Field of Science

Submit to Frontiers in Genetics

As a first for me, I have been accepted as a member of the editorial board of the new journal Frontiers in Genetics. I'm very excited about this, particularly because I think the particular model of peer-review might benefit science a lot: Articles will be peer-reviewed for correctness, followed by an open online post-review by readers. It's sort of like PLoS ONE in that manuscripts don't have to present completely novel ideas, but with the added post-review by peers that will determine it's impact on the field.

Whether this will work better is an empirical question, and I look forward to seeing the outcome: Will science benefit by shorter time from submission to publication? Will costs be reduced and less money going directly from tax-payers to journals (journals take money from authors to publish, and cost money to subscribe to, and yet ask for a free service from reviewers)? Changing either or both of those would be a step in the right direction.

Specifically I am a review editor for Frontiers in Evolutionary and Population Genetics, which you are hereby encouraged to send your manuscripts to.

My love of kiwi

Clearly, I'd say, love has some evolutionary significance. Why do we love each other? Evolutionary adaptive reasons seem quite convincing: people in love have sex, sex makes babies, and people in love take care of each other, thereby incrasing chances of baby's survival. What a wonderful reward it all is! But what happens in the brain, and why does it feel so bad to lose the one we love? This blog post on Big Think looks at the neurological and chemical underpinnings of this most wonderful human(?) emotion, and what is has to do with sex.

Love is in the brain: That said, it appears that when people are in love, among other neurological activities, two parts of their brain really get activated. They are called the caudate nucleus and the tegmentum. The caudate is a reward center of the brain, and the tegmentum is a region of the brain stem that sends dopamine to it; dopamine tracks how rewarding something is. I get this with food, for example when I eat the perfect kiwi.

And drugs do it too: In effect, being in love rewards the pleasure centers in your brain, which then crave whatever it was that was so rewarding – in other words, your beloved. Those reward centers are the same ones that light up when people win the lottery. Or use cocaine. But love is a double-edged sword, and when it goes wrong it can haunt us like a vendetta.

Indeed, love literally hurts: And being rejected in love activates a part of the brain called the insula, which is the same region that lights up when we are in physical pain. So we are doubly motivated to hold fast to the object of our love: feel the pleasure, and avoid the pain.


Evolution favors those that feel love, if we believe that the emotion is adaptive. Hard to test, but still a pretty persuasive idea.

Happiness is irrelevant, resistance is futile

When I was a child, I once watched an animated kid's program about a family where the youngest of two children turned out to be retarded. At first the child was just happy, and all was joy. But then later on, the parents got worried that the child didn't respond much, but was just happy crumbling up paper and listening to the sound.

A doctor told them that there was nothing wrong with their child, but that she was just one of "them". At first the parents got really sad and worried, but then the older child said "but look! she's happy!", and then they all realized that this was good, and they that everything was going to be all right.

For me as a child it was a good story to hear (rather than Dragon Ball Z GT total brainless waste of time kind of thing). It made me think. The morale was perhaps that as long as someone is happy, things are really all right. Something like that.


Is that true? Is happiness really the ultimate measure of worth? Does the pursuit of it really make sense to write up as a guiding principle? Is everything okay if we're happy? Can we be happy in other ways than being happy?

I will counter that happiness can be made to stand alongside other measures of a good life. That is, rather than saying that happiness is achieved given we work well, carry out our duty, live up to our responsibilities, treat others well, honor thy parents, score many touchdowns, or whatever you think are good things to do in life, I would say that happiness can be added to that list. Happiness is a thing to achieve for sure, but need not be the ultimate goal. A life can be lived to the fullest without happiness necessarily playing a big part.

For example, people sometimes say that flow is one way to be happy: when we are so immersed in a task that we notice nothing else, then this is one form of happiness. But, while I agree that flow is nice, I do not think it is happiness at all. Rather, it makes happiness irrelevant.

And this is my point here: Happiness is not enough. It is one thing among many that are worth striving for. Rather than being what we may achieve when everything else is right, we can make life worthwhile without being happy (note that not being happy is not equal being unhappy). And also, we can be happy at times without anything else going our way.

In evolution, I could add, happiness is irrelevant. Fitness does not come to the happiest. The happiest human beings are not at all those with the most children. Does the one who have the most children become the most happy? Or does the happiest person become the one with the most children?

Surely a life lived in pure and constant happiness induced by a constant intake of heroin cannot be deemed a good life. Of course a life lived as the happiest retard is not something to aspire to. Clearly happiness is not everything.

Happiness is a warm gun, yes it is.

The beliefs of others... they matter!

Margaret Morgan just alerted me to this old xkcd comic. Old, but unfortunately more pertinent than ever.

So many people have told me that it is a fools errand to care what other people believe. Or that it's just none of my business. Or that I am arrogant to even have an opinion about the beliefs of others.

Well, as this comic illustrates, the beliefs of others sometimes matters in very tangible ways. Besides, religious people impose their beliefs on others all the time, as when they go door to door telling us that we are going to hell*, or when they pass laws based on ancient texts written by homophobic bigots.

* Actually, as I learned the most annoying way, Jehova's Witnesses don't believe there is a hell at all. Boring! Her daughter sure looked like she lived there.

A blog you don't want to be featured on

Retraction Watch. Tracking retractions as a window into the scientific process.

Collecting cases of retracted scientific papers, this blog keeps track of scientific sinners. Whether the retractions result from honest mistakes or from downright fraud, you can find out about them here. Pretty cool. Except for the sinners.

Let it count as a warning for all of us: be careful who you associate with. Should you be an author (particularly a senior author) on a paper primarily written by someone else, make damned sure that the analysis is correct, that the data are genuine, and that the text is original.

The American Family Association still strong on homophobia

It's been quite a while since I last heard from the American Family Association. I was signed up on their mailing list, but then one day those emails stopped coming. I suspect they found out I commented on their stupid endeavors to boycott various companies because they "support the homosexual agenda".

But no worries. All their foolery are available on their website. Among the items is a call for boycotting Home Depot, because they sponsored the San Francisco Gay Pride parade and festival. AFA call for Home Depot to "remain neutral in the culture and political war over homosexual marriage".

There's nothing like religion to excuse homophobia.

Carnival of Evolution #39, and notes on how to help

September 1st edition of Carnival of Evolution has been up for a couple of days already at The End of the Pier Show - biology editor of Nature Henry Gee's blog.

Despite carnivals going extinct here and there, CoE is doing really well. When I can get my act together, it is really no problem finding hosts; right now all slots are taken through January next year (go here and click on 'future hosts'). And while the number of submissions does vary quite a bit - between the low thirties and to over sixty - there are always plenty for the host and readers to dig into. Probably few people get thought them all, except of course for the host who has to, and that is easily a full days work, if not more. So from here a heartfelt thanks to all past and future hosts, and everyone doing what they can to keep CoE running, whether it be by submissions or by linking on their blog, tweeting, updating their FB status, announcing CoE at conference talks*, making it required reading in college, etc. Thanks!

I'm often thinking about new ways to improve the carnival, both in terms of making each edition better and in terms of increasing the number of readers. It's up to the hosts how to put the CoE together, though suggestions are allowed. If you have good ideas that you'd like to share, you'd be welcome to let us know (comments, email, @carnyevolution #carnyevol). And if you think of new ways to promote CoE, feel free to let us know that too. Right now, when a new edition is up, an email is shot out to the email list, which has some 80 contacts, and then a number of people link to CoE on their blog (though that number is usually not greater than ten or so, which I think is too little). If you have done that, go ahead and put a link to your blog in the comments of that edition, like this. And I tweet (ir)regularly now, so perhaps a few of the current 442 followers find their way to it like that. But I really don't know, as I never get around to asking the hosts to find out how many visitors they get to their edition and how they get there. Except, when Larry Moran hosted last month, he showed me that visits went up an order or magnitude compared to the baseline, which was mostly due to a link on Pharyngula. Oh how I wish PZ would link every month, but alas that is like getting the attention of a celebrity.

Now, go check it out.

* Incidentally, I did this recently, and I got nothing but blank stares from an audience of about 200.