See you in Raleigh!

I’ve just registered (a whole two days ahead of the deadline!) for the 2014 Evolution meetings, which this year are hosted by NESCent at Raleigh, North Carolina. Up to now, my strongest association with Raleigh is from a childhood of watching The Andy Griffith Show, in which Raleigh is the big city from Mayberry’s point of view—particularly this episode where Andy and Barney drive up to town to apply for membership in a posh social club:

(Click here to go direct to the awkwardness.)

… actually, now that I re-watch this, Barney’s performance is a pretty good primer on how not to behave at scientific meetings, too. “Oh, you remember genotyping-by-sequencing, Andy! It’s genotyping. Done by, er, sequencing.”

A science-y tweet makes my heart skip a beat

When I first heard about Twitter (several years before I actually understood what it was) – I remember thinking it sounded silly. Who cares what celebrities are thinking (Figure 1)? I dismissed everything Twitter-related as irrelevant and continued on my merry way. I think it was during Evolution 2011 that Jeremy (from this blog) suggested I join Twitter because you can follow interesting talks and remain engaged throughout conferences. It took a little while for me to work up a real affection for Twitter but the longer I’ve been a member (and perhaps the longer Science and scientists have had to assimilate it into our work world), the more useful I find it (Figure 2).

Figure 1: An example of the "Why bother?" side of Twitter. Why 103,000 people thought this was worth repeating via "retweeting" is beyond me because it gets dumber each time I read it...

Figure 1: An example of the “Why bother?” side of Twitter. And why 103,000 people bothered repeating this via “retweeting” is beyond me. It gets dumber each time I read it.

Figure 2: Why you actually should bother. Devin's posts include (top to bottom) - passing along a job opportunity, interesting publication, a professional interaction about science spam, a second paper and link to our blog!

Figure 2: Why you actually should bother. Devin’s posts include (top to bottom) – passing along a job opportunity, interesting publication, a professional interaction about science spam, a second paper and link to our blog!

Regarding social media and scientists in general, Bik & Goldstein have written a great introduction. They discuss the pros and cons of several platforms (i.e., blogs, Facebook, Twitter) and how to choose amongst these depending on your interests. For example – are you most interested in communicating science to the “general public”? TO THE FLOW CHART! Perhaps creating your own content in the form of a blog is for you. Alternatively, are you more interested in compiling cool stuff you’ve found from across the world wide web? Consider Facebook.

Despite the ubiquity of social media in our world, many scientists are reluctant to embrace it. That’s somewhat understandable – “Why bother?” is an easy question to ask and get no answer to if you’re “unplugged”. Bik & Goldstein outline four major “research benefits from an online presence”.

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Life, the universe, and blurry boundaries

2007.03.10 - Pinyon pine

Over at the New York Times, science writer Ferris Jabr wrestles with the difficulty of differentiating living things from non-living things—viruses can reproduce themselves and evolve, but need host cells to do it; inorganic crystals can grow and (sort of) reproduce. He concludes that although “life” as we know it is a useful concept, it’s just that—a concept: “We find it useful to think of some things as alive and others as inanimate, but this division exists only in our heads.”

From there, Jabr goes on to a conclusion that (judging from my Twitter stream) has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad idea:

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BAH! This looks amazing

BAHFest , the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses, is a competition to develop “well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory.” The whole thing was originally proposed in a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strip proposing that human infants have been evolutionarily optimized for long-distance dispersal by catapult.

Coming up with “obviously wrong” scientific hypotheses is clever because it helps us think about why, exactly, we choose to believe the hypotheses that we do, and how we use (and misuse) evidence to make those judgements. My personal favorite example is a 1983 article, published in the journal Evolution, which evaluates all the possible reasons that natural selection has made offspring smaller than their parents [PDF]—smaller offspring are easier to hide, cheaper to make, easier to disperse, and easier to control in the event that their interests conflict with their parents’—but completely (and deliberately) misses the obvious, actual reason.

Last year’s BAHFest winner, Tomer Ullman, proposed that babies cry because the irritating, high-pitched noise helps prepare their caretakers for battle:

The next iterations of BAHFest are scheduled for 25 October in San Francisco, and a date to be announced in Boston.


Ellstrand NC. 1983. Why are juveniles smaller than their parents? Evolution. 37(5): 1091-4. doi: 10.2307/2408423.

The (f)utility of debating creationists

This is a guest post by Reid Brennan, a Ph.D. student studying the genomics of adaptation in response to environmental stress as part of Andrew Whitehead’s lab at the University of California, Davis.

Ken Ham hates evolution. Bill Nye hates creationism. After Nye released the great video “Creationism is not appropriate for children“, Ham decided to personally respond in a number of videos (link, link). Eventually Ham challenged Nye to a debate, a challenge that Nye accepted.

For those of you not closely following the creationist crowd, Ken Ham is the founder of Answers in Genesis, the anti-evolution organization responsible for the Creation Museum and Ark Park (That’s right, an amusement park featuring a full sized ark on which all the animals of the world were saved from the flood). On February 4th at 7PM ET, Ham and Nye will meet to debate the following topic/question: “Is creation a viable model of origins in today’s modern, scientific era?”

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Baba Brinkman says he wants my money

But he doesn’t want it badly enough to actually address the substance of any of my criticisms of his scheme to rid the world of meanness via “an entirely defensible ‘bottom up’ form of eugenics.”

Oh, and I see he’s speculating about my sex life. Real charmer, this guy.

In his non-response response, Brinkman doubles down on his fixation with the fact that, across human populations, males become more likely to be involved in violent crime right around the time we hit puberty:

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Inane pseudo-scientific claptrap of the week: “Don’t sleep with mean people”

The maestro behind the “Rap Guide to Evolution,” Baba Brinkman, has a new idea for changing the world: don’t sleep with mean people. I know, right? You hadn’t thought about doing that, either?

Are you amazed at the clarity of Brinkman’s insight into the roots of human suffering? Then he would like you to give him money to help make his plan a reality. Well, to make a music video and a documentary and some billboards, anyway.

Or, you know, you could do something more useful with your money, like baking it into muffins as a fiber supplement. Or shredding it up to mulch your vegetable garden. Or using it to line a bird cage.

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Batesian and aggressive mimicry in academic publishing: A proposal for escalation of the coevolutionary arms-race

The following is a guest post from friend of the blog and Assistant Professor of Biology at Willamette University Chris Smith.


Figure 1. Kingsnakes and milksnakes are Batesian mimics of the deadly coral snake. 1A: An eastern coral snake. Photo by Norman Benton, via Wikimedia Commons. 1B: A Mexican milk snake. Photo by Dawson, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mimicry is a common phenomenon in the natural world, where one organism evolves to resemble another. Familiar examples include (harmless) king snakes that have banding patterns remarkably similar to the (extremely venomous) coral snake (Figure 1), or (palatable) Viceroy butterflies that resemble (toxic) monarchs. These so-called ‘Batesian’ mimics enjoy the benefits of appearing to be dangerous while paying no costs. That is, they escape being eaten by predators without having to produce toxins themselves.

A second, less familiar, form of mimicry is ‘aggressive’ mimicry, in which predators use deception to more effectively attack their prey. For example, some fireflies mimic the sequence of flashes emitted by females of other species, and then attack and eat the unsuspecting male fireflies that come to court them. Similarly, some butterflies in the genus Maculinea are social parasites of ants, and produce chemicals on their exoskeleton that resembles the scent of ant larvae. Foraging ants discover these seemingly helpless babies that appear to have wandered away nest and carry them back to the brood chamber, where the butterfly larvae proceed to devour the ant larvae.

The world of academic publishing has recently seen the convergent evolution of mimicry in ways that remarkably mirror the strategies seen in the natural world. As has been carefully researched and documented by Jeffrey Beall, a reference librarian at the University of Colorado, Denver, the Open-Acces movement has inadvertently given rise to a legion of ‘predatory publishers’. The publishers offer (for a hefty fee) to publish research papers without the process of rigorous peer review that would normally precede the publication of scholarly work. (NIB contributor Sarah Hird described her experience with a predatory publisher here).

Most of the papers published by such ‘predatory publishers’ are Batesian mimics. They enjoy the imprimatur of academic legitimacy without having to pay the cost of rigor, but like the king snake they are otherwise ‘harmless’. These are typically papers of low importance and low impact, sometimes with shoddy experimental designs, that would not pass muster in more rigorous journals. But rarely, if ever, is the work truly fraudulent.

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Friday Coffee Break, Official Springtime Edition


Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

With the official start of Spring this week, at least depending on where you are.  For me, I’m currently sitting in Ithaca, NY where the high for the day is still only squeaking into the above freezing range which only makes me miss Richmond, VA right now all the more.  So without further adieu, which is apparently my new catch phrase, your links for the week.

To start things off on a light and happy note.  Sarah has some wonderful news that she passed her dissertation defense!!  She is so excited, as she should be, that her link this week is a ton of dancing GIFs.  Of note, she things either Carlton or Ace Ventura match her mood best.  Congrats Sarah!

This week CJ wonders about the possibility of a gender gap in pain perception as discussed in the NYTimes article.  She also thought this article gave a good break down of the process of becoming tenured and is indeed quite helpful (and makes me glad to be in the field that I am in).  And finally, an opinion piece on why De-extinction would not work.

From Jeremy, a piece from the blog Why Evolution is True on why science writing is tedious and often boring and what it takes to write good science.

From Amy, a depressing story on the passage of an amendment limiting the funding for NSF research regarding political science and the letter from Senator Tom Coburn justifying this measure.

Finally, I’d like to end things with a video.  I’m a big fan of TED talks and also of U2, so when I saw that Bono gave a TED talk about his passion of helping to fight to end poverty I thought it was worth a look.  I loved his analogy of how poverty could end in as short a time period as about 3 more Rolling Stones farewell tours.

Thinking like a scientist: Explaining falsification and why creationism is not a viable alternative to evolution

This post is a guest contribution by Dr. Prosanta Chakrabarty, Assistant Professor/Curator of Fishes at Louisiana State University. Prosanta studies the systematics and evolution of both marine and freshwater fishes worldwide. His research has been featured in Science, NPR and the BBC. You can follow him on Twitter.

We live in a rapidly changing world. There is a great deal of information available to us, most of it at our fingertips through computers, smartphones and the like. It is easy to think that having the internet at our reach means that we are all on an equal playing field in terms of knowledge: everything we don’t know we can find the answer to with a quick Google search. I’ve written this post because I think this view is flawed.

Figure 1

It may be true that we can find a great many answers on the internet, the problem is that there are many wrong answers out there as well (Fig. 1). Knowing right from wrong has never been harder. Thinking like a scientist is the best way to sort through the mess.

So how does a scientist think? As a scientist I should know better than to speak for all scientists, but I’m going to do so anyway. When presented with a problem a scientist attempts to solve it without bias. (Although we may want a certain outcome, influencing a test or experiment to get that result is not science.) One common way scientists tackle a problem is through falsification (also called the hypothetico-deductive method). Using falsification, we construct hypotheses and conduct tests that are capable, in theory, of proving those hypotheses are incorrect. (Hypotheses are essentially answers to a question.) Following those tests, the hypothesis that is not falsified lives to fight another day but we can soundly reject the one that was demonstrated false. The next time we can refine the hypotheses and make the tests stricter. Will we then find the truth? Potentially. The truth is out there but we will never know for sure if we’ve found it. Truth, is unknowable. All we have done through falsification is proven what isn’t true, or at least, what is least true.

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