Here at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, we’re fascinated by all the weird, baroque ways that living things influence and coevolve with each other—so Ed Yong’s new TED talk about mind-controlling parasites is right up our alley. Just like his writing—currently on display at National Geographic‘s Phenomena, among many other venues—it’s a compendium of nifty natural history punctuated with highly educational gross-outs and the occasional black-belt level pun.
Here’s what we’ll be chatting about while we’re waiting in line for a latte.
“For anybody who was already paying attention, the report contains no new science. But the language in the 18-page report, called ‘What We Know,’ is sharper, clearer and more accessible than perhaps anything the scientific community has put out to date.” (via Jeremy)
“Over the last century, almost every frontline antimalarial drug – chloroquine, sulfadoxine, pyrimethamine – has become obsolete because of defiant parasites that emerged from western Cambodia.” (Jeremy)
“The aim is to build up a profile of gut bacteria which will allow us to predict who will suffer side-effects that might limit the effectiveness of the radiotherapy.” (Sarah)
“After years of predicting it would happen — and after years of having their suggestions largely ignored by companies, farmers and regulators — scientists have documented the rapid evolution of corn rootworms that are resistant to [genetically modified] Bt corn.” (Sarah, who also notes that this is yet further confirmation of Malcolm’s Law.)
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.
A whole lot of folks—433!—have “liked” the Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! page on Facebook, which ought to mean that all those people see new posts from the site right in their Facebook News Feed. But we’ve found that our Facebook posts are typically seen by a lot fewer than 433 folks—and the number seems to be declining. This may be a symptom of something happening with Facebook pages in general—fewer posts are reaching the people who’ve “liked” pages, possibly because there are just more pages to “like.” The solution offered by FB is to pay for placement in people’s news feeds, but this “promotion” can reach a lot of people who really aren’t interested, and that’s not why we have a Facebook page in the first place.
If you want to ensure that posts from Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! make it into your News Feed, there is one thing you can do: Turn on the “get notifications” option on our page. This is illustrated above—it’s in a drop-down menu attached to the “Like” button itself. Selecting “get notifications” tells Facebook’s News Feed algorithm to give our posts priority in your feed.
Here’s what we’ll be talking about while we wait in line for a latte.
“The 18 known species, the tallest growing to a staggering 10 feet tall, didn’t bother with flying, instead opting to chase down all those creatures that had only just thrown their good-riddance-to-the-massive-carnivorous-dinosaurs party. The poor things woke up with a hangover, and the hangover was the terror bird.” (from Jeremy)
“In a long, narrow strip of territory from Kansas to New Jersey, two closely related species of chickadees meet, mate and give birth to hybrid birds. Now scientists are reporting that this so-called hybrid zone is moving north at a rate that matches the warming trend in winter temperatures.” (Jeremy)
“Created by divers for divers, this global, underwater survey of rubbish is designed to increase debris removal efforts, prevent harm to marine life and connect your underwater actions to policy changes and prevention.” (CJ)
“For better or worse,” said Steven A. Edwards, a policy analyst at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, “the practice of science in the 21st century is becoming shaped less by national priorities or by peer-review groups and more by the particular preferences of individuals with huge amounts of money.” (Noah)
“Despite such power players in W’s corner, however, the fact remains that in a substantial portion of the academic discussion, she is being eviscerated, all for having the audacity to stick up for herself for the first (and possibly last) time in her career.” (Sarah)
“I don’t know what happened on the job interview, but that email from the candidate to the Dean is a huge red flag word embroidered with script that reads: ‘I don’t want to teach’ and ‘I expect you to give me resources just like a research university would.'” (Sarah)
A lot of pixels have been spilled on the subject of the adjunct crisis in academia. For those of you who don’t know what that is, it refers to the explosive growth in the use of adjunct faculty to teach courses at colleges and universities in the United States. These faculty are hired on a course by course, semester by semester basis. They receive no benefits and don’t have a shred of job security. By some estimates an average “full-time” adjunct faculty member teaching 8 courses a year (3 each semester and 2 in the summer, perhaps?) would make less than $30,000 a year and it’s thought that adjunct faculty are now doing 70% of the teaching at higher education institutions in the US.
Much of the discussion of this issue has focused on the perceived fundamental unfairness of employing highly educated professionals in such an absurd fashion, or on the pyramid scheme-y aspects of graduate programs that chew up students and spit them into this cesspool of underemployment. In the comments sections of these pieces, there is an ever-present retort, presumably emanating from those free market-loving capitalists among us, that if adjunct faculty hate their plight so much, they should change career paths.
In response to this, I want to use a recent post at this blog to highlight a slightly less well covered aspect of the issue and the other side of that coin: when you offer shitty compensation, you might just get shitty employees.
Here’s what we’ll be discussing while we wait in line for a latte.
“Children learned a lot from one pretty basic storybook intervention so imagine what a curriculum spread over several years might do for scientific literacy long term.” (Sarah)
“It is alarming that so many Nobel Prize recipients have lamented that they would never have survived this current academic environment.” (Noah)
“Ingenuity and lots of sticky tape and glue have helped a rare parrot chick survive against the odds.” (Jeremy)
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:
Environments can vary substantially in habitat quality, local population abundance, or carrying capacity. Under some climate change scenarios, new, higher quality habitats become available along the margin of a species’ range (e.g. higher latitudes or altitudes) (Thomas et al 2001). These new habitats may be able to support larger population sizes. Factors of demography, evolution, and qualities of the abiotic and biotic communities all interact to determine where a species is found and may influence the ability of a species to expand its range. New research is building genetically explicit models in order to understand how the interplay of these different factors influence evolutionary changes,
The authors of a recent study focus on how the interaction of the demographic process of range expansion changes the way that natural selection favors beneficial and deleterious mutations (Peischl et al 2013). Using both computer simulations as well as mathematical approximations, the authors find that at the range margins, individuals carry a substantial load of deleterious mutations.
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.