More on Safire

Over at the Slog, Sean Nelson takes the time for more nuance than I did, but comes down in about the same place:

Though you could feel an aging man’s dismay (and sometimes disdain) coming through the pieces he wrote about tech talk and the newspeaky constructs of text and IM-based communication, his diligence in reporting and contextualizing them never faltered. He had a corny sense of humor and his puns were usually groaners. Still, it’s hard not to love the opening line of the intro to his 2004 On Language collection, The Right Word In the Right Place at the Right Time: “We will come to sodomy in a moment.”

Nelson also pulls this Safire quote:

“Knowing how things work,” he wrote, “is the basis for appreciation, and is thus a source of civilized delight.”

If that isn’t the essence of being a geek, I don’t know what is.

It also occurs to me that an excellent successor to Safire is found in Roy Blount, Jr., whose Alphabet Juice is less prescriptive but even more enthusiastic, and marinated in southern charm to boot.

William Safire

Nixon speechwriter turned political analyst William Safire has died. What I read of his political writing encapsulated everything I can’t stand about American political conservatism, although it was well-reasoned and insightful by the Glen Beckian standards of the present era. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed “On Language,” his magazine column about words and their usage. On that subject, Safire was geekily, infectiously enthusiastic, and that’s an attitude that transcends a lot of political backbiting.*

*Incidentally, Oxford English Dictionary defines “backbiting” as “the action of detracting, slandering, or speaking ill of one behind his back,” and dates its first usage in this sense to approximately 1175 CE, not long before the origin of parliamentary democracy.

Bees follow the crowd: Do whole-hive traits override individuals’ genetics?

ResearchBlogging.orgSocial insects are often considered prototypes of group selection, in which the evolutionary interests of individual organisms are forced to defer to the needs of their social group. Now, the authors of a new study of honeybees argue that colony-level traits can override the genetic predispositions of individual bees [$-a].

Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one? Photo by Max_xx.

The study’s authors, Linksvayer et al.,
made use of artificially-selected colonies of bees that were first developed for a 1995 study [$-a]. The original selection experiment crossed queen bees with drones to create lines of honeybee colonies that collected and stored more pollen (“high pollen” lines) or less pollen (“low pollen” lines) than un-selected colonies do. The total amount of pollen a colony stores is supposed to be a “group” trait — an emergent property of the individual foraging decisions of every worker bee in the hive. But the genetics underlying that trait is encapsulated within the individual workers.

In the new experiment, Linksvayer et al. placed larvae from “high pollen” lines in “low pollen” colonies, and vice-versa. The larvae developed under the care of workers from the adoptive colony; when transplanted larvae reached adulthood, the team dissected them and measured the size of their ovaries — apparently big-ovaried workers collect lots of pollen. They found that “high pollen” larvae reared by “low pollen” workers had smaller ovaries than than those raised by workers of their own type. “Low pollen” larvae reared by “high pollen” workers didn’t end up with larger ovaries, though; and the “high pollen” larvae had substantially larger ovaries than the “low pollen” larvae regardless of who raised them.

There was a statistically significant effect of rearing environment, even if it was (apparently) entirely driven by the change seen in “high pollen” larvae. The authors conclude that this points to a mechanism whereby a bee colony keeps its workers in line with the colony-wide policy:

Thus, our results show that the network of social interactions that shapes development and expressed phenotypes has changed as a result of the colony-level selection program on pollen hoarding. Just as selection shapes physiological networks within organisms, our study shows that selection also shapes regulatory networks of superorganisms.

So the metaphor, then, is that the authors have observed in the hive something like what happens to a transplanted organ — the new host system incorporating the transplant for its own needs. I’m not sure the observed effect is strong enough to justify the meaning they assign to it; but it is an interesting observation.

As a postscript, I’m not sure social insects are a good model of group selection, because we know that they’re probably also experiencing kin selection, in which each worker’s fitness comes from helping the closely-related queen produce more sisters who share the same genes. Rarely, “anarchic” workers are born fertile and mate with drones [$-a] (there’s an open-access paper on the genetics underlying this trait); but in hives without anarchists, “group fitness” is hard to separate from the fitness of individual workers. A paper published in Nature this June showed that in another classic group selection system (parasites within a single host) kin selection is really the more important process.


Linksvayer, T., Fondrk, M., & Page Jr., R. (2009). Honeybee social regulatory networks are shaped by colony-level selection. Am. Nat., 173 (3) DOI: 10.1086/596527

Oldroyd, B., Smolenski, A., Cornuet, J., & Crozler, R. (1994). Anarchy in the beehive. Nature, 371 (6500) DOI: 10.1038/371749a0

Oxley, P., Thompson, G., & Oldroyd, B. (2008). Four quantitative trait loci that influence worker sterility in the honeybee (Apis mellifera). Genetics, 179 (3), 1337-1343 DOI: 10.1534/genetics.108.087270

Page, R., & Fondrk, M. (1995). The effects of colony-level selection on the social organization of honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) colonies: colony-level components of pollen hoarding Behavioral Ecol. & Sociobiol., 36 (2), 135-44 DOI: 10.1007/BF00170718

I think this says it all …

At the behest of a reader, the Daily Dish posts this photo of an integration protest. Any of those slogans sound familiar?

“Race Mixing is Communism”
“Stop the Race Mixing March of the Antichrist” [sic]

Yes, that’s Martin Luther King, Jr., they’re calling the Antichrist.

Photo hosted at WikiMedia Commons.

I think the lesson here is that, for the segregationists as for the people who now say that health care reform is Socialist/ Fascist/ Communist/ Satanic, these terms mean only one thing: “not the way I want America to be.” And I think it’s every bit as sad that there exist Americans who believe it’s OK for a huge portion their our fellow Americans to live without proper health care, as it was for there to exist Americans who thought it was wrong for black kids to go to school with white kids.

Good grief

A census worker has been found hanged on National Forest land in Kentucky.

Investigators have said little about the case. The law enforcement official, who was not authorized to discuss the case and requested anonymity, said Wednesday the man was found hanging from a tree and the word “fed” was written on the dead man’s chest. The official did not say what type of instrument was used to write the word.

Apparently this is not officially murder yet, but it certainly sounds as though the poor guy knocked on the door of someone who’s taken the insane anti-government rhetoric of the past few months a little too seriously (i.e., seriously at all). Of all the things the Federal Government does, I think the census might be one of the least objectionable — somewhere between the Post Office and the National Park Service.

Viva la revolucion!

Given the power to regulate an industry, a U.S. Federal agency is actually issuing regulations:

Federal health officials Tuesday banned the sale of flavored cigarettes and hinted that they may soon take action against the far-larger market of flavored little cigars and cigarillos, the first major crackdown on cigarettes since the Food and Drug Administration was given authority to regulate tobacco.

For those of us, who, like me, were maybe no longer sure that having Democrats running two branches of government makes much difference.

The Espresso print-on-demand rig

So I’ve been reading about the development of automated book printer/binders for some time now, but haven’t seen video of the things in action until Lisa Gold posted this one. The surprising thing is that the printers — one for the four-color cover, one for the grayscale contents — are stock models rigged to the automated binding system. I have to admit, it’s pretty neat.

With or without you? Species interactions and responses to climate change

ResearchBlogging.orgReading a pair of papers recently published in PLoS ONE, you might be forgiven for thinking that ecologists don’t know whether or not interactions between species matter. Both examine the effects of climate change on ecological communities — but where one assumes that species in a community are as interchangeable as bricks in a wall, the other concludes that the presence of competitors is pretty important.

First, Stralberg et al. attempt to predict what will happen to the birds of California under projected climate change. They constructed individual models of each bird species’ environmental requirements, and then figured out where those requirements would be met under a range of possible climate change scenarios. They find, not surprisingly, that this produces a lot of never-before-seen bird communities:

Our analysis suggests that, by 2070, individualistic shifts in species’ distributions may lead to dramatic changes in the composition of California’s avian communities, such that as much as 57% of the state … may be occupied by novel species assemblages.

But do species really move across the landscape as independent agents? It’s hard to believe that the do. Every species interacts with others — competitors, predators, prey, parasites — and presumably these interactions have some impact on where that species can survive.

How far can this common crossbill move its range if its favorite food tree doesn’t come along? Photo by omarrun.

That’s certainly what the other paper suggests. Adler et al. tested the effects of altered water availability (as a proxy for climate change: normal, supplemental, or drought conditions) and competition (normal or with competitors removed) on experimental plantings of three different prairie grass species. They found significant effects of both competition and rainfall on the plantings’ growth — although there wasn’t a meaningful interaction between the two factors. (That is, competition conditions didn’t alter the effect of water availability.)

There are actually a lot of studies suggesting that species interactions will be important in determining how communities cope with changing climates:

All of which is to say, we may not know how the species interactions within a particular community will shape its response to climate change, but there’s good reason to think that they will.


Adler, P., Leiker, J., & Levine, J. (2009). Direct and indirect effects of climate change on a prairie plant community PLoS ONE, 4 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006887

Pelini, S., Dzurisin, J., Prior, K., Williams, C., Marsico, T., Sinclair, B., & Hellmann, J. (2009). Translocation experiments with butterflies reveal limits to enhancement of poleward populations under climate change Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, 106 (27), 11160-5 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0900284106

Post, E., & Pedersen, C. (2008). Opposing plant community responses to warming with and without herbivores Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. USA, 105 (34), 12353-8 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0802421105

Stralberg, D., Jongsomjit, D., Howell, C., Snyder, M., Alexander, J., Wiens, J., & Root, T. (2009). Re-shuffling of species with climate disruption: A no-analog future for California birds? PLoS ONE, 4 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0006825

Visser, M., Holleman, L., & Gienapp, P. (2005). Shifts in caterpillar biomass phenology due to climate change and its impact on the breeding biology of an insectivorous bird Oecologia, 147 (1), 164-72 DOI: 10.1007/s00442-005-0299-6


Creation, the first feature-length biographic film about Charles Darwin, is playing now at the Toronto Film Festival. NCSE’s Eugenie Scott got to attend a preview, and she likes it.

I believe it to be a thoughtful, well-made film that will change many views of Darwin held by the public—for the good. The acting is strong, the visuals are wonderful, and it treats with loving care the Victorian details of the furnishings at Down house and other sites (such as Malvern), and the local church.

The film focuses not directly on the writing of The Origin, but instead on Darwin’s relationship with his devout wife Emma, which by every account I’ve read was uncommonly tender. Roger Ebert makes some remarks, too, though he’s waiting on a full review until the film is released. Which, unfortunately, hasn’t been arranged yet in the States. I think it looks really good, and it’ll be a crying shame if it doesn’t arrive stateside during the year of the Darwin Bicentenary.

Via GrrlScientist, who links to more reviews and the movie’s website [flash].