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Worms that turn from sex

23 October 2015

Splash: The Observer’s report on Sunday of the Bishops’ letter

Splash: The Observer’s report on Sunday of the Bishops’ letter

THE Bishops’ letter to David Cameron got a very good show in The Observer, and marked the first splash that Harriet Sherwood has had as religious-affairs correspondent of The Guardian, and, of course, The Observer as well.

It must have stung a bit; for the Telegraph had a riposte and denunciation up within six hours: “Senior ministers were quick to point out that the Government has announced Britain will accept 20,000 refugees over the next five years and committed £1 billion in aid.

“Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that no other country in Europe was doing more in Syria than Britain.”

Twenty-four hours later, the right-wing papers were carrying the news that every Syrian refugee accepted in this country would cost £24,000. Curiously, there was no figure for what it would cost to drop bombs on the place.

Perhaps the significance of the whole row will be to prove just how shallow the spasm of sentimentality was which followed the drowning of young Aylan. The distinction between the things that make news and the things that cause the news can seldom have been clearer.


ANYONE who thinks that the coverage of religion in the British press is uniquely dreadful has not read enough science stories. In general, one can say that the Daily Mail has the worst science coverage, but that is only credible if you don’t read the Daily Express and its regular diet of front-page miracle cures.

The difference is that the Mail is an optimistic paper, and specialises in diseases you won’t get, like rare cancers, whereas the Express is pessimistic, and writes about diseases its readers have, or will contract, like dementia and strokes.

Yet, last week, both were better than the Telegraph, which published what may have been the most misleadingly reported science story I have read.

The background was a paper published in Nature about the discovery of two hitherto unsuspected neurones in C. elegans, a tiny nematode worm which has only 959 cells in its hermaphroditic form, and 1063 in the much rarer male form.

Although the beast has been studied in the finest imaginable detail since 1965, and it was thought that every single cell in the body was mapped and its history worked out (work for which three Nobel prizes were awarded), scientists have just discovered two extra neurons in the adult male. These clearly have something to do with sex, since when they are burned away with very accurate lasers, the worms no longer know how to mate, and get on instead with the other activity of adult worms, eating.

So, to the Telegraph report: “The male brain is hardwired to seek out sex, even at the expense of a good meal, with specific neurons firing up to over-ride the desire to eat.

“Intriguingly, women do not have the same neurons, suggesting that sex for females comes secondary to sustenance.”

Neither, of course, do men. These neurons are found only in nematode worms. Nor are they found in brains, since the worm has no brain, only a network of nerve cells running through its body. That radical simplicity is why it was chosen for study. And even if worms had brains, they wouldn’t have female brains, since the opposite sex to a male worm is a hermaphrodite.

The story was illustrated with a picture of a young male Homo sapiens propositioning a female of the same species, who was eating. This is because newspaper readers have specialised neurones which respond to pictures of early-adult Homo sapiens performing a sexual display, and shut down the rest of the frontal lobes when they fire.


THE rumours of schism in Rome continue. This really is a wonderful story. Damian Thompson, in a Spectator blog, claimed that the conservatives want the Pope dead by “the next conclave, [something] which lots of conservative Catholics want to happen as soon as possible”.

Ross Douthat, in The New York Times, is less blunt: “The entire situation abounds with ironies. . . The African bishops are defending the faith of the European past against Germans and Italians weary of their own patrimony. A Jesuit pope is effectively at war with his own Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the erstwhile Inquisition — a situation that would make 16th-century heads spin.”


MEANWHILE, Lars Eidnes, a Norwegian software developer, has programmed a neural network to generate clickbait headlines indistinguishable from the real thing.

Here are three: “Sam Smith Comes Out With Amazing Porn Video Of His Dad”; “Khloe Kardashian hits back at ‘publicity-seeking’ boss of Nevada brothel”; and “How The World’s Most Extreme Baby Moms Lost Weight”.

Only one of those headlines appeared in the Mail online. So, you guess which was written by a professional “journalist”.

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