Don’t Buy This

One of the co-founders of the structure of the DNA, James Watson, is selling his Nobel Prize medallion.

And since he’s bringing himself back into the media spotlight, an article at slate reminds us all of some of his verbal gems.:

“Whenever you interview fat people you feel bad, because you know you’re not going to hire them.”

When speaking about women in science, “I think having all these women around makes it more fun for the men but they’re probably less effective.”

What else did the resident bad grandpa of science say recently? Read more here. 

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“Dance your Ph.D.” winner gets up in the air to explain life underground

The winner of this year’s “Dance Your Ph.D.” contest, Uma Nagendra, studies fungi that infect the roots of pine seedlings—seedlings that grow too close to an adult tree, such as their own parent, can be at higher risk of fungal disease transmitted from the adult’s roots. Nagendra depicts those underground interactions, and what happens when a tornado upends them, in a choreographed trapeze performance. Cool!

Celebrating Alfred Russel Wallace with … a symposium of only straight white men?

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A sample of Alfred Russel Wallace’s butterfly collection, which is a lot more colorful than the panel of speakers UCLA has chosen to celebrate his legacy. (Natural History Museum, London)

Update, 31 October: Elizabeth Long asked me to post the following statement about developments since the letter was sent last week:

Perhaps rather naively, I didn’t anticipate the amount of publicity our letter regarding the upcoming public Wallace Centennial Celebration would generate. I had hoped to start a discussion about the issues surrounding diversity and safety in STEM that were raised, and I’m glad to say that this has happened. I have had several very thoughtful and productive conversations with the event organizers and I can confidently and emphatically say that issues surrounding diversity and equality are very important to them. In various ways they’ve each shown this commitment, throughout their careers, through concrete actions.

I asked one of the organizers to help summarize the history of the event. Paraphrasing our discussion: In this specific case the original grant submission included women speakers (4 of 8 speakers) but for various reasons they were ultimately not able to participate. The event organizers wanted to host speakers who are not only excellent scientists and speakers but are also knowledgeable about Wallace and his legacy, which led to a narrow set of selection criteria and led to the original publicized lineup. The revised lineup includes two remarkable women, one an historian of science, and the other an evolutionary medicine specialist.

Update, 29 October: It’s been brought to my attention that the list of symposium speakers now includes Soraya de Chadarevian and Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, which suggests that the organizers are making some changes.

Update, 25 October: I’ve amended the headline of this post to better reflect, I hope, that what the letter and its signatories object to is not the inclusion of white men on the symposium panel, but the lack of inclusion of similarly accomplished folks from groups that are systematically underrepresented in science. As I note below, the panelists are highly accomplished, and appropriate for the Wallace Centennial—but the panel could include women as well without compromising the prestige or topicality of its membership.

2014 marks a century since the death of Alfred Russel Wallace, who is recognized as co-discoverer, with Charles Darwin, of evolution by natural selection. Appropriately, the University of California Los Angeles is holding a symposium of biologists and natural historians to celebrate Wallace’s life and work. Unfortunately, the panel of speakers chosen for the symposium doesn’t exactly reflect the diversity of humanity, or even humans who are biologists and natural historians. Although there are lots of very accomplished folks on the panel who will likely give interesting talks, they’re all straight (so far as I know) white men. That’s right, the Alfred Russel Wallace Centennial fails the gay bar test pretty spectacularly.

Elizabeth Long, a biologist at UCLA and the Natural History Museum of LA, has organized a group of folks to write a letter to the symposium organizers pointing this out—and, just to make it clear how unnecessary an all-male panel is, included a list of accomplished ecologists and evolutionary biologists who are not men. The letter, which I’ve co-signed, also points out that an all-male panel exacerbates problems that women already encounter in academia, and is at odds with Wallace’s legacy as a supporter of equal rights for women. But I’ll let you read the full text, which is after the jump:

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Science and Religion Blah Blah Blah

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A perennial question, a constant product of the click-bait-and-outrage factory known as internet, that has been, and perhaps forever will be posed, answered, yelled about, and generally used to beat the life and enthusiasm out of so many reasonably evolutionary biologists is “CAN RELIGION AND SCIENCE (PARTICULARLY EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY FOR SOME REASON) COEXIST??!?!!?!!?”

The answer is a simple no, and yes. That’s it. No, because religious belief systems often tend to include specific factual claims about the material world that turn out to be total nonsense. For example, the earth and everything on it was not created in 7 literal days. Therefore, one cannot hold both this belief and the belief that scientific inquiry was a fantastic way of generating useful, more-or-less objective knowledge about the world, because actual scientific evidence absolutely refutes such a notion.

On the other hand, yes, because arguably the most important elements of religious belief systems involve claims about immaterial things, such as the existence and nature of the human soul. On these topics, science literally has nothing to say. One cannot measure with calipers, a telescope, a mass spec, an Illumina Hi-Seq or any other tool devisable by humanity, a divine presence purported to pervade all existence. The hypothesis that a God of any sort exists can be rescued from any and every contradictory empirical finding.

Perhaps you can tell, but I’ve written this rant because I’m sick and tired of the web-traffic generating mutualism that exists between religious fundamentalists and atheists claiming to champion science. They both make equally absurd and unsupported claims about religion and science. Their statements are always absolute.

This was supposed to be a link post, so if you’d like to see the New York Times opinion piece that got me all in a rage about this, here it is. But I don’t recommend reading it.

Postscript: I am in no way religious. I also recognize that certain specific religious beliefs are both widely held, harmful, and in direct contradiction to established scientific facts. I think these beliefs ought to be combated. This does not in any way change my overall tolerance of religious belief.

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.