Category Archives: Social issues ( be civil ! )

A Troublesome Inheritance – IV — Chapter 3

Chapter III of “A Troublesome Inheritance” contains a lot of very solid molecular genetics, and a lot of unfounded speculation. I can see why the book has driven some otherwise rational people bonkers. Just because Wade knows what he’s talking about in one field, doesn’t imply he’s competent in another.

Several examples: p. 41 “”Nonethless, it is reasonable to assume that if traits like skin color have evolved in a population, the same may be true of its social behavior.” Consider yes, assume no.

p. 42 “The society of living chimps can thus with reasonable accuracy stand as a surrogate for the joint ancester” (of humans and chimps — thought to be about 7 megaYears ago) and hence describe the baseline from which human social behavior evolved.” I doubt this.

The chapter contains many just so stories about the evolution of chimp and human societies (post hoc propter hoc). Plausible, but not testable.

Then follows some very solid stuff about the effects of the hormone oxytocin (which causes lactation in nursing women) on human social interaction. Then some speculation on the ways natural selection could work on the oxytocin system to make people more or less trusting. He lists several potential mechanisms for this (1) changes in the amount of oxytocin made (2) increasing the number of protein receptors for oxytocin (3) making each receptor bind oxytocin more tightly. This shows that Wade has solid molecular biological (and biological) chops.

He quotes a Dutch psychologist on his results with oxytocin and sociality — unfortunately, there have been too many scandals involving Dutch psychologists and sociologists to believe what he says until its replicated (Google Diederik Stapel, Don Poldermans, Jens Forster, Markus Denzler if you don’t believe me). It’s sad that this probably honest individual is tarred with that brush but he is.

p. 59 — He notes that the idea that human behavior is solely the result of social conditions with no genetic influence is appealing to Marxists, who hoped to make humanity behave better by designing better social conditions. Certainly, much of the vitriol heaped on the book has come from the left. A communist uncle would always say ‘it’s the system’ to which my father would reply ‘people will corrupt any system’.

p. 61 — the effect of mutations of lactose tolerance on survival on society are noted — people herding cattle and drinking milk, survive better if their gene to digest lactose (the main sugar in milk) isn’t turned off after childhood. If your society doesn’t herd animals, there is no reason for anyone to digest milk after weaning from the breast. The mutations aren’t in the enzyme digesting lactose, but in the DNA that turns on expression of the gene for the enzyme (e.g. the promoter). Interestingly, 3 separate mutations in African herders have been found to do this, and different from the one that arose in the Funnel Beaker Culture of Scandinavia 6,000 yers ago. This is a classic example of natural selection producing the same phenotypic effect by separate mutations.

There is a much bigger biological fish to be fried here, which Wade doesn’t discuss. It takes energy to make any protein, and there is no reason to make a protein to help you digest milk if you aren’t nursing, and one very good reason not to — it wastes metabolic energy, something in short supply in humans as they lived until about 15,000 years ago. So humans evolved a way not to make the protein in adult life. The genetic change is in the DNA controlling protein production not the protein itself.

You may have heard it said that we are 98% Chimpanzee. This is true in the sense that our 20,000 or so proteins are that similar to the chimp. That’s far from the whole story. This is like saying Monticello and Independence Hall are just the same because they’re both made out of bricks. One could chemically identify Monticello bricks as coming from the Virginia piedmont, and Independence Hall bricks coming from the red clay of New Jersey, but the real difference between the buildings is the plan.

It’s not the proteins, but where and when and how much of them are made. The control for this (plan if you will) lies outside the genes for the proteins themselves, in the rest of the genome. The control elements have as much right to be called genes, as the parts of the genome coding for amino acids. Granted, it’s easier to study genes coding for proteins, because we’ve identified them and know so much about them. It’s like the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost because that’s where the light is.

p. 62 — There follows some description of the changes of human society from hunter gathering, to agrarian, to the rise of city states, is chronicled. Whether adaptation to different social organizations produced genetic changes permitting social adaptation or were the cause of it isn’t clear. Wade says “changes in social behavior, has most probably been molded by evolution, through the underlying genetic changes have yet to be identified.” This assumes a lot, e.g. that genetic changes are involved. I’m far from sure, but the idea is not far fetched. Stating that genetic changes have never, and will never shape society, is without any scientific basis, and just as fanciful as many of Wade’s statements in this chapter. It’s an open question, which is really all Wade is saying.

In defense of Wade’s idea, think about animal breeding as Darwin did extensively. The Origin of Species (worth a read if you haven’t already read it) is full of interchanges with all sorts of breeders (pigeons, cattle). The best example we have presently are the breeds of dogs. They have very different personalities — and have been bred for them, sheep dogs mastifs etc. etc. Have a look at [ Science vol. 306 p. 2172 '04, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 101 pp. 18058 - 18063 '04 ] where the DNA of variety of dog breeds was studied to determine which changes determined the way they look. The length of a breed’s snout correlated directly with the number of repeats in a particular protein (Runx-2). The paper is a decade old and I’m sure that they’re starting to look at behavior.

More to the point about selection for behavioral characteristics, consider the domestication of the modern dog from the wolf. Contrast the dog with the chimp (which hasn’t been bred).

[ Science vol. 298 pp. 1634 - 1636 '02 ] Chimps are terrible at picking up human cues as to where food is hidden. Cues would be something as obvious as looking at the containing, pointing at the container or even touching it. Even those who eventually perform well, take dozens of trials or more to learn it. When tested in more difficult tests requiring them to show flexible use of social cues they don’t

This paper shows that puppies (raised with no contact with humans) do much better at reading humans than chimps. However wolf cubs do not do better than the chimps. Even more impressively, wolf cubs raised by humans don’t show the same skills. This implies that during the process of domestication, dogs have been selected for a set of social cognitive abilities that allow them to communicate with humans in unique ways. Dogs and wolves do not perform differently in a non-social memory task, ruling out the possibility that dogs outperform wolves in all human guided tasks.

All in all, a fascinating book with lots to think about, argue with, propose counterarguments, propose other arguments in support (as I’ve just done), etc. etc. Definitely a book for those who like to think, whether you agree with it all or not.

“A Troublesome Inheritance” – III — the first two chapters

Most scientific types I’ve known aren’t terribly interested in history (even of their own fields). The first two chapters of Wade’s book (to p. 38) are mostly about the history of the concept of race, and worth reading. I doubt that any open minded reader reading them will think Wade admires the fruits of racism past. If your definition of racism and racist is someone who believes that races of man exist, then Wade is.

All sorts of fascinating tidbits are to be found here, such as the fact that Marx wanted to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin (he refused), and that the originator of the term Caucasian (Blumenbach 1795) meant it to apply the peoples or Europe, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent. Trouble started early, with Gobineau’s book “An Essay on the Inequality of Human Races” 1853. Darwin himself was against the idea of race, and incidentally didn’t originate “the survival of the fittest” which was due to Herbert Spencer. But he did use it.

There then follow (pp. 28 – 38) the very sad history of race, eugenics and its perversion racism. Read these pages to understand why the whole concept of racism arouses such visceral loathing in civilized people. Classmate Dan Kevles’ book (which I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read) “In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Heredity” is cited.

I haven’t read many of the reviews of Wade’s book, but most of his severest critics probably didn’t read the conclusion of chapter 1. “Readers should be fully aware that in chapters 6 through 10 they are leaving the world of hard science and entering into a much more speculative arena at the interface of economics and evolution.” I suppose he could have prefaced each his chapters with this, since few will read a book like this from start to finish, particularly those pointed to particular passages by reviews.

However Wade clearly reveals his political orientation (p. 27) “Intellectuals as a class are notoriously prone to fine-sounding theoretical schemes that lead to catastrophe, such as Social Darwinism, Marxism or indeed Eugenics.” As a med school classmate from the University of Chicago would often say –“OK. That’s how it works in practice, but how does it work in theory?”

Happy 4th of July

Having spent our 50th anniversary in London, a few Independence Day thoughts are in order.

First, while watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, with all the pomp and rigidity of the occasion, I found it amazing that democracy originated out of this. But it did and the world owes them.

Second, the security surrounding the royals is intense and thorough. Guys with submachine guns with fixed bayonets etc. etc. I haven’t seen things like that since NY State penitentiary denizens were brought to my office for neurologic evaluations. I wouldn’t want to live like that.

Third, I can begin to see why 50+ years ago in grad school at Harvard, the US was regarded as somewhat crude, slow and inelegant. It was the era of the ugly American etc. etc. This, despite Don Voet’s observation that the Universal Scientific Language was broken English.

Going through London’s excellent museums one can see why people who’d been to Europe back then might have thought this way. But the museums are all about the past (except for an incredible exhibit at the natural history museum on epigenetics complete with research professor and two graduate students). What did the next 50 years bring? They’re all carrying cell phones over there, and iPads, and using Google and of course the internet, all originating in the USA. Compare the Science the USA has produced during that time to that of Europe: equal at the worst.

Never mind that we did it with European castoffs (4 of the 7 Nobels in the Harvard Chemistry department during this time, were Jewish refugees or their children). That’s the great strength of America, they’re as American as anyone else, just like Sergey Brin the cofounder of Google, a Russian Jew by birth. Or Andrew Grove, etc. etc.

Even back in the 60s, I never thought Europe was so wonderful. Two world wars, the concentration camps, Stalin and the Gulags to atone for. So I never regarded them as particularly civilized, something only strengthened in the 90s, with their atrocious handling of genocide in Kosovo.

Lest you think this is all in the past, my cousin the month we were in London was on some sort of river cruise down the Danube, and their tour of Vienna had to be rerouted because of a NeoNazi rally. They appear to have learned nothing from their awful history.

So happy 4th of July. Glad to be back in the good ol’ USA.

“A Troublesome Inheritance” – II – Four Anthropological disasters of the past 100 years

Page 5 of Wade’s book contains two recent pronouncements from the American Anthropological Association stating that “Race is about culture not biology”. It’s time to look at anthropology’s record of the past 100 years. It isn’t pretty.

Start with the influential Franz Boas (1858 – 1942) who taught at Columbia for decades. His most famous student was Margaret Mead.

He, along with his students, felt that the environment was everything for human culture and that heredity had minimal influence. Here’s what Boas did over 100 years ago.

[ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 99 pp. 14622 - 14623, 14436 - 14439 '02 ] Retzius invented the the cephalic index in the 1890s. It is just the widest breadth of the skull divided by the front to back length. One can be mesocephalic, dolichocephalic or brachycephalic. From this index one could differentiate Europeans by location. Anthropologists continue to take such measurements. Franz Boas in 1910 – 1913 said that the USA born offspring of immigrants showed a ‘significant’ difference from their immigrant parents in their cephalic index. This was used to reinforce the idea that environment was everything.

Boas made some 13,000 measurements. This is a reanalysis of his data showing that he seriously misinterpreted it. The genetic component of the variability was far stronger than the environmental. Some 8500 of his 13,000 cases were reanalyzed. In a later paper Boas stated that he never claimed that there were NO genetic components to head shape, but his students and colleagues took the ball and ran with it, and Boas never (publicly) corrected them. The heritability was high in the family data and between ethnic groups, which remains in the American environment.

One of Boas’ students wrote that “Heredity cannot be allowed to have acted any part in history.” The chain of events shaping a people “involves the absolute conditioning of historical events by other historical events.” Hardly scientific statements.

On to his most famous student Margaret Mead (1901 -1978) who later became the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1960). In 1928 she published “Coming of Age in Samoa” about the sexual freedom of Samoan adolescents. It had a big play, and I was very interested in such matters as a pimply adolescent. It fit into the idea that ” “We are forced to conclude that human nature is almost unbelievably malleable, responding accurately and contrastingly to contrasting cultural conditions.”. This certainly fit nicely with the idea that mankind could be reshaped by changing the system — see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Soviet_man one of the many fantasies of the left promoted by academia.

Subsequently, an anthropologist (Freeman) went back to Samoa and concluded that Mead had been hoaxed. He found that Samoans may beat or kill their daughters if they are not virgins on their wedding night. A young man who cannot woo a virgin may rape one to extort her into eloping. The family of a cuckolded husband may attack and kill the adulterer. For more details see Pinker “The Blank Slate” pp. 56 –>

The older among you may remember reading about “the gentle Tasaday” of the Philippines, a Stone age people who had no word for war. It was featured in the NY times in the 70s. They were the noble savages of Rousseau in the 20th century. The 1970 ”discovery” of the Tasaday as a ”Stone Age” tribe was widely heralded in newspapers, shown on national television in a National Geographic Society program and an NBC special documentary, and further publicized in ”The Gentle Tasaday: A Stone Age People in the American journalist, John Nance.

In all, Manuel Elizalde Jr., the son of a rich Filipino family, was depicted as the savior of the Tasaday through his creation of Panamin (from presidential assistant for national minorities), a cabinet-level office to protect the Tasaday and other ”minorities” from corrosive modern influences and from environmentally destructive logging companies.It appears that Manuel Elizalde hoodwinked almost everybody by paying neighboring T’boli people to take off their clothes and pose as a ”Stone Age” tribe living in a cave. Mr. Elizalde then used the avalanche of international interest and concern for his Tasaday creation to create the Panimin organization for control over ”tribal minority” lands and resources and ultimately deals with logging and mining companies.

Last but not least is “The Mismeasure of Man” (1981) in which Steven Gould tore apart the work of Samuel Morton, a 19th century Anthropologist who measured skulls. He accused Morton of (consciously or unconsciously) manipulating the data to come up with the conclusions he desired.

Well, guess what. Someone went back and looked at Morton’s figures, and remeasured some of his skulls (which are still at Penn) and found that the manipulation was all Gould’s not Morton’s. I posted about this when it came out 3 years ago — here’s the link http://luysii.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/hoisting-steven-j-gould-by-his-own-petard/.

Here is the relevant part of that post — An anthropologist [ PLoS Biol. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001071;2011 ] went back to Penn (where the skulls in question reside), and remeasured some 300 of them, blinding themselves to their ethnic origins as they did. Morton’s measurements were correct. They also had the temerity to actually look at Morton’s papers. They found that, contrary to Gould, Morton did report average cranial capacities for subgroups of both populations, sometimes on the same page or on pages near to figures that Gould quotes, and therefore must have seen. Even worse (see Nature vol. 474 p. 419 ’11 ) they claim that “Gould misidentified the Native American samples, falsely inflating the average he calculated for that population”. Gould had claimed that Morton’s averages were incorrect.

Perhaps anthropology has gotten its act together now, but given this history, any pronouncements they make should be taken with a lot of salt. In fairness to the field, it should be noted that the debunkers of Boas, Mead and Gould were all anthropologists. They have a heavy load to carry.

“A Troublesome Inheritance” – I

One of the joys of a deep understanding of chemistry, is the appreciation of the ways in which life is constructed from the most transient of materials. Presumably the characteristics of living things that we can see (the phenotype) will someday be traceable back to the proteins, nucleic acids,and small metabolites (lipids, sugars, etc..) making us up.

For the time being we must content ourselves with understanding the code (our genes) and how it instructs the development of a trillion celled organism from a fertilized egg. This brings us to Wade’s book, which has been attacked as racist, by anthropologists, sociologists and other lower forms of animal life.

Their position is that races are a social, not a biological construct and that differences between societies are due to the way they are structured, not by differences in the relative frequency of the gene variants (alleles) in the populations making them up. Essentially they are saying that evolution and its mechanism descent with modification under natural selection, does not apply to humanity in the last 50,000 years when the first modern humans left Africa.

Wade disagrees. His book is very rich in biologic detail and one post about it discussing it all would try anyone’s attention span. So I’m going to go through it, page by page, commenting on the material within (the way I’ve done for some chemistry textbooks), breaking it up in digestible chunks.

As might be expected, there will be a lot of molecular biology involved. For some background see the posts in https://luysii.wordpress.com/category/molecular-biology-survival-guide/. Start with http://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/07/07/molecular-biology-survival-guide-for-chemists-i-dna-and-protein-coding-gene-structure/ and follow the links forward.

Wade won me over very quickly (on page 3), by his accurate and current citations to the current literature. He talks about how selection on a mitochondrial protein helped Tibetans to live at high altitude (while the same mutation those living at low altitudes leads to blindness). Some 25% Tibetans have the mutation while it is rare among those living at low altitudes.
Here’s my post of 10 June 2012 ago on the matter. That’s all for now

Have Tibetans illuminated a path to the dark matter (of the genome)?

I speak not of the Dalai Lama’s path to enlightenment (despite the title). Tall people tend to have tall kids. Eye color and hair color is also hereditary to some extent. Pitched battles have been fought over just how much of intelligence (assuming one can measure it) is heritable. Now that genome sequencing is approaching a price of $1,000/genome, people have started to look at variants in the genome to help them find the genetic contribution to various diseases, in the hopes of understanding andtreating them better.

Frankly, it’s been pretty much of a bust. Height is something which is 80% heritable, yet the 20 leading candidate variants picked up by genome wide association studies (GWAS) account for 3% of the variance [ Nature vol. 461 pp. 458 - 459 '09 ]. This has happened again and again particularly with diseases. A candidate gene (or region of the genome), say for schizophrenia, or autism, is described in one study, only to be shot down by the next. This is likely due to the fact that many different genetic defects can be associated with schizophrenia — there are a lot of ways the brain cannot work well. For details — see http://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/04/25/tolstoy-was-right-about-hereditary-diseases-imagine-that/. or see http://luysii.wordpress.com/2010/07/29/tolstoy-rides-again-autism-spectrum-disorder/.

Typically, even when an association of a disease with a genetic variant is found, the variant only increases the risk of the disorder by 2% or less. The bad thing is that when you lump them all of the variants you’ve discovered together (for something like height) and add up the risk, you never account for over 50% of the heredity. It isn’t for want of looking as by 2010 some 600 human GWAS studies had been published [ Neuron vol. 68 p. 182 '10 ]. Yet lots of the studies have shown various disease to have a degree of heritability (particularly schizophrenia). The fact that we’ve been unable to find the DNA variants causing the heritability was totally unexpected. Like the dark matter in galaxies, which we know is there by the way the stars spin around the galactic center, this missing heritability has been called the dark matter of the genome.

Which brings us to Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 109 pp. 7391 – 7396 ’12. It concerns an awful disease causing blindness in kids called Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy. The ’cause’ has been found. It is a change of 1 base from thymine to cytosine in the gene for a protein (NADH dehydrogenase subunit 1) causing a change at amino acid #30 from tyrosine to histidine. The mutation is found in mitochondrial DNA not nuclear DNA, making it easier to find (it occurs at position 3394 of the 16,569 nucleotide mitochondrial DNA).

Mitochondria in animal cells, and chloroplasts in plant cells, are remnants of bacteria which moved inside cells as we know them today (rest in peace Lynn Margulis).

Some 25% of Tibetans have the 3394 T–>C mutations, but they see just fine. It appears to be an adaptation to altitude, because the same mutation is found in nonTibetans on the Indian subcontinent living about 1500 meters (about as high as Denver). However, if you have the same genetic change living below this altitude you get Lebers.

This is a spectacular demonstration of the influence of environment on heredity. Granted that the altitude you live at is a fairly impressive environmental change, but it’s at least possible that more subtle changes (temperature, humidity, air conditions etc. etc.) might also influence disease susceptibility to the same genetic variant. This certainly is one possible explanation for the failure of GWAS to turn up much. The authors make no mention of this in their paper, so these ideas may actually be (drumroll please) original.

If such environmental influences on the phenotypic expression of genetic changes are common, it might be yet another explanation for why drug discovery is so hard. Consider CETP (Cholesterol Ester Transfer Protein) and the very expensive failure of drugs inhibiting it. Torcetrapib was associated with increased deaths in a trial of 15,000 people for 18 – 20 months. Perhaps those dying somehow lived in a different environment. Perhaps others were actually helped by the drug

A purely nonscientific post

On 14 June ’14 we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary in London, England. Here is what we saw

Noon: Trooping the colors — the celebration of the Queen’s birthday. Huge crowds, many carrying backpacks. Huge police presence. We saw the queen riding in a carriage, princess Kate and husband, and at least 3 sets of mounted horsemen all wearing tall bearskin hats.
Nothing happened a la Boston marathon (fortunately). Talked to some of the police who told us that there were many secret service types embedded in the crowd.

1 PM: While eating lunch in a nearby Italian bistro, police came down the street, and taped off half. The were followed by 2,000 or so members of the Jesus Army, singing and dancing and inviting all to march with them down to nearby Trafalgar Square. All ages, nationalities were present (no burkas though of which there were many everywhere we went in downtown London).

2 PM: While walking to St. Paul’s a few miles away for Evensong at 6:00 — more police, more tape. Then cheers went up as about 200 nude bicyclists rode past. No one in the crowd said put it back on, but these weren’t playboy and playgirl centerfolds.

3 PM: Trafalgar square, with the Jesus Army — a stage set up and a Christian rock band blasting away. Happy crowd. Onlookers polite if bemused. Nude cyclists not in evidence.

4 – 5:30 PM — While leisurely walking to St. Paul’s, the nude bicyclists would unexpectedly appear from a side street and then disappear down another just as quickly. They certainly caught our attention, too much to see what the reaction of the ladies in burkas and head scarves was (I wish I’d looked).

6 PM: St. Paul’s Cathedral — it must be experienced, pictures simply don’t do it justice. We were able to sit in the apse in the seats for the choir, listening to the service and the music, perhaps 10 – 20 feet away from clergy and 40 feet from the choir. As a musician, it was fantastic to hear liturgical choral music in the physical space it was written for. When the singing stopped, the enveloping sound took a few seconds to die away. Chilling and thrilling. A Bach organ fugue finished the recessional.

7 PM: My wife and I describe ourselves as hunter gatherers in bookstores, and Waterstone’s in Pickadilly Circus (a bit of Atlantic City moved to London) didn’t disappoint. Said to be the largest bookstore in Europe — very great browsing material, with lots of comfortable places to read. Glad to see Nicholas Wade’s book prominently displayed (about which there will be several posts). They’ll mail anything you buy to the USA for a 10% surcharge, another bookstore was charging 9 pounds a book. Our stuff arrived in under 10 days quite well packed and intact.

9 PM: Dinner at Cichetti’s near Pickadilly Square — an interesting Italian restaurant with excellent food, with an unusual style of serving and ordering.

Next up:

Possibly a few sociological and historical notes about our 2 weeks in England.

A lengthy review and page by page commentary on Nicholas Wade’s book (thanks for the gift Ashutosh).

Does anyone in China want to go back to the ’80s?

The following is an abstract of an article in PNAS appearing in the 13 May’14 issue (full reference below). The authors are Yu Xie and Ziang Zhou from Peking University and the University of Michigan (respectively). Much is made of income inequality in the USA and what a terrible thing it is. Fortunately for those of the left who find this distressing, there are still a few places left with true equality of income. Cuba comes to mind. Res Ipsa Loquitur.

“Using multiple data sources, we establish that China’s income inequality since 2005 has reached very high levels, with the Gini coefficient in the range of 0.53–0.55. Analyzing comparable survey data collected in 2010 in China and the United States, we examine social determinants that help explain China’s high income inequality. Our results indicate that a substantial part of China’s high income inequality is due to regional disparities and the rural-urban gap. The contributions of these two structural forces are particularly strong in China, but they play a negligible role in generating the overall income inequality in the United States, where individual-level and family-level income determinants, such as family structure and race/ethnicity, play a much larger role.

Since its beginning in 1978, China’s economic reform has led not only to rapid economic growth but also to a large increase in economic inequality. Although scholars continue to debate about precise estimates (1), the consensus is that income inequality in China has now reached a level much higher than that in the United States (2). As we will discuss below, the Gini coefficient for family income in China has now reached a level above 0.5, compared with 0.45 in the United States in 2010. This finding is significant because China had a very low level of income inequality as recently as in the late 1980s (3). Ordinary persons in China know about this increase, as they have personally experienced it in their own lives (4). Although ordinary Chinese people seem to tolerate the high inequality (4⇓–6), they also recognize it as a social problem needing to be addressed. In fact, out of a number of social issues given, respondents in a 2012 national survey rated economic inequality (more precisely, the “rich-poor gap”) the most severe, above corruption and unemployment (7).”

[ Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. vol. 111 pp. 6928 - 6933 '14 (Issue of 13 May '14) ]

Is a sea change taking place at the New York Times ?

The little kid started crying as I approached him with the syringe filled with yellow fluid. He knew that after he was held down and I injected him he would be violently sick and vomit repeatedly.

It was 1964 and this happened at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and the kid had acute lymphatic leukemia, and the syringe was full of methotrexate, the antifolate drug in use at the time. I was a third year med student. Although Stanley Milgram had begun his “Obedience to Authority” experiments in 1961 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Milgram_experiment, I was hardly a happy or willing participant in the proceedings. I had nightmares about it.

Like all the kids with leukemia at CHOP, the little boy was part of a ‘study’ run by an oncologist, with an accent right out of Boris Karloff. I thought he was a monster. He was so happy that the kids in his branch of the study survived a horrible 21 months, vs. the previous record of 18. I thought that the kids were being kept alive and suffering when they shouldn’t have been, in order to set a new survival record. The study randomized the kids between the new regimen and the current regimen showing the best survival.

Well, I was terribly wrong, and the oncologist was a hero not a monster. Presently the cure rate (not survival) of childhood leukemia is over 90%. We now worry about the long term side effects of the drugs (and radiation) used to cure it — cognitive problems, fertility problems. It was precisely because the new treatment was compared to the best previous treatment that we are where we are today.

What in the world does this have to do with the New York Times?

Simply this, on Monday 21 April the front page of the New York Times contained an article title “50 Years Later, Hardship Hits Back, Poorest Counties Are Still Losing in War on Want”. They don’t call it the “War on Poverty” until the 5th paragraph. Nonetheless, the article (without explicitly saying so) documents just what a failure it has been. Nowhere in the article, is there any mention of why it failed, but it’s clear that only more of the same has been tried — more food stamps, more medicaid, more free school lunches, etc. etc. It is claimed in the article that this lifted tens of thousands above a subsistence standard of living, yet 15% of the populace is still living in poverty and 47/300 million of us are on food stamps.

At least the Times is no longer pretending that the War on Poverty (started in 1964 when I was pushing methotrexate) is a success.

Another sign of a sea change at the Times appeared the day before on the Op-Ed page in an article titled “From Rags to Riches to Rags” in which the notion of a static top 1% in income was debunked. A study of 44 years of longitudinal data of people from 25 to 60 showed that 12% of all of them would be in the top 1% of income for at least one year, and that 39% will be in the top 5% of income for at least 1 year.

A third appeared on the 22nd in a front page article concerning a near lynching by Blacks in Detroit of a white man who hit a child with his car.

In recent years, I’ve thought that I’ve had to read the Times much as the Russians read Pravda during cold war I (and perhaps today). A friend has called it ‘advocacy driven journalism’. Perhaps there will be a shift in orientation from left to right, but, even so, I’m not a fan of having articles #1 and #3 any place other than Op – Ed page. Advocacy journalism is advocacy journalism whether it agrees with your political orientation or not. The 3 articles cited really aren’t news. That’s what the opinion page is for — opinion and background.

80+ years ago my future parents discovered that one of the first things they had in common was that they both read the Times. I grew up with it, and hopefully it will become a great newspaper again.

The failure to try anything new against poverty is a manifestation of the arrogance of the intelligent, about which there will be another post.

At the Alumni Day

‘It’s Complicated’. No this isn’t about the movie where Meryl Streep made a feeble attempt to be a porn star. It’s what I heard from a bunch of Harvard PhD physicists who had listened to John Kovac talk about the BICEP2 experiment a day earlier. I had figured as a humble chemist that if anyone would understand why polarized light from the Cosmic Background Radiation would occur in pinwheels they would. But all the ones I talked to admitted that they didn’t.

The experiment is huge for physics and several articles explain why this is so [ Science vol. 343 pp. 1296 - 1297m vol. 344 pp. 19 - 20 '14, Nature vol. 507 pp. 281 - 283 '14 ]. BICEP2 provided strong evidence for gravitational waves, cosmic inflation, and the existence of a quantum theory of gravity (assuming it holds up and something called SPIDER confirms it next year). The nice thing about the experiment is that it found something predicted by theory years ago. This is the way Science is supposed to operate. Contrast this with the climate models which have been totally unable to predict the more than decade of unchanged mean global temperature that we are currently experiencing.

Well we know gravity can affect light — this was the spectacular experimental conformation of General Relativity by Eddington nearly a century ago. But how quantum fluctuations in the gravitational field lead to gravitational waves, and how these waves lead to the polarization of the background electromagnetic radiation occurring in pinwheels is a mystery to me and a bunch of physicists had more high powered than I’ll ever be. If someone can explain this, please write a comment. The articles cited above are very good to explain context and significance, but they don’t even try to explain why the data looks the way it does.

The opening talk was about terrorism, and what had been learned about it by studying worldwide governmental responses to a variety of terrorist organizations (Baader Meinhof, Shining Path, Red Brigades). The speaker thought our response to 9/11 was irrational — refusing to fly when driving is clearly more dangerous etc. etc. It was the typical arrogance of the intelligent, who cannot comprehend why everyone does not think the way they do.

I thought it was remarkable that a sociologist would essentially deprecate the way people think about risk. I’m sure that many in the room were against any form of nuclear power, despite its safety compared to everything else and absent carbon footprint.

Addendum 7 April — The comment by Handles and link he provided is quite helpful, although I still don’t understand it as well as I’d like. Here’s the link https://medium.com/p/25c5d719187b

The Ukraine

“Are you Russian?” I asked (age 10) on meeting the formidable Dr. Antyn Rudnytsky, my future piano teacher for the first time. I then received a frightening, lengthy and intense lecture concerning the difference between Ukranians such as himself and Russians (gangsters as he called them).

What he was doing on a chicken farm in southern New Jersey in the late 40’s is quite a story. I was incredibly fortunate to have been taught by an individual of his caliber, and at amateur chamber music festivals, usually someone asks me where I’d studied. I was extremely well taught, and I spent my senior year in high school studying just the first movement of Bach’s Italian Concerto.

I have no way of checking the accuracy of all of this, but this is what I heard about him. He had a PhD in music and had studied Piano under Artur Schnabel. He was, at one point conductor of the Ukranian State Orchestra, and didn’t like the way a particular violinist played and chewed him out. The violinist denounced him to his party cell, and Dr. Rudnytsky saw his name in the paper as Mr. Rudnitsky (not Comrade Rudnytsky or even Dr. Rudnytsky). He got out and came to the USA. It took him several years to get his wife (an opera singer) and his two boys out of the Ukraine.

He never quite adjusted to the USA, speaking of how people would wait for hours in the snow to go a great concert back there and how little respect classical music had in the USA. What really must have torn him up was seeing one son (Dorian) go to Julliard, and found the New York Rock and Roll Ensemble in the 60’s where he played cello along with two guitars and a clarinet. Leonard Bernstein plugged the group for a time, ignoring the father.

His other son, Roman, was very useful to me, in that he showed me what real musical talent was like, so that I didn’t get inflated ideas about my own ability (I’m a not-too-bad amateur). At age 3 he started telling his father what notes passing trains were emitting. Then when people would come over to the house for lessons, Roman would sit behind a door, and then play what they had played (without looking at any music) on the piano. Also a Julliard graduate.

Addendum 4 Mar ’14 — I sent a copy of this post to both sons — Roman and Dorian, and almost immediately got back a nice note from Roman. Just Google him (Roman Rudnytsky) for some of his U-Tubes etc. He said that everything I remembered about his father and his history was ‘spot on’.

One more Ukrainian bit before moving on to the present. In the 80s a newly arrived Ukranian lady was interviewed by the local paper in upstate NY. When asked what she liked about the US, she mentioned having people over to her house for prayer without having to draw the shades.

So now Russia has invaded the Crimea again, and Europe is reduced to making a few noises. Since they spend about 20% as much as the USA on defense, it’s about all they can do (but look at the great social services they have — they won’t be much help if Russia moves west again).

Another even more disturbing point, is that we talked Ukraine into giving up its nuclear weapons. In June 1996 they transferred all 1,900 of their nuclear weapons to Russia. It is very doubtful that Russia would have invaded, had the Ukraine retained them. It is even more doubtful, that any country with nuclear weapons will ever again voluntarily give them up. It is also quite likely that many small countries without them will try to go nuclear. The world has just become a much more dangerous place.

On the bright side, Europeans can now put their large numbers of unemployed youth into their armies, solving at least one problem.

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