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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We’re Not Going To Take It ( #NAWD )

“Adjunct” is the word for non-tenure track faculty positions at universities. They are generally low-paying (without benefits), utterly lacking in job security and can even lead to questionable hires (further reviewed here). The reliance on and mistreatment of cheap PhDs to teach undergraduate courses may have finally reached some sort of tipping point – February 25, 2015 is National Adjunct Walkout Day. They have a group on Facebook and are using the hashtag #NAWD on twitter. Read more about the “adjunct crisis” and the walkout here or here.

And if you’re an adjunct planning on participating, a student being taught by adjunct faculty, a tenure track faculty at a university using adjuncts to teach courses or basically anyone else, I’d love to hear your thoughts! Personally, I can’t get “We’re Not Going To Take It” out of my head…

Natural selection at the movies: Only the bad guys evolve

You can thank evolution for making xenomorphs so gosh darn scary.

You can thank evolution for making Xenomorphs so gosh darn scary. (Flickr: Maggie Osterberg)

It’s almost Halloween, and if you’re anything like me, you celebrate the season by watching scary movies. Although the horror movie marathon is a typical annual tradition of mine, this year I set out with a specific task: to identify as many movies as possible where the villain is somehow associated with evolution by natural selection. As it turns out, there are a lot of them.

Think classic horror films like Alien and Jaws, and also more recent movies like Chronicle, Resident Evil, and Slither. The trend also isn’t restricted to horror movies, with references to natural selection cropping up everywhere from science fiction/adventure films like Edge of Tomorrow to sports dramas like Rocky IV. Nor is it limited to movies alone- television shows like The Walking Dead can give you your fix of “survival of the fittest” references on a weekly basis. Even the urbandictionary.com definition of the word “villains” involves natural selection.

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Life, um, finds a way—except when it doesn’t

This week the LA Review of Books has my review of Unnatural Selection, a nifty new book in which ecological toxicologist Emily Monosson describes how living things evolve their way around the things we humans do to try and contain them.

… the introduction of the insecticide DDT rapidly led to the evolution of resistant mosquitoes, houseflies, and, yes, bedbugs. Decades of farming with the herbicide glyphosate, better known under the brand name Roundup, have led to the evolution of resistance in dozens of weed species. One after another, Monosson ticks off cases, dividing them into chapters corresponding roughly to biological classification. She goes beyond these headline examples to describe lesser-known triumphs of “resistance evolution,” such as viruses evading human immune responses and inadequate vaccination, cancer cells overcoming chemotherapy, and fish that survive water polluted by biochemical toxins.

This hits some of the same themes as that recent review about using evolutionary biology to solve major problems in the coming century, though I might have liked it if Unnatural Selection spent a bit more time discussing the cases when life doesn’t find a way—the myriad reasons we’re in the middle of the sixth mass extinction in the history of the planet. But I highly recommend the book for the folks in your life who may not realize how personal evolutionary biology can be.

Ebola: Why you should and shouldn’t be concerned

Over at Wired, this article does an excellent job summarizing why you should be concerned with Ebola in Africa, and maybe not worry about it as much in the US.

Especially worth reading this quote here:

“Ebola isn’t anywhere near as contagious as the flu, for example. Or measles, which is much more of a threat in the United States now that people are no longer routinely vaccinating their children. Scientists estimate that one person infected with measles can transmit the disease to as many as 18 others; for Ebola, that number is around two.”

It also does an excellent job of highlighting the concerns with the virus, and why you should and shouldn’t be worried.

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Did someone say coffee?

Boy howdy, do I need love coffee. Drinking coffee feels like it’s in my blood. Perhaps literally. A recent study has identified some pretty interesting genes linked to coffee consumption.

They also found two regions of DNA near genes called BDNF and SLC6A4 that might play a role in how caffeine affects the brain by positive reinforcement. The study participants with a certain variant, who secrete less BDNF, may feel less of the rewarding effects of drinking coffee, according to the study. But the bigger coffee drinkers were more likely to have a certain variant of the SLC6A4 gene, which encodes a protein that transports the brain chemical serotonin.

Read more about the results here.

No, wait. Scratch that. I don’t.

Down Syndrome Awareness Month

This month is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and while this is the most common chromosomal abnormality, there is still a lack of social understanding.

So this week’s link(s) are all going to be about the efforts to raise awareness of Down Syndrome.

As NiB has talked about raising money for scientific research (watch Jeremy get soaked with water) I’d like to encourage you to call your congress person and lobby for increased funding for scientific research.

Or make a donation to Down Syndrome research here 

Or please read this article about a parent trying to raise awareness.

Or read about and/or sign up for one of the Down Syndrome Buddy walks here.

Atlanta Falcons Jake Matthews posted a photo of his favorite Falcons fan, his sister Gwen, who has down syndrome.

Or read about other ways to become an advocate at the National Down Syndrome Society.

Or just enjoy these photos of  my adorable friend Charlotte, who is growing up beautifully.

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