Thursday, March 31, 2011

Skipping that hard middle part

The part of science I like best is the coming up with questions part. The part where I ask something someone else has never asked before (or at least I don't yet know that they did) and brainstorm together a plan about how the question could be answered. But my second favorite part is writing rough drafts. I like the rough drafts in particular because I can let the ideas flow, without getting hung up on making sure I have exactly the right reference or my font is just the one the journal prefers. In other words, it is writing without the impeding mechanical details.

I can do lab work, I can program a simulation, I can edit bibliography formats in citation management software, and all those other jobs that require extensive attention to details beyond the scientific concepts. But by preference I'm really a concept guy. If I had collaborators who wanted to do every part of the process between the planning and writing the rough draft, I'd be thrilled.

This is why I'm writing a Forum piece, to submit to a journal that responded positively to my pre-submission inquiry. (A positive response means they are willing to look at it, not that they promise to publish it.) Their Forum section is designed for short papers of about a 1000 words, in which the author makes a relatively simple point or poses a question without a lot of new data. I've finished a rough draft of 1100 words in the last two days. Now comes the less fun part of editing it for clarity, making sure all the papers I cite actually say what I claim they say, getting feedback from colleagues and editing it again. A more adulterated and repetitive form of creativity. Still, I think I would be inclined to write more papers in this format, as it makes a nice compact project.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fun with Photoshop: Hoofstock

The pun is my wife's, the Photoshopping my own:

This, for the record, took 36 minutes, starting with a giraffe clipart.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

What to do?

I have an ethical situation here. I've received a fraudulent post-doctoral application. This applicant has, on his CV, listed quite a few publications in peer reviewed journals. Some of them are real. Others simply don't exist. There are no papers by this author in the listed journals. There are no publications with the listed titles in any journal. One of the imaginary papers is supposed to be in Nature, but the listed volume number doesn't even correspond to the listed year, and so on. I am very confident that the CV is fraudulent.

The question then is what, if anything, should I do about this? I don't really want to waste a lot of my time, but this is fairly serious misconduct. I could write to him and request copies of the papers, or an explanation of Figure 2 in the Nature paper. I could tell his boss on him, assuming he actually works where he says he does. I could simply reject the application. I'm not certain what, if anything, is the standard response to this situation. There are confidentiality rules that apply to job applications, even fraudulent ones, so public humiliation is out of the question.

Etymological challange: Evolutionary Demography

I have a bit of a stomach bug this weekend, so I am thinking about things that don't require so much concentration. A colleague had raised the question of when the term "evolutionary demography" was first used in print, and said that the oldest example he could find was:

Caswell, H. 1985. The evolutionary demography of clonal reproduction. pp. 187-224. In: J. B. C. Jackson, L. W. Buss and R. E. Cook (eds.) Population Biology and Evolution of Clonal Organisms. Yale Univ. Press.

I, currently having more time than brain power, did a little bit of searching, and found this:

Wilbur, H.M. 1975. The Evolutionary and Mathematical Demography of the Turtle Chrysemys picta. Ecology, Vol. 56, No. 1 (Winter), pp. 64-77.

which uses the phrase "evolutionary demography," explicitly in the acknowledgements and implicitly in the title.

Can anyone find an older explicit recorded use of the phrase? If so, the commenter presenting the oldest confirmable example will win a prize: I will personally make a sculpture representing a species of your choosing (excepting diatoms) and send it to you in recognition of your etymological achievement. Comments will be accepted for one month from today, or until I get the first winning example, whichever comes last.

Friday, March 25, 2011


I'm a bit uncomfortable with some of these German CVs. The lebenslauf (life run) is the rough equivlent to a curriculum vitae, but it is a lot more personal. Many of the lebenslaufen I have seen contain not only educational and employment infomation, skills and other things relevant to qualifications, but also things that from my frame of reference simply don't belong. What legitmate reason would a potential employer have for wanting to know the applicant's religion, the name and employment of her parents and siblings, what primary school she went to and her photograph?

Will the culture shock ne'er end?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

What is EvoDemo?

The question has arisen how we should define Evolutionary Demography, such that we can decide if someone's work qualifies. I have offered 2 short definitions, into which I haven't yet put a lot of thought.

Short definition 1 : Scientific study which combines evolutionary biology and demography.

Short definition 2: The study of the evolutionary history, function, variation and relevance of demographic traits.

These are both broadly phrased. I don't like constraining definitions to the traditional terrain. A zebra found outside Africa is, in my opinion, still a zebra. As such, I haven't included anything about what traits, methods, etc. evolutionary demographers usually consider.

My question to you, dear readers, is: Can you think of anything that should be considered evolutionary demography that doesn't qualify under these definitions, or anything that shouldn't qualify that these definitions let in?

Propositioning journals

I’m a great fan of the pre-submission inquiry. The way this usually works is I write an email to the editor of a journal saying, “Here’s this great idea for a paper, and I’d like to know whether I should write this up for your fine journal.” Usually within a few days the editor writes back and says yes or no. Some journals require this, but I’ve started doing it even for some that don’t. It is useful for everyone involved. The editor gets to spend a couple of minutes reviewing my email and telling me that my paper doesn’t fit that journal, or inviting me to submit, rather than dealing with a full submission. I get to not waste time preparing a submission to a journal that is entirely uninterested in my topic, or I get the encouragement to submit to a journal that I have been told is likely to be receptive. Writing the email also forces me to think about what I want to say, and at what length, which aids my thought process. Finally, while rewriting and reformatting a paper to send to another journal takes some days, redoing the pre-submission inquiry takes only minutes. This is very useful for an interdisciplinary researcher like me who often has to hunt around for an appropriate journal for each paper.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The demographics of evolutionary demographers

A group of us considering organizing a new scientific society have been compiling a list of those we would like to invite to the initial meeting of the society, to be held here in Rostock, probably next year. We are up to 125 people (excluding people who work here, as everyone who works here will be invited). The group making this list is about half male, half female. The list is 100 males and 25 females.

Why this skew? We each listed people whose names came to mind, and in some of the subfields we are drawing from (e.g., mathematical ecology) almost all of the well known people are male. Higher level academics in general still skew strongly male, and the higher the level the stronger the skew, in most cases. This is both a cohort effect (older cohorts of scientists are both more well known and more male) and a selection effect (males find it easier to advance up the ladder). Being demographers, we are very much aware of this, and are very much interested in having a diverse society, but it is not clear what we can do about it. There is also a preponderance of Europeans, North Americans and East Asians; again this is unintentional and difficult to reasonably address.

Despite these skews, it is a wonderful list of researchers, and I hope we can get most of them to attend.

High r strategy in a high k regime

I have thus far received 39 post-doctoral applications. Of these 29 were immediately rejectable on the criteria that the application did not include the documents requested. Most of the 29 I couldn’t even tell which position the applicant was applying for, or that they had read the ad. About half of these also contain a similar mix of muddled excessive politeness and jumbled frilly clauses, as though they are cut and pasted at random from the same absurdist form letter. I have no doubt that these are smart, competent people, and perhaps this broadcast spawning strategy of application works in some fields or some countries, but my experience suggests no circumstance under which it would be effective.

Whenever I am hiring, or reviewing applications, I ask myself if I am expressing any unintended biases. I was warned by a friend to expect a large number of irrelevant applications out of India and China (where indeed most of the applications have come from) and so now I force myself to consider in detail whether each of these applications may be more relevant than it at first appears. So far if there is any doubt I have refrained from putting them in my reject folder, meaning that the 10 applications I haven’t yet rejected outright contain a few that I probably should. They also contain a few well worth consideration.

We listed April 30th as the application deadline, so I hope most of the people particularly interested in our positions here are simply taking their time to prepare a high quality application.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

keen but generic interest

The cover letters of the post-doc applications I have received have included statements along the lines of, "I have been following the exciting publications from your lab with great interest." Which is generally hard to believe, as I don't yet have a lab. I have recently receiveced one that makes a statement like this, which begins, "Dear Dr. ," with a space left for the insertion of a name. I can't help but suspect...

Note to those applying for jobs: it is more efective to have and demonstrate interest than to claim it.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Computer bugs

We now have enough ladybugs in our window plants that the aphids and white-flies won't last long. However keeping the predators concentrated in the little ecosystem for that long requires some doing. We find these little red happy pills wandering all over the apartment, and occasionally find them congregating in some warm dark niche. They like to be in groups, as their defensive chemicals and colors work better that way. This morning I found them assembling a conclave on and in the wireless router. Warm. Dark. Dry. Connected. Perhaps it is time to supply some hidey-holes in the planters under the plants.

P.S. Yes, I know that they are actually beetles, not bugs, but who has ever heard of computer beetles?

Friday, March 11, 2011

March of the Beetles

I like to have edible plants in the house. We have mint, basil and a Thai chili plant at the moment. We had oregano, but it didn't make it through the long sunless months. One of the drawbacks to having edible plants year round is that it means we also have aphids year round. All winter long I have been keeping them in check by spending a few minutes each morning squishing them or wiping them off the plants, but it is impossible to eradicate them this way.

So you can imagine my excitement and disappointment when on my way to work this morning I saw that wonderful eater of aphids, a ladybug, squished on the sidewalk. This is practically the first outdoor insect I have seen this spring, and just the one I wanted to catch and put on my plants, but it had been stepped upon.

Knowing that the ladybugs were waking from hibernation, I kept an eye out for them on the rest of my walk, and at lunch time. I collected a dozen, and am prepared to offer advice on the finding of ladybugs on cold spring days. Look for them climbing out of dense vegetation (evergreen shrubs, tall dead grass) upon which the sun is shining in places sheltered from the cold wind. If you see one, look closely for more nearby, as they tend to overwinter in groups. Ladybugs are poisonous to most things that might want to eat them, and will come out of cover into the sun even when they are too cold and slow to fly or escape, and are therefore easy to catch. Generally a slightly moist finger touched to the wing covers will adhere enough to lift the beetle into a jar without risk of squishing them. Once you have handled them they will arouse quickly, and attempt to climb to the top of whatever container you have but them in. Apply them liberally to plants infested with aphids, whiteflies or other pests, and expect to find them crawling around your apartment.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Acronymic Challenge

As a grad student, I operated independently enough, and had a large enough group of undergraduate assistants, that I decided to pretend I had my own institute. I named it the Dissertational Institute for Evolutionary Demography, and believe me, I worked for that acronym.

Some colleagues and I are now discussing starting an actual scientific society for evolutionary demography, and it needs a good acronym. I suggested Society for Ecological and Evolutionary Demography (SEED) but was shot down on the grounds that I had added Ecology to the society just for the acronym. So I'm still thinking here, and wonder if you have any good ideas.

It has to have the words "Evolutionary Demography" in it and some word that means society or association. It can have the word "International" if the I helps. Keep in mind that this is going to be an actual scientific society, so nothing ridiculous, scatological or overtly jocular will do.

Now, I should clarify I'm not actually in charge here, so I don't necessarily get to pick the name, but if you propose something sufficiently clever, appropriate and memorable, I'll propose it, and you may have the honor of naming a scientific society.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Excited to teach again

Summer Semester 2011

Introduction to Evolutionary Demography

Start: 4 July 2011
End: 9 July 2011
Location:Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research (MPIDR), Rostock, Germany


  • Daniel Levitis, MPIDR
  • Hal Caswell, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
  • David Thomson, University of Hong Kong
  • Annette Baudisch, MPIDR
  • Alexander Scheuerlein, MPIDR
  • Oskar Burger, MPIDR
  • Maren Rebke, MPIDR

Course description:

Understanding survival, reproduction and other life-history events is central to the study of both demography and evolutionary biology, and each field has developed methods and concepts to observe patterns and elucidate principles. The growing field of evolutionary demography treats demographic variables (patterns of survival, reproduction, and development) as properties of organisms that reflect evolutionary processes, just as morphology, behavior, and physiology do. It draws on both disciplines to search for evolutionary explanations of demographic patterns in terms of adaptation, genetics, phylogeny, and the environment. Further, it applies demographic methods and reasoning to answering evolutionary questions. Demography and evolutionary biology are conceptually unified and inextricably linked, so the questions we want to answer can best be tackled by traversing traditional disciplinary boundaries. This course is intended to introduce early career researchers from both fields to the concepts, methods, challenges and questions of evolutionary demography.

Course structure:

We will begin with an introduction to classical evolutionary demography and the motivations for combing evolution and demography, incorporating enough basic evolutionary theory and demographic theory to get everyone on the same page. We will then focus on current topics in evolutionary demography, including:

  • Aging across the Tree of Life: Measures and Patterns
  • Sex-specific differences in mortality patterns: Evolution in action
  • Modes of adaptive explanation of demographic patterns: a survey
  • The pace and shape of aging
  • The evolution of mortality of the young
  • Age specific reproduction in the wild
  • Life-history allometry and Charnovian invariants

Finally, pairs of students will be asked to spend the afternoons of the 7th and 8th preparing short presentations, to be presented on July 9th. Each pair will discuss the evolutionary basis of a different demographic trait or phenomenon, what is known about it and how it can be investigated.


For July 4-8, each morning will consist of two lectures (one hour each) and each afternoon will have a one hour lab. Then the afternoon of July 9th will be occupied with short presentations by pairs of students.


Students should be familiar either with the basics of demographic life-table methods, or with evolutionary theory. Familiarity with Stata or R software will be very helpful.


Students will be evaluated on participation in class and on short presentations.

Financial support:

There is no tuition fee for this course. Students are expected to pay their own transportation and living costs. However, a limited number of scholarships are available on a competitive basis for outstanding candidates.

Recruitment of students:

  • Applicants should either be enrolled in a PhD program or have received their PhD.
  • A maximum of 16 students will be admitted.
  • The selection will be made by the MPIDR based on the applicants’ scientific qualifications.

How to apply:

Applications should be sent by email to the MPIDR. Please begin your email message with a statement saying that you apply for course IMPRSD 189 - Introduction to Evolutionary Demography.

  • You also need to include the following three documents, either in the text of the email or as attached documents. (1) A two-page curriculum vitae, including a list of your scholarly publications. (2) A one-page letter from your supervisor at your home institution supporting your application. (3) A one-page statement of your research and how it relates to course IMPRSD 189. Please indicate whether you would like to be considered for financial support.
  • Send your email to Heiner Maier (
  • Application deadline is 31 March 2011.
  • Applicants will be informed whether they will be admitted by 15 April 2011.


The course will make use of readings from:

  • Baudisch, A. 2011. The pace and shape of ageing. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. DOI: 10.1111/j.2041-210X.2010.00087.x
  • Caswell, H. 2001. Chapter 11, Matrix population models. Sinauer.
  • Jones, O. R., Gaillard, J. M., Tuljapurkar, S., Alho, J. S., Armitage, K. B., Becker, P. H., Bize, P., Brommer, J., Charmantier, A. & Charpentier, M. 2008 Senescence rates are determined by ranking on the fast-slow life history continuum. Ecology Letters 11, 664-673.
  • Levitis, D. A. 2011 Before senescence: the evolutionary demography of ontogenesis. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 278, 801-809.
  • Metcalf, C. J. E. & Pavard, S. 2007 Why evolutionary biologists should be demographers. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 22, 205-212.
  • Rebke, M., Coulson, T., Becker, P. H. & Vaupel, J. W. 2010 Reproductive improvement and senescence in a long-lived bird. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107, 7841-7846.
  • Vaupel, J. W., Baudisch, A., Dolling, M., Roach, D. A. & Gampe, J. 2004 The case for negative senescence. Theoretical Population Biology 65, 339-351.

Additional reading material will be provided at the beginning of the course.

A reviewer's lot is not an'appy one

Suppose you are a scientist, and suppose you get an email asking you to peer-review a paper. This email contains the abstract of the paper, so that you can assess whether you are qualified to review the paper. Reading the abstract, you find that you are qualified, as the topic is one you know well. You also notice that you are deeply skeptical of the argument being made, and that you are very likely to recommend that the article not be published. What is your professional duty? Should you try to read the article with an open mind, despite your misgivings, or should you simply decline to review it out of fear of being biased?

In this situation, I did the former, reasoning that if we only review article we are sympathetic to, many terrible articles will be published simply because skeptical reviewers eliminated themselves, and some good articles with unpopular claims will be rejected for lack of qualified reviewers. I read the article, found it irreparably flawed in several major respects, and suggested that the journal reject it. I looked hard for nice things to say about it and didn't find much. While I'm confident my review was accurate, I'm glad these things are anonymous.

Finally out

This is the first of my dissertation chapters to be published. It is good to have it out. It is in a new Journal called Methods in Ecology and Evolution. It seems like it will be a very good journal, but it is too soon to know for sure.

A measure for describing and comparing postreproductive life span as a population trait

While classical life-history theory does not predict postreproductive life span (PRLS), it has been detected in a great number of taxa, leading to the view that it is a broadly conserved trait and attempts to reconcile theory with these observations. We suggest an alternative: the apparently wide distribution of significant PRLS is an artefact of insufficient methods.

2. PRLS is traditionally measured in units of time between each individual’s last parturition and death, after excluding those individuals for whom this interval is short. A mean of this measure is then calculated as a population value. We show this traditional population measure (which we denote PrT) to be inconsistently calculated, inherently biased, strongly correlated with overall longevity, uninformative on the importance of PRLS in a population’s life history, unable to use the most commonly available form of relevant data and without a realistic null hypothesis. Using data altered to ensure that the null hypothesis is true, we find a false-positive rate of 0·47 for PrT.

3.  We propose an alternative population measure, using life-table methods. Postreproductive representation (PrR) is the proportion of adult years lived which are postreproductive. We briefly derive PrR and discuss its properties. We employ a demographic simulation, based on the null hypothesis of simultaneous and proportional decline in survivorship and fecundity, to produce a null distribution for PrR based on the age-specific rates of a population.

4.  In an example analysis, using data on 84 populations of human and nonhuman primates, we demonstrate the ability of PrR to represent the effects of artificial protection from mortality and of humanness on PRLS. PrR is found to be higher for all human populations under a wide range of conditions than for any nonhuman primate in our sample. A strong effect of artificial protection is found, but humans under the most adverse conditions still achieve PrR of >0·3.

5.  PrT should not be used as a population measure and should be used as an individual measure only with great caution. The use of PrR as an intuitive, statistically valid and intercomparable population life-history measure is encouraged.

One of my goals in this paper was to show how badly some evolutionary questions need demographic methods. I think we accomplished that.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Places where I may post postdoc ads

As a public service, here is the list I have assembled so far of places where post-doc ads may be placed (given of course the particular types of specialists I am looking for):


While I am sure there are Americans who consume fewer advertisements than I do, I'm sure there aren't too many. I don't watch TV or listen to commercial radio, I don't get the print versions of any magazines or newspapers and when I use the internet I use AdBlock, which pretty much means I see no online ads. I walk past a couple of billboards on my way to work, but they are in German, and generally for products or services I don't recognize, so I'm not sure I could be said to have consumed. Further, my opinion of the advertising industry hovers between my opinions of the fashion industry (inherently ridiculous and basically harmful) and the tobacco industry (murder for profit).

It therefore strikes me as somewhat ironic that most of my time this week seems to be consumed with advertising. I am advertising positions available and a summer course in evolutionary demography we will teach here at the Institute. So I write ads, consider how best to appeal to my target audiences, edit them, figure out where to place them, and so forth. Granted, these are very different kinds of ads than the one calibrated to make young women feel bad about wearing any shoes that don't draw blood, but it is still somewhat outside my core competency.