Skeptical that PMS is an adaptive response designed to break up your relationship? Me too.

In a pleasantly surprising turn of events, this week a take-down of some dubious evolutionary psychology was published by the popular media!  The original article, a perspective piece published in Evolutionary Applications, claims that moodiness associated with PMS may have historically served an adaptive role by driving infertile couples apart. 

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) affects up to 80% of women, often leading to significant personal, social and economic costs. When apparently maladaptive states are widespread, they sometimes confer a hidden advantage, or did so in our evolutionary past. We suggest that PMS had a selective advantage because it increased the chance that infertile pair bonds would dissolve, thus improving the reproductive outcomes of women in such partnerships. We confirm predictions arising from the hypothesis: PMS has high heritability; gene variants associated with PMS can be identified; animosity exhibited during PMS is preferentially directed at current partners; and behaviours exhibited during PMS may increase the chance of finding a new partner. Under this view, the prevalence of PMS might result from genes and behaviours that are adaptive in some societies, but are potentially less appropriate in modern cultures. Understanding this evolutionary mismatch might help depathologize PMS, and suggests solutions, including the choice to use cycle-stopping contraception.

Check out the response, published by The Daily Beast, here:

Here’s the scapegoat unhappy spouses have been waiting for: According to a paper out last week by Michael R. Gillings, premenstrual syndrome (PMS) can ruin a marriage. Gillings claims that PMSing women—in infertile couples in particular—may use feelings of “animosity” as well as risk-seeking and competitive behaviors to leave their husbands and find someone new. I’m sorry to say, but the evidence in favor of this hypothesis is thinner than Always Infinity menstrual pads.

Feeling the stress of an academic career? Think happy thoughts!

A recent study published in the journal Stress & Health surveyed the mental health and coping strategies of 200 postdocs at UT Austin and found that individuals who thought positively were better able to cope with the stress of an academic position.

“Thinking positively can do more than bring a transient smile to your face. Postdocs who experience high levels of positive emotions are less likely to suffer from stress-associated anxiety or depression than other postdocs are, according to a recent study of 200 University of Texas (UT), Austin, postdoctoral fellows, 79% of whom work in the sciences. One apparent link between positive thoughts and reduced anxiety and depression is resilience: More positive emotion was correlated with high resilience, which in turn was linked to fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression.”

A happy scientist.

A happy scientist.

Read more about the study here.

Q: What do your friends and your fourth cousins have in common?

you smell

A: Their genetic relatedness to you.

A new study out in PNAS this week suggests that you may have even more in common with your friends than you think.  In particular, you are more likely to share your sense of smell.

“People often talk about how their friends feel like family. Well, there’s some new research out that suggests there’s more to that than just a feeling. People appear to be more like their friends genetically than they are to strangers, the research found.  Some of the genes that friends were most likely to have in common involve smell. “We tend to smell things the same way that our friends do,” Fowler says. The study involved nearly 2,000 adults.”

Read (or listen) to the story at NPR (or check out the original article here for more data and less speculation).

Why we should all (evolutionary biologists) be excited about studying Cannabis.



Figure 1. Cannabis plants at the Centennial Seeds facilities.

This is a guest post by Daniela Vergara, a postdoctoral researcher studying the genomic architecture of hybrid species of sunflowers and Cannabis in Nolan Kane’s Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  Daniela also blogs about science at A Ciencia Abierta. Check out her blog for a spanish version of this post.

Cannabis is definitely a cool plant. It has fun names like matanuska thunderfuck, jesus OG or trainwreck and it has been trendy among humans for a very long time (humans have utilized it for thousands of years). Despite this long history, and the fact that Cannabis is the most widely used recreational drug in the world [1], the genomics and the general the biology of these plants have only been partially studied. At the Cannabis Genomic Research Initiative (CGRI) at the University of Colorado Boulder we want to study this genus of plants for several reasons, including: (i) its medical significance, (ii) its importance in the biofuel, fiber, oil, textile and food industries, (iii) its long co-evolutionary relationship with humans as an ancient crop, and (iv) in general, because it is an exciting emerging study system in evolutionary biology.

Why should evolutionary biologists be excited about studying Cannabis?

Continue reading

When a bad bird goes good … and then bad again.


Brood parasites are definitely the bullies of the avian world.  They lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, sometimes destroying the host’s own eggs or just waiting for their nestlings to do the dirty work after they hatch.  They then outcompete any surviving host nestlings for food, while the poor host parents are worked to the bone to feed the monstrous nest invader.

In spite of the steep costs of nest parasitism, most avian host species do not have effective mechanisms for detecting and removing brood parasites from their nests.  So, why don’t mama birds notice they have a GIANT intruder in their nest and carry out some infanticide of their own?  One hypothesis is that the cost of a mother bird making a mistake and pushing the wrong baby out (i.e. her own) outweighs the benefit of developing such a behavior.

This week in Science, Canestrari et al. published evidence for another hypothesis – that sometimes, it might actually be good to have your nest parasitized.

Continue reading

Should women in science have to choose between starting a career and starting a family?


Last week Nature published a short correspondence – and people got really angry.  In case you missed it, here is a short summary of events. It started when Nature published an update on their efforts to reduce the gender bias in their publication.  This was inexplicably followed by Nature also publishing an ill-conceived short correspondence criticizing their efforts and blaming the inequality on women’s decisions to have children.  A number of people responded to the piece (including here, here, and here) and in response, Nature issued a strongly worded mea culpa.

I find that the most frustrating part of this whole fiasco is not that top tier journals sometimes publish things they shouldn’t (I think we already knew that), but that it sidetracks the discussion away from the types of conversations that we should really be having.  The underrepresentation of women in top tier journals (as well as math and science fields in general) is a real problem.  When half of our brightest minds aren’t being fully represented, we all lose out, regardless of the cause.  However, understanding the cause allows us to implement the appropriate solutions.

Continue reading

Should scientists be more subjective?

Peer-Review-Nick-Kim-cartoon3-resizeThough the goal of scientific research is to objectively follow evidence to advance our knowledge of the world we live in, it has become increasing apparent that there are some substantial road blocks in our way.  For example, a number of recent articles have argued that (A) we get the wrong answer – a lot, (B) the hotter the area of research, the more likely we are to get it wrong, and (C) the higher the profile of the journal we published in, the more likely we are to have got it wrong (Ioannidis 2005, Pfeiffer & Hoffmann 2009, Brembs et al. 2013).  Ideally, science is self-correcting process, allowing us to reach the correct answer over time, in spite of such misleading results.  However, the authors of a recent Nature article argue that a phenomena they refer to as “herding” can prevent or severely delay the process of self-correction and their proposed solution is quite surprising: add more subjectivity to the peer review process (Park et al. 2013).

Continue reading