Over at The Molecular Ecologist, I’ve got a recap of the Botany 2015 meeting in Edmonton.
Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, I’ve posted a long-overdue review of a terrific little book about naughty parts. Genitals. Junk. It’s called Nature’s Nether Regions, by evolutionary biologist and entomologist Menno Schilthuizen, and it puts the weird world of (animal) reproductive anatomy on full display, while avoiding the cliches and pitfalls into which so many popular accounts of sex and evolution fall.
The book’s subtitle What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell us About Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves, might be a bit ominous to a reader familiar with the many hazards of evolutionary hypothesizing about human behavior, but Schlithuizen’s chatty tour of animals’ sexual anatomy dodges them all. He does this, in large part, by devoting far more time and attention to the “evolution” and “biodiversity” than to “ourselves,” putting the rather pedestrian reproductive arrangements of Homo sapiens in their place amidst the baroque diversity of appendages, receptacles, secretions, and behaviors other animals employ to multiply their kinds.
Go read the whole review, which includes some sampling of the natural history Schilthuizen covers, and then check out the book itself.
The first peer-reviewed paper from the Queer in STEM survey of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer scientists, engineers, and research professionals is now online ahead of print in the Journal of Homosexuality. It’s the first big, nationwide study of LGBTQ career experiences in the sciences — a potentially important resource to inform the policies of scientific employers and professional organizations.
Some of the most important points in the paper, which I wrote with collaborator Allison Mattheis, are
- There are a lot of LGBTQ folks working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) — we had more than 1400 responses from STEM professionals across the United States, and in several other countries. (Edited to add: Does this mean LGBTQ folks are well represented, as a proportion of everyone working in STEM? We can’t tell from this dataset — but that’s something we hope to work on in a follow-up study.)
- Most survey participants reported being completely open about their LGBTQ identity with their friends and family, but a large subset of them were not open at all with their colleagues or coworkers. (This is similar to the results of a survey of U.S. workers released by the Human Rights Campaign last year.)
- Participants were more likely to be open to their colleagues or coworkers if they described their workplace as safe and welcoming.
- Participants were more likely to be open to their colleagues or coworkers if they worked in a STEM field with better representation of women (see the figure below). This suggests that in fields with poor gender balance, the climate may be less comfortable for anyone who fails to conform to a straight male gender presentation.
Someone in my Twitter stream passed along a Washington Post WonkBlog item, which, drawing from WaPo’s important and impressive tracking of shootings by U.S. police, estimates that as of the posting date (June 1), police were responsible for 1 in 13 gun deaths in the U.S. There’s a graphic, for extra share-ability:
One in 13! ONE in THIRTEEN! ONE in THIRTEEN!
… Is that a lot?
Actually, we know it’s an estimated 385 deaths, because the numbers are right there on the shareable graphic. (Good practice, that, well done!) But the first thing that occurred to me, as I looked at the graphic, was that the “one in 13” ratio is only alarming to me because I knew, even before I saw the raw numbers, that Americans shoot a lot of each other. According to the Post’s data, there were 5,099 shooting deaths in the first five months of 2015! If we had the per-capita shooting death rate of a civilized nation, the police could shoot exactly as many people and end up with a much higher ratio, but would that be proportionally more alarming?
And then the second thing that occurred to me was that, actually, I can picture a scenario in which I’d prefer for the ratio to be higher — if I could trust the police to shoot people only when necessary, unencumbered by systematic biases and a proclivity to use maximal force. Heck, in a world where fully trustworthy police were responsible for 100% of gun deaths, that’d mean no gun deaths resulting from four-year-olds rummaging in their parents’ nightstands, and no gun deaths by paranoid old white dudes who hate rap music. I’d actually quite like to live in that world.
Really, all of the underlying understanding that makes the info-graphic stat alarming and newsworthy and share-able is more depressing and infuriating than the statistic itself: we live in a country where guns are used to kill far too many people, and we don’t trust the police to treat their fellow citizens fairly. Happy day-after-Independence-Day!
It is an axiom of geek culture that Star Trek was a beacon of progressive thought on prime-time television, presenting an aggressively optimistic vision of the future in which humans of all races worked alongside even stranger beings to explore the universe and protect life in all its diversity, with phasers set to “stun” unless absolutely necessary. It is equally widely admitted that a glaring gap in the rainbow coalition aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise was human sexual diversity: in six television series and 12 feature films, the franchise has never identified an onscreen character as unambiguously gay, lesbian, or transgender.
Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was, apparently, farther behind the curve on gay rights than he was on racial equality, and never quite made queer inclusion a priority in his time guiding the franchise. Nevertheless Trek has tiptoed up to the line from a number of angles, presenting mind-swaps between bodies of different sexes going back to the “Original Series” of the late 1960s, alien species with sexual and gender roles that defy the male-female binary, sexually ambiguous alter-egos in parallel universes, and even gender reassignment surgery. Legend among fans also has it that an officer on the bridge in the movie Star Trek: First Contact, Lieutenant Hawke (Neal McDonough), was conceived with a gay backstory, but this personalizing detail was cut for time, and Hawke was assimilated by the Borg — maybe making things a little more fabulous in the depths of the Collective, if not the onscreen canon. Gay men also made central, if officially closeted, contributions to Trek: most notably George Takei, who played Lieutenant Sulu, and screenwriter David Gerrold, who wrote episodes including “The Trouble With Tribbles,” the one that buries William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in a pile of multicolored fur-balls. Gerrold wrote an episode for Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Blood and Fire,” which included a gay couple in pivotal roles, but the screenplay never got anywhere near production. (It has since been adapted in a fan-made continuation of the Original Series, with no small success.)
But while fans looking for overt queerness in Star Trek are forced to rummage through the lower decks of the franchise, there’s been a covert gay icon stationed up on the bridge since before the first episode was broadcast. That icon is none other than the First Officer of the Enterprise, Mr. Spock.
I’m very excited to announce that I’ve accepted a new postdoctoral position as part of the AdapTree project at the University of British Columbia, starting in mid-August. The work I’ll be doing with AdapTree is a dramatic extension of the landscape genomic research I’ve done with Medicago truncatula, studying the genetic basis of adaptation to different environmental conditions. For AdapTree, the focal species are lodgepole pine — Pinus contorta ssp. latifolia — and two species of spruce — Picea glauca, P. engelmanni, and hybrids between them. Using genetic data from thousands of trees at hundreds of sites across British Columbia and Alberta, and growth and performance measurements in big climate-controlled experiments, I’ll get to help figure out what it all means for the future of northern forests.
Apart from the sheer awesomeness of the data, it’s going to be fantastic working with the AdapTree collaborators, which include many biologists whose work I’ve long known and admired: Sally Aitken, Michael Whitlock, Loren Rieseberg, Jason Holliday, Katie Lotterhos, and Sam Yeaman, among others. On top of all that, I get to do it at UBC, one of the premier North American universities for evolutionary ecology, and in Vancouver, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited. Really, this will be a return to the northern Pacific coast community of biologists where I “grew up” as a graduate student at the University of Idaho, but I’ll be coming back with four years of great experience and learning from my time at Minnesota.
I can’t wait to get started.
This View of Life, the evolution-centric online magazine, has a long “conversation” with myrmecologist E.O. Wilson, one of the most prominent evolutionary biologists of the era following the “Modern Synthesis” in the second half of the Twentieth Century, and still one of the leading popularizers of evolution. It’s a long ramble, but worth your reading time, I dare say. Though, to be honest, I only found out about it because of this aside that TVOL highlighted in a tweet:
I can’t say Jim [Watson] and I were friends because I was the only younger professor in what came to be known as evolutionary biology—a term I invented, incidentally—as I started here in Harvard, and it was Jim Watson’s wish that I and other old fashioned biologists not leave the university but find a place elsewhere than the biological laboratories. So we were not on friendly terms. [Emphasis added.]
Wow! No one was using the term evolutionary biology before E.O. Wilson? That would be pretty nifty, but it’s also easy to fact-check. I did it by looking up the phrase in the online Oxford English Dictionary over breakfast. And I found a citation to this, on page 140 of St. George Mivart’s book Contemporary Evolution, an Essay on Some Recent Social Changes, published in 1876:
The second instance is that of the apparent conflict between evolutionary biology and Christian dogma, and indeed, no better test question as to the effect of scientific progress on Christianity could well be devised. [Emphasis added.]
The OED also has a citation from 1920, nine years before Wilson was born, which refers to work by T.H. Huxley,
one of the contributors to the Modern Synthesis. [Correction: Whoops, nope, Thomas Henry Huxley isn’t the Modern Synthesis guy; that’s his grandson Julian. I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN THIS.] So, I’d go so far as to say that it looks like evolutionary biology pre-dates Wilson considerably, and was probably even in common use by the time he joined the faculty at Harvard.
Update: Following from Dave Harris’s response on Twitter, I see that evolutionary biology, as a fraction of all mentions of biology in Google’s Ngrams text database, does start climbing upward in the mid-1960s, coincident with Wilson’s early career. Wilson’s work surely contributed to that increase in the use of the term, though I think it’s quite unlikely he’s solely responsible.
Over at The Awl, I reviewed paleobiologist Beth Shapiro’s new book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Exitinction. Shapiro argues that we can and should resurrect mammoths, then release them into the best approximation of ice age habitat we can assemble. Which is crazy! Right?
Shapiro frames mammoth resurrection, or de-extinction, or recreation, or whatever this would be, as part of a broader effort called “Pleistocene rewilding.” The idea is not to put recreated mammoths in zoos—it is to release them into wilderness preserves in Europe, Asia, and North America, as part of re-establishing the community of large animals that lived in those regions during the last ice age, the geological era called the Pleistocene.
… proponents of Pleistocene rewilding argue that it could provide new habitat for megafauna species that are critically endangered in their native ranges, like lions and rhinoceros, and that it would have significant benefits for the health of the ecosystems into which they are introduced.
But hey, go read the whole thing.
The New York Times reports that Leonard Nimoy has died at age 83. We’ve already seen his death and funeral on screen, in the movie that was possibly the best episode of the television show that made him famous. But that time, there was a sequel.
I’ve meant for a long time to write about how, for all its failure to directly represent the diversity of human sexual identities, Star Trek did have queer characters in leading roles — and Spock was the first of them. But I’m going to block out my evening tonight to re-watch The Wrath of Khan.
A merry Saturnalia,
If the Fates allow—
And if Zeus
Does not turn you in-to a cow.
A merry Saturnalia
Let your heart be light!
The Alps will keep
Those elephants all out of sight.
Here we are as in olden days
Pre-Triumv’rate days of yore—
When Senators had no cause to spill
Caesar’s blood on the floor!
The Goths upon our doorstep,
Rome may yet endure—
Or Justinian will say the fall’s deferred.
So have yourself a merry Saturnalia now!