Why study whether we evolved this way?

baby i was born this way

John Corvino, the chair of the Philosophy Department at Wayne State University, has recently published a book, What’s Wrong With Homosexuality, which systematically knocks down objections to the equality of LGBTQ folks. He’s been discussing major points from the book in a series of clever and widely-circulated videos, and I just recently discovered that, in an episode about the biological basis of sexual orientation, he talks about that review article proposing a possible epigenetic basis for sexual orientation that I discussed here a few months ago.

Full disclosure: I found Corvino’s post, actually, because he linked to my piece about the epigenetics paper, and he did so while paying it what I consider the highest compliment it’s possible to pay a science blogger: “A nice explanation of the paper can be found here.” Which: look at me blushing.

But Corvino comes at the question from a somewhat different angle than a biologist: he says it really doesn’t matter whether there’s an inborn basis to sexual orientation.

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Friday Coffee Break

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.

From Amy – Test your science IQ with a Pew Research Center Science Quiz.
From Noah – The first submission to the Annals of Ignominious Evolutionary Psychology. Did you know our hunter-gatherer evolutionary history is the reason people say nasty things about Amanda Knox on the internet? Yeah, neither did we. (Warning – there’s some nasty language.)
In our evolutionary past, small groups of hunter-gatherers needed enforcers, individuals who took it upon themselves to punish slackers and transgressors to maintain group cohesion. We evolved this way. As a result, some people are born to be punishers. They are hard-wired for it.
Also from Noah – An interview with Tim Gallagher on tracking the Imperial Woodpecker through Mexico (on the Diane Rehm Show).

Gallagher relays his current pursuit to save the giant imperial woodpecker of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains. No one knows whether this rare bird is extinct. Gallagher describes his dangerous expedition into this remote region of Geronimo and Pancho Villa where he dodged armed drug traffickers and kidnappers.

The giant moray eel can grow to three metres in length and bites its prey with two sets of jaws—the obvious ones and a second set in its throat that can be launched forward like Hollywood’s Alien. It’s not a creature to be trifled with. But the coral grouper not only seeks out giant morays, but actively rouses them by vigorously shaking its body. The move is a call to arms that tells the moray to join the grouper in a hunt.
Also from Jeremy – MMMMMM, skunk cabbage!
Smelling like a zombie works out well for the plant known as skunk cabbage. The species is featured on the third full episode of the “Plants are Cool, Too!” video series. Hosted by Dr. Chris Martine (Bucknell University) with special guest Dr. Rachel Schultz (SUNY Plattsburgh), the episode was filmed in the Adirondack Mountain region.
From Sarah – Is there anything microbes can’t do? Listeria and (treating) cancer.
The cancer-targeting microorganism, Listeria monocytogenes, is a rod-shaped bacterium that penetrates the cells of the people and animals that it infects…Because of the bacterium’s ability to burrow inside key immune cells called macrophages, some researchers use weakened Listeria with bits of tumor DNA attached to teach the body’s immune system to recognize and destroy cancerous cells that might otherwise slip by unnoticed.
Also from Sarah – An introduction to social media for us scientists in PLoS Biology.
Although a number of guides exist online, many researchers still feel overwhelmed and hesitant toward the virtual world, lacking sufficient information and guidance through formal scientific channels such as peer-reviewed journals. To better familiarize researchers with existing internet resources, here we discuss prospective benefits that can stem from online science conversations, explain how scientists can efficiently and effectively harness online resources, and provide an overview of popular online tools.
And for more awesome latte art  (Einstein AND Harry Potter?!?!?!) – check out this article.

Does science promote morality?

Almost a year ago today, I wrote my first post here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!.  The post, titled ‘The Data on Science and Religion‘, discussed a article in Science that investigated whether analytical thinking promoted religious disbelief.  I thought it fitting that my post today would tackle a new article, just published in PLoS One that asks whether analytical thinking also makes you more moral.

The authors of the article, Christine Ma-Kellams and Jim Blascovich, used a series of four experiments to ask whether there was a link between exposure to science and moral behavior.  In the first experiment, the authors examined how previous exposure to scientific thinking influenced perceptions of moral behavior.  Participants were asked to read a short story describing a date rape situation and rate how wrong the behavior was on a scale of 1-100, where 100 is considered completely wrong.  They were then asked, on a scale of 1-7, how much they ‘believe’ in science.

To avoid confounding past experiences, the following three experiments manipulated the participants recent exposure to scientific thinking by asking them to play a word game that either contained scientific vocabulary (i.e. hypothesis, scientists, etc.) or control vocabulary (i.e. shoes, paper, etc.) and then complete one of three alternative tasks aimed to measure morality.  The second study repeated the same moral judgement scenario as their first experiment.  The third study asked participants to report the likelihood that they would engage in certain activities in the following month.  Those activities fell into two categories: (1) prosocial behaviors that benefit others, such as giving blood and (2) control activities with no benefit to others, such as going to the movies.  Finally, the forth study measured actual moral behavior by giving the participants $5 and asking them to split it (in any manner they desired) between themselves and another anonymous participant.

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Friday Coffee Break


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.

From CJ – Frodo Baggins, A.B.D. (That’s All But Defense, in grad school lingo.)

Like many a dissertator, Frodo’s terrible and treacherous mission has a dual nature. He cannot, and does not, accomplish the goal without the help of others, but ultimately, he must bear the great load alone.

Also from CJ – Get the BBC’s CliffsNotes on the coelacanth genome.

The coelacanth can reach up to 2m-long and is found lurking in caves deep beneath the waves. It was thought to have been extinct for millions of years, until it turned up in a trawlerman’s net off the coast of Africa in 1938. Its ancient appearance has earned it the title “living fossil” – but it is so elusive, that it has been hard to study. To find out more, an international team of researchers sequenced the coelacanth’s genome, which contained nearly three billion DNA bases.

From Jeremy – Prioritizing manuscripts and having data go unpublished for lack of time…

His first point is “never let data go unpublished for lack of impact.” That seems reasonable. But it made me wonder how much I and others let data go unpublished for lack of time. And, if that is happening, is it a sign that I (or we) should change how we approach things?

Also from Jeremy – Does Science have an image problem? Or something else?

It used to be that more than half of biology doctorates got tenure track jobs in universities. Now that figure is closer to 15%. …Meanwhile, law schools are freaking out “just” 56% of law school graduates have “stable jobs in law.” Can you imagine the howls if only 15% of students who went into medical school became practising physicians?

From Jonathan – Gene patents and the future of medicine.

“What we’re arguing about is really the future of medicine and either accelerating it or slowing it down,” says Dietrich Stephan, the CEO of SV Bio and founder of Navigenics. “[Gene patenting] turned into this quagmire that was holding the field back…We need to be able to instantaneously deliver that information to [patients] and their doctors and not go through all these crazy hoops of paying the license holder.”

From Amy – Bitter taste may fight an asthma attack.

When an asthma attack hits, the airway shrinks and makes breathing difficult. To keep air flowing, the sufferer must take medication to relax the passage’s muscles and open it back up. But a couple years ago, researchers discovered airways contain bitter taste receptors like the ones on the tongue. After exposure to bitter substances, the receptors can expand the airway more quickly and more effectively than the most commonly used treatment.

Also from Amy – Which over the counter medicine has been found to reduce anxiety over ‘existential uncertainty and death’?

“Nobody has shown this before, and we are surprised that the effect emerged so robustly,” said lead researcher Daniel Randles, “that a drug meant primarily to alleviate headaches also prevents people from being bothered all that much by thinking about death. It was certainly surprising.”

From Sarah – Spring time is the perfect time for videos of cute baby animals.

Also from Sarah – Dog bacteria is Man’s best friend.

Humans who share their homes with canines also share the similar bacterial houseguests on their skin, ecologists reported Tuesday in the journal eLIFE. In fact, two dog owners who don’t even know each other have about as many of the skin bacteria in common as a married couple living together.

Nala: Sarah's "Man's best friend" and microbial partner-in-crime

Nala: Sarah’s “best friend” and microbial partner-in-crime

Are you going to Snowbird?


I just finished my registration for Evolution 2013, the joint annual meeting of the American Society of Naturalists, Society of Systematic Biologists, and the Society for the Study of Evolution. This year it’ll be at the resort town of Snowbird, Utah—which will be a bit trickier as a travel destination, but promises to provide spectacular natural beauty as a backdrop to the science at the biggest conference of evolutionary biologists and ecologists in North America. For example, Cecret Lake:

Cecret Lake - Alta Utah

Are you going to be there? Should we try to arrange some sort of meet-up for NiB readers and contributors? Let us know in the comments.

Friday Coffee Break

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.

From Amy – Some bad news for bats.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service confirms white-nose syndrome (WNS) is present at Fern Cave National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. This cave provides winter hibernation space for several bat species, including the largest documented wintering colony of endangered gray bats. More than a million individuals of this federally listed and IUCN listed species nest at Fern Cave.
From Sarah – Some good news for bats!
“My attention was immediately drawn to the bat’s strikingly beautiful and distinct pattern of spots and stripes. It was clearly a very extraordinary animal, one that I had never seen before,” recalled Reeder. “I knew the second I saw it that it was the find of a lifetime.”

Also from Amy – In defense of basic research and the investigation of duck penises (complete with video).

As a scientist, my view is that supporting basic and applied research is essential to keep the United States ahead in the global economy. The government cannot affordnot to make that investment. In fact, I argue that research spending should increase dramatically for the United States to continue to lead the world in scientific discovery.
From CJ – Lots of organismal news this week! A gigantic new tarantula, an adventurous (and lucky!) reef fish survivor and yeast’s prestigious new official title. Lastly (and also submitted by Amy), true tales of beauty and horror brought to us by the Mantis Shrimp (and the Oatmeal):
It is Genghis Khan bathed in sherbet ice cream. The mantis shrimp is the harbinger of blood-soaked rainbows.
From Noah – The rise of pseudo-academia (aka predatory open access):

Those scientists had stumbled into a parallel world of pseudo-academia, complete with prestigiously titled conferences and journals that sponsor them. Many of the journals and meetings have names that are nearly identical to those of established, well-known publications and events. Steven Goodman, a dean and professor of medicine at Stanford and the editor of the journal Clinical Trials, which has its own imitators, called this phenomenon “the dark side of open access,” the movement to make scholarly publications freely available.

Also from Noah – Debating the pros and cons of ENCODE with Dan Graur and Michael Eisen.

ENCODE (the Encyclopedia of DNA Elements) is a massive, multi-phase research project costing over $400 million done by over 400 researchers. Project findings, published last September in more than 30 scientific papers, were centered around the claim that though 80% of the genome doesn’t contain genes, it still plays a role in health…Now, a group led by Dan Graur, a professor from Houston University, have just published a paper criticizing the ENCODE project and their findings… We’re joined next by Michael Eisen, the co-founder of PLOS, for a third party take. Eisen is equally blunt in his answers. He is heavily critical, not only of the ENCODE publications (agreeing more with Graur’s definition of “functional”), but also of the ENCODE project in general.

From Devin – The beautiful and mesmerizing coalescent.

Also from Devin – Treating graduate students as people, not just scholars in training will make them better professionals.

For those reasons and many others, graduate students spend a lot of time watching and thinking about their advisers. Even when they don’t sit down with us all that often, we’re on their minds. They gossip about us. They read our writing and may even be inspired by it. And they follow our every move…So an adviser’s criticism of a graduate student’s work can pierce deeper than the tiny hooks on a burr. Criticism from someone so important can wound, and it can impair a student’s progress. And the adviser may not know it.

Also from Sarah – Next Generation Science Standards (the first national recommendation since 1996!):

Educators unveiled new guidelines on Tuesday that call for sweeping changes in the way science is taught in the United States — including, for the first time, a recommendation that climate change be taught as early as middle school. The guidelines also take a firm stand that children must learn about evolution, the central organizing idea in the biological sciences for more than a century, but one that still provokes a backlash among some religious conservatives.

Roller derby is like giant hug with every girl on the track: swapping microbes due to contact

Often I think we as scientist do a really good job of convincing ourselves that our work is important. However, our research rarely makes a big enough splash that a study is widely accepted by everyone as awesome. Trust me, I have recently tried to excitedly explain to a non scientist at a party why finding the recessive mutation behind disliking cilantro was sooooo cool. It didn’t work…

But this study is so cool that it has already blown up the blogosphere. So much so that I was considering posting on an awesome new review by two of my favorite researchers out of the UK (if you haven’t read this yet you should. Also check out Britt Koskella’s blog… it’s pretty awesome). But being a roller derby skater myself (Rolling Hills Derby Dames), I decided I couldn’t let such an awesome study go by without posting about it.

At the moment, the field of microbial ecology is going from big to huge. This is partially due to the inexpensive availability of genome data making it possible to asses the frequency and species of microbes within all sorts of environments. It could also be due to the immediate applicability to human health, as the composition of the microbiome has been linked to obesity, bacterial vaginosis and potentially irritable bowel syndrome.

These communities vary across different parts of the body and individuals, and change over time. And although we know quite a bit about how pathogens can be passed from person to person due to contact, not much is known about the effect contact has on the microbiome.

Lots of contact. Photo Credits to Scott Butner

Lots of contact.
Photo Credits to Scott Butner

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Friday Coffee Break

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.

From Jeremy – “Fast evolution“: If evolutionary time frames are much shorter than previously thought, the implications are huge for environmental science.

Disruptive environments can happen without human intervention, but we are particularly good at creating them. Whether you’re talking about the construction of a highway or the arrival of a fishing fleet, Reznick told me that dramatic environmental shifts spur localized populations to change very quickly. And those changes can even create new species or subspecies, all within the span of tens to hundreds of years.

Also from Jeremy – None of my science piñatas are appropriate for children.

From Devin – How to horizontally step into science writing.

The vertical trajectory is the one taken by people who, perhaps from a very early age, knew they wanted to become writers or journalists, perhaps specifically science journalists. … The horizontal trajectory describes people who start out in science, with every intention of making a career in research. But, as tenure track is now an alternative career in science, most science students need to find other options. Some of them – those who always liked to write, wrote diaries as kids, etc. – will explore the option of becoming science writers.

Also from Devin – Tips on NSF pre-proposals, the three types of specific aims.

In particular, how people handle the Specific Aims section 1) makes a big difference in the flow of the document, and 2) is pretty heavily correlated with those I suspect have NIH experience.

There seem to be three flavors of SA that I see re-occurring…(click the link to find out what they are!)

From Sarah – Do you know what a klout score is? It might not get you tenure (this post is an April Fool’s Joke), but maybe someday it could?

Klout scores are based on a numerical measure of social media significance, including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. The resulting score is increasingly being used to decide whether or not someone is an “influencer”. Rumor has it that sites like GitHub (see esp GitHub Resume) and Stack Overflow are important in the tech industry, but no such similar sites are really much used in academia.

Also from Sarah – Further evidence from a sea lion that humans aren’t that special.

While rhythm can often be hard enough to find among humans, finding it in the animal kingdom has been even more rare. But thanks to a 3-year-old sea lion named Ronan who knows how to keep the beat, previous notions of rhythmic ability among animals are now being challenged.

From Jonathan – An episode of the Diane Rehm show where guest, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the NIH, discusses the BRAIN project.

President Barack Obama announced a new multi-year research initiative to map the human brain. He compared its potential to that of the Human Genome Project. Scientists hope the brain project will eventually lead to solutions to diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and better treatments for a range of mental illnesses. The National Institutes of Health will coordinate the project. The president wants Congress to approve $100 million in initial funding. Some critics argue the money could be better spent on smaller grants to a number of brain research projects with specific goals. But many scientists are enthusiastic.

From Noah – Dragonflies are Nature’s drones: pretty and deadly.

Dragonflies…look dainty, glittery and fun, like a bubble bath or costume jewelry, and they’re often grouped with butterflies and ladybugs on the very short list of Insects People Like. Yet they are also voracious aerial predators, and new research suggests they may well be the most brutally effective hunters in the animal kingdom.

Carnival of Evolution, April 2013

Tomorrowland at Dusk

What kind of sequencing capacity do they have in Tomorrowland? Photo by Big DumpTruck.

The April 2013 edition of the Carnival of Evolution is online over at Synthetic Daisies. This issue of the monthly collection of online writing about all things evolution-y is organized around the theme of the future of evolution—which looks to be full of exciting possibilities. There’s experimental phylogenetics and speculation about radio-sensing animals and species coming back from the dead, so maybe you should go peruse the whole thing.

One of these moths is not like the other … but does that matter to Joshua trees?

A Joshua tree flower, up close.

A Joshua tree flower, up close.

A huge diversity of flowering plants rely on animals to carry pollen from one flower to another, ensuring healthy, more genetically diverse offpsring. These animal-pollinated species are in a somewhat unique position, from an evolutionary perspective: they can become reproductively isolated, and to form new species, as a result of evolutionary or ecological change in an entirely different species.

Evolutionary biologists have had good reason to think that pollinators often play a role in the formation of new plant species since at least the middle of the 20th century, when Verne Grant observed that animal-pollinated plant species are more likely to differ in their floral characteristics than plants that move pollen around via wind. More recently, biologists have gone as far as to dissect the genetic basis of traits that determine which pollinator species are attracted to a flower—and thus, which flowers can trade pollen.

However, while it’s very well established that pollinators can maintain isolation between plant populations, we have much less evidence that interactions with pollinators help to create that isolation in the first place. One likely candidate for such pollinator-mediated speciation is Joshua tree, the iconic plant of the Mojave Desert.

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