Yes, I married up

So, for those of you who know us personally, this will not come as a surprise, because you already know that my wife is a hundred times smarter and more talented than I am. But here’s the new news. She has just sold her book manuscript, Remarkable, to Dutton publishing as part of a two-book deal. Other authors in their list includes authors ranging from Ken Follett and Eckhart Tolle to John Hodgman and Jenny McCarthy. Their backlist includes, among other classics, the Winnie-the-Pooh books.

Remarkable is a middle-grade reader, which, as I understand it, is the age group just below young adult. I think that this is approximately the same group as the Harry Potter and Percy Jackson books. Or, if you’re actually familiar with the genre, the Mysterious Benedict Society books.

I don’t want to give anything away, other than to say that it is the BEST FREAKING BOOK YOU WILL EVER READ IN YOUR LIFE, EVER.  The target age group is, technically, 9-12, so buy it for your kids. But, like all the best children’s literature, it has layers of nuance in its themes and characters that will engage adult readers.

Obviously, I’m not an unbiased reviewer here, but this book moved to tears and to laugh out loud – sometimes at the same time – and even after reading multiple previous drafts.

For those in the population genetics community, you can look forward to a cameo appearance by John Novembre.

The editor is hoping to include the book in Dutton’s Spring 2012 catalog. When more information becomes available, I’ll pass it along.

If you’re connected to her on Facebook or Twitter, say hi and congratulations, because she’ll no doubt be too modest to adequately blow her own horn (yet another way in which she is a hundred times better than I am). Or, stop by her sadly neglected blog and say hi in the comments.

From me, congratulations Lizzie K. Foley!! You deserve everything good that is coming to you. And congratulations to her agent, Faye Bender, and her brand-new editor, Nancy Conescu!

Well Thank God for THAT: Mr. Peabody and Sherman headed to the big screen

So, what do you do with the two guys who wrote the screenplay for Yogi Bear, which was filmed in approximately three too many dimensions and made as much money as sense? Well, if you’re Dreamworks, you pay them to make another fifty-year-old cartoon into a movie. Or rather, a cartoon that was part of another cartoon. And then you cast Robert Downey Jr. as a dog. Presumably because his complete lack of talent complements the complete lack of creativity at the studio.

Following similar logic, I assume that the soundtrack will be composed by feeding beans to a room full of monkeys.

The movie will be based on Peabody’s Improbable History, which was a regular feature on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. In it, Mr. Peabody, a bespectacled dog-genius, and his sidekick, Sherman, a bespectacled boy-not-genius, use the WABAC machine to travel back in time and visit famous historical events.

The historical events in question unfold in humorous ways.

To be fair, this was the second best segment on the show, after Bullwinkle reading poetry. But still, why would Dreamworks do this? With real money that could have been better spent feeding the poor, or, if we’re honest, teaching the poor Esperanto?

Here’s the good news. Director Rob Minkoff says,

Mr. Peabody is this genetic anomaly. He does have brothers and sisters, all of them non-speaking, no[n] super-smart dogs. He’s an outcast, but has overcome it by being so great at so many things.

So yay, genetics, presumably in the form of a mutation at FOXP2, or that X-Men locus. And overcoming the adversity of being a genius – through the “being so great at so many things.”

The other good news? At the time of this writing, at least, Ed isn’t in it.

Reflected Glory: Axe Cop

So, you may be familiar with the opening of Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra, where he describes the three metamorphoses: spirit becomes camel, camel becomes lion (and slays dragon), and lion becomes child. I think that Nietzsche’s metaphor works really nicely in a lot of circumstances. I most strongly associate it with biology graduate training, but I think that similar reasoning probably applies in a lot of other fields.

In the early stages of education, through high school and college, and into the beginning of graduate school, the student is like the camel, who has to develop a strong back by learning to carry all of the received knowledge. Then, starting typically in grad school, you learn that all of the things that are in the textbooks you’ve been using are not strictly true. This is like the transformation into the lion, who has to slay the dragon covered with scales, where each scale has golden letters that read “Thou Shalt!” It is only after passing through these two stages that the third transformation occurs (maybe while you’re a postdoc?), where the lion becomes the child. The child is innocence and creativity, and it is this child who advances knowledge by possessing skills and knowledge, but no longer being beholden to them.

Now, one of the problems with the system is that not everyone makes it all the way through the transformations. Many scientists never fully shed the camel phase. They are quite skilled at the type of incremental research that NIH and NSF love to fund, and are often successful, but are excessively (IMHO) tied to the dogma and assumptions that define their discipline.

Other people get stuck in the lion phase. These are the compulsive paradigm shifters. They are Don Quixotes who spend their lives slaying imaginary windmill-dragons. In evolutionary biology this is the phenomenon responsible for the perennial “Darwin was WRONG!!” headlines.

That last step is really the hardest one. It requires us to recapture the innocence and creativity of childhood, but to wield it tempered with skill and knowledge. Unfortunately, the implementation of most science education is such that the camel and lion stages are coupled with a soul-crushing strangulation of the childlike curiosity that we are all born with.

So, what does this all have to do with Axe Cop? Axe Cop is a web comic (and now a book) written by a pair of brothers, Ethan and Malachai Nicolle. The twist? Ethan is 29 years old, and Malachai is 5. Ethan has clearly absorbed the illustrating and storytelling skills of the comic-book camel, and has slain the comic-book dragon. The comic itself is just bursting with a child-like creativity that is easy to recognize but difficult to produce. How do they do it? I suspect that Ethan was able to retain and/or recapture his creativity and innocence better than most, but the biggest thing is probably the co-authorship with Malachai, who has not yet entered the camel phase.

There is undoubtedly a lesson here about how to do great science, although I can’t quite figure out the mechanics. One possibility is this.

So, in the spirit of understanding Nietzsche, and biology graduate school, and education reform, and dragons, and ninjas, unicorns, avocados, vampires, dinosaurs, and robots, go read Axe Cop.

Also, it’s AWESOME!

I can haz rapshur? Bible pwns doomsday n00bz

So, wickd preechr sez teh rapshur cumn dis May. Him sez did da calclashunz. An go on teh muzik box an sez evrywun gotta lisn 2 him kthx. But dat crazy cuz jesus sez in teh matthew book chaptr 24 dats liez:

36 “but bout dat dai or hour no wan knows, not even teh angels in heaven, nor teh son, [e] but only teh fathr.37 as it wuz in da dais ov noah, so it will be at teh comin ov teh son ov man.38 4 in da dais before teh flood, peeps wuz eatin an drinkin, marryin an givin in marriage, up 2 teh dai noah enterd teh ark;39 an they knew nothin bout wut wud happen til teh flood came an took them all away. Dat iz how it will be at teh comin ov teh son ov man.40 2 doodz will be in da field; wan will be taken an teh othr left.41 2 women will be grindin wif hand mill; wan will be taken an teh othr left.42 “therefore keep watch, cuz u do not knoe on wut dai ur lord will come.43 but understand dis: if teh ownr ov teh houz had known at wut tiem ov nite teh thief wuz comin, he wud has kept watch an wud not has let his houz be brokd into.44 so u also must be ready, cuz teh son ov man will come at an hour when u do not expect him.

Wen Ceiling Cat cummin, dis preechr no can haz cheezburger kthxbai.

Genomic Imprinting III: The Loudest Voice Prevails

So, it’s been a while since the last installment of the Primers on Imprinting feature, but they should be posted with greater regularity in the upcoming weeks. This time we’re going to introduce something that we will see again in future installments: small differences in selection lead to large differences in behavior.

Last time, we introduced the most widely discussed and most successful explanation of the evolutionary origins of genomic imprinting, the “kinship” or “conflict” theory. According to this theory, imprinted gene expression is a consequence of the fact that natural selection acts differently on alleles depending on their parent of origin. There are several ways to think about the origin of this differential selection, but we talked about it in terms of the framework that I find most intuitive: inclusive fitness.

As we also noted last time, even in the cases where the asymmetry in selection on maternally and paternally derived alleles is sufficiently large to drive the evolution of imprinted gene expression, the actual magnitude of this asymmetry is actually incredibly small. Why? Well, even for a allele with large effects on the survival and reproduction of related individuals, the dominant factor in the inclusive fitness of that allele is still going to be the survival and reproduction of the individual organism carrying that allele around.

But, the standard pattern observed with imprinted genes is that the allele-specific expression is all or nothing. For example, an allele might be expressed when it is inherited from a male, but completely silent when inherited from a female. So this small difference in the optimal expression levels of the maternally and paternally derived alleles leads to – in a way – the largest possible difference in the realized expression levels of the two alleles.

I like to think of this in terms of an analogy. Imagine that Pat and Chris share an office, and that they have a slight disagreement over the temperature they want the office at. Say Pat wants the office to be at 71 degrees (Fahrenheit), while Chris wants it to be 70. Each of them has control over a small space heater, and this is the only mechanism that they have for manipulating the temperature. [1]

What’s going to happen? Let’s say the temperature is 70 degrees. Pat will turn up his/her space heater until the temperature reaches 71. In response, Chris will turn his/her space heater down until the temperature comes down to 70. They will go back and forth like this until, eventually, Chris’s space heater is completely turned off. Pat will then turn his/her space heater up to get the room to 71. Then we’re done. Chris is unhappy about the temperature of the room, but no longer has any ability to make it any cooler.

Two things about this outcome. First, a small disagreement over the ideal temperature has led to a large divergence in the strategies: Chris’s space heater is all the way off, while Pat’s is on and doing all the work. Notice that the outcome would be exactly the same, in principle, if Chris’s ideal temperature were 70.9 degrees, or even 70.999 degrees. [2]

Second, Pat wins. This is a consequence of the fact that we are talking about space heaters, and that Pat prefers the higher temperature. If, instead of space heaters, Pat and Chris each had control of an air conditioner, Chris would be the winner. At equilibrium, Pat’s air conditioner would be all the way off, and the room would be at 70 degrees.

This is also the way it works with alleles at an imprinted locus. Let’s consider the case of a gene where increased expression results in increased prenatal growth. The inclusive fitness argument says that the optimal amount of this growth factor is higher for an allele when it is paternally inherited than when it is maternally inherited. Say this patrilineal optimum is 105 units, while the maternal optimum is 95 units.

If the gene is not imprinted we might expect it to produce about 100 units, with each allele producing 50. However, once the evolutionary dynamics of imprinting take over, the pattern of expression will evolve to one where alleles are transcriptionally silent when maternally inherited, but where a paternally expressed allele is making 105 units.

For a growth-suppressing gene, where increased expression actually reduces prenatal growth, we expect the opposite pattern, where alleles are silenced when paternally inherited, but are expressed when maternally inherited. This set of predictions – that imprinted growth enhancers will be paternally expressed, and imprinted growth suppressors will be maternally expressed – matches the empirically observed pattern by and large, although there are a few counterexamples that are not fully understood at the moment.

This pattern of allele silencing has been dubbed the “loudest voice prevails” principle. The phenotype evolves to the optimum of the allele favoring higher expression. Now, you can argue that this is the sort of thing that does not really need its own name. Fair enough. It’s really just saying that the evolutionarily stable state of the system is an edge solution. But, “loudest voice prevails” is sort of catchy, and has the advantage of reminding us which allele is expressed at equilibrium.

The Haig 1996 citation is the paper that introduces the phrase. The other three citations are papers published around the same time that use different mathematical frameworks to address the evolution of gene expression at an imprinted locus. Generically speaking, the answer is the one described here, although the Spencer, Feldman, and Clark paper identifies certain regimes in parameter space where apparently different results can be obtained. In a future post, we will delve into the differences in the assumptions and conclusions of different modeling frameworks as they have been applied to imprinting.

Now, what if you consider more than one imprinted gene? What if Pat and Chris each have a space heater and an air conditioner? We’ll talk about that next time.

Haig, D. (1996). Placental hormones, genomic imprinting, and maternal-fetal communication Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 9 (3), 357-380 DOI: 10.1046/j.1420-9101.1996.9030357.x

Mochizuki A, Takeda Y, & Iwasa Y (1996). The evolution of genomic imprinting. Genetics, 144 (3), 1283-95 PMID: 8913768

Haig, D. (1997). Parental antagonism, relatedness asymmetries, and genomic imprinting Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 264 (1388), 1657-1662 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.1997.0230

Spencer HG, Feldman MW, & Clark AG (1998). Genetic conflicts, multiple paternity and the evolution of genomic imprinting. Genetics, 148 (2), 893-904 PMID: 9504935


[1] Of course, in the real-life situation, we might assume that Pat and Chris would discuss the situation and come to some sort of agreement. This is a key difference between people interacting in strategic situations and genes evolving under natural selection. Alleles at a locus are like people sharing an office, where both of them are incredibly passive aggressive. If it helps, imagine that Pat and Chris won’t talk to each other.

[2] In practice, of course, there is going to be some minimum level of disagreement required in order to trigger this passive-aggressive escalation. In this analogy, the minimum level will be set by a combination of things such as the sensitivity of Pat and Chris to small changes in temperature, the precision with which the space heaters control the temperature of the room, and the extent to which they care about each other’s comfort. Similar reasoning holds in the case of genes, and we will address this in a future installment of the series, where we ask why there are any genes that are not imprinted.

Google Violates Benford’s Law, Arrest Warrant Issued

So, Google has already had it’s Twitter account subpoenaed, and can look forward to months of molestation enhanced screening at the airport, all thanks to its brazen violation of Benford’s Law.

What is this Benford’s Law thing?

It is a statement that if you look at lists of numbers in empirical data, the first non-zero digit is distributed in a very specific way. At least for certain kinds of data. Specifically, if the logarithms of the numbers you are looking at are uniformly distributed, then the first digits of those numbers will be Benfordly distributed.

Here’s what the relative probabilities of different first digits look like:

Here’s a graphic that shows the frequencies of different letters and numbers in Google searches. The numbers are way down at the bottom.

Image via Gizmodo

The thing that you’ll notice about this is that 6 is by far the most common digit (and that J/j is sad). Here’s a plot of these relative frequencies on the same scale as the Benford’s Law plot above.

Roughly speaking, this plot has the same shape as the one above, except for the fact that it includes 0, and that 6 is crazy. But, look at where the 0 value is: pretty much even with where you might expect the 6 to be. What happens if we assume that this was actually a transcription error that happened somewhere along the way? If we switch the 6 and 0 values, and then look at the relative probabilities of all of the non-zero digits, we get this:

The dark blue dots are the Benford’s Law points that we showed before. The reddish squares are the new empirical distribution.

Now that we’ve switched the 6 and the 0, we get something that looks to me like a mixture of the Benford’s Law distribution and a uniform distribution. But remember, Benford’s Law applies to first digits. This is data from all google searches. So, that’s going to be a mixture of first digits and non-first digits.

If we assume that 35% of the non-zero digits in searches are first digits, and that the other 65% are uniformly distributed between 1 and 9, we can back out the relative frequencies of the digits specifically in the first digit context.

The blue circles are the Benford’s Law expectations, and the red squares are the inferred empirical distribution of first digits. The choice of 35% was established through manual trial and error, and the fit was done by visual inspection. So, you know, don’t go and make any medical decisions based on this.

This is actually a reasonably good fit for this sort of thing, and constitutes fairly compelling evidence in support of the “sumbudy dun messed up” theory to my mind. Either that, or you have to invoke roughly 6 billion instances of people googling ‘666’.

Frank Benford (1938). The law of anomalous numbers Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 78 (4), 551-572

Comedienne skewers false prophets

So, gifted comedienne Cindy Jacobs has set the cyberverse aflame with her dead-on satirical portrayal of a manipulative, dishonest, bigoted snake-oil salesman. You may already have seen her outstanding video, which has been circulating the past few days. In it she spins a yarn about how the recent large-scale die-off of fish and birds in Arkansas are the result of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

For those of you who are not familiar with this particular brand of irony, let me break it down for you. You see, it paints this completely ridiculous picture of God as a homophobe with tendency to lash out, where he takes out his anger about homosexuals serving openly in the U. S. Miliatry on a bunch of defenseless animals. I actually worry a bit that she may have gone too far, and that this disrepectful portrayal may be viewed as blasphemous by some.

And she nails the pseudo-logic that these false prophets use. It’s like something straight out of a Tina Fey skit. Here’s a snippet:

. . . the blackbirds fell to the ground in Beebe, Arkansas. Well the Governor of Arkansas’ name is Beebe. And also, there was something put out of Arkansas called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” by a former Governor this was proposed – Bill Clinton.

Great stuff! And there’s more. Like she’s got a whole thing on how California will be destroyed by earthquakes if Prop 8 is repealed.

Back before the 2010 midterms, she had a skit about how if Latinos would support candidates who opposed gay marriage and abortion, God would reward them with comprehensive immigration reform. More Bible humor! See, it’s just like the Book of Job. Elect right-wing candidates, and you get immigration “reform,” like in Arizona.

Even her website is hilarious. She starts off with an oxymoronic description of herself as a “respected prophet.” She then goes on to . . .

Wait . . . what now?

She’s not being ironic?


Reflected Glory: Vi Hart

So, here is the debut of yet another new feature: Reflected Glory. This series will contain my callous and cynical attempts to convince you that this blog is really interesting and valuable because it is interested in and values interesting and valuable things.

To launch this feature, we have the math, music, and awesomeness blog of Vi Hart. You can get instructions on how to slice apples into Platonic Solids. You can listen to original stories set to original music. And you can watch the Doodling in Math Class video series, which covers things like how to draw an infinite line of camels such that they reach exactly to the edge of the page.

If you’re a math geek, this is probably already bookmarked on your browser. If you’re not, don’t let that stop you from checking it out. The site is not about math in the sense of memorization, abstract notation, and jargon. It is about the beauty of patterns and music and fun. You’ll want to spend plenty of time exploring.

The downside is that you will feel totally inadequate after seeing what this talented artist, composer, musician, mathematician, and expositor can do.

The Genetical Book Review: Middlesex

So, welcome to the first installment of Lost in Transcription’s newest feature: The Genetical Book Review. For the maiden voyage, we’ll cover the 2002, Pulitzer-prize-winning Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

You’re surprised? Because you assume that an eight-year-old Pulitzer winner must already have been reviewed?

Fair enough. But, here’s the gimmick: we’ll use the genetics angle to talk about some things that have not already been covered extensively elsewhere.

First, though, the precis and value judgement. If you’ve not read the book, or read about it, it follows three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who traipse through a slice of historical events in Smyrna and Detroit over the course of nearly a century. It’s sort of a Forrest Gump for the NPR set. Cal Stephanides and his relatives witness genocide at the hands of the Turks, emigrate to America, build cars for Henry Ford, and run booze during prohibition. They are present for the founding of the Nation of Islam and the 1967 Detroit race riots. They flee to the suburbs and watch Watergate unfold on the television.

As in Forrest Gump, some of the historical context feels a bit like pandering, an attempt to draw the reader in through nostalgia. On the other hand, many of the events are local enough to be only passingly familiar to most readers, so there’s learning to be had. More importantly, those events are always portrayed through the lens of how they shaped the trajectories of the characters in the book. And, they are charmingly and engagingly written, with a varied style that is pleasurable to read.

Basically, if your book group has not already read this book, and you’re sick of plodding stories about alcoholic mothers and victims of sexual abuse, but want something with some literary gravitas (so that you don’t lose social status by suggesting it to your book-group frenemies), this is the book for you!

There you have it. Hit the jump for the role of genetics in the book.

The book is written in a memoir style, told by Cal, who periodically takes on the persona of a chromosome being passed down, or an egg sitting in an ovary as s/he relates the events from previous generations. I say “s/he” because – and I’m not giving anything away here – the key twist to the coming-of-age story is that Cal is intersex, having ambiguous genitals as a result of a recessive, genetic 5-alpha-reductase deficiency.  For reasons reaching back to Smyrna, Cal’s condition is not identified at birth, and our protagonist is raised as a female, Calliope. It is not until puberty hits that Calliope discovers her condition and transforms into her male alter ego, Cal.

The 5-alpha-reductase gene encodes an enzyme that converts testosterone into dihydrotestosterone (DHT). In early development, testosterone is responsible for certain internal male reproductive structures, such as the vas deferens, while DHT is responsible for the external genitalia. Upon the onset of puberty, testosterone drives the male increase in muscle mass and deepening of voice, while DHT is responsible for the growth of facial hair. One of the reasons for the female-to-male switch that happens at puberty is that there are actually two different 5-alpha reductases. The type 2 enzyme is the one that is primarily responsible for DHT production, particularly in early development, and it is this enzyme that Cal lacks. The other one, the type 1 enzyme, is substantially upregulated at puberty, which results in an uptick in DHT production.

So, there are two things that combine at puberty to drive the sudden appearance of male characteristics: (1) Testosterone and DHT start sharing the load for creating external male-typical characteristics, and (2) a second pathway appears for the generation of DHT.

I have to say, as I have read about this disorder, I have been impressed with the depth of understanding that Eugenides seems to have brought to the novel.

[As a side note, this disorder was first identified in the remote village of Salinas in the Dominican Republic, where it occurred in about 2% of live births. Locally, these individuals are known as “guevedoces.” Whenever I have seen reference to the guevedoces, it is followed by the phrase “literally ‘penis at twelve.'” Actually, it turns out that ‘gueve’ is derived from ‘huevos,’ which is slang for ‘balls.’ Thus, a better translation might be “balls at twelve.” Although, if you’re going to precede your translation with “literally,” you would need to acknowledge that this slang for ‘balls’ is literally the word for ‘eggs.’ Of course, referring to the appearance of male sexual characteristics at the onset of puberty as “eggs at twelve” is just weird and confusing, because it sounds like something you would order at Denny’s, and because it is sort of the exact opposite of what is going on.]

Incest is one of the recurring themes in the book, which traces the paths through which Cal came to inherit two defective copies of the 5-alpha-reductase gene. This particular disorder is straight-up recessive, so if you have one functional copy of the gene, you develop normally.

Cal’s grandparents on his/her father’s side are brother and sister. They hailed from the same tiny village outside of Smyrna, were orphaned, and fell in love. Their immigration to America permitted them the opportunity to fabricate a non-consanguinous past. The interesting thing is that the inbreeding involving Cal’s grandparents bears absolutely no responsibility for Cal’s condition. Their son, Milt is unaffected, which means that he inherited one defective gene copy from one of his parents. It doesn’t actually matter whether the other parent carried a copy or not.
More specifically, what is required for the story is that Milt be a carrier, but not express the condition. If one of his parents is a carrier, the probability that he is a non-expressing carrier is 1/2. If both of his parents are carriers, the probability that he is a non-expressing carrier is 1/2. It will not have escaped your attention that 1/2 = 1/2.

There is a second case of inbreeding, however, that does contribute to Cal’s condition. Milt and his wife, Tessie, are second cousins, and each of them is heterozygous for the deficiency. Now, statistically speaking, the fact that Milt and Tessie are second cousins barely counts as incest. For a rare disorder such as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency, the elevation in risk due to a second-cousin marriage is small. How small? Let’s see.

Assume that the frequency of the defective version of the gene is q = 0.001, or one in a thousand. This is in the ballpark of what we might expect for a recessive mutation maintained at mutation-selection balance. The probability that an outbred individual inherits two defective copies is approximately q2, or one in a million. What if the mother and father are related? If their degree of relatedness is r, then the probability that their child will inherit two copies is:

         p = q (r/2q (1 – r/2))

What is this r thing? Well, if they are brother and sister, r = 1/2, so the probability p would be about 0.00025. For first cousins, r = 1/8, and p = 0.0000634. For second cousins, r = 1/32, and p = 0.0000166.

That is, for second cousins, the probability goes from one in a million to about one in 60,000. Basically, you will have a bigger impact by taking prenatal vitamins.

Diane Paul and Hamish Spencer published an interesting piece a couple of years ago about the history of the stigmatization of first-cousin marriage, particularly in the United States. They make a number of interesting points, and I recommend the article, which can be found here. It is short, fascinating, open access, and requires no background in genetics to follow.

One of the points they make is that there is pretty much no way to interpret a ban on first-cousin marriage as anything other than eugenics. And yet, somehow, this prohibition has managed to escape that label. Another of their points is that the genetic risks associated with first-cousin marriage are actually small compared with a lot of behaviors that are completely acceptable in our society, such as women having children over the age of 40, or the use of in vitro fertilization techniques. (That second one was not mentioned by them, but it’s true.) So, there is some inconsistency there, which they trace to nineteenth century misconceptions about heredity and prejudice against immigrants and the rural poor.

But, back to the book.

To recap, in terms of causal things leading to Cal’s genetic composition, the fact that his/her parents are second cousins matters. The fact that the grandparents are brother and sister does not. Why, then, does the story, much of which is driving towards Cal’s conception, spend so much more attention on the (genetically) irrelevant grandparental love story?

Obviously, I can’t speak to the author’s intention, but to me, having two separate incidents provides a nice, clean separation between the psychological and genetic consequences of incest. Cal’s grandmother is wracked with guilt about her transgression, and this guilt drives the story in several places. In fact, one of the motifs in the book is that action (or, often, lack of action) is often motivated by superstitious beliefs. –– Sorry about the vagueness here. I’m in spoiler-avoidance mode. –– Hypothetically speaking, let’s say one of the characters is eating toast, and then that character’s mother falls down and breaks her hip. The character would blame him/herself for eating toast and refuse to eat toast again for a long time. You get the idea.

Anyway, my point is that by having two separate incests, we are able to distinguish more clearly between the genetic consequences of consanguinity from the EWWWW consequences of knocking boots with your sister.

Paul, D., & Spencer, H. (2008). “It’s Ok, We’re Not Cousins by Blood”: The Cousin Marriage Controversy in Historical Perspective PLoS Biology, 6 (12) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0060320

Buy it now!!

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Well Thank God for THAT: Novelization of Gulliver’s Travels

So, this week at Lost in Transcription we’ll be rolling out a few new features. The first of these is Well Thank God for THAT, which will cover some of those “current” “events.”

If you haven’t been to your local bookstore recently, you may have missed the fact that Simon Spotlight has published a novelization of Gulliver’s Travels. Now a generation will not be deprived of this Jack Black classic during a power outage that is long enough for their laptops to run out of juice, but not so long that their kindles run out of juice.

If you’ve never read it, Gulliver’s Travels offers an almost swiftian satire of human nature. It focuses particularly on two of our most enduring foibles: (1) being fat, and (2) saying “awesome” a lot.