Course Design: What are you going to teach?


I already explained why I wanted to design a new course: because I was getting stuck in a rut of teaching the same thing, cell biology and genetics, every year, and because new courses are an opportunity for the professor to learn new things and acquire greater depth in a subject. But what specifically should I teach? I’ve actually got a secret list of courses I’d love to be able to dig more deeply into. Don’t tell anyone. I don’t want to get drafted into teaching even more new courses.

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The future of American science is in question

It sounds incredible that we are even asking that question here in the 21st century, in a country that is one of the world leaders in research in science and technology, but Trump has made it scarily relevant. His pick for the office of management and budget is a guy who thinks the funding of science might belong on the chopping block.

President-elect Donald Trump recently picked Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina to head the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Like many of Trump’s other Cabinet nominees, Mulvaney seems to have a disturbingly low opinion of science.

In a stunning September 9 Facebook post (that’s since been deleted but is still cached), Mulvaney asked, … what might be the best question: do we really need government funded research at all.

That was in the context of a discussion about funding programs to deal with the Zika virus. What Mulvaney argued was nonsensical and self-defeating: there had been studies that found the etiology of Zika-induced birth defects to be complex and variable (there have since been studies that showed a stronger and more consistent association), so he’s arguing that maybe we don’t need more scientific studies at all? This is a close-your-eyes-and-maybe-it-will-all-go-away approach. We don’t run away from complexity. We don’t expect that interactions in biology will be simple and clear and 100% reproducible.

This is also a matter of public health, rather than profit. We also don’t expect that the biomedical industry will, out of the kindness of their hearts, fund research on a low-frequency but tragically serious disease, nor are pharmaceutical companies, for instance, usually much concerned with public health measures to control disease vectors. This is exactly the kind of research that needs government funding — unprofitable, requiring multi-disciplinary approaches, with a need to work out basic mechanisms.

And that’s what compels Mulvaney to question the utility of government-funded research. I wonder what he thinks of Drosophila and zebrafish work?

Natural selection is not the only mechanism of evolution

T. Ryan Gregory makes an important point about how evolutionary biologists should approach problems.

I will avoid the political aspect of this discussion and focus on the science involved in the debate, because I think it highlights an important issue: namely, the need for evolutionary biologists to consider and test alternative hypotheses, even if they are not as intuitively plausible as the main hypothesis. This is one of the reasons that evolutionary biologists often take issue with claims from evolutionary psychology — because evo psych often tends to present a plausible hypothesis but does little to critically evaluate its underlying assumptions and even less to present and rule out alternatives. In particular, evolutionary biologists should know better than to restrict the list of hypotheses ones based on selection, because there are usually viable non-adaptive hypotheses as well. Natural selection is not the only mechanism of evolution.

And then he does precisely what we should do: he lays out a series of alternative explanation for size differences between males and females, and includes non-adaptive explanations. I know way too many boosters for evolutionary science whose brains would explode if you tried to tell them Trait X, which they think is important, doesn’t necessarily provide a selective advantage.

This is why I like to foist Elisabeth Llloyd’s book, The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution on my brighter students: each chapter lays out an evolutionary explanation for female orgasms, and shows the evidence pro and con…and often the evidence con is so strong you have to marvel at the psychological appeal of adaptive explanations, that people would advance and promote such poorly evidenced ideas.

Gregory also points to a good post by Jesse Singal that highlights these fallacious explanations. He highlights arguments made by Holly Dunsworth that are particularly good. She’s not very happy with the adaptive just-so stories that reinforce bogus ideas about male dominance.

They’re all criticizing a post by Jerry Coyne that makes a standard complaint from the conservative side of science.

After providing some more evidence that “the larger size and strength of males is reflected in their behavior … and was almost certainly promoted by sexual selection,” Coyne bemoans the fact that so many on the left refuse to acknowledge it. “To deny that the differences between human males and females in size and strength are evolved is to deny at the same time that differences in behavior between males and females is evolved,” he writes. “Only the blinkered ideologue would do that. Sadly, these ideologues continue to promote antiscientific ideas on the Internet.”

Apparently, the “blinkered ideologue” he’s sniping at is…me. Unfortunately for his case, I don’t deny evolved differences between men and women — it would be rather difficult to do so with the evidence in such plentiful supply. What I reject is the notion that a) these are all adaptive, and b) that all of the differences are biological. There is a tendency to extrapolate unwarrantedly from the fact that many women have distinctive lumps of fat on their chests, to a sweeping judgment that therefore, their brains must be completely different than those of men. Worse, they then abuse evolutionary biology to claim that these differences are necessary and intrinsic, and anybody who thinks differently is one of those awful “blank slaters”.

But you can’t do that!

It’s taking a statistical property of a group, which is the product of both biological predispositions and cultural influences, and saying that Trait X must be biological in nature because Trait X exists. It’s nonsense. It takes hard work, which usually hasn’t been done, to tease apart environmental and genetic influences, and too often we fail to appreciate that the trait under consideration is a product of both.

Unfortunately, Singal also makes a statement that annoys me.

There really are people who deny there are any innate, evolutionary driven differences between men and women, and as Coyne points out this belief tends to come out of certain political movements who don’t view such differences as compatible with feminist or progressive beliefs and goals.

Who are these people? I’ve read a fair bit of feminist and scientific literature, I’m friends with a number of people who are labeled as ‘weird feminist extremists’ (usually by the kind of ignorant people who think “cuck” is a cogent insult), and I don’t know any who hold this view. Most feminists start with the position that men and women have differences, but these are unfairly and inappropriately extended to apply to every behavioral property, and fairly consistently to the detriment of women.

What’s usually going on is that some anti-feminist has made a bizarre, unbelievable, and often incorrect claim about feminism (they hate men, they want to rule the world, they think my penis is tiny, etc.), and people agree — yes, that is crazy — without checking to see whether any one of them actually said that. I’ve got people ranting that I don’t believe genes or chromosomes or hormones have any effect on humans, for instance, which is flat out crazy talk. But hey, vilifying your ideological opponents with lies is fair game, right?

Do not challenge the SJW, for they are fierce

Lorrie Goldstein is a writer for the Toronto Sun, one of those cheesy conservative tabloids that features half-naked “girls”, and rages against liberalism and science and those terrible transgender people. He tweeted out a challenge: Next time a Social Justice Warrior tells you “science is settled” on global warming, ask them to explain the science. Then watch the fun.

Yes, do. I knew this was coming. And it was quite fun to watch @karengeier lop off his ass and carve it into itty-bitty pieces. It’s so beautiful.

Mary’s Monday Metazoan: The reindeer are suffering

Climate change isn’t helping the reindeer.

reindeerReindeer are getting smaller. As temperatures inch up, winters are getting warmer in Norway, where Svalbard reindeer (Rangifer tarandus platyrhynchus) live. Instead of being able to brush aside the snow that covers the grasses, lichens, and mosses they eat during the 8-month-long chill, the animals’ diet is locked away under a layer of ice when warming temperatures cause rain to fall on existing snow cover, freezing it solid.

Meanwhile, climate change denialists are feeding richly in Washington DC.

Keep your biological reductionism off us men, too

I’m going to disagree with Ed Brayton, who reposted an article by Joe Herbert that blames toxic masculinity on testosterone. It starts out with facts that are rather inarguable:

Young men are particularly liable to become fanatics. Every dictator, every guru, every religious leader, knows this. Fanatics have an overwhelming sense of identity based on a cause (a religion) or a community (gang, team), and a tight and exclusive bond with other members of that group. They will risk injury, loss or even death for the sake of their group. They regard everyone else as outsiders, or even enemies. But why are so many of them young males?

In a world of nation-states, young men fought the wars that formed most countries. The same goes for tribes, villages and factions. Young males have qualities that specialize them for this essential function. They readily identify with their group. They form close bonds with its other members. They are prone to follow a strong leader. This is why young males are so vulnerable to environmental influences, such as the prevailing culture in which they happen to live, and why they are so easily attracted by charismatic leaders or lifestyles that promise membership of restricted groups with sharply defined objectives and values. They like taking risks on behalf of their group – and they usually underestimate the danger that such risks represent. If they didn’t have these properties, they would be less willing to go to war, and therefore less able to fulfil one of their essential sociobiological roles.

That’s a good question, and it is a real problem. But the first hint that the answer is going to go awry is that phrase, “essential sociobiological roles”. Uh-oh. And then it plunges deeper into overly simplistic complexity: it’s because of testosterone. It’s differential development of the frontal lobes. It’s male genes.

Ugh. No, it’s not. I have all of those things, but somehow have avoided fanaticism and obedience to authoritarian leaders and war mongering. Tomi Lahren lacks all of those things, yet somehow exhibits all the properties Herbert is labeling as masculine. You cannot simply go shopping for correlations and label them as causal by ignoring all the evidence against your hypothesis.

I could argue, for instance, that if we look at warriors throughout history, they all have arms that can hold weapons, and language even synonymizes “armed” with “holding a weapon”. Therefore, possessing forelimbs is the explanation for aggression and violence. I think everyone would agree that hypothesis is nonsense. But somehow, we’re going to be less critical of a hypothesis that having testicles is synonymous with violence?

There will be predispositions caused by hormones and cortical development, but they are going to be far less specific than “join the army, follow a charismatic leader, and have happy times killing people with your boomstick”. Testosterone makes people more aggressive? Sure. But it depends on the dose, and how it is expressed is going to be culture-dependent. Whether it makes you want to kill things or whether it makes you want to dance or create art or make love is going to be a product of your history and social environment. Testosterone is not the villain here, no more than arms are the bad guys causing wars.

I happen to like my testosterone, and I consider the role it played in shaping my biological history to be a good one — it made me who I am, in small part. I think being a man should be a good thing, just as being a woman is a good thing, just as being any of the diverse patterns of expression of our human selves is a good thing. To blame behavior on the size and shape of our frontal lobes is a phrenological kind of error.

Besides, did you know young women readily identify with their group, form close bonds with its other members, and are prone to follow a strong leader? Herbert makes the mistake of thinking general human qualities are special to one sex in order to make his essentialist argument. It’s wrong.