For A Good Time On the ‘Tubes: David Dobbs, Sociable Genes edition

Dear all,

A little late — but it’s that time of the month again.  I’ll be doing my regular gig as one of the hosts of Virtually Speaking Science this evening at 6 EDT — just a little more than two hours from now.

My guest this time is David Dobbs, a wonderful science writer and (full disclosure) a good friend.  David has been focusing on neuroscience, genes and behavior for some time now.  Some of you may recall his big Atlantic feature on “the orchid hypothesis.”  There, David wrote about a fascinating line of scientific research that, among much else, showed how subtle and powerful the interactions of genes and environment can be.  Nature or nurture, that old debate, turns out (in this and in many other good works) to be a much richer, and much less dichotomized point of inquiry.


Flash forward to now.  David has been working on a book, The Orchid and the Dandelion, to be published by Crown in 2015, that extends the ideas and arguments of that magazine feature into a nuanced (and very tricky to write) account of how scientists are now trying to piece together the gene-to-behavior chain.  Some of that work led to the essay he just published at one of the delightful new web-based venues for serious, long-form public intellection, The Pacific Standard.  In that piece, “The Social Life Of Genes,” David writes about fascinating work on the way experience affects gene expression — which both takes the nature-nurture interaction to new, much more ephemeral time scales (itself a delightful shocker, at least to me) and points to the way the extraordinary advances in genetic and genomic research have reached a peculiar moment.  We know vastly more than we ever have before about the informational content of life.  We have tools that allow us to observe intimate moments in the daily life of genes and attendant molecules.  But that knowledge has gone just far enough to demonstrate how much more complex, intricate and so far ill-deciphered the genetic view of life remains.  We know more — and yet that knowledge leaves us much less certain about how a lot of biology works than we thought we understood a decade ago.

Which, of course, is just great.  (Physicists would kill for such wide open spaces!)  We live in interesting times — which, as I hope this conversation will demonstrate, is not always an accursed thing.

Tune in:  audio and later podcast here.

Also — do check out David’s website. Lots of good stuff there, but I’d draw the attention of any writers (or devoted readers) to David’s links to good work, and to his own  and others’ fine analyses of writing craft.

Image:  Jacopo Bassano, Earthly Paradisec. 1573

34 replies
  1. 1
    tybee says:

    mmmm. science. thanks.

  2. 2
    Tommy says:

    nature-nurture. Oh now interesting I find that topic. My BA is in psychology, although I’ve never really used it. That nature-nurture often times came up in college and I think about it all the time. I mean am I so like my dad and grandfather cause of my genes or how I was raised (I think both BTW)?

    I find genes more of a pull as I get into my 40s. I used to sleep like a baby. Now I have terrible insomnia. Found out my mom was like me, but when she got to like 40 she couldn’t sleep “normal” anymore. Exact thing happened to me at the same age. Only good thing is when she is over there is somebody around me at strange hours up and about :).

  3. 3
    Steeplejack says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    We have tools that allow us to produce intimate moments in the daily life of genes and attendant molecules.

    “Reproduce”? If not that, what does this mean?

  4. 4
    Tom Levenson says:

    @Steeplejack: Brain fart. Now fixed.

  5. 5
    Yatsuno says:

    This sounds fun. I wish I wasn’t teaching a class at that same time.

  6. 6
    jl says:

    I will check it out.

    Just read a report about genetic ‘chimeras’, that is, many people have two distinct genomes, sometimes two complete sets of DNA, inside them. If I understood it correctly, it can range from just a small bit, say, genetic material a fetus leaves inside its mother, to a complete mix of two genomes when two fertilized egg cells merge together.

    That latter possibility raises questions that I hope leaves the life-begins-at-conception people busy for awhile counting angels on pinheads. Say two fertilized cells merge, do we have two souls in one person? Or was it MURDER of some kind? And if the latter, how can the parents, especially the mother, be punished?

    I’d like to know more about these chimeras. And hope I did not misunderstand something and commit a mistake above.

  7. 7
    Yatsuno says:

    Oh and Google Doodle. Go look. Naow.

    (it’s topical!)

  8. 8
    jl says:

    @Steeplejack: I thought it was debauched scientists making innocent genes do nasty things.

  9. 9
    jl says:

    Also, for us men, need an update on the Y chromosome falling apart.

    Have they found fix yet. I’ve been waiting for some infomercials for a secret chrome Y rejuvenator.

  10. 10
  11. 11

    @jl: @scav: If the NYT piece, (by Carl Zimmer) — David and I will certainly touch on that story. I’m not sure how deep we’ll dive in, but it’s part of the context of what I meant by the current richly fraught state of the field.

  12. 12
    Steeplejack says:


    Srsly. I was worried for a minute.

  13. 13
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Nature or nurture, that old debate, turns out (in this and in many other good works) to be a much richer, and much less dichotomized point of inquiry.

    So, how does this impact the Duke brothers and their high stakes gambling on the topic?

  14. 14

    @Villago Delenda Est: Orange you glad I’m not going to answer that question?

  15. 15
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    @Tom Levenson:

    Oh, well played! Well played!


  16. 16
  17. 17

    Serious thread needs kitteh, who wants cheezburgers, seriously.

  18. 18
    jl says:

    I look forward to preparatory stroll down memory lane on ‘jumping genes’, maybe with some snark about how that discovery proves women can’t be geniuses or make unexpected truly fundamental discoveries, because ‘genes’.

    Transposable element

  19. 19
    Tommy says:

    @jl: LOL. The men in my family (I am one of them) have all been very successful. But none of us thinks for a second that the women in our family are not the smartest and strongest folks around. I mean I am 44 and my mother still scares me.

  20. 20

    @jl: Larry Summers is that you?

    ETA: I know you are snarking…

  21. 21
    Mary G says:

    I’ve been wanting some new sites to look at and Pacific Standard looks great, thanks Tom.

  22. 22
    Tommy says:

    @schrodinger’s cat: I don’t have any kids, but my brother has this wonderful little girl. 4. She is being told she can be anything she wants. My favorite story is last year they drove from IL to FL to go to Disney World. Stopped at a Space Museum in AL. After a day at Disney World she asked to go back and see the rockets. My brother was like you go girl.

    BTW: Very happy Summers got kicked to the curb ….

  23. 23
    Bill E Pilgrim says:

    @Tom Levenson: Hmm, I don’t get it, but maybe if I concentrate I will.

  24. 24


    That latter possibility raises questions that I hope leaves the life-begins-at-conception people busy for awhile counting angels on pinheads.

    They should have had that problem already with identical twins, who split into two embryos from a single fertilized egg. But seriously, they aren’t really interested in science except as it confirms their existing biases.

  25. 25
    scav says:

    @Bill E Pilgrim: Or, it may drive you bananas. Be careful not to do that around bees, to loop back to the topic.

  26. 26
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Roger Moore:

    I saw a really fascinating story years ago on one of those dopey magazine shows where a couple had identical quadruplets — as far as doctors could tell, the fertilized egg had split, and then both halves split a second time, so they ended up with four identical girls. I think they had only identified something like 10 other instances in the world.

    So, what, each girl only has 25% of a soul?

  27. 27
    WereBear says:

    @Mnemosyne: That’s fascinating. The Dionne Quints started as a single egg.

  28. 28
    Amir Khalid says:

    Aren’t they the ones Yatsuno says are his distant relatives?

  29. 29
    WereBear says:

    @Amir Khalid: I didn’t know that… but there certainly wasn’t anyone like them to be confused with.

  30. 30


    Just like an armadillo, then. Oddly, 9-banded armadillos naturally have identical quadruplets as their standard litter. Zoologists have theorized that this is one of those odd evolutionary quirks. Some ancestor of the armadillo had a slow reproductive cycle with single births, and evolved a simple uterus that can only hold a single placenta. When a later ancestor could benefit from a faster reproductive rate, they evolved a tendency to have identical offspring.

  31. 31
    WereBear says:

    The first cloned cat was a calico… and her clone was a calico, too. Only, the patches were in different places.

    Nature & nurture, indeed! And proof of my assertion that every cat has a unique personality :)

  32. 32


    The first cloned cat was a calico… and her clone was a calico, too. Only, the patches were in different places.

    That’s because calico patterns are a product of X chromosome silencing. The gene that controls the hair color in cats is on the X chromosome, which is why almost all calico and tortoiseshell cats are female; they’re the only ones with two copies of the gene, so they’re they only ones that can be heterozygous*. But each cell has only one copy of the X chromosome active; the other copy gets permanently shut down. This step of shutting down one copy of the X chromosome (X silencing) happens after several rounds of cell division, and it happens randomly. Each cell where it happens has an equal chance of each copy of the X chromosome being turned off, but all the cells that descend from it will have the same copy inactivated. The result (in calico cats) is a blotchy pattern of some black fur and some red fur, but the exact pattern is an artifact of development rather than genetics.

    *Males can have both genes, but only with some kind of abnormality like being a chimera, mosaic, or having genitals that don’t match their chromosomes.

  33. 33
    WereBear says:

    @Roger Moore: Delightfully random! Thanks.

    Another thing they all have is the famous ‘tude.

  34. 34


    I happen to know a fair amount about X inactivation because it’s a long-term research topic at my institution. Calico patterns are a really great example because they’re something that ordinary people have encountered and they’re an obvious, visible sign of something that would otherwise require sophisticated molecular biology to see.

Comments are closed.