Science and Religion Blah Blah Blah


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.

The evolution of human facial diversity

Signalling individual identity is critical in many aspects of human social interaction (click for video!).

We all rely on our ability to recognize other people’s faces to get along in the world. Most people don’t think too hard about this, it’s so fundamental to our existence. But it turns out that in order to stand out in the crowd, you need to be, well different. A recent study shows that human faces are in fact, much more different from one another than other traits, and suggests that this high facial diversity has evolved specifically to signal individual identity. It’s a pretty interesting story, and I look forward to digging into the details.

Check out this NatGeo piece on the work, and the original publication (paywalled).

Literature Cited:
Sheehan, Michael J., and Michael W. Nachman. “Morphological and population genomic evidence that human faces have evolved to signal individual identity.” Nature Communications 5 (2014).

Random Natural History: Ebola

through a glass, darkly

Currently there is a catastrophic outbreak of Ebola happening in West Africa. Over 1700 infections have been recorded with nearly 1000 deaths, making it the deadliest outbreak of ebola known. Infection results in a hemorrhagic fever, which starts out a bit like the influenza, but can result in bleeding from mucous membranes, organ failure, and ultimately death. But what is Ebola?

Ebola is a Filovirus. Filoviruses are a small group of viruses only known to infect mammals. They are so named because of their filamentous shape. They have tiny genomes, only ~19,000 base pairs in length, containing only seven protein coding genes and two regulatory regions. By contrast, the human genome is over 3 billion base pairs, contains around twenty thousand genes and has innumerable (by which I mean as yet unnumbered regulatory regions). Because of ebola’s simplicity, (as with all viruses), it cannot reproduce without commandeering the cellular machinery of its hosts. In the words of Cormac McCarthy, These anonymous creatures… may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us.

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BAH! Fest – 2014

Here at Nothing in Biology, we are big fans of making stuff up (but, uh, not on the blog… or in our scientific publications… or on our tax returns… or, well, you get the point). So a few of us are thinking of entering some of our fantastical(ly bad) evolutionary theories to the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses. This festival is dedicated to “well-argued and thoroughly researched but completely incorrect evolutionary theory”. To get an idea of what it’s about, see the video below. If you’re in or near the Bay Area or Cambridge, Mass this October, think about checking it out!

Random Natural History: Salvin’s Albatross

Salvin's Albatross (Thalassarche salvini)

On Saturday, a Salvin’s Albatross was sighted by birdwatchers on a tour just off the coast of Northern California. This is an extremely rare occurrence. How rare? A bird-blogger who was on the tour writes:

Salvin’s Albatross are well-known for their habit of avoiding the northern hemisphere. It is so rare that I can’t really wrap my mind around it. It’s a bird I don’t look for when I am looking for rare birds. It is the rarest seabird, geographically speaking, that I have ever seen.

So, what is a Salvin’s albatross? For that matter, what are albatrosses? And what makes this such an unusual sighting?

Albatrosses are birds in the family Diomedeidae. They are large, long-lived birds that spend virtually their entire lives at sea. There are way too many cool aspects of albatross biology to cover here, but here are two to chew on:

1) They use dynamic soaring and slope soaring to travel thousands of miles with hardly a flap of their wings. In fact, they are so large, and so well adapted for gliding flight they aren’t very well equipped for typical flapping flight.

2) They have elaborate courtship rituals that play out over years, and result in life-long pair bonds. For some species, “life-long” means over 50 years. Below are Waved Albatross (Phoebastria irrorata) on the Galapagos Islands.

So what’s Salvin’s Albatross, then? Thalassarche salvini is a southern hemisphere albatross species. It’s part of a complex of four species that used to be considered one. They’ve since been split, and what’s now recognized as Salvin’s breeds primarily on two remote island complexes near New Zealand: The Bounty Islands and the Western Chain of Snares Islands, although a handful of breeding pairs have been recorded on scattered islands thousands of miles distant (but still in high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere).

While foraging, Salvin’s Albatrosses wander the southern oceans. Their core range is from Australia to western South America, but they’ve been recorded in the southern Indian Ocean as well. The key to their rarity in northern oceans is probably lies in the trade winds. Because (as I mentioned above), albatrosses are so exquisitely adapted for gliding flight, so adept at using wind and waves to stay aloft, and not very good flapping fliers, they are also dependent on wind and waves being consistently available to get around. This means the horse latitudes, or the doldrums (bands of low wind encircling the earth at around 35 degrees latitude) probably form quite effective barriers for them.

So this individual spotted off the coast of California is a long way from home, and could probably spin an interesting yarn about just how it ended up here. How long it will stay in the northern Pacific, or if it will ever make the journey back home, we’ll probably never know.

Random Natural History: Valley Oaks and their Galls.

Ok, time for a short bit of natural history. I live in the Sacramento Valley in northern California. The dominant tree species (outside of urban areas) seems to be the Valley Oak (Quercus lobata). Now, there aren’t a whole lot of trees in the valley, so it’s pretty lucky that Valley Oaks are fairly spectacular.

Valley oak (Quercus lobata) on Joseph D Grant County Park Canada de Pala Trail

They are also little ecosystems unto themselves. The first thing most people notice about them are oak apple galls, so called because they bear a disturbing resemblance to (rotting) apples.

"Oak apple" galls of California Gall Wasps (Andricus quercuscalifornicus, Cynipidae, Hymenoptera) on Valley Oak (Quercus lobata, Fagaceae)

Trees can often be so laden with them that they actually look like cultivated apple trees. The galls are woody, though, not squishy like actual apples. What is a gall, you ask? Good question. A gall is essentially a plant tumor. In many cases (as here) galls are caused by insect parasites. An adult insect lays eggs in the tissue of a plant, and those eggs release hormones that induce the plant to form the gall. Galls can provide food and shelter for their hosts until they are ready to mate and lay new eggs. Galls can be quite complicated structures, the result of parasites evolving very refined control over their hosts over time. As a result, galling insects can frequently be identified by their galls alone. Oak apple galls are caused by a wasp, Andricus quercuscalifornicus, but are exploited by a constellation of at least 20 other arthropods that feed on the galls, A. quercuscalifornicus, and each other.

These aren’t the only galls associated with the Valley Oaks. There are at least two more. One of which is fairly bizarre and the original inspiration for this post: the California Jumping Gall. This gall is also caused by a wasp, Neuroterus saltatorius. In contrast to the oak apple galls, these galls are tiny, only about a millimeter across. What they lack in size, however, they make up for in quantity. These galls form on the undersides of oak leaves by the hundreds of thousands. When they mature, they drop off the leaves, wasp larva still inside. Once on the ground, they start “jumping”. The larvae violently fling themselves around inside the gall, presumably to try to move it into a sheltered spot where they can finish out their life cycle and emerge the following spring to lay new eggs.

The galls are dropping now in my neighborhood, and the result is that sidewalks and gutters under valley oaks appear to be full of jumping grains of sand. It’s a pretty weird sight:

Here’s a link to another video:

ARKive video - California jumping gall wasp - overview

Well, that’s all I’ve got for now. I’ll end on another photo of an amazing Valley Oak.

Quercus lobata VALLEY OAK/ROBLE

“One of the great migration stories of the world” – Shrimp in the mighty Mississippi.


Macrobrachium ohione, by Clinton and Charles Robertson, via Flickr.

The Mississippi River that we know today is a creation of the army corps of engineers. Before they got to levying, dredging and damming it into submission, it was a wild and meandering thing that harbored great concentrations of wildlife. One component of that was a massively abundant shrimp with an amazing life cycle:

It turned out that in pre-colonial times the shrimp traveled all the way north into the upper reaches of the Mississippi’s main eastern tributary, the Ohio River, and back again – a 2,000-mile round trip. It was a journey more amazing than similarly epic migrators like salmon. For whereas adult salmon may have an equally long journey to their upstream spawning sites, it is the quarter-inch juvenile shrimp that swim and crawl 1,000 miles upstream against the strong currents of the Mississippi.

What happened to these shrimp? Go read the story to find out.


View from Kamiak Butte. Outside Moscow, ID.

View from Kamiak Butte. Outside Moscow, ID.

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.

Continue reading

Friday Coffee Break


Here’s what we’ll be talking about while we wait in line for a latte:

The latest news in the human-neanderthal hybridization story: some neanderthal genes may have contributed to human adaptation during the expansion out of Africa. From Amy.

Anemones have been discovered living attached to antarctic sea ice. From Amy.

Rattlesnakes in the southwest have astoundingly variable venom. The variation confounds attempts at developing antivenoms and its adaptive significance is unknown. From Jeremy.

Did we learn nothing from Jurassic Park? The strain of Yersinia pestis that caused one of the worst plagues in human history has been extracted from a preserved tooth of one of its victims and had it’s genome sequenced. From Sarah.

A link containing a video of a flying snake. What more could you ask for? From Noah.

Think your tilapia-tomato aquaponic system is clever? Well the three-toed sloth has got you beat. It’s running an algae-moth system in its fur. From Noah.

Friday Coffee Break

Here’s what we’ll be talking about while we wait in line for a latte (and ^^^ is what we’ll be doing when we read the links):

A new amazonian river dolphin species discovered! From Noah.

Not biology, but… Yale student fight with their administration over use and display of course evaluation data. From Noah.

Everyone loves a nice juicy taxonomy fail. Don’t know what a salp is? Neither do a whole bunch of people writing stories about them on the internet. From CJ.

Mantis shrimp, best known for rapidly producing enormous amounts of force with their claws also have a unique and somewhat mysterious visual system. From CJ.

8 ways animals survive the winter. From Sarah.

Antibiotic resistance defined. From Sarah.

An absurd PLOS ONE paper presents the “quilt plot” which is really just a simple heatmap… but it spurs Lior Pachter to ask just what measures should go into a heatmap comparing gene expression data sets. From Noah.

Amateur ornithologists banding hummingbird (particularly in Louisiana!) have helped show that many species successfully winter year after year on the gulf coast. From Noah