Best. Broader impact. Ever.

Like everyone with an Internet connection, earlier this month I heard a fair bit about U.S. 7th Circuit Court Judge Richard Posner’s ruling striking down bans on same-sex marriage in Indiana and Wisconsin. As Mark Joseph Stern put it at Slate, “Posner … sounds like a man who has listened to all the arguments against gay marriage, analyzed them cautiously and thoroughly, and found himself absolutely disgusted by their sophistry and rank bigotry.” Here’s a choice sample from the full opinion:

The challenged laws discriminate against a minority defined by an immutable characteristic, and the only rationale that the states put forth with any conviction—that same-sex couples and their children don’t need marriage because same-sex couples can’t produce children, intended or unintended—is so full of holes that it cannot be taken seriously.

What I hadn’t heard before is that Posner’s opinion also includes a short run-down on research about the biological basis of sexual orientation, and it has more than one familiar citation:

Although it seems paradoxical to suggest that homosexuality could have a genetic origin, given that homosexual sex is non-procreative, homosexuality may, like menopause, by reducing procreation by some members of society free them to provide child-caring assistance to their procreative relatives… There are other genetic theories of such attraction as well. See, e.g., Nathan W. Bailey and Marlene Zuk, “Same-Sex Sexual Behavior and Evolution,” forthcoming in Trends in Ecology and Evolution

That’s actually a reference to a 2009 review, which is online in PDF format—it covers the diversity of same-sex sexual behaviors across the animal kingdom. It hardly mentions Homo sapiens, but it is one of the sources I give to people who want a solid introduction to current scientific thinking about how same-sex attraction could have evolved. If you ask me, one could do a lot worse than having a paper cited in a groundbreaking legal ruling. And it’s a reminder to those of us studying the history of life in general that our work can have unexpected consequences beyond the lab.

Tigers and Birds

Many, many world-class ornithologists have called or do call the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science home. This year, LSU grad students Mike Harvey (a NiB! contributor!) and Glenn Seeholzer along with LSU alum Dan Lane and Peruvian ornithologist Fernando Angulo are going to Peru this October to find the most bird species they can in a single 24 hour period and they’re hoping to break the world “Big Day” record. (Which currently stands at a whopping 331 species, set in 1982.) A “Big Day” is a mix of fun and work that takes both passion and planning – this one is no exception. Here’s the Peru Big Day Strategy:

Peru is among the top countries in the world for bird diversity, with roughly 1840 species registered. This makes it a great place to attempt to beat the world big day record. The spectacular Andes Mountain range bisects Peru, and it is so tall that it passes through dramatically different climates between its base and its towering peaks. Each climate band produces it’s own habitat, which in turn has it’s own set of bird species. To the east of the Andes, much of Peru falls within the rainforests of the Amazon Basin, which contain the highest single-site bird diversity in the world. The key to a large list during our big day will be to visit as many habitat bands on the slopes of the Andes as possible, but also to spend enough time in the Amazon lowlands to see some of the many species in that area. In order to do this, we will start at midnight high in the Andes at Abra Patricia, work our way down the eastern slopes of the mountains during the morning, and finish in the afternoon in the Mayo Valley, home to many lowland Amazon bird species.

For more information, there’s a video by local TV station WBRZ, there’s a booklet from the American Birding Association or you can go straight to the horse’s mouth bird’s bill and check out http://www.lsubigday.org. Best of luck, you guys – Geaux Tigers!

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(From the LSU Peru Big Day webpage)

 

To thrive in the twenty-first century, can we learn to steer evolution?

Cliff Swallow in flight

Cliff swallow in flight. (Flickr: Don DeBold)

Many of the biggest challenges humanity faces in the next hundred years are biological: dwindling wild lands and disappearing biodiversity, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and emerging new viruses, but also feeding nine billion people or more a healthy diet in a climate-changed world. As Theodosius Dobzhansky famously remarked—and as this very website’s name proclaims—nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. So are there evolutionary answers to all these biological challenges? According to a big new review article just released online ahead of print in the journal Science, the answer is emphatically yes.

The long list of authors, led by Scott P. Carroll and including Ford Denison, whose lab is just down the hall from my office at the University of Minnesota, explicitly connect evolutionary principles to global goals for sustainable development. These include the reduction of both “chronic lifestyle” diseases and infectious diseases, establishment of food and water security, clean energy, and maintenance of healthy ecosystems. Carroll and his coauthors divide the applications of evolution to these problems into cases where evolution is the problem, and those where evolution may offer the solution.

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Diversity in STEM: it matters

Diversity in the sciences is a recurrent topic on this blog (and – well – basically everywhere). Scientific American has an excellent overview on what “diversity” is and why it matters to the STEM fields. So whether you think about these issues a lot or a little, I highly recommend reading “Diversity in STEM: What it is and why it matters“.

When we consider scientific research as group problem-solving, instead of the unveiling of individual brilliance, diversity becomes key to excellence. In his book,The Difference, Professor Scott Page lays out a mathematical rationale and logic for diversity. He shows that, when trying to solve complex problems (i.e., the sort of thing scientists are paid to do), progress often results from diverse perspectives. That is, the ability to see the problem differently, not simply “being smart,” often is the key to a breakthrough. As a result, when groups of intelligent individuals are working to solve hard problems, the diversity of the problem solvers matters more than their individual ability. Thus, diversity is not distinct from enhancing overall quality—it is integral to achieving it.

 

“Biodiversity” is a little different from “diversity in bio” – but still a nice photo, eh?

Why the whale kept its hips

Mystice pelvis (whale).png


A bowhead whale’s highly (but not entirely) reduced pelvis. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Thanks to a remarkably good fossil record, it’s now well established whales and dolphins evolved from land mammals, their forelimbs adapting into flippers, and their hind-limbs almost entirely disappearing. If you’d asked me yesterday what’s going on with that almost—the last vestiges of the hip bones that whales retain, which have no legs to support or direct contact with the rest of their skeletons—I’d have told you they were evolutionary leftovers, and probably going to disappear in another million years or so. I think a lot of other evolutionary biologists (those who aren’t whale specialists, anyway) would’ve agreed with me. But it turns out we’d have been wrong.

As Carl Zimmer describes, a paper recently published in the journal Evolution points out that whales’ hips do have one remaining function, an important one—they anchor muscles that control the penis. And that function is under ongoing sexual selection.

The more promiscuous a [whale] species was, the bigger its pelvis bones tended to be. The scientists also found that as whales evolved to become more promiscuous, their pelvic bones changed shape. These changes weren’t part of some general change to their skeleton, however. The ribs near the hips didn’t show the same patterns of size and shape change.

I strongly recommend Zimmer’s whole article, and you can also read the original research article in Evolution.