Pierrick Bourrat on levels, time, and fitness, part 2: collective fitness

Last week, I posted some thoughts on Pierrick Bourrat’s new paper in Philosophy and Theory in Biology, focusing on his criticism of Rick Michod’s ‘export of fitness’ framework. This week, I’ll take a look at the second of Bourrat’s criticisms, regarding the transition from MLS1 to MLS2, as first defined by Damuth & Heisler, during a transition in individuality.
MLS1 and MLS2 refer to two different versions of MultiLevel Selection. As Bourrat describes it (and this is pretty much in line with other authors), fitness in MLS1 is defined in terms of the number of particles (or lower-level units, or cells) produced, while in MLS2 the fitnesses of the particles and collectives (or cells and multicellular organisms) are measured in different units. Cell-level fitness (for example) is defined in terms of the number of daughter cells, organism-level fitness is based on the number of daughter organisms. (As with last week’s post, I’ll generally stick to cells and organisms, though the principles apply equally to any two adjacent levels.

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Friday Golden Fleece: Wildflowers in a Ghost Town

Colorado wildflowers

Colorado wildflowers. Photo by Aeravi.

In response to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (a.k.a. the stimulus) Senators Tom Coburn and John McCain published a Stimulus Checkup in December, 2009. This pamphlet concludes that “…billions of dollars of stimulus funding have been wasted, mismanaged, or directed towards silly and shortsighted projects,” and, not surprisingly, many of the projects so identified are federally funded scientific studies. Number 35 in this list is an NSF grant to Dr. David Inouye and colleagues:

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Volvox, the…game?

The Steam Greenlight Community has announced the development of Volvox (warning: autoplay video), a puzzle game with the goal of building “the first pluricellular beings.” Written by three students and former students of Italy’s Politecnico di Milano, the game features triangular cells called Trimoebas that roll around under the player’s control and gain abilities as the game progresses. The team, which forms Neotenia, Ltd., won the Italian national competition and is a semifinalist for the 2015 Microsoft Imagine Cup. The first fifteen levels are available as a free Unity WebGL Demo (takes a while to load).
The game reminds me a bit of Lemmings or Lode Runner in its simplicity and focus on solving deceptively simple tasks. It looks good, with a sort of hand-drawn, colored pencil, pastel look. Each trimoeba has an eye that mostly follows the mouse pointer, although they get bored and start looking around if it doesn’t move for a few seconds. Powers (at least those that exist in the demo) are indicated by the affected side of the triangle being colored; for example, blue sides can’t be stuck in glue. The documentation is a little thin right now, and it took me a while to figure out what was expected on the second level.

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Pierrick Bourrat on levels, time, and fitness, part 1: zero fitness?

Pierrick Bourrat’s new paper in Philosophy and Theory in Biology criticizes aspects of the influential ‘export of fitness’ framework developed by Rick Michod and colleagues and extended by Samir Okasha (Bourrat, P. 2015. Levels, time and fitness in evolutionary transitions in individuality. Philos. Theory Biol., 7: e601. doi: 10.3998/ptb.6959004.0007.001). According to this view, an evolutionary transition in individuality, for example from unicellular to multicellular life, involves a transfer of fitness from the lower level units (e.g. cells) to the higher level unit (e.g. nascent multicellular organism). Fitness is defined as the product of viability and fecundity, and the emergence of a division of labor between reproductive (germ) and non-reproductive (somatic) units at the lower level exports fitness to the higher level. Full disclosure: Rick Michod was my Ph.D. co-advisor, and he has had a huge influence on my thinking about this topic.

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Friday Golden Fleece: Strike a Smile

This was a guest post by Gwendolyn Nix.

In a recent article, FierceRoller tackled the notorious Golden Fleece Awards and the Wastebook, two award projects created and given by United States Senators decrying research proposals they deem silly and wasteful.

Naturally, as scientists, we nurse a certain outrage towards those without scientific training (or the determination to fully read a scientific paper) who assert that certain studies are worthless. I don’t go around the House of Representatives telling the Speaker of the House how to do his job. I wouldn’t even go to MacDonald’s and tell the fry cook that I could make better fries without the gumption prove it. Because I am excited to put my money where my mouth is, I’m going to analyze the Golden Fleece Award given to Robert E. Kraut and Robert E. Johnston on their study of why bowlers smile.

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Who are you calling lower?

Weismann Fig. 62

Fig. 62 from Weismann, A. 1904. The Evolution Theory. London: Edward Arnold. Pandorina morum; after Pringsheim. I, A young colony, consisting of 16 cells. II, Another colony, whose cells have reproduced daughter-colonies; all the cells uniformly alike. III, A young Volvox-colony; sz, somatic cells; kz, germ-cells.

I needed to cite some information from August Weismann’s 1904 book The Evolution Theory1 yesterday, so I did something I rarely do anymore: walked over to the library and checked out a physical copy. The University of Montana library has a first edition, two-volume set of the translation by Arthur Thomson. I’m always interested to see how biologists thought about Volvox before people like Richard Starr, David Kirk, and Rüdiger Schmitt came on the scene. All of the quoted text is from pages 257-261 in Volume I.
Among the lower Algae there is a family, the Volvocinæ, in which the differentiation of the many-celled body on the principle of division of labour has just set in; in some genera it has been actually effected, though in the simplest way imaginable, and in others it has not yet begun.

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Volvox 2015: early registration deadline extended

Hey slackers,

If you procrastinated on registering for the Third International Volvox Meeting, you’ve been granted a reprieve: the early registration deadline has been extended to the end of May.  After that, it goes up by £50 (around $80). This has been a great meeting in the past, and this year promises to be even better. The conference kicks off with a collecting trip and includes sessions on life cycles, development, biophysics, evolution and ecology, genetics, phylogenetics and taxonomy, and genomics (program). At £250 for regular registration including accommodation (£180 for students and postdocs), this is a great deal. So if you can use an extra $80, go ahead and register before the end of May.

Here is a pdf version of the meeting poster.

Evolutionary Transitions to Multicellular Life published

Iñaki Ruiz-Trillo and Aurora Nedelcu have recently edited a new book on the evolution of multicellularity, Evolutionary Transitions to Multicellular Life.  The 22 chapters are divided into five sections: “Multicellularity in the Tree of Life,” “Model-Systems,” “Theoretical Approaches,” “Genomics Insights,” and “Molecular Mechanisms,” and the forward is written by Nicole King. Volvox  shows up in the chapters by Susan C. Sharpe, Laura Eme, Matthew W. Brown and Andrew Roger (“Timing the origins of multicellular eukaryotes through phylogenomics and relaxed molecular clock analyses”); by myself and Aurora Nedelcu (“Volvocine algae: from simple to complex multicellularity”); by Cristian A. Solari, Vanina J. Galzenati and John O. Kessler (“The evolutionary ecology of multicellularity: the volvocine green algae as a case study”); by John O. Kessler, Aurora M. Nedelcu, Cristian A. Solari and Deborah E. Shelton (“Cells acting as lenses: a possible role for light in the evolution of morphological asymmetry in the volvocine algae”); and by Daniel Lang and Stefan A. Rensing (“The evolution of transcriptional regulation in the Viridiplantae and its correlation with morphological complexity”).

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Friday Golden Fleece

Blue monkey

Blue monkey, Cercopithecus mitas stuhlmanni

Dating back to at least the 1970s, Washington politicians have a tradition of decrying scientific funding that they deem wasteful. From Senator William Proxmire’s Golden Fleece Award to Sarah Palin’s “fruit fly research in Paris, France” to Senator Tom Coburn‘s annual “Wastebook,” particular research projects that can be made to sound silly are singled out for ridicule. The politicians, of course, have every right to make these criticisms, but scientists often see them as unwelcome intrusions by elected officials who (almost always) lack the scientific background to understand the research they mock.
So how have the politicians done? Have the projects singled out for ridicule indeed been ridiculous wastes of taxpayer money? I (and hopefully some guest bloggers) will be taking a look at some of the criticized projects to understand just how insightful politicians are at identifying useless research.

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Congratulations to Maggie Boyd!

2015 UMCUR award winners with UM President Royce Engstrom.

2015 UMCUR award winners with UM President Royce Engstrom.

Undergraduate Maggie Boyd has been awarded the Life Sciences Poster Award in the University of Montana Conference for Undergraduate Research for her poster “Motility in Chlamydomonas reinhardtii.” This is kind of a big deal: only one poster award and one oral presentation award were bestowed in Life Sciences university-wide.

Maggie has also recently been awarded a Honerkamp-Smith Travel Grant to attend the Third International Volvox Meeting in Cambridge, U.K. this summer.