The un-tweeted conference

2013.02.20 - King penguins King penguins at the Moody Gardens aquarium, Galveston. Photo by jby.

I spent last week in Galveston, Texas, for the Gordon Conference on Quantitative Genetics and Genomics. It was a great time. I saw presentations of lots of cool scientific work that was right in line with my current interests—we could’ve started a drinking game with the phrase “missing heritability“—and I presented a little of my own work, and I met some very smart and friendly people. And … that’s pretty much everything I can tell you about it.

That’s because part of the Gordon Conference culture (aesthetic? ideal?) is that participants present and discuss work in progress—results that haven’t been peer-reviewed, and that may never see the light of peer review if they don’t hold up to further analysis. Attendees want to be able to discuss things freely, without seeing their words quoted all over the Internet. So it’s requested, rather firmly, that attendees don’t photograph Powerpoint slides or posters, or discuss specifics from presentations on public forums like this blog, or Twitter. (So I’ve illustrated this post with photos from an afternoon field trip to the Moody Gardens aquarium, instead.)

2013.02.20 - Southern rockhopper Souther rockhopper penguin at the Moody Gardens aquarium, Galveston. Photo by jby.

This is a pretty big departure from my usual approach to scientific conferences. When I was picked to run the website for the 2009 Evolution meetings, I made a point to try and promote online discussion of the conference proceedings. At that early stage—I started my own Twitter account largely to tweet from Evolution—participation was a bit limited. And then I went to ScienceOnline in 2010 and 2011, and saw firsthand how social media can enrich and extend a conference: the tweeted back-channel within a session, the ability to follow goings-on in other sessions, the opening up of discussion to folks beyond the physical conference. And by Evolution 2012, I saw a lot of those dynamics emerging in that meeting.

But back when I was first proposing an online presence at Evolution, I recall some of the same objections raised about blogging and Twitter that are part of the reasons for the ban at Gordon Conferences. People were going to present preliminary results; the prospect of tweeted quotes might stifle discussion; people might get scooped if their work is broadcast over the Internet.

I understand those concerns, but the counterargument to each pops into my head before I finish typing it: it’s no longer uncommon to put preliminary results online for open review (as on ArXive or another preprint server, or in an open lab notebook); are you really going to say something in front of your closest colleagues that you wouldn’t want on Twitter?; aren’t the people most likely to scoop you right there in the conference room, watching your actual presentation? And I think the experience of the Evolution meetings supports the thesis that opening up a conference to the Internet offers far more to improve and stimulate discussion at a meeting than to stifle it.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s bad that the Gordon Conferences ask participants not to tweet. The Quantitative Genetics and Genomics conference is small to the point of being intimate, and strutured to foster all sorts of interactions without the need of hashtags—everyone attends the same slate of invited presentations, everyone ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner together in the hotel dining room, and there are few enough attendees that it really is possible to catch up and chat with anyone you should want to.

2013.02.20 - Hawksbill sea turtle II Hawksbill sea turtle at the Moody Gardens aquarium, Galveston. Photo by jby.

And here’s the thing: I didn’t write a blog post or tweet about the presentations I saw, but I took notes, and I talked to people, and I’ve absorbed a whole lot of science that confirmed some things I already thought, challenged some other things, and generally changed the way I’ll think about my current and future scientific work and writing. Even if you don’t have a blow-by-blow account of that process, you’ll see its results on this site and the others where I write about science, and in the work I do from here forward.

Which is just to say that even conferences no one tweets about don’t happen in an Internet-free vacuum. One of the first new friends I made in Galveston was Emily Jane McTavish, who I already knew from Twitter as @snacktavish. It’s pretty much inevitable that our next interaction will be online—because, more and more, scientific discussion happens in cyberspace as much as—probably more than—it happens in hotel conference rooms.◼

Four years on Twitter

2013.02.23 - four years of tweets Image created by wordle.

So I saw Ed Yong do this, and it looked like a good idea: download the full text of everything I’ve tweeted since I started the @JBYoder feed—you can do this via an option under “settings,” now—and make it into a Wordle. As it happens, my very first tweet was back on the 9th of February, 2009, so this word cloud represents just a bit more than four years of my tweets.◼

Science online, misguided nostalgia for elevator pitching edition

Gorteria diffusa Photo by thehumofbees.

Fire ants, foolish flies, and phylogenomics

DSC_9777.jpg Fire ants. Photo by hankplank.

I’m out of town at a conference this week (more on that at a later date), but it’s been a busy one for both blogging and academics. At the Molecular Ecologist, I’ve got a Q&A with Yannick Wurm, the lead author on a cool study that uses high-throughput sequencing data to demonstrate that one species of fire ants has a “social chromosome” which determines how many queens a single colony can support.

In particular this has been extensively studied in the red Solenopsis invicta fire ant: some colonies have up to hundreds of wingless queens, but other colonies contain strictly one single wingless queen. And this is stable: any additional queen you try to add to a single-queen colony is executed by the workers.

Then, at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! I discuss a new study of local adaptation by a South African daisy, which fools bee flies into mating with its petals, the better to pick up and transport pollen.

What makes G. diffusa more interesting, to an evolutionary biologist, is that not all populations of the daisy practice this deception. The pattern of G. diffusa‘s petals varies across its range—and not all petal patterns prompt the pollinators to hump the flower.

And finally, the first paper from my postdoctoral work in the Tiffin lab is officially online at Systematic Biology. It’s a project in using a very large genetic dataset—tens of thousands of markers—to reconstruct the evolutionary history of the genus Medicago, which includes my current favorite plant. It’s attached to my very first Dryad data package, which provides all the original data underlying the paper. I’ll be writing about this work in more detail in the near future.◼

Science online, definitive gripes edition

Mimulus cardinalis #2 What’s living in your nectar supply? Photo by J.G. in S.F..

Happy Darwin Day!

Photo by jby.

Today would have been Charles Darwin‘s 204th birthday. For the occasion, I’m wearing my new t-shirt, which bears a most excellent and appropriate cartoon by Adam Korford. Here’s a snippet from The Origin of Species for your contemplation. It’s the opening salvo in Chapter IV, “Natural Selection”:

How will the struggle for existence, discussed too briefly in the last chapter, act in regard to variation? Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature? I think we shall see that it can act most effectually. Let it be borne in mind in what an endless number of strange peculiarities our domestic productions, and, in a lesser degree, those under nature, vary; and how strong the hereditary tendency is. Under domestication, it may be truly said that the whole organisation becomes in some degree plastic. Let it be borne in mind how infinitely complex and close-fitting are the mutual relations of all organic beings to each other and to their physical conditions of life. Can it, then, be thought improbable, seeing that variations useful to man have undoubtedly occurred, that other variations useful in some way to each being in the great and complex battle of life, should sometimes occur in the course of thousands of generations? If such do occur, can we doubt (remembering that many more individuals are born than can possibly survive) that individuals having any advantage, however slight, over others, would have the best chance of surviving and of procreating their kind? On the other hand, we may feel sure that any variation in the least degree injurious would be rigidly destroyed. This preservation of favourable variations and the rejection of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection, and would be left a fluctuating element, as perhaps we see in the species called polymorphic.

There’s so much packed into that verbose Victorian paragraph! From so simple a beginning, all of modern biology is descended.◼

Evolutionary psychology: You’re doing it wrong (but you could do it better!)

The Descent Of Man Well, it didn’t quite happen like that. Photo by Minette Layne.

Over at Scientific American, Kate Clancy sums up the scientific case against evolutionary psychology:

[Evolutionary psychology] is trying to take on an incredibly challenging task: understand what of human behavior is adaptive and why. We can better circumvent the conditions that lead to violence, war, and hatred if we know as much as we can about why we are the way we are. What motivates us, excites us, angers us, and how can evolutionary theory help us understand it all?

Because of this, there are consequences to a bad evolutionary psychology interpretation of the world. The biggest problem, to my mind, is that so often the conclusions of the bad sort of evolutionary psychology match the stereotypes and cultural expectations we already hold about the world: more feminine women are more beautiful, more masculine men more handsome; appearance is important to men while wealth is important to women; women are prone to flighty changes in political and partner preference depending on the phase of their menstrual cycles.

It may not always be evident, but biologists who get all shirty when we see the latest evo-psych study splashed across the headlines generally agree with the most basic premise of EP: that humans are evolved, biological organisms, and that our present behavior is a result of our evolutionary history. What drives us up the wall is the refusal of EP research to apply understanding developed over decades of work by evolutionary biologists—the discovery that there’s more to evolution than natural selection, that natural selection often acts on many traits simultaneously, and that there may be many ways to acheive the same level of reproductive success.

With modern genetic tools and a modern evolutionary perspective, biologists—including Kate, who studies human reproductive biology in an evolutionary context—have learned a lot about how natural selection and other evolutionary processes shaped current human diversity. Some of the best examples so far are in relation to diet (drinking milk and cultivating corn) and adaptation to low-oxygen conditions at high altitude; but there’s no reason the same methods can’t tackle other features of human nature, given sufficient quantities of the right data. Yet we rarely see EP studies based on the kind of data that could actually provide answers to the questions they ask. (And then, all too often, we see EP studies that are unmoored from basic biology altogether.)

So: The complaint that most evolutionary biologists have with EP isn’t that it’s asking the wrong questions, or asking questions it has no right to ask. It’s that EP is using the wrong tools to answer those questions. And, to the extent that we agree that those questions are important, it’s upsetting to see someone claim to have answered them using only surveys of undergraduates. We’re like plumbers expressing our exasperation with a guy who insists on intalling a new toilet using a nail file and a hot glue gun: dude, go buy a wrench!

Anyway, enough from me. Go read Kate’s post already.◼

Science online, wisdom of crowds of the stupid edition

school of yellow snappers Fish, schooling. Photo by otolithe (oliver roux).

Herd immunity, unfalsifiable hypotheses, and the search for the missing heritability

Image created with Pulp-O-Mizer.

It’s been a busy week at the other blogs with which I’m variously affiliated. So busy that I’m going to run down what’s up at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! and The Molecular Ecologist in a single omnibus post.

First up, Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!: My younger brother Jon (@Bonovox1984), who’s in his third fourth year of medical school, led off with a post on a new study of “herd immunity”—the effect whereby people who haven’t been vaccinated benefit from reduced risk of disease if they’re living around lots of people who have been vaccinated. Then Prosanta Chakrabarty (@LSU_FISH) continued the NiB tradition of blasphemy by explaing why creationism is not—and can never be—science. And finally, we announced that Nothing in Biology will be hosting the March 2013 Carnival of Evolution—you can see how to submit your evolution-related blog posts and other online content right here.

Then, over at the Molecular Ecologist, Tim Vines posted Molecular Ecology‘s first-ever list of top reviewers to provide some recognition for the volunteer labor that goes into a good peer-review process. And I wrote about a cool new study that goes looking for the “missing” heritability in quantitative trait locus studies—and finds a lot of it, with the help of lots of statistical power. (It turns out that a lot of the missing heritability is hiding in genes of small effect, which is exactly what some folks have long speculated.)◼