Weekend Reading: The Long Road to Ancient DNA, and Gene-Stealing Ferns

I’ve been traveling again this week, which makes blogging a challenge. But I still can still offer a couple pieces of reading for your weekend diversion.

–Over the years, I’ve written many articles about the amazing work of Svante Paabo, who has pioneered methods for salvaging ancient DNA from fossils. (Here’s my most recent piece, on the entire genome of a Neanderthal extracted from a toe bone.)

The New York Times Book Review asked me to read Paabo’s new memoir, Neanderthal Man. Here’s my review. As I note in the piece, memoirs by scientists are a tricky genre. Very often, scientists want to delve into fine detail about their research, while tossing off frustratingly fragmented bits about their personal lives. As I was reading Neanderthal Man and getting a bit frustrated by fleeting references to a secret father and such, I asked people on Twitter about their favorite memoir by a scientist. I Storified the ensuing conversation here.

–From time to time, genes jump from one species of plant to another. For my “Matter” column this week in the New York Times, I look at how a jumping gene helped ferns thrive in the shady forests of the Mesozoic–and today. I think these cases of horizontal gene transfer are important not just for what it tells us about how life got to be the way it is today, but also for what it can tell us about our artificial transfer of genes from species to species. It’s simply not true that genes moving between species is “unnatural,” and therefore automatically evil. Is such an engineered organism dangerous? That’s a question that we have to tackle case by case, without mismatched notions of nature getting in the way.

5 thoughts on “Weekend Reading: The Long Road to Ancient DNA, and Gene-Stealing Ferns

  1. I appreciate the effort to explain HGT and its relevance to our technologies, even as I found the idea of plants practicing ‘genetic engineering’ a little too teleological for my taste.

    I’m always stymied when someone makes an appeal to nature fallacy, but gets (wild) nature wrong. Do I correct the bad reasoning or the bad science first?

  2. Modern man’s sudden appearance in the fossil record, even while Neanderthal was still living, is no surprise. The book of Genesis says as much. The Nephilim spoken of in Genesis 6 were not “fallen angels” as the Catholic Church would have everyone think so as to fit their own narrative. Instead, the Nephilim are what we are now calling Neanderthal.

    Neanderthal is the natural, evolved form of the man animal. However, the correct interpretation of Genesis 1 is not that God wanted to create man (the man animal already existed), but that God wanted to create “a more perfect man,” one in His spiritual image. Thus, a new form of man (Cro-Magnon) suddenly came into existence. On a physical level, this new man was mostly patterned after the evolved form. But spiritually, this new man was totally different from the old, and able to think, reason, and communicate in ways the evolved form could not.

  3. B. Sanford – Ha! Beautiful Poe! I must admit you had me going there for a while, but then realized that nobody could be that idiotic, unless they planned it!

  4. G Larson – At what point in my post did I reveal myself to be an idiot? You apparently agreed to a point, before your own knowledge and expertise took hold. Please elaborate on where I went wrong. I am always in search of truth, regardless of where it may take me. But I’m pretty sure truth is not found in name calling and personal attacks.

    [CZ: I’m calling time out on this conversation.]

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