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Please note there are important policy and pricing changes for this season of lectures at Caltech. Please review these changes now.

SINCE 1992, the Skeptics Society has sponsored the Skeptics Distinguished Science Lecture Series at Caltech: a monthly lecture series at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA. Most lectures are available for purchase in audio & video formats. Watch several of our lectures for free online. Our next lecture is…

Dr. Kevin Dutton (photo by Robert Paul Williams)
The Wisdom of Psychopaths: What Saints, Spies, and Serial Killers Can Teach Us About Success

Sunday, October 28, 2012 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall

University of Oxford research psychologist Dr. Kevin Dutton reveals that there is a scale of “madness” along which we all sit. Incorporating the latest advances in brain scanning and neuroscience, Dutton demonstrates that the brilliant neurosurgeon who lacks empathy has more in common with a Ted Bundy who kills for pleasure than we may wish to admit, and that a mugger in a dimly lit parking lot may well, in fact, have the same nerveless poise as a titan of industry. Dutton argues that there are “functional psychopaths” among us—different from their murderous counterparts—who use their detached, unflinching, and charismatic personalities to succeed in mainstream society, and that shockingly, in some fields, the more “psychopathic” people are, the more likely they are to succeed. Dutton deconstructs this often misunderstood diagnosis through bold on-the-ground reporting and original scientific research as he mingles with the criminally insane in a high-security ward, shares a drink with one of the world’s most successful con artists, and undergoes transcranial magnetic stimulation to discover firsthand exactly how it feels to see through the eyes of a psychopath.

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Watch the Live Broadcast
(Sun., Oct. 28th @ 2pm Pacific)

Followed by…

    The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson
    Leads Us to the Edge of a New World

    Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 2 pm
    Baxter Lecture Hall

Read about the rest of
this season’s lectures


Politically Irrational: Subliminal Influences
Guide Our Voting Preferences

Why are we so influenced by such apparently trivial characteristics as voice and looks? In Michael Shermer’s October ‘Skeptic’ column for Scientific American, he discusses such cognitive shortcuts and subliminal influences.



Carl Sagan’s Crazy Train

Daniel Loxton considers a few of the thorny ethical issues at the intersection of scientific skepticism and mental health.



book cover

Sexual Brain Science

This week on Skepticality, Derek first sits down with Dr. Ginger Campbell to chat about her new book, Are You Sure? The Unconscious Origins of Certainty, to find out more about why it is difficult for any of us to be certain about many things. Then, Derek has a discussion with Joanne Hanks, the author of “It’s Not About The Sex” My Ass, about her journey deep into the world of fundamentalist Mormomism, and her move to becoming a skeptic and critical thinker.


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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, Donald R. Prothero reviews Rudolf A. Raff’s Once We All Had Gills: Growing Up Evolutionist in an Evolving World (Indiana University Press, 2012, ISBN 978-0253002358). Read Prothero’s bio after the article.

Foundation of a Founder of Evo-Devo

a book review by Donald R. Prothero

Autobiography is a popular genre in the publishing industry, but most are accounts of famous actors or politicians or other public figures. There are relatively few good examples of autobiographic accounts by important scientists (both past and present). Most scientists tend not to write autobiographical accounts of themselves, whether it be because they are too modest, too busy, or whether the ego-denying, self-effacing scientific culture which suppresses the first-person pronouns and the active voice (“the experiment was conducted by so-and-so’s lab”) makes us less than willing to talk about ourselves.

When an autobiographical account of a prominent scientist appears, it gives us important insights into the questions of how great scientists are made, as well as how they made their discoveries. Reading Darwin’s autobiography (even if he did modify some details) has been an important source regarding events and ideas led to his discovery of evolution by natural selection. Feynman’s autobiographical books (especially Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!) are laugh-out-loud funny as this brilliant misfit gives us his quirky view of the world, amazing his professors and colleagues, and playing tricks on Army security when he was working on the Atom Bomb in Los Alamos. E.O. Wilson’s autobiography Naturalist shows how his childhood love of collecting bugs in Alabama blossomed not only into a career as a world famous ant expert, but also to his insights about ecological biogeography and sociobiology. For historians of science, as well as people who want to understand what makes a great scientist, such rare first-person accounts are highly valuable.

Into this tradition comes Rudy Raff’s Once We All Had Gills: Growing Up Evolutionist in an Evolving World. For those who don’t recognize the name, Raff has been one of the leading figures in the fields of embryology, developmental biology, and their connection to evolution for the past 50 years. Spending most of his career at Indiana University in Bloomington, Raff made it into a center for research of the exploding field of evolutionary development (“evo-devo”), one of the hottest and fastest-growing areas in all of science. He is currently the James H. Rudy Professor of Biology at Indiana, Director of the Indiana Molecular Biology Institute, editor of the journal Evolution & Development, and also a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and winner of the 2004 Sewall Wright award. He is the author of many books, including three classics that laid the modern foundation for evo-devo. More importantly, Raff entered the field of evolutionary biology when it had become the neglected discipline of evolutionary theory, overshadowed by fruit-fly genetics during the birth of the Neo-Darwinian synthesis during the 1940s and 1950s. Due to the efforts of Raff and just a few others, embryology emerged from decades of being on the sidelines to become the cutting-edge field of science. Now the steady drumbeat of new discoveries about regulatory genes, homeoboxes, and many other major breakthroughs overshadow just about any other branch of biology.

Like many other scientists, Raff’s roots were affected by one of the key events in the history of science: Hitler’s persecution of Jewish scientists and other intellectuals, leading many of them (including Albert Einstein, Max Born, Hans Krebs, Erwin Schrödinger, Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, Enrico Fermi, Max Perutz, and many others) to flee to other countries. Germany was the leading scientific power of the early 20th century, with the most Nobel Prizes in science, but that status was reversed by a huge “brain drain” triggered by Hitler’s actions. Raff’s father, Rudolf August Victor Raff, had a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Vienna, but fled Austria in 1938 as the Anschluss loomed. He emigrated to Quebec, Canada, because he spoke better French than English, and got a temporary job with a Canadian chemical company. There he met a French-Canadian doctor’s daughter, Therese Dufresne, and they were married in 1939, which saved the Austrian refugee from being interned during the war.

The author describes his early childhood among his Dufresne relatives on Lac Souris near Shawinigan, Quebec, where he was a young child in the 1940s. He recalls at length his explorations of nature around the lake country of northern Quebec, where he acquired his love of natural history and a curiosity about animals and plants that never left him. Then in 1949 his father got a job at a chemical company in Pittsburgh, and young Rudy became enamored of the amazing dinosaur halls at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where he got to hang out in the halls and mingle with the curators. Meanwhile, he was pursuing a serious interest in natural history in western Pennsylvania, especially focusing on salamanders, spiders, and dragonflies, as well as collecting fossils in the region. He finished a major in chemistry at Penn State (B.A., 1963), then on to Duke where he got his doctorate in Biochemistry in 1967. He also met his wife Beth at Penn State during a visit there on break from Duke, and they were married in 1965. Raff recounts some of his many scientific expeditions to discover new species of animals, especially in Chiapas, Mexico, and makes it clear that he is more than a lab scientist, but a true naturalist.

In the late 1960s, Raff began doing post-doctoral work on sea urchin embryos in Paul Gross’ lab at MIT, where he was to make groundbreaking discoveries about development and embryos. In 1971, he was hired at Indiana, which was already a cutting-edge institution in molecular biology at that time. Over the following 40 years, his lab was at the center of the “evo-devo” revolution. Many of his former grad students and post-docs are now prominent scientists in their own right, carrying on the latest research. Raff himself not only participated in this research, but wrote three very influential books that summarized the understanding of development and evolution at the time they were written. These books introduced many generations of biologists to the importance of development and epigenetic change in evolution.

Throughout his lively account of his field exploits as a naturalist, and his lab discoveries as an embryologist, Raff also maintains a narrative of the political background that framed his career, from his early days as a child in Quebec during World War II to growing up in the U.S. during in the Cold War (he even did a short stint in the military, but they used his talents in radiation biology), to living in Cambridge during the height of the student revolt of the late 1960s. But the main underlying theme of the book is evolution, and Raff’s long career documenting how it occurs. Even though his primary training was in molecular biology, he maintained his interest in fossils, and often participated in important paleontological discoveries, or integrated their implications into his own research. His final chapters discuss the problem of American creationism, and its damaging effects on American science education and culture in general. In his own passionate way, he recounts the development of creationism, the events leading up to the 2005 Dover “intelligent design” trial, and then debunks many of the standard creationist arguments in his own unique way. Like many of my fellow scientific colleagues, it is a great mystery and a distressing fact to him that the myths of primitive Bronze Age shepherds can still retard scientific advances in a country that still leads the world in many areas of science—but almost 50% of its own population believes pure nonsense. His final chapter, “Evolution Matters,” is a rousing call to arms for scientists and educated Americans to stand up against the forces of creationism and science denialism, and not allow the United States to slide backwards and become a scientific backwater, as Hitler did to Germany in the 1930s.

The book has a wonderful cover painting of the “fishibian” Acanthostega climbing out of the water (painted by Raul Martin), which reminds us of the title: Once we all had gills. As biologists know, that title has two levels of meaning. Not only are we descended from gilled amphibians like Acanthostega and even earlier fish-like ancestors, but as embryos, we all had gill slits about 5 weeks after conception that we eventually lost. Both are pieces of our evolutionary past that remind us how important evolution is to understanding our origins.

Raff’s book is thus both a fascinating story of how a young boy interested in natural history became a scientist at the founding of the “evo-devo” revolution, and also a polemic arguing about the importance of science and its defense against the powers of ignorance. It is a lively read, no matter how much background you might have in biology, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in these topics, as well as those interested in scientific biography. END

About the Author of this Review

DR. DONALD R. PROTHERO was Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He earned M.A., M.Phil., and Ph.D. degrees in geological sciences from Columbia University in 1982, and a B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa) from the University of California, Riverside. He is currently the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 32 books and over 250 scientific papers, including five leading geology textbooks and five trade books as well as edited symposium volumes and other technical works. He is on the editorial board of Skeptic magazine, and in the past has served as an associate or technical editor for Geology, Paleobiology and Journal of Paleontology. He is a Fellow of the Geological Society of America, the Paleontological Society, and the Linnaean Society of London, and has also received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Science Foundation. He has served as the President and Vice President of the Pacific Section of SEPM (Society of Sedimentary Geology), and five years as the Program Chair for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. In 1991, he received the Schuchert Award of the Paleontological Society for the outstanding paleontologist under the age of 40. He has also been featured on several television documentaries, including episodes of Paleoworld (BBC), Prehistoric Monsters Revealed (History Channel), Entelodon and Hyaenodon (National Geographic Channel) and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (BBC). His website is: Check out Donald Prothero’s page at Shop Skeptic.

Recommended reading on evolution…
cover The Ancestor’s Tale
by Richard Dawkins

With unparalleled wit, clarity, and intelligence, Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s most renowned evolutionary biologists, has introduced countless readers to the wonders of science. In this book, Dawkins offers a masterwork: an exhilarating reverse tour through evolution, from present-day humans back to the microbial beginnings of life four billion years ago. Throughout the journey Dawkins spins entertaining, insightful stories and sheds light on topics such as speciation, sexual selection, and extinction. The Ancestor’s Tale is at once an essential education in evolutionary theory and a riveting read…

Order the book

cover Why Darwin Matters
by Michael Shermer

Evolution happened, and the theory describing it is one of the most well founded in all of science. Then why do half of all Americans reject it? In Why Darwin Matters, historian of science and bestselling author Michael Shermer examines what evolution really is, how we know it happened, and how to test it. Shermer clearly demonstrates how and why creationism and Intelligent Design theory are not science…

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cover Evolution: What the Fossils Say
and Why it Matters

by Dr. Donald Prothero

This book has received rave reviews. The 1st edition sold out in weeks. Get up to speed on the latest discoveries. One of the best books explaining evolution and new discoveries of the incredibly rich fossil record; plus a no holds barred critique of the claims of creationism and Intelligent Design. Over 200 illustrations.

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cover Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be
by Daniel Loxton

Can something as complex and wondrous as the natural world be explained by a simple theory? The answer is yes, and now Evolution explains how in a way that makes it easy to understand. This spectacularly illustrated introduction to the theory of evolution takes us from Charles Darwin to modern-day science. Along the way, Evolution answers common questions (and clears up misunderstandings) that sometimes confuse people about the history of life on Earth. Recommended for children ages 8–13. This book was the winner of the Lane Anderson Award for “Best Science Book for Young Readers” in 2010.

Order the book

cover The Greatest Show on Earth
by Richard Dawkins

This New York Times bestseller is a fierce counterattack against proponents of “Intelligent Design.” ID Creationism is being taught in schools and educators are being asked to “teach the controversy” behind evolutionary theory. There is no controversy! Dawkins sifts through rich layers of scientific evidence—from living examples of natural selection to clues in the fossil record; from natural clocks that mark the vast epochs wherein evolution ran its course to the intricacies of developing embryos; from plate tectonics to molecular genetics—to make the airtight case that “we find ourselves perched on one tiny twig in the midst of a blossoming and flourishing tree of life and it is no accident, but the direct consequence of evolution by non-random selection.”

Order the book

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