Posts in Category: Evolution

Homozygotes find Jesus, Heterozygotes Play Hopscotch

Posted May 1st, 2007 at 7:51 am in Evolution, Humor, Science | 2 Comments

So I’ve been extremely busy the last few weeks trying to get everything wrapped by the deadlines that always come with the end of the semester. I just completed working on a paper for Molecular Biology about cystic fibrosis. Before I go any further, let me define just a few genetic concepts using the analogy of shoes, so that I don’t have to worry about readers being completely lost. Thirty seconds of biology won’t kill you, I promise.

  • allele – alternative version of gene. If shoes are a gene, then cowboy boots, sandals, and tennis shoes would be alleles. For any given gene, you’ve got two alleles – one from mom and one from dad.
  • homozygous – you’ve got the same two alleles for a given gene. You’re wearing matching tennis shoes.
    • homozygous dominant – both of your alleles make the same working protein. You’re wearing matching tennis shoes.
    • homozygous recessive – both of your alleles either don’t make a protein or make a protein that doesn’t work. You’re not wearing any shoes and have two bare feet.
  • heterozygous – you’ve got different alleles for a given gene. You’re wearing one cowboy boot and one sandal, or one cowboy boot and one bare foot.

Cystic fibrosis is a homozygous recessive trait. You’ve got to get two CF alleles that don’t work right to get the disease.

Enough of the background information. I was focusing on one thing in particular. The allele that causes CF is a lot more common in European populations than one might expect for such a seemingly detrimental allele. In fact in Caucasian populations, the frequency of carriers can reach as high as 1 in 25 people! That’s pretty darn high when you consider that if two copies of those alleles end up in a child, that child’s dead before they’re three years old. How do you explain that? The likely explanation is what’s called heterozygous advantage, where heterozygous are better fit for their environment than homozygotes.

The classic example of this is sickle-cell anemia and malaria. It turns out that heterozygotes are much less likely to get malaria than homozygotes. I was looking on the internet for a reference to the scientific literature that discusses heterozygous advantage with sickle-cell anemia, when I came across this page from the website of a medical doctor at Harvard. (Incidentally, it’s a nice lengthy discussion if you want to learn more about natural selection favoring a detrimental allele through heterozygous advantage.) But it contained one little illustration that immediately caught my eye and made me laugh out loud.

heterozygous advantage

Figure 2. Schematic representation of the effect of the sickle cell hemoglobin gene on survival in endemic malarial areas. People with normal hemoglobin (left of the diagram) are susceptible to death from malaria. People with sickle cell disease (right of the diagram) are susceptible to death from the complications of sickle cell disease. People with sickle cell trait, who have one gene for hemoglobin A and one gene for hemoglobin S, have a greater chance of surviving malaria and do not suffer adverse consequences from the hemoglobin S gene.

Oh, okay. I get it. But still, it’s a rather odd and comical choice for the illustration. It tickled my funny bone so much that I had to share.

So getting back to cystic fibrosis, the main evidence for heterozygous advantage comes from a study1 which showed that the bacteria which cause typhoid fever use the protein that the cystic fibrosis gene creates. Thus, if you’re heterozygous (one good copy, one bad) then you have less of that protein on the surface of your cells lining your digestive tract. Using mice as a model, they showed that typhoid bacteria are 86% less successful at infecting cells of heterozygotes. They also showed that mice containing two bad copies of the CF gene were not infected by any typhoid bacteria. Thus typhoid are using that protein as their entries into the cell.

As typhoid is a disease that has ravaged Europe for many years in premodern time, it now becomes understandable why selection would increase the frequency of the CF allele in European populations.

1 Pier, G.B., M. Grout, T. Zaidi, G. Meluleni, S.S. Mueschenborn, G. Banting, R. Ratcliff, M.J. Evans, W.H. Colledge. 1998. Salmonella typhi uses CFTR to enter intestinal epithelial cells. Nature 393: 79–82.

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Getting Back in the Swing of Things

Posted Mar 29th, 2007 at 11:12 am in Evolution, Photography, Science, Site Announcements | 7 Comments

It’s been too long, hasn’t it? I’ve got friends asking me to write again, friends that are hilariously cajoling me into writing again, and absolute nutjobs that leave the craziest comments on old posts.

This latter comment is especially hilarious for it’s illiterate ramblings against evolution, repetition of the belief that no one is required to pay income taxes, and then a sudden divergence into the necessity of vitamins and seed eating to prevent cancer. The list of seeds we should eat are apple, peach, and apricot seeds, which as any good biologist can tell you are filled with cyanide. If you’re skipping the fruit and going straight for the seeds, it doesn’t take but a handful at once to provide a lethal dose. But hey, you don’t get cancer! I especially liked the National Cancer Institute’s description of a drug name Laetrile based on these seed products. “Laetrile has shown little anticancer effect in laboratory studies, animal studies, or human studies. The side effects of laetrile are like the symptoms of cyanide poisoning.”

Yes, it’s been too long since I’ve blogged.

Why did I stop blogging?

The short and sweet answer is that I suddenly got tired of it. It felt more like a chore than it did fun. As the amount of time I poured into school skyrocketed (and so did the amount of writing for school), it was hard to enjoy blogging.

I’m also completely done with these eternal debates about evolution and creationism. At least online anyway. Like the above comments shows, the number of people who froth at the mouth and show up to leave comments far outweighs those interested in learning how science works. We live in the age of Google. In 30 seconds you can get more information about a subject than you can read in 30 days. An understanding of evolution and how it works is not lacking because of a lack of information. Therefore, I’m much more interested in having real conversions with people, face to face, who actually want to learn how things work, not just argue. The time I’ve spent at church talking with people about it on a number of occasions is just so much more fulfilling than blogging about it.

I also face the problem of being a fairly good but extremely slow writer. One story in particular illustrates this better than anything. Not long after we got married, my wife was working on this very lengthy paper for a class. She called me in to ask for help with wording a single sentence. I spent 30 minutes and finally came up with wording that we both liked. So out of 10 pages, I wrote one sentence. When she got the paper back (with a good grade of course), the professor had underline that single sentence and written in the margins, “Nicely worded!” (I’ll smile about that for the rest of my life). But the problem you see is that I can’t spend that long writing a post to Ocellated. There’s not enough hours in the day.

So What Comes Next?

I didn’t want to post again until I really knew what I wanted to say. I think where I am right now is that I would love to post about science. There’s just too many cool little things that I learn to not share them with anyone. And I have fun whenever I can taking pictures, so there’s no better medium than the web for sharing the fruits of that labor.

I promise nothing. I certainly won’t be posting every day. Maybe once a week. Maybe once a month. We’ll just have to see how it goes. But I’d definitely like to get back to talking about science, birds in particular, and I’ve got a few papers that are worth sharing due to their general “cool factor.”

I can’t just leave you with nothing

So for all three of you still checking the blog, I’ll leave you with a few pictures. I have been busy working at photography when I have the time, and I’ve posted many of these quite some time ago, but never wrote a post announcing them. Here’s a list of the recent galleries. Some of the pictures are of course better than others.

The trip to Marfa, TX (which is in deep southwest TX north of Big Bend National Park, was probably one of the most enjoyable though. I managed to get a couple of incredible pictures of a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk.

juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

juvenile Red-tailed Hawk

There’s more in that album too. And speaking of pictures, I’ve got lots more to process from recent trips which I’ll be posting shortly.

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A Beautiful Controversy on “Hobbits” and Science

Posted Aug 23rd, 2006 at 9:56 am in Evolution, Science | 1 Comment
Liang Bua 1's asymmetrical skull
Liang Bua 1’s asymmetrical skull

In 2004, scientists announced the discovery of a new species of small hominid which lived on the island of Flores (Indonesia), which they dubbed Homo floresiensis. The media, ever the bastions of scientific truth and accuracy, immediately popularized the discovery by calling H. floresiensis hobbits.

Recently however, a debate has flared up on what H. floresiensis really is. In particular, one of the specimens has a very asymmetrical skull which some scientists are now claiming is the result of disease. Other features of the skull, which were originally reported to be distinct from modern day humans, are now being challenged as falling within the range of modern day and prehistoric humans from that region of the world.

I don’t have anything to add to that discussion. Anthropology and human evolution are hardly my area of specialty. For a quick read about the situation though, MSNBC has the details. For a thorough but technical account, John Hawks’ anthropology blog provides (as always) a great deal of information on the controversy.

Here’s what I find so terribly interesting about the whole thing. It’s a beautiful example of how science works! Some scientists find some data, put the pieces together, go through the process of peer review, and publish a claim — “hobbits” on Flores! Some other scientists review their data, find that they may be a better explanation than “hobbits on Flores” and publish a rebuttal. A skirmish begins. People take sides and scientists take their best shots at each other in trying to explain these finds. Egos are perhaps bruised and battered along the way, but in the end, what we learn about these fossils is far more robust because of the scrutiny they receive.

In short, this is a beautiful example of science at work. This controversy and debate is not a sign that there’s something terribly wrong with science or the original researchers, but rather it’s exactly what healthy science is supposed to do.

Yet, I would bet everything I own on the predictable creationist rejection of this find. Whatever the consensus comes to be, creationists will use this debate, this robust discussion, to say to their followers, isn’t science sick. Science is damned if they get it wrong — that the fossils turn out not be a new species, H. floresiensis — because creationists will forever use it as an example of incompetence. But even worse, if science decides that H. floresiensis really is deserving of classification as a unique species, creationists will point to the controversy as proof that we’re wrong.

Does anyone doubt this? When creationists commonly go back 80 and 100 years to point to controversies or hoaxes (piltdown man, Nebraska man, etc) that existed in the past, and completely ignore that science has long ago fixed its mistakes, I have no doubt they’ll do exactly the same with H. floresiensis.

It’s really sad to me. At it’s highest levels, it’s incredibly dishonest — which is something that creationist leaders should know better than. For the most part though, it’s simply a matter of ignorance. Many people don’t understand how science works. They don’t understand that the controversy is a good thing, not a bad thing.

This debate on how exactly to classify H. floresiensis is a great teaching moment for those willing to learn. We should all sit back and be content to see what happens. Whatever direction it takes, the answers, as well as the process, will lead us closer to the truth.

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The United States — Smarter than Turkey.
Dumber than Slovenia, Estonia, and Latvia.

Posted Aug 11th, 2006 at 12:30 pm in Culture, Evolution | 3 Comments

A study reported by National Geographic News places the U.S. near the very end of a shameful list.

evolution acceptance survey

Yes, only Turkey rejects evolution more than the United States.

The reasons are what you’d expect — religion — but even I was surprised by the low percentage. Only 14% of U.S. adults thought that evolution was “definitely true.” Oh, I could rant and rave about the way evolution is a theory with every bit as much footing as our other theories in science. I could point out that science seeks truth with a lower case t, not ultimate meaning. I could point out the utility of science, and that the 86% of U.S. evolution rejectors already turn to evolution when they seek medical care, and that in our lifetimes, our knowledge of evolution and its application to medicine will increasingly deepen. Indeed, the article makes this point for me.

Third, the study found that adults with some understanding of genetics are more likely to have a positive attitude toward evolution.

I could do all these things, but as they say, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.

National Geographic also offers a great solution to this problem. An excellent article by David Quammen titled Was Darwin Wrong? which appeared in the print edition of the November 2004 magazine. (Alas, the online version lacks the pretty pictures.)

I also offer my own solution. It’s meager, and perhaps a little incomplete. (I could add more to it while condensing it some to make it tighter). But I like to think it’s not bad. My old article on the basics of evolution. Though I’m but a humble grad student, the U.S. would do well to read it. At least 86 percent of them would.

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Neandertal Genome Project

Posted Jul 24th, 2006 at 6:57 pm in Evolution, Science | Comments Off

For those that haven’t heard yet, a project to sequence the Neadertal genome has been announced. The company doing it has a very nice press release available with a set of resources on the project. They also have a nice brief background (pdf format) on Neandertals.

What I found so amazing about this whole project is the ambitious goal of sequencing a genome from bones that long ago belonged to the deceased. Indeed, some of the main challenges to the project are dealing with very short pieces of DNA (something that happens as bones fossilize and decay) as well as lots of contamination from bacterial DNA. From what I gathered, the whole thing wouldn’t have even been possible if not for recent advances in sequencing technology.

I found the following particularly interesting.

Approximately 99% of the Homo sapiens genome is identical to the chimpanzee genome, our closest living relative. It is estimated that the Neandertal shares 96% of the 1% difference with Homo sapiens. The Neandertal shares the remaining 4% of the difference with the chimpanzee.

It will be fascinating to see what we learn about our own evolution, and what genes have undergone recent selection within the human genome, by getting something inbetween chimpanzees and humans to compare with. I also immediately wondered if it would be possible to get gene sequences from even older fossil species. I’m guessing that the older a fossil is, the less there is to work with. Still, I had no idea that sequencing a Neandertal genome was even a remote possibility.

For a little more insightful commentary, the anthropologist John Hawk’s blog has a write up on the project.

Update: I also noticed that the Questionable Authority has some nice comments on the project, explaining just how the genome comparisions can be put to use.

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Song of the Dodo Review

Posted Jun 17th, 2006 at 7:26 pm in Books, Evolution, Nature, Science | 3 Comments

It’s not my voice, it’s probably not yours, but it makes itself heard in the arenas of public opinion, querulous and smug and fortified by just a little knowledge, which is always a dangerous thing. So what if a bunch of species go extinct? it says. Extinction is a natural process. Darwin himself said so, didn’t he? Extinction is the complement of evolution, making room for new species to evolve. There have always been extinctions. So why worry about these extinctions currently being caused by humanity? And there has always been a pilot light burning in your furnace. So why worry when your house is on fire?

Song of the Dodo, page 605.

I’ve just finished reading The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction, by David Quammen. Overall, I was very impressed.

The book mixes at least three types of narrative in telling its story. It explains hard, cold ecology. The science, the theories, how they work, etc. Why certain species need larger or smaller areas to exist. Why islands are such a cradle of biological diversity and the first to fall apart when humans alter the environment. Why some islands have exceptionally tame animals, and why non native species can wreak such havoc when they find themselves in a new home. In fact, I would recommend it as one of the best books I’ve come across to explain what basic ecology is to a lay person.

Secondly, it gives tons of real life examples, both from the past and the present, of species which illustrate the concepts that he delves into. The Dodo (naturally), the Passenger Pigeon, the lemurs of Madagascar, Komodo dragons and pygmy elephants, the adaptive radiations of honeycreepers and fruit flies on the Hawaiian Archipelago, and many, many more. The stories are interesting. Many of them I knew about at least vaguely from my background in science. Even then, I constantly learned new things.

Finally, he gives a good bit of historical background to the movers and shakers that brought these understandings to the world. Men like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace (Quammen loves Wallace), Robert MacArthur, and E.O. Wilson. The history was one of the most interesting aspects of the book for me, because while I’d previously learned much of the science (at least the basics!), I was ignorant of the people and circumstances under which it came back about.

Quammen’s writing style is wonderful, as I’ve mentioned before. He manages to take a subject which can be tedious and explains it in ways that are interesting, funny, and engages the imagination of his audience. I particularly was impressed with the skill of his writing. He’s just got a gift when it comes to putting words together.

That’s not to say that I liked everything in the book

One of the areas that I think Quammen really makes a stretch on is his speculation on the timing of Charles Darwin’s and Alfred Russell Wallace’s theory of natural selection as the driving force behind evolution. It’s a complicated story, one that a historian would love. But essentially, what Quammen implies is that Darwin received a draft on natural selection from Wallace and held onto the paper not wanting his own work to be preempted.

The problem is that the evidence for this is scant, and Quammen admits that this view is held by a small minority of historians. The controversy centers on the timing of the arrival of a ship carrying Wallace’s manuscript, and the time it took for that manuscript to reach Darwin. (Wallace and Darwin were friends of a sort and corresponded). One historian in particular makes the claim that Darwin held onto this manuscript for at least a month, before passing it onto Charles Lyell (the famed geologist) as Wallace had requested.

Whatever actually happened, a meeting was held at the Linnaean Society where both men were given credit for the idea. This was something that Wallace seemed very appreciative of, as his stature and reputation was far less prominent than Darwin’s.

While Quammen readily admits this doesn’t prove Darwin’s guilt, I think he feeds the fires of speculation a bit too much. Even if Darwin held onto the manuscript, his thoughts on natural selection seem to extend back in time long before Wallace came to the same conclusion. Why would it then be a controversy for the two men to share credit? If anything, Darwin could have easily squashed Wallace’s paper and claimed the idea totally as his own. That he didn’t makes the accusation of foul play all the more questionable.

Still, this is a very short section of the book; a few pages out of 600. Besides these minor quibbles, Song of the Dodo is an excellent read. Anyone in the mood for learning a little ecology and natural history would do well to pick it up.

Komodo Dragons Evolved To Eat Pygmy Elephants

Posted May 29th, 2006 at 8:12 pm in Books, Evolution, Nature | 6 Comments
Komodo Dragon

I’m reading The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen. It’s an excellent book.

In what I’m reading now, Quammen spends some time discussing dwarfism and gigantism and the factors that cause it. (It’s complex, I won’t try to recap). In one of the most fascinating things I’ve come across in a while, he discusses the historical diet of Komodo Dragons (which are really just mind boggling huge monitor lizards).

The question, you see, is what would allow a Komodo Dragon to get so mind boggling huge. A problem arises. While they currently eat deer, goats, and pigs, these animals have only recently arrived to the islands on which Komodos live. Thus the lizards have been around much longer than their food.

One of the disadvantages to becoming as big as a Komodo Dragon is the amount of food needed. Lots and lots of food. Small birds, furry rodents, and buzzing insects just won’t cut it.

It seems there’s only one big animal in the fossil record worth eating if you’re a Komodo Dragon — pygmy elephants.

There are actually two species of small elephant known from the fossil record, occuring in the areas where Komodos now exist. The smaller of the two was only 5 foot high, around the size of a modern cow. The ancestral Komodo Dragons first arriving would likely already have been large monitor lizards. At first, juvenile elephants would have been their meal ticket to survival as the selective pressure to grow bigger pushed their gigantism.

The hypothesis on the historical food source of Komodo Dragons has been advocated by no less than Jared Diamond. (Yes, the ecologist and Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond). It was originally suggested by an earlier biologist named Walter Auffenberg, who conducted the landmark study on Komodo Dragons in the early ‘70s. Diamond reviewed the evidence and made a case for this hypothesis.

If this hypothesis is false, the fossil record has left no trace of what ancestral Komodo Dragons feasted on. But the idea is intriguing. To me it’s these little tantalizing wonders that make science so fun. I mean, whose heart doesn’t warm a little at the thought of a monstrously big monitor lizard crunching on the bones of a baby pygmy elephant?

And so of course that raises the next question. How did elephants arrive on an island in the first place?

The answer is just as worthy of it’s own post but in short, they swam. Quammen also devotes some discussion to this fascinating topic, including well documented accounts of modern elephants swimming at sea. There were a couple that were documented swimming from a small island to Sri Lanka in 1954. A few years later, a mother and her calf made the same swim in the opposite direction. Reports of elephants swimming to islands exist elsewhere in India, Cambodia, and Kenya.

A more sensational example, which may or may not be true, is an elephant which was reported to have been lost overboard from a ship approaching South Carolina in 1856, and to have swum the remaining 30 miles to shore.

But the best evidence comes from the fossil record. For example, the Channel Islands off the coast of California (I’ve been there to see Island Scrub-Jay by the way) sported a species of pygmy mammoth (yes, the irony is ripe). Scientists assumed that a land bridge was responsible for their presence, yet a closer look revealed that the water between the island and the mainland was deep and that no land bridge ever existed. Also telling is that many other species around during the Pleistocene which left good fossils on the mainland do not occur on the islands. If such a land bridge existed, their absence is not to be expected.

So there you have it. Two good hypothesis that Komodo Dragons ate pygmy elephants and that elephants colonized islands by swimming. See — science is fun!

The Simpsons Do Evolution

Posted May 15th, 2006 at 10:20 am in Culture, Evolution | Comments Off

Had I been reading the various blogs I usually skim over, I would have known in advance that the Simpsons last night was on evolution. As it turned out, my wife and I walked in the door from a long weekend (she graduated!) and turned on the TV and just happened to notice what the Simpsons was about. I was immediately interested.

The show was funny. It wasn’t epic, but good nonetheless. A brief synopsis: Flanders creates a stink over teaching evolution in schools. Principle Skinner is going to ignore it as first, but is then reminded that his car lease with an amazing interest rate comes from Christian Brother’s Auto Service. As the lease is about to be set on fire, he caves in to teaching creationism. Lisa forms a secret after school club to read the Origin of Species and is arrested when the cops kick down the doors. The ensuing trial is a parody of the Scopes Trial. I could describe the whole thing in greater detail, but Jason Rosenhouse has already provided a thorough recap.

For me, the funniest part was Principal Skinner’s announcing to the class they would learn about creationism. Ralphie asks if it’s true that the ocean’s are God’s tears. Skinner nervously looks over at the people holding his auto lease, they nod their heads in approval, and Skinner looks back at the class and says, “yes, the ocean’s are God’s tears”.

When the video starts playing, it’s the classic dichotomy. The video’s titled Are you calling God a liar? and promises to take a unbiased look at the scientific record. It then immediately depicts Charles Darwin and The Origin as being in league with the devil. It captures the truthfulness of creationists who claim to present fair and unbiased discussions on the subject.

All in all, it was good satire.

Evolution of Skin Color

Posted May 5th, 2006 at 1:04 am in Evolution | 4 Comments

I recently had the great pleasure of reading an article on the evolution of human skin color1. The biological history is an interesting topic, as the color of one’s skin has profound implications in our cultural and political systems to this day.

A look at the general distrubtion of skin color across the earth tells us something seemingly intuitive. The darkest skinned peoples are found near the earth’s equator, with lighter and lighter skinned peoples as you approach the poles. Like most people, you and I probably assumed that these colors were protection against skin cancer caused by damaging UV rays. Likewise, this was the assumption scientists had for quite some time.

It sounds good, but it doesn’t really work. The problem is that skin cancers are likely to show up and kill a person only after they’ve had plenty of time to leave behind offspring. If you’re leaving behind fit offspring, natural selection won’t magically cause a beneficial shift that leads to a longer or healthier life. This should also be inuitive. Think of how many diseases or ailments afflict us well after our reproductive years.

So if skin cancer is not a sufficient reason for the extra melanin observed in dark skinned peoples, what is? Read the rest of this entry »

Evolution and Public Relations

Posted Mar 2nd, 2006 at 10:32 am in Evolution | Comments Off

I’m coming to this conversation about two weeks late. But it’s one that I wanted to hit on. A while back, Randy Olson showed up over at The Loom and left comments on things evolutionary biologists should do to improve communication with the general public. As you may recall, Olson is the maker of the film Flock of Dodos.

Olson’s list basically boils down to the following ten points:

  1. Quality Control — put greater effort into raising the quality of evolution education materials. Boring science presentations to the general public get ignored.
  2. Attitude — in the public battle, don’t call your opponents idiots. You lose credibility and people stop listening.
  3. Concision — the shorter and more concise your message, the more likely people are to listen to it and remember it.
  4. Modernization — the modern world gets its information from television. Embrace that medium and use it. Don’t put emphasis into writing at the expense of TV communication
  5. Prioritization — communication costs real money, and we’d better budget at least a little bit for communication, instead of viewing it as an afterthought to real science.
  6. Understanding — intellectuals are trained to think, not act. Olson suggests learning to better act for your audience. Essentially, he’s saying you have to understand that your audience is not “intellectual” in the same way a college class is intellectual.
  7. Risk Taking/Innovation — don’t fall into the trap of having a boring and completely homogenous argument.
  8. Humor – lighten up evolutionists. The guy who’s funny is the guy who’s listened to.
  9. Unscripted Media and the Mass Audience — be more spontaneous. The guy who pulls his notes and reads verbatim is not as interesting as the guy who can shoot from the hip and actually say something worth hearing.
  10. Sincerity — have passion and let that passion show that you care.

This list ended up creating a little bit of controversy. More than one blogger was upset with his suggestions. PZ Myers of Pharyngula in particular wrote:

Maybe it’s my own high dork factor talking, but I’m not too receptive to people telling me I need movie star qualities to be able to support science, or that we have to pander to superficial sensibilities to communicate a message. Our strengths are depth, intelligence, evidence, history, the whole damn natural world, and just plain having the best and most powerful explanation for its existence. Don’t tell us to dumb it down and glitz it up—I think people should be smart enough to understand it, and there’s grandeur enough in it that dressing it up in rhinestones is just silly. We need to know how to communicate real science, not Hollywood cartoon science, to people.

I like Olson’s comments in so far as they’re a suggestion that someone needs to tackle these points, not everyone. It should be obvious that science will have popularizers. Carl Sagan was an excellent popularizer. Ken Miller is one today.

Popularizers must — more or less — meet Olson’s challenge. The magic of our genes is really cool. Explaining the chemical composition of cytosine, guanine adenine, and thyamine (the four bases in DNA) isn’t going to sway many in the general public. In the same way, if faced with a lay audience, we should tailor our message about evolution to try and hit the high points that capture people’s interest and avoid losing their interest. We have a real challenge. Some of the concepts are not light and fluffy. We also have a public (at least a large segment of it) that’s opposed to the idea from the start.

That doesn’t mean we can’t use the suggestions above to try and better connect with our audience.