Happy Darwin Day to everyone!! It’s Darwin’s birthday, so I thought I would commemorate the occasion with a blog post.
I have recently read two wonderful books about Darwin’s intellectual predecessors and the development of the ideas the prepared the ground in which Darwin’s great idea could take root and grow. They are Darwin’s Ghosts by Rebecca Stott and Darwin’s Century by Loren Eiseley. I highly recommend both. They are beautifully written and offer a deep appreciation for how important the complex mixture of culture, philosophy, science, and history is for understanding how people think and develop new ways of understanding the world that they experience. Both books provide a deeply satisfying context in which to place Darwin and his achievements, while also celebrating the contributions of many other brilliant and courageous people.
In Darwin’s time, species change by natural selection was in the air. The concept of geological timescales, the recognition of the reality of species extinction, the observation of global patterns of diversity, the careful description of natural variation within species, advances comparative anatomy, systematics, and embryology - all of these and more made the eventual theory of natural selection inevitable. If Darwin hadn’t thought of it, others would have done so independently. In fact several people did – famously including Alfred Russell Wallace, and less famously Patrick Matthew.
Darwin’s great genius was how thoroughly and compellingly he presented his argument, and how deeply he saw its implications. Natural selection is a fairly simple concept, but it explains so many different aspects of the natural world. It is astonishing how completely Darwin showed how evolution by natural selection can account for not just the diversity of life, but also biogeographical patterns, comparative anatomy, behavior and instinct, the apparent design of organisms to fit their environments, and so much more. He also plainly and honestly identified gaps in knowledge where serious contradictions to his theory might lie, effectively laying the way for future research.
When I read On the Origins of Species (just a few years ago*) I was shocked by how modern it seems. I was also surprised by how much ecology it contains. Ecology as a discipline did not have a name until 1866 (7 years after the first edition On the Origin of Species) and didn’t really become an experimental or predictive science (something it is still struggling to do well) until the mid-1900s, but Darwin describes many ideas central to modern ecology. He writes beautifully about the interaction of species with their environment and with each other. He writes about distribution and dispersal, population dynamics, and the concept of the niche. He makes comparison between different ecosystems regarding the strength of natural selection in those environments and the consequences of those differences on observable patterns of diversity. One of the most famous sentences in all of The Origin of Species is a beautiful description of ecological interactions and their evolutionary causes and consequences:
It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
This reminds me of G. Evelyn Hutchison’s description of evolution as a play that takes place on the ecological stage. It adds drama and depth to our experience of the natural world, and it encourages me to get outside to experience, appreciate, and participate in the product of that drama.
Thank you Charles Darwin, thank you those who came before him, and thank you to those who followed and continue to follow in his footsteps.
*I’m actually surprised that I earned a degree in biology without having to read On the Origin of Species. I would guess that many professional biologists haven’t read it, which is a shame. It is a truly amazing work that deserve to be read today.
As primary season is underway, let's talk politics. Mr. Trump is revealing much about himself on a nearly daily basis. Given his views and solidifying role as a contender, we feel that he is worthy of attention. Apparently, espousing "Trump don't care" (see honey badger don't care, and note the similarities) in a recent interview, that Donald Trump doesn't have temper tantrums. Truly. (This was in response to Cruz accusing him of a "Trumper tantrum" over Iowa). Wow.
OK, New Hampshire you are next, so listen up. Trump says that this country needs the kind of thinking that Trump has brought to business (perhaps meaning that the US should file for chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to reduce debt). Donald Trump is keen on building a wall between us and Mexico. Is this Trump's aversion to people who aren't like him, or Trump in his comfort zone: commercial property ventures?
For details, we refer you to a post from October on the Wall of America.
In "Wall of America", I argued that the Wall of America would be built by Mexico, in Mexico, a tourist attraction, a huge commercial success, and an immigration constrain failure. I also argued that the logical follow up on completing a M/Wall of America with Mexico, is one with Canada (let's call it a "Friendship Wall"). I mean who doesn't like a good wall or shopping mall?
New Hampshire - you share a remarkably brief border with Canada. You need to lead on the issue so that our "Friendship Wall" (with Canada) can start with you. Read up. The time to act is now!
And, if you think that I am full of crap, I can assure you, that you are correct. But still, I would love to hear it from you directly (well, indirectly through commenting on the blog).
A new federally approved strategy for conservation of biodiversity was approved last week; proponents state it will revolutionize the way scientific research is conducted for endangered and rare species. "The great thing about this approach," said proponent Bill Melayter, "is it gives researchers a chance to increase public awareness for their species of interest, raise funds for their research, AND allows them the opportunity to learn venture capitalism and actually profit off increasing species abundance and distribution..it's really a win win win.”
Branding Wildlife for Profit (& Research)
The strategy permits individuals and corporations to sponsor rare or endangered species in return they get high profile marketing opportunities associated with ecotourism. Details are still being fleshed out, but marketing currently includes, but is not restricted to, stickers, banners, and even large laser-light displays which can be deployed only in the critical habitat areas for the respective species. "The really hot organisms are the ones with lots of real estate, you know whales, elephants, etc. We had a run on the rhino species but there were so few of them that companies were concerned they wouldn't be able to really get their brand out there. A few groups are currently vying for the California Condor because they think there's real potential for aerial banners they could attach to the condors legs, sort of like those biplanes that advertise stuff over baseball and football games" said May Kenamoney, a wildlife sponsoring & licensing official with the newly formed US Marketing Information & Sponsorship (MISS) department. Some proportion of profit generated for each sponsorship will be set aside in a general fund to help cover smaller species, such as the Kanab Amber Snail (Oxyloma haydeni kanabensis) which have been hard to market. However Kenamoney did mention even these minuscule species had generated interest from several nanotech companies who had designed several hundred sleek waterproof stickers that could cover the snails shell, ensuring maximize product visibility no matter which angle the public viewed the snail.
A few years ago a bunch of friends and I went to see, The Grey. That’s the movie where Liam Neeson and a group of roughneck oilfield workers crash land in the Alaskan wilderness and they have to fight for their lives against a pack of hungry wolves. I thought it was great. So, I was surprised when we were chatting outside the theater afterwards, and I found that several of my friends hated it. This difference in opinion has become a years-long, good-natured argument between Zack and myself. Any time I express a suspect opinion about something Zack will smile and say, “Yeah, but you like The Grey.”
So, with the entirety of my credibility on the line, I want to use this space as an opportunity to defend my opinion, and explain why I think The Grey is a good movie. However, my full defense must wait for a second post. I need to address the problems with the film first.
There are many valid criticisms. First, this movie is clearly not everyone’s cup of tea. It is bleak and violent, punctuated by surprisingly visceral and intense death scenes. Second, there are certainly some very dumb and inexplicable plot points. For example, the group flees the pursuing wolves into a wooded area. There is no reason that this stand of trees should act as an impenetrable wolf barrier, but somehow it does. This serves the story by providing a break in the action during which the audience can catch its breath and the characters can bond around the fire while having a surprisingly philosophical conversation. Then, somehow, the wolves solve the riddle of the trees and attack once more. Logic is not friendly to this series of events.
But the most serious objection to The Grey is the one I can’t actually defend, particularly as a conservationist. That is the demonification of the wolves. The wolves in The Grey bear little resemblance to real wolves. They are relentless, almost malevolent killing machines. In reality, the violence between wolves and humans has been wildly, and tragically asymmetric. There are only a handful of recorded fatalities due to wild wolf attacks in North America. Wolves have been extirpated from the vast majority of the United States, murdered out of fear and ignorance.
The unfair representation of wild animals in film is not a new issue. Probably the most famous example is Jaws, one of the most celebrated movies is all time. The shark in Jaws is vengeful and maniacal, and is responsible for many unfounded fears about sharks in general. But Jaws has also inspired a generation of scientists and conservationists to learn more about the real mysterious lives of sharks. The author of the novel Jaws, Peter Benchley, became a life long advocate of shark conservation.
The loss of wolves from any landscape is a tragedy. There are enormous ecological consequences, but also cultural ones. Aldo Leopold writes movingly about participating in the death of a wolf and the loss of the wolf to the mountains of New Mexico in his essay Thinking Like a Mountain. Fortunately wolves are making a comeback. Re-introductions in Yellowstone and Central Idaho have been wildly successful (at least from the perspective of those in favor of such actions). Packs borne from the Idaho reintroduction have now ranged down through Eastern Oregon, and for the first time in 70 years a wolf has returned to California. That wolf, OR-7, has now successfully mated and raised several pups.
In the last month a new pack has been recorded in North Eastern California. I think it is important to celebrate these conservation successes. We are living in exciting times where the rewilding of portions of the Earth is happening, sometimes at a surprising rate. Among many of the serious concerns and fears we have in the conservation community, there are many causes for optimism too.
I doubt that viewers of The Grey will be inspired to fascination with wolves in the way that Jaws inspired fascination with sharks and the sea. But, at least, I hope that the unrealistic portrayal of wolves has not really hurt the cause of wolf conservation either. Liam Neeson has been an advocate for conservation, perhaps he will speak for the wolves, too.
[Tune in next time for a discussion of why I actually think The Grey is a good movie]
The Christmas tree is one of the central totems of the holiday season. A wide variety of conifer species are commonly sold as Christmas Trees around the world including firs, douglas-firs, spruces, pines, and cypresses. But I would like to call attention to a lesser known genus of tree that deserves greater attention* during the holiday season, the yew (Taxus spp.).
The Common Yew (Taxus baccata) pre-dates Christmas as a symbol of wintertime celebration. Pagan festivals honoring the winter solstice such as the Roman festival of Saturnalia used evergreen plants, persistent through the winter months, as a symbol of life. When the Christian holiday co-opted those pagan traditions, the yew was imbued (imb-yewed?) with the significance of that particular brand of religion. According to Wikipedia, “Yew trees continually put out new stems which coalesce with the existing trunk resulting in trees of great age. The merging of old and decaying wood with vibrant young shoots has led to the yew being traditionally associated with reincarnation and immortality.” Ancient yews are often found in churchyards and cemeteries in Northwestern Europe, and the largest are hollowed out to contain chapels.
I would love to hear from other people about the things that first inspired their imagination and curiosity about the natural world and natural history. Creating a collection of those recollections could make a nice little project.
*For my last post, I wrote about the historical aspect of natural history. That got me to thinking about my own history of contemplating the history of the natural world. I surprised myself with some nice memories that I haven’t visited for a very long time. It is amazing how much of our past remains in our minds, and how long memories can stay dormant before swimming to the surface of our consciousness.
When contemplating a holiday-appropriate blog post for this week, the first thing that came to mind was the Turkey. Turkeys are of course the centerpiece of the traditional Thanksgiving feast, but are they really interesting enough to spend five minutes reading about? After all you are quite busy today. Well, Benjamin Franklin thought they were pretty impressive. Legend has it he advocated for the noble Turkey as our national bird over the Bald Eagle. While this may largely be an American myth, his writing on the subject shows he clearly had great respect for the bird.
“For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird [than the Bald Eagle], and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”
- Benjamin Franklin
Disclaimer: TED talk therapy for researchers who publish in the peer-reviewed literature.
I just received another rejection (Major revision). I was very happy with this manuscript, and I was really glad to be done with it. The rejection was not based on unsound science, but was a recommendation to frame the paper better to be more effective and to amend some weak assumptions. We will get this paper published, and it will be improved by the comments that we received. However, this brings to mind an important issue that I think about often: rejection.
Researchers are generally accustomed to academic success. We were good students in no small measure because we do not like to fail. We have demonstrated the capacity to succeed in academics. Failure is, at this point, a bitter pill. Yet, failure is commonplace: 5% of grants get funded, 15% of papers get accepted, experiments fail. Generally, we have always succeeded on those narrow margins. For example most of us got into some school that only accepted that very top fraction of folks; the academic top 10% is our crowd. We expect to succeed despite long odds on failure.
Hence, it often bugs the crap out of us, and sometimes derails our careers, when we fail. Here are my words of advice meant for those of you experiencing or expecting to experience failure (ie, all of you): embrace that failure. Run right up to it, give it a huge hug, say thank you. Mean it. Be genuinely grateful. That is tougher than it sounds.
There are many reasons to take the grateful, albeit reluctant acceptance of failure. Foremost is that your proposal/research/paper will be better when you change the it based on the feedback you get from failing. Knowing that, however, doesn't make failure easy for anyone. Secondarily, science is supposed to be fun. We all need to make failure as pleasant as possible because we will encounter small doses of failure throughout our careers even while we build a record of success. With that, here is my step by step recommendation for you when you receive that email containing the reviews to a manuscript you recently submitted.
Step 1. Before you open the email, place a pencil in your mouth, crosswise and bite gently on it. This forces your smile muscles to engage. It has been shown that smiling makes us happier people. Start by smiling while reading what is highly likely to be a rejection. Let's remember that you are now competing amongst a pool where 100% of your competitors share your expectations of success. This is no longer high school where you are academically competing against a pool where most weren’t trying. There is no shame in rejection.
Step 2. Read only as far as the decision. Force yourself to stop. I know you want to read the rationale immediately. Don't read it now. Wait. You are not yet ready to embrace the change that is needed. The reviewers are, at this point, nattering nabobs of negativism. Give yourself some time to be mad or sad. Mad is good. Mad is a better motivator. Sad is likely. Sad requires sending the self-doubt off on vacation.
Step 3. Draft the thank you letter to the editor. You received constructive feedback from caring scientists who volunteered their time to help you. Thank them for the care and attention that they invested in you. Be grateful. It has been shown that when you stop and be consciously grateful, you become a nicer and happier person. Write the grateful beginning of your response when you are mad/sad. It will help you get over the mad, possibly even the sad.
Step 4. Contemplate your community. Spend at least 4 hours doing other stuff, including at least a minute contemplating the well-known fact that everyone you admire in the world of science also has had most of their best work rejected. All of the papers that you cited in your paper were kicked back to their authors for major revision and re-review. OK, so I don't have any data on this. But, I published my first paper 27 years ago, and I probably have a higher rate of rejection now than I did when I first started. I have published over 100 papers. I have had 1 where the paper was accepted on its first go without revision of some sort. That was years ago. Journal rejection rates are very high; there is likely a good reason for rejection that is not specifically related to your skill as a scientist.
Step 5. Read the review. If a minimum of 4 hours have elapsed, and that is important, you may be ready to read the reviews. If you feel Mr. Mad coming back, you might need to stop and come back later. Feel free to use the pencil in the mouth at any time. Take another four hours, minimum.
Step 6. Revise the letter to the editor. Go back to the thank you letter and enumerate the positive aspects of the review (things the reviewers liked about your paper). Then enumerate the constructive components of criticism that you find in your first read of the reviews. Now give it some more time. The weekend sounds about right.
Step 7. Get to work. You are now ready to revise your manuscript. Once you have given yourself the time and mental space to gracefully and gratefully accept criticism, you will be much better at incorporating the constructive criticism and make your paper effective at reaching the target audience. Remember, the editor chose those reviewers because they thought that these people represent your target audience. Even if the reviewers simply failed to understand your paper, you need to write a clearer paper.
You will succeed, but first you will fail. When failure causes self doubt, and it will, follow these easy steps. 1. Assume the power pose: stand up, put your hands on your hips, lift your chin, spread your legs at least 18 inches apart. 2. Watch this video. It will put you in a better mindset to work through the self doubt and revise the paper in a way that will succeed. Rock on. The world needs you. Thank god for TED talks.
How do you deal with rejection? Share your clever coping strategies.
Many people have asked (ok, actually a member of one of our immediate families), "Smells like Science", "The truth is up there somewhere"? What's up with that? Seems pretty cryptic.
Fair enough. So, when cooking up this blog idea, I shared this video posted below. I think that you can now see where these lines come from. This is a white-backed vulture (Gyps africanus) and a dead zebra in the Masai Mara. However, the IUCN updated their red list of yesterday (Oct 29, 2015) and downgraded the status of African vultures, reporting that half of all African vultures are now endangered, including Gyps africanus.
So, that clears up "Smells like Science".
Brain eddy or not, we try to squeeze some science out (stinky bad pun intended), or at least some cool natural history. We all know that vultures are carrion feeders, and obviously, this group found this dead zebra. However, by far the common field encounter with these vultures is seeing them picking on the remains of a carcass after the hyenas, lions, cheetahs, jackals, ... have consumed their kill. Old world vultures do not have a sense of smell, so they circle in networks and when they find an animal, they all hone in on it. They found this zebra, which had succumbed to disease or something: the carcass was intact. White-backed vultures apparently do not have strong jaws and can not rip skin to enter the carcass. Predators (listed above) and the Lappet faced vultures do. However, given that neither mammals nor the lappet faced vultures had yet happened upon this carcass, the white backed vultures were faced with a package of food that they could not unwrap. This one crafty vulture was getting in there the only way possible (once other vultures had nibbled out the eyeballs and tongue).
This video serves to remind us that nature may be cool, pretty, fascinating, but getting by on the plains of Africa can get pretty gritty. Life is not for the squeamish.
It might be science, it might be nons(ci)ense, but it still smells.