The structuralist heresy

Larry Moran has heard the words of Michael Denton, and has come away with a creationist interpretation of structuralism. I have to explain to Larry that Denton, as you might expect of a creationist, is distorting the whole idea. Here’s the Denton/Intelligent Design creationism version of structuralist theory.

As Denton says, the basic idea is that the form (structure) of modern organisms is a property of the laws of physics and chemistry and not something that evolution discovered. He would argue that if you replay the tape of life you will always get species that look pretty much like the species we see today because the basic forms (Baupläne) are the inevitable consequences of the underlying physics.

Say what? Look, I’m a developmental biologist; I was baptized in the Stygian stream of structuralism by D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, I reacted and diffused with Alan Turing, I danced disco by the light of the Belousov–Zhabotinsky reaction, and no, that is not the structuralism I have studied. There is a grain of truth to it, in that structuralism does imply that there are physical/chemical constraints on form, but only the extremists would suggest that that means life on Mars would evolve to look like life on earth. That overlooks the fact that structuralists are thoroughly familiar with the diversity of life on this one planet, and since those physical laws can generate both mushrooms and monkeys, it’s clear that there is some room for exploration of form.

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Alexandra Elbakyan is my hero

Here’s another way I’m privileged: I have free access to the University of Minnesota library system, with all of its journal subscriptions, so I rarely have to worry about finding something published in the major journals, with a few annoying exceptions. It’s only now, then, that I’ve learned about Sci-Hub, but I’ll be using it more, especially to deal with those exceptions.

Alexandra Elbakyan set up Sci-Hub to make science freely available.

For those of you who aren’t already using it, the site in question is Sci-Hub, and it’s sort of like a Pirate Bay of the science world. It was established in 2011 by neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan, who was frustrated that she couldn’t afford to access the articles needed for her research, and it’s since gone viral, with hundreds of thousands of papers being downloaded daily. But at the end of last year, the site was ordered to be taken down by a New York district court – a ruling that Elbakyan has decided to fight, triggering a debate over who really owns science.

“Payment of $32 is just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research. I obtained these papers by pirating them,” Elbakyan told Torrent Freak last year. “Everyone should have access to knowledge regardless of their income or affiliation. And that’s absolutely legal.”

She’s being sued by Elsevier! She is fighting the most evil science publisher in the world. This isn’t just heroism, it’s epic heroism.

Sorry, physicists, I’m going to have to be a wet blanket here

The Republicans in congress have just approved a rude little bill.

The House of Representatives approved legislation Wednesday that would require the National Science Foundation to provide written justification for how every grant furthers the “national interest.”
The legislation, H.R. 3293, passed largely along party lines in the Republican-controlled House. Its sponsors characterized the measure as designed to “ensure that the National Science Foundation (NSF) is open and accountable to the taxpayers about how their hard-earned dollars are spent.”

Meanwhile, those impractical enthusiastic physicists have been all jubilant over the discovery of gravitational waves, and it’s in the media everywhere I turn. Guess how much confirmation of this phenomenon cost?

The chirp is also sweet vindication for the National Science Foundation, which spent about $1.1 billion over more than 40 years to build a new hotline to nature, facing down criticism that sources of gravitational waves were not plentiful or loud enough to justify the cost.

All right, smart guys. I’m a reasonably intelligent, reasonably well-educated biologist, and I’ve been struggling to grasp the significance of this discovery. I want you to imagine standing in front of Lamar Smith or Dana Rohrabacher and having to explain to them how a squiggle in a billion-dollar instrument furthers the national interest. These are people quite happy to throw a trillion dollars away on the F-35, but want to know exactly how every penny going to basic science will Make America Great Again.

Have fun with that.

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?

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.

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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.

You might be surprised at what is computable nowadays

Meet Oliver.

I’m a Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) researcher and programmer living slightly north of Castle Black. I study online communities, focusing on how people consume content, how user behaviour varies between desktop and mobile platforms, and how we can best understand systemic bias in peer-production communities.

He writes C++ and R code. His perspective sounds like the kind of contribution a lot of programming communities need, so I would think it valuable to keep him around. Unfortunately, he has resigned from the R community. He found something simple, obvious, and wrong, so he fixed it and submitted a report. Exactly as you’re supposed to do, right? Only this was the problem:

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Inequities breed arrogance everywhere

Paul Campos commits a really good deconstruction of the NY Times article on Jason Lieb’s resignation for harassment. He teases out all the understated assumptions in the article, and exposes the biases that minimized the consequences of Lieb’s actions…and the culpability of the institutions that have been hiring him.

But this is also a case where I’ll tell you to read the comments. They’re entertaining. The audience seems to be lawyers and the so-called softer side of academia, and they’re all talking about how the sciences get so much more money, and how so many scientists are dismissive of philosophy and the liberal arts and think the humanities are worthless, and how STEM is hostile to women.

As someone imbedded in that STEM community, I would just like to say that they’re completely right. It’s a serious problem.