On cheating. A scientific perspective.

The very recent past has not been kind to one of history’s most celebrated sporting achievers. Lance Armstrong faces defamation of a legacy that has recorded no less than seven Tour De France titles and a winning bout with cancer. Though I should probably say, seven ‘top of the podium’ finishes, as the US Ant-doping Agency (USADA) has stripped him of those official victories. (Not the cancer one.)

Lance Armstrong has since refused to contest the doping charges, forfeiting his rights to all awards and prizes, citing a depleted emotional capacity to sustain the battle.

Whether or not Lance Armstrong is a dirty doper, is not the main inquiry of this communication. Though I find it extremely interesting that such a retrospective inquiry has any merit at all.

The nature of professional sport, which is analogous to saying, the nature of nature, is to succeed with maximum advantage whilst incurring minimum cost. It is no surprise that doping has any place in professional sport.

Professional sport can very easily be viewed as an isolated system, within which, greatest advantage is gained by a strategy that will out propagate its rivals for success, and compete well in an environment that has a high frequency of the same strategy [Maynard-Smith, 1982; Dawkins, 1976]. This system does not encourage anti-doping, as much as it serves the purpose of a rigid framework, that drives the selection between winning strategies, that include a factor of doping. In fact, the arms race between anti-doping agencies and dopers in professional sport, has become a well debated topic.

What has me particularly disconcerted, is the lack of responsibility that the USADA are willing to claim for the role in this mess. In designing artificial upper limits of fairness, the system enforces the selection of strategies that will approach an asymptote of the allowable. What is worse still, is that this limit of fairness applies only to doping (and gender and technique), which exists as an extension of nutrition. Everything else is allowed in limitless quantities; training, sleeping, genetic advantage, historical advantage, etc. Where they choose to draw the doping line with respect to nutrition is arbitrary, yet the fact that an upper limit exists, is all that is important for now. I might add, that anti-doping organizations have both the spirit of fairness, and the athletes best interests at heart. In principle.

If the nutritional component of race preparation can be viewed as a continuum of nutritional strategies, with mash and veggies being on the right (correct) side of the upper limit and steroids on the other, then strategies that approximate the upper limit of fairness has a maximum advantage. This strategy is very likely the predominant one in professional sport, as most athletes that compete at this level, are at the upper limits of genetic capacity, physical training etc. for humans. Since nutrition offers an additive contribution to most attributes of a physical nature, there would be a strong general trend towards maximizing its effect.

Anti-doping agencies create regulations, that at the outset, seek to govern fairness. This is the driving force behind the arms race between catching dopers, and doping to the maximum, without getting caught. Doping to the maximum without getting caught, is the strategy that allows for greatest advantage, all other things being equal.

 Lance Armstrong is a product of an environment that selects for the most effective strategies, one which is governed by limits, enforced by the arms race between doping and anti-doping. Whether or not Lance has slipped through the cracks of a previously inadequate system of policing, is unimportant. The fact that there are allegations of this nature, should prompt an introspective inquiry for the USADA more than it should a retrospective hunt for ‘fairness’, at the expense of the competitor.

If Lance had an unfair advantage during his reign of success, it necessarily means that equal such opportunity existed for each of his competitors. If he had both cheated and bribed his way to success, it can be ascribed to a corrupt system that allowed blatantly ‘unfair’ competition, which renders its purpose null and void.

Cheating within the upper limits of legal is not moral failure from an athlete’s perspective. No sir. It is failure from a governing perspective.

The Scientific Discipline

Wherever there exists ambition to exceed, there is an accompanying potential for failure, directly proportional to the level of difficulty associated with completion of such a challenge. As Sam Harris in his stimulating read, “The Moral Landscape” proposed, there exists two definite extremes of the human condition, which he termed ‘the good life’ and ‘the bad life’, which are connected by a continuum (the subjective association of) ‘good’ and ‘bad’ components. Theoretically speaking, and forgive me for paraphrasing, all individuals aspire to the good life, whatever his/her subjective interpretation of that good life is.

I do find it ironic however, that rationally minded individuals (whom, as a scientist, I pride myself in thinking I am surrounded by) can be so abducted from the rationality of scientific inquiry when posed with aspirations of a personal nature. One individual can produce the most phenomenal research covering years, and even decades, yet struggle to maintain something as simple as a diet for the duration of one week.

Having recently re-read “The Extended Phenotype” by Richard Dawkins, I have come to the conclusion that there is as a matter of fact, another side to the Necker cube. All of us are posed with challenges that at times, seems too large for the aspirations of even the most disciplined amongst ourselves. It is along the lines of the philosophical, and scientifically feasible, model discussed in “The Extended Phenotype”, that I had decided to restructure the way in which I am to approach specific personal challenges.

In life, you are provided with variables and constants. Constants, I like to think of as all things which I have no ability or capacity to control, even though they do not produce repeatable output, yet can still be regarded as constantly beyond your control. For instance; as a lecturer, you accept as a constant, that all undergraduate students, are trying to succeed in passing, by doing the minimum required effort. Therefore, low cost to benefit ratio. Along the lines of evolutionary biology, positive selection of any trait, is a product of the cost of evolving that trait, relative to the benefit such a trait would produce, associated with the direct milieu that trait finds itself in. In short, students are lazy because the system incentivizes laziness.

Now, I am not here to solve the riddle of student education, for that extends far beyond both my expertise and capabilities. I am however proposing a variation on the outlook of student laziness, or more importantly, lack of achievement in our personal lives.

What if discipline is not (always) a product of motivation, strong will and endurance, but simply an unavoidable byproduct of a system that incentivizes success, relative to a perception that is conducive to success in that particular environment? What if, instead of working up the energy and motivation to maintain your diet/exercise routine, you could take a step back, and design for yourself a system, in which you are most likely to succeed? (Though I have had some success with this approach in my personal life, I am hardly specialist on these subject matter.)

For everything that is propagated into the next generation, there exists a fundamental selection, if represented by competing versions of the same component. Richard Dawkins proposed the meme theory of selection as far back as 1974, in his book, “The Selfish Gene”. In accordance with this proposal, I would like to set forth the following parameters for an example of an exercise routine.

When propositioned with a choice of either performing a component of your exercise routine, or let’s say, watching television, you are presented with alternatives for use of a unit of time, each measured by arbitrary values of fitness, related to cost and benefit. What these units of fitness is, although measured arbitrarily, is not irrelevant, as the extent thereof will serve as the basis for selection. Which of these activities one is likely to pursue, and is likely to pursue for the remainder of, perhaps a calendar week, is linked to the selection coefficient for each activity. So we satisfy the criteria of evolution by selection, in producing alternative components from which to select.

The second criteria for evolution by selection, is propagation into the next generation. If we imagine any specific activity chosen at the beginning of a week, as an arbitrary commitment to a line of evolution, then initial selection of either activity should in principle serve as the higher probability decision for all subsequent choices for those activities. This of course, if the popular “I’ll start next week” attitude is anything to go by. It also assumes for the third factor governing selection in favor of either as an activity, discussed hereafter.

The probability of propagation of any component (perception/meme) into the next generation, is subject to selection coefficients of each alternative, within the conditions in which it finds itself. Therefore, if becoming overweight and unfit is the milieu in which either choice, exercise vs television, finds itself, then going outdoors for a jog is very incompatible with achieving that aim. In addition to the global milieu, there exists interactions with other components (activities) that influences the selection coefficients for each one of our proposed alternatives. Watching television likely has a selectional advantage over exercise, if the food of choice is McDonald’s and the choice of drink is a sugary soft drink. As Richard Dawkins brilliantly proposed, some memes (genes) have a higher probability for selection in favor of, when present in a mix of memes that will positively influence its propagation.

This third component is where I would like to make a distinction between constants and variables in this model of selection between activities, if there can be such a thing. If we consider the first two components as constants, therefore in any conventional system (which is likely to be the majority), selection in favor of watching television has a higher inclusive fitness than does exercise, for the reasons mentioned above, then the third component can be considered a variable. If we can succeed in designing a system where healthy eating and exercise has a higher selectional advantage than the alternative, then it should proceed naturally to make decisions that include the latter. If running a marathon is the global objective, then all selection pressures should on average favor the activity which is most conducive to achieving the objective. i.e. Exercise. And being a scientist, the following should be generally true. If we require 8, then 4 + 3 will not suffice.

There is no reason not to see the obvious analogies with the psychology of motivation and discipline, yet seeing that my training is limited to biology and my experience limited to introspection, this rational approach has served me well. I’ll leave with this thought: For every individual that fails, there exists a system that allows him to fail.

Brontosaurus Dolly: Feasibility of dinosaur cloning?

In response to an off topic question, posed during a research methodology lecture, I was humbled by the response of one logically minded undergraduate.

Can we clone a dinosaur? Not as far as I know, but apparently the internet knows more. An Australian billionaire by the name of Clive palmer, has hinted at the possibility of funding research for the purpose of cloning a dinosaur. First of all, we would have to look at a long list of factors governing its feasibility. Initial impressions would suggest that eccentric billionaire, Clive Palmer, is posing a challenge, laced with more humor than sincere ambition. The reality of live dinosaurs should in my mind, present a slightly larger public fascination than even the sensational athletic prowess on display at the recently concluded London Olympics.

Then a student responded, that they have indeed succeeded in cloning a dinosaur, which according to a bit of research, is postulated by some individual, to have occurred at the University of Florida. At first glance, it seemed to be too good to be true, and this opinion has since prevailed.

This publication seems at odds with the research publications and news from the University of Florida’s homepage. I find it strange, that they would have failed to be the first ones to make public this discovery, especially considering the funding (and inadvertent criticism) they would be privy to. But the apparently online-presence-deprived Dr. Norman Trudell, Biology Professor at UF, has neglected several important aspects considering the potential cloning of dinosaurs, and as it may happen, even more recently extinct species, of which he have near complete DNA databases.

But let us steer away from the breaking news of cloned dinosaurs and get into the challenges of feasibility surrounding the cloning of an extinct species.

Is Clive Palmer wasting his time and money? More importantly, is he potentially monopolizing resources that can best be allocated to disciplines related to more pressing public concerns, such as those of cancer and HIV?

The cloning of previous organisms such as the immortally famous (now deceased), Dolly, required some key elements, that is currently in short supply, with respect to dinosaurs. Dolly was cloned using a technique called nuclear transfer, where the nucleus of a somatic cell from primary in vitro cell culture, is introduced to an enucleated oocyte. The oocyte containing a full diploid complement, complete with all associated structural and regulatory protein, is transferred to a surrogate, until it reaches terminal gestational development.

From what I could gather, modern research has not yet produced a complete DNA sequence from any species that has retired from existence during ancient times, which includes many who have gone extinct far more recently than did the dinosaurs. With extensive biological and physiochemical DNA damage that far exceeds 60 million years, I have very little doubt that the scientific community might be expecting the recovery of an intact dinosaur genome any time soon and since we are only just beginning to understand the cellular physiology of extinct animals, the synthesis of a viable genome is as yet, probably even less likely.

According an article published by Nature (Ancient Biomolecules in Quaternary peleocology), we are seeing significant technological advances that increases the rate at which ancient DNA and other biomolecules can be analyzed, yet the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), does not mention any entry of DNA sequences that is related to the Apatosaurus (Dinosaur postulated to have been cloned).

Even if – with the advances made hitherto – we are capable of extracting sufficient quantities of DNA from paleontological specimens to obtain a complete DNA sequence of some prehistoric species, we would still be very far away from understanding the organization and nuclear morphology of ancient chromatin. I would think that this would make any attempts at cloning redundant. Even if, by some means, assembly of a complete and viable sequence (comparative to that taken from somatic cells in Dolly’s case) could be theoretically feasible (perhaps in cell culture of cells from a species with a close phylogenetic association), there would exist but still, a vast number of challenges in ‘interspecies’ nuclear transfer. There is no telling what difficulties such imperfect chromatin organization could produce, let alone the compatibility, or probable incompatibility of genes and gene products of donor DNA, with cellular components of the oocyte, that has had a hundred million odd years to evolve.

The question remains though, if there should be a public denouncement of this sort of frivolous allocation of resources, to the likes of unrealistic ambition, even if privately funded? This researcher remains a skeptic as to it feasibility, yet I firmly encourage any private funding that will, no doubt, result in the advancement of technologies that could in the future be applied for numerous ambitions, other than frivolity.

In reality, we are unlikely to see this research endeavor materialize to anything more than debated fantasy. Even if Clive Palmer is pursuing this avenue of research merely to satisfy personal curiosity, it may still inadvertently lead to the development of a technology, or even technique, that could justify such expenditure many times over. In any case though, he will be contributing to the advancement of science, or at least propagating some humor in a scientific community, that at times, seems much deprived thereof.