Field of Science

How a key component of DNA formed on the early Earth

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
Abiogenesis - theories about how life first living from non-living chemicals - is an enduring scientific puzzle. Theories abound, but deciding among them is difficult because of the limited evidence on conditions in the early earth, and the difficulty of recreating these conditions in the laboratory (in particular, it is thought that the conditions for abiogenesis took millions of years to develop).

But an important part of the puzzle has been solved in a paper published today. Adenine, a key constituent of DNA, is known to form spontaneuosly from more basic building blocks. Famously, in 1953, Stanley Miller conducted a simple experiment that showed adenine could be created in a stormy atmosphere of volcanic gases (although he was wrong about the composition of the early atmosphere. Later experiments showed that adenine could form from an aqueous solution of ammonia and cyanide. In 2006, Stanley Miller and colleagues demonstrated a new pathway, this time under frozen conditions.

The results of these experiments is an embarrasement of riches: the problem in 2007 is not could adenine form spontaneously, but rather how did it form? That's where the new paper by Debjani Roy and colleagues comes in. They used computational chemistry (i.e. simulating a vast array of chemical reactions) to show that certain pathways, specifically those involving water or ammonia, are much faster and easier than others. Step by step, the process by which life formed on the early earth are being revealed.


James Cleaves II et al. The prebiotic synthesis of pyrimidines in frozen solution. Naturwissenschaften 2006; 93: 228-231.
Roy et al. Chemical evolution: The mechanism of the formation of adenine under prebiotic conditions. PNAS 2007;104 : 17272-17277

Blogging on peer-reviewed science - icons

A set of icons have been developed for use when "making a serious post about peer-reviewed research, rather than just linking to a news article or press release." The icons were designed by Uriel Klieger in a contest sponsored by Seed Media Group, Nature publishing, BioMed Central, Public Library of Science, and CABI.

Looks interesting! Hopefully people will stick by the rules...

Abortion in the news - passions run high, facts take a backseat

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
It's 40 years since abortion was legalised in the UK, and to mark the occasion religious groups have taken to the streets, calling for access to legal abortion to be restricted or (they hope) banned altogether. Their complaint? They believe that legalisation increases the number of abortions carried out. And on the face of it, they could be right. According to records kept by the Department of Health, in the 8 months of 1968 following the Act, 23,641 officially-sanctioned abortions were recorded. In 2006, there were 201,173.

Unfortunately, the data not only don't back them up - they actually show these people up as hypocrites. Just earlier this month, one of the most detailed, multinational studies ever undertaken was published in The Lancet. The study, a collaboration between scientists from the World Health Organization in Geneva and the Alan Guttmacher Institute in New York, used epidemiological techniques to reveal the rates of all abortion - legal and illegal - in countries around the world.

The study found that legalising abortion has no effect on the number of abortions. The only effect of illegalising abortion is to make it more dangerous for the mother. In fact, Western Europe, where abortion is mostly legal, has the lowest rates of abortion in the world! The authors say:

The abortion rate per 1000 women was lowest in western Europe (12), and was also quite low in northern and southern Europe (17–18) and Oceania (17). In these geographic areas, most abortions were legal and abortion incidence had been low for decades.

So why was the official rate in the UK so low in 1968? It's because in the first years after the law was passed, most abortions were still conducted illegally, and so don't show up in the official statistics.

So why are abortion rates so low in Western Europe? The Lancet study answers that one too. It backs up numerous other studies which show that the best way to reduce abortion rates is to provide easy access to contraception. If religious groups were really interested in reducing abortion, they would be out there handing out condoms!

In other words, these religious groups are hypocrites, and dangerous ones at that - they are campaigning to increase abortion rates and maternal death rates - and all because of their wretched, dark age dogma!

Ref: Sedgh G. Induced abortion: estimated rates and trends worldwide. The Lancet 2007; 370:1338-1345.

Scientists without religion are immoral - so says the Vatican!

It's almost 15 years since the Vatican finally handed in the towel over the "Earth-centric" universe. Galileo, they announced in 1992, was right all along. Evolution, too, seems to get a luke-warm thumbs up these days ("It's more than just a hypothesis", apparently).

But we should still be scared of scientists - left to their own devices, they go mad and start creating atom bombs, cloning human beings (and probably worse). Without guidance from a bloodthirsty book written by bronze-age shepherds, we'd all be in the soup. After all, Christians weren't in charge when they dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaski, were they....???

Sadly for the Vatican (and others who still cling to similar superstitions), the fact is that morality does not come from the Bible - we are moral despite the Bible (and the Koran). Our morality comes from our evolutionary past, shaped by our capacity for reason and informed and guided by scientific understanding of what makes humans tick. We're rational creatures, capable of questioning dogma and judging what is wrong and right. Thank goodness!

Incidentally, for a topical and entertaining fictional telling of the perils of mixing religious dogma with science, check out Phillip Pullman's "Northern Lights" ("Golden Compass" in the US).

St Bernard dogs: a case study of how selection powers evolution

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research
In a study published yesterday, researchers from Manchester and Edinburgh universities have shown the power of selection (in this case natural selection by dog breeders) to rapidly change body shape. They looked at skulls from 47 St Bernard dogs dating back over 120 years - international breed standards for these dogs were established in the late 19th century. Since then skull shape has changed in a dramatic, and linear, fashion, to become closer to the 'ideal': their skulls are broader, the angle between the nose and the forehead has become steeper, and they've developed a more pronounced ridge above the eyes.

“We discovered that features stipulated in the breed standard of the St Bernard became more exaggerated over time as breeders selected dogs that had the desired physical attributes,” said Dr Klingenberg.

“In effect they have applied selection to move the evolutionary process a considerable way forward, providing a unique opportunity to observe sustained evolutionary change under known selective pressures.”

Ref: Drake AG, Klingenberg CP. The pace of morphological change: historical transformation of skull shape in St Bernard dogs. Proc Royal Soc B 2007; DOI 10.1098/rspb.2007.1169 (subscription required)

Science and Discovery Centres Under Threat

Science and Discovery Centres, like the Science Museum in London and Techniquest in Cardif, have had a bit of a renaissance in recent years. The Millenium Commission gave big Lottery grants to 18 of them. But several have since fallen on hard times, with two closing and one (At-Bristol) recently made 45 staff redundant. Lord Sainsbury, the former Under Secretary of State for Science and Innovation, said of them that they:

were funded simply with capital by the Millennium Commission, without any revenue streams being provided and on some projections for future revenues which were extremely optimistic, bordering on fantasy, I think, in many cases. As a result of that, there have been a number which simply could not survive. There are others which are on the borderline. Because we think that it would be a huge waste of public money if these centres were allowed to disappear, we have taken action to try and provide them with funding on a transitional basis to get them to a properly funded basis; but it is hard work, while they find other sources of finance

Now the Select Committee on Science and Technology has come out in favour of long-term government support, if independent evidence can confirm that they confirm that they make a positive contribution to science education, the promotion of science-related careers and also public engagement.

Here's hoping that they are succesful in convincing the government to change heart!

To find a local science centre, check out:

Darwin's insight wins again

Evolutionary biologists are still critically examining the mechanisms of evolution in detail. The Science magazine has just published a summary by Elizabeth Pennisi of a paper in Evolution on work done by Schemske and Bierzychudek on the plant desert snow (Linanthus parryae). As this paper requires a subscription to read, I'll abridge the summary.

There are two forms of this plant, one with white petals, and one with blue. In some places of the Mojave desert there are large areas of white, and other places the areas are blue, or mixed. It had been thought for 60 years that the differences were due to genetic drift, that is, there were random variations among the distribution of the plants that dictated which plants were where. The dominant variant was the one that got there first. It now seems that this idea is wrong. By a careful analysis of the plants and their environments, including soil type, precipitation, etc., they show that the white and blue variants are each better suited to different locations, and that it is the pressure from the environment that has selected the colour.

What I do not see in this report is whether the researchers have identified what the genetic property is that defines which is successful where. But it's good to see more evidence that supports the Darwinian hypothesis of selection through natural forces.

Atheist Blogroll

We're proud to be listed on the Atheist Blogroll, which maintains a list currently featuring over 350 atheist and agnostic bloggers. Find links to some of this in the panel, below right.

Are the religious more caring - or do they just think they are?

So a new survey of Canadians has revealed that those who describe themselves as believers are also more likely to say that they view traits such as kindness and friendship as "very important". As the Canada Post reports it, you can take it as read that this means that believers are actually kinder, friendlier, etc.

But the truth is much more interesting.

This new poll is one in a long line of research which shows that believers regularly report not only that they value these traits, but that they believe they actually live up to them. Now, there could be several reasons for this. Perhaps, religion really does instill moral values. Or maybe there's some self-selection going on, and so religion tends to attract the nice folk, and all the selfish, mean-spirited folk drift off to become atheists.

Well maybe.

But in fact when you test religious and non-religious in carefully designed psychological tests, the differences evaporate. Something similar happens with church attendance: Christians in the US, for example, report going to church about twice as often as they actually do. So what's going on here? As Vassilis Saroglou, associate professor of psychology of religion at the Université catholique de Louvain, puts it:

"The contrast between the ideals and self-perceptions of religious people and the results of studies using other research strategies is so striking that researchers may be tempted to suspect moral hypocrisy in religious people."
Saroglou has found that there is a small effect of religion on prosociality, but only towards close siblings and friends. In other words, religion appears to enhance the tribal bond - no surprises there! But Saroglou's work is, as he puts it, still derived from "paper-and-pencil measures and can consequently only provide indirect evidence of the prosocial behavior of religious people in real life."

Recent research by Ara Norenzayan, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of British Columbia, goes further by using a hard test of prosociality - an economic game with real money payouts (Shariff & Norenzayan 2007). As expected, religious people claimed to be more prosocial than the non-religious, but weren't in reality. But when subliminally primed with religious concepts, both the religious and non-religious were more prosocial. And the same thing happened when they were primed with secular concepts.

So there you have it. Religion increases bonding within the tribe, but not outside of it. And it's not inherent - it depends on priming. And the priming works with secular concepts just as well as it does with religious ones. But the apparent prosocial effects of religion are mostly the result of self delusion, with believers describing themselves as they would like to be, rather than as they actually are. So maybe secular nations are every bit as caring and sharing as the religious ones, and maybe the loss of religion won't really cause a descent into chaos.

But in fact, we knew that already - Denmark, with one of the lowest levels of religious belief in the world, is also the one with the highest levels of happiness and greatest equality. So don't believe the hype!

Thanks to The Atheist Jew for reporting this survey.

Creationism, flat earthism, and daytime telly - an (un)holy connection!

In the States, you can get a job spouting off on telly and not know whether the earth is flat... so long as you're a Christian! The lady in the middle, Sherri Shepherd, is a born again Christian and a panelist on the popular ABC daytime talk show "The View". Watch and cringe as Whoopi tries to explain that science is, well, probably a good pointer to reality!

Hat tip to The Labour Humanist.

The Out Campaign

The Out Campaign is a consciousness-raising project that aims to get atheists out of the closet and declare their non-belief. Particularly in heavily religious countries like the USA, admitting your lack of faith can have unfortunate social consequences. But, the thinking goes, the more people stand up and and declare themselves, the less stigma will be attached to it. In truth, it should be a badge of pride, after all!

So go on - support The Out Campaign by adding a scarlet letter to your web page or blog (we've tucked ours away down on the bottom right!).

An Atheists' Reformation?

Science and religion have often been suspicious of one another. Today in western Europe this has come to seem a marginal conflict but it's not so in the US - where half the population denies evolution - or in the Muslim world - where there is a similar upsurge in irrationalism.

Evolution seems like a touchstone for a person's willingness to put reason first both because it contradicts the creation stories in most religions and because it requires us to accept that the universe just doesn't care about us - or about any other species actually.

In arguing for evolution - as we must do - there's a risk that we position evolution as the final frontier in the expansion of rational thought into territory formerly occupied by religion. Of course it isn't. Rationalism accepts no limits to the application of reason.

My thoughts were drawn to this by reading Nigel Willmot's article - The atheists' revolt - on the Guardian website ( ). In this he suggests that Richard Dawkins is the Martin Luther of our age. That he, like Luther, has raised a banner that is causing others to line up behind him (or as close to a party line as we humanists ever manage!) Dawkins, I think, has given many of us the courage to say that religion is not merely wrong but damaging. We also say that its growth, whether in the UK's faith schools or Pakistan's fundamentalist madrassas or the Vatican's lies about contraception, must be opposed.

Martin Luther provoked a fierce backlash from the Catholic Church. Today's backlash is more likely to come from the Islamic world and may, in time, be every bit as fierce. We must stand by our principles. We must also find ways of talking to our opponents in ways that lead us, and them, away from violence.

Free will in the brain

picture: Can brain science explain free will? Credit: ©

Is free will an illusion? Classical science, built on a foundation of observable cause and effect, seems to leave little room for free will, as classically defined. Arguably, quantum mechanics provides a route out of this dilemma, by allowing the potential for 'uncaused cause'. But what kind of free will could follow from the inherent randomness of quantum theory? Daniel C Dennet, in his 2002 book "Freedom Evolves", put forward a persuasive argument that there is no inherent incompatibility between free will and determinism - at least for the kind of free will that really matter.

In September this year, the DANA foundation hosted a debate on the existence of free will between Mark Hallet, a neurologist at the US National Institutes of Health, and Paul McHugh, a psychiatrist at at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. As might have been expected, the neurologist argued for the non-existence of free will, whereas the psychiatrist insisted otherwise. Some interesting points were made in the debate and rebuttal - but perhaps the most telling observation is that the two debaters built their cases from fundamentally different starting points, with no apparent meeting of minds. Perhaps this reflects a deeper problem - perhaps the definition of free will is simply too fuzzy for any consensus to develop.