Factory farms may be killing coral reefs, not a warming planet

Interesting article from the nerds at phys.org:

A study published in the international journal Marine Biology, reveals what’s really killing coral reefs. With 30 years of unique data from Looe Key Reef in the lower Florida Keys, researchers from Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute and collaborators have discovered that the problem of coral bleaching is not just due to a warming planet, but also a planet that is simultaneously being enriched with reactive nitrogen from multiple sources.

Improperly treated sewage, fertilizers and top soil are elevating nitrogen levels, which are causing phosphorus starvation in the corals, reducing their temperature threshold for “bleaching.” These coral reefs were dying off long before they were impacted by rising water temperatures. This study represents the longest record of reactive nutrients and algae concentrations for coral reefs anywhere in the world.

In other words, the same factory/industrial farming that creates massive dead zones in oceans worldwide (including the Gulf of Mexico) is also at least partially responsible for killing the coral reefs, not a rise in sea temperature.

Will Earth support a human population of 10 billion or more? Yes, but maybe without any animals, including coral.

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Science says that success cannot be inherited genetically

An enduring source of amusement is watching people who have a scientific perspective (and oftentimes actual training in science) throw rocks at the religious for being irrationally dogmatic.

Part of the dogma of the politically righteous today in the U.S. is that success cannot be inherited genetically. The children of the rich tend to be rich, but that is because they got cash from their parents (Exhibit A: Donald Trump!), not because they have personal characteristics that resembles their successful parents’ personal characteristics.

When this has been carefully studied, e.g., in The Son Also Rises, it turns out that success does behave like other genetically inherited characteristics. The child of successful parents has roughly the same chance of becoming successful regardless of the number of siblings who are present to dilute any financial inheritance.

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer is a great illustration of this dogma. The book goes on at length regarding things that can be inherited genetically. But then we get an economics lesson on inequality:

Raj Chetty, a Stanford economist, has estimated that Americans born in 1940 had a 90 percent chance of making more money than their parents at age thirty. But Chetty and his colleagues have found that those odds then steadily dropped. Americans born in 1984 had only a 50 percent chance of making more than their parents. The shift was not the result of the United States suddenly running out of money. It’s just that wealthy Americans have been taking much of the extra money the economy has generated in recent decades. Chetty’s research suggests that if the recent economic growth in the United States was distributed more broadly, most of the fading he has found would disappear. “The rise in inequality and the decline in absolute mobility are closely linked,” he and his colleagues reported in 2017. Inheritance has helped push open that gulf. About two-thirds of parental income differences among Americans persist into the next generation. Economists have found that American children who are born to parents in the ninetieth percentile of earners will grow up to make three times more than children of the tenth percentile. This inheritance is not simply what parents leave in their wills but the things that they can buy for their children as they grow up. In the United States, affluent parents can afford a house in a good public school district, or even private school tuition. They can pay for college test prep classes to increase the odds their children will get into good colleges. And if they do get in, their parents can cover more of their college tuitions. Poor parents have fewer means to prepare their children to get into college. Even if their children do get accepted, they have fewer funds, and they’re more vulnerable to layoffs or medical bankruptcy. Their children may graduate saddled with steep college debts or drop out before getting a degree. The gifts that children inherit can keep coming well into adulthood. Parents may help cover the cost of law school, or write a check to help out with a septic tank that failed just after their children bought their first house. Protected from catastrophes that can wipe out bank accounts, young adults from affluent families can get started sooner on building their own wealth. Inheritance also goes a long way to explain the gap in wealth between races in the United States. In 2013, the median white American household had thirteen times the wealth of the median black household, and ten times that of the median Latino household.

Whites are five times as likely to receive major gifts from relatives, and when they do, their value is much greater. These gifts can, among other things, allow white college students to graduate with much less debt than blacks or Latinos. And the effects of these inheritances have compounded through the generations as blacks and Latinos were left outside the wealth feedback loop that benefited white families.

In looking at how the children of those in the top 10 percent do, the author does not consider the possibility that the parents reached the top 10 percent due to genetic fitness for the current economic environment. (e.g., a fondness for sitting at a desk looking at numbers on a computer screen!). So it is our cruel economic system alone that dooms children of the least successful parents to mediocre incomes. If a third generation of a family whose first and second generations were on welfare (public housing, Medicaid, food stamps, and Obamaphone) elects to continue the welfare lifestyle, this is because the parents and grandparents couldn’t provide an inheritance.

It is not the beliefs that are interesting so much as the fact that the author can’t see this dogma conflicts with all of the science that he presented in the previous pages. Perhaps the UC Davis econ professor who did The Son Also Rises got it wrong, but what’s interesting is that apparently nobody can dare to consider the possibility that he got it right.

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Science is Settled: one characteristic cannot be inherited genetically

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer says that almost everything is heritable and that genetics is the mechanism for heritability. However, there is one big exception… intelligence.

Why does this matter? The book reminds us that the idea that a lack of intelligence will render a person dependent on welfare goes back at least to the 1930s:

The Great Depression was reaching its depths when [Henry Herbert] Goddard came back to Vineland, and he blamed it largely on America’s lack of intelligence: Most of the newly destitute didn’t have the foresight to save enough money. “Half of the world must take care of the other half,” Goddard said.

The idea that intelligence could not be explained by heredity is similarly old:

[British doctor Lionel] Penrose entered the profession as a passionate critic of eugenics, dismissing it as “pretentious and absurd.” In the early 1930s, eugenics still had a powerful hold on both doctors and the public at large—a situation Penrose blamed on lurid tales like The Kallikak Family. While those stories might be seductive, eugenicists made a mess of traits like intelligence. They were obsessed with splitting people into two categories—healthy and feebleminded—and then they would cast the feebleminded as a “class of vast and dangerous dimensions.” Penrose saw intelligence as a far more complex trait. He likened intelligence to height: In every population, most people were close to average height, but some people were taller and shorter than average. Just being short wasn’t equivalent to having some kind of a height disease. Likewise, people developed a range of different mental aptitudes. Height, Penrose observed, was the product of both inherited genes and upbringing. He believed the same was true for intelligence. Just as Mendelian variants could cause dwarfism, others might cause severe intellectual developmental disorders. But that was no reason to leap immediately to heredity as an explanation. “That mental deficiency may be to some extent due to criminal parents’ dwelling ‘habitually’ in slums seems to have been overlooked,” Penrose said. He condemned the fatalism of eugenicists, as they declared “there was nothing to be done but to blame heredity and advocate methods of extinction.”

Even if a country did sterilize every feebleminded citizen, Penrose warned, the next generation would have plenty of new cases from environmental causes. “The first consideration in the prevention of mental deficiency is to consider how environmental influences which are held responsible can be modified,” Penrose declared.

The author finds some cases in which children with severe physical disorders, e.g., PKU, have impaired intelligence. From this he reminds us that it is wrong to believe that “our intelligence is fixed by the genes we inherit.” (Is that truly a comforting idea? I would have been as smart as Albert Einstein, for example, but I watched too much TV as a kid and didn’t work hard enough as an adult?)

We would be as tall as the Dutch if only we were smart enough to build a bigger government (2nd largest welfare state, as a percentage of GDP, is not enough to grow tall!):

The economy of the United States, the biggest in the world, has not protected it from a height stagnation. Height experts have argued that the country’s economic inequality is partly to blame. Medical care is so expensive that millions go without insurance and many people don’t get proper medical care. Many American women go without prenatal care during pregnancy, while expectant mothers in the Netherlands get free house calls from nurses.

How do intelligence distributions change over time, given that environment is supposed to be a huge factor?

Intelligence is also a surprisingly durable trait. On June 1, 1932, the government of Scotland tested almost every eleven-year-old in the country—87,498 all told—with a seventy-one-question exam. The students decoded ciphers, made analogies, did arithmetic. The Scottish Council for Research in Education scored the tests and analyzed the results to get an objective picture of the intelligence of Scottish children. Scotland carried out only one more nationwide exam, in 1947. Over the next couple of decades, the council analyzed the data and published monographs before their work slipped away into oblivion.

Deary, Whalley, and their colleagues moved the 87,498 tests from ledgers onto computers. They then investigated what had become of the test takers. Their ranks included soldiers who died in World War II, along with a bus driver, a tomato grower, a bottle labeler, a manager of a tropical fish shop, a member of an Antarctic expedition, a cardiologist, a restaurant owner, and an assistant in a doll hospital. The researchers decided to track down all the surviving test takers in a single city, Aberdeen. They were slowed down by the misspelled names and erroneous birth dates. Many of the Aberdeen examinees had died by the late 1990s. Others had moved to other parts of the world. And still others were just unreachable. But on June 1, 1998, 101 elderly people assembled at the Aberdeen Music Hall, exactly sixty-six years after they had gathered there as eleven-year-olds to take the original test. Deary had just broken both his arms in a bicycling accident, but he would not miss the historic event. He rode a train 120 miles from Edinburgh to Aberdeen, up to his elbows in plaster, to witness them taking their second test. Back in Edinburgh, Deary and his colleagues scored the tests. Deary pushed a button on his computer to calculate the correlation between their scores as children and as senior citizens. The computer spat back a result of 73 percent. In other words, the people who had gotten relatively low scores in 1932 tended to get relatively low scores in 1998, while the high-scoring children tended to score high in old age.

If you had looked at the score of one of the eleven-year-olds in 1933, you’d have been able to make a pretty good prediction of their score almost seven decades later. Deary’s research prompted other scientists to look for other predictions they could make from childhood intelligence test scores. They do fairly well at predicting how long people stay in school, and how highly they will be rated at work. The US Air Force found that the variation in [general intelligence] among its pilots could predict virtually all the variation in tests of their work performance. While intelligence test scores don’t predict how likely people are to take up smoking, they do predict how likely they are to quit. In a study of one million people in Sweden, scientists found that people with lower intelligence test scores were more likely to get into accidents.

IQ is correlated with longevity:

But Deary’s research raises the possibility that the roots of intelligence dig even deeper. When he and his colleagues started examining Scottish test takers in the late 1990s, many had already died. Studying the records of 2,230 of the students, they found that the ones who had died by 1997 had on average a lower test score than the ones who were still alive. About 70 percent of the women who scored in the top quarter were still alive, while only 45 percent of the women in the bottom quarter were. Men had a similar split. Children who scored higher, in other words, tended to live longer. Each extra fifteen IQ points, researchers have since found, translates into a 24 percent drop in the risk of death.

The author reports that twins separated at birth have almost identical IQs, despite completely different childhood environments. With most other personal characteristics, this would lead to the conclusion that intelligence was mostly heritable. Instead, however, Zimmer points out that if heritability is not 100 percent then it would be a mistake to call something “genetic”:

Intelligence is far from blood types. While test scores are unquestionably heritable, their heritability is not 100 percent. It sits instead somewhere near the middle of the range of possibilities. While identical twins often end up with similar test scores, sometimes they don’t. If you get average scores on intelligence tests, it’s entirely possible your children may turn out to be geniuses. And if you’re a genius, you should be smart enough to recognize your children may not follow suit. Intelligence is not a thing to will to your descendants like a crown.

To bolster the claim that intelligence is not heritable, the book cites examples of children whose mothers were exposed to toxic chemicals during pregnancy. Also examples that staying in school for additional years raises IQ (a measure of symbol processing efficiency).

Here’s an interesting-sounding study:

In 2003, Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia and his colleagues gave a twist to the standard studies on twins. To calculate the heritability of intelligence, they decided not to just look at the typical middle-class families who were the subject of earlier studies. They looked for twins from poorer families, too. Turkheimer and his colleagues found that the socioeconomic class determined how heritable intelligence was. Among children who grew up in affluent families, the heritability was about 60 percent. But twins from poorer families showed no greater correlation than other siblings. Their heritability was close to zero.

(Do we believe that heritability is zero because identical twins and siblings both have highly correlated IQs? Earlier in the book, the author describes how hospitals and doctors often misclassify twins.)

Buried in the next section is that this finding is not straightforward to replicate (“Why Most Published Research Findings Are False”):

If you raise corn in uniformly healthy soil, with the same level of abundant sunlight and water, the variation in their height will largely be the product of the variation in their genes. But if you plant them in a bad soil, where they may or may not get enough of some vital nutrient, the environment will be responsible for more of their differences. Turkheimer’s study hints that something similar happens to intelligence. By focusing their research on affluent families—or on countries such as Norway, where people get universal health care—intelligence researchers may end up giving too much credit to heredity. Poverty may be powerful enough to swamp the influence of variants in our DNA. In the years since Turkheimer’s study, some researchers have gotten the same results, although others have not. It’s possible that the effect is milder than once thought. A 2016 study pointed to another possibility, however. It showed that poverty reduced the heritability of intelligence in the United States, but not in Europe. Perhaps Europe just doesn’t impoverish the soil of its children enough to see the effect. Yet there’s another paradox in the relationship between genes and the environment. Over time, genes can mold the environment in which our intelligence develops. In 2010, Robert Plomin led a study on eleven thousand twins from four countries, measuring their heritability at different ages. At age nine, the heritability of intelligence was 42 percent. By age twelve, it had risen to 54 percent. And at age seventeen, it was at 68 percent. In other words, the genetic variants we inherit assert themselves more strongly as we get older. Plomin has argued that this shift happens as people with different variants end up in different environments. A child who has trouble reading due to inherited variants may shy away from books, and not get the benefits that come from reading them.

Poverty in the cruel U.S. crushes children! But, measured in terms of consumption, an American family on welfare actually lives better than a lot of middle class European families. The author praises the Europeans with their universal health care systems, but 100 percent of poor American children qualify for Medicaid, a system of unlimited health care spending (currently covering roughly 75 million people).

If unlimited taxpayer-funded Medicaid isn’t sufficient to help poor American children reach their genetic potential, maybe early education will? The book quotes a Head Start planner: “The fundamental theoretical basis of Head Start was the concept

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Mothers acquiring cells from babies

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer:

In 1996, Lee Nelson proposed that microchimerism might make some mothers sick. With half their genetic material coming from their father, fetal cells might be a confusing mix of the foreign and the familiar. Nelson speculated that being exposed to fetal cells for years on end could lead a woman’s immune system to attack her own tissues. That confusion might be the reason that women are more vulnerable to autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and scleroderma. To test this possibility, Nelson and Bianchi collaborated on an experiment. They picked out thrity-three mothers of sons, sixteen of whom were healthy and seventeen of whom suffered from scleroderma. Nelson and Bianchi found that the women with scleroderma had far more fetal cells from their sons than did the healthy women.

But maybe this can be good?

It’s also possible that being a chimera can be good for your health. Bianchi’s first clue that chimerism might have an upside came in the late 1990s, when she was searching for fetal cells in various organs. She discovered a mother’s thyroid gland packed with fetal cells carrying Y chromosomes. Her gland was badly damaged by goiter, and yet it still managed to secrete normal levels of thyroid hormones. The evidence pointed to a startling conclusion: A fetal cell from her son had wended its way through her body to her diseased thyroid gland. It had sensed the damage there and responded by multiplying into new thyroid cells, regenerating the gland.

What about getting genes from a baby that is not genetically one’s own?

As chimerism rises out of the freak category, it also raises unexpected ethical questions. Somewhere around a thousand children a year are born to surrogate mothers in the United States alone. As Ruth Fischbach and John Loike, two bioethicists at Columbia University, have observed, the rules for surrogacy are based on an old-fashioned notion of pregnancy. They treat people as bundles of genes. As a society, we are comfortable with a woman nourishing another couple’s embryo and then parting ways with it, because she does not share the hereditary bond that a biological mother would. If the pregnancy goes smoothly, the surrogate mother is supposed to leave the experience no different than before the procedure. But Fischbach and Loike observed that a surrogate mother and a baby may end up connected in the most profound way possible. Cells from the fetus may embed themselves throughout her body, perhaps for life. And she may bequeath some of her cells to the child. This is not merely a thought experiment. In 2009, researchers at Harvard did a study on eleven surrogate mothers who carried boys but who never had sons of their own. After the women gave birth, the scientists found Y chromosomes in the bloodstreams of five of them.

More: Read She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity


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Human Chimeras

Some more interesting stuff from She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer… It turns out that Biology 101 contains a lot of simplifications (lies!).

Wikipedia: “A genetic chimerism or chimera … is a single organism composed of cells with distinct genotypes. In animals, this means an individual derived from two or more zygotes, …

How can this happen to a human and how does that interact with our “science is settled” attitude regarding DNA tests? Zimmer gives some examples:

In 2001, a thirty-year-old woman in Germany discovered she was a chimera while she was trying to get pregnant. For the previous five years, she and her husband had been trying to have a baby. They were fairly certain the problem didn’t lie with her biology, because she had gotten pregnant when she was seventeen and had had regular menstrual cycles ever since. A fertility test revealed that her husband had a low level of viable sperm, and so they made plans for IVF. As a routine check, the woman’s doctors took blood samples from her and her husband. They looked at the chromosomes in the couple’s cells, to make sure neither would-be parent had an abnormality that would torpedo the IVF procedure. The woman’s chromosomes looked normal—if she were a man. In every white blood cell they inspected, they found a Y chromosome. Given that she had given birth, this was a weird result. And a careful exam revealed that all her reproductive organs were normal. To get a broader picture of the woman’s cellular makeup, her doctors took samples of her muscle, ovaries, and skin. Unlike her immune cells, none of the cells from these other tissues had a Y chromosome in them. The researchers then carried out a DNA fingerprinting test on the different tissues, looking at the women’s microsatellites—the repeating sequences that can distinguish people from one another. They found that her immune cells belonged to a different person than her other tissues. It turned out that the woman had had a twin brother who died only four days after birth. Although he was unable to survive on his own, his cells took over his sister’s blood and lived on within her.

In 2003, a woman in Washington State named Lydia Fairchild had to get a DNA test. Fairchild, who was then twenty-seven, was pregnant with her fourth child, unemployed, and single. To get welfare benefits, state law required that she prove that her children were genetically related both to herself and to their father, Jamie. One day, Fairchild got a call from the Department of Social Services to come in immediately. A DNA test had confirmed that Jamie was the father of the three children. But Fairchild was not their mother.

When Fairchild was rushed to a hospital to deliver her fourth child, a court officer was there to witness the birth. The officer also oversaw a blood draw for a DNA test. The results came back two weeks later. Once again, Fairchild’s DNA didn’t match her child’s. Even though the court officer had witnessed the child’s birth, the court still refused to consider any evidence beyond DNA.

In Boston, a woman named Karen Keegan had developed kidney disease and needed a transplant. To see if her husband or three sons were a match, her doctors drew blood from the whole family in order to examine a set of immune-system genes called HLA. A nurse called Keegan with the results. Not only were her sons not suitable as organ donors, but the HLA genes from two of them didn’t match hers at all. It was impossible for them to be her children. The hospital went so far as to raise the possibility she had stolen her two sons as babies. Since Keegan’s children were now grown men, she didn’t have to face the terrifying prospect of losing her children as Fairchild did. But Keegan’s doctors were determined to figure out what was going on. Tests on her husband confirmed he was the father of the boys. Her doctors took blood samples from Keegan’s mother and brothers, and collected samples from Keegan’s other tissues, including hair and skin. Years earlier, Keegan had had a nodule removed from her thyroid gland, and it turned out that the hospital had saved it ever since. Her doctors also got hold of a bladder biopsy. Examining all these tissues, Keegan’s doctors found that she was made up of two distinct groups of cells. They could trace her body’s origins along a pair of pedigrees—not to a single ancestral cell but to a pair. They realized Keegan was a tetragametic chimera, the product of two female fraternal twins. The cells of one twin gave rise to all her blood. They also helped give rise to other tissues, as well as to some of her eggs. One of her sons developed from an egg that belonged to the same cell lineage as her blood. Her other two children developed from eggs belonging to the lineage that arose from the other twin. When Lydia Fairchild’s lawyer heard about the Keegan case, he immediately demanded that his client get the same test. At first, it looked as if things were going to go against Fairchild yet again. The DNA in her skin, hair, and saliva failed to match her children’s. But then researchers looked at a sample taken from a cervical smear she had gotten years before. It matched, proving she was a chimera after all.

More: Read She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity

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Don’t bite tumors off other folks’ faces

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer:

Tough as they might be, though, Tasmanian devils were in trouble. A singular epidemic was sweeping across the island, not quite like anything veterinarians had seen before. A devil would develop a fleshy growth in or around its mouth. In a matter of weeks, the growth would balloon, and within a few months, the animal would starve or suffocate. These growths were first observed in 1996 in the northeast corner of Tasmania, and over the next few years they spread over most of the island, killing off tens of thousands of devils. By the early 2000s, the species looked like it might become extinct in a matter of decades, killed by a disease scientists didn’t understand. It would take them years to realize that these devils were chimeras, and that their cancers descended from the cells of a long-dead animal.

The DNA fingerprint from tumor cells didn’t match the healthy cells from the same devil’s body. Instead, they matched cancer cells from devils who died dozens of miles away. It was as if all the sick devils had gotten a cancer transplant from a single tumor.

At some point in the early 1990s, [Elizabeth] Murchison’s research showed, a single Tasmanian devil in the northeast corner of the island got cancer. The mutations may have initially arisen in a Schwann cell. The descendants of that original cancer cell grew into a tumor. During a fight, another devil bit off the tumor. The cancer cells did not end up digested in the attacker’s stomach. Instead, they likely lingered in the devil’s mouth, where they were able to burrow into the cheek lining and work their way metastatically into the other tissues in the devil’s head. The cancer cells continued dividing and mutating, until they broke through the skin of the second devil’s face. At some point, that new victim also got bit, and its own attacker took in the cells from the original cancer. A single carrier could pass the cancer on to several other devils if it was especially aggressive, and thus help accelerate its spread. Passing through host after host, the tumor cells gained about twenty thousand new mutations.

Consider this fair warning!

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On being mistaken for a lawyer

I was down in Washington, D.C. recently to catch the 88th Joseph Henry lecture run by the Philosophical Society of Washington. There was a dinner beforehand to honor Brian Keating, the speaker, and it was officially black tie. I put on a pinstripe suit and walked through the door of the Cosmos Club, which was apparently hosting some other events that night as well. Here’s the exchange:

  • Cosmos Club hostess: “You’re a lawyer here for the American Bar Association event?”
  • Me: “Now why would you say a thing like that to a person you just met?”

It was the highlight of my evening! (For everyone else, though, it was “The Big Bang and Inflation; Glimpsing the Beginning of Time from the Ends of the Earth” (YouTube))

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History of paternity adjudication

She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity by Carl Zimmer contains some interesting stuff on the history of paternity adjudication:

When faced with paternity disputes, Roman courts relied on the principle of pater est quem nuptiae demonstrant: The father is the one whom marriage points out. A married woman’s children should always be treated as her husband’s children, even if she gave birth a year after his death. In later centuries, judges sometimes followed this principle far beyond what nature could allow. In 1304, a husband who had been away from England for three years came home to find a new child in his house. He went to court to deny being the father. But the judge rejected his case, declaring “the privity between a man and his wife cannot be known.”

Judges were still deciding if children looked like their fathers well into the twentieth century. But the rise of genetics and molecular biology prompted some scientists to wonder if it might be possible to categorically establish kinship, to see the very atoms of heredity that tie families together. One of the first attempts to bring this science to court was made by the actor Charlie Chaplin. In 1942, Chaplin began an affair with an aspiring young actress from Brooklyn named Joan Barry. Chaplin treated her like a toy to be discarded. But when he eventually abandoned Barry, she did not go away quietly. Instead, she smashed the windows of his mansion and broke in one night, armed with a gun, demanding he take her back. By then, Chaplin had already moved on to another affair, this time with a teenager named Oona O’Neill. Barry responded by telling a Hollywood gossip columnist that Chaplin had seduced her and left her pregnant. In June 1943, well into Barry’s pregnancy, her mother filed a civil paternity suit against Chaplin on behalf of her unborn grandchild. She demanded $2,500 a month, plus $10,000 in prenatal costs. Soon, Chaplin was facing not just a civil suit but a criminal one as well. J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the FBI, had always found Chaplin a suspicious character; his anti-Nazism seemed to Hoover no different than Communism. Now he relished the opportunity to find some dirt on the actor. In February 1944, Chaplin was charged with violating the Mann Act by transporting Barry across state lines for immoral purposes while she was still a minor. He was also charged with conspiring with Los Angeles police to put Barry in jail for vagrancy. Gawkers and reporters packed a Los Angeles courthouse for the criminal trial, which dredged up lurid details about Chaplin and Barry’s affair. While Chaplin admitted to sleeping with Barry, other men testified that they had been with her during the same period. The jury acquitted Chaplin of all the charges, prompting cheers from around the courthouse. Next came the civil case over Chaplin’s paternity. Between the two trials, Barry had given birth to a girl she named Carol Ann. Chaplin’s lawyers came into court ready to raise the prospect that Carol Ann was the daughter of one of Barry’s lovers who had testified in the criminal case. And then they would present evidence that Carol Ann could not be Chaplin’s daughter, because she had not inherited his genes.

In the months leading up to Chaplin’s civil trial, his lawyers negotiated a deal with Barry’s team. In exchange for $25,000, Barry would agree to have herself and her baby tested for their blood types. If the rules of heredity eliminated Chaplin, she would drop her suit. The tests turned out exactly as Chaplin had hoped. Barry had type A and Carol Ann had type B. Those findings pointed to an inescapable conclusion: Carol Ann’s father, whoever he might be, had to have type B blood. Chaplin was type O. Carol Ann had thus inherited nothing from Chaplin. Yet Barry refused to drop the case. She had gotten a new lawyer, who would not abide by the deal made by her previous ones. Chaplin’s lawyers brought the blood test results to the judge to get the case thrown out of court. But blood type tests were still such a novelty in California that the state offered no legal guidance about their reliability. The judge allowed the case to proceed, and in January 1945, Chaplin was back in court. Throughout the trial, fifteen-month-old Carol Ann sat on her mother’s lap. Barry turned her daughter’s face toward the jury to allow them to gather bald eagle evidence, judging whether she looked like Chaplin or not. “Showing none of the temperament of her mother, Plaintiff Joan Berry [sic], who sobbed on her attorney’s shoulder, or Defendant Chaplin, who shouted his denials, she quietly amused herself by napping, yawning and gurgling,” a reporter for Life wrote. Chaplin’s lawyers countered the bald eagle with blood. They called a doctor to the stand to explain the blood-type results “with charts, diagrams, and elaborate explanations,” as the Associated Press reported. They introduced a report into evidence that included tests from two other doctors, one appointed by Barry’s lawyers and a neutral one. “In accordance with the well accepted laws of heredity,” the doctors declared, “the man, Charles Chaplin, cannot be the father of the child.”

To the jury, Mendel’s Law could apparently be stretched like taffy. They told the judge they were deadlocked, with seven jurors convinced that Chaplin was not the father, and five that he was. Barry’s lawyers filed a second suit. This time, they won, the jury deciding Chaplin was indeed Carol Ann’s father. The decision set off an uproar. “Unless the verdict is upset,” the Boston Herald declared, “California has in effect decided that black is white, two and two are five and up is down.” Nevertheless, Chaplin was ordered to pay $75 a week to support Carol Ann. All told, he would go on to pay her $82,000. The toll that the case took on his reputation was even greater. No one in Hollywood wanted to work with the little tramp anymore. Chaplin left Hollywood for good.

Adjusting for inflation, $82,000 in 1945 is about $1.2 million today (i.e., today’s plaintiffs can do a lot better under current California family law).

Looking at heredity across multiple generations there are some surprising results:

The geometry of this heredity has long fascinated mathematicians, and in 1999 a Yale mathematician named Joseph Chang created the first statistical model of it. He found that it has an astonishing property. If you go back far enough in the history of a human population, you reach a point in time when all the individuals who have any descendants among living people are ancestors of all living people.

When Chang developed his model in 1999, geneticists couldn’t compare it to reality. They didn’t know enough about the human genome to even guess. By 2013, they had gained the technology they needed. [Graham] Coop and his colleague Peter Ralph, a statistician at the University of Southern California, set out to estimate how living Europeans are related to people who lived on the continent hundreds or thousands of years ago. They looked at a database of genetic variants collected across Europe from 2,257 living people. They were able to match identical stretches of DNA in different people’s genomes, which they inherited from a common ancestor. Ralph and Coop identified 1.9 million chunks shared by at least two of the 2,257 people. Some of the chunks were long, meaning they came from recent common ancestors. Others were short, coming from deeper in the past. By analyzing the chunks, Coop and Ralph confirmed Chang’s study, but they also enriched it. They found, for example, that people in Turkey and England shared many fairly big chunks of DNA that they must have inherited from a common ancestor who lived less than a thousand years ago. It was statistically impossible for a single ancestor to have provided them all with all those chunks. Instead, living Europeans must have gotten them from many ancestors. In fact, the only way to account for all the shared chunks Coop and Ralph found was with Chang’s model. Everyone alive a thousand years ago who has any descendants today is an ancestor of every living person of European descent. Even further back in time, Chang and his colleagues have found, the bigger the ancestral circle becomes. Everyone who was alive five thousand years ago who has any living descendants is an ancestor of everyone alive today.

Presumably the rulers of 5,000 years ago were the ones who had the most children and therefore are most likely to have living descendants in 2019. We can thus all claim to have royal blood?

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Scientists identifying as women are held back by men, but won’t gather in their own institute

“‘I Want What My Male Colleague Has, and That Will Cost a Few Million Dollars’; Women at the Salk Institute say they faced a culture of marginalization and hostility. The numbers from other elite scientific institutions suggest they’re not alone.” (New York Times) is about three elderly biologists who are suing their employer for gender discrimination after they were replaced with younger employees, purportedly due to their failure to raise sufficient grant money.

Life is great if you’re a scientist identifying as a man:

Some current and former Salk employees identified Wylie Vale, Ron Evans, Stephen Heinemann and Rusty Gage as the men who, along with Verma, seemed to enjoy extraordinary resources and status (though only Verma was mentioned in the lawsuits). These men, titans in their fields, spoke often at faculty retreats, and on milestone birthdays would reign over symposia in their honor.

If anyone typified the male “rock star” scientists said to have held sway over the Salk, it was Verma. As of 2015, he was the Institute’s highest-paid scientist

The Institute’s 2015 Form 990 shows that the purported superstar male scientist, Inder Verma, raked in total comp of about $437,000, i.e., about half of what a dermatologist running a cosmetic laser clinic in the neighborhood might earn. (The article also shows that Verma’s career was ended by accusations of sexual harassment, something that would have required a lot more work to achieve to inflict on a dermatologist running his or her own clinic.)

The article definitely shows the superiority of medicine as a career to science (see “Women in Science” for more on this topic), for humans of all gender IDs. By getting their jobs at Salk Institute, these women were among the most successful scientists of their generation. Yet their earnings were much lower than what a medical specialist could obtain, their years of earning were cut short involuntarily, and they had limited choices regarding where in the U.S. to live and work.

From my comment on the article:

There are great biology research institutions all around the world, at least some of which are run by people who currently identify as women. If there are great scientists who identify as women who are being held back at male-run places, why wouldn’t they simply move to the female-run places and accomplish their world-changing research there? The NYT informs us that women can be hired for 70 percent of the cost of equally qualified men. So the female-run and female-staffed science labs should have a huge edge over competitors. (One part of the article that rings true is that success in academic science is all about the Benjamins!)

[Response from a virtuous reader: “Sigh. I am weary. … Some humans who identify as men will never get it.” Yet if men are so generally clueless, how is it that at least a few have been credited with some scientific discoveries? Nearly all of those who “get it” are women, but a handful of outlier males “got it” and were sufficiently observant to function in science? Or behind every credited man there is the woman from whom he stole everything? (see Katherine Clerk Maxwell, for example, the likely true developer of Maxwell’s Equations, or Rosalind Franklin, to whom all credit for DNA structure should go)]

There should be no shortage of female-identifying labor. The article says “the biological sciences are one of the only scientific fields in which women earn more than half the doctoral degrees.” (but maybe a lot of them change their gender ID to male after graduation in order to soak up the privileges that are reserved to male scientists?)

Readers: In a world that funds science more lavishly than at any time in history and in which changing institutions is as easy as getting on an Airbus, why wouldn’t the brilliant female scientists gather in their own institute and crank out the Nobel prizes?

[Top-rated comment by NYT readers:

How many diseases have gone uncured, how many scientific discoveries not made, because men’s priority is their own power, and do anything and everything to hold on to that power and keep women down? They will never give us equality voluntarily.

Isn’t this a great argument for a women-only research?]


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No statute of limitations for accused academics

David Marchant, still a geologist, but no longer a Boston University employee, has learned what my friend who teaches at University of California explained: “I can be fired for any reason… except incompetence.” (Science Mag)

The alleged unkind words and actions toward three people occurred in the late 1990s (2017 Science Mag article), but no complaints were made until October 2016 (at least 17 years after the alleged facts).

Had these aggrieved individuals wanted to sue former Professor Marchant, they would generally have had to do so within three years (Massachusetts law) of the events.

(Separately, the accused geologist seems to be a bit of a skeptic regarding climate change catastrophe. He is co-author of a paper telling people not to worry about the East Antarctic Ice Sheet melting and leading to a 60 meter rise in sea level. The Ice Sheet has been around for 14 million years, the paper says, and thus has survived some very warm periods indeed.)

Even if we assume that we can establish 20-year-old facts to perfect accuracy, should there be a statute of limitations for this kind of situation? We could say that what Dr. Marchant (his Ph.D. hasn’t been rescinded yet!) allegedly did was like murder and it can’t be forgiven so we need to punish him even though he might have changed completely during the intervening years. Or we could say that people do evolve over a period of two decades so we want to consider only accusations regarding reasonably recent behavior.

What if, for example, Dr. Marchant had changed gender ID between 1999 and 2019? Would it still make sense to get rid of her on the theory that her presence made it difficult for women?


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