All posts filed under: Biology

The Fear and Fantasy of COVID-19 Vaccination

This article has been expanded and adapted from prepared remarks delivered at the Researchers.One panel “The Science and Social Impact of COVID-19 Vaccines” on March 25th, 2021. The current state of COVID-19 vaccine administration in the United States, with its high levels of vaccine hesitancy and skepticism, can be explained by a model composed of three layers of interconnected system(s) malfunction. Disconnect between scientists’ interests and the public’s concerns, the erosion of trust in the peer review process, and politicization of “narrative” around the novel coronavirus. The stakes for a strong and legitimate public health response have not been higher in our lifetime. With novel coronavirus strains on the way to becoming endemic globally, it is crucial that we re-evaluate our systems and institutions with an eye to making the improvements necessary for robust coordinated operation in the future. Layer one: scientific interest vs. general interest There is an asymmetry between the interests and incentives of the scientific community and those of the lay public. Scientists maintain a culture in which claims without evidence are …

Diversity, Inclusion, and Academic Freedom: The Case of Gender Biology

Our university recently circulated an email message, the contents of which I found somewhat strange. Or rather, I might have found it strange had I spent the past decade or two in a coma. The message was a carefully worded reflection on how academic freedom can be reconciled with the university’s updated and strengthened policies of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Although it strategically avoided specifics, one might justifiably infer that academic freedom presents some kind of threat to DEI. As I understand it, academic freedom means that what we publish and what we teach need only be judged for relevance and for support by the evidence base. In addition, it now appears that research must be compatible with institutional priorities. Less clear is where exactly these two guiding principles are expected to clash. In an attempt to understand this, I will reflect on a recent experience that may shed some light here. I am a paediatric endocrinologist, with teaching duties in the Department of Paediatrics (cross-appointment in Human Genetics), at McGill University in Montréal. …

Taboo: Why Is Africa the Global COVID ‘Cold Spot’ and Why Are We Afraid to Talk About It?

The first COVID-19 case in Africa was confirmed on February 14th, 2020, in Egypt. The first in sub-Saharan Africa appeared in Nigeria soon after. Health officials were united in a near-panic about how the novel coronavirus would roll through the world’s second most populous continent. By mid-month, the World Health Organization (WHO) listed four sub-Saharan countries on a “Top 13” global danger list because of direct air links to China. Writing for the Lancet, two scientists with the Africa Center for Disease Control outlined a catastrophe in the making: With neither treatment nor vaccines, and without pre-existing immunity, the effect [of COVID-19] might be devastating because of the multiple health challenges the continent already faces: rapid population growth and increased movement of people; existing endemic diseases… re-emerging and emerging infectious pathogens… and others; and increasing incidence of non-communicable diseases. Many medical professionals predicted that Africa could spin into a death spiral. “My advice to Africa is to prepare for the worst, and we must do everything we can to cut the root problem,” Tedros Adhanom …

Accommodating Trans Athletes Without Rejecting the Reality of Human Biology

“As a social psychologist, I understand why using women’s sports to argue against transgender rights works,” tweeted behavioral scientist Matt Wallaert this week. “But it is tough to imagine a more morally bankrupt position: ‘I’m going to make you sit in a gender that doesn’t fit you so my daughter can win her soccer game.’” And when that tweet predictably attracted scathing criticism, he doubled down on his claim that women need to do their part in accommodating trans rights by becoming more graceful losers: “This really is it: I’d rather teach my kid how to lose well than how to win through oppression.” Walleart, best known for a Malcolm-Gladwellian 2019 business book called Start at the End: How to Build Products That Create Change, describes his approach as “a science-based process to create behavior change.” And so he offers a fitting stand-in for all the many other grandiloquent progressives who posture as rigorous scientists, even as they demand that sports leagues cast aside the plain biological reality of sexual dimorphism. The condescending, more-disappointed-than-angry tone …

National Borders are Not Going Away

Editor’s note: This essay is adapted from a passage in Mark Moffett’s book, The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall (Basic Books, 2019).   A great songwriter once asked us to imagine a world without countries. Could our societies ever willingly eliminate their borders and come together as one? All evidence indicates the dreamer John Lennon had been imagining the unattainable. Certainly, among other species, fusion of healthy societies is vanishingly rare. Chimpanzee societies, called communities, exemplify this: the only “mergers” strain that word’s meaning. Primatologist Frans de Waal tells me that captive chimps from different sources can be integrated into one community, but such a merger is a nightmare for zookeepers that requires months of careful introductions, with bloody skirmishes along the way. Meanwhile, the bonobo, an easygoing relative of the more xenophobic chimp, has an aptitude for befriending strangers. That allows individuals who have not met before to forge a new community from scratch with comparatively little fuss. Yet in both apes such arrang­ed societies are artifacts of confinement where, …

On Sex and Gender, The New England Journal of Medicine Has Abandoned Its Scientific Mission

Two years ago, “Titania McGrath,” whose satirical Twitter account regularly skewers the ideological excesses of social-justice culture, suggested that “we should remove biological sex from birth certificates altogether to prevent any more mistakes.” The joke (obvious to those who follow the culture wars closely, but perhaps obscure to those who don’t) was directed at gender activists who insist that male and female designations “assigned at birth” are misleading (and even dangerous), since they may misrepresent a person’s true “gender identity”—that internally felt soul-like quality that supposedly transcends such superficial physical indicia as gonads and genitalia. But the line between satire and sincerity has become blurry on this issue. Last Thursday, the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), widely considered to be the world’s most prestigious medical journal, published an article entitled Failed Assignments—Rethinking Sex Designations on Birth Certificates, arguing that (in the words of the abstract) “sex designations on birth certificates offer no clinical utility, and they can be harmful for intersex and transgender people.” The resemblance to Titania McGrath’s 2018-era Twitter feed is uncanny. …

Like It Or Not, Keira Bell Has Opened Up a Real Conversation About Gender Dysphoria

“I look back with a lot of sadness,” says Keira Bell. “There was nothing wrong with my body. I was just lost and without proper support. Transition gave me the facility to hide from myself even more than before. It was a temporary fix.” In the debate about transitioning children who experience gender dysphoria, Ms. Bell’s case represents an important turning point. Ms. Bell, now 23, was 16 years old when she presented to the Tavistock Centre in London, which runs Britain’s Gender Identity Development Service. In a landmark ruling delivered earlier this month, a British court upheld her claim that she’d been rushed through gender reassignment without proper safeguards. In addition to receiving treatments that left her with facial hair and a deep voice, Ms. Bell had a double mastectomy at age 20, and now faces a host of possible long-term side-effects, including infertility. As a result of the court’s judgment, Tavistock has suspended referrals for puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones for young patients. Treatment will remain available, but new cases now will be …

On the Cusp of a Vaccine—and a Historic Scientific Triumph

More than a century separated the first wave of Spanish flu in 1918 from the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020. Yet as Nicholas Christakis writes in his new book, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live, there are people who’ve been laid low by both plagues, and even lived to tell the tale. These include Marilee Harris, who caught the Spanish flu as a six-year-old child in Chicago. She survived, then a century passed—during which time she became a sculptor, got married (twice), wrote a book about her life, and moved to Washington, DC, where, still a working artist at age 107, she was hospitalized with COVID-19. Doctors called her daughter with the grave news that she only had hours to live. (The COVID-19 death rate for those aged 85 and over is estimated to be 630 times higher than for young adults.) Amazingly, she survived, went home, and lived another five months before passing away on September 11th. As Christakis shows, there are some aspects of …

The Evolutionary History of Man’s Best Friend Revealed

Man and dog share a long history. In much of the world, a history as old as humanity. The latest genetic evidence now tells us that the emergence of the domestic dog lineage occurred soon after the human expansion out of Africa 50,000 years ago, in the depths of the last Ice Age. We came. We saw. And we befriended. This we knew, but now we can closely examine how. A paper out today in Science uses 27 ancient dog genomes from the past 11,000 years to construct an evolutionary history nearly as rich as that produced by human population geneticists over the last decade. The authors found five lineages of ancient dogs that were present at the end of the last Ice Age. These were the dogs that interacted with human migrations during the rise of agriculture and the fall of civilizations to produce the riotous dog diversity that we know today. Familiar breeds like the Pekingese and the St. Bernard, as well as stray Asian village mutts, they’re all the products of a …

Keeping Male Bodies Out of Women’s Rugby

From November 2015 until February 2020, World Rugby, rugby’s global governing body, incorporated guidelines established by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on transgender participation in sports. According to these rules, males who wish to self-identify into women’s rugby could do so if they committed to reducing their testosterone levels to 10 nmol per liter or lower for at least 12 months. (The average level for men is about seven times that level.) During this period, instances of biological males playing in the women’s game increased, and some participants began to express alarm. One rugby referee posted on the website Fair Play for Women, for instance, that “being forced to prioritize hurt feelings over broken bones exposes me to personal litigation from female players who have been harmed by players who are biologically male. This is driving female players and referees out of the game.” Another wrote, “I volunteer my time to officiate matches because I love my sport. But I won’t continue much longer if I have stay quiet about the unfairness I see on …