Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: For adaptation, environmental change sets the pace

Polar Bear 2 How fast can the environment change, if living populations are to adapt? Photo by susanvg.

This week at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! Devin Drown looks at a new experimental evolution study of adaptation in response to a changing environment—in this case, bacteria evolving in response to increasing concentrations of an antibiotic.

In the case of a rapidly changing environment, there are only a handful of solutions and most of the test populations go extinct before the mutations occur. For populations that experience a slow increase in the deathly poison, there appear to be many more ways to evolve resistance. What is especially fascinating about this research is that it appears that these pathways to resistance are only available when the environment changes slowly.

The results have significant implications for how we expect natural populations to respond to climate change and other human-caused environmental shifts—but it’s also a mighty cool experiment. Go read all about it.◼

#OccupyAmazon round 2: Cheap books are great, but someone’s paying the difference

Brick-and-mortar. Photo by ImaginaryGirl.

Bouncing off the same NY Times op-ed that I did yesterday, Slate’s Farhad Manjoo says, screw indy booksellers. They’re not cheap or efficient enough. Here’s the core of his price argument:

A few times a year, my wife—an unreformed local-bookstore cultist—drags me into one of our supposedly sacrosanct neighborhood booksellers, and I’m always astonished by how much they want me to pay for books. At many local stores, most titles—even new releases—usually go for list price, which means $35 for hardcovers and $9 to $15 for paperbacks. That’s not slightly more than Amazon charges—at Amazon, you can usually save a staggering 30 to 50 percent. In other words, for the price you’d pay for one book at your indie, you could buy two.

And here’s efficiency:

Compared with online retailers, bookstores present a frustrating consumer experience. A physical store—whether it’s your favorite indie or the humongous Barnes & Noble at the mall—offers a relatively paltry selection, no customer reviews, no reliable way to find what you’re looking for, and a dubious recommendations engine. Amazon suggests books based on others you’ve read; your local store recommends what the employees like. If you don’t choose your movies based on what the guy at the box office recommends, why would you choose your books that way?

Manjoo also makes the point that indie bookstores aren’t really selling local products—their bread and butter is sales of the same nationally distributed books that fill up Amazon’s top sellers list. And since Amazon offers those books at a better price point, they’re available to more people who want them, and that’s all you need to sustain a literary culture, right?

Well, maybe. If you don’t mind that some portion of that discount comes at a cost to actual human beings. Cue Vanessa Veselka’s account of trying to unionize an Amazon “distribution center” over at The Atlantic.

He was the one who told me Bezos was going to close the Seattle warehouse. It was too expensive to run. Huge fulfillment centers were springing up around the country. In Nevada, they were getting $5.15 an hour and people had to work 12-hour shifts, five days a week. Mandated overtime pay didn’t start until after 40 hours of a workweek. So when production lulled people were sent home or told not to come in the following day to shave costs. These were the new models. This was the future.

Shaving overtime by sending people home mid-shift, or giving them “the next few days off,” was the practice in Seattle too, but in Nevada there was no velvet glove, no nod to personal identity. Workers there were herded through long security lines and body searched on their way in and out before they could clock in. The ventilation was terrible and they got fired for the slightest complaint-at least these were the reports.

That was years ago. Much more recently, Amazon management made the news for working its warehouse staff to heat exhaustion rather than open some doors to let in a breeze.

During summer heat waves, Amazon arranged to have paramedics parked in ambulances outside, ready to treat any workers who dehydrated or suffered other forms of heat stress. Those who couldn’t quickly cool off and return to work were sent home or taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs and transported to area hospitals. And new applicants were ready to begin work at any time.

An emergency room doctor in June called federal regulators to report an “unsafe environment” after he treated several Amazon warehouse workers for heat-related problems. The doctor’s report was echoed by warehouse workers who also complained to regulators, including a security guard who reported seeing pregnant employees suffering in the heat.

Cheap books are great, but someone has to pay for the difference. Manjoo’s taking the side of the robots on this one: sure, you could pay a couple extra bucks so a bookstore clerk with interesting suggestions for your next purchase can feed her family, or you could let an algorithm find you more like what you’ve already read, and let that clerk break her back in a warehouse for a barely-living wage. ◼

#OccupyAmazon by occupying real bookstores

Uncle Hugo’s, where it is entirely possible to trip over a stack of Asimov novels and break a model of the ship from Lost in Space if you’re not careful. Photo by Olivander.

You may have heard that took its competition with brick-and-mortar booksellers to a new level this holiday season, offering a discount to people who go into a store and scan a product with Amazon’s smartphone app to find out what price Amazon was offering for the same wares (presumably cheaper, and free of local sales tax). If you’re not sure why this is an asshole move on the part of the gargantuan online retailer, you’ve got a good one in this op-ed by Richard Russo, who talks to a number of other authors, all of whom have done pretty well thanks to sales via Amazon, about the whole business. Money quote from Ann Patchett:

“… If you like seeing the people in your community employed, if you think your city needs a tax base, if you want to buy books from a person who reads, don’t use Amazon.”

I bought a lot of books as gifts this holiday season, and I’m glad to say I bought none of them from Amazon. Instead, I went to the collegiate used bookstore the Book House, the “indie behemoth” Magers & Quinn, and the astounding nerdcave that is Uncle Hugo’s. I probably paid a bit more, and I’ll have to figure out how to fit all the books in my carry-on instead of shipping them ahead of me, but I had a lot more fun doing the shopping, too. ◼

Post arising: Anole vs. anole vs. predators

A brown anole, with dewlap extended. Photo by jerryoldnettel.

ResearchBlogging.orgLast June, I discussed a study with big ambitions: to experimentally compare the effects that competition and predators have on island populations of brown anoles, Anolis sagrei. Now the current issue of the journal that carried that study, Nature has a brief communication from the godfather of anole evolutionary ecology himself, Jonathan Losos. Losos and his coauthor Robert Pringle raise some serious questions [$a] about the results of that experiment.

The authors of the original study [$a], Ryan Calsbeek and Robert Cox, concluded that competition was more important than predation because natural selection acting on anoles was stronger on experimental islands with higher anole population density, while the presence or absence of predators on those islands made no difference in the strength of selection. Losos and Pringle object that anole population density is entangled with other factors that may make Calsbeek and Cox’s results uninterpretable.

This experimental design is confounded in three fundamental ways. First, density is confounded with island area. All analyses treat lizard density as a surrogate for intraspecific competition. However, an inverse correlation with island area explains 95% of the variation in density, such that it is impossible to disentangle the two factors statistically. This is a crucial problem, because multiple factors related to both predation and competition are known to vary with island area. For example, as island area increases, so too do the number of bird species (which increases the number of potential predators) and mean vegetation height (which might increase lizards’ susceptibility to avian predation). Likewise, because larger islands have lower perimeter/area ratios, they receive relatively lower input of marine-resource subsidies and have lower arthropod densities; a study of A. sagrei in this system showed that lizard densities vary significantly with the amount of seaweed deposition, and that experimental seaweed deposition increased lizard densities by more than 60%. [In-text citations removed for clarity.]

That point alone is a pretty big problem with Calsbeek and Cox’s result. Then Losos and Pringle re-analyze the data presented in the original study, and discover the very odd result that anoles in the experimental populations had higher rates of survivorship on the high-density islands—which is exactly the opposite of what you’d expect if competition for important resources were more intense in high-density populations. At the very least, this indicates that there could be more going on than Calsbeek and Cox originally supposed, in which case their data don’t support their conclusions.

Losos and Pringle raise other objections, including the issue of small sample size I noted in my original post. You should read the whole thing [$a] for the details, as well as the response [$a] from Calsbeek and Cox.


Calsbeek, R., & Cox, R. (2010). Experimentally assessing the relative importance of predation and competition as agents of selection. Nature, 465 (7298), 613-616 DOI: 10.1038/nature09020

Calsbeek, R., & Cox, R. (2011). Calsbeek & Cox reply. Nature, 475 (7355) DOI: 10.1038/nature10141

Losos, J., & Pringle, R. (2011). Competition, predation and natural selection in island lizards. Nature, 475 (7355) DOI: 10.1038/nature10140

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.

Requiescat: David Foster Wallace

David Foster Wallace, author of innumerable wise, hilarious, occasionally esoteric essays and the incredible novel Infinite Jest (among other works), was found dead Friday in his California home. McSweeney’s Internet Tendency is soliciting remembrances. Over on Flickr, Steve Rhodes, from whom I’m borrowing the photo below under Creative Commons licensing, has a long list of links to DFW’s work and other resources.

Photo by Steve Rhodes.

Wallace was uniquely able to capture everything that is beautiful and foul in millennial American culture – one of my favorite examples is this snippet from Infinite Jest, in which a satirical representation of a U.S. cabinet member refers to people fleeing a (possibly government-created) environmental catastrophe:

Absolutely not, Mart. No way a downer-association-rife term like refugee is going to be applicable here. I cannot overstress this too assertively. Eminent nondomain: yes. Renewal-grade brand of sacrifice: you bet. Heroes, new era’s breed of new pioneers, striking in bravely for already-settled good old settled but unfoul American territory: bien sûr.

This, of course, was written something like a decade before the Hurricane Katrina-created controversy over the application of the term refugee to Americans. Which, to my mind, makes DFW a prophet in both the popular (if incorrect) sense of actually foreseeing the future as well as the correct sense of speaking truth that the world needs to hear. The world is a darker place without him.