Monday, April 25, 2016

Happy Birthday DNA - 4/25/16

DNA has existed for billions of years. It exists in every carbon-based organic being which has lived, lives now and will live in the future. DNA is the key for scientists and lay people to understand our evolution and relatedness to all things. It is the fundamental element by which natural selection operates - randomly and without consciousness - for all species to adapt and change over time in the ongoing drama (some say comedy) that is life on Earth.

This birthday greeting itself is a bit of comedy. A sincere tip of the hat to both the natural mechanics of life as much as it is to human inventiveness. Because while DNA has existed for billions of years, our knowledge of it only goes back about seventy or eighty years. Culminating and forever in the public knowledge thanks to (in-part) scientists James Watson and Francis Crick.

Their research, published in Nature on April 25, 1953, changed and revised our understanding of how traits are passed between generations. Their paper allowed us to remove the curtain of ignorance from the windows of our lives, providing us a true understanding of mutations and how life operates on the chemical level.

What has knowing, experimenting with and understanding DNA meant to the world? Well, we can look around and see giant leaps in almost every area of human experience. From extending human life and protecting endangered species, to battling cancer and various illnesses through better treatments and medicines, to even satisfying human curiosity concerning the amount of Neanderthal blood we share with our extinct cousins - all this is done because we know and can synthesize DNA.

And we haven't even touched on the legal aspects of how the science of genetics has settled legal battles related paternity or has lead to the solving cold-case crimes. Let alone how DNA has been used to exonerate those falsely convicted of crimes. It should be mentioned that understanding the genetic code has also allowed anthropologists and investigators to put a name to those left in large graves caused by mass executions or large-scale natural and human-made disasters.

Charles Darwin unlocked the door of evolution in 1859 with the publication of his superb work The Origin of Species. But what Darwin didn't know, simply because the science did not exist, was that natural selection and random gene mutations were locked in the genes and molecules which would not be discovered for almost 100 years from the publication of his formidable book. Darwin had figured out the "Big Picture" of evolution without having the fundamental mechanisms at his disposal to justify his grand theory.

This is the equivalent of putting a four-billion-year-old puzzle together without having access to any of the billions of tiny pieces needed to make the puzzle whole. An amazing Coup de Grace for a naturalist and recluse who couldn't even publicly defend his theory out of both fear and deference to this deeply religious wife and many of those in his aristocratic social circle.

But Watson and Crick had no such fear. Because science is about exploring and finding truth. In their case, major truths about the nature of existence and how this existence is shaped at the molecular level. However, just as they are regarded as the "discoverers" of DNA, in fact they are two of three fathers and this family must be joined by one "mother." That woman of course is Dr. Rosalind Franklin.

Franklin is the unsung hero in the search for the DNA molecule. She had for decades been left out of the story of the discovery. Mainly because science, like many sports, is a male dominated club. Sadly, women like Dr. Franklin are generally less likely to be credited for their work.

The following is taken from National Geographic:

"Meanwhile, James Watson and Francis Crick, both at Cambridge University, were also trying to determine the structure of DNA. They communicated with (Maurice) Wilkins, who at some point showed them Franklin's image of DNA - known as Photo 51 - without her knowledge...Photo  51 enabled Watson, Crick, and Wilkins to deduce the correct structure for DNA, which they published in a series of articles in the journal Nature in April 1953. Franklin also published in the same issue, providing further details on DNA's structure....Franklin's image of the DNA molecule was key to deciphering its structure, but only Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the 1962 Noble Prize for their work."

Regardless of the turmoil and credit surrounding the unlocking of the DNA molecule what we now have at our fingertips is a wealth of information about the genetic structure of our species and countless other species as well. From the wombat to corn, to the tree frog to majestic fir trees, we can see through our unlocking of DNA how all life is connected.

This immense knowledge brought to us through science screams that we acknowledge a global interrelatedness. That we must ultimately understand how precious every species on the planet, from the simple to the most complex, naturally evolved and is in its own way an accidental marvel of nature.

Friday, April 8, 2016

NYC Values Part 2: Ted Cruz Hits a Wall in NYC

As noted when he first made his "New York values" comment about Donald Trump, it looks like Senator Ted Cruz is now paying interest on his comments as he stumps for delegates in New York.

Senator Cruz has deep disdain for a state which has given us brilliant men and women, some immigrants, many long-time residents, who have called New York home and who have changed the world for the better.

If I made a list, you'd be hard pressed to disagree that New York bests all states and in many cases most nations in terms of global influence related to art, fashion, commerce, technology, education, health care, finance, and environmental protection.

We also ensure equal protection under the law, which means Mr. Cruz doesn't like that we maintain a healthy separation between Church and State in this town. Which also means we respect a women's right to reproductive freedom, respect equal voting rights, respect and offer health care for the poor and assistance to the needy. These are all good values.

If we were Texas or Mississippi or Tennessee, where Evangelicals flourish and where religious liberty is defined as Christianity above secular law,  many of these states have higher poverty rates, poorer health care, poorer K-12 education, and higher crime rates than NYC.

So it's no wonder Senator Cruz was booed in the Bronx. It's no wonder that he has been repudiated by the Republican leadership in the state, and it's no wonder his overall reception has been cool or indifferent.

New Yorkers have a proud history. Have there been times of tumult and unrest? Certainly there have been riots and violence. We are a City of 8 million strong. Certainly the attacks of September 11th, perpetrated by such evil monsters wounded the City but it also brought us together in ways Mr. Cruz and his ilk could never understand.

My guess is that Cruz will keep meeting with splinter groups and communities to try to peal away delegates from Donald Trump, the presumptive front-runner in the NY primary. That's politics.

Here is Senator Cruz' voting record in the Senate. He's missed 15.9% of votes, much higher than the average of 1.6% of sitting senators.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

IHEU Reports on the Murder of Another Bangladeshi Humanist Blogger Activist

This is being re-posted by me from an email that I received from the IHEU just a little while ago. Please follow the link for the whole (very sad) story.

When will these human and civil rights violations reach the UN where they must take a public stand? And when will the UN finally and officially call these blogger murderers out for their religious violence. When will the nation of Bangladesh join the world of nations that fully investigate, prosecute and convict violent murderers of peaceful secular authors?

No peace without justice.
No justice without peace