Explaining the Origin of Evolutionary Novelty

We’ve got an interesting seminar coming to Morris next Thursday.

Thursday, February 18, 2016, 5 p.m.
Location: Imholte Hall 109
The origination of novel structures has long been an intriguing topic for biologists. Over the past few decades it has served as a central theme in evolutionary developmental biology, in part to highlight explanatory gaps in the population genetic framework of standard evolutionary theory. Yet, definitions of evolutionary innovation and novelty are frequently debated and there remains disagreement about what kinds of causal factors best explain the origin of qualitatively new variation in the history of life. I argue that instead of trying to identify a single, correct definition of evolutionary novelty, biologists should shift their attention from defining the concept to characterizing the explanatory agenda associated with the concept. The meanings of the terms “innovation” or “novelty” serve to indicate explanatory expectations for the study of diverse morphological or behavioral features. These differences in explanatory expectations or criteria of adequacy help to account for disagreements about how best to explain the origin of novelty. Thus, advancing inquiry into the developmental evolution of novel structures requires attention to three distinct dimensions—conceptual, empirical, and theoretical—and suggests that combinations of philosophical and scientific expertise harbor the most promise for increasing our understanding of the evolutionary origins of novelty.

I’m looking forward to it. We’ll see you all there, right?

Oregon occupation is ending

I’m actually respecting the way the FBI has been handling the Bundy situation. They’ve been deliberate and cautious and have been trying to minimize the gunplay. I wish police everywhere were paying attention: guns are a last resort.

OPB has been tracking developments. The FBI has closed in on the Malheur refuge, and has demanded that the remaining four surrender. Those four have been freaking out and posting defiant videos to youtube, which do diddly for their situation now but are going to play well in the courtroom. The story is that they’re going to surrender sometime this morning.

The next step will be for the FBI to document all the damage the militia did to the refuge. That’ll also play well in court.

Cliven Bundy has been arrested. He sent out a twitter message and email calling for all “patriots” to go to Oregon. All caps, of course.

After his plane landed in Oregon, he was arrested. How anticlimactic. And how totally predictable. And about time. Anyone else who is a million dollar scofflaw wouldn’t need to incite rebellion to find themselves in jail.

These people aren’t heroic patriots. They’re just arrogant, privileged crooks with weird religious beliefs to justify criminal behavior.

OK, so where’s the evolution?

This is why I can’t stand evolutionary psychology: the field reduces evolution to a meaningless modifier that isn’t tested or used to inform the results at all. This article on The Science Behind Why So Many Women Want to Befriend Gay Men is not only free of any testing of evolutionary hypotheses, but doesn’t even question the assertion in the title.

It starts with a claim.

During the course of my research, I’ve discovered that the most interesting, compelling—and, arguably, most theoretically coherent—explanation is through the lens of evolution.

Specifically, I believe evolutionary psychology and human mating can help explain why relationships between straight women and gay men tend to flourish.

[Read more…]

Nerds growing old

A review at Ars Technica starts this way: “Dungeons & Dragons just celebrated its 42nd birthday…”. I said no, no way, this is a mistake, it can’t be — I started playing that game the year after it came out, in 1975, which was…41 years ago. Yikes.

I played regularly through college — we had a kind of loose gaming group who would get together every week or two for a long night of goofy fantasy role playing. I drifted away after graduation, though, for two reasons: I’d moved far away from old friends, and they kept tinkering with the game, adding new persnickety rules and turning it into an exercise in bookkeeping rather than storytelling.

The review explains, though, that the latest edition goes back to its roots, simplifying and streamlining the rules, which I think is a step in the right direction, even if I’ll probably never play it again (I now live even farther away from my old friends). I think it’s also cool that they’ve made the basic player’s rules available for free, even if they’re going to still stick the dedicated D&D gamer with an $85 bill for three books, the Player’s Handbook, the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and of course, the Monster Manual (D&D Core Rulebook).

So all I need is money, and time, and friends, and I could pretend to be 18 again. Now that’s real fantasy role-playing!

Now it’s anthropology

I’m beginning to feel like an anomaly, because somehow I’ve gotten through 30+ years of teaching without ever groping a student. Harassing students seems to be a common thing. Now Science reports on a big case of sexual misconduct in the field of anthropology, a field that has had reports of problems before.

Although the most recent high-profile cases of sexual harassment in science have arisen in astronomy and biology, many researchers say paleoanthropology also has been rife with sexual misconduct for decades. Fieldwork, often in remote places, can throw senior male faculty and young female students together in situations where the rules about appropriate behavior can be stretched to the breaking point. Senior women report years of unwanted sexual attention in the field, at meetings, and on campus. A widely cited anonymous survey of anthropologists and other field scientists, called the SAFE study and published in July 2014 in PLOS ONE, reported that 64% of the 666 respondents had experienced some sort of sexual harassment, from comments to physical contact, while doing fieldwork.

Even a few years ago, the research assistant might not even have aired her complaint, as few women—or men—felt emboldened to speak out about harassment. Of the 139 respondents in the SAFE study who said they experienced unwanted physical contact, only 37 had reported it. Those who remained silent may have feared retaliation. Senior paleoanthropologists control access to field sites and fossils, write letters of recommendation, and might end up as reviewers on papers or grant proposals. “The potential for [senior scientists] to make a phone call and kill a careermaking paper feels very real,” says Leslea Hlusko, a paleontologist at the University of California (UC), Berkeley.

You should also read Rebecca Ackermann’s personal account of what it’s like to be targeted for harassment.

This is a gigantic problem for science. It’s not just a few people here and there — it’s pervasive across all disciplines, and it means we’ve lost an unknown number of excellent researchers over the years for an arbitrary reason that only benefits abusers.

We’re all bunnies now

The president of Mount St Mary’s University was in the news a short while back because of his cavalier attitude towards students: his grand plan for improving student retention scores was to drive away students earlier, before they counted in the statistics, with the comment that This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.

The faculty who criticized President Simon Newman, and who supported the students who reported the Glock comment, have been abruptly fired. One of them was tenured. Newman’s explanation?

As an employee of Mount St. Mary’s University, you owe a duty of loyalty to this university and to act in a manner consistent with that duty. However, your recent actions, in my opinion and that of others, have violated that duty and clearly justify your termination, said the letter.

Further, the letter said that Naberhaus’s actions have caused considerable damage to the university and that the university might sue him. In addition, the letter told Naberhaus he was designated persona non grata and banned from the campus.

Wow. Not only does Newman hold a Glock to everyone’s heads, he’s willing to pull the trigger.

Does R.K. Milholland spy on me with secret cameras?

I saw this latest comic and started feeling paranoid and checking the ceiling for lenses. It’s been a depressing couple of weeks, and…we’re hosting more cats. My son’s house got flooded by a water main break, he’s sleeping on couches at friends’ places, his gear is stored in various places, including our car, and we had to take in his two cats, temporarily.

It does not ease the situation. Our existing cat is a minion of the devil who hates strangers and strange cats, so we’ve had to wall off the two groups in separate rooms. I still come home to find our satanic beast snarling and hissing at a closed door. We are the only two other creatures on the planet she trusts at all, so far, and it’s a little uncomfortable to be the patrons of the bestial anti-christ.

So don’t do it, PeeJee! Not unless, of course, we can figure out how to translate real creatures into a two-dimensional cartoon world, and you really want a cat that will attack all your patrons on sight.

Which seminar should you attend?

Would you believe that the Twin Cities branch and the Morris campus of the University of Minnesota are having major seminars in the same week? Next Wednesday, UMTC will be hosting Milo Yiannopoulos and Christina Hoff Sommers on feminism (try not to laugh); on Friday, UMM will be hosting a Philosophy of Biology symposium, with Marlene Zuk, Alan Love, Emilie Snell-Rood, and many other highly qualified speakers.


Is it nice or fair of me to compare the two institutions on the basis of an official university event and a crackpot group of students? No, it is not, but you know how institutional rivalries are.

Anyway, I’m very much looking forward to this one. What’s particularly perfect about it is that it’s being held at the same time as my first year course, where we’re talking about evolution. Guess who gets to skip out on teaching that day and instead send all his students to listen to some extremely appropriate expertise?

As for the rest of you, you could attend both, since they’re two days apart. If you’re in the Twin Cities, though, I’ll understand if you decide to flee the stench early and come out to fabulous Morris for an extra day or two.