Thursday, March 31, 2011

General Electric versus the NSF

So, you may have seen the recent New York Times article about General Electric. Here are the key numbers: 14.2 billion dollars in profits globally in 2010, 5.1 billion of which came from the US; negative 3.2 billion in US taxes. That's right, not only did they pay no taxes, they claimed at 3.2 billion dollar tax benefit. That's billion, with a b.

Here's something to put that in perspective:

And, of course, there's the fact that Jeffrey Immelt, head of GE since Jack Welch stepped down, was appointed as the chair of the President's Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. What could possibly go wrong?

If you would like to embed this comic in your own blog, here's the URL:

The best URL for sharing is:

Or, to view the comic in its natural habitat, go here.

If you want to feel more outraged and depressed by this, I recommend Tom Scocca's post on the matter.

G.E.'s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether, David Kocieniewski, New York Times, March 24, 2011.
NSF budget numbers from LiveScience.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Kin Selection: Nowak vs the world

So,  if you're an evolutionary biologist, or really if you follow the biology literature at all, you have probably heard about the paper published last fall in Nature by Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita, and E. O. Wilson. The paper claims that all theories based on kin selection and inclusive fitness are fundamentally flawed and unsupported by any empirical evidence.

Recently, responses to the paper were published in Nature, and the original article has been criticized on a number of counts. The controversy sparked by the paper has been covered journalistically by Carl Zimmer (and others, I'm sure).

I'll just say that I am not really sure what the authors of the original article were hoping to accomplish. From my read, the article seems to reveal a rather disturbing lack of familiarity with a huge body of scientific literature from the past few decades. Either that, or it represents a rather disturbingly disingenuous attempt to misrepresent that huge body of scientific literature. I'm sure that there are other possible explanations, but I'm not coming up with them off the top of my head.

I also don't know what the editors at Nature were thinking when they published this paper. Or, rather, I have some personal theories as to what they were thinking, which I am afraid do not reflect well on their competence, professionalism, or honesty.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I tend to side with the critics of the paper.

Anyway, there has already been a lot written about this subject, so I won't write more. Rather, I thought that I would dramatize the situation using a few quotes and paraphrases from the debate, as well as my own opinions.

I hope that this is obvious, but just in case it is not, please keep in mind that the video is presented primarily for entertainment purposes. I have made an honest attempt to portray the spirit of the arguments accurately. However, let's just say that it is possible that some of the nuance may have been lost.

For another thing, I have lumped together various criticisms, which has no doubt done some violence to the arguments that have been put forward. If you're interested in the topic, I strongly encourage you to read the original article and the published responses. Citations and links are provided at the end of the post.

In the meantime, enjoy:

Like everything else on this blog, the video should be treated under creative commons. So, feel free to share this, or to embed the video into your own blog. Just don't sell it.

Update: Now also on YouTube. That version I think will work better for embedding, if you want to share the video.

Update 2: I have added a follow-up post in which I try to provide more background context and attempt to explain why this paper generated such a large response from the evolutionary biology community.

Sources used include:

The original article:
Nowak, M., Tarnita, C., & Wilson, E. (2010). The evolution of eusociality Nature, 466 (7310), 1057-1062 DOI: 10.1038/nature09205

Responses in blog form:
Jerry Coyne
More Jerry Coyne
Richard Dawkins

Published responses in nature:

Abbot, P., Abe, J., Alcock, J., Alizon, S., Alpedrinha, J., Andersson, M., Andre, J., van Baalen, M., Balloux, F., Balshine, S., Barton, N., Beukeboom, L., Biernaskie, J., Bilde, T., Borgia, G., Breed, M., Brown, S., Bshary, R., Buckling, A., Burley, N., Burton-Chellew, M., Cant, M., Chapuisat, M., Charnov, E., Clutton-Brock, T., Cockburn, A., Cole, B., Colegrave, N., Cosmides, L., Couzin, I., Coyne, J., Creel, S., Crespi, B., Curry, R., Dall, S., Day, T., Dickinson, J., Dugatkin, L., Mouden, C., Emlen, S., Evans, J., Ferriere, R., Field, J., Foitzik, S., Foster, K., Foster, W., Fox, C., Gadau, J., Gandon, S., Gardner, A., Gardner, M., Getty, T., Goodisman, M., Grafen, A., Grosberg, R., Grozinger, C., Gouyon, P., Gwynne, D., Harvey, P., Hatchwell, B., Heinze, J., Helantera, H., Helms, K., Hill, K., Jiricny, N., Johnstone, R., Kacelnik, A., Kiers, E., Kokko, H., Komdeur, J., Korb, J., Kronauer, D., Kümmerli, R., Lehmann, L., Linksvayer, T., Lion, S., Lyon, B., Marshall, J., McElreath, R., Michalakis, Y., Michod, R., Mock, D., Monnin, T., Montgomerie, R., Moore, A., Mueller, U., Noë, R., Okasha, S., Pamilo, P., Parker, G., Pedersen, J., Pen, I., Pfennig, D., Queller, D., Rankin, D., Reece, S., Reeve, H., Reuter, M., Roberts, G., Robson, S., Roze, D., Rousset, F., Rueppell, O., Sachs, J., Santorelli, L., Schmid-Hempel, P., Schwarz, M., Scott-Phillips, T., Shellmann-Sherman, J., Sherman, P., Shuker, D., Smith, J., Spagna, J., Strassmann, B., Suarez, A., Sundström, L., Taborsky, M., Taylor, P., Thompson, G., Tooby, J., Tsutsui, N., Tsuji, K., Turillazzi, S., Úbeda, F., Vargo, E., Voelkl, B., Wenseleers, T., West, S., West-Eberhard, M., Westneat, D., Wiernasz, D., Wild, G., Wrangham, R., Young, A., Zeh, D., Zeh, J., & Zink, A. (2011). Inclusive fitness theory and eusociality Nature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09831

Boomsma, J., Beekman, M., Cornwallis, C., Griffin, A., Holman, L., Hughes, W., Keller, L., Oldroyd, B., & Ratnieks, F. (2011). Only full-sibling families evolved eusociality Nature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09832

Strassmann, J., Page, R., Robinson, G., & Seeley, T. (2011). Kin selection and eusociality Nature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09833

Ferriere, R., & Michod, R. (2011). Inclusive fitness in evolution Nature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09834

Herre, E., & Wcislo, W. (2011). In defence of inclusive fitness theory Nature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09835

And the response by Nowak et al.

Nowak, M., Tarnita, C., & Wilson, E. (2011). Nowak et al. reply Nature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09836

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Well Thank God for THAT: Cloud Girlfriend

So, I sincerely hope that this is a real thing, because I am honestly beginning to think that it may be the last hope for **Name Redacted**.

Step 5: Disappoint your parents, but in a way that is likely to be different from any of the myriad ways you have disappointed them in the past.

Supposedly launching soon. They have a place where you can enter your e-mail, because, as they explain: "Due to high demand we are only able to accommodate a limited number of users to the site. Register early to get in line."

Personally, I put it at 50/50 as to whether or not this is real, or just a setup for some sort of phishing scam. Either way, I'm almost certain that that giving them your e-mail will set you up for an ungodly amount of spam. So, unless you are having trouble finding anyone on the internet who is willing to sell you viagra, I would recommend against signing up at this stage.

How about this. If you heed my advice, and refrain from giving them your e-mail, but then find that when the service launches, they've already filled up, I will send you an message once a week asking if these jeans make me look fat.

via Geekologie

Update: My wife is worried that the last bit there might come of as misogynistic, although I would argue that it is meta. As in, I assume that this is the sort of cliche, misogynistic message that would constitute the bulk of the communications from a virtual girlfriend service.

Also, she says that yes, these jeans do make me look fat.

Well Thank God for THAT: Breastfeeding Doll

So, here's the latest must-have Christmas gift for the parents who want to raise their daughters to believe that their only value to society is their ability to breed. Introducing Bebé Glotón. I'm going to deliberately refrain from employing Google Translate here and just say that it means "Gluttonous Baby" in, let's say, Provençal.

Now, I should say that I've got no horse in the breastfeeding race. And, to be fair, as far as sex-role stereotypes that get reinforced by children's toys go, this at least has a reasonable physiological basis.

The thing that really strikes me is how much this toy would . . . er . . . suck. Just look at the girl's face as she is demonstrating feeding and then burping Gluttonous Baby. That look in her eyes is her pleading with her overbearing stage parents to please, please let her go play with a more entertaining toy, like maybe that stick on the ground that they walked by on the way to the studio.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Sketch Chair, or maybe SketchChair

So, here's a cool thing. These folks at an outfit called Diatom have a project called SketchChair, maybe with a space, I'm not sure. They're developing software that will allow you to design your own chair, and virtually test it for structural stability and comfort. Then, you can have it digitally fabricated and shipped to you. The software will be open source, with the aim of allowing designers to share and collaborate.

The other cool thing is that it is being crowd-funded through this outfit called Kickstarter. What Kickstarter does is collects funds to support creative projects like this one. They set a pledge goal and a time limit. If enough people pledge to support the project, they get the money. The pledges turn into donations only if the pledge goal is reached in the time limit.

The idea is that donors only actually give money if there are enough people giving to make the project go. These are donations, not investments, although it sounds like the project fundees typically offer something to donors. For instance, a donation of more than $300 to SketchChair will get you a chair.

If you're interested in supporting SketchChair, you can check it out here.

Kickstarter funds all sorts of projects, from film to writing to dance to food. If you want to see if there is anything that tickles your fancy, you can check them out here. I've just stumbled across this, so if I find anything particularly cool, I'll post it here.

Bill Zedler redux: Academic Freedom

So, last week I wrote about this Texas state representative who has proposed an anti-evolution bill. I've revisited the topic for the new episode of Darwin Eats Cake.

URL for sharing:
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Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reflected Glory: Pokémon PSA

So, if you're young enough to be or have been a Pokémon fan. Or if you're old enough to have kids at Pokémon-relevant ages, you should enjoy this. If not, it's only like a minute long, and the ending is still worth it.

Pokémon. They're like herpes simplices. You gotta catch em all.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Darwin Eats Cake: Red Queen

So, have you spend all day looking for a comic that integrates Red Queen evolutionary dynamics, commentary on the application of parsimony arguments in biology, and Newt Gingrich's recent flip-flopping on Libya? No? Well, hopefully you'll enjoy this anyway. For a more viewable image, see the original at Darwin Eats Cake.
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For more on the flip-flop check out Think Progress or Weigel.

Van Valen, L (1973). A New Evolutionary Law Evolutionary Theory, 1, 1-30

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reflected Glory: The Fap Store

So, if you haven't seen this, it's awesome. If you have, you already know that it's awesome, so you'll probably want to watch it again. Introducing the app store for your Brother IntelliFax 2800. Enjoy.

I can't wait for the thermal-paper version.

One-legged man could kick your a$$

So, depending on your personality, this story will either be inspirational or humiliating. Me, I find being humiliated to be inspirational, so I get it both ways.

This weekend was the NCAA Wrestling championship, where the winner of the 125-pound weight class was Anthony Robles. Robles was born without a right leg.
Could Anthony Robles out-wrestle you with one hand tied behind his back? I'm going to say yes. Image via NBC Sports.
According to the AP story (also via NBC Sports), Robles "got the only takedown in the first period of the match and worked a pair of tilts to secure five back points," which makes me realize that I know absolutely nothing about wrestling.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Tsunami Relief AND a Crazy Watch

So, for the next couple of days, Tokyoflash is running a special promotion, where they are donating the money from all purchases to tsunami relief.  Note that this does not seem to be the usual bullshit pseudo-charity thing that companies do to exploit disasters, where they donate a portion of the proceeds, meaning that they still make themselves a nice profit. According to their website, Tokyoflash is donating 100% of the purchase value, including the shipping costs, to the disaster relief fund at the Japanese Red Cross.
Just one of the many wacky watches you can buy now, .
The only thing that makes me wary at all is the use of the phrase "purchase value," which could conceivably mean something different than "purchase price." Or, that could simply be an artifact of this being the English-language website of a Japanese company.

So, if you've ever wanted one of these, now would be a good time to buy. This promotion runs through 5pm Japan time on March 24, which is 8am in London (which is not yet on summer time), and 4am in New York (which is).

Bill Zedler, champion of "academic" freedom

So, Texas is apparently worried about losing its status as most backward state. Enter state representative Bill Zedler, who is introducing a bill that will prevent students and professors from being "discriminated against" for questioning evolution. Because apparently he believes that this is NOT the exact opposite of the problem with science education.
Texas Republican Bill Zedler has a mind that was intelligently designed with an extraordinary capacity for deliberately misinterpreting facts, and with an ability to use disingenuous arguments about academic freedom to push a religious agenda. Fortunately, millions of years of evolution have also left him with a mind that is incapable of adequately disguising his transparent attempt to violate the first amendment of the United States Constitution.
I humbly submit to Mr. Zedler that he should modify his bill, expanding it to include the following:

  1. No student shall be expected to depart any university with any knowledge that supplants or contradicts any beliefs or preconceived notions they may have had upon first enrolling.
  2. No one shall be denied employment as a doctor at any university health center as a result of their disbelief in the germ theory of disease, nor as a result of a lack of medical training.
  3. Any student accused of plagiarism or any other form of academic misconduct shall be examined by panel consisting of three members of the faculty and the university ombudsman. The student shall be held underwater for no less than twelve consecutive minutes. Should the student drown, he or she shall be deemed innocent of said misconduct.
  4. Each university shall establish a quota system for tenured faculty in each department as follows. Each Chemistry Department must have no less than four (4) practicing alchemists. No less than seven (7) members of each English Department must be functionally illiterate. Women's Studies Departments must include at least six (6) self-identifying misogynists, including at least one (1) violent sex offender.

I look forward to seeing the revised version of the bill.

Update: New post presenting my webcomic on this subject.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Darwin Eats Cake: Lyapunov Exponent

So, you may or may not know that The Hives also said this.

URL for sharing:
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For more, go to Darwin Eats Cake.

PARKS, P. (1992). A. M. Lyapunov's stability theory—100 years on. IMA Journal of Mathematical Control and Information, 9 (4), 275-303 DOI: 10.1093/imamci/9.4.275

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Ann Coulter, Radiation, and Hormesis

So, you probably already know about the Ann Coulter column and interview, where she says a large number of Coulter-esque things about radiation. For a thorough takedown of her argument, check out this Pharyngula post.

For a takedown that is based on ad hominem attacks rather than evidence, but contains pictures, keep reading.
Original image at Darwin Eats Cake.
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Calabrese, E., & Baldwin, L. (2003). Hormesis: The Dose-Response Revolution
Annual Review of Pharmacology and Toxicology, 43 (1), 175-197 DOI: 10.1146/annurev.pharmtox.43.100901.140223

Update: Wow. In the original post, I spelled "radiation" wrong. Now corrected.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Well Thank God for THAT: Boneless Belt

So, now we know what tragedy really unfolds when you don't cut up those plastic six-pack holders before you throw them out. They are shipped to Japan, soldered together, and sold as dubious weight-loss products.
If you're having a flashback to the Play-Doh Fun Factory you had as a kid, you're not alone.
Apparently, it "works" by dividing your fat into "easily manageable blobs," which "raises the propensity for increased blood-flow values."

Yes, I'm sure that's exactly what happens.

As if Japan did not have enough to deal with right now.

Slate has an article with a couple of tips for donating to help out with Japan's other National catastrophes. Please check it out, and, if you're in a position to do so, give generously.

via Gizmodo

Organized Hypocrisy

So, here's the first new episode of Darwin Eats Cake after my move to the new platform:

This one is dedicated to Bradley Manning.

Original image (and best URL for sharing):
URL for embedding or hotlinking:

And, before you post your comment, yes, I already know that the Geneva Conventions are intended to apply to prisoners and victims of war. However, it seems reasonable to me to think that this should set some sort of lower bound on how we treat our own citizens, especially when they have not even been charged with a crime.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Darwin Eats Cake!

So, my new webcomic has been on hiatus for a couple of weeks, during which I have been making some changes.  I have reenvisioned all of the characters using original artwork, and I have given it a title and a home. The title is Darwin Eats Cake, and the URL, predictably, is
This is Dev.
I have recreated the seven strips that have been published here on Lost in Transcription, and they are now all available at the comic's site. I will shortly be replacing the blog versions with the new ones.  I hope to post new strips at a rate of about two per week. If I can manage it, I will set specific days.

I'll continue to cross-post all new strips here. The idea is that will be a nice, clean site, featuring only the comics.  Since many of the strips make reference to the scientific literature, the cross-posted versions here will contain references and potentially brief discussions.

Monday, March 14, 2011

It's like naming your yacht "The Titanic"

So, what's the best thing about all of the excitement in Madison, Wisconsin? Well, besides the vague hope that this may turn out to be the beginning of a nationwide populist progressive movement, the best thing has to be Randy Hopper. He is one of the Republican State Senators who is now facing a recall effort, thanks to his support for Scott Walker's union-busting bill.

Apparently some protesters went to his home, and when his wife answered the door, she informed them that he no longer lived there. He now lives in Madison (outside his district, btw) with his 25-year-old mistress, who is, predictably, a former senate staffer, and, even more predictably, a lobbyist employed by the right-wing Persuasion Partners.
Here is a screenshot grabbed from the Persuasion Partners website before they scrubbed it of any mention of Valerie Cass. Apparently, according to Persuasion Partners, Cass is "no longer there."
Rumor is that Hopper's maid has already signed the recall petition against Hopper, and that his soon-to-be ex-wife intends to do so.

This is just the latest instance in which the Parable of the Snake applies to Wisconsin politics. In the 2010 gubernatorial election in Wisconsin, 37% of union households voted for Walker. At some level, you have to say, "you knew he was a snake when you picked him up." Similarly, Wisconsin, you elected a guy to the state senate whose name is "Randy Hopper." Of course he ran off with a 25-year-old staffer. It's like Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter books. His name was "Remus Lupin," so of course he got bitten by a werewolf.

In a way, perhaps Randy Hopper is an unwitting victim of destiny.

Or perhaps he is simply another instantiation of the tiresome political trope of the lecherous, middle-aged man who is given a modicum of power and wastes no time in abusing it.

Hard to say.

Note: the Blogging Blue site I've linked to above has not been loading. Here is the link for the cached site, and other coverage can be found here and here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Well Thank God for THAT: Thunderwear

So, this comes to us from the file of things you didn't even know you needed: Thunderwear! What is Thunderwear, you ask? Obviously, it is underwear with a built-in holster for your gun. Well, I guess technically it is a holster that you wear under your pants, but over your underwear. But, that assumes that you actually own and wear underwear, and I don't like to make assumptions about my readers. You know what happens when you assume!

On the Thunderwear website, the filename for this photo is actually "happy.jpg." Insert "is that a ___ in your pocket . . ." joke here.

Anyway, I wanted to draw attention to this product, because most of this blog's readers are probably academics, and the current wave of gun-lobby insanity is for states to allow concealed weapons to be carried at universities. Or, more specifically, to require universities to allow concealed weapons on campus. I believe that Utah has already passed such a law, and legislation has been proposed in a number of other states, including Texas and Arizona. So, next time a student comes in to argue about their grade on a test, you'll be ready.

Pretty cool, but I'm going to wait for the one that I can customize with the name of my sorority across the backside. 

The site also provides testimonials. Here, by far, is the best one:
"I have been wearing it tonight with the P230 and it works fine. Tried it out at dinnertime in jeans & a t -shirt, neither wife nor kids were the wiser. thanks." A.P Los Angeles CA.
No, indeed, they were not.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

My wife is still much too good for me, and now has a website to prove it

So, a couple of months ago, I posted an announcement that my wife had gotten a two-book deal for her middle-grade book Remarkable. If you want to experience my going on and on about the book, I'll just refer you back to that post. For the just-the-facts version: her agent is Faye Bender, her editor is Nancy Conescu, and the book should be coming out in 2012 under Penguin's Dial Books imprint.

Anyway, the point of this post is to let you know about her new author website, which you can find at You'll find pictures and factoids and a lot of little things that will give you a sense of the book.
Who is this parrot? Is it going to eat this Basset Hound's nose? Go to to find out!
So, go check it out. Then come back here and read some more blog posts. You will come away with a good sense of how lucky I got when she married me.

Re: Homophobia and Evolutionary Psychology

So, a couple of days ago, Jesse Bering published an interesting post on his Scientific American blog, where he attempts to revive interest in a research topic that was hotly debated in the mid 1990s, but has since fallen dormant. He describes a debate between two evolutionary psychologists – Gordon Gallup and John Archer – over the evolutionary origins of negative attitudes towards homosexuality.

Bering does an excellent job describing the debate, so I will just provide the briefest synopsis here. Gallup argues that, all else being equal, natural selection would favor negative attitudes towards homosexuality. The argument is basically that people who encourage heterosexual behavior in their children will have more grandchildren. The counter-argument championed by Archer is basically, no, it's all cultural: homosexuals are identified as "other" and are demonized in the media.

Silly girl is so unfamiliar with cultural norms, she does not even recognize that she should be vilifying anyone who looks different from her.
Bering's stated purpose is to stir up some debate, and hopefully to prompt some new research. He takes the position – the correct one in my view – that we should not refrain from asking such questions out of fears driven by political correctness. However, the thing that caught my attention, and prompted my to write my own response, was his opening paragraph:
Consider this a warning: the theory I’m about to describe is likely to boil untold liters of blood and prompt mountains of angry fists to clench in revolt. It’s the best—the kindest—of you out there likely to get the most upset, too. I’d like to think of myself as being in that category, at least, and these are the types of visceral, illogical reactions I admittedly experienced in my initial reading of this theory. But that’s just the non-scientist in me flaring up, which, on occasion, it embarrassingly does. Otherwise, I must say upfront, the theory makes a considerable deal of sense to me.
This, in a sense, encapsulates exactly what is wrong with so much evolutionary psychology. I don't mean that as a criticism of Bering, who writes conscientiously and consistently well about a host of tricky topics. In fact, what I am doing here is a bit unfair to him, but I want to make a lot of hay out of that last statement: "the theory makes a considerable deal of sense to me."

Back in the late 1970s, evolutionary biology was rent by a conflict over sociobiology. The debate was perhaps at its hottest and most divisive at Harvard, where the author of the book Sociobiology, E. O. Wilson, and two of its strongest critics, Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, were all on the faculty. The debate focused particularly on the use of adaptationist reasoning to describe the origins of human behaviors, but it had methodological implications that reverberated throughout evolutionary biology.

Like sociobiology before it, evolutionary psychology has been accused of using the veneer of objective science to promote a socially conservative agenda, reinforcing social norms. Image via imageshack.
I won't go more into the history here, but if you're interested in a highly entertaining historical account, which delves particularly into many of the biggest personalities involved, I highly recommend this article, published originally in the sadly now defunct Lingua Franca.

As with many such schisms, the field eventually healed, primarily through retirement and replacement. Nowadays, most practicing evolutionary biologists take a more synthetic view, one that integrates the ambitions of the sociobiology program with the demands of a more rigorous scientific foundation demanded by the critics.

Basically, the lessons of the whole sociobiology episode boil down to this: plausibility is NOT scientific proof.

In fact, it is trivially easy to come up with a plausible-sounding evolutionary argument to describe the origin of almost any trait. More importantly, it is often just as easy to come up with an equally plausible-sounding argument to describe the origin of a hypothetical scenario involving the exact opposite trait.

If you have students, you can try this little experiment, which provides a nice learning exercise for the students as well:

Divide your class into two groups. Give one group a card that describes a pattern of behavior of the form: "In species X, the females do Y, and the males do Z." Tell them that their job is to work together to come up with an evolutionary argument for why the females do Y and the males do Z. A group of a few modestly engaged undergraduates will have little trouble constructing such an argument. The argument will likely seem plausible on its face, and the students will probably emerge from the exercise convinced of its correctness.

Give the other group the same exercise, but with the modification that their card says that the females do Z and the males do Y. You will likely find that this group also has little trouble coming up with a plausible explanation, and that they will also be convinced of its correctness. For extra fun (for you, anyway), have the two groups come back together to debate the evolutionary question, but don't tell them at first that they were given opposite patterns to explain.

If you can create a set of journals in which you can publish evolutionary claims with no requirement that any of those claims be scientifically tested, eventually, you can generate a whole parallel literature that is self-citing, a group of researchers that are self-refereeing, and review panels that are self-funding. Congratulations! You've just invented an academic perpetual motion machine!
The problem with much of the early work in sociobiology was that it was based on assertions of plausible-sounding mechanisms, where not enough thought was put into consideration of alternative scenarios. One of the dangers is that the plausible-sounding mechanisms that most readily come to mind are often those that resonate with the cultural norms in which we are all immersed. This is part of the reason why molecular evolution has focused so much over the past few decades on statistical tests to look for evidence of natural selection.

While most evolutionary biologists have taken on board the cautionary tales that emerged from the sociobiology debate, most evolutionary psychologists are not evolutionary biologists. When evolutionary psychology started to become a field in the early 1990s, it basically recapitulated many of the errors of early sociobiology. It deflected criticism by claiming that politically correct academics didn't want them to ask these questions, painting itself as a field of martyrs who were bravely trying to do science, when the actual criticism was that the science was bad.

Evolutionary biology is one of those areas, like linguistics or sociology or film, where many people have some basic understanding or exposure, and so they tend to assume that they have an expertise on the topic, and that there is nothing more to understand beyond what they know.

Evolutionary psychology is to evolutionary biology as physics is to everything.
I would not want to criticize Gallup's methods, nor his results, insomuch as they relate to psychology. However, the leap to the evolutionary argument is complete nonsense. That is not to say that he is not right. He might be. It simply means that the studies that are the focus of the debate do not contain the information required to construct and test an evolutionary argument as a scientific question.

Gallup's premise is that an impulse to discourage homosexuality in one's children would be evolutionarily favored. Fine. The argument is supported by surveys about parents' levels of discomfort with homosexuality in different scenarios, specifically that they are less comfortable having their children exposed to homosexuality at age 8 than at age 21, and that they are more comfortable with a homosexual brain surgeon than with a homosexual pediatrician. Again, Bering does a nice job of describing the studies and the arguments against them, and I won't reproduce those here.

I will just note (as Bering does) that this interpretation hinges on the assumption that exposure to homosexuals at an early age increases the likelihood of growing up to be homosexual. Gallup has some evidence to suggest that this might be the case, although we could easily put forward, for example, the "exotic becomes erotic" theory, which might be interpreted as suggesting that early exposure to homosexuality would decrease the erotic appeal of homosexuality in later life.

Basically, the structure of Gallup's argument is that his studies show that A * B > 0. He wants to conclude that A > 0. Therefore, he asserts that B is probably greater than zero.

The problem is that the claim that A > 0 sounds plausible. Having straight kids gives you more grandkids. Makes sense, right? Therefore, we don't demand a real test to figure out what B is.

Let me throw out a few alternative evolutionary stories:

          1) Parents should want their own children to be straight, but they should support a culture that is broadly supportive of homosexuality, thereby reducing the number of children that other people's children have. That would reduce the competition faced by their own grandchildren, giving them more great-grandchildren.

          2) Parents should favor sex-specific homosexuality in the general culture, facultatively based on the sex ratio among their own children. Parents with lots of sons should favor male homosexuality in the broader community, but should disfavor female homosexuality, in order to maximize the number of mates available to each of their sons.

          3) Parents should favor having their older children be homosexual during the early part of their lives, so that they stick around and help to raise the younger children, but once the younger children are old enough to fend for themselves, they should want all of their children to be straight.

Do any or all of these sound plausible to you? Maybe they do, or maybe they don't. However, my point is that it does not matter. Whether some or all or none of these sound plausible to us depends a lot on the cultural milieu we inhabit, and almost nothing to do with the actual evolutionary origins of human sexual orientation.

It would be straightforward to construct mathematical models to support any of these verbal arguments. The key to turning this into science is to construct those models and see what other implications they have, and to look for evidence that supports or contradicts those other implications. The key is to measure what B is. The key is to uncover the genetic and neural mechanisms that underlie sexual orientation, and to subject those mechanisms to a rigorous statistical and molecular analysis. The key is to consider as broad a set of hypotheses as possible, and to be creative in identifying tests and observations capable of differentiating among those hypotheses.

I'm with Jesse Bering in hoping that there will be more research on this topic in the future. But I would add the caveat that if the research is done by psychologists in isolation, it will ultimately go nowhere, even if they are evolutionary psychologists. What is needed is a broad, transdisciplinary collaboration involving psychologists, for certain, but also evolutionary biologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, sociologists, and who knows what else.

Gallup GG Jr, & Suarez SD (1983). Homosexuality as a by-product of selection for optimal heterosexual strategies. Perspectives in biology and medicine, 26 (2), 315-22 PMID: 6844119

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Genetical Book Review: White Cat

So, welcome back to the Genetical Book Review, where we use concepts from evolutionary biology and genetics to talk about novels. In this installment, we are going to talk about White Cat, written by Holly Black. This is the first book in the Curse Workers fantasy series, the second book of which is set to be published in April. Holly Black may be familiar to some readers as one of the authors of The Spiderwick Chronicles.

White Cat is, broadly speaking, the same flavor of book as the Spiderwick series. The story has a contemporary setting, but in an alternate history in which a subset of people, known as “curse workers” or just "workers," possess special abilities. The book’s protagonist, Cassel, comes from a worker family, but has no special abilities himself. One of his brothers is a “luck worker,” who is able to give people good (or bad) luck, while his other brother is a “body worker,” meaning that he is able to hurt people. His mother is an “emotion worker” who is able to manipulate people by, for example, convincing them that they are in love with a particular person. His grandfather is a “death worker,” who is able to kill people with his touch.

In fact, all workers’ skills require that the worker touch their target. Thus, in this alternate history, everyone wears gloves, and approaching someone with bare hands represents a potential act of aggression. In this world, curse workers are subject to “blowback,” which results from a sort of conservation law. For instance, whenever Cassel's grandfather uses his ability to kill someone, a part of his body dies, such that when we first meet him, his fingers are blackened stumps, the consequence of a lifetime of death work.
Artist imitates art. Holly Black dons eponymous gloves in an effort not to accidentally curse herself when she touches her face. Image from the Holly Black website.
In this alternate history, curse work has been outlawed, so that curse workers live somewhat in the shadows and are employed by organized crime families. Much of the book’s social commentary focuses on issues that arise from this situation. There are discussions that parallel arguments about prohibition and drug legalization. There is a political movement to require people with abilities to register with the authorities. These subjects are handled largely in subtext, providing a layer to the book that will be interesting to adult readers.

I won’t go on further here about the premise or plot, as describing more would risk revealing some of the book’s twists. In terms of summary judgment, let me just recommend the book. It is fast moving and well written, and easily the sort of book you might find yourself finishing in a single sitting. It has some dark elements that might make it inappropriate for younger independent readers, so I would not necessarily buy it for your grade-school son or daughter. On the end of the spectrum, if you are an adult who enjoys this genre of young-adult fiction (e.g., if you like the Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud), I suspect you’ll have a great time reading this book, which is aimed at an older age bracket than Spiderwick.

What we will focus on here is the nature of the genetic variation that underlies the ability to perform curse work. The ability clearly has a genetic basis and seems to run strongly in families. There is also an explicit discussion of the fact that there is a high frequency of workers in Australia, due to a high frequency of the trait in the founding population.

The premise of a magical ability with a genetic basis underlies many fantasy franchises, including Harry Potter, X-Men, and television’s Heroes. In each case, there is some variation in the extent of the ability among those who have it, but there is fundamentally a binary distinction between those with abilities and those without them.
The clean, binary division between wizards and muggles means that no matter how enthusiastically you grip that broom between your legs, you're never actually going to fly. Image of the fourth annual Quidditch World Cup. A real thing that real people do. For real.
Franchises differ in how they conceive of the structure of variation among those with abilities. In Heroes and X-Men, for instance, each mutant has unique abilities. (Or, to the extent that two mutants share abilities, it is generally looked upon as a lack of creativity or lack of attention to detail on the part of the writers.) By contrast, in Harry Potter, witches and wizards have, by and large, the same set of abilities. They differ in the degree of proficiency they display in different skills, but the variation seems to be fairly continuous.

We could say the franchises differ in the extent to which the mutant phenotype is canalized. In contemporary usage, the term canalization is used to refer to mechanisms that buffer the phenotype against genetic and/or environmental variation. It is an inherently relative term, in that it makes no sense to talk in isolation about a trait being canalized or not. However, it is sometimes possible to compare the extent to which a trait is canalized in two systems. For example, if the pattern of wing veins in one species of fly is invariant in response to changes in the temperature at which the flies are raised, while the pattern in a second species changes with temperature, we could say that the patterning was more canalized (with respect to temperature) in the first species than the second. The term comes from a metaphor in which different genetic variants or environmental influences get channeled into a "canal" representing normal development.

The canalization concept is usually used in the context of stabilization of the wild-type, but we can just as easily talk about canalization of a mutant phenotype. In Heroes and X-Men, it seems that the mutant phenotype is almost completely uncanalized. These franchises employ the "Anna Karenina Principle." To quote the most over-quoted Tolstoy passage ever, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Despite the fact that a specific mutation is responsible for the superpowers in Heroes and X-Men, some interaction involving the mutation (presumably with other loci in the genome) results in a wildly different phenotype in each individual.
Whenever scientists want to say that something breaks in all sorts of different ways, while at the same time establishing their credentials as cultured intellectuals, they cite the "Anna Karenina Principle," referencing a book that they know to be important, even if they have not actually read it themselves. This mapping of a diverse array of scientific observations onto a single reference represents a kind of literary canalization.
In the Harry Potter books, the genetic basis for wizardry is less clearly articulated, but the trait appears to be more canalized than the analogous traits in Heroes and X-Men. If there were less variation in the abilities of different witches and wizards in different areas of magic, we would say that the trait was even more highly canalized.

While canalization is often currently thought of as a buffering mechanism that applies to the entire phenotype, when the idea was first introduced by C. H. Waddington, he was also interested in the idea of cell-type differentiation. He introduced the concept of the "epigenotype" to refer to distinct sets of traits that could develop from the same underlying genotype. The cells in your brain and the cells in your liver have the same set of genetic material, but the morphology and behavior of the cells is wildly different. Thus, in this original concept of canalization involved the notion of multiple, distinct canals, each of which uses some sort of buffering to produce a stereotyped outcome.
Waddington represented development as a ball following one of a set of distinct, stereotyped pathways, like the character arcs on "reality" television.
The curse-worker phenotype in White Cat is like this notion of canalization. There are a handful of very distinct types of curse work that seem to occur in fairly well defined relative frequencies. Based on Cassel's family, the capacity to do curse work seems to be strongly genetic, but the type of curse work one is able to do may be largely stochastic. It is sort of like Plinko: the genetic mutation hurls you onto the board of being a worker, but then random processes determine which curse-work canal you wind up following.
A Plinko contestant drops a hockey-puck type thing onto a board with a bunch of pegs on it to determine which kind of curse work he will spend his life doing. Genetics works exactly like this.
There is another form of canalization that we can see in the world of White Cat, a sort of historical canalization. Like many books in this genre, White Cat takes place in a world much like our own, but with a couple of key changes. Part of the appeal of many science fiction and fantasy books of this sort is seeing how the author takes a couple of key changes and imagines how history might play out differently. What if the Roman Empire had never fallen? What if Germany had won World War II? What if Martin Sheen had only had one son? And so forth.

The characters in White Cat occupy a world that is as precisely like our own as it can be and still support the premise of the story. The forces of history are so highly canalized that you can rewind the tape hundreds of years and give a small fraction of people magical powers, and you still wind up with Facebook. Tolstoy would be proud.

WADDINGTON, C. (1942). Canalization of Development and the Inheritance of Acquired Characters Nature, 150 (3811), 563-565 DOI: 10.1038/150563a0

Update: I had originally described the book as having been written by Michael Frost and Holly Black, which is what it says on the Kindle version, where I read it. Upon further investigation, it seems that Michael Frost is responsible for the cover art, but not the writing in the book. Everywhere else, Holly Black is the only listed author, so I have corrected my review accordingly. It strikes me as odd that the only place where he would be listed as a co-author is on the Kindle, where there is no cover art, but there you have it.

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