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Welcome to Ken Weiss' Lab on the web

I am formally retired, and am not taking new students or operating a lab any longer.  However, I remain active and interested in research, and in interacting with students and colleagues undergraduate, graduate,or professional.  My interest is specifically in understanding the genetic basis of complex traits and the evolutionary processes that are responsible for producing them, and their variation within and among populations, and between species.

A good way to get a flavor of my interests and the philosophy that underlies it, is from our blog: The Mermaid's Tale This is not another religion-evolution fight site, which rarely goes anywhere beyond food-fighting. Instead, it's about science, a place to discuss some of the challenging topics facing genetics and the life sciences more generally today (including their relationship to society and the nature of science itself). Viewers seem to find it interesting and informative.

We work on various subjects, ranging from understanding the amount of genetic complexity underlying human disease, to developmental and evolutionary aspects of the head and dentition. We are also interested in the problem of understanding the causation of complex traits that seem to be affected by multiple factors; this is a widespread issue that affects many areas of science and has serious societal and ethical implications that are also among our interests. Finally, we are entering the bioinformatic age and are using computer simulation to investigate what we can learn by genomic sequence comparisons of species of interest to anthropologists and even more generally.  We collaborate with investigators in New York and in Finland.

A book that reflects many of our interests in some detail:


And we have another book, titled The Mermaid's Tale: Four Billion Years of Cooperation in the Making of Living Things (2009, Harvard Press), that summarizes many of our ideas on the nature, and genetic basis of complex traits. This has a somewhat different focus from our earlier book, and is less technical as well:


Keep Things in Perspective (some favorite quotes)

"If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once a week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied would have thus been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possible be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature."

Charles Darwin, Autobiography, 1887

On Trying to Think Freely, Critically & Creatively: In Science Popularity doesn't Imply Truth: Always Question Everything

Creative thinking often means not accepting views that are generally taken for granted. There are usually good reasons for persistent ideas, but history shows that they are often not correct. Always ask "What if it isn't so?"

Quote by a character in Middlemarch, by George Eliot, 1871-2 (year Darwin's Descent of Man was published: "I still think that the greater part of the world is mistaken about many things. Surely one may be sane and yet think so, since the greater part of the world has often had to come round from its opinion."

Galileo suggesting that the Earth moves, in Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632)
"How many propositions I have noted in Aristotle ... that are not only wrong, but wrong in such a way that their diametrical opposites are true...!?"

...and yet, in science as in life, it is important to keep the luxury of skepticism in perspective

Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto X:42 (1824)

This is the way physicians mend or end us,
Secundum artem: but although we sneer
In health - when ill, we call them to attend us,
Without the least propensity to jeer:
While that 'hiatus maxime deflendus'
To be fill'd up by spade or mattock's near,
Instead of gliding graciously down Lethe,
We tease mild Baillie, or soft Abernethy.

Bertrand Russell: A habit of basing convictions upon evidence, and of giving them only that degree of certainty which the evidence warrants, would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world is suffering.

On respecting our own limitations in judgment, remaining open to new ideas:

Report of the Linnaean Society at the end of 1858: “The year which has passed has not, indeed, been marked by any of those striking discoveries which at once revolutionize, so to speak, the department of science on which they bear.” [1858 was the year Darwin's and Wallace's papers on evolution were read at one of the Society's meetings]

On taking science seriously....and responsibly:

"In the like manner when I used to explain to him our several Systems of Natural Philosophy [science], he would laugh that a creature pretending to Reason [being rationale], should value itself upon the Knowledge of other peoples Conjectures, and in Things, where that Knowledge, if it were certain, could be of no Use." Jonathan Swift, 1935, Gulliver's Travels.

On Learning and it's Value

New York is a city filled with people, but you can be lonely in New York if you don't make an effort to meet them. Penn State is a university filled with opportunity, but you can graduate without an education if you don't make an effort to get one.

Stendahl in The Red and the Black (1831)
The young men who came to pay their respects, afraid of saying something which might arouse the suspicion that they had been thinking, or reading some forbidden book, lapsed into silence after making a few elegant comments about Rossini and the weather.

Socrates defending himself in his trial for teaching heresy (in Plato's Apology ca. 400 BC)
Citizen of Athens, the greatest city in the world, so outstanding in both intelligence and power, aren't you ashamed to care so much to make all the money you can, and to advance your reputation and prestige - while for truth and wisdom and the improvement of your soul you have no care or worry?

The distinguished journalist I.F. Stone, on staying with what you believe even when the majority think otherwise
The only kinds of fights worth fighting are those you're going to lose, because somebody has to fight them and lose and lose and lose until someday, somebody who believes as you do wins. In order for somebody to win an important, major fight 100 years hence, a lot of other people have got be willing -- for the sheer fun and joy of it -- to go right ahead and fight, knowing you're going to lose. You mustn't feel like a martyr. You've got to enjoy it.