For shame

Andrew Sullivan points to a deeply troubling poll result: 54 percent of Americans who attend church more often say that torturing suspected terrorists is acceptable, compared to 42 percent of those who “seldom or never” go to services. Have these people even read the Gospel? Even heard it preached? In the most literal sense, this is a damning discovery about American Christians.

DFW in a nutshell

Tom Bissell discusses the commencement speech David Foster Wallace gave at the 2005 Kenyon College Commencement, on the occasion of said speech’s publication as a stand-alone book. Bissell is right that it’s a fantastic essay — simpler and clearer than much of Wallace’s writing, yet containing all of the over-self-consciousness and humanity that marked the best of his fiction.

The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to thirty, or maybe even fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about the real value of a real education, which has nothing to do with grades or degrees and everything to do with simple awareness — awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves “This is water, this is water; these Eskimos might be much more than they seem.”

But Bissell’s wrong to say that the speech wasn’t available in print before this: I discovered it in my copy of The Best American Non-required Reading 2006, which (with all due respect to the publishers of the new volume) is probably a better value.

Happy Birthday Strunk & White: You suck!

For the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style, the little writing guide by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White, the New York Times “Room for debate” feature invites linguists and grammar geeks to discuss the book’s impact. The only “debate” however, seems to be over whether S&W is merely outdated and worthless, or actively harmful. Here’s Geoffrey Pullman, professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh:

Again and again, Strunk and White recommend the stuffy and unidiomatic, and warn against what sounds effective and natural. Even their beliefs about English as it used to be are wrong; but foisting their prejudices on today’s students is much more so.

And here’s professor of English Ben Yagoda, from the University of Delaware:

White purports to be talking about “style” but is really advocating a particular style. It is a style of absence: absence of grammatical mistakes, breeziness, opinions, jargon, clichés, mixed metaphors, wordiness and, indeed, anything that could cloud the transparency of the prose and remind readers that a real person composed it.

Clearly none of the contributors have recently read through a pile of undergraduate writing assignments. S&W, and the “stuffy and unidiomatic” style they advocate, is the only antidote for the sort of dreadful writing undergraduates learn to produce over twelve years of assignments based on filling up a given amount of space. Beginning writers don’t have an ear for what is “effective and natural” — they need training wheels.

Photo by JKim1.

I’ve benefited from those training wheels myself. As both a writer and reader of scientific prose, I have nothing but respect for S&W’s knee-jerk reaction against the passive voice, and their repeated exhortations to write clearly and simply. Sometimes the passive voice is indeed better (as S&W freely concede), but without great care it can reduce an already technical passage to an unreadable tangle. Likewise, it is sometimes necessary to use specialized vocabulary and twisty verbiage to communicate complex ideas; but more often these get in the way of communicating scientific results.

The little book never pretends to be the last word, but it is a vital starting point. As White wrote in the introduction:

It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature.

“No exceptional circumstances whatsoever”

Jesse Lava runs through the actual, on-the-books, law of the land regarding torture. Bottom line: torture, and even “acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture” are illegal, regardless of how useful it is, or how scared we are, or what we saw Jack Bauer do in last week’s episode. (It’s impressive, and sad, the degree to which the language of the Geneva Conventions actually anticipates the justifications being bandied about in the media right now.) You’d think all this would go without saying. And, apparently you’d be wrong.

Female birds stop singing when they move north

ResearchBlogging.orgA study in this week’s Proceedings of the Royal Society B suggests that the sexually dimorphic pattern of birdsong we’re used to in temperate latitudes — with males singing elaborately and females usually not — evolves because female birds stop singing when their species move to more northerly latitudes [$-a]. Why this is, however, remains an open question.

The study’s authors reconstruct the evolution of home range (temperate versus tropical) and sexual song dimorphism (both sexes singing versus only males singing) in the New World blackbirds, the family that includes orioles, cowbirds, and red-winged blackbirds (pictured). The reconstruction reveals a strongly significant association between the evolution of male-only singing and transitions from tropical to temperate breeding ranges. The authors discuss this transition in a few key groups, including North American red-winged blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) and their sister species, the Cuban red-shouldered blackbird (A. assimilis):

Females of A. assimilis are nearly indistinguishable from conspecific males in song structure and song rate and are also similar in plumage and body size … whereas females of A. phoeniceus differ considerably from conspeicific males in these traits …. it is clear that the changes in female song and plumage must have occurred quite rapidly. [In-text citations omitted.]

As clear as the observed pattern is, however, there doesn’t seem to be a good general explanation for it. The authors point to cases where female singing is lost within tropical-breeding lineages, which might help disentangle the effects of latitude and other evolutionary forces generating the observed pattern. In these cases, loss of female song is associated with colonial nesting and polygynous breeding, whereas singing by both sexes is associated with year-round pairing.

The temperate-breeding blackbirds tend to be migratory, with males often arriving at the breeding range ahead of females to establish nest sites and territories. In these cases singing by the males serves to attract females and to announce ownership of territory. Could that migration-induced division of labor lead females to give up singing? I’m just an amateur birder, but it sounds plausible to me.


Price, J., Lanyon, S., & Omland, K. (2009). Losses of female song with changes from tropical to temperate breeding in the New World blackbirds Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 276 (1664), 1971-80 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.1626

Talking systematics

Over at dechronization, Luke Harmon has started a series of interviews with leading systematic biologists. The first two are with Jack Sullivan, the editor-in-chief of Systematic Biology, and Joe Felsenstein, widely considered the godfather of modern phylogenetics. They’re both well worth reading, and excellent examples of why scientists should blog: in what other venue would you see personal interviews with either of these guys?

(Full disclosure: Jack is on my doctoral committee, and I’ve audited his systematics class, which uses Felsenstein’s authoritative textbook.)

Un-bear-able (ha) predation creates variable natural selection

ResearchBlogging.orgNatural selection is a fact of life. As Steven Jay Gould put it, it’s an “inescapable conclusion” arising from the “undeniable facts” that (1) populations of living things have inheritable variation in many traits; and (2) produce a surplus of offspring. But populations often experience selection from multiple sources, and in conflicting directions. The cover article for this month’s issue of Evolution suggests that bears may be creating ongoing selection in wild salmon populations, but the strength, and outcome, of that selection varies from stream to stream [$-a].

Selective agent at work (Flickr: Dr.DeNo)

Salmon are famously anadromous — they hatch in freshwater streams and swim out to sea, only to return to the stream of their birth to spawn before they die. Male salmon are generally better off if they’re bigger, both to maximize stored energy for the return to their spawning site, and to better compete for mates when they arrive. Natural selection for larger bodies, however, is checked by bears, who preferentially target large, fatty fish. Yet bear predation varies from stream to stream: in narrower streams, where salmon are easier to catch, bears can fill up on big, newly-arrived fish; but in wide streams, bigger fish can more easily evade bears, so bears tend to target older, weaker fish instead.

Continue reading

Wake me up when April ends

In the wake of shootings in Pittsburgh and Binghamton, NY (and Graham, WA and Charlotte, NC), Dahlia Lithwick wonders pointedly when Americans will stop treating gun violence like a force of nature and start thinking about the weapons that make it possible and the unbelievable right-wing vitriol that, in the wake of Barack Obama’s election as President, may be helping to fuel it.

Nobody claims that Glenn Beck is responsible for killing people. Nobody thinks guns are inherently evil. But how can there be an honest national debate over gun violence if we cannot even acknowledge the connections between people who admonish us to become “armed and dangerous” and a citizen’s decision to arm himself and kill?

The guns, and the anger, are symptoms of a sick culture. Certainly, you can treat alcoholism by banning booze, but you haven’t cured it until the alcoholic knows why he cannot — must not — have a drink, and has the spiritual and mental resources to enforce that decision.

(Also on Slate: excerpts of a new book about the Columbine killings.)

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged ,

Ants trim trees for more living space

ResearchBlogging.orgIn the natural world, cooperative interactions evolve not as expressions of altruism, but as careful “negotiations” between interacting species. Each player may benefit from the relationship, but each stands to benefit from trying to cheat the other. In this month’s issue of The American Naturalist, we see a prime example: mutualistic ants sterilize their host plants [$-a] to get the most out of the interaction.

Cordia nodosa flowers (top)
and ant domatia (bottom)

Photos by Russian_in_Brazil.

The ant species Allomerus octoarticulatus is part of a classic protection mutualism with the tropical tree Cordia nodosa, in which the plant grows structures called domatia that provide shelter for a colony of ants, and nutrient rich “food bodies” for the ants to feed on. The ants, in turn, patrol the plant and drive off herbivores. This mutually beneficial relationship also sets up a conflict of interest. The tree must divide its resources between providing food and shelter for its resident ant colony — growing new domatia and fruiting bodies — and its own reproductive efforts — growing flowers and fruit. The ants, naturally, would prefer for the host tree to spend as much energy as possible on them.

Indeed, Allomerus octoarticulatus has been observed killing the flowers of its host trees. This is what led the new paper’s author, Megan Frederickson, to conduct a simple experiment on C. nodosa, asking whether such pruning prompts the tree to grow more domatia. She experimentally removed flowers from trees occupied by a species of ants that don’t engage in flower pruning to see if pruned trees grew more domatia — and pruned trees grew more domatia over the course of four months than trees that were allowed to flower and produce fruit.

Ant-hosting plants need not be totally subject to the whims of their protectors, however — this kind of regulation works both ways. A study published last year in Science found that ant-hosting Acacia trees cut back on support for their resident ant colonies [$-a] when herbivores are removed and ant protection is no longer needed. (I wrote about this study back when it was released.) It seems likely that flower-pruning ants are exerting strong selection on Cordia nodosa to circumvent this behavior — a new tree variant that can overcome pruning, or make life uncomfortable for pruning ants, should have a large selective advantage.

In the absence of such a mutation, as Frederickson points out, Allomerus octoarticulatus is creating a tragedy of the commons by reducing the long-term viability of its host tree’s populations in exchange for the short-term benefit of more living space. As it stands, Cordia nodosa can only reproduce when it hosts non-pruning ant species, which are a minority in the populations Frederickson studied. Only time, and further study, can determine whether this mutualism might break down altogether.


Frederickson, M. (2009). Conflict over reproduction in an ant-plant symbiosis: Why Allomerus octoarticulatus ants sterilize Cordia nodosa trees. The American Naturalist, 173 (5), 675-81 DOI: 10.1086/597608

Palmer, T., Stanton, M., Young, T., Goheen, J., Pringle, R., & Karban, R. (2008). Breakdown of an ant-plant mutualism follows the loss of large herbivores from an African savanna Science, 319 (5860), 192-5 DOI: 10.1126/science.1151579