of Cambridge, the British Antarctic Survey and the University of Durham.

Less than 1 percent of present-day Antarctica features plant life. But in parts of the Peninsula, Antarctic mosses grow on frozen ground that partly thaws in the summer — when only about the first foot of soil ever thaws.

The surface mosses build up a thin layer in the summer, then freeze over in winter. As layer builds on top of layer, older mosses subside below the frozen ground, where they are remarkably well preserved due to the temperatures.

Amesbury said that made them “a record of changes over time.”

Soil samples from a 400-mile area along the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula found dramatic changes in growth patterns going back 150 years.

The Antarctic peninsula has been a site of rapid warming, with more days a year where temperatures rise above freezing. The consequence, the study found, was a four- to five-fold increase in the amount of moss growth in the most recent part of the record.

“This is another indicator that Antarctica is moving backward in geologic time — which makes sense, considering atmospheric CO2 levels have already risen to levels that the planet hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, 3 million years ago, when the Antarctic ice sheet was smaller, and sea levels were higher,” said Rob DeConto, a glaciologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who was not involved in the study but reviewed it for The Washington Post.

“If greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, Antarctica will head even further back in geologic time…perhaps the peninsula will even become forested again someday like it was during the greenhouse climates of the Cretaceous and Eocene, when the continent was ice free,” DeConto continued by email.

The authors agree the currently observed changes are probably just the beginning. “These changes, combined with increased ice-free land areas from glacier retreat, will drive large-scale alteration to the biological functioning, appearance, and landscape of the [Antarctic peninsula] over the rest of the 21st century and beyond,” they wrote.

The moss growth is still modest compared to what’s happening in the Arctic, where a large-scale greening trend has even been captured by satellite. In the Arctic, there’s now so much plant growth that some scientists are hoping it will at least partially offset the loss of carbon from thawing permafrost beneath those plants.

Those days are probably very far off for the Antarctic, but it’s clear the continent used to be a very different landscape.

“We’re starting back on a journey towards that sort of environment,” said Amesbury. “Certainly, Antarctica has not always been the ice place it has been now on very long timescales.”

Friday, May 26, 2017

2616. Cuba Calls for Universal Health Coverage at WHO World Assembly


“Cuba supports the strengthening of systems geared toward achieving universal health coverage, recognizing that health is a fundamental human right and at the center of public policies for sustainable development,” stated Dr. Roberto Morales Ojeda, Cuban Minister of Public Health, during the World Health Organization’s 70th World Assembly plenary session, taking place at the body’s headquarters in Geneva through May 31. 

Morales Ojeda reported that by the end of 2016, life expectancy at birth in Cuba was 78.45 years, while the country also has an immunization program which protects against 13 diseases, and is comprised of 11 vaccines; eight of which are produced on the island, providing for over 98% coverage. 

He also noted that Cuba continues to maintain key indicators which, in 2015, saw the island become the first country in the world to officially eliminate mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis. 

“The foundations for the National Health System in Cuba were drawn up in 1959, the driving force behind which was the historic leader of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro Ruz,” he stated. 

The Cuban official also commented on the damage caused by the U.S. blockade to Cuba’s healthcare services, which in 2016 amounted to more than $87 million dollars. 

Morales Ojeda once again condemned policies such as the “brain drain” which encourage Cuban professionals, above all those linked to the healthcare sector, to emigrate. Human capital is our most valuable resource. We have 493,000 healthcare sector workers and over 50,000 collaborators offering services in 63 countries, he added. 

Among the challenges currently facing Cuba he noted the country’s rapidly ageing population, non-communicable chronic diseases, low birth rates, and the negative effects of climate change. 

The UN 2030 Sustainable Development agenda provides the opportunity to develop better health systems and improve the population’s wellbeing in an unequal world, stated Dr. Roberto Morales Ojeda, noting that political will and collaboration are vital to such efforts. 

Sunday, May 21, 2017

2615.Remeasuring Stephen Jay Gould

By Matthew Lau, Jacobin, May 20, 2017
Stephen Jay Gould. Wikimedia Commons.

The day after Stephen Jay Gould died, his obituary appeared on the front page of the New York Times, testifying to his position as the most famous scientist in the United States. His talent for synthesizing ideas and arguments, his work ethic, and — as he would have been the first to note — luck made him famous.

He had not planned to write his monthly column, “This View of Life,” for Natural History for twenty-five years, but, like his childhood hero Joe DiMaggio, Gould became known for this literary streak, which breathed new life into the half-forgotten art of the popular scientific essay, a tradition that dates back to Galileo.

Like Galileo, Gould did more than interpret science for laypeople. He was also a path-breaking evolutionary theorist and a canny political organizer for leftist causes.
Along with his colleague Niles Eldredge, Gould changed the way biologists view the fossil record. His concept of punctuated equilibrium argued that new species emerge relatively rapidly and then remain mostly stable for millions of years. To his more parochial colleagues’ chagrin, Gould partly credited the inspiration for “punc eq” to the fact that he had “learned his Marxism, literally at his daddy’s knee.”

Though he was redbaited for this comment, Gould and Eldredge were speaking as pluralists and historicists not dogmatists. “We make a simple plea for pluralism in guiding philosophies . . . for the basic recognition that such philosophies . . . constrain all our thought.”

Historical context also acts as a constraint on new ideas. Darwin acknowledged the influence of the classical political economy of Smith and Malthus on his theory of evolution. Gould noted that his leftist upbringing and participation in the revolution of the Civil Rights Movement enabled him to recognize the importance of “punc eq’s” patterns of sudden and discontinuous evolutionary change.

Gould also revitalized the study of evolutionary development with his influential historical survey of the subject, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, and made his mark on anthropology by insisting that human evolution looked more like a branching bush with multiple overlapping lineages than a ladder of predictable stages.

Raised in a leftist household in Queens, Gould led his local NAACP’s youth chapter. He displayed his writerly talents early on, when he introduced the Little Rock Nine on their victory tour of New York. “They are tormented by racists down South and autograph seekers here,” he noted drolly. He worried his brave fellow teenagers would not get to enjoy New York City and thanked them for enhancing his high school’s curriculum with the day’s most pressing issues. “No event in my memory ever aroused such interest in the Queens teenager,” Gould told the audience. “No event has ever aroused in him such hatred for segregation and all it stands for.”

While studying at Antioch College, he participated in desegregation efforts in and around Yellow Springs, Ohio. In 1964, a lone barbershop that had resisted desegregation for four years in nearby Xenia briefly became the Civil Rights Movement’s national focal point. Even while studying abroad at Leeds University, Gould fought for progressive causes, working to desegregate dance halls and joining the campaign for nuclear disarmament.

These two facets of Gould’s life regularly intersected. In 1982, he served as an expert witness against “creation science” in McLean v. Arkansas. A year earlier, he had published his most famous political intervention, his prize-winning critique of biological determinism, The Mismeasure of Man.

At its core, Mismeasure argues that the twentieth century’s IQ tests share a desire to justify race and class hierarchies with the nineteenth century’s more primitive measures of cranial features and theories of criminal physiognomy. In both eras, researchers rationalized the status quo with the premise of immutable, hereditary intelligence and the fallacy of reification, which held that intelligence can be reduced to a single number and those numbers used to rank people on a linear scale.

Mismeasure also addresses the issue of confirmation bias — especially racial bias — in the sciences. In the book and an article in Science that preceded it, Gould analyzed nineteenth-century race scientist Samuel Morton’s two sets of skull measurements, one from 1839 and the second from 1849, to demonstrate that Morton unconsciously manipulated his data to prove that Caucasians had greater cranial volumes than other racial groups.

Gould also reminded his readers that eugenics and other consequences of biological determinism remain with us. The United States, nation of immigrants, misused IQ tests to establish quotas on southern and eastern Europeans Jews in 1924 and kept them in effect as millions tried to flee Nazi Germany. The state of Virginia thought it wise to sterilize “idiots” and “morons” until as recently as 1972.

Mismeasure came out just as academia was accepting more women and people of color into its ranks. Thanks to Gould’s polemical style and activist stance, the book almost immediately became canonical in undergraduate curriculum.

Refutation and Vindication
Or rather, it was — until Gould returned to the Times’s headlines in June 2011. “Study Debunks Stephen Jay Gould’s Claim of Racism on Morton’s Skulls,” the article proclaimed. A team of physical anthropologists, led by Jason E. Lewis, had remeasured roughly half of Morton’s skulls and reanalyzed both his and Gould’s findings. They concluded, “[i]ronically, Gould’s own analysis of Morton is likely the stronger example of bias influencing results,” citing important instances where Morton’s work was more accurate than Gould’s. In the most glaring error, Gould inflated the average cranial capacity of Native American skulls by “arbitrarily” leaving out several smaller crania in his reanalysis.

People quickly reacted to the revelation of Gould’s purported bias toward “political correctness.” Writing on his influential blog, anthropologist John Hawks described Gould’s work as perfidious and claimed it “cast doubt on the validity of the scientific enterprise.” Ralph Holloway, a member of the team that reanalyzed Morton and Gould, explained that he “just didn’t trust Gould.” “I had the feeling that [Gould’s] ideological stance was supreme . . . [and] just felt he was a charlatan.”

Far-right “race realists” unsurprisingly trumpeted the news that Gould’s findings had been “refuted.” Even among more measured critics and defenders, a narrative began to take hold: Gould had proved his point, but “it just wasn’t the example he intended.” Morton started to appear more “sinned against than sinning.”

At the end of their article, Lewis et al. wrote, “were Gould still alive, we expect he would have mounted a defense of his analysis of Morton.” This is a virtual certainty: Gould openly acknowledged his errors throughout his career and called “factual correction . . . the most sublime event in intellectual life.” Gould cannot defend himself, but, since Lewis et al. can, it’s curious that they have not responded to more recent peer-reviewed studies that refute key aspects of their work.

Though the Times has yet to report it, more recent evidence suggests that the reanalysis of Morton’s skulls makes computational mistakes that favor Caucasians. And as several studies now show, the scientists did not ultimately challenge Gould’s main claim that the inconsistencies between Morton’s measurements in 1839 and 1849 indicate unconscious racial bias. Moreover, the differences between mean values for all races when corrected were, as Gould originally argued, so small as to be statistically insignificant.

Why hasn’t the Times reported these more recent findings? The answer also helps explain why they and other outlets so enthusiastically reported the criticism against Gould in the first place. As he would have recognized, it’s politics.

Historical interpretation as science
Though no one knew it in 2011, Nicholas Wade, the reporter covering the story for the Times, would publish a widely condemned “race science” book in 2014 called A Troubling Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History. A purported summary of recent research in population genetics that explains cultural differences between white, East Asian, and African civilizations, Wade’s book inspired an open letter of condemnation, which virtually every expert in the field of population genetics signed.

Beyond Wade’s pathetic resuscitation of “scientific racism,” the Gould-Morton controversy has a deeper political dimension. The absence of mainstream reporting on The Mismeasure of Man’s vindication shows how the popular press privileges “hard” science over the “soft” sciences of historical interpretation. Gould himself fought long and hard against this bias, which caricatured paleontologists like him as “stamp collectors.”

Gould wrote his 1989 book, Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, in large part to counteract the bias toward experimental science. The Burgess Shale in British Columbia includes the greatest repository of fossils from the Cambrian explosion, the dawn of multicellular life. As Gould’s book notes, scientists working with these fossils radically changed paleontology’s core concepts. Contrary to earlier studies, many of the shale’s fossils do not have known ancestors. This means that life was, in crucial ways, more diverse at the outset of the multicellular period than since. Current species evolved from only a few “lucky” surviving lineages.

Because the work involved “mere” description and no experimental work, the new interpretations did not make headlines. Gould contrasts this with the other great paleontological development of the late twentieth century, the “Alvarez hypothesis,” which holds that dinosaur extinction resulted from extraterrestrial impact.

The impact theory has everything for public acclaim — white coats, numbers, [Alvarez’s] Nobel renown and location at the top of the ladder of status. The Burgess redescriptions, on the other hand, struck many observers as one funny thing after another — just descriptions of some previously unappreciated, odd animals from early in life’s history.

Both discoveries told the same compelling story; both “illustrat[ed] . . . the extreme chanciness and contingency of life’s history,” yet only the “Alvarez hypothesis” made the cover of Time magazine.

The same privileging of “hard” science explains why media outlets picked up the attack on Gould’s analysis but not his subsequent vindication. These reports all emphasized that Lewis et al. had literally remeasured hundreds of skulls in the Morton collection (presumably while wearing white lab coats). As one more recent critique noted, however, “from the standpoint of evaluating Gould’s published claims, the re-measurement was completely pointless.” 

“Gould never claimed that Morton’s [later] shot-based measurements, which is what Lewis et al. compared their new measurements to, were unreliable.” Confirming their bias toward experimental methods, “Lewis et al. are . . . falsifying (their word) a claim Gould never made.” Such a glaring conceptual problem should prompt us, as it would have prompted Gould, to inquire into this supposed controversy’s historical context.

The return of far-right, racist politics was a depressingly predictable consequence of the election of the first black American president. The Obama administration didn’t help matters, as its failure to respond justly to the 2008 financial crisis only further radicalized some segments of the American population. Rebranded as the “alt-right” and “race realists,” this resurgence culminated in Trump’s election and his appointment of white nationalists to top posts.

Only in this climate can Lewis et al. claim without irony that Samuel Morton was a disinterested, objective researcher. This same Morton measured Native American skulls “to ascertain,” as his supporter George Combe put it, if they “perished” because of “a difference in brain between the native American race, and their conquering invaders.” This same Morton sought to prove the polygenist thesis, which holds that the human races arose separately. This same Morton was eulogized in the leading Southern medical journal of his day “for aiding most materially in giving to the negro his true position as an inferior race.”

Gould’s ideas remain vital because today’s reactionary racism isn’t an entirely new development. Rather, it extends the one Gould struggled against throughout his career.
In 1996, he reissued Mismeasure to include new material that debunked The Bell Curve, the biological-determinist bestseller of the early 1990s. In this second edition, Gould situated The Bell Curve in its historical context, arguing that novelty could not explain its popularity. After all, its central arguments had already been discredited on numerous grounds. Instead, Gould argued,

Its initial success must reflect the depressing temper of our time — a historical moment of unprecedented ungenerosity, when a mood for slashing social programs can be so abetted by an argument that beneficiaries cannot be aided due to inborn cognitive limits expressed as low IQ scores.

He would have been saddened, though maybe not surprised, to see this historical moment evolve into full-blown reaction. Mismeasure’s careful recording of how everything from pseudoscientific intelligence testing to programs of forced sterilization were used to maintain racial and class hierarchies gives readers a good idea of what it means to make America great again.

It’s no small task to summarize the diversity of Gould’s three hundred essays for Natural History. From the panda’s thumb to the flamingo’s smile; from the hyena’s genitals to the human male’s nipples; from the little known contingencies of Darwin’s life to the virtual impossibility of intelligent life ever evolving at all, Gould’s essays are as instructive as they are surprising and entertaining.

Tough Hope
But according to Gould, basic themes supported all this and diversity. He was interested in “the meaning of pattern in life’s history[,] . . . the nature of history[,] . . . and what it means to say that life is the product of a contingent past not the inevitable result of simple, timeless laws of nature.” Critics find this emphasis on unpredictability depressing. Does it amount to anything more than saying “stuff happens”?

Gould of course saw it differently. The luck of being here at all should make us more aware of our existence’s fragility and force us to recognize that we have no one to look to for guidance but ourselves.

In Wonderful Life, Gould argued that the evolution of intelligent life represents such a unique and improbable outcome, that, if you started life over at the beginning of the Cambrian explosion, different early organisms would have survived the period’s decimation, and we would never have existed at all:

Homo sapiens, I fear, is a “thing so small” in a vast universe, a wildly improbable evolutionary event well within the realm of contingency. Make of such a conclusion what you will. Some find it depressing; I have always regarded it as exhilarating, and a source of both freedom and consequent moral responsibility.

Gould’s sense of moral responsibility figures in his column’s other main project — what Marxists would recognize as his critique of ideology and what he called “the social implications of the scientific assault upon pervasive biases of Western thought.”

Gould listed four such biases: “progress, determinism, gradualism, and adaptationism.” They persist because they serve as a great comfort to many. Determinism and adaptationism tell us that we are meant to be here and are well suited for survival; gradualism and progress tell us that change occurs in predictable ways. In short, these biases teach us that everything happens for a reason.

As Gould pointed out, even progressive causes like the environmental movement fall prey to these biases’ hubris. Green activists too often assume that the earth is so delicate that we can destroy it and that, therefore, we shoulder the responsibility of saving it. With a New Yorker’s sarcasm, Gould responded, “We should be so powerful!”

He insisted that humans — not the earth — are the ones in danger. But this view does not make climate change any less of a crisis. As he put it:

Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we, pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of the planetary year are stewards of nothing in the long run. Yet no political movement is more vital and timely than modern environmentalism — because we must save ourselves (and our neighbor species) from our own immediate folly.

With his leftist organizing experience and his awareness of the consequences of human development on our own survival, you might expect that Gould would have devoted numerous columns to the ecological crisis. But he waited, he explained, until he could contribute something more than a repetition of “the shibboleths of the movement.”

In his essay on the extinction of the land snail Partula on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia, Gould argued that we should grieve for the scientist Henry Crampton whose lifetime of dedication to studying Partula on a remote island under adverse circumstances was erased by the unintended consequences of introducing predatory creatures into the environment. Though Gould was also an expert on land snails, as he explains it, the point is that we need a humanistic ecology too, “both for the practical reason that people will always touch people more than snails do or can, and for the moral reason that humans are legitimately the measure of all ethical questions — for these are our issues not nature’s.”

So what would Gould say today, as environmental decimation intensifies and the Trump administration begins to roll back the mostly inadequate steps taken to deal with climate change? A clue resides in Gould’s commentaries following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
He lived in SoHo at the time, and he and his family volunteered tirelessly to support first responders and clean-up crews. Amid so much suffering, we might expect Gould’s writings to turn despondent and pessimistic. But he remained optimistic instead. Why?

Gould staked many of his arguments on the concept of relative frequency, which maintains that, the more something occurs, the more it matters. This idea made punctuate equilibrium significant, because stasis among lineages in the fossil record had high relative frequency but had “previously been ignored as nonevidence of nonevolution.” Gould noticed the high relative frequency of basic human decency in the weeks following 9/11.

After years of misguided wars and an expanded police state, it’s easy to forget that the event’s interpretation was an open question in those days near the end of Gould’s life. “Ground Zero,” he noted, “is a focal point for a vast web of bustling goodness, channeling uncountable deeds of kindness from an entire planet.” The people of Halifax, where he stayed when his plane was diverted during the attacks, had welcomed him and thousands of other stranded travelers.

Gould devoted his final column in Natural History to his grandfather, Papa Joe, who arrived in the United States, by a strange coincidence, on September 11, 1901. Like so many Jewish immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, his grandfather found work in the garment district of Manhattan, struggled with poverty, but still managed to find his way. “He and my grandmother raised four children,” Gould writes, “all imbued with the ordinary values that ennoble our species and nation: fairness, kindness, the need to rise by one’s own efforts.” Gould argued that the countless ordinary stories like Papa Joe’s “will outshine, in the brightness of hope and goodness, the mad act of spectacular destruction that poisoned his life’s centennial.”

It is tempting to label these remarks as Pollyannaish, but Gould was not naïve. The philosopher in him spoke of the “Great Asymmetry”: one destructive act can undo years of careful effort, but decent people still vastly outnumber their counterparts. At the same time, the veteran political organizer in Gould knew it would take concerted action. His essay on Papa Joe closes:

We will win now because ordinary humanity holds a triumphant edge in millions of good people over each evil psychopath. But we will only prevail if we can mobilize this latent goodness into permanent vigilance and action.

The call for “permanent vigilance and action” under the rubric of “tough hope” in response to the work of reactionary extremists who reject modernity was Gould’s final theme as a public intellectual. With the Left returning to its duty to organize and remembering its roots in the projects of the Enlightenment and modernity, we must commit ourselves to Gould’s legacy of “tough hope.”