@pzmyers, scientist, swings at @DeepakChopra, non-scientist. Home runs ensue.

Deepak “not actually a scientist, really, anymore, anyway, in any way that actually matters” Chopra has felt the burn of being accused of ignoramity by Valerie Strauss and has been unable to resist the temptation to confirm to all & sundry that the allegation was indeed valid and richly deserved. In a recent post, actual evolutionary biologist PZ Myers highlights the myriad ways in which Chopra reveals his trademark oblivious, foot-shooting smugnorance. Now, I’ll leave the erstwhile reader to enjoy that post on their own, but a particular phrase of Chopra’s – ironically, part of a screed designed specifically to convince people how un-ignorant he is about evolution –  jumped at me and demanded my attention:

“…as a species we have leapt ahead far faster than random mutations can account for.”

I love – just love – how this new-age anthroponarcissist flatly asserts that we’ve evolved too fast, as if we’ve broken some law of thermodynamics (another branch of science I’ll lay fat stacks that Chopra hasn’t Clue One about). First: no, we haven’t (and citations, please, regarding how fast we should be evolving and how you went about determining that value). Second: it’s akin to asserting that human culture has leaped ahead far faster than Bronze Age technology can account for. Third: it sounds uncomfortably like nu-Creationist Stephen Meyer murdering both information theory and palaeontology in order to attribute the diversification of ancient life known as the Cambrian explosion to divine tinkering (“it’s too fast, therefore Genesis!”). Pro-tip, Deepak: when responding to accusations that you deny or simply don’t understand evolution, the first thing you might want to do is avoid sounding like a bloody creationist.

And of course, the assertion is simply bollocks. To use a non-biological analogy: once a particular kind of technological leap is made, technologies based on that leap will advance at a rate far faster than technology had – and could have – advanced previously. It happened with metals – to the point that two major human epochs are named after them – and take the original fuel, transport, mining and manufacturing game-changer: steam power. Once steam (and the associated metallurgical technology) was shown in the mid-17th century to be able to drive pistons and pulleys, with immensely broad applications, it was perhaps a generation or two before it had created an entirely new and entirely global coal-based economy which changed the world forever (and continues to do so – in ways we’re fast beginning to realise aren’t all that great). Ditto the internal combustion engine, powered flight and electronics: somebody watching the Wrights at Kittyhawk in 1911 could well have been watching Armstrong at Tranquility Base on their TV in 1969 – and in between have witnessed the birth of commercial air travel, air combat, the rise and fall of the zeppelin, nuclear weapons, the jet engine, the very first satellites, then people, in space and the breaking of the sound barrier. And I’m sure many of us who do a lot of reading on glowing screens are quite familiar with how much more complex, powerful, adaptable and indispensable the humble PC and its associates and offshoots have become, well within living memory.

Just as with artificial technology, in evolution all it takes is a particular leap at the right time and of the right sort to catalyse all sorts of new leaps in the original direction and associated leaps in any other direction that’s both possible and not a detriment to a population. Progress begets progress, whether pursued actively by humans or left to its own devices in a completely unguided and natural arena. Fortuitous evolutionary leaps don’t breach any supposed biological “laws” any more than do exponential technological advances; proto-humanity’s skip during the divergence from the human/chimp common ancestor gave us a little cerebral edge which, through countless generations of selection, mutation and other evolutionary mechanisms, turned out to be a boon in so many ways it’s scarcely quantifiable. Yet despite the hard-won knowledge of our genetic lottery-win and the subsequent consolidation and expansion of our riches, Chopra apparently wants to give the credit to some ill-defined phantom, presumably of his own devising, because science hasn’t yet demonstrated, to his unreasonable standard, that minds are processes undertaken by brains (it scarcely needs to be said that Chopra himself has done exactly diddly-bugger-all to demonstrate the validity of any of his notions, besides two-fisted verbal wankery and petulant broadsides at actual scientists). You have to wonder, given his “too fast” hypothesis, if Chopra has any particular beefs with the aforementioned Cambrian explosion – after all, it was an unprecedented event of speciation and diversification, about which creationists (and Intelligent Design creationists) have been voicing similar (and similarly ridiculous) “too fast!” objections for many years. Or perhaps Chopra would simply not care too much about some odd-looking shelly critters crawling and swimming about the ocean primeval a half-billion years ago – I didn’t call him an “anthroponarcissist” for nothing, after all, and there’s no real fodder for his fantabulations in fossils. You also have to wonder if, after Chopra’s “too fast” comment, the creationists might try and claim his words as credible – although, if they have any idea the low esteem Chopra in which is held by most scientists, they might not want to touch him with a barge pole. Then again, being creationists, they’re not above grasping desperately at straws when it comes to claiming the words of perceived scientific authorities as supportive of their particular brand of pseudoscience.

Regardless of whether creationists glom onto his verbal missteps as manna from Heaven, Chopra’s objections and attempted defences are easily revealed as facile, ignorant and childish; if he had a shred of integrity he’d be ashamed by his behaviour and would cease pontificating on subjects on which he has no expertise. But having no idea and no shame has never stopped his thoughtless yawping before; we should have no doubt that this self-styled maverick and ever-preening diva will take any further criticism as proof that he’s onto something. He might well, yet again, compare himself to Galileo and, yet again, neglect to realise that Galileo was right and could damn well prove it.

My final wonderment about this self-aggrandising charlatan is this, possums: will he ever return those spectacles to Dame Edna?


#GMO fear-mongering: let’s all try to not to do it, okes? Via the #senapath @ksenapathy

Oh yay! Time to wade into the GMO debate! Via FB.

Originally posted to Kavin Senapathy’s page was this:

Senapath: Just wondering, who’s reason, who’s evidence, and who’s scientific method you would be referring to. I seem to remember if you followed the corporate reason, evidence, and scientific methods of the time, these products would be safe and effective…….DDT, PCBs, Agent Orange, and recombinant bovine somatotropin, to name a few. Today, if I purchase most any food item, the law requires that all ingredients be labeled, sensible right! Just label GMO’s, end of story……It seems to me, you and the corporations have decided to take us out of the equation, and by proxy, make decisions individuals should be able to make on their own. How would labeling GMO ingredients affect you in any negative way, clearly you would prefer to eat these products, so with labeling you could feel secure in knowing what you are getting. And for me, I would be able to avoid what I do not want……A winner for us both…….

Of course, I felt compelled to respond:

Dear Ross

Labelling “GM ingredients” would (and I would say already does) confuse people unnecessarily. How would you write in your ingredients list that the wheat flour used in your hot dog rolls had had inserted or activated, at point XYZ in its genome, gene/gene complex ABC? People barely know what half the things on ingredients lists are already – and as fearmongers like Food Babe have demonstrated, people are already easily scared of many of them for no good reason beyond their syllable count or their presence in other materials (which is often misunderstood or misrepresented). Even if you didn’t describe the GM process used in the product in question, just putting a “GMO inside” sticker on it would be just as confusing (and fear-inducing). Either way, people would be confused and scared for no reason, and no better informed.

The point is that genetic modification is nothing to be feared. People get all paranoid about “animal genes in corn” and talk about GMOs like campfire horror stories, but first: that’s an unfounded exaggeration and second: every mouthful you eat is already a mix of countless millions of genes and DNA fragments from the living or formerly-living things you’re consuming. Recombinant DNA techniques, aka “splicing” (to name just one), are a re-ordering of the DNA molecule which leaves the chemical structure of the molecule unchanged. RDNA and DNA are chemically identical and are processed by the body in the same way.

But if you’re truly worried about animal genes in your vegetables, maybe you should step away from that ham sandwich or that bolognese sauce. Facetiousness aside, if you’re vego/vegan or simply object to the presence of animal genes in vegetable matter, please consider the facts that 1) a pig gene does not equal pork and 2) animals and non-animals already share a great many genes due to the common ancestry of all living organisms (as I write this, you and I are 50% banana). RDNA techniques are often little more than “swtiching on” an extant gene or gene complex within a food organism, or simply substituting the identical gene or gene complex from another organism to achieve a desired result. Either way, its impact on you, once consumed, is nil.

Please note that no DNA in any food you consume is incorporated into your own genome in any way. Processing foods denatures DNA, as does any cooking process, and the digestive process is entirely about breaking food down at the molecular level into proteins, fats, sugars and other nutrients. Even when you eat raw, living food straight off the vine, your digestive process quickly dismantles any DNA once the cells of the fruit/vegetable are breached. Some DNA fragments may remain in your system, but this is true of all you consume, and none of the DNA leftovers have any effect. They’re waste and are treated as such.

Finally, conflating GMOs with DDT and Agent Orange is grossly inappropriate. It mightn’t have been the intention, but far too many people are all too happy to do so overtly. There’s already far too much hyperbole and fearmongering regarding GM food and I think it’s encumbent on all of us who are prepared to discuss the subject honestly not to contribute to it.