Vol. 1 / No. 6 — Genders, Genes, and Guts



‘Evolution is not about single genes,’ she says. ‘It’s about genes working together.’ Better then to speak not of genes but the genome — all your genes together. And not the genome as a unitary actor, but the genome in conversation with itself, with other genomes, and with the outside environment. If you’re into gene expression — if grasshoppers and honeybees and genetic accommodation are to be believed — it’s those conversations that define the organism and drive the evolution of new traits and species. It’s not a selfish gene or a solitary genome. It’s a social genome.

In a really interesting long read, David Dobbs has a piece for Aeon about gene selection, gene expression, and Dawkin’s so-called “selfish gene.” Is it really time to lay the selfish gene to rest?

Along the same lines, can mice grandchildren “remember” an association between a certain scent and danger? A new study suggests the answer, thanks to epigenetics, might be yes (with some caveats). Virginia Hughes has the story over at National Geographic’s Phenomena: Only Human blog.

Men are from Earth; Women are from Earth also.


It reveals… “a stark difference – and complementarity – in the architecture of the human brain that helps provide a potential neural basis as to why men excel at certain tasks, and women at others”. This has been received in some quarters of the media as confirmation of our inherent alienness to each other. Its findings have been – and will be – taken and applied to pop psychology, not to science, which is what its architects intended it for.

In gender-differences news this week, a study out of the University of Pennsylvania  reveals that, on average, men’s brains have more front-to-back connectivity, and women’s have more side-to-side, leading, of course, to more conjecture on the planetary origins of the sexes. A trio of articles in the Guardian this week trace the story from over-representation to correction to snarky correction (I would say over-correction, but it’s not really, and how can you dislike an article subtitled “If this is science, I am Richard Dawkins”?)

And in related news, Microsoft has designed — wait for it — a smart bra to combat emotional overeating. Not a wristband, or a chest-sensor, or a funny-looking hat: a bra. Well, it’s fine. We all know men only eat for sustenance, after all.


I don’t want men to have to put up with full-blown adult acne, just something that results in an occasionally painful chin, some mild anxiety and an acknowledgement that we don’t always wear makeup for fun, and its powers to conceal are surprisingly limited. While we’re at it, a little random weight gain would add to the experience. Just enough to make guys realise how difficult it is to get dressed when you have 15 minutes to leave the house and your stomach, which was flat 12 hours ago, cannot be tucked into your trousers. 

Seemingly every year an announcement is made concerning the impending arrival of the “male pill” — a form of oral contraception for men. Another claim has been made this week by Australian researchers who have made mice temporarily infertile by blocking a specific hormone that controls the release of sperm during ejaculation. Over at the Guardian’s “Comment is Free,” Daisy Buchanan has a few side-effects she’d like made available in the product — in the interest of science, you understand.

And in other reproductive news, as we live longer and make more careful decisions about when we want to have children, this kind of story is going to pop up more and more: BBC reports about a widow who needs more time to decide whether she wants to have her deceased husband’s children, and why she might not get it.

The Leaning Tower of PISA

This week the OECD (Organization for Economic and Co-operative Development) released its yearly statistics on how different countries are faring educationally. Shanghai heads the list, making up for the likely decreased lifespan of its 15-year-olds from the most terrifying smog I’ve ever seen.

The tests measure how fifteen-year-olds fare on reading, mathematics, and science. Given the google analytics information on this site’s readership, here are the pertinent data for you, dear readers:

Canada (13th): Math 518 (down 1.4), Reading 523 (down 0.9), Science 525 (down 1.5)

Australia (19th): Math 504 (down 2.2), Reading 512 (down 1.4), Science 506 (down 0.8)

UK (26th): Math 494 (down 0.3), Reading 499 (up 0.7), Science 514 (up 0.1)

USA (36th): Math 481 (up 0.3), Reading 498 (down 0.3), Science 497 (down 1.4)

It’s also worth noting that while Canada and Australia are in the above-average category, the UK is in the average, and the US is (again) well below average. But don’t worry, here are some reasons not to care: The Atlantic has an article about how the countries with higher math scores have unhappier children, and in true defiant style, TechCruch has merely updated last year’s post on why none of this actually matters.

Of course, if you want reasons to care about the state of education in the United States, we can probably find some of those for you.

Technological Advances

This week some amazing technological advances made the new. First, the biggest movable man-made structure I have ever seen showed it could float. The Prelude, Shell’s first Floating Liquefied Natural Gas (FLiNG) facility, is the biggest ship ever built. When in operation, it’ll not only pump the stuff out from below the seabed, it’ll process it for shipment without ever coming to shore. In a victory for physics, displacement continues to work, even when your boat weight 600,000 tons.

Second, a new company has been founded to further the process of targeted gene editing: Editas Medicine, a company that hopes to someday fix your genetic defects in vivo without the use of viruses, announced it’s launch with investment of $43 million. Using technology known as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats), it will be able to edit existing genes rather than merely inserting new ones.

And most amazing of all, in news that will astound and amaze you (if you haven’t heard by now) the new USB 3.1 WILL BE REVERSIBLE. That’s right folks: no longer will you break all laws of probability by getting the 50:50 decision of which way to plug in a USB stick wrong every. single. time.

Gut Feeling

News this week in gut bacteria joins the growing pile of evidence that the ecosystems in our intestines may be responsible for much of what ails us (and much of what doesn’t). First, a study out the the NYU School of Medicine seems to show that decreased gut biodiversity may lead to a higher incidence of colon cancer. And second, a study out in Cell this week shows that gut bacteria may even play a role in Austism Spectrum Disorders. You are what you eat, indeed.

This Week in Drones

If you read last Tuesday’s post here about what the Amazon PrimeAir announcement says about America, you’re probably still tracking the fallout. Now we can add to the list that there are now at least five other non-lethal uses for drones (beyond delivering things direct from Jeff Bezos to you), that submerged submarines can launch drones without coming up for air, and that if you know what you’re doing, you too can create an army of zombie drones.

Shutter Bugs

This week in camera news, we saw that the DSLR is going the way of the Dodo (provided we don’t bring it back, that is): the single lens reflex mechanism was designed to allow a photographer to see the image precisely as it would strike the film, by diverting the light through the image capture lens to a viewfinder. When the shot was taken, the light no longer went to the viewfinder, but directly to the film (which is why the viewfinder would go dark for a moment). It was considered an improvement on the dual-lens system (one for your eye, one for the film), because it was even closer to a WYSIWYG technology. Now every digital camera offer exactly the same benefit, and so the mirror-moving mechanism — the reflex — is being put out to pasture.

Also, if you’ve been following the reviews of the new(ish) Android iteration Kitkat (4.4), you may have heard that the camera software still wasn’t up to snuff. Now it’s been revealed that the newest versions of Kitkat (4.4.1) fixes much of what was wrong.

And finally, speaking of phones, remember Phoneblox? The much-derided idea for a modular build-your-own phone system that could never, ever work? Motorola is giving it a shot. Right now it looks like it’s going straight to Moto Maker, but you never know: if it takes off, we might someday be able to upgrade (rather than discard) our phones/cameras/keys to all human knowledge.

Have a great week.