Honorary authorship is fraud.

Authorship on peer-reviewed papers is a big deal in academia. If you’re a grad student looking for a postdoc, the very first thing your prospective advisor is going to want to know is what you’ve published (this is arguably true at every level, though funded grants become important, too). Customs vary among fields, but in mine (ecology and evolutionary biology), the first author is typically the person who carried out the experiment and wrote at least a first draft of the paper, and the last author is typically the head of the lab group, who is presumed to have played a role in planning the research, advising the first author along the way, and writing and revising the resulting paper. In between (if there are more than two authors) are people who have made some other contributions, which can cover a wide range of activities.

Sometimes, though, people who haven’t made any significant contribution at all are listed as authors. This happens for a variety of reasons, but the one I want to talk about today is so-called ‘honorary’ or ‘gift’ authorship. This is something I have long had a strong opinion about: in my mind, honorary authorship is unethical. It is an abuse of the system. It is academic misconduct. [Read more…]

Some people got sick in Cuba. Or did they?

Sound cannon

Image from wired.com.

The last time I wrote about the Cuban ‘sonic attack’ baloney, I said that a pair of peer-reviewed articles had convinced me

…that some American diplomats who served in Cuba have real neurological symptoms (Swanson et al. 2018). Furthermore, they have convinced me that these same diplomats appear to have real differences in brain structure from an age-matched, healthy control group (Verma et al. 2019).

I may have spoken too soon: Sergio Della Sala and Roberto Cubelli, writing in Cortex, dispute the evidence that American embassy personnel in Cuba suffer from neurological impairment:

The [Swanson et al.] JAMA article represents a case of poor neuropsychology; clinically inappropriate and methodologically improper…

[Read more…]

The rock, the clock, and organismal complexity

Honeybees, photo by Will Ratcliff

Recently reproduced (swarmed) honeybees.
Photo by Will Ratcliff

Scientific articles can be dry, technical, and, yes, boring. They aren’t always, though. Now and then you come across a gem, as I did this morning while searching for some background for a manuscript I’m working on. In 2007, Joan Strassmann and David Queller wrote, in a section titled “The rock, the clock, and organismal complexity,”

Darwin built his theory of descent with modifications from many quarters. He took uniformitarianism from the geologist Charles Lyell, the struggle for existence from the economist Thomas Malthus, and homology from a number of continental biologists. Perhaps most surprising is his debt to a theologian, William Paley. At university, Darwin had Paley’s Natural Theology almost by heart. Paley pointed to the complexity of organisms and claimed that such complexity required a supernatural intelligence. Darwin’s chief achievement was to provide a scientific explanation for adaptive complexity.

[Read more…]

Volvox 2019 meeting report

Volvox 2019 logo

Dominique Morneau has posted a report on the Fifth International Volvox Conference over at nature.com:

The Volvocales are an order of flagellated green algae, varying in size from one cell (Chlamydomonas) to >500 cells (Volvox), representing an interesting model for studying the evolution of multicellularity and cell differentiation.

The Volvox meeting takes place every two years, each year growing larger and larger. This year’s attendees – 67 altogether – came from Japan, Thailand, the US, the UK, and Canada, and ranged in career stage from high school students to established researchers.

[Read more…]


The argument that natural selection is a tautology and therefore lacks explanatory power is one of the silliest tropes that creationists have used to impugn evolution. Here’s a decent explanation of why:

Natural selection is in one sense a tautology (i.e., Who are the fittest? Those who survive/leave the most offspring. Who survive/leave the most offspring? The fittest.). But a lot of this is semantic word-play, and depends on how the matter is defined, and for what purpose the definition is raised. There are many areas of life in which circularity and truth go hand in hand (e.g. What is electric charge? That quality of matter on which an electric field acts. What is an electric field? A region in space that exerts a force on electric charge. But no one would deny that the theory of electricity is valid and can’t explain how motors work.)—it is only that circularity cannot be used as independent proof of something. To harp on the issue of tautology can become misleading, if the impression is given that something tautological therefore doesn’t happen. Of course the environment can ‘select’, just as human breeders select.

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Quite remarkable

The Evolution of Individuality cover

That life is hierarchically organized, with species composed of populations, populations of individuals, individuals of cells, cells of organelles, organelles of genomes, genomes of chromosomes, and chromosomes of genes, is so obvious an observation that it is quite remarkable that we have no general explanation of why this is so. –Leo Buss, The Evolution of Individuality, p. 183

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Final thoughts on Cuba

They won’t be. I’m pretty sure about that. As long as credulous news sources continue to take seriously the absurd idea that Cuba attacked American diplomats with a magical sci-fi sound gun, I’m probably not going to be able to resist bitching about it. But right now I want to talk about what a massive failure this has been by scads of people who should have known better.

MSNBC screenshot

Headline from MSNBC 2019-07-23: “Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania released a new study on the brains of U.S. diplomats who suffered unexplainable health complications following the 2017 Cuba sonic attack. NBC’s Josh Lederman explains the circumstances and next steps to find the cause.”

[Read more…]