Writerly scientist derided scientist-writer?

ResearchBlogging.orgFollowing up on the recent discovery that novelist and lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov correctly supposed that Polyommatus blue butterflies colonized the New World in stages, Jessica Palmer points out that none other than Stephen Jay Gould dismissed Nabokov’s scientific work as not up to the same standards of genius exhibited in his novels. She suggests that Nabokov’s work may have been dismissed by his contemporaries because his scientific papers were a little too colorfully written.

Roger Vila, one of Pierce’s co-authors, suggests that Nabokov’s prose style (Wellsian time machine!) did his hypothesis no favors:

The literary quality of his scientific writing, Vila says, may have led to his ideas being overlooked. “The way he explained it, using such poetry — I think this is the reason that it was not taken seriously by scientists,” Vila says. “They thought it was not ‘hard science,’ let’s say. I think this is the reason that this hypothesis has been waiting for such a long time for somebody to vindicate it.”

That’s a little harsh toward scientists, but it seems plausible: creativity in scientific writing is rarely rewarded.

Hyperlink to quoted source sic.

Palmer’s analysis is thoughtful and thorough, and you should read all of it. But she misses what (to me) seems like the best wrinkle in the whole business: Gould, alone of all the scientists, should have been sympathetic to the dangers of writing “too well” in a scientific context.

Stephen Jay Gould, one suspects, never murdered a single darling in a decades-long career of writing for scientific and popular venues. The iconoclastic 1979 paper “The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme” [PDF], coauthored with Richard Lewontin, is a case in point. Gould and Lewontin wanted to make the point that not all traits and behaviors of living species are necessarily adaptive—that is, evolved to perform a function that enhances survival and/or reproductive success. Today it is widely agreed that this point needed making. But Gould’s writing undercut the success of his own argument, or at least gave his detractors a toehold for derision.

The Cathedral of San Marco in Venice, its structurally practical arches encrusted with Baroque decoration. A metaphor for Gould’s metaphors? Photo by MorBCN.

Gould and Lewontin developed their argument with references to architecture and to literature. They compared non-adaptive traits to mosaics decorating the spandrels of the Cathedral of San Marco in Venice. Spandrels being spaces created between arches, anything decorating them is clearly secondary to the architectural decision to build an arch. They also compared “adaptationist” biologists to the character of Dr. Pangloss in Voltaire’s satire Candide, who claims that “all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”

Pangloss is a fool, and biologists who felt Gould and Lewontin were critiquing them took the obvious inference. One of the most biting responses to “Spandrels” focused much more on the style than the substance of the paper. The author, David Queller, titled it “The spaniels of St. Marx and the Panglossian paradox: A critique of a rhetorical programme” [PDF], and the parody only continues from there.

Queller built an elaborate and unflattering image of Gould and Lewontin as Marxists focused on their political perspective like the dog in the old RCA ads fixated on a grammophone. He even referenced one of Gould’s favorite cultural touchstones, the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, to tweak Gould as “the very model of a science intellectual.” Queller manages to have his cake and decry it, too—he mocks Gould and Lewontin with overflown metaphors, then backs off to say that such tactics are irresponsible:

So, how did I like my test drive in the supercharged rhetoric-mobile? It’s certainly been fun … but it’s pretty hard to keep the damned thing on the road. … my little parody of Gilbert and Sullivan’s modern Major General, who knows about everything but matters military, might induce an uninformed reader to conclude that Gould knows about everything but matters biological. But this is exactly the complaint that many biologists would level at Spandrels—that colorful language can mislead as well as inform.

So if Gould’s reading of Nabokov’s scientific achievement was predicated on the opinions of Nabokov’s colleagues, who didn’t care for elaborate prose in their scientific journals, well, I think that’s what my English teachers called irony.


Gould, S., & Lewontin, R. (1979). The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: A critique of the adaptationist programme. Proc. Royal Soc. B, 205 (1161), 581-98 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.1979.0086

Queller, D. (1995). The spaniels of St. Marx and the Panglossian paradox: A critique of a rhetorical programme. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 70 (4), 485-9 DOI: 10.1086/419174

Vila, R., Bell, C., Macniven, R., Goldman-Huertas, B., Ree, R., Marshall, C., Balint, Z., Johnson, K., Benyamini, D., & Pierce, N. (2011). Phylogeny and palaeoecology of Polyommatus blue butterflies show Beringia was a climate-regulated gateway to the New World. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2010.2213

Carnival of Evolution—just four days left to submit!

Photo by zen.

The 32nd edition of the Carnival of Evolution will be hosted right here at Denim and Tweed on the first of February! So send me your evolutionary posts by midnight Monday—use the CoE blog carnival form, or e-mail links to denimandtweed AT gmail DOT com.

(Thanks to everyone who’s submitted so far. Looks like it’ll be a good carnival—so all the more reason to submit if you haven’t yet!)

Science online, caught on tape edition

Photo by gorditojaramillo.
  • “… dinosaurs using their feathers to fly.” Carl Zimmer digs into the evolutionary origins of feathers.
  • This is your brain wanting to be on drugs. When smokers see movies of other people smoking, their brains light up.
  • Also, raptors are from the Cretaceous. Jeez. Turns out that “Jurassic Park” screwed up dinosaur taxonomy.
  • Biofilm-coated cookware, anyone? Bacterial biofilms are more water-resistant than Teflon.
  • She’s done more than embarrass NASA. A lot more. Dilara Ally interviews Rosie Redfield.
  • My guess: magical rings that made them invisible. Robert Krulwich considers how the “hobbit” people of Flores might have coexisted with six-foot carnivorous storks.
  • Adaptation for a period of extremely short tempers during the Upper Cretaceous. Paleontologists discover a dinosaur with only one finger per forelimb.
  • Hey, nitrogen is nitrogen. A tropical bat species nests exclusively inside giant carnivorous pitcher plants, providing the the plants with an, um, alternative fertilizer.
  • “I want no other fame.” Population genetic data has confirmed a hypothesis about butterflies colonizing the Americas from Asia that was first proposed by Vladimir Nabokov. Yes, that Vladimir Nabokov.
  • When Caenorhabditis elegans catches a cold, scientists celebrate. A species of nematode widely used as an experimental organism has contracted a virus. Let the experiments in coevolution commence!

Video this week: actual, real-time, microscopic video of a malaria parasite invading a human blood cell, via New Scientist TV. The parasite, a smallish blob on the right, attaches to the outside of the big, round, red blood cell and disappears inside it—and then the red blood cell shrivels away.

We need to hear what we’d rather not

The issues faced by women in the blogosphere—higher expectations, less recognition, and casual sexism—have officially emerged as the most important discussion topic in the wake of ScienceOnline 2011.

Kate Clancy kicked things off with her recap of the conference panel “Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name.” Christie Wilcox followed up by calling out the flagrant sexism of many of her male readers, which made David Dobbs righteously angry—and, seriously, who actually believes that any sentence containing the word “tits” is complimentary in any context? Emily Willingham noted that her voice is unique in ways beyond her gender. And now Clancy is rounding up the rapidly propagating conversation.

The conversation’s ongoing in the comments on all these posts, and (barring a handful of amazingly clueless folks) mostly great reading. My major thought on the subject remains what I said in first tweeting about the post that started it all: the most valuable parts of this conversation are the things that men are probably not all that happy to hear. When I read

  • We are all very, very tired of making a point on a blog, on twitter, or in a meeting, being ignored, having a man make the same point, then having that man get all the credit. Very tired.

my first thought was defensive: I’ve never done that! My second was, Oh, crap. Have I done that?

I’ve long believed that the value of a sermon is proportionate to how uncomfortable it makes its audience. No one needs to be told they’re doing just fine as they are. But if we’re not doing fine, we need to hear about it. So to the women science bloggers leading this conversation, I want to say: keep calling out male thoughtlessness, in specifics as well as in general. If I miss that you said something first because I’m not reading your blog, drop a link in the comments. If I write something stupid, e-mail me and complain. I may not be thrilled to be corrected, but that probably means I needed it.

Finding the middle road: Flowers evolve to work with multiple pollinators


“I’ve had a lot of jobs in my life: boxer, mascot, astronaut, baby proofer, imitation Krusty, truck driver, hippie, plow driver, food critic, conceptual artist, grease salesman, carny, mayor, grifter, body guard for the mayor, country western manager, garbage commissioner, mountain climber, farmer, inventor, Smithers, Poochie, celebrity assistant, power plant worker, fortune cookie writer, beer baron, Kwik-E-Mart clerk, homophobe, and missionary, but protecting people, that gives me the best feeling of all.”
—Homer Simpson

In twenty-two seasons of The Simpsons, the eponymous family’s bumbling father Homer has tried his hand at dozens of different jobs, and failed hilariously at most of them. Homer is a one-man illustration of “Jack of all trades, master of none,” the idea that it’s hard to do many different things well. This principle applies more broadly than the curriculum vitae; in biology, it means that living things face trade-offs between different ways of making a living.

A wild radish (Raphanus raphaistrum) flower. Photo by Valter Jacinto.

For instance, a plant whose pollen is carried from flower to flower by just one pollinating animal only needs to match that one pollinator very well. But most plants’ flowers are visited by many different potential pollinators, and matching all of them probably means finding a middle ground among the best ways to match each individual pollinator. A study of one such “generalist” flower, the wild radish, has found exactly this: working with multiple partners takes evolutionary compromise [$a].

Wild radishes are visited by a wide variety of different insects, including honeybees, bumblebees, syrphid flies, and cabbage butterflies, among others. Each of these pollinators comes to a radish flower with a slightly different agenda. Butterflies are there for nectar, but bees like to eat pollen as well—and bumblebees will sometimes bite into the base of a flower and “steal” nectar without ever coming into contact with pollen. Figuring out how natural selection from each of these different pollinators adds up required some clever experimental design.

The study’s authors arrayed potted radish flowers inside a big mesh flight cage, and then introduced either bumblebees, honeybees, cabbage butterflies, or all three pollinators to visit the plants and circulate pollen from flower to flower. They measured the plants’ flowers before putting them in the flight cage, then let the pollinators do their thing. Afterward, the authors collected seeds resulting from the pollinators’ activity, grew them up, and measured the offspring to see whether their traits differed. The procedure was essentially one generation of experimental evolution.

A cabbage white butterfly (Pieris rapae), one of many pollinator species exerting natural selection on wild radishes. Photo by ComputerHotline.

By taking DNA fingerprints of both the parents and the offspring, the authors could also estimate the relationship between each parental plant’s floral measurements and the number of offspring it produced, either from its own seeds or by pollinating another plant.

The results are complex. Depending on the floral measurement under consideration, different pollinators selected in different directions, or the same direction, or not at all. One particularly interesting result, though, was in the effects each pollinator had on the “dimorphism” of the radish flowers’ stamens—the difference between the length of the shortest, and longest, of the male parts of the flower. Flowers only visited by honeybees evolved less dimorphic stamens, while flowers visited by either bumblebees or cabbage butterflies evolved more dimorphic stamens. Flowers in the treatment visited by all three pollinators, however, evolved to find a happy medium, an evolutionary compromise to work with the different partners.

The way these interactions played out in a flight cage probably don’t reflect exactly how they operate in the wild, but this is a pretty cool result all the same. I’ve written in the past about how incorporating multiple interactions can alter the way coevolution works. Gerbils under attack by fleas are less careful about watching for predators; but for the protists living inside pitcher plants, competitors can help distract predators. Here we have an example of multiple similar interactions pulling a generalized plant in different evolutionary directions.


Sahli, H., & Conner, J. (2011). Testing for conflicting and non-additive selection: Floral adaptation to multiple pollinators through male and female fitness. Evolution DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2011.01229.x

Abortion ≠ slavery

Ta-Nehisi Coates explains why equating the ongoing campaign against legal abortion with the abolition movement—a favorite analogy of anti-abortion folks—is not just historically silly, but actually rather racist:

The analogy necessarily holds that the enslaved were the equivalent of embryos–helpless, voiceless beings in need of saviors. In this view of American history, the saviors, much like the pro-life movement, are white. In fact, African-Americans, unlike, say, zygotes, were always quite outspoken on their fitness for self-determination. Indeed, from the Cimaroons to Equiano to Nat Turner to Harriet Tubman to the 54th regiment, slaves were quite vociferous on the matter of their enslavement. It is simply impossible to imagine the end of slavery without the action of slaves themselves.

Coates is eye-opening as always: equating abortion with slavery turns out to be another facet of U.S. conservatives’ bizarre notion that civil rights are bestowed by majority vote, not (in the words of certain historical documents they may have forgotten to read) inalienable. I recommend reading the whole thing.

Carnival of Evolution—one week left to submit!

Photo by k.tommy.

The 32nd edition of the Carnival of Evolution will be hosted right here at Denim and Tweed on the first of February! So you have until midnight, 31 January to send me your posts about evolution and all the grandeur in the evolutionary view of life. Use the CoE blog carnival form, or e-mail links to denimandtweed AT gmail DOT com.

Science online, #SciO11 hangover edition

The Deep Sea News crew knows how to party. Photo by hanjeanwat.

The science blogosphere was abuzz with ScienceOnline 2011 recaps, post mortems, and soul-seeking. The Columbia Journalism Review gave the conference a nice write-up. Dave Munger meditated on the line between jazzing up science and dumbing it down. Chris Rowan pointed out that no matter how well science blogging shapes its outreach, the broader media often fixes the game. Ed Yong worried that science blogging was “stuck in an echo chamber,” and Ryan Somma mapped it. Christie Wilcox tried out what she’d learned about online writing by murdering a darling. And Minority Postdoc started an inventory of diversity in the science blogosphere.

Meanwhile, in non-meta online science news:

And finally, here’s long-awaited video of Robert Krulwich’s inspiring ScienceOnline keynote address. Part two, and more, is at A Blog Around the Clock.

Evolution’s Rainbow, from sparrows’ stripes to lizard lesbianism

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgEvolutionary biology is not just the study of how living things change over time, but the study of how the diversity of living things changes over time. Diversity is the raw material sculpted by natural selection, carved into more-or-less discrete chunks by speciation, and lost forever in extinction.

Joan Roughgarden is even more preoccupied with diversity than most evolutionary biologists. Some of her earliest published studies examine the evolution of optimum niche width, the range of resources a species uses, using mathematical modeling [$a] and empirical studies of resource and habitat use in Anolis lizards [$a]. Roughgarden didn’t treat a species as a uniform group, but a collection of individuals all making a living in slightly different ways. Among other subjects, her work informed thinking about ecological release, the changes that reshape populations freed from predators or competitors.

White-throated sparrows are just one species with more than two gender roles. (Flickr: hjhipster)

This interest in the evolutionary context of diversity would eventually become much more personal. In 1998, she came out as transgendered, taking the name Joan after decades spent establishing her scientific reputation under the name she was given at birth, Jonathan. In addition to the challenges inherent to gender transition, Roughgarden’s expertise intersects with her identity in one awkward question: in a biological world shaped by natural selection, how can we explain the evolution of lesbians, gay men, and transgendered people—individuals who are not interested in sexual activity that passes on their genes?

Continue reading

#scio11 aftermath, and an idea for #scio12

At ScienceOnline, even the coffee break is nerdy. Photo by Ryan Somma.

So now I’m back in Moscow, mostly recovered from ScienceOnline 2011. I’ve almost finished the copy of Holly Tucker’s cracking good book Blood Work that came in my swag bag. (Cross-country flights are great for reading.) I’m breaking in my new “How to Explain Your Research at a Party” t-shirt from AAAS, and I’ve finished a conference weekend’s worth of laundry. I even got to resume my workout schedule with an outdoor run, because all of a sudden northern Idaho is as balmy as North Carolina. And I’m able to think about the conference a little more reflectively than I did in my previous posts.

One of the highlights of the conference that’s still sticking with me is the “How to Explain Science in Blog Posts” session, which broke the audience into small groups to discuss different aspects of science blogging. I made a beeline for the “writing” group, since that’s been on my mind lately. The group moderators, Ed Yong and Christie Wilcox, led a great discussion on tone and the use of metaphor, and even shaded into the writing process. None other than Bora Zivkovic related how he’ll have his wife edit particularly important posts.

As I said in my earlier brief wrap-up, the whole session reminded me of my undergrad creative writing class, and in a good way. But we didn’t really have time for specific examples, and could barely scratch the surface of the process from finding a subject to writing it up and presenting it.

It occurred to me (about two miles into the aforementioned run) that I’d really enjoy a workshop that took participants through that entire process for a single post. I’m imagining it’d have to be at least two sessions: one discussing how to come up with topics, another for the writing process, and maybe a third for presentation with images, layout, et cetera. It’d be especially cool to have participants actually develop a single post through the course of the different sessions, and do some peer editing at one or more stages.

Is it too early to start proposing sessions for ScienceOnline 2012?