Update: Tioliah has wonderfully expanded upon Emil Karlsson’s excellent post regarding the scientific weaknesses in the idea that the Y chromosome is a broken X chromosome in her comment below. A good read from someone who has forgotten more about mammals than I will ever know!
Update II: Unfortunately Laden has doubled-down on his “it’s right even though it’s wrong” gambit. Ah well, we tried.
Wow. If Laden’s goal was to create discussion and controversy, he’s succeeded on the larger Internet, even if he failed in the discussion at the panel. If there’s any point that’s been reinforced in this, it’s that quite often the answer to a problem (or whether there even is a problem) is almost completely determined by the point of view of the person making the assessment.
If you really want the backstory, you can start here, but as far as I can tell, the issues center around two words used in two sentences.
The first, a joke by Heina Dadabhoy, is that the Y chromosome is a broken X chromosome. I didn’t give any thought to it because it was (to me) an obvious laugh line, and she came out and on Twitter specifically said it was a joke. So to me, that horse had already been beaten to death, and I didn’t want to add to the drama, and I had forgotten about it. Note the past perfect tense.
The second is the word “damaged” in the sentence “You know, the male brain is a female brain damaged by testosterone in various stages in it’s life,” which I took issue with here there, and everywhere (including in the aforementioned blog post I linked for context).
My position is fairly basic on this: to use the word “broken” and “damaged” is to stray from describing naturally-evolving processes (meaning not guided by conscious motivation). In both cases, you’re either implying (not intentionally, linguistically) that there is an inherent template a la Platonic Forms that these “damaged” or “broken” things are not properly adhering to, or that there is some perspective from which such a value judgement can be made. To me, this is a big problem because you’re feeding a natural habit of human beings (to assume that those spots in the dark are eyes, and that those eyes are looking at you) that is backed by the evolutionary reward of your ancestors’ hyper-vigilance leading to you eventually being born. This isn’t to say that being careful of predator animals is a bad thing, just that what is a survival skill in the wild (or in a back alley) is delusion and plain wooly thinking in science.
I understand the point Laden was trying to make, and I’ve already responded to it (and have no desire to hash it out further, though I still can’t recommend Emil Karlsson’s post at Debunking Denialism enough). I though I was pretty much done with this topic until yesterday.
Enter a tweeter named @HorsePheathers, who apparently was talking with sofiarune or Emil (or both), defending the idea that “broken” was appropriate when referring to the Y chromosome. I held back for a long time to let those with real biology experience have it out with them, and when sofiarune threw up her hands, I jumped in from a linguistic perspective. It turns out that HorsePheathers may be a science writer, and we had a relatively spirited discussion about the subject.
I’m going to lay out what I understand his position to be and a response, because I’m sick of having this discussion in 140-character bites. This list is not exhaustive, but this is all I can remember off-the-cuff. The (source) links are there for reference, not because I have any pretensions of whatever.
But first: I was wrong (either factually or morally) about the following:
1. I shouldn’t have used the word “misinformation” when describing what he was doing, when I meant “oversimplified information for the convenience of the writer, the preference of the non-scientifically educated editor, and the least-common-denominator-reader.”
2. At one point I used the word gene where I meant chromosome.
3. I shouldn’t have resorted to two personal attacks, and for that I apologize.
With that having been said, his main avenue of arguments were (in no particular order, again not a comprehensive list. Copy/paste from twitter where possible because I’m lazy):
1. The Y lost functionality in the transition from just another X chromosome, the loss of functionality and the other introduced problems (recessive genes located on the corresponding X chromosome being more likely to be expressed, etc) is a greater loss than the gain of our sex-selection mechanism, etc., therefore “broken” is an acceptable term for lost functionality and increased problems. (too many to source and I’m lazy)
2. Variants of “Back into the IT context: if you’re trying to teach a user a new piece of software and it requires a minimum csh use expounding on the capabilities of ls beyond dir just gets in the way. There’s room later to expand on the knowledge.” (source 1 and source 2) and “Or do you think a first grader is ready for the specifics of genetic coalescence rather than “populations change over time”?” (source)
3. From a biologist he had dinner with last night: “Also from her, paraphrased: We’re dealing w’ folks who haven’t a clue how water boils, & you lot are splitting hairs on this?” (source) “The entire process of education is a series of just such simplifications that are expanded on or refined in future lessons” (source) and “Or do you think a first grader is ready for the specifics of genetic coalescence rather than “populations change over time”?” (source) “Who is talking about attributing motivation to genetic processes? I’m certainly not.” (source)
4. “No, I’m saying that “just good enough” applies here as well as in biology. Asymptotic approach, remember?” (source)
As for your biologist friend, I don’t know whether or not you presented the entire conversation, or whether you simply relayed it verbally, so I’ll take all that with a grain of salt. Given the rough-and-tumble tone of our discussion (and even more so, the tone of the larger discussion), I’m not taking it personally.
I do not apologize for using “quite well,” as snark is the native language of the Internet. I will emphasize that “good enough to pass on your genes more successfully than those who are competing for your ecological niche” is the only measure of “quite well” or even “good enough” in an evolutionary context (as you noted above)
I’ll rephrase my initial critique one more time before diving into the individual arguments: “broken” and “damaged” imply an alternate state that would be “not broken” in which lost function would be restored. The Y chromosome does what it does and mammals are breeding like rabbits (as their selection strategy permits), so I don’t see a way to un-break it that would result in an improvement of its function. Using the words “derived from,” “a variant of,” etc. are not at all objectionable to me, because they do not carry this implication. To use an example I tried to use on twitter but failed to by reason of character limit, an ostrich wing is not a “broken” wing because it doesn’t allow ostriches to fly, it aids the bird’s balance and direction control via both weight distribution and airflow manipulation. It does what it does, not what another bird’s wing does. Nor is an ostrich wing a “broken” foot: even though it’s descended from a forelimb, that was then, and this is now.
Now to the individual arguments:
1. We went back and forth a few times over this one, and my primary critique of it is the ostrich example. A secondary critique would be that even valuing a larger number of functional alleles over a smaller number is a human value judgement, and can be argued against. A smaller number of functions could be limited to important, highly conserved functions that are now performed more robustly. According to some criteria, that might be considered better than simply having more functions. As to recessive sex-linked genetic disorders that the Y chromosome lacks the ability to mask, it could be argued that the Y chromosome acts as a reproductive filter. Recessive genes that carry negative traits that would otherwise be passed on (only to express themselves at some later date) are immediately expressed in males, which are therefore less likely to reproduce, lessening the presence of that trait in the population. The argument from functionality and errors alone cuts both ways.
2. This is a four-part problem here. When you compare ls and dir, the analogy is better suited to convergent evolution (wings on both birds and bats, for example) than derivation. The second (which I’ll go over in more detail later), is that you’re introducing a misconception through outright error rather than oversimplification that would need to be corrected (MS-DOS was made for a much less complex environment rather than a server environment, and much of the functionality in ls that is not present in dir is present in the Windows GUI, which is an entirely different critter). The last point, which comes into play if you accept the analogy as intended, could be summed up as: is it really appropriate to introduce the material at that point if you have to oversimplify it to the degree where any error is essentially taking two steps back generally so you can one step forward on that precise subject? More on that in the next point.
3. This is precisely my concern, and why I think science writing is under-paid, under-valued, and poorly done by journalists who phone it in when they’d rather be doing political and social stories that get them attention and access to people with power and money. Essentially, in a nation where so many people believe in literal angels, that an oddly-shaped knot on a tree is a manifestation of the Virgin Mary, that the Earth and all its creatures were created intentionally, and that a personal god might give you a winning lottery ticket if you ask hard enough, anything that even hints of animism in science discussion makes my hair stand up on end. This is an opening that has been exploited in school boards for years, and (along with fundamental misunderstandings such as what “theory” means in a scientific sense) results in a cry to “teach the controversy.” Language matters in these fights, and I get reminded of that every day, whether I’m reading the news from Texas or (in the past, since I’m no longer supporting end users) trying to communicate with someone who is deeply convinced their computer hates them. This would be the vast majority of my investment in this topic, because I see first-hand the consequences of bad science education.
4. Regarding #4, that “good enough” is good enough in science writing as it is in evolution, I disagree completely, especially in basic science education. The recurrent laryngeal nerve is good enough because the vast majority of us are capable of speaking (therefore it’s functioning), but it’s necessarily the way it is because it’s the product of evolution. Science education as a whole is the product of the conscious actions of millions of people. When we are buried down in this unglamorous level of what can feel like drudgery, it’s easy to forget that foundational steps are the most lasting, especially when correcting errors. The first example that comes to mind is building a house, but any structure (from a bridge to a house of cards) is appropriate for this as well. The earlier and the more foundational the mistake, the more problematic the eventual failure that occurs. This is not just true of buildings, but also of beliefs. If it weren’t true of how our brain works (and I’ll be happy to dig up papers when I have a moment), then everything from the concept of “situated freedoms” in Existentialism to “path dependence” in decision theory would have no weight. Add to that the social embarrassment associated with being seen making a mistake, and the bar becomes increasingly higher for each subsequent educator after you until and unless the student learns and applies the skills associated with rational self-correction.
It really is very easy to give into the demand for complete-sounding information from someone who has no information on a subject, but I’ve never found it to be genuinely useful for anything other than either intentional sabotage or escape from a conversation or task that I don’t want to be involved in any more. This makes me unpopular, but there are usually fewer loose ends for me to deal with later on.
I’ll have a glass of Laphroaig Triple-Wood later on to celebrate the end of the Twitter fight. :D