Sunday, April 03, 2005

Sex will not solve the world's problems... (and neither will Christine Boese)

So gradually this story has been creeping into the mainstream press:

Report yields sex answers (I've doctored this link to login for you automatically with a bogus account; aren't I smart?)

I'm afraid that the average reader is going to read this and think that sex is some amazing invention that will beat out all other competing strategies and gradually take over the world. However, this study really doesn't demonstrate anything new (in fact, it's not even novel; it's not the first experiment of this kind); it only verifies what scientists have been speculating (and graudally verifying) for years, and it doesn't verify it globally; it just shows that in a particular situation, sex might be a sort-of good idea. In other other situations, asexual reproduction makes more sense. (perhaps someday when there are more than 10 billion humans, the next species of highly cognitive being will shift back to asexual reproduction)

[ People also need to understand that the "sex" here is recombination; it's not as exciting as most people are imagining. ]

But there are still lots of things working against sex. Sex doesn't make sense for every organism. Sex does not bring with it only advantages. Like all other adaptations, there are tradeoffs. Natural selection favors those things that tradeoff things that are not as valuable in a particular environment. As the environment changes (and this includes how many conspecifics are in the environment), the favored tradeoffs change too.

It's a funny balancing act -- making science public. There's a tradeoff there too, you see. In most cases, letting the lay people know anything tends to do a tremendous amount of damage. However, if you don't let them know anything, then they won't support your research initiatives.

[ By the way, if you'd like a better introduction (for the non-scientist) to sex, the problems with it, and the previous evidence of why certain animals do it, I recommend Matt Ridley's The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature ]

Prime numbers are another example. You see, I went out to eat with my parents last Friday, and dad mentioned that he had heard that they had found the largest prime number. I was very skeptical. You see, if the story was as my dad reported, then the headline would be, "there are a finite number of primes."

So I figured that they didn't find the largest prime number, but they found a new prime number larger than all other primes before it, and I found a news story that verified my intuition (Largest-known prime number crunched).

Now, my father didn't understand why it took them so long to find this. Both he and my mother also didn't understand why this is even interesting. However, they frequently do shopping over the Internet and don't realize that it is because primes are so hard to find that their credit card information is safe.

Nowhere in that article (originally written by a NYTimes reporter) did they mention why primes are important.

However, they did say:
In addition, it falls in a rare category of primes known as Mersenne primes, which can be written as 2{+n} - 1 where n is also prime.

This isn't exciting! It would be really exciting if they said they found a new prime that was NOT a Mersenne prime!

In fact, on the topic of Mersenne primes, the article does mention...
The surgeon, Dr. Martin Nowak, of Michelfeld, is among thousands of participants in the Great Internet Mersenne Prime Search, one of several big projects that tap idle computers worldwide.

But they don't explain what GIMPS is, and most readers are going to think that this EYE SURGEON just happens to do math in his spare time for free. They don't realize he's a clueless idiot (when it comes to physical science and math (he's an eye surgeon, not a rocket scientist)) who happens to use his spare computer cycles to run a program that lots of other unqualified geeks are running.

[ Oh, and by the way, GIMPS ONLY FINDS MERSENNE PRIMES! Nowak didn't do anything special for this. It was inevitible. ]

So this touches on something else too. You see, as I mentioned before it's a balancing act deciding on what to publicize as a scientist. You want to tell people enough to keep their pocketbooks interested, but you don't want to publish so much that the people actually assume they know what's going on to the point where they can make judgements of it. However, there's something else here... The media that serves as a mechanism for spreading those publications...

You see, some people say the media has a liberal bias, and some say it has a conservative bias, and when you consider the media typically is run by people who are both rich and moderately educated, it probably has more of a libertarian bias. Regardless though, I think it greatly has a stupid bias. The media encourages stupidity. And articles like this really show it.

I've posted about this before in my Microwaves, Faraday Cages, and the Xenaverse where I do a quick study of a recent CNN HN article, Passport chips raise privacy concerns, by Christine Boese, whose personal homepage really is, where she talks about her doctoral work studying the "Xenaverse." You see, Ms. Boese likes to talk about things like wrapping your passport in foil because that creates a Faraday Cage that will prevent the RFID from being read (though she'd probably say "from transmitting" here). As all of us know, that's silly and wrong.

So I stand firmly behind the belief that the media promotes a bias toward the stupid. I think this makse sense, because most of the people in the media are only mildly educated, and if they can make the public sufficiently stupid, that'll make them pretty darn smart. Seriously -- if the media is stupid and in a condition where they can't even UNDERSTAND PRIMARY sources, they'll be forced to turn to the mildly educated media, who will just give them enough to satisfy them...


Anonymous said...

Asking the expert:
"Goddard's team mutated yeast cells, leaving them sexually impotent, and compared them with their normal counterparts. When both sets were starved and made rather uncomfortable by rising temperatures, the sexually competent cells grew significantly faster."
ok, but does this mean that the sexual yeast cells themselves grew faster or their offspring grew faster? I guess I didn't understand this if it was pointing out that a colony of yeast able to reproduce (either sexually or asexually) grow faster than one that can't.

Theo said...

I think the word "grew" is confusing the issue a bit.

First, it may be helpful to take a look at some of the other stories posted about Goddard's experiment. Partly because I think they'll help to understand Goddard's experiment, and partly because they help demonstrate my point that the media is utterly worthless in the conclusions they draw and/or the things they highlight.

In particular:

National Geographic News: Sex Speeds Up Evolution, Study Finds

Scoop: Hidden costs of sex

Why sex is good for the species

WebMD: Why We Have Sex

Now, the result of this study wasn't that sexually competent cells themselves "grew" faster (as in, each cell did not grow larger than cells around it necessarily) but the populations had a faster growth rate than the asexual populations.

In other words, the sexual cells were more prolific. The sexual cells were able to survive better in the tougher environment.

The basic idea here is that the asexual cells were slaves to their internal genetic mutation only. In a good environment, a bad mutation might go unnoticed. However, in a tough environment, those bad mutations can be a major disadvantage and the cells with them will take longer to get enough energy to reproduce and eventually that line will decrease in numbers. On top of that, the asexual cells that evolve good mutations will not be able to trade those good mutations with their neighbors.

You see, sex does two things. It helps spread novel adaptations and it also helps "clear out" bad mutations that have built up over time.

So the sexual cells were able to borrow from the cells next to them. In doing so, they were able to negate the effect of bad mutations and pick up some good mutations along the way.

The real advantage of this is that adaptations that allowed cells to survive in the tougher environment could be spread and mutations that were bad for the environment could be flushed out. Sex wins in this special situation.

A general rule is that the larger the animal and the smaller the population the more common sex is. Humans are very large animals with relatively small populations (when compared to, for example bacteria populations).

Does that help?

Anonymous said...

Yep, thanks. I had read Red Queen, but the phrasing in the article about Goddard was confusing as hell. I thought that's what they were saying- wanted to make sure.