Wednesday, August 31, 2005

ENV: Chimp DNA in Nature

Scientists decode chimp DNA
Findings shed light on human biology

NEW YORK (AP) -- Scientists have deciphered the DNA of the chimpanzee, the closest living relative of humankind, and made comprehensive comparisons with the human genetic blueprint.

It is a step toward finding a biological answer to a key question: What makes us human?

There are no firm answers yet about how humans picked up key traits such as walking upright and developing complex language. But the work has produced a long list of DNA differences with the chimp and some hints about which ones might be crucial.

"We've got the catalog, now we just have to figure it out," said Dr. Robert Waterston of the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle. "It's not going to be one gene. It's going to be an accumulation of changes."

He is senior author of one of several related papers appearing in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature and being published online Thursday by the journal Science.

In the papers, Waterston presents a draft of the newly deciphered sequence of the chimp genome, in which an international team of researchers identified virtually all the roughly 3 billion building blocks of chimp DNA.

"It's a huge deal," said Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, which provided some support for the project. "We now have the instruction book of our closest relative."

He said the work will help scientists analyze human DNA for roots of disease.

While the DNA comparisons do not firmly identify specific differences that played a big role in producing humans, they do indicate promising areas, said Bruce Lahn, who studies human evolution genetics at the University of Chicago but did not participate in the project. Lahn said the research refutes a few previous ideas while providing new and better evidence for others.

Humans and chimps have evolved separately since splitting from a common ancestor about 6 million years ago, and their DNA remains highly similar -- about 96 percent to almost 99 percent identical, depending on how the comparison is made.

Still, the number of genetic differences between a human and a chimp is about 10 times more than between any two humans, the federal genome institute says. It is the differences -- some 40 million -- that attract the attention of scientists.

Waterston and colleagues, for example, looked for genes that apparently have changed more quickly in humans than in chimps or rodents, indicating they might have been particularly important in human evolution. They found evidence of rapid change in some genes that regulate the activity of other genes, telling them when and in what tissues to become active, for example.

It would make sense that changes in these regulatory genes could have a broad impact on how organisms develop, playing a key role in human evolution, Waterston said.

With help from the chimp DNA, his team also uncovered several regions of human DNA that apparently contain beneficial genetic changes that spread rapidly among humans within the past 250,000 years. One area contains a gene called FOXP2, which previous work has suggested is involved in acquiring speech.

Svante Paabo of the Max Planck institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and colleagues report in the Science paper that genes active in the brain have changed more in the human lineage than in the chimp lineage. That was not the case for genes from other organs such as the heart and liver.

In a telephone interview, Paabo said that in general, "I'm still sort of taken aback by how similar humans and chimps are" in their DNA. "I'm still amazed, when I see how special humans are and how we have taken over this planet, that we don't find stronger evidence for a huge difference in our genomes."

He said he believes the key differences between the species will prove to be subtle things such as patterns of gene activity and how proteins interact.

In fact, Waterston and co-authors said they hoped documenting the overall similarity of chimp and human genomes will encourage action to save chimps and other great apes in the wild:

"We hope that elaborating how few differences separate our species will broaden recognition of our duty to these extraordinary primates that stand as our siblings in the family of life."


Chimp genetic code opens human frontiers
Genome comparison reveals many similarities — and crucial differences
By Alan Boyle, Science editor, MSNBC, Updated: 3:27 p.m. ET Aug. 31, 2005

Scientists unleashed a torrent of studies comparing the genetic coding for humans and chimpanzees on Wednesday, reporting that 96 percent of our DNA sequences are identical. Even more intriguingly, the other 4 percent appears to contain clues to how we became different from our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, they said.

"We're really looking at an individual evolutionary event, and this is spectacular," said University of Washington geneticist Robert Waterston, senior author of a study in the journal Nature presenting the draft of the chimpanzee genome.

The achievement should lead to discoveries with implications for human health, including new approaches to treating age-old diseases, said Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute.

"As we build upon the foundation laid by the Human Genome Project, it's become clear that comparing the human genome with the genomes of other organisms is an enormously powerful tool for understanding our own biology," he said in a written statement.

The chimpanzee genetic blueprint is the result of a multimillion-dollar effort involving 67 researchers from the United States, Israel, Italy, Germany and Spain. In addition to that blueprint, more than a dozen other related reports are being published this week in Nature and two other scientific journals, Science and Genome Research.

Among the highlights from the analyses:

Small but crucial differences: The researchers said the results confirmed the common evolutionary origin of humans and chimpanzees. Out of the 3 billion base pairs in the DNA coding for chimps and humans, about 35 million show single-base differences, and another 5 million DNA sites are different because of insertions or deletions of genetic code. Waterston estimated that 1 million of those coding changes are responsible for the functional differences between humans and chimps — thus defining our humanness.

Six new genetic frontiers: Scientists identified six regions of our DNA that appear to have evolved dramatically over the past 250,000 years — including a "gene desert" that may play a role in nervous system development and also has been linked to obesity. They said a seventh region that showed notable change contains the FOXP2 gene, which already has been linked to speech in humans.

Brain genes key: A comparison of gene expression in various tissues indicated that most of the genetic changes occurring during the evolution of chimps and humans had neither a positive nor a negative effect. However, the testes in the males of both species showed strong evidence of a positive effect. Also, genes active in the brain showed much more accumulated change in humans than in chimps — suggesting that those genes played a special role in human evolution.

Primates' risky business: Scientists compared the chimp and human genomes with those of mice and rats, and found that both primates carried a greater amount of potentially harmful genetic coding. They speculated that such coding may have made primates more prone to genetic diseases, but also more adaptable to environmental changes.

Clues to diseases: The genomes contained hints that the chimpanzee genetic code has been attacked more frequently than humans by retroviral elements — such as those present in the HIV virus. Scientists also noted key differences between the genomes that may affect susceptibility to viruses, the workings of the immune system and the progression of diabetes and Alzheimer's disease in humans.

The researchers emphasized that the studies raised more questions than answers, and that it would take years to decipher the meaning behind differences in genetic coding.

For example, although six new regions of rapid evolutionary change have been identified, "we don't know what natural selection in these regions acted upon," said Tarjei Mikkelsen, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was the first listed author for the chimp genome study.

But Waterston said the "really big picture" is that geneticists can now focus on the small percentage of DNA coding that is peculiar to humans, and figure out how that coding works.

"We're probably down to a million or so changes in the human genome that are even candidates for being the changes that have made us human," he told MSNBC.com. "So it's fun and exciting to be looking at nature's lab notebook like this."

How the job was done
The chimpanzee genome is only the fourth mammalian genetic sequence to be deciphered, following up on humans, mice and rats.

The DNA used to create the sequence came from the blood of a male chimpanzee named Clint at the Yerkes National Primate Center in Atlanta. Clint died last year from heart failure, at the relatively young age of 24, but two of his cell lines have been preserved for medical research.

Clint's genetic coding was analyzed using the same type of "whole-genome shotgun" approach that produced drafts of the human genome beginning in 2001. Most of the work of sequencing and assembling the chimp genome was done at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

As expected, of the coding that was common to both human and chimp genomes, 99 percent was identical. Researchers found that an additional 1.5 percent of the human DNA coding was not found in chimps, and 1.5 percent of the chimp coding was missing in humans — bringing the total difference between the two genomes to 4 percent.

In comparison, the genetic codes of two typical humans are only 0.1 percent different. On the other hand, the difference is 10 percent for mice vs. rats, and 60 percent for humans vs. mice.

Darwin's claim confirmed
Researchers said the chimp/human comparison served as the most dramatic confirmation yet of Charles Darwin's claim in 1871 that humans and chimpanzees had a common ancestor.

"I couldn't imagine Darwin hoping for a stronger confirmation of his ideas than when we see the comparison of the human and chimpanzee genome," Waterston told reporters during a Washington news conference.

The researchers also used the chimp genome as a new reference point for judging how rapidly various areas of genetic code have changed: Waterston said it appeared that genes linked to the wiring of the nervous system and the perception of sound changed particularly quickly in primates, compared with other mammals.

As for genetic changes that are peculiar to humans, the "most intriguing" one involves transcription factors, the proteins responsible for controlling the expression of other genes, Waterston said. Scientists believe that tweaks in transcription factors may spark rapid evolutionary change, even though the genes they control are relatively unchanged — just as the same classical melody can sound dramatically different when given a jazz interpretation.

How has the brain changed?
A separate study, published by Science, looked at how genes were expressed in the brain, heart, liver, kidney and testes of chimpanzees and humans. That study found that the brain showed the least differences between species, while the liver showed the most.

Those findings may seem to go against the idea that brain development was crucial to the emergence of modern humans, but the senior author behind that study, Svante Paabo of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, told MSNBC.com that the results were in line with evolutionary theory. He said the coding for the brain is complex and highly constrained — meaning that too much change would impair brain activity — while the coding for a "simple" organ such as the liver could vary more without having a negative impact.

"However, even given these constraints, we see that something special have gone on with the function of the brain in human ancestors," Paabo said in an e-mail message, "since if we compare how much change occurred in human ancestors versus in chimp ancestors, more change happened in our ancestors than in the ancestors of the chimps in genes expressed in the brain."

Paabo is well-known for his study of the FOXP2 gene, the "language gene," and he said that further analyses of the chimpanzee genome were likely to turn up additional genes that are responsible for characteristics peculiar to humans.

Broader perspectives
For his part, Waterston said the genome analysis brought a broader perspective to the question of what makes us so different from chimpanzees.

"You have to think about it the other way: Are we really as different from chimps as we think? And I think the basic conclusion has to be that we are not," he told MSNBC.com. "What we see as profound differences are actually somewhat superficial: We walk upright and they don't. We have less hair and they have more. We have more complicated brains. These are fine tuning. ... The challenge will be to figure out what the critical differences are."

He also said the studies should change the way we look at chimps as well as the way we look at humans.

"Chimps in the wild have to be a concern," he said. "The environment is being degraded and encroached upon greatly, and chimps are extremely threatened in the wild. To watch this happen to something that's so similar to us has to be a concern."

First-ever chimpanzee fossils found
Discovery raises questions about human evolution
By Bjorn Carey, LiveScience, Updated: 2:59 p.m. ET Aug. 31, 2005

The first-ever chimpanzee fossils were recently discovered in an area previously thought to be unsuitable for chimps. Fossils from human ancestors were also found nearby.

Although researchers have only found a few chimp teeth, the discovery could cause a shake-up in the theories of human evolution.

“We know today if you go to western and central Africa that humans and chimps live in similar and neighboring environments,” said Nina Jablonski, an anthropologist at the California Academy of Sciences. “This is the first evidence in the fossil record that they coexisted in the same place in the past.”

It had previously been thought that chimps never lived in the arid Rift Valley — they prefer more lush environments like the Congo and jungles of western Africa. For years, scientists believed that early human ancestors left the jungles and moved east to the less wooded grasslands, and that this move caused the evolutionary split between the human and chimp lines.

But now, with the discovery of ancient chimps and humans in the same area, evolutionists may have to rethink what caused humans to become humans.

“For many years people have used this kind of geographic split in environment as an explanation as an origin of humans and bipedalism,” co-author Sally McBrearty of the University of Connecticut told LiveScience. “People have still retained this idea of a split geographic distribution of chimps and humans. This shows it certainly wasn’t true half a million years ago, and may not have been true before that. We need to look for another reason for the evolutionary split.”

Only the teeth survive
One of the more frustrating aspects of paleontology is that full skeletons are very infrequently preserved — especially in jungle environments, where soil acidity and scavengers destroy or eat bones that could otherwise become fossils.

Teeth, on the other hand, more frequently survive. They’re coated with thick enamel, which protects them from chemical attacks and makes them less desirable for hungry scavengers.

“Teeth are the part of the body that gets preserved most frequently,” McBrearty said. “All things being equal, you’re more likely to find teeth than anything else.”

Half a million years ago, the Rift Valley was likely more moist and wooded than it is today. But since that time, the lake shore that the chimps and other animals called home has dried up, creating conditions good for preserving fossils.

Researchers dug up three teeth — two incisors and one molar. Although these teeth were mixed in with fossils of many other animals, they quite definitely belonged to a chimp.

“Chimp teeth are actually very distinctive, because compared to human teeth, molars for instance, they have very, very low crowns,” Jablonski said. “The incisor teeth at the front of the jaw are also very distinctive. They’re triangular and very thick — much thicker than the same tooth in a human.”

They also found fossilized remains of fish, hippopotami, antelopes, cane rats, buffalos, monkeys and other moisture-loving animals. Based on the presence of these animals, researchers determined the area used to be much different.

“We know two things. First, chimps were once more widely distributed. And second, these environments have changed dramatically in the last half-million years,” Jablonski said. “The chimps and all the other forest-loving animals that lived with them became extinct, locally, because of this change.”

Human ancestors nearby
Hominid fossils were also discovered less than a half-mile (1 kilometer) from the lake shore where the chimp fossils were buried. More importantly, they were found in sediments of the same age as the chimp teeth — about half a million years old.

Although not modern humans, these hominids were fairly advanced, as evidenced by the wide variety of stone tools they used.


“These represent an earlier species of human, relatives to modern humans, but not Homo sapiens,” Jablonski said. “There’s some controversy over what this species is called. Most would call it an advanced form of Homo erectus. They looked like people and were a fairly sophisticated culture with various stone tools and lived in the same environment as humans.”

The discovery of ancient chimps and humans living in the same area opens the door to many questions. More teeth, and perhaps even bones, may lie in the Rift Valley sediments, and finding them could help answer these questions.

“I’m going back to look for the rest,” McBrearty said.

These findings are detailed in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

ENV: Regenerating Mice

'Miracle mouse' can grow back lost limbs
Jonathan Leake, Science Editor, TimesOnline.com, August 28, 2005

SCIENTISTS have created a “miracle mouse” that can regenerate amputated limbs or badly damaged organs, making it able to recover from injuries that would kill or permanently disable normal animals.

The experimental animal is unique among mammals in its ability to regrow its heart, toes, joints and tail.

The researchers have also found that when cells from the test mouse are injected into ordinary mice, they too acquire the ability to regenerate.

The discoveries raise the prospect that humans could one day be given the ability to regenerate lost or damaged organs, opening up a new era in medicine.

Details of the research will be presented next week at a scientific conference on ageing, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, at Cambridge University. Ellen Heber-Katz, professor of immunology at the Wistar Institute, an American biomedical research centre, says that the ability of mice at her laboratory to regenerate appears to be controlled by about a dozen genes.

She is still researching their exact functions, but it seems almost certain that humans have comparable genes.

“We have experimented with amputating or damaging several different organs, such as the heart, toes, tail and ears, and just watched them regrow,” she said. “It is quite remarkable. The only organ that did not grow back was the brain.

“When we injected foetal liver cells taken from those animals into ordinary mice, they too gained the power of regeneration. We found this persisted even six months after the injection.”

Heber-Katz made her discovery when she noticed that the identification holes that scientists punch in the ears of experimental mice healed without any signs of scarring.

The self-healing mice, from a strain known as MRL, were then subjected to a series of surgical procedures. In one the mice had their toes amputated — but the digits grew back, complete with joints.

In another test some of the tail was cut off but also regenerated. Then the researchers used a cryoprobe to freeze parts of the animals’ hearts, only to see these grow back again. A similar phenomenon was observed when the optic nerve was severed and the liver partially destroyed.

Heber-Katz will describe some of her findings at the Cambridge conference and plans to publish her results in a research paper. “We have found that the MRL mouse seems to have a higher rate of cell division,” she said. “Its cells live and die faster and get replaced faster. That seems to be linked to the ability to regenerate.”

The researchers suspect that the same genes could confer greater longevity and are measuring the animals’ survival rate. The mice are, however, only 18 months old and the normal lifespan is two years so it is too early to reach conclusions.

Scientists have long known that less complex creatures have an impressive ability to regenerate. Many fish and amphibians can regrow internal organs or even whole limbs.

Humans can regenerate their liver provided at least a quarter remains intact, as well as their blood and outer skin, but no other organs regrow.

This is probably because, although most mammalian cells start off with the potential to develop into any cell type, they soon become very specialised. This allows mammals to develop more complex brains and bodies but deprives them of the power of regeneration.

By contrast, if a newt loses a limb then cells around the injury revert back into so-called stem cells. These can develop into whatever types of cell are needed, including bone, skin or nerves.

EDU: The George Lucas Foundation

Taking a Light Saber to Tired Old Teaching
By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN, The New York Times, August 31, 2005

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. - IN a spare bathroom next to the garage, George Lucas set up his darkroom. He had gotten a 35-millimeter camera about the same time he started high school, and had begun shooting everything from posed portraits of his niece and nephew to trick photos of the family cat, lured into midair by a dangling piece of meat. Before long, he was making backyard war movies on an 8-millimeter handed down by his grandfather.

Anybody who lived near the Lucas place, 14 miles outside of Modesto in California's Central Valley, recognized these ventures as the latest expressions of a quiet boy's creativity. George had already written a weekly newspaper, designed landscapes around his Lionel train set and built a dollhouse for a neighbor girl, scaled right down to a lamp made of a lipstick tube.

Little of this precocity, though, revealed itself in school. A bored, dreamy student, George had struggled with spelling and needed to repeat math the summer after eighth grade. His high school art teacher, looking over George's drawings of space soldiers, admonished him, "Get serious." George's father refused to pay for him to study illustration in college, hoping instead he would take over the family's office-furniture store.

The filmgoing world knows how this particular story ends. George Lucas, the underachieving teenager, grew up to become George Lucas, the phenomenally successful director, auteur of the "Star Wars" series, "Indiana Jones" and "American Graffiti." Maybe his experience tricking the cat into jumping was an early lesson in how to treat actors.

Except that the story has another prong, far less known, and tied to public policy rather than popular culture. Out of his own uninspiring education, the conviction that his abilities were ignored and throttled by conventional schooling, Mr. Lucas, 61, has assiduously yet quietly built a foundation devoted to education reform over the past dozen years.

This is no exercise in designer charity. The George Lucas Educational Foundation has 30 full-time employees, a $4 million annual budget and a headquarters on the founder's Skywalker Ranch here in the Marin County hills. It publishes a magazine, produces documentaries, supports projects in both public and private schools, distributes an e-mail newsletter and maintains an extensive Web site, glef.org.

All these enterprises espouse a consistent message firmly in the progressive camp, emphasizing the virtues of hands-on field work, practical experience and the use of film, video and digital materials in preference to the usual textbooks and standardized tests.

To hear Mr. Lucas tell it, though, his preferred innovations are in many ways throwbacks. "Our platform is to say that there are time-tested ways of learning," he said in an interview earlier this summer. "Aristotle taught four or five people; he didn't have huge classes. Or you have the mentoring system - the cobbler teaching his assistants. Whether it's Aristotle or learning how to make shoes, you had a reason to learn. Education didn't happen in isolation. Maybe for the very elite, you can learn for the sake of learning. But for millions of students to learn, you need to know why you're learning."

To make those general precepts concrete, the Lucas foundation identifies and illustrates examples from the real world - a teacher in California who uses hip-hop lyrics as a route for his students to understand poets like Dylan Thomas; a school in Washington that makes the field study of rare lizards a way of teaching such fundamental subjects as reading, writing and math.

The fierce passion the Lucas foundation brings to its program has much to do with geography. From his base in the Bay Area, Mr. Lucas had early and deep involvement with the innovators of the Silicon Valley. His staff at the foundation includes veterans of Wired and Red Herring magazines, the public radio station KQED-FM and the Web zine Salon, all of which both chronicled and participated in the digital revolution, and these people's certitude echoes the high-tech industry's mantra of evolve or die.

"We grew up or worked in an area where change is encouraged, where innovation is encouraged, where entrepreneurship is nurtured," said James Daly, the editor in chief of Edutopia, the Lucas foundation's magazine. "And that's not the way it's been in education. If you feel like you're a hamster on the wheel all day, it's easy to stay that way. But when you get to the change agents, the rock does begin to roll uphill."

Largely female, married and middle-aged, not necessarily a recipe for the cutting edge, Edutopia's 85,000 subscribers actually use technology - e-mail, bulletin boards, listservs - more avidly than teenagers, according to a survey by Grunwald Associates. They perceive themselves as influential on educational issues, even if only in their own classrooms or communities. And by an overwhelming margin, they assail the reliance on standardized tests mandated by the No Child Left Behind law.

To its credit, the Lucas foundation stops short of being tendentious, the captive of its own doctrine. Its agenda reflects not only Mr. Lucas's frustrations with his own education (at least until he entered film school at the University of Southern California) but a very deep family commitment to the field. His parents, both denied college by the Great Depression, presided over a household awash in National Geographics, World Almanac volumes, Landmark histories and biographies, crossword puzzles, all those elements of recreational self-education.

MR. LUCAS's older sister, Kate Nyegaard, has served since 1992 on the school board in Modesto, which has a heavily Latino, bilingual student body. His younger sister, Wendy Lucas, has taught reading in various California schools, some public and some Christian, for 22 years. They are reality checks for the foundation, Mrs. Nyegaard in a formal way as a member of its board.

While Edutopia publishes articles that can only send a chill through a devotee of the written word - "No Books, No Problem," read the headline of an article about a chemistry teacher who devises a curriculum without a text - it has also trumpeted the advantages of a longer school year. One of its finest articles profiled a class in St. Johnsbury, Vt., whose teacher had been deployed to Iraq; another trenchantly explored the plight of biology instructors under pressure to add "intelligent design" to their courses.

Even as an exponent of progressive education, Mr. Lucas himself has not escaped the long arm of standardized testing. There is a short essay about him written for fourth graders called "A Talented Young Man." It appears in a Steck-Vaughn test-prep book.

COM: On Bad Science and Racism

The first two articles of a series from Eric Alterman's Altercation Blog on MSNBC:

This is Part I:

Anyway, today’s entry concerns Murray’s first work, “Losing Ground.”

Perhaps the most successful publishing foray into the world of ideas by a combination of right wing funders and their compatriot intellectuals is the amazing public relations achievement undertaken on behalf of the work of the formerly obscure Charles Murray. How many 800 plus page nonfiction books featuring over a hundred pages of graphs and source materials have managed to sell upwards of 300,000 copies in hardcover in recent years? How many have inspired Vanity Fair-type celebrity coverage in virtually all major news magazines, as well as a special issue of the New Republic, which featured no fewer than seventeen responses? How many authors of such books have been featured in major Hollywood films, carried by characters wishing to demonstrate intellectual toughness? [1] The answer to all of the above is precisely one: Murray’s The Bell Curve. [2] Back in 1982, however, Charles Murray, was still a “nobody” in the words of William Hammett, president of the Manhattan Institute, and about to be Murray’s chief patron. Murray’s ascendancy would never have been possible without the patient, far-sighted investments in his work by a conservative network of funders and foundations, including the reclusive billionaire, Richard Mellon Scaife, the Olin Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and perhaps most significantly, Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation. They not only supported Murray when he needed time to research and write his books, they funded elaborate publicity campaigns to ensure that Murray’s argument would dominate media discourse.

The story of Charles Murray’s rise in just one decade from being a public nobody to being America’s best known and perhaps most influential public intellectual is an odd but instructive tale with regard to just how easily conservatives can manipulate the SCLM, and legitimate views once considered unspeakable in polite society. As a writer, Murray displayed an uncanny ability to offer what appeared to be a reasonable and scholarly-sounding voice to opinions and arguments that had hitherto been considered beyond the pale of respectability. Indeed he has been quite self-conscious regarding this purpose as evidenced by the fact that in his book proposal for “Losing Ground,” he explained to potential publishers that his work would be welcomed by people who secretly believed themselves to be racists. "Why can a publisher sell it?" he asked. "Because a huge number of well-meaning whites fear that they are closet racists, and this book tells them they are not. It's going to make them feel better about things they already think but do not know how to say." [3]

Trained as a Ph.D. in political science but without any formal credentials in economics or psychometrics --the two fields in which his work managed to incite national debates--Murray’s work has met with little but vituperation and disgust among those experts competent to judge its scientific merits. Yet owing to a series of brilliant and extremely well funded marketing strategies, and an unarguable genius for locating the g-spot of the political/intellectual marketplace, Murray somehow managed to transform public debate on issues where he lacked what most in the field would consider basic professional competence.

Back when Murray was still in Iowa, he became friends with a well-connected Reagan Administration official named Michael Horowitz. Horowitz secured an invitation for Murray to speak at a lunch sponsored by the Manhattan Institute, convincing William Hammett that he had discovered a star. Meanwhile, Murray sent a copy of an article he wrote for the Olin Foundation-funded neoconservative journal “Public Interest,” co-founded and edited by Irving Kristol. Kristol called Michael Joyce, whom he had helped hire to run the Olin Foundation, and explained that Murray wanted to turn his article into a book but needed money to do so, as no commercial publisher would pay a living wage for a wonky right-wing study of welfare policy by a nobody from Iowa. A series of quick phone calls resulted in a $125,000 grant from three conservative foundations.[4]

Viewing Murray’s work as a potential antidote to Michael Harrington’s The Other America, which helped inspire the War on Poverty, Hammett wrote, “Every generation produces a handful of books whose impact is lasting; books that change basic assumptions about the way the world works,” in a private memo at the time. “Charles Murray’s Losing Ground could become such a book. And if it does it will alter the terms of debate over what is perhaps the most compelling political issue of our time: the modern welfare state.” [5] Right again.

According to Murray’s formulation, welfare did not ameliorate or attenuate the ravages of poverty; it perpetuated and entrenched them. Instead of empowering poor people, it created a dangerous dependency on federal handouts that sapped their energy and destroyed their initiative, thereby preventing them from acquiring the productive skills they need to achieve success in America’s market economy. “We tried to provide more for the poor and produced more poor instead,” Murray lamented. It was time to scrap the entire system and let the poor fend for themselves.

Unfortunately, Murray’s assertions were based on a series of internal contradictions, specious arguments and outright phony claims unsupported by his data. For instance, his assertion that that the hope for welfare payments was the main source of illegitimacy among black teenagers posited no evidence for this claim, and failed to explain why the rate of illegitimacy rose for everyone—and not just welfare recipients--after 1972, while the constant-dollar value of those welfare benefits declined by twenty percent. While continually insisting on the impotence of the Great Society programs of the Johnson administration, Murray never once explained the development of the Black middle class during this period. Moreover, why blame the welfare policies of the late sixties and early seventies on for the decline in participation of Black males in the labor market when the decline actually dates back to the late fifties? It turned out that Murray’s calculations relied on the highly disputed figures of an obscure economist named Timothy Smedding. Using more traditional and widely-accepted measurements, Christopher Jencks calculated that contrary to Murray’s central claims, the percentage of the population defined as poor in 1980 was only half the size it was in 1965, and one third the size it was in 1950.

Much of Murray’s argument was taken up by a “thought-experiment” based on a fictional couple he named Harold and Phyllis who lived in Pennsylvania, who made what Murray argued was an entirely rational economic decision for the woman to remain unmarried after having a child in order to collect welfare benefits. But Murray screwed up his math. While Pennsylvania was indeed atypically generous to welfare recipients in 1980, the couple’s income would still have been over thirty percent higher if Harold had worked at a minimum wage job rather than Phyllis collecting welfare as the sole means of support for the family. [6]

Despite these weaknesses, Hammett’s prediction proved prophetic. Nothing so trivial as fundamental flaws in both reasoning and calculations managed to interfere with the Manhattan Institute’s plans to turn Murray’s blame-the-victim argument into the nation’s new conventional wisdom on welfare. The publicity campaign for “Losing Ground” was planned and executed with impressive discipline and imagination. Surely it had no precedent in the world of welfare wonkdom. Before it began, Hammett informed his colleagues “any discretionary funds at our disposal for the next few months will go toward financing Murray's outreach activities.” He then mailed out a massive number of copies—over 700-- to academics, journalists, and public officials, sent Murray on a national speaking tour (funded by $15,000 grant from the Liberty Fund) and he raised another $10,000 to “gather twenty of the nation’s leading scholars from both the conservative and liberal camps, along with some of the best writers on the subject, for a two-day discussion,” according to an internal memorandum. Hammett explained in an internal memo. Well-known columnists and other members of the media were paid between $500 and $1,500 a piece to participate, something that was unheard of at the time, and remains extremely rare. Taking advantage of the economic illiteracy of the punditocracy, Murray was able to sell his idea to these opinion-makers without having to respond to difficult queries that might have been posed by a competent economist. (No one, for instance, suggested submitting any part of “Losing Ground” to a peer-review professional journal.) The pundits who liked it did so because it reinforced their own worldviews—along with the arguments necessary to support Reagan Administration’s assault on the welfare state. Reagan liked to tell stories about “welfare queens” buying vodka with their food stamps. Most people understood these to be apocryphal, but conservatives repeated them in the belief that they contained within them a “larger truth.” Now here was Charles Murray with a book full of graphs and economic data that appeared to “prove” the larger story that Reagan’s imagined anecdotes hoped to impart. For conservatives seeking to weaken the welfare state, and for liberals and moderates seeking to make themselves appear more “relevant” in a period of conservative ascendancy, there was no sense in looking this gift horse too closely in the mouth.

In spite of the book’s errors, or because his readers were oblivious to them, Losing Ground quickly became a cause celebre for pundits and politicians alike. "This year's budget-cutters' bible seems to be ‘Losing Ground,’" noted a New York Times editorial early in 1985. “Among movers and shakers in the federal executive branch, the newspaper reported, “’Losing Ground’ had quickly become holy writ: "In agency after agency, officials cite the Murray book as a philosophical base" for proposals to slash social expenditure.” [7] The book was the subject of dozens of major editorials, columns, and reviews in publications such as the New York Times, Newsweek, the Dallas Morning News, and The New Republic. “As Charles Lane observed in The New Republic, its success could be viewed as “a case study in how conservative intellectuals have come to dominate the policy debates of recent years." [8] Even once the book’s obvious weaknesses had been identified, as experts began to weigh in from professional journals, they barely made a dent in its effectiveness as a weapon in the ideological wars. A decade or more later, conservatives were still wielding Losing Ground like a sword against the scourge of more money for the poor. When Murray was invited to be a guest on ABC's “This Week” during this same period, host David Brinkley lavishly praised him as "the author of a much-admired, much-discussed book called “Losing Ground,” which is a study of our social problems." Minutes later, Murray was explaining his solution: "I want to get rid of the whole welfare system, period, lock, stock and barrel -- if you don't have any more welfare, you enlist a lot more people in the community to help take care of the children that are born. And the final thing that you can do, if all else fails, is orphanages." [9] More than a dozen years after publication, the Philadelphia Inquirer accurately recalled that Losing Ground "provided much of the intellectual groundwork for welfare reform,” and just as the new House Speaker Newt Gingrich was suggesting that children in poverty be put in orphanages. [10]

[1] This was 1994’s "With Honors" starring Joe Pesci, about a homeless man at Harvard, released by Warner Brothers.

[2] The book was co-authored with the late Richard Hernstein, who died shortly before its publication. Its full title is The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1994).

[3] Jason DeParle, "Daring Research or Social Science Pornography?" The New York Times Magazine, October 9, 1994,, 51.

[4] Sidney Blumenthal, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power (New York: Times Books, 1986), 293

[5] Sidney Blumenthal, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power (New York: Times Books, 1986), 293

[6] Regarding the various flaws of Losing Ground, see Michael Harrington, “Crunched Numbers,” New Republic, January 28, 1985, pp.7-10, Robert Greenstein, “Losing Faith in ‘Losing Ground,’” New Republic, March 25, 1985, Michael B. Katz, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the war on Welfare (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989) pp.153-155, Michael Lind, Up From Conservatism: Why the Right is Wrong for America (New York: The Free Press, 1996) pp. 180-183 and Sidney Blumenthal, The Rise of the Counter-Establishment: From Conservative Ideology to Political Power (New York: Times Books, 1986) pp. 292-295.

[7] The New York Times editorial page, February 3, 1985.

[8] The New Republic, 3/25/85.

[9] ABC News’s “This Week,” November 28, 1993.

[10] Philadelphia Inquirer editorial page, October 13, 1997.



This is Part II:

Despite the success and continuing influence of Losing Ground, Murray soon shifted gears. Race is largely absent from “Losing Ground.” But Murray had a chance meeting with Harvard professor Richard Hernstein, who had been arguing in various places—including the ‘liberal’ Atlantic Monthly, that, “In times to come, the tendency to be unemployed may run in the genes of a family about as certainly as bad teeth do now.” [1] Murray was clearly excited by arguments like these, and decided to redirect his own research toward it. In 1990, the Manhattan Institute decided that it did not want to associate itself with this kind of research and informed Murray to find another home for his work on what he termed “the genetic inferiority stuff.” [2]

Fortunately for Murray, Michael Joyce, who had been so instrumental in supporting him at the Olin Foundation, had now taken over the Bradley Foundation. Murray’s $100,000 grant was moved from the Manhattan Institute to the American Enterprise Institute, after a brief—and failed--attempt to place him in the more centrist and establishment-oriented, Brookings Institute. Murray was, once again, extremely fortunate in his choice of sponsors. By the time he completed his second book, he had received more than $750,000 since the Bradley foundation had begun its support, with more than $500,000 coming during the four years he worked on The Bell Curve. [3]

The publicity campaign for “The Bell Curve” mimicked that of “Losing Ground.” It is safe to say that most scholarly books containing hundreds of pages of regression analyses and primary source-based historical, economic and sociological claims would first be published, at least in part, in academic quarterlies that vet submissions by scholarly peer review on the part of an editorial board. But Simon & Schuster did not even send The Bell Curve to reviewers in galleys and neither did its authors. A Wall Street Journal news story reported that the book had been "swept forward by a strategy that provided book galleys to likely supporters while withholding them from likely critics." The Journal suggested that AEI "tried to fix the fight when it released review copies selectively, contrary to usual publishing protocol." Murray and AEI also hand-picked a group of pundits to be flown to Washington at the think tank’s expense for a weekend of briefings by Murray and discussion of the book’s arguments.[4] This strategy would pay off when the book was released and the publicity machine put into action, long before the scientific establishment could garner a look and form any coherent judgments.

Couched between an endless array of tables, charts and ten-dollar words, the Murray/Hernstein thesis, at its core, was nevertheless disarmingly simple. The book’s first sentence is: “This book is about differences in intellectual capacity among people, and groups, and what these differences mean for America’s future.” The authors blame many of the nation’s social problems, including the persistence of an “underclass” characterized by high-levels of crime, welfare, and illegitimacy, on the fact that black people are just not as smart as white people. After all, they argue, all racial barriers to advancement have been removed from American society; hence, we have arrived at a near perfect consequential relationship between IQ and socioeconomic achievement. And because, the authors believe IQ to be largely the product of one’s genetic inheritance, it is futile for society to try to boost those doomed to failure beyond their natural stations in life. In addition, high-IQ women are now entering the workforce at record rates and refusing to reproduce a comparable rate to that of poor and stupid women, who rarely work and collect lots of welfare money. These trends are "exerting downward pressure on the distribution of cognitive ability in the United States," with its resultant increases in crime, welfare dependency and illegitimacy. Because those under siege will not simply sit tight and let their society slip inexorably into anarchy, the authors predict a future semi-fascist “custodial state” for America, not unlike “a high-tech and more lavish version of an Indian reservation.” Unfortunately, the dumb ones among us will lose such cherished rights as “individualism, equal rights before the law, free people running their own lives,” according to the authors, but such measures will become unavoidable lest we taken to address the coming crisis of a national dysgenic downturn.

Interestingly, while The Bell Curve sets out to achieve the same aims as “Losing Ground”— the reduction and eventual elimination of all transfer payments to the poor and indigent--it does so by directly contradicting Losing Ground’s central argument. In “Losing Ground,” Murray placed the lion’s share of responsibility for the creation of the American underclass at the feet of government anti-poverty programs, primarily welfare. "Focusing on blacks cripples progress," he declared in a 1986 op-ed piece (titled "Not a Matter of Race"), as Mickey Kaus later noted, traditional explanations of the special problems facing blacks nearly all begin with the assumption that blacks are different from everyone else, whether because of racism or because of their inherent qualities. [5] But in “The Bell Curve,” Murray attributed the existence of an underclass to the “true” difference between blacks and whites—the intellectual deficiency of blacks (among others), whose IQ scores averaged fifteen points below those of whites. Moreover, in The Bell Curve, Murray argues that entry to the welfare rolls almost qualifies as prima facie evidence of a low IQ, while in Losing Ground,” he purported—albeit using cooked statistics—to demonstrate that in many instances, it was a perfectly rational choice over certain job choices and even sometimes marriage.

Though he contradicted his earlier argument, Murray marketed his book by relying on the same psychological insight he made in his proposal for the first one: namely that many people worried that, privately, they were racists who yearned for expert reassurance that the rest of the nation shared their prejudice. “The private dialogue about race in America is far different from the public one,”[6] he wrote in The New Republic. The Bell Curve aimed to replace the public dialogue—the one in which all peoples were deemed created equal, their genetic makeup considered to be only a portion of their destiny—and replace it with the private one in which blacks and Latinos were understood to be inferior to whites and Asians.

Aided by another brilliant marketing campaign, The Bell Curve inspired a media firestorm. The book entered the public discourse as one writer commented, “like a noseful of cocaine.” It spent fifteen weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, outselling “Losing Ground” by a factor of ten to one, and even this was only a tiny measure of its spectacular success. Magazines published special issues; talk shows offered up two-part editions, and four separate collections of essays were published, devoted entirely to arguments about the book. As Chester Finn asked in January 1995, “Is there anyone left with access to a microphone, television camera, or printing press who has not unburdened himself of an opinion of The Bell Curve?” [7]

Much as Blanche DuBois depended of the kindness of strangers, Charles Murray depended on the ignorance of pundits. The initial debate on the Bell Curve was conducted almost entirely by people who had no professional capacity to assess its science. "I am not a scientist. I know nothing about psychometrics," wrote Leon Wieseltier, one of the most learned and least retiring members of the elite media, in The New Republic.[8] Even The New York Times Book Review, unchallenged as the most influential book review on earth, assigned the book to a science reporter, rather than a practicing scientist, much less a biogeneticist. As a result, the early reactions to the book proved to be a kind of Rorschach test for pundits on what innocent reviewers assumed to be the scientifically proven conclusions relating to the genetic intellectual inferiority of blacks and what might be done about it, rather than the more fundamental question of whether Murray and Hernstein had, in fact, proven anything. For instance Time called the book "845 pages of provocation with footnotes," while Newsweek defended its sourcing as “overwhelmingly mainstream."[9]

Not surprisingly, Murray’s oddest claims about The Bell Curve and the controversy it provoked, related to race. Over and over he insisted that the claims he made about Black genetic inferiority were both unimportant to the book’s central thesis and generally uninteresting and unimportant. He wrote in his 10,000 word essay in The New Republic:

Here is what we hope will be our contribution to the discussion. We put it in italics; if we could, we would put it in neon lights: The answer doesn't much matter. Whether the black-white difference in test scores is produced by genes or the environment has no bearing on any of the reasons why the black- white difference is worth worrying about. If tomorrow we knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what role, if any, were played by genes, the news would be neither good if ethnic differences were predominantly environmental, nor awful if they were predominantly genetic.” [10]

Yet Murray could hardly claim to be unaware of the explosive potential of his work and likelihood that it would anger many people of good will. After all, he had been asked to leave his professional home at the Manhattan Institute over its subject matter. Murray noted in The New Republic that the subject upon which he was writing tended to leave people “scared stiff about the answer.” He admitted to a reporter that his investigation for The Bell Curve “was a case of stumbling onto a subject that had all the allure of the forbidden. Some of the things we read to do this work, we literally hide when we're on planes and trains. We're furtively peering at this stuff." [11] One wonders if this is one place where Murray took Glickes’ advice, as David Brock described it, to call black “white” and “deny a political agenda” as "the price of media credibility.” [12]

Whatever Murray’s reasoning, it worked. The New York Times Magazine made him its cover story. In a deeply sympathetic review in Forbes, Peter Brimlow, who had attended AEI’s pre-publication conference, hailed the book’s “Jeffersonian vision.” (Brimlow was apparently innocent of Jefferson’s views of the allegedly physiological basis of what he deemed to be Black intellectual inferiority in his famous 1787 essay, “Notes on the State of Virginia.”) [13] Ben Wattenberg gave Murray an extremely generous hearing on a special two-part version of “Think Tank.” The American Spectator assigned the book to the extremely conservative African-American sociologist Thomas Sowell, who also proved notably sympathetic with the authors’ goals as well as their motives. The review published in Commentary was authored by Olin-funded and Manhattan Institute-housed writer, Chester Finn, who also proved quite sympathetic, though disappointed that the authors did not go even further in their conservative prescriptions to solve the dysgenic crisis they diagnosed. And the magazine also offered Murray the opportunity to speak directly to his critics in a lengthy riposte to the reviews elsewhere.[14]

Undoubtedly the biggest political boost “The Bell Curve” received was from The New Republic. The editors of this once liberal magazine’s decision to carry Murray’s arguments at such length was symbolic to say the least. At more 10,000 words, it proved to be one of the longest articles ever published in the magazine’s nine decade life. When added to the seventeen responses published with it, it’s safe to say that no topic had ever galvanized the editors of what was once America’s liberal flagship quite to this degree, save perhaps the Arab peoples from time immemorial. Then editor, Andrew Sullivan argued in his unsigned editorial, “the notion that there might be resilient ethnic differences in intelligence is not, we believe, an inherently racist belief. It’s an empirical hypothesis, which can be examined.” This defense of Murray and Hernstein’s speech right to free speech rather than the validity of their argument, sounds plausible until one remembers that Holocaust denial is also an empirical hypothesis that can be examined. Clearly the magazine’s editor and owner sought to give Murray’s arguments the magazine’s imprimatur. )Today Sullivan says he believes the book to be “one of the bravest, smartest books of the decade.” [15])

Aside from Sullivan’s editorial, the only essay resembling an outright endorsement of Murray’s arguments came from Peretz himself. He devoted his essay to the alleged injustices perpetrated in the name of group-admissions to universities and (somehow) compared the United States unfavorably to Israel’s ‘ingathering of the exiles” on this point. A few New Republic editors have been known to play a game with one another in private whereby they try to insert favorable references to Israel in places where they clearly do not belong. Here Peretz seemed to be playing too.

It would be difficult to think of another prediction which sounds so innocuous but would prove to be quite so wrong-headed…

[1] Irene Sege, “’The Bell Curve’: The Other Author,” The Boston Globe, November 10, 1994, p. 91.

[2] Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado, No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and foundations Changes America’s Social Agenda (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996), 58

[3] Jason DeParle, Times Magazine, 32.

[4] Slate.com, Posted Friday, Jan. 17, 1997, at 4:30, m. PT

[5] Mickey Kaus, The New Republic, 1994

[6] Charles Murray and Richard Hernstien, “Race. Genes, and IQ – An Apologia,” The New Republic, October 31, 1994

[7] Chester Finn, “For Whom it tolls,” Commentary Review, January 1995

[8] Leon Wieseltier, , “The Lowerers,” The New Republic, Oct, 31, 1994, p. 20

[9] Geoffrey Cowley, “Testing the Science of Intelligence,” Newsweek, October 24, 1994, p. 56, (Ryan BCD, 29?), Richard Lacayo, “For Whom the Bell Curves,” Time, October 24, 1994 and Measured Lies: The Bell Curve Examined, Joel L. Kincheloe, Shirley R. Steinberg and Aaron D. Gresson III (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996)

[10] Charles Murray and Richard Hernstien, “Race. Genes, and IQ – An Apologia,” The New Republic, October 31, 1994

[11] Jason DeParle, "Daring Research or Social Science Pornography?" The New York Times Magazine, October 9, 1994, 51.

[12] David Brock, Blinded, 107.

[13] Among other beliefs, Jefferson held that blacks “secrete less by the kidnies and more by the glands of the kin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour. This greater degree of transpiration renders them more tolerant of heat and less so of cold, than the whites. … They seem to require less sleep… They are at least as brave, and more adventurous. But this may proceed from a want of forethought which prevents danger their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female; but love seems with them to be more an eager desire than a delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. … In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection. Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia” (1787) in Thomas Jefferson, Writings, (New York: Library of America, 1984), 265

[14] Brimlow in Forbes, Finn in Commentary, Wattenberg,

[15] Email to the author, 2/21/01


This is Part III:

The criticisms came in two waves. The first, largely from journalists and published in mass-market publications, focusing largely on the book’s political implications; all they could do, really, was invite readers to accept their worldview as superior to that of Murray and Hernstein’s. But because the authors were presumed by most to be far more expert in their chosen field than their journalistic critics, these criticisms enjoyed precious little authority to dent The Bell Curve’s argument’s impact and almost none in damaging the book’s popularity. But the second wave of reviews, which did not arrive until much later, was comprised of expert opinion in the relevant field and provided a belated substitute for the peer-review process to which Murray and Hernstein were originally unwilling to submit.

Once experts in the fields of psychometrics, dysgenics, and genetics began to weigh in on the book, not much of it was left. Scholarly examination repeatedly demonstrated that the statements that form the very core of The Bell Curve’s arguments were either highly questionable or demonstrably false. For instance, Hernstein and Murray insisted, "it is beyond significant technical dispute that cognitive ability is substantially heritable". But as a group of British geneticists and psychometricans pointed in response, “Research in this field is still evolving, studies cited by Herrnstein and Murray face significant methodological difficulties, and the validity of results quoted are disputed. “ [1]

The mistakes grow even graver. They actually seek to quantify the degree to which such intelligence is heritable. “Half a century of work, now amounting to hundreds of empirical and theoretical studies,” they write, “permits a broad conclusion that the genetic component of IQ is unlikely to be smaller than 40 per cent or higher than 80 per cent. ... For purposes of this discussion, we will adopt a middling estimate of 60 per cent heritability." They appear to the unsuspecting reader to be the soul of caution in this regard. Alas, as Nicholas Lemann reported in Slate, another study by three scientists at Carnegie Mellon University employing exactly the same data base, suggested “a narrow-sense heritability of 34 per cent and a broad-sense heritability of 46 per cent,” a far cry from the figures employed by Murray and Hernstein.

In perhaps the key test of the honesty of the underlying science of the book, trained experts in the field found they could not reproduce its results. For instance, one chart in The Bell Curve purports to show that people with IQs above 120 have become "rapidly more concentrated" in high-IQ occupations since 1940. But Robert Hauser and his colleague Min-Hsiung Huang retested the data and came up with estimates that fell “well below those of Herrnstein and Murray." They add that the data, properly used, "do not tell us anything except that selected, highly educated occupation groups have grown rapidly since 1940." In another example of same, also unearthed by Lemann, Herrnstein and Murray attempted to measure socioeconomic status by averaging four factors of equal weight: mother's education, father's education, father's occupation, and family income. Since the last two were missing from their data sample, however, they simply substituted an average for the entire sample. But six scientists at the California at Berkeley recalculated the effect of socioeconomic status, using the same variables but weighting them differently. They found the book’s estimates of the ability of IQ to predict poverty suddenly appear profoundly exaggerated--by 61 percent for whites and 74 percent for blacks.[2] Robert Hauser notes, "To begin with, several of the numbers in [The Bell Curve] are simply wrong. There are no fewer than five copying or multiplication errors in age- and test-specific entries in the body of” a single table. These mistakes, he noted, led the authors to “understate both the initial black-white differences and the changes in test scores across time." Rerunning the data with a more accurate standard deviation, Hauser came up with a significantly higher black-white IQ convergence.[3]

In fact, the entire study is built on a faulty edifice. In this final summary statement of his TNR essay, Murray wrote, “In study after study of the leading tests, the idea that the black-white difference is caused by questions with cultural content [i.e, that the tests are “biased” against the culturally deprived,] [has been contradicted by the facts.”[4] If this statement is false, then virtually everything else in the book must also be false. But Jared Diamond, the celebrated professor of physiology at the UCLA School of medicine and extremely-highly regarded expert in evolutionary biology and biogeography is one of many experts who insists that this statement—at least in its descriptive sense regarding “study after study” cannot be justified. In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” Diamond explains:

Even our cognitive abilities as adults are heavily influenced by the social environment that we experienced during childhood, making it hard to discern any influence of preexisting genetic differences. Second, tests of cognitive ability (like IQ tests) tend to measure cultural learning and not pure innate intelligence, whatever that is. Because of those undoubted effects of childhood environment and learned knowledge on IQ test results, the psychologists’ efforts to date have not succeeded in convincingly establishing the postulated genetic deficiency in IQs of nonwhite peoples.[5]

Diamond’s observation seems particularly relevant given the apparent carelessness to which Murray and Hernstein applied their false assumptions to the scientific studies they professed to assess. For instance, to take just one small example, Murray and Herrnstein note that South African "coloureds" have about the same IQ as American blacks. This helps to prove their case, they argue, because, "the African black population has not been subjected to the historical legacy of American black slavery and discrimination and might therefore have higher scores."[6]

But their claim of extremely low IQs for Black African--”very dull” in the authors’ words--derives from tests conducted in South Africa before the end of apartheid, a circumstance that could hardly be more relevant. And yet this qualification is nowhere to be found in The Bell Curve.[7] Nor do the authors find space to mention the racist assumptions of the scientist who conducted the research. And to top it all off, they misread the data upon which they were relying, and thereby screw up their own calculations.[8] Other scientists found countless other incidents of the authors either ignoring data that conflicted with that which they cited or unaccountably failing to include or address important studies that would throw a monkey wrench into their reasoning.[9]

As a result of the above, more than a few members of the expert community denounced the book as a kind of scholarly swindle; Writing in a special issue of The American Behavioral Scientist[--exactly the kind of journal that would have offered a peer review-reading of the Bell Curve had the authors been willing to submit to one—Michael Nunley, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oklahoma charged:

I believe this book is a fraud, that its authors must have known it was a fraud when they were writing it, and that Charles Murray must still know it's a fraud as he goes around defending it. By "fraud," I mean a deliberate, self-conscious misrepresentation of the evidence. After careful reading, I cannot believe its authors were not acutely aware of what they were including and what they were leaving out, and of how they were distorting the material they did include.[10]

“The Bell Curve “would not be accepted by an academic journal. It’s that bad,” added Richard Nisbett, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.[11] They was joined by many scholars, perhaps most notable among them, Leon J. Kamin, a noted professor of psychology at Northeastern University and author of The Science and Politics of IQ, who had been pointedly excluded from the AEI press-release gathering, lest his expertise get in the way of the book’s publicity campaign. Kamin warned, “To pretend, as Hernstein and Murray do, that the 1,000-odd items in their bibliography provide a ‘scientific’ basis for their reactionary politics may be a clever political tactic, but it is a disservice to and abuse of science.”[12]

But Murray and Hernstein’s research raised even more troubling questions about the authors’ agenda than mere incompetence or even ideological fervor. Charles Lane discovered that seventeen researchers cited in the book’s bibliography were contributors to the racist journal, Mankind Quarterly. Murray and Hernstein also relied on at least thirteen scholars who had received grants from the Pioneer Fund, established and run by men who were Nazi sympathizers, eugenicists, and advocates of white racial superiority.[13]

The racial problems with The Bell Curve’s sources went way beyond mere guilt by association. Many of its most important assertions rested on the work of the Pioneer Fund/Mankind Quarterly group of “scholars.” J. Philippe Rushton of Canada's University of Western Ontario, for instance, is cited eleven times in the book’s bibliography, and receives a two-page mention in its appendix (pp. 642-643). Rushton professes to believe in the existence of a hierarchy of "races" in which "Mongoloid" and "Caucasoid" are at the top, and "Negroid" at the bottom. "Negroids,” he argues, are younger when they first have intercourse, have larger penises and vaginas, increased sex hormonal activity, and larger breasts and buttocks. He judges that these factors, combined with the fact that black women produce more eggs and black men more sperm, lead to increased fertility, poorer parenting and sexually-transmitted diseases, including the AIDS virus. Rushton once summarized his views on black/white difference as follows: "It's a trade off, more brains or more penis. You can't have everything."[14]

Also the acknowledgements in “The Bell Curve,” include an authors note indicating that they have "benefited especially" from the "advice" of one Richard Lynn, whom they identify as "a leading scholar of racial and ethnic differences." A professor of psychology at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, Lynn is also associate editor of Mankind Quarterly, and has received $325,000 from the Pioneer Fund. He has expressed the scholarly view that "the poor and the ill" are "weak specimens whose proliferation needs to be discouraged in the interests of the improvement of the genetic quality of the group, and ultimately of group survival." Leon J. Kamin describes Lynn’s work as riddled with “distortions and misrepresentations of the data which constitute a truly venomous racism, combined with scandalous disregard for scientific objectivity.”[15]

While some innocence on the part of critics, a category that would include the vast majority of the reading public is excusable in the book’s early reception, this caveat begins to evaporate with time as more and more of the book’s flaws became evident. At that point, support for the work begins to look much more like ideological solidarity than intellectual rigor For instance The New Republic editors’ decision to champion the book cannot be justified by the book’s scholarly value. It must therefore have appealed to its editors own beliefs about race and intelligence—beliefs, as Murray suggested previously, that they had hitherto felt uncomfortable admitting in public forums. Why else lend the magazine’s credibility as the voice of the center-left to a project riddled with racist sources and reactionary recommendations?

If The Bell Curve were actually a respectable scholarly contribution to the debate over the place of race and genetics in our society, then closing one’s eyes to its conclusions would have been a cowardly and ultimately self-defeating response. But as Mickey Kaus pointed out, the question isn't whether it is possible that some ethnic groups have, on average, higher mental abilities than others, it's whether Murray is a reliable guide when it comes to exploring this possibility.”[16] The question of whether Murray and his late co-author Richard Hernstein are themselves racists is a pointless and ultimately insoluble debate. What is unarguable, however, is the fact that they were willing employ sources infected with racist underpinnings in pursuit of arguments custom designed to appeal to racist inclinations on the part of their readers and reviewers.

[1] This statement was developed by the [British] National Institutes of Health - Department of Energy (NIH-DOE) Joint Working Group on the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications of Human Genome Research (ELSI Working Group) and was by the National Society of Genetic Counselors. It was written by Lori B. Andrews and Dorothy Nelkin and purblished as a letter to the editor of Science, January 5, 1995.

[2] Nicholas Lemann, “The Bell Curve Flattened,” Slate.com, January 18, 1997

[3] Nicholas Lemann, “The Bell Curve Flattened,” Slate.com, January 18, 1997

[4] Charles Murray and Richard Hernstien, “Race. Genes, and IQ – An Apologia,” The New Republic, October 31, 1994

[5] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (New York: W.W. Norton and Co, 1997), 20

[6] Bell Curve, 288

[7] WAQAR AHMAD, “Race is a four letter word,” New Scientist, July 22, 1995, 44

[8] Nevertheless, Murray and Herrnstein venture an estimate of African IQ, drawn mainly from an article by Lynn that appeared in Mankind Quarterly in 1991. It should be noted, for a start, that the authors of The Bell Curve misreport Lynn's data. They say he found a median IQ of 75 in Africa (p. 289). But in his article, "Race Differences in Intelligence: The Global Perspective," Lynn said that the mean African IQ--not the median--was 70. (26)

[9]For instance Howard Gardner noted that the authors admit that IQ has gone up consistently around the world during this century—15 points, as great as the current difference between blacks and whites, which is obviously not a function of genetics. “The Bell Curve” does admit that when blacks move from rural southern to urban northern areas, their intelligence scores also rise, which would seem to contradict their thesis as well, but they glide over this challenge. So too, the fact that when black youngsters are adopted in households of higher socioeconomic status, they too demonstrate improved performance on aptitude and achievement tests. Again, this is an unanswered challenged. And the education professor Nathan Glazer pointed out that during the second world war, a US army study found that Northern black recruits not only scored higher than southern black recruits on intelligence exams, they also scored higher than southern white recruits. The study was detailed in Otto Klineberg’s easily available “Race Differences,” but nowhere is it mentioned in The Bell Curve. See Nathan Glazer, “Scientific Truth and the American Dilemma” in The Bell Curve Wars, Stephen Fraser edit, (New York: Basic Books,1995) p.145. Even Thomas Sowell, the conservative black sociologist writing in the conservative publication, the American Spectator, while, pointedly defending the authors against the charge of racism, found its scientific shoddiness impossible to defend. “Perhaps the most intellectually troubling aspect of The Bell Curve,” he wrote, “is the authors' uncritical approach to statistical correlations. One of the first things taught in introductory statistics is that correlation is not causation. It is also one of the first things forgotten, and one of the most widely ignored facts in public policy research. The statistical term "multicollinearity," dealing with spurious correlations, appears only once in this massive book. See Thomas Sowell, The American Spectator, February 1995, “Ethnicity and IQ”

[10] Michael Nunley, “The Bell Curve:: Too smooth to be true “September/October 1995"

[11]Quoted in Tim Beardsley, Scientific American, January 1995, Vol. 272, #1 BCW,, 244.

[12]Leon J. Kamin, “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics,” R. Jacoby & N. Glauberman (Eds.), The bell curve debate: History, documents, opinions. (New York: Times Books. 1995) pp.81-105

[13] See Charles Lane, “The Tainted Sources of the Bell Curve,” The New York Review of Books; New York; Dec 1, 1994; See also New Scientist July 22, 1995, 44 According to the book’s bibliography and to back issues of the Mankind Quarterly, the seventeen are W.J. Andrews, Cyril Burt, Raymond B. Cattell (eight citations), Hans J. Eysenck, Seymour Itzkoff, Arthur Jensen (twenty-three citations), Richard Lynn (twenty-four citations), Robert E. Kuttner, Frank C.J. McGurk (six citations), C.E. Noble, R. Travis Osborne (three citations), Roger Pearson, J. Philippe Rushton (eleven citations), William Shockley, Audrey Shuey, Daniel Vining (three citations), and Nathaniel Weyl.The ten who are or were either editors or members of the editorial board are: Cattell, Eysenck, Itzkoff, Kuttner, Lynn, McGurk, Noble, Pearson, Shuey, and Vining.

[14] See Charles Lane, the Tainted Sources of the Bell Curve, The New York Review of Books; New York; Dec 1, 1994; See also New Scientist July 22, 1995, 44 “Race is a four letter word” by WAQAR AHMAD

[15] Leon J. Kamin, “Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics,” R. Jacoby & N. Glauberman (Eds.), The bell curve debate: History, documents, opinions. (New York: Times Books. 1995) pp.81-105

[16] Mickey Kaus, “October 31, 1994"

ENV: On Geckos and Gravity

The scientific quest to make artificial gecko feet has taken a leap forward
Gravity-Defying Geckos Teach Scientists a Lesson
By DENISE GRADY, The New York Times, August 30, 2005

Geckos, lizards that are notorious for their sticky feet, can run up walls and across ceilings, and hang tauntingly by one toe. They have no suction cups, hooks or glue on their feet, so how do they do it?

Five years ago, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley; Stanford; and Lewis and Clark College found the secret: 500,000 minute hairs cover the sole of each foot, and the tip of each hair splits into hundreds more. The hairs are so elastic that they can bend or squish to conform to microscopic nooks and crannies under the creature's feet, even on the glass walls of an aquarium.

As a result, the tiny hairs touch so much surface area so closely that weak forces of attraction between molecules in the hairs and in whatever surface the animal is walking on add up and become sufficient to let the gecko hang on. The connection breaks when the gecko shifts its foot enough to change the angle between the hairs and the surface.

The discovery intrigued scientists, who immediately realized that if synthetic gecko-foot hairs could be made, they might be a great adhesive - strong, glue-free, dry, reusable and, unlike suction cups, capable of working in a vacuum like outer space. Engineers envisioned robotic instruments that could climb walls or grab objects without dropping them, and rovers that could maneuver rugged terrain on distant planets. Such adhesives could also be used to stick components together in electronic devices.

The National Science Foundation takes these ideas so seriously that it gave a $400,000 grant to scientists at the University of Akron and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to try making imitation gecko feet.

In a recent issue of the journal Chemical Communications, the team reported that it had indeed produced synthetic hairs, with 200 times the sticking power of the ones made by nature.

Although the scientists have tested only minute amounts of the material, they estimate that if its properties hold up on a larger scale, a dime-size patch of it could support 2 to 22 pounds, depending on how densely the hairs were packed.

"Think of it almost like nano-Velcro," said Ali Dhinojwala, an associate professor of polymer science at the University of Akron.

The synthetic hairs - one ten-thousandth the width of a human hair - are made of highly flexible carbon cylinders, or nanotubes, embedded in a plastic base like bristles in a hairbrush.

The tubes are strong and practically unbreakable, Professor Dhinojwala said, adding that other groups had tried making the tubes of plastic, but it turned out to be too weak.

He said people had asked him whether the new material could be fashioned into gloves and shoes for rock climbers.

"I'm a little hesitant on going too fast," Professor Dhinojwala said. "Nature has had more time than we have had. I would hesitate to extrapolate. But the imagination is there."

MSC: On Bob Dylan

The Contrarian of a Generation, Revisited
By JON PARELES, The New York Times, August 30, 2005


Has there ever been a rock star as contrary as Bob Dylan? When taken for a folk singer, interpreting traditional songs, he started to write his own. When taken for a topical songwriter who would dutifully put his music behind party-line messages, and praised as the spokesman for a generation, he became an ambiguous, visionary poet instead. And when taken for an acoustic-guitar troubadour who was supposed to cling to old, virtuous rural sounds, he plugged in his guitar, hired a band and sneered oracular electric blues.

That's the story told in two overlapping projects: the two-CD set "No Direction Home: The Soundtrack - The Bootleg Series Vol. 7" (Columbia/Legacy), to be released today, and "No Direction Home," a documentary directed by Martin Scorsese that will be released as two DVD's on Sept. 20 and broadcast on the PBS series "American Masters" on Sept. 26 and 27. (Despite the soundtrack designation on the CD's, versions of some songs differ between album and film.)

The CD's and the documentary both follow Mr. Dylan from his early years to his motorcycle accident in July 1966, and both focus on the two metamorphoses he made in the early 1960's: from Midwestern guitar strummer to Greenwich Village folk idol, and then, far more contentiously, from folk singer to electric rocker.

Neither the album nor the documentary significantly revises Mr. Dylan's history. The backdrop as always is the turmoil of the 60's. Here, once again, are the earnest, well-meaning and musically puritanical Greenwich Village folkies: in love with traditional songs and sounds, firmly believing that folk tunes and agitprop belong together, forever grappling with authenticity, and trying to be populist while disdaining pop music and pop culture. And there, again, is Mr. Dylan: repeatedly shedding his past, soaking up songs and styles, trading simple messages for oblique ones, pilfering and transforming.

In the film, he rightly calls himself "a musical expeditionary." Tony Glover, who recorded a young Mr. Dylan in Minnesota, is also right when he calls him "a sponge." There's ruthlessness in the way Mr. Dylan finds sources, uses them and moves on: the ruthlessness of an artist's best instincts.

The documentary uses extensive interviews with Mr. Dylan - speaking as straightforwardly and unguardedly as he ever has, with glints of humor - and with eyewitnesses from the era who don't always agree. It also digs into the outtakes of the filmmakers who were on the scene for Mr. Dylan's appearances at Newport Folk Festivals, solo and electric, and for his tours of Europe. In 1965, he was the guitar-strumming solo act (who had already recorded "Maggie's Farm" and "Subterranean Homesick Blues") documented as an arrogant young star in D. A. Pennebaker's "Don't Look Back," vehemently insisting he was not a folk singer. In 1966, he returned to Europe backed by the Hawks (who would become the Band) and was widely booed.

An arty, scattershot film, "Eat the Document," was made of the 1966 tour, edited incoherently with Mr. Dylan's participation and rejected by ABC television; it has been shown on rare occasions (and bootlegged) since 1972. But in the second half of "No Direction Home," Mr. Scorsese draws on the 1966 footage to concentrate the tension and absurdity of a tour on which Mr. Dylan faced an overheated blend of love and hatred that no other performer could have sparked.

It's a period that Mr. Dylan skips completely in his 2004 memoir, "Chronicles: Volume One," and the one that yielded, in a whirlwind of recording and touring, his three most crucial albums: "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde." Mr. Scorsese's documentary follows Dylan as a performer, meeting audiences (and dumbfounding journalists) with misunderstood greatness. The album moves inside the studio, with nine outtakes of classic songs alongside three live versions. (Mr. Dylan and the Hawks' fire-breathing 1966 performance from Manchester Town Hall was released as part of the Bootleg Series in 1998.)

There's some additional evidence that Mr. Dylan was always, for lack of a better word, an impurist. The album includes his earliest known recording: "When I Got Troubles" from 1959, with the 17-year-old Bobby Zimmerman and his guitar captured by a high-school friend's tape recorder. The song is a blues that advises, "swing your troubles away," but its folky verse leads to a stop-time section straight out of Elvis Presley. In the documentary, a glimpse of a yearbook shows his stated ambition: to join Little Richard.

Then he was swayed by the stark strangeness of folk songs, the poetry of the Beats and the plain-spoken conviction of Woody Guthrie, and he hitchhiked to New York City. In Greenwich Village, he was a quick study and, at first, everybody's protégé: Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Odetta, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez. The first CD, with alternate and live versions from Mr. Dylan's folky years, is full of songs about moving on: "Rambler, Gambler," "I Was Young When I Left Home" and his own "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" (a demo version, already perfected, recorded for the song's publisher). From the folk singers' trove of songs, "This Land Is Your Land" is treated as a traveler's reflections rather than a singalong, and he growls "Dink's Song" (collected half a century earlier by the folklorist John A. Lomax) as if the narrator's heartbreak were his own. Compared to some of the outlandishly overwrought folk-revival performers shown in the documentary, he comes across as natural, even artless.

Then, suddenly, he doesn't need mentors. "What I did to break away was to take simple folk changes and put new imagery and attitude to them, use catchphrases and metaphor combined with a new set of ordinances that evolved into something different that had not been heard before," he wrote in "Chronicles."

On the album, the finger pointing and moralizing of "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Masters of War," sung with quiet righteousness in performances at Town Hall in Manhattan, give way to the cascading images of "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and "Chimes of Freedom." Mr. Dylan was already confounding expectations: The documentary shows him at a "topical song workshop" at the Newport Folk Festival performing "Mr. Tambourine Man," while some audience members appear to wonder exactly what topic the song is supposed to be protesting. In other clips, Mr. Dylan tells interviewers he's not a topical songwriter anyway. Accepting a civil liberties award in 1963, he called politics "trivial."

There were no confrontations as long as he played acoustic guitar. But in the famous 1965 Newport Folk Festival performance, he brought the Paul Butterfield Blues Band onstage with him and caused pandemonium. The folkies interviewed in the documentary still don't know what hit them; they complain that they couldn't understand the words, or it was just way too loud, or it was distorted, and they recall that Pete Seeger may or may not have tried to take a hatchet to the sound cable. (He says he didn't.)

Mr. Dylan must have foreseen it all: the song he chose was "Maggie's Farm": "I try my best to be just like I am/But everybody wants you to be just like them." That performance is on the album, in a soundboard mix that polishes every barb in the music and, without audience noise, probably sounds clearer than anyone could have heard it at the time.

The album's studio outtakes from "Bringing It All Back Home," "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Blonde on Blonde" are good, with the band already primed and Mr. Dylan still toying with lyrics. Good but not great: It's fascinating to hear him approaching what he wants. The final takes are better, though the alternate version of "She Belongs to Me" - gentler and more affectionate - comes close.

The takes on the original albums had more layers of irony and emotion and, especially, comedy; they also added roll to the music's rock. "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" would change from an upbeat blues (on "No Direction Home") to a droll, knowing shuffle (on "Highway 61 Revisited"). "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" is sturdy, presaging Band songs like "The Weight"; it would perk up with a sly lilt.

"Desolation Row" would take on more gravity and bitterness; on "Tombstone Blues" the alternate tried a countryish harmony vocal. "Visions of Johanna" would get a simpler beat that opened up room for vocal nuance, while "Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat" would speed up and turn into a romp. "Highway 61 Revisited" already had its electric-piano flourishes, but the final take would add the hysterical edge of a siren whistle.

The film shows what happened to the songs and the songwriter on the road. Between 1965 and 1966, Mr. Dylan's last baby fat disappeared. Partly because of amphetamines that the documentary doesn't mention, he was razor-thin, and with his wildly patterned Mod clothes and an exploding hairdo, he looked purely iconic, haloed from backlighting. The 1966 tour, as Mr. Scorsese reconstructs it, was a blur of pop-star adulation, polarized crowds and inane news conferences: "All my songs are protest songs, every single one of them," Mr. Dylan bantered.

One musician recalls that audiences would singalong with Mr. Dylan's hit single, "Like a Rolling Stone," and then go back to booing his other electric songs. Offstage, Mr. Dylan sarcastically says, "Don't boo me any more; I can't stand it!" and then wonders, "Kids, how can they buy the tickets so fast?"

The boos didn't stop him, though he grew visibly drained. On the album, Mr. Dylan and the Hawks - whose little fills between vocal lines are as savagely funny as the lyrics - give corrosive performances of "Ballad of a Thin Man" and the climactic, scathing "Like a Rolling Stone" that followed a fan's cry of "Judas!" (This was also on a previous Bootleg Series album.)

Unlike the vast majority of entertainers, Mr. Dylan wasn't devoted to pleasing an audience. He didn't give them what they wanted: He gave them something better. It would all catch up with him, and quickly, and when the motorcycle accident gave him a reason to withdraw he seized it. But "No Direction Home" stops there. Contrary as Mr. Dylan was, in those brief and remarkable years, negativity pulled him through.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

ENV: Enforcing CITES

The Cult of the Cycads
By LAUREN KESSLER,The New York Times, August 28, 2005


A man who calls himself Marty Sterns is taking care of business in the faux French Provincial dining room of a top-floor suite in the Las Vegas Mirage. Sterns is a small, trim man in his late 40's with a close-cropped graying beard, sandy hair and the quick, carefully controlled moves of a man on the make who doesn't want to look like one. ''This is everything that came in the March shipment,'' he says to the two men sitting at the table. Rolf Bauer is beefy, a Bob Hoskins look-alike, wearing a plaid short-sleeved shirt that's tight against his gut. Jan Van Vuuren, jowly, with a receding hairline and reading glasses, has the look of an Omaha insurance salesman circa 1965. Sterns is standing between them, pointing to an itemized list he has placed on the table.

He is taking great pains to detail the shipment. ''This is what you sent over,'' he says, pointing to his list, ''and this is what I sold.'' He hasn't moved some goods from the most recent shipment yet, and he apologizes. He looks up from the list, a little nervous, but Van Vuuren assures him that it's all right.

Today Van Vuuren and Bauer expect cash payments from Sterns, maybe $15,000 or so, but they figure that he is good for a lot more. Sterns is full of ideas. He's got a friend, a very rich friend, who wants in. Sterns leaves the room for a moment, and Van Vuuren and Bauer confer quickly. They are pleased with the way things are going.

When Sterns returns, the men sip cold beers and negotiate their business future. Sterns wants to get the money taken care of. He lays a fat envelope on the table between the two men. Then he goes back over the itemized list. ''This is the money I owe you,'' Sterns says, pointing to a figure on the list. ''And this is what has already been transferred to your account.'' Now he is going to pay them the difference. He opens the flap of the envelope and removes a wad of cash. But before he starts counting out hundred-dollar bills, he takes a moment to remove an ice bucket from the middle of the table and shove some books to the side. Now the way is clear to count out the cash.

The way is also clear for the surveillance camera hidden in Marty Sterns's shoulder bag to catch the money shot, the caught-in-the-act, cash-changing-hands shot, the one that could make the case.

''Look at that!'' marveled Dave Martin, who was showing me a tape of this July 2000 meeting on a video monitor in a government office just south of San Francisco International Airport. ''It's the big one, the shot that counts, and he's so relaxed, he's thinking about camera angles. This guy is a pro.''

With Martin was the pro himself, also watching the tape. But his name is not Marty Sterns. It's Kenneth McCloud, Special Agent McCloud. He produced, directed and starred in this particular drama, a two-year sting to catch smugglers on four continents. The first arrests were made in 2001, and the latest indictment resulting from the sting was issued in late March. Martin, who played an important supporting role, is McCloud's unofficial apprentice and ardent admirer.

On screen, Special Agent McCloud, posing as Marty Sterns, begins to count out the money. Bauer and Van Vuuren exchange quick, satisfied glances. Watching the video, McCloud shook his head. ''Bad guys,'' he said. But these guys weren't dealing in uncut heroin or grenade launchers or nuclear devices. They were selling plants.


Cycads, prehistoric subtropical plants that look like a cross between palms and ferns -- but are actually closer cousins to conifers -- are in many ways unnatural objects of desire. Unlike orchids, cycads do not produce elegant stalks of comely flowers. They produce no flowers at all. They are often short and squat with dun-colored trunks that in some species resemble supersize pineapples and in others 40-foot worms. Their frondlike foliage is mostly unremarkable, except for those plants with leaves so spiky that they can draw blood or so tough that they can cut through clothes.

Aesthetically challenged, cycads have other issues, too. The cones produced by one species that grows in Indonesia smell so bad that locals are compelled to chop them down and bury them. The leaves, stems and seeds of many cycads contain neurotoxins potent enough to paralyze grazing cattle and produce Alzheimer's-like symptoms in humans. The plants themselves can grow with the alacrity of a glacier, taking decades, and sometimes centuries, to reach maturity.

These are seriously weird plants. They produce outsize, often garishly colored cones -- lemon yellow, scarlet, maroon, pumpkin orange, apricot -- that can weigh as much as 90 pounds apiece. Male plants (cycads are either male or female) produce long, unmistakably phallic cones that wilt after their job is done. Inside, they contain the largest sperm cells of any living creature. The females generally produce fuller, rounded cones that open to reveal plump, glistening seeds. Pollination was once thought to occur prosaically, by a gust of wind. But it is now believed that the cones generate heat that produces a scent that attracts burrowing weevils. The insects do the work, shuttling pollen to female plants as they search for food, shelter and a place to mate. Because it can take too much energy, females often do not produce cones every season. They must rest up for a year or more between efforts.

Botany wonks, eccentric gardeners and quirky landscapers might be drawn to cycads. But what makes these plants not just an interesting oddity, not just a backyard collectible, but of interest to smugglers, is their rarity. Once they were among the rulers of the kingdom of flora, a dominant plant during the Jurassic Age, believed to have been a favorite food of the stegosaurus. Today, after surviving 250 million years, after weathering dinosaurs, ice ages, meteors, tectonic-plate shifts, volcanic eruptions and various mass extinctions, many species of cycads are either endangered or extinct. What nature failed to achieve in millenniums, humans have accomplished in barely 100 years. In the 20th century, destruction of habitat and what euphemistically might be called ''overcollection'' have decimated the world's cycad population. They can be found in many tropical and subtropical locales, from rain forest to grassland to desert. But many of the remaining species are found in remote areas in South Africa, Central and South America and Australia, where they are particularly vulnerable to theft.

Since 1975, an international treaty known as Cites (pronounced site-EEZ), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, has tried to protect cycads. A few species are so widely cultivated that they aren't protected -- the sago palm, for example, can be found in garden shops in cycad-friendly growing areas like Florida and Southern California. But the rare varieties need all the help they can get. Cycads listed in Cites Appendix I, the rarest and most endangered, are essentially banned from international trade. These are generally species just a few dozen plants away from extinction. It is against international law to remove them or their seeds from the wild and against international law to sell them. Plants on Cites Appendix II can be traded, but with important provisos. Each plant must be accompanied by a legal export permit, a document granted only if the plant is ''artificially propagated'' -- that is, not taken from the wild but grown from seed in a nursery.

But that doesn't stop smugglers who sneak cycads out of Africa and into the United States by lying on the export permits. They claim that a plant was artificially propagated when it was actually ripped from the wild. They knowingly mislabel plants, identifying a cycad on Cites Appendix I -- a plant that is illegal to sell -- as an Appendix II plant. They obtain permits for plants that are legal to export and use the documents to accompany illegal plants. Cycads are often stripped of all their foliage to make them easy to ship, so that one cycad's bare squat trunk (called a ''caudex'' in the trade) looks a lot like another cycad's bare squat trunk. In this altered state, it would take an expert to distinguish between a relatively common and an impossibly rare plant.

A cult has grown up around these plants that includes a cadre of bad guys who smuggle for profit as well as a smattering of the superwealthy who enjoy the notion of owning what might be considered the botanical equivalent of a garage full of Rolls-Royces. Brad Pitt, Oscar de la Renta and David Bowie are all reported to have had significant (and legal) cycad collections. The cult also includes a small but wildly varied group of hyperenthusiasts, the kind of obsessive collectors who form around just about any hard-to-find object.

At least 500 serious collectors worldwide find these extraordinary prehistoric plants too weirdly wonderful to resist. The hard-core collectors are almost all men. There's something bold and aggressive about a cycad. This plant is no pansy. It's a survivor, tough and rugged with a bit of an attitude. A cycad set in a backyard garden is the manly antithesis of, say, an African violet floating in a grandmother's bone china teacup.


Tim Gregory doesn't consider himself much of a collector. True, he grows a few hundred carefully chosen cycads in his garden in Northern California, but for Gregory, a biochemist and senior director at Genentech by day, it's not about owning the plants but about studying them. For the past 10 years he has systematically explored parts of Mexico to identify and classify new species. He and a few fellow cycad enthusiasts bought a 100-acre coffee plantation in the Pacific coastal mountains of Oaxaca and are converting it into a cycad research station. Gregory, who holds a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and has published more than 70 papers in his scientific field, is also the author of 8 botanical papers on cycads. ''Whenever my mind wanders,'' Gregory said, ''it goes to cycads.'' But his interest, he told me, is cerebral. He's fascinated. He's absorbed. He's engrossed. But he's not enchanted. He's not in love. ''I'm the exact opposite of those who have emotional resonance,'' Gregory said.

He is, then, the exact opposite of Maurice Levin, a Harvard M.B.A. and erstwhile investment banker who now makes his living selling cycads. In 1990, he and his wife were vacationing in the Virgin Islands when a guide took them on a horticultural tour and pointed out a cycad, describing it as a living fossil. A chord that Levin didn't even know he had in him was struck. Here was a plant that preserved a message from the ages, he thought. Here was a plant that had survived for millenniums on the botanical equivalent of bread and water. Here was a plant that gave off a cosmic aura. He was smitten. As soon as he returned to Los Angeles, he bought his first cycad.

Now, 15 years later, as the owner of A&A Cycads in North Hollywood, he has sold tens of thousands of seeds, seedlings and big and little plants to resorts, developers, landscapers and backyard gardeners. He goes on cycad-centric vacations with his young son in tow. He prints cycad manifestoes on his extensive Web site, having secured the much-desired U.R.L. cycads.com. He is a man on a mission, he says, determined to save wild cycads by selling legal seeds -- seeds from artificially propagated plants -- cheaply, thus taking the financial incentive out of digging up the plants and smuggling them. Meanwhile, his own half-acre backyard collection has taken a back seat.

Not so for Bart Schutzman, who has amassed such an extensive collection of cycads on his 20-acre property outside Gainesville, Fla., that he can't leave home for longer than two days. ''It's because of the watering schedule,'' he said. ''And the dogs.'' Schutzman, director of publications for the Cycad Society and editor of its newsletter, is a senior programmer analyst at the Department of Environmental Horticulture at the University of Florida and the owner of 18 dogs. He needs them to help protect his 500-plus-plant collection grown in three nursery-size greenhouses. The collection, which he began for research, is worth serious money and is a temptation to thieves. The dogs help. So does the fact that Schutzman tells very few people exactly where he lives.

Schutzman had not given much thought to cycads when he was studying for his bachelor's degree in plant science at the University of California, Davis. He was then an orchid man. But when a professor showed him his collection of cycads, Schutzman went, by his own admission, ''nuts.'' It just happens to some people, he said matter-of-factly. What happened to Schutzman was something he described as ''primal memory.'' He said he felt immediately and powerfully connected to the prehistoric plants. Somewhere deep in his brain, deep in the collective unconscious, something resonated. He can't explain it exactly, but perhaps it has to do with cycads as a living conduit to his own ancient ancestors.

Like all cycad nuts, Schutzman delights in tales of collectors even nuttier than he is. There's this one guy, he said, who developed such a collector's zeal that he cultivated connections all over the world, nourishing pseudofriendships for years just so that someday he could hit up his new friends for seeds. He was, Schutzman said, ''a man driven.'' It nearly cost him his marriage. And he nearly went to jail. It turned out that some of the cycads he bought were illegal.

There are other such stories: the collector who risked his life going into a guerrilla-held area in Colombia to get a cycad; the collector who flew cross-country to buy a single plant; the collectors who spend every weekend on plant-buying excursions, forsaking all else, including wives and kids. There are stories of extreme collectors, men who go after the ''world list'' of known cycad species. For the die-hard enthusiast, the tame hobby of plant collecting has become an obsession. For some, it is almost an addiction -- ''the green needle,'' as one collector has called it. And, like other addictions, it fuels crime. The rare cycads that these collectors so badly want cannot be legally obtained.

The international illegal trade in wildlife, including both plants and animals, is estimated to be a $6-billion- to $10-billion-a-year business, among the top three illicit activities along with drugs and arms. (The government isn't exactly sure how much of that amount is for cycads, but it is certainly a smaller piece than, say, illegal trafficking of ivory or exotic reptiles.) Smuggling plants may not have the same cachet as smuggling dope, but the risk-to-benefit ratio is a lot better. It is possible to make real profits, paying local villagers $2 a day to collect plants in the wild that might be sold in the United States for hundreds or even thousands of dollars apiece. A mature plant of a certain species can bring as much as $50,000. It is possible for a ''suitcase smuggler'' to avoid arrest by pleading ignorance -- especially when one species so closely resembles another in the stripped form. And it is possible to run a lucrative smuggling operation, because who, after all, would be watching?


In 1996, Ken McCloud, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent, just completed the covert part of Operation Chameleon, a four-year sting designed to nab international smugglers of rare and endangered Madagascan reptiles. At one point, McCloud, who was then posing as a nefarious ponytailed reptile ''breeder consultant,'' was tending to a half-million dollars' worth of exotic reptiles housed in cages in the spare bedroom of the suburban California home he shared with his wife, Rose.

McCloud, then 40, had worked for Fish and Wildlife since he was 22, putting in more than a decade as a wildlife inspector -- a job that involved checking out things like live venomous snakes and virus-carrying primates -- before becoming a special agent. There are only 219 Fish and Wildlife special agents in the United States, and only a half-dozen of them are involved in long-term sting operations. McCloud became a member of this elite corps, creating fake identities, inhabiting sham worlds and infiltrating criminal subcultures. During the course of his work, guns were pointed at his head, a contract was put out on his life and he slept with a knife wedged in his boot. He loved the job. But he was not a hot-dogger; he was a soft-spoken, unassuming man who cared deeply for what he called ''the critters'' and wanted to catch the bad guys who were doing them harm.

As McCloud was cleaning up Operation Chameleon, tending to the paperwork and pondering what his next undercover project would be, Dave Martin started talking to him about cycads. Martin was a true believer, a university-trained conservation ecologist with a scientist's knowledge and an activist's zeal. He had helped McCloud with investigations in the past, and although the men were a world of temperament apart -- Martin was as high-strung and intense as McCloud was calm and deliberate -- they admired and trusted each other. Martin had heard and read about cycads and got McCloud interested by putting together three thick binders of information on the plant, its increasingly tenuous existence and its apparent popularity with smugglers.

Eager to get back in action, McCloud, with Martin's help, created a detailed proposal for a new undercover venture focusing on illegal traffic in cycads, which he successfully presented to the environmental-crime division of the Department of Justice. His bosses at Fish and Wildlife gave him the go-ahead along with a $225,000 budget. In what came to be called Operation Botany, McCloud would play the role of Marty Sterns, a plant importer and owner of the fictitious Hu Enterprises, a business set up to buy cycads and other plants from overseas and sell them to collectors in the United States. He would first work to become known in the cycad community, then establish connections with dealers who made big promises and finally use government money to do business.

As he began the painstaking and meticulous work of setting up the operation, McCloud used as his bible a confidential memo sent to Fish and Wildlife from a highly placed South African conservationist. The memo carefully itemized the methods used to smuggle cycads out of the country and then pointed to several men, one of whom was Peter Heibloem.


Peter Heibloem is one of the most prominent authorities on African cycads in the world, author of a highly regarded guide to cycads of Central Africa and owner of one of the most complete cycad collections on earth. About 17 years ago, when he bought his first plant, Heibloem didn't know exactly what a cycad was. An amateur gardener living on the Sunshine Coast of northeastern Australia, he was making his living as a self-empowerment guru. He saw an ad for the plant in his local newspaper and went to take a look. He thought it was striking, a very nice plant, but to him it looked just like a palm. It was, the seller informed him indignantly, a rare cycad from the rain forest of North Queensland. Intrigued, Heibloem bought it and took it home.

The plant spoke to him, as cycads do to those who come under their spell. He sensed what he described in a recent e-mail message as the ''powerful, sometimes intoxicating essence which can captivate the person and cause them to experience great feelings of tranquillity, pleasure and strength.'' Heibloem wanted to learn all about cycads but soon realized that few people in his area knew more than he did. Then he recalled attending a lecture by a motivational speaker from the United States who said that anyone could become an international expert on any subject by studying one hour a day for seven years.

That's all Heibloem needed. ''We never have a burning desire that endures without also possessing the ability to make it happen,'' he told me. If that sounds like a line from one of his self-empowerment lectures, it is. This is what Heibloem teaches students in his Alpha Mind Power Training Seminars around the world. It is also his personal credo.

With discipline, focus and enormous energy, fueled by an absolute belief in himself, and in thrall to what he perceived as the ''ancient, majestic vibe'' of the cycad, Heibloem made himself into the international expert he is today. Along the way he collected more than 200 species of cycads, went on numerous collection trips to Africa and began supplying other collectors with rare seeds and plants from his travels.


To get Operation Botany rolling, McCloud -- now undercover as Marty Sterns -- and Martin flew to Miami to hobnob with enthusiasts and dealers at Cycad 99, an international conference. There they met Heibloem and two dealers from South Africa, Rolf Bauer and Jan Van Vuuren. The game was afoot. McCloud, as owner of the fictitious Hu Enterprises, eventually began to contract with Van Vuuren and Bauer for deliveries of rare and endangered cycads. Because McCloud was working with a limited budget, the deal was this: Hu Enterprises would pay for shipping only. As McCloud ''sold'' the plants, he would pay off Van Vuuren and Bauer. Meanwhile, Martin, working with McCloud, slowly cultivated a business relationship with Heibloem, who would, through Martin, supply a wealthy Southern California businessman with extraordinary plants for his collection. The plants from these men and others began arriving at San Francisco International Airport, crates and containers of them, hundreds and hundreds of them, worth an estimated $840,000.

By mid-2001, it was time to drop the net. The trick was to get the men on U.S. turf to make the arrests. McCloud enticed Van Vuuren and Bauer to Las Vegas with a promise of a free high-end vacation. Martin arranged Heibloem's visit to Southern California on the pretense of meeting wealthy collectors and making a special presentation to a local cycad society.

On a carefully plotted July day, Martin picked up Heibloem from the Los Angeles home of a man with a cycad collection so valuable that he had installed video security cameras to guard it. Then, en route to visit another collector, Martin pulled into a shopping center, explaining that he needed to get cash from an A.T.M. As soon as he got out of the car, federal agents arrested Heibloem.

That same day, in Las Vegas, Rolf Bauer was gambling while Jan Van Vuuren was playing golf with a man they knew as Nelson DeLuca. DeLuca was the guy Marty Sterns introduced them to, the wealthy real-estate developer supposedly interested in buying rare and expensive cycads to landscape the multimillion-dollar homes he built. DeLuca was really Special Agent Sam Jojola, working as backup with McCloud.

Jojola was a dark-haired, handsome man, expensively dressed with a vintage Rolex strapped to his wrist. He showed Bauer and Van Vuuren color photographs of fancy homes he said he had built in Arizona and Nevada. After a weekend in Vegas, DeLuca was supposedly going to fly them to San Francisco in his corporate jet. There was a Lincoln Town Car waiting. They stashed their bags in the trunk, and DeLuca got behind the wheel, a transmitter in the pocket of his sports coat. That way the federal agents who were in the car following them at a discreet distance couldn't possibly lose them. When they arrived at the security gate that guarded the private-jet area at the airport, DeLuca stopped the car. He told Van Vuuren and Bauer that he had mistakenly left the key card, which he needed to open the gate, in the trunk.

DeLuca's getting out of the car was the agreed-upon signal. The federal agents zipped up behind the Lincoln, jumped out of their car and cuffed Van Vuuren and Bauer. Agents Jojola and McCloud, as DeLuca and Sterns, had been so utterly convincing, the sting had been so seamless and slick, that Van Vuuren and Bauer were clueless.

''Mr. DeLuca is not involved in this,'' Van Vuuren told the arresting officers. Special Agent Jojola turned away so that Van Vuuren and Bauer couldn't see him smile.


Operation Botany resulted in indictments against 12 men. Rolf Bauer, Jan Van Vuuren and Peter Heibloem were charged with a total of 41 counts of conspiracy, smuggling and making false statements. Bauer and Heibloem pleaded guilty to one felony count each of conspiracy to smuggle; Van Vuuren pleaded to one felony count of conspiracy to make false statements.

Donald C. Randolph, the lawyer who represented Heibloem, told me he thought that the whole investigation was misguided. ''The people targeted were collectors dedicated to the preservation of cycads,'' he said. ''Juxtapose this with people who import rhino horns or parts of animals where you have to destroy the animal to get it. These people fervently want the species to continue. Part of their motivation is to ensure that this happens.'' At any rate, the sentences were light -- relatively modest fines, credit for time served and probation -- and the men were able to return to their countries. The attorneys for the defendants say the government's case was weak. Government lawyers counter that several complexities affected the case, including assessing the true value of an endangered species. They also acknowledged the difficulty in distinguishing a wild cycad from an artificially propagated one. And in a world of murder and mayhem, it is difficult to get stiff sentences for those who commit crimes against the environment. Still, McCloud and the legal team at the Department of Justice consider the sting a success. Every major dealer was touched. ''We may not have gotten them behind bars, but we made them think,'' McCloud said. ''We made them think hard.''

The collectors had to think hard as well. Enthusiasts had been buying plants they suspected they shouldn't have been buying, not asking the questions they knew they should have been asking or, most dangerously, convincing themselves that by buying a rare and endangered plant, a plant taken from the wild, they were, in fact, saving it rather than contributing to its demise. The sting, which echoed loudly through the insular cycad world, showed collectors that their actions had consequences and set cycad chat rooms buzzing. ''The cycad world has been turned upside down,'' someone calling himself ''Plantsman53'' wrote in one chat. ''People are wondering if federal agents are going to come for a visit,'' said another collector.

The fear was not unwarranted. In March, the federal government indicted a Florida man for importing, selling and mislabeling Cites-protected cycads.

''The sting shook everyone to their roots,'' Tim Gregory, the Genentech scientist who spends his free time roaming Mexico in search of new cycad species, told me not long ago. ''It made the collectors reassess their ethics. That's painful, but it's good.'' Then he leaned back in his chair and looked at his bookcase. On a shelf along with photographs of kids and family were framed pictures of cycads.

Lauren Kessler is the author, most recently, of ''Clever Girl: Elizabeth Bentley, the Spy Who Ushered in the McCarthy Era.'' She directs the graduate program in literary nonfiction at the University of Oregon.