Category Archives: Evolution 2011

What do evolutionary biologists study?

So what do evolutionary biologists study? Evolution is, in the minds of much of the public, ‘controversial”. In no small part, this is the doing of a large, vocal, well-funded anti-evolution movement. But responsibility also lies with the people who have taught evolution, who work in the field of evolution.

A lot of people see evolution as being pretty much the same as palaeontology. People dig up fossils and then come up with explanations for how these fossils are related. One person calls a certain fossil a human ancestor. Another says that is represents a distinct lineage. From the outside it just looks like a group of people with advanced degrees pontificating about a subject…specifically, the subject of origins. To look at it another way, it it seems rather a group of scholars discussing some esoteric element of theology.

If I’m correct, that might explain a good deal of how American (especially evangelicals) see evolution. To American Protestants, theology and christology tend to be a very personal endeavours. The Protestant Reformation led to the translation of the Bible into the tongues of the common people. Not only were they able to read the words for themselves, they were also encouraged to come to their own conclusions about it. Looking in from the outside, it’s easy to see evangelical and fundamentalist churches telling their members what they should believe about a number of important issues. But most churches also tell people that they should find their own meaning in scripture. If you aren’t willing to take your own pastor’s word on the meaning of everything in the Bible, why should you take the word of some ivory-tower intellectual who (a) almost certainly knows nothing of the life experience of people like you, (b) is just one voice among many, each of whom has a different view of what this fossil means, and (c) is probably an atheist with an agenda to undermine Christianity and morality.

Now, obviously, this approach is entirely incorrect. Science isn’t a collection of equally valid ideas – some ideas are demonstrably better than others, while others are demonstrably worse. The diversity of views that anti-evolutionists speak of, just doesn’t exist. More importantly, there is no hierarchy imposing orthodoxy.

But more people don’t understand this. And sometimes, I suspect, evolution defenders miss this point entirely. [More later]

Bob Ricklefs: My Life as a Naturalist

Robert Ricklefs gave the American Society of Naturalists‘ Presidential Address today at Evolution 2011. For me, this was one of the high points of the entire conference. In a meeting where ecologists and tropical biologists were fairly thin on the ground, it was great to see someone speak who had such standing, not only as an ecologist, but also someone who had done some of his best work on the biogeography of the insular Caribbean.

Ricklefs talked about what it meant to be a “naturalist”. Naturalists and natural history have gone out of fashion in the last half century. Naturalists were Victorian field biologists, especially the amateur biologists and explorers who played such an important role in the early development of fields like ecology, evolution and taxonomy. But as growing academic disciplines in the second half of the twentieth century, these fields felt the need to divorce themselves from their antecedents in “natural history” and claim their place as rigorous academic disciplines. In his memoir Naturalist, E.O. Wilson spoke of some of the challenges that organismal biologists faced in the early years of the age of DNA, when they were labelled ‘stamp collectors’ and portrayed as a field being superseded by molecular biologists. It was against that backdrop that the fields of ecology, evolution and systematics transformed themselves into hard, quantitative scientific disciplines in the second half of the twentieth century. Modern systematics is about building consensus trees based on genetic data, and evolutionary biologists talk about SNPs and haplotypes. You can be an organismal biologist who has never seen your organism in the wild.

It was against a backdrop such as this that Ricklefs presented his talk. Direct observations of nature – direct experience of nature – is important for the progress of ecology and evolutionary biology. Most people realise, at least on some level, that observations of nature are an important means by which hypotheses can be generated. Broad theories and models of how the world work also have their roots in observations of the natural world. But, as Ricklefs pointed out, we also need to test our theories and models against nature, ensure that our explanations aren’t only internally coherent and logical, but that they also work when presented with the real world.

In addition to his own work on taxon cycles in Caribbean bird species, Ricklefs also discussed Steve Hubbell’s Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity and Biogeography. Hubbell’s neutral theory is a rather interesting idea. in essence, it suggests that tree species are competitively neutral, and that species diversity in tropical forests is maintained by a a mixture of random drift and speciation. Ricklefs expressed the opinion that Hubbell’s neutral theory, which has been around for a decade, probably has another decade before it fades into obscurity, as these things tend to do in ecology. The flaws in the neutral theory, he said, are seen when the theory is confronted with data.

Opening reception

For most people, Evolution 2011 got off to a start tonight with the opening reception at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (SNOMNH).* Upon arrival, we met long registration lines which threatened to spill out the building into the 100°F (38°C) outdoors. Luckily, since we had registered early, we were directed past the lines directly into the main hall. It’s a familiar space where I’ve attended many receptions and seen many distinguished speakers. In his portion of the welcome address, College of Arts and Sciences Dean, Paul Bell, reminisced about the opening of the museum 11 years ago, when Stephen Jay Gould stood and spoke on the very spot where Bell was now speaking. Bell raised an issue that came up many times in conversation tonight – the importance of science education and the embattled status of evolution in the state of Oklahoma today.

It is, of course a very valid concern. Several anti-evolution bills lost or died in committee this session through the hard work of groups like the Oklahomans for Excellence in Science Education. Sure, there’s a religious and political basis for much of the hostility to evolution in Oklahoma, but there’s also an element of ignorance as to what evolutionary biology is. What, someone asked, do evolutionary biologists do? This isn’t really an evolution-specific question. Few members of the general public could answer what any specific sub-field of knowledge actually studies. But creationists have done a good job of exploiting this particular hole in ‘common knowledge’. All evolution does is look at fossils and guess at how the fossils evolved, right? And it’s not really a science because you can’t do any experiments. A little ignorance, reinforced by a few creationist memes, and suddenly people “know” that evolution is not a science. So why are all these people here in Oklahoma – to engage in socialist plots against God-fearing Americans?

The real answer, of course, is fairly easy to find. But would the public be able to deduce anything from it? The first set of talks, spread across eight concurrent sessions include

  • Introduction to models of character state-dependent diversification
  • Variable environments, fluctuating selection and the stability of breeding partnerships in birds
  • Rapid adaptation to anthropogenic environments via hybridization?: Invasive hybrid watermilfoil genotypes are more common than parental genotypes in herbicide-treated lakes
  • Wedge effects: the shape of dispersal barriers and spatial population genetics
  • The evolutionary tale of the largest C4 eudicot lineage: North American desert origin, highly reticulated evolution and extraordinary Hawaiian Island radiation in the Chamaesyce clade of Euphorbia (Euphorbiaceae)
  • The genetic architecture of a difference in male genital morphology between Drosophila mauritiana and D. sechellia
  • Evidence of a resident species of Plasmodium in the Galapagos avifauna
  • Evolutionary genomics of biofilm adaptation and diversification

While I’m sure the average person might have a hard time figuring out what the practical applications of any of this might be, a few things are evidence – no dinosaurs, no fossils.

I find myself wondering – would that really help? Would the public be any more positively inclined to the study of evolution if you could show them that it’s not just a group of people trying to disprove the existence of God.Or would the conversation simply switch to “wasteful spending”?

The opening reception was pretty good. I met Carl Zimmer, one of the best science writers out there. Wine and beer were available at the reception, but only with a drink ticket. Since there were only spaces for tonight, attendees were limited to two alcoholic drinks. I’m sure there are a lot of good reasons, but when I jokingly said something about it to one of the people behind the bar, he replied “well it is a museum”. That led to a rather hilarious image of crowds of drunken evolutionary biologists rampaging through the museum and reclassifying things based on rival phylogenetic hypotheses.

*Try saying S-N-O-M-N-H. The first challenge is the difficulty in remembering the acronym. Usually it works the other way – you remember AMNH, and use that to remind yourself ‘American Museum of Natural History’. Here though, you need to remember “Sam Noble Museum of Natural History”, and cross-check that with the sequence of letters that’s coming out of your mouth. Already, mnemonic fail. But there’s also the sequence of letters. Sure, AMNH has the same sequence, but with only four letters you say each one separately. Here though, you end up with words; ess’no em’naitch. Funny-sounding words.

Evolution 2011

The 2011 Evolution meetings are in town. Four days of scientific presentations on evolutionary biology, a field whose very existence many creationists would cast into doubt. Today was just the initial things – arrival, registrations, and workshops for K-12 teachers in Oklahoma. I headed over in the late morning, registered, and perused the (only partially set-up) displays by merchants. It is, I have learned, an important part of meetings. I love all things book-related, so browsing books and journals and chatting with publishers reps are fun.

Next up – the opening reception at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. I was planning to walk over there – it’s about a 20-minute walk, and at 7 pm it should have cooled down enough to make for a pleasant walk. Which just goes to show that I still don’t understand Oklahoma weather. At 7 pm it’s still 100°F (38°C). Granted, that’s down from 104°F (40°C), but it’s still ridiculously warm. And while I still expect the sun to set by 6 pm, it does nothing of the sort in Oklahoma in summer.

The conference proceedings look interesting. It’s not an ESA or ATBC meeting, but a lot of it is still within my general area of interest (and some isn’t. I don’t care about tools for building phylogenies, even if I do care about phylogenies – I’m a consumer of systematics, not a producer.) Anyway, scientific meetings are fun, any way you put it…