Wednesday, February 18, 2009


It finally occurred to me that the paper I have been writing on the evolution of post-fertile survival (a.k.a. post-reproductive lifespan) really needed to be two papers. I had too many interwoven points I was trying to make simultaneously, and the paper was getting too long and ungainly. So I needed to write two shorter papers, and as a bonus, I needed to have a draft of one to present at a lab meeting tomorrow. I sat myself down this morning at 8AM and wrote for 15 hours with only a few short brakes. Some of this was cutting and pasting, although the pasted bits often required significant revising. I now have a full rough draft of the text of one paper, except that it does not yet include the figures, the tables, the statistics, the references, the appendixes or the complimentary online material. Oh well, I should be able to fill in a few of the holes tomorrow afternoon. Now it is time to see if I can stand up and walk as far as the bed.

Monday, February 16, 2009


I've often vented about how terrible science journalism in this country is. The journalists never seem to understand the science they are writing about, and the more I know about the topic, the less they seem to know. I am finding now that as I gain greater expertise in particular topics, large portions of the scientific papers on those topics, written by scientists and published in peer-reviewed journals, strike me as incorporating significant misunderstandings. I many cases, I feel these misunderstandings are significant enough to call the value of the papers into question. By the time I retire, I will undoubtedly think even my own work is crap. I begin to understand why the practitioners in some fields seem to be primarily interested in trashing each other's work.

Friday, February 13, 2009


The first draft of the abstract of a first chapter of my thesis! None of this will survive the editing process.

Human females have the unusual life-history trait of frequently surviving well past their reproductively fertile period. While a variety of adaptive hypotheses have been proposed to explain this trait, some authors argue that post-reproductive lifespan (PRL) is a phylogenetically widespread trait, requiring no special adaptive explanation for humans. Still others have argued that PRL is the result of cultural and physiological traits, not adaptive evolution. We suggest that the continued confusion on this front arises from two primary sources, the treatment of non-alternative hypotheses as mutually exclusive, and the use of PRL, an inconsistently calculated and theoretically ill-suited parameter. Given the drawbacks of PRL as a comparative measure, a variety of more useful and comparable measures of post-reproductive survival (PRS) can be calculated using data in the form of standard demographic life tables. Using life tables from 20 human populations, 78 non-human primate populations and two non-primate species, we present a set of measures of PRS which allow for direct comparability between populations and to evolutionary null hypotheses. We find strong support for the uniqueness of the scale of human PRS, for the widespread presence of PRS in primates and for the influence of culture in extending PRS.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday!

By the time Darwin was my age, I wasn't born for another 169 years!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


We have submitted our paper on the meaning of the word behavior (or, since the journal is British, behaviour). It took much longer to get it to the point where we could all agree on it than I expected, and there are still a few stylistic points I am not fully satisfied with, but overall I think it is a good paper, and has a good chance of being accepted. I am sure none of the reviewers will entirely agree with out conclusions, but the point of the paper is that we don't agree, so I think that is okay.

Friday, February 06, 2009

My people are nerdier than your people

As I walked by two of my labmates today, one of them was introducing a visitor to the other.

LM1: "I initially falsely synonomized you with Robert!"
LM2: "He does phenotypically converge with Robert."

Translation into English:
LM1: "I mistook you for Robert at first!"
LM2: "He does look a lot like Robert."

Note that while the English version is shorter and easier to read, the original is easier for people in my line of work to say.

Carnival of Science!

The lead story on the BBC New's Science and Environment page is on the research of one of the post-doctoral researchers in my professor's lab. The idea is rather simple, the process was complex.
We know that climate changes over time, and that where one can find a particular type of habitat changes with the climate. Recently, using a wide range of data sources, scientists have been constructing both a detailed history of how climate has changed over time and what climate parameters limit the extent of particular habitats, such as South America's Atlantic Rainforest. My lab-mate, Ana Carnival (along with several collaborators) combined the climate history data with the climate requirement data to make maps of how the extent of the Atlantic forest has changed over the last 20,000 years. She found that there were a few relatively small areas that had been rainforest the whole time, even when climate shifts caused the rest of it to change to other habitat types, such as grassland. She identified these as 'rainforest refugia,' areas where rainforest species could survive through the millenia when the climate was inhospitable elsewhere. She then predicted that these refugia should be the centers from which genetic diversity spread to the rest of the forest once its borders once again grew. To test these predictions, she gathered genetic samples from three species of frogs which can survive only in the rainforest. Sure enough, the frog's DNA told the story she had predicted, confirming the refugia she had identified based on climate models. This is not only cool science, it has significant conservation implications. These refugia should house a large portion of the diversity found in the rainforest, because at some points in the last 20K years, all the rainforest species lived there. This suggests that if we are forced to make choices about which land to preserve (which we are) we might do well to preserve these refugia. And both the methods and the conclusions are potentially generalizable to other thretened habitats around the world.

One final thought: This is very cool work, and very much in line with what most people in my adviser's lab study, but it is so far from my own work that I barely understand the details. This may be why I don't notice any glaring errors in the BBC article, or maybe the UK press are not as bad at writing about science as the American press.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Public Science

The government, in its many forms, funds a large portion of academic science. This has given many people the idea that taxpayers should have access to the output of that science. But in many cases the output is a publication in a subscription journal, which non-subscribers don't have digital access to. Somebody up and said, "Hey, we paid for that research, we want access to it." So NIH has reached understandings with many of the corporations that publish scientific journals saying that if an author was funded by the NIH while working on any part of a paper, the journal has to make that article free to the public, even if the rest of the journal is subscription only.

This works out great for me. My fellowship is through National Institute on Aging, part of NIH. So any journal article I publish while I am on fellowship, or based on data I gathered while on fellowship, can't be hidden from the eyes of non-subscribers.

Monday, February 02, 2009


I'm submitting a paper to Animal Behaviour. Their instructions to authors require that I suggest four referees, people who they could send the paper to who are qualified to review it and decide if it goes in Animal Behaviour. They don't necessarily take my suggestions, but they require that I suggest.
I found myself rather stumped. I decided to write the paper because as far as I could tell, nobody had written anything similar. So who should I suggest they send it to?

I wrote to one of my professors for advice. One of his suggestions was that it was their job to figure out who was the best person to review it, and I should just make up four fictitious names and send them in. He even suggested a made up name to use: G. Hector Meckel.

This is the adviser who is notorious for scoffing at the etiquette and protocol of bureaucracies in general and the scientific societies in specific. Despite the humor value, I think I will submit real names of potentially interested people.