Field of Science

Ode to place of work

Befitting for a building that houses the department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics at Michigan State University, the floors are named to reflect the fact that there are many levels in between the DNA and the organism's physical appearance.

Here's a picture of the elevator buttons showing that at the bottom we have DNA (B for bases), which is followed by G (for genotype or genome). After that comes several levels that are so far unnamed in genetics (here merely labeled 2 through 6), and then finally we have, of course, PH standing for the phenotype, meaning the total sum (or product) of all the physical characteristics of the organism.

I am rather certain that the architects had a specific hypothesis in mind when they chose to make the building have a total of eight floors, with five of them in between the genotype and the phenotype.

Michigan State University is, btw, a fantastic place to be for an evolutionary biologist. We have a rich influx of researchers in evolution speaking at various seminar series. MMG, for example, has a seminar series (schedule) which includes Antonio Lazcano speaking next Tuesday about "Evolution, creationism and intelligent design: Mexico's love affair with Darwinism".

The Ecology, Evolutionary Biology, and Behavior program's seminar series (schedule) today features John H. Werren speaking about "Heritable Microorganisms & Evolution", and on April 28th Dolph Schluter is the EEBB Distinguish Speaker with a talk on "Natural Selection and the Genetics of Adaptation in Stickleback".

The EEBB Colloquium series (schedule) includes students and postdocs talking about their research, including a great talk yesterday by Raffica La Rosa on “Adaptation in milkweeds: selection through both male and female fitness”.

Additionally, MSU is the headquarter of BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action, which hosts a meeting every Friday with talks by members of the five partner universities: Michigan State University, North Carolina A&T State University, University of Idaho, University of Texas at Austin, and University of Washington (no schedule online, but always guaranteed to be interesting).

But most of all is the many great people who work at MSU, including professors, postdocs and students. Two doors down from me is Rich Lenski of the famous Long-Term Evolution Experiment, and lots of other fantastic research is being done here (e.g., take a look at this media coverage page).

I love it here. Weather could be better, but the academics couldn't.

And robots!

The future really is already here. Take a look at these awesome robots.

Gull bot.

Click for more information.

Tennis bots.

Now, a battle between tennis bots minding their own game being interrupted by gull bots.

The trouble over inclusive fitness theory and eusociality

ResearchBlogging.orgI don't know.

I think the subject of group selection is super interesting, and I try to follow what the researchers write on the subjects these days.

On one side we have the majority of evolutionary biologists who think kin selection and inclusive fitness theory as described by Hamilton and Price explain a lot of phenomena in biology, notably eusociality. Some of the more famous people squarely in this group are Jerry Coyne, Richard Dawkins, and Stuart West, but there are many more (at least 137*).

Then there are those who think eusociality does not need kin selection, and that selection can work on groups even when members of the group are not related (kin). This would include David Sloan wilson, Edward O. Wilson, and Martin Nowak.

Having said that, it might well be that not all these people are equally adamant that there can be no exceptions to their view, and that group selection and eusociality can sometimes best be explained by kin selection and determined by calculating inclusive fitness. So, apologies if anyone feels misrepresented (not that any of these people frequent this blog). Samir Okasha, who is one of the 137©, is also a proponent of multilevel selection, for example.

At this point in time, I am totally agnostic myself.

I really don't know, because of several problems. First, I am not capable (or willing) to rigorously go through the mathematical proofs that Nowak, Tarnitas, and Wilson claim to have given last year that "inclusive fitness theory is not a general description of natural selection", and other things related. Second, I have seen in simulations with my own damn eyes that group selection works, and I can intuitively understand and argue why groups can evolve without necessarily consisting of kin. But on the other hand, even though I suspect that kinship isn't necessarily always a necessary factor in explaining social behavior, I am not sure I can see how groups and kin can be separated. In very hypothetical cases they can, but in biology in any sort of general way...? I personally have a hunch that the crux of the matter of group selection is about communication or signaling, which in principle can be separated from kinship.

So, in response to the paper by Nowak et al. claiming that kin selection and inclusive fitness are insufficient and irrelevant for explaining eusociality, no less than five separate replies were published this morning in Nature all claiming that the three authors completely missed the point and totally failed to properly review the indeed very extensive literature on the subject. Nowak et al. have replied, and they don't budge an inch - it's more like a counterattack. As I read their reply, some of it does resonate with me, but I honestly can't say much more than that.

I could now close saying that it will be an interesting show, so bring the popcorn and sit back and enjoy it - light will be shed on the subject eventually, I presume, with clarity to follow. But I just have one more thing to say that taints the whole spectacle in a bad way.

A couple of days ago I learned that Martin Nowak is funded in a big way by the Templeton Foundation. To me, that in itself is not a bad thing, because I was personally supported by them through part of my PhD studies via a grant to my advisor, Chris Adami, who in no way shares their fascination with theology. However, as one can read right on this website about the ‘Evolution and Theology of Cooperation’ research project at Harvard University (man, the title alone!), Nowak is clearly in the camp of the infamous accommodationists who believe science and religion can get along without any kind either invalidating the other. Phrases like these just gives me hives:
We propose to study the emergence of altruistic behavior, forgiveness and unselfish love in the context of biological, ethical and theological considerations.


This research represents a newly-conceived attempt to understand the evolutionary biology of a world created by God.


We propose to explore how additional concepts of theology might arise in the game theoretic approach. These concepts include love, wisdom, hope, dignity and sanctity.


Moving from these initial starting points and items for discussion, we shall go on to study which fundamental principles of evolutionary systems can support the emergence of true unselfish love as promoted by Christianity and other religions.
Such total nonsense doesn't look good on any body who wants to be taken seriously in science, in my opinion. I could never bear to work with Nowak after that garbage.

Nowak, M., Tarnita, C., & Wilson, E. (2010). The evolution of eusociality Nature, 466 (7310), 1057-1062 DOI: 10.1038/nature09205
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
Nowak, M., Tarnita, C., & Wilson, E. (2011). Nowak et al. reply Nature, 471 (7339) DOI: 10.1038/nature09836

* One for each year since Harry Houdini was born, maybe?

Dr. Frank Turek at Michigan State University

Oh heck! I just returned from two hours of Dr. Frank Turek shouting his proof for God into a microphone. I have really good hearing, so it was thus painful on a physical as well as on an intellectual level.

You can see his four points on his website. They are:

1. Does Truth Exist?
2. Does God Exist?
3. Are Miracles Possible?
4. Is The New Testament True?

Briefly, his answers as given were:

1) Yes, because if there is no truth, then is that statement a truth, so... He presented several other paradoxes, and the whole thing is neither here nor there, really. Yes, there is truth, but Turek goes from that to say that there is absolute truth.

2) Yes, and for this he presented three well-known (and fallacious) arguments:
Cosmological argument (fine-tuning and Big Bang has to be started by something that isn't part of nature).
Design (lots of evidence of design in nature).
Morality (there can be no absolute morality without God, and since there is absolute morality (which there isn't), ergo God).


3) Yes, without them Christianity is nonsense, and we have scientific evidence for the biggest miracle of: the creation of everything (the Big Bang).

Also under this point he managed to cause harm to both Dawkins and Hitchens in their absence in ways I know they would not have let slide had they been present. Dawkins was misquoted from Expelled to have said that he believes aliens created life on Earth. That's not how the conversation with Ben Stein went at all. Ben Stein asked if it was possible that aliens designed life on Earth, and Dawkins reluctantly agreed that that would be possible, but that of course wouldn't explain the origin of life in the first place. Hitchens was presented as being mad at God, with the implication that that's the reason he's an atheist. Turek implied that all the "new atheists" are atheists for this reason.

Turek also managed to imply that he just might have found the remains of Noah's arch int he Mountains of Arat in Iran. Really. He went there with an archaeologist and found a side of a mountain that could have been the side of a ship, and they sent nine rocks from it back for analysis, and five came back as petrified wood. Wow!

4) Yes, the New Testament is historically true, and therefore the Old Testament is too, because Jesus taught it as true. This was the most hilarious/upsetting. The evidence Turek presented for this was the six E's:

Early testimony.
Eyewitness testimony.
Embarrassing testimony.
Excrutiating testimony.
Expected testimony.
Extra-Biblical testimony.

Actually, he only talked about the first four.

The early testimony is something about a temple destroyed in 70 AD, but do forgive that I don't know enough to get this.

The eyewitness testimony is that of Luke, who gets all the things right about his time that we can confirm from other sources: depth of the ocean, and other things I forget, and so therefore everything he said must be true, which thus makes the story of Jesus' resurrection true. At this point I was plotting to tell the story about how I got up this morning in March 22nd, 2011, read more news about the Japanese tsunami, and that the Flying Spaghetti Monster appeared before me right before I went to Turek's talk. Since the tsunami and Turek's performance will be verifiable in the future, that means that it is also true that I was greeted by the FSM.

The Embarrassing testimony really was the most embarrassing: That because the Biblical testimonies put the witnesses in a bad light, then their accounts must be true. This non-sequitur, presented with a straight face, supposedly means that the witnesses wouldn't admit to be dimwitted, have doubt about Jesus, fall asleep in the presence of Jesus, etc., unless it was really true. At this point I was planning to ask if Turek didn't think it could be possible that the accounts were written like this even they weren't true, or perhaps were edited later by other scribes.

The excruciating testimony was something about how big events impacts us more, so we remember the events of that day better. Jesus rising from the dead was such an event, ergo the story is true...

At the beginning of the question session, Turek said one thing that honestly made the whole thing worthwhile: "No one likes to ask the first question, so let's move on to the second question." That is pretty golden, if you ask me. Look out for me using it next time I get the chance.

Questions were pretty lame, except for one, which was asked by yours truly (no one else flatters me). Turek had mentioned the Problem of Evil, but gave no answer, so I asked him for one. I literally had to repeat it three times before he understood it. If this was a ploy, it was lost on me. "You are well aware that the argument from evil is usually presented as an argument against the idea that there is a God and and afterlife, right?" Three times. I gave the example of the Sendai earthquake and tsunami, and asked why such events not caused by humans, and causing a lot of suffering, were allowed by God. He said he didn't know, but that there is only evil because there is good (like there is only shadow because there is light), and good is created by God. Suffering is a way for humans to learn to become better humans. I then asked what the good of a baby burning to death in a natural disaster would be, to which he answered that we never know the good such events can lead to in the future. Very nice.

One member of the audience told a story of how his mother was raped (which he actually described as just as bad as a baby burning to death), but that that evil led to something good, namely his own birth. Touching, but also difficult to compare to that of burning babies, I think. He still got lots of amens from the 100+ audience, which largely consisted of people who apparently didn't need any persuasion in the first place.

Turek: "If God stopped evil, he might start with you." Yeah, but since he can do anything logically possible, he could be benevolent and start with tsunamis, don't you think? Why doesn't he? Probably because he can't, and probably he can't because he's not around.

Update 3/23:

Dr. Frank Turek has a PhD in apologetics (amazing that it's even a field of scientific inquiry), and is the co-author of I Don't Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist. He didn't speak yesterday about atheism, though.

I love Jesus

I just don't believe he was a god. In fact, I look at him as the first outspoken atheist. But there are those who hate Jesus (no, not the Muslims).
Jesus unambiguously preached mercy and forgiveness. These are supposed to be cardinal virtues of the Christian faith. And yet Evangelicals are the most supportive of the death penalty, draconian sentencing, punitive punishment over rehabilitation, and the governmental use of torture. Jesus exhorted humans to be loving, peaceful, and non-violent. And yet Evangelicals are the group of Americans most supportive of easy-access weaponry, little-to-no regulation of handgun and semi-automatic gun ownership, not to mention the violent military invasion of various countries around the world. Jesus was very clear that the pursuit of wealth was inimical to the Kingdom of God, that the rich are to be condemned, and that to be a follower of Him means to give one's money to the poor. And yet Evangelicals are the most supportive of corporate greed and capitalistic excess, and they are the most opposed to institutional help for the nation's poor -- especially poor children. They hate anything that smacks of "socialism," even though that is essentially what their Savior preached. They despise food stamp programs, subsidies for schools, hospitals, job training -- anything that might dare to help out those in need. Even though helping out those in need was exactly what Jesus urged humans to do. In short, Evangelicals are that segment of America which is the most pro-militaristic, pro-gun, and pro-corporate, while simultaneously claiming to be most ardent lovers of the Prince of Peace.

Stop eating panda (and tuna), please

When you are out eating, please forego the admittedly exquisite selection of panda*. I have had it on numerous occasions, but once I realized that they are critically endangered, I decided no more panda for me.

The consumers love a good slice of panda, seared, fried, or raw, and I am no different. But, we cannot let this magnificent animal go extinct just because we love to eat them. And the good news is that we as consumers of panda can do something about it: stop ordering panda. It's that simple.

Of course, getting that message across and making everyone care is not really easy. Maybe images like these will help?

Click to see more images.

* And bluefin tuna.


Update: Here's the seafood AVOID list from Monterey Bay Aquarium for the Northeast US:

Carnival of Evolution #33 (and 32)

The thirty third Carnival of Evolution is on Genome Engineering. There is a huge number of posts this month, so dive in.

I completely forgot to mention that CoE No. 32 went up on Denim and Tweed: Letter from Darwin.