I Have Forgotten.

In the last while, there have been blogposts and tweet chains about the disparaging and derogatory comments that women and minorities in academia are frequently at the receiving end of. I’ve thought about commenting, thought about adding to growing lists that sound all too familiar. But then something weird happened–I couldn’t remember enough specifics, and simply could not muster the energy to first remember and then construct that memory into a statement that adequately shared the pain of being made to feel other, less than, unwelcome.

Which absolutely is not to say that I’ve heard nothing. And which is not to say that I don’t still remember the pain.

Which is not to say that sharing these comments in the past hasn’t been profoundly freeing to me, to let me see that my pain is both systemic and personal, that others have experienced worse, that others like and unlike me have felt more and different pain.

Which is not to say that forgetting is the goal, or somehow better. We all reckon with our pain differently. Many of us cannot forget.

It’s just to say that right now, I’ve forgotten how you all have made me feel unwelcome in academia, and that I work hard to remember all of you who have made me feel like I belong here and how you’ve done so in big and little ways. It means that when you all are surprised, again and again, at the magnitude of what all of us remember and have forgotten, I resent you for making me feel like I need to remember to be believed. I hate that you don’t realise how remembering can be a burden.

And the real tragedy is, I don’t actually need to remember, because sooner or later, someone will say something again.


Staying in Touch

I’m sitting here amidst boxes and garbage bags, loading up a moving pod and heading diagonally across the US on Thursday. Last week, as I prepared for this, I was gripped with a sudden fear that maybe I wouldn’t make any friends in the place that was meant to be my future home. The idea was patently absurd–I’d deepened three relatively new friendships right here in Cambridge last week, why on earth would this ability suddenly disappear? And as I reflected more, I realised that my fear was being assuaged by a feeling better than logic–the feeling that I could trust myself to retain friendships already made.

I’ve lived away from my important people since the age of nine, at which time I started studying at a boarding school that was a 48 hour train-and-bus journey away from my parents’ home in Delhi. I then came to a whole new country for college, a thousand dollar plane ride away from most of my family and school friends. In the years since college, predictably, my friends from both school and college have moved across the globe. And of course, friends made in grad school–from my program as well as field courses and conferences–have dispersed far and wide too, that being a hallmark of academia. Yet at this point, I count among my closest friends people from all of these life stages. How have we managed to do this?

I’m going to try to list and discuss below some of the lessons I’ve learnt from a lifetime of long distance communication, some pitfalls and some tricks that work. I’m sure that other people have different/better approaches–feel free to share them in the comments, I’d love to expand my repertoire! But as evidenced by the fact that I had people from all of my life stages, from elementary school to grad school, at my Ph.D. defence party, I’m clearly doing an okay job at this, and hopefully you’ll find this helpful 🙂

Basal to all these tips, though (yay phylogeny pun!), is the idea that we can stay in touch at two levels–day-to-day happenings, and thoughts and feelings. These aren’t neatly divisible, of course, and they need each other for context and understanding. But it is worth recognizing them as different, to ensure that you’re having conversations that pertain to both. Moreover, different people balance these two facets of emotional intimacy differently, and discovering what balance you both need is important. Which leads to the first suggestion:

  • Customize everything: no two friendships are alike. Some friends like regular, brief updates, others hate them. Some friends love setting aside three hours to skype with you, others don’t want to, or can’t. Some friends can plunge back into talking about their deepest vulnerabilities minutes after you start talking, others take many minutes of shallower conversation before they can open up. The more aware you are of their friendship needs and yours, the more easily you can know what it means to maintain this friendship. I often get into trouble when I set external standards–“oh we haven’t talked in six months, are we even still friends?”. Yes, yes we might be, if we can retain what’s important to us–for me, it’s the potential for emotional vulnerability–in the context of however much we communicate. And take your own needs seriously–not wanting to talk except maybe once every six months doesn’t necessarily make you a “bad” friend.
  • Work hard: set aside time to nurture friendships in the ways that your mutual needs require. Be intentional about prioritizing friendship in general, or specific friendships at specific times. Maintain a mix, if possible, of near- and far-distance friends, and don’t keep these walled off from one another. I find that it helps newer near-friendships to feel the depth of your older friendships, and it helps older far-friendships to stay up to date with your current emotional landscape.
  • Embrace social media: disabuse yourself of this notion that connection through social media isn’t “real.” Any communication is as real or fake as you make it to be. And as a subset of the first point above, different friendships need different modes of communication, and combinations thereof. One friend and I communicate exclusively through email, but each chain, started maybe once every few months, runs 30 messages long. Another–Facebook posts for updates, and Twitter direct messages for conversation. Another friend–exclusively Gchat. Another–Instagram for updates, and Whatsapp for conversation. One friend sends me postcards and I respond with Whatsapp messages. Another–just phone calls. Another–twitter lurking + phone calls. This array of options can lead to weird asymmetries, which makes it important to be open about the fact that you follow friends on social media. Many people are embarrassed to admit to lurking on social media, but it isn’t bad to want to know what your friends are up to! For example, I rarely post on Instagram, but lurk there. So I may start conversations with friends who update using Instagram with “I saw your post on Instagram! …(insert thought/question)…” At the start of long-distance friendships, it may take some figuring out what works best, before you fall into some communication ritual that feels right to you.
  • Reach out to people when you think of them, even if it’s been ages since you’ve talked. More often than not, people like maintaining connections, so try to trust that they want to hear from you. But on the flip side (and I’m learning this the hard way), the amount of communication different people want/need/can sustain is wildly different, so try to be mindful of those needs–no fixed amount of communication is “correct”. On another flip side, try to be that person whom people feel okay about getting in touch with out of the blue. I try to be effusive in this context, and offer shallow or deep updates of my own, so that folks realise that we can get back in touch if they want to.
  • Be okay with change: when you’re in the game of maintaining years-long friendships from far away, things are going to change, or have already changed and you didn’t know about it because you’re far away. For a long time I found it hard to accept that, after years of someone being a certain kind of friend, they may become an entirely different kind of friend or maybe not stay a friend at all. But remember that this can go in any direction–I’ve had some friendships stay dormant and shallow for years before suddenly becoming deeper, because shit happens and people reach out to you, or you reach out to them, and you both value connection.

That’s all I’ve got from 20 years of staying in touch from far away. I’ll update/make this a series if I end up having more thoughts!

Cicada Emergence

More on Mental Wellness (2/n)

Some months ago, I wrote about the long-overdue steps I’ve been taking, with help from all around me, towards maintaining better mental health. Since then, I’ve been chugging along, and wanted to write an update post with a couple of new practices I’ve been finding very helpful, but writing this post didn’t seem especially urgent, so I let it sit. After all, the responses I received to my initial post were either kind or harmless. No one chided me for talking about mental health, and I was lulled into believing that maybe people were getting used to the idea that mental wellness isn’t something you just “snap” into. But I’m being spurred into action because of a recent twitter exchange in which a senior academic with tens of thousands of followers mocked a graduate student who shared some of her mental health concerns. I realized quickly that this conversation about mental health is very far from over, and you can bet that I’m going to join the ranks of the people voicing support for those of us who struggle with mental wellness, normalizing the idea that we often have no idea what someone’s inner life looks and feels like.

So in that spirit, here are two other practices I’ve adopted recently to help calm me down and center myself. As before,  absolutely NONE of this is prescriptive, and none of this is static. I don’t have any of the answers, just a few things that have helped me. None of this is easy, and I don’t want to pretend it is. But I think it’s worth it, and maybe this will resonate.

Phone-less walks: I’ve discovered that a lot of my inner unrest arises from putting on a “social face” when interacting with the world, and while I recognized some time ago that I put on this face for in-person interactions, I hadn’t figured out how far this extends (duh, in hindsight) to online or phone interactions as well. Once I did, I started going for long walks in which I leave behind my phone and wallet, minimizing the interactions I’m likely to have. I have a 45 minute route and a 1.5 hour route; my sense of direction is too bad to not have a set route, and not having to think about getting lost is nice. I find that I’m often more productive when I come back from these walks, so I don’t feel guilty for taking the time. But some days I come back emotionally exhausted and still, the longer term effects of feeling calm seem more than worth it.

Notebooks: Another major source of unrest for me is this notion that I have to be prepared for difficult situations (logistical, academic, emotional, what have you), and therefore have to replay in my head over and over exactly how I have responded or might respond to such situations so that I don’t forget. But if I write this stuff down as it strikes me, I don’t have to shoulder the mental burden of remembering it all. So I’ve taken to filling little notebooks with these thoughts through the day (especially on the phone-less walks), and have freed up lots of brain-space as a result. It isn’t quite the same as journalling (which I’ve never really taken to), because you don’t have to remember things even until the end of the day. Plus, writing in notebooks has the added advantage of, in academic circles at least, being a perfectly innocuous thing to do, so people don’t ask too many questions.

More on this subject when I have other things to say; hopefully it won’t take someone being an uncompassionate jerk for me to sit down and write again!


Goodbye and Thank You, Harvard.

So on Tuesday morning, I was camped out in our lab’s conference room, and my Ph.D. advisor Jonathan Losos walked in, opening rather dramatically with “I can’t stay silent any longer, I have some advice for you.” Expecting some sort of harrowing, possibly life changing speech, I buckled in and prepared for the worst. But instead Jonathan proceeded to insist that I participate in at least the most ridiculously Harvard-esque part of the Commencement celebrations on Thursday, because when else would I do such a thing? I hadn’t planned on being part of Commencement at all, so I was skeptical that I could get robes or tickets or anything organized, but after half a day of running around, it all fell into place. Turns out it’s pretty straightforward, if you sound sad enough, blame your advisor for the last-minuteness of it all, and don’t request tickets for family or friends because you weren’t planning on walking anyway. My expectations of the whole event remained mostly low.

But the Commencement exercises were lovely! On my way in, I was applauded by the owner of the local sandwich shop (we cemented our mostly silent friendship when he asked me one day on the street two yeas ago if I was okay, at a time when I was clearly not). I got to hang out with biologists par excellence Dr. Allison Shultz, Dr. Kara Feilich, and Dr. Glenna Clifton, and made some new friends from the Human Evolutionary Biology department. We got to see Dame Judi Dench in the flesh, and the ceremonies ended with James Earl Jones saying “May the force be with you” to us all. Despite the cold and rain, it was so worth it.


But most of all, it was worth it to do something that Jonathan so clearly wanted me to do. When you have an advisor who cares so much about your work and well-being, you walk at Commencement as much to honor them as to celebrate your own achievement. And because I’m better with words than at pretty much anything else, it seems a fitting time, then, to share with you all a section from the Acknowledgements of my dissertation:

Jonathan Losos has been the best advisor I can imagine, and my respect for and admiration of him as a scientist and human being grow with our every interaction. Writing papers with Jonathan has been the most intellectually challenging and interesting part of my career so far. I am grateful that he gave me the space to pursue slightly off-the-wall research ideas and myriad non-academic interests, for his patience with my stubbornness, and for being open to having all sorts of difficult conversations. Thank you for everything, Jonathan, I’m beyond glad to have you in my corner.

And because I only get so many chances to be as sentimental in public as I am when no one’s watching, here are the rest of my thanks to the Harvard folks I know from being a graduate student here:

Naomi Pierce and David Haig have been on my committee throughout grad school, and I thank them both for welcoming me into their lab groups, and for their always-sage advice. As early committee members, Anne Pringle and Stephanie Meredith compelled me to frame my research as broadly and convincingly as possible. Ben de Bivort has been a tremendously generous committee member, inspiring creativity and instilling rigor into my statistical analyses in the last two years. He has also been a wonderfully patient sounding board on late-grad-school crises. And though not on my committee, Katie Hinde and Lizzie Wolkovich have given me crucial support at difficult moments in the last few years, and I wouldn’t be continuing in academia (for now) without them.

My labmates have been simply wonderful. In particular I’d like to thank Talia Moore for being my culture change co-conspirator, Pavitra Muralidhar, Sofia Prado-Irwin, Oriol Lapiedra, and especially Colin Donihue for helping me stay calm-ish and giving me level-headed advice on science and life, and Alexis Harrison, for introducing me to lizard behavior. Thom Sanger and Anthony Geneva have been like mini-advisors to me at different points in the last six years, sharing their expertise on lizard husbandry and genetics respectively. I couldn’t have done this work without their patient and kind guidance. Yoel Stuart is my academic best friend, and being able to count on him for research opportunities, critique, wisdom, and unwavering support for the last eight years has truly been a blessing. Thanks also to Travis Ingram, Ian Wang, Emma Sherratt, Julia Klazcko, Adam Freedman, Ali Hamilton, Claire Dufour, Graham Reynolds, Melissa Kemp, Nick Herrmann, Martha Muñoz, Katie Boronow, Shane Campbell-Staton, Luke Mahler, Inbar Maayan, Adam Algar, Katharina Wollenberg-Valero, Gabe Gartner, Rosario Castañeda, and lastly, my undergrad mentees Rachel Moon and Christian Perez—you’ve each taught me so much, and together made the lab a great place to work in.

Thanks to the magnificent staff in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, and the Office of Animal Resources for making it a true joy to work here: Jose Rosado, Joe Martinez, Tsoyoshi Takahashi, Melissa Aja, Jared Hughes, Keleigh Quinn, Bridget Power, Marcia Kamierczak, Chris Preheim, Alex Hernandez Siegel, Lydia Carmosino, Mary Sears, Ronnie Broadfoot, Joe Rocca, Henry Moreno and Mona Alexis. Thank you, Andrew Richardson and Jim Hanken, for the chance to be a TF for your classes.

My friends in the department—Alex Brown, Dan Rice, Kara Feilich, and the rest of my cohort; also Mara Laslo, Heather Olins, Laura Lagomarsino, Didem Sarikaya, Liz Sefton, and  Dipti Nayak—you all are the reason I survived this. Thanks to the other behavioral ecologists in OEB—Jack Boyle, Charlotte Jander, Cassie Stoddard, Christie Riehl, and James Crall—for your advice on and enthusiasm for my research.

Goodbye Harvard, and thank you for all the good parts, especially for being home to the Losos lab.


I did not like “The Evolution of Beauty”

Richard Prum has written a book in which he claims that female mate choice for arbitrary male traits, “beautiful” traits, is an underappreciated, revolutionary force in evolution. On the face of it, I should love this book. It appears to challenge standard sexual selection narratives, it emphasizes the importance of natural history, it even tries to be feminist! Why, then, do I dislike it? Because it is disingenuous.


How do you write a book on sexual selection and not even consider the idea that ornaments may signal environmentally-determined condition and not just “good genes”? How do you manage to not cite Doug Emlen? How, as I’ve mentioned before, do you claim that Fisherian runaway selection is “ignored” by biologists and then not discuss research on sensory drive in fish or frogs or lizards? How do you write a book on sexual selection in birds and not even mention Hamilton and Zuk’s classic work on ornamentation and parasite load?  Why, across your whole book, would you not distinguish between claims that are supported by the literature (you know, with a numbered footnote or endnote leading to a reference) and provocative statements pulled from thin air, making the reader repeatedly do the work of flipping to the end of the book to figure out which is which? After all this, how do you expect a reader to believe you when you say things like this:

Aesthetic evolution by mate choice is an idea so dangerous that it had to be laundered out of Darwinism itself in order to preserve the omnipotence of the explanatory power of natural selection.

I wanted to take this book seriously, but if it doesn’t engage with the literature it is seeking to critique, it does not deserve serious engagement. If, by failing to engage with others’ work on organisms that may not be birds, Prum ends up repeatedly reinventing all the wheels of our current understanding of sexual selection, it is not worth our time or effort to discern if he has in fact come up with something new. If, by setting out to prove himself an iconoclast, Prum mischaracterizes all of us who study sexual selection, he gains no credibility. Ironically, even as something of an adaptationist, I actually begrudgingly agreed with one of this book’s central claims–that we’d be better off considering runaway selection as a null model for ornament evolution–long before learning about any of Prum’s work. I don’t know what that says about Prum’s decision to be quite so combative in this book, and quite so dismissive of huge contributions from a large number of his colleagues.

Full disclosure: once this book started talking about feminism, I couldn’t bring myself to go on (I stopped after Chapter 5, a very mixed-bag chapter about Patricia Brennan’s wonderful work on duck sex). However, I made the mistake of skipping to the end, to see this paragraph:

On the other hand, feminists themselves have often expressed discomfort with standards of beauty, sexual aesthetics, and discussions of desire. Beauty has been viewed as a punishing male standard that treats women and girls as sexual objects and persuades women to adopt the same self-destructive standard to judge themselves. Desire has been viewed as another route to fining themselves under the power of men. Yet aesthetic evolutionary theory reminds us that women are not only sexual objects but also sexual subjects with their own desires and the evolved agency to pursue them. Sexual desire and attraction are not just tools of subjugation but individual and collective instruments of social empowerment that can contribute to the expansion of sexual autonomy itself. Normative aesthetic agreement about what is desirable in a mate can be a powerful force to effect cultural change.


No. We do not need “aesthetic evolutionary theory” to patronizingly inform us women that we have sexual agency. And women’s sexual agency is not going to save the world–men, get your act together and learn about systemic power imbalances.

I firmly believe that how we study sexual selection needs to be shaken up, but Prum’s approach is most definitely not the way. Maybe there’s something profound in here that I’m completely missing. Maybe it’ll hit me in a few weeks or months or years and I’ll come back and finish this book. Until then, I’ll continue to hold in high esteem the women who have been pushing boundaries and asking difficult questions of the evolutionary biology establishment, women like Marlene Zuk and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Patricia Gowaty and Patricia Brennan and Holly Dunsworth and Joan Roughgarden and Erika Milam and Zuleyma Tang-Martinez. I recommend you do the same.

Defending Sexual Selection (!)

So I went today to a talk by Rick Prum, about his newly released book called The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s forgotten theory of mate choice shapes the animal world–and us. The talk was much like his New York Times piece, in which Prum seems to argue that our field has ignored Fisherian runaway selection, under which males evolve inexplicably showy traits (bright colours, loud sounds, and so on) that females prefer simply because females prefer them. Which is to say that the traits need not have any intrinsic value, either in and of themselves or as indicators of male quality.


As much as I enjoy critiquing our current understanding of sexual selection, I found Prum’s characterization unfair, and found myself agreeing with large parts of this response from (gasp!) Jerry Coyne. To be mostly agreeing with someone with whom I have also disagreed vehemently, because we both disagree vehemently with a third person–what an exciting time to be studying sexual selection! To counter Prum’s claims that we look only for adaptive explanations for showy traits, Coyne shows this table from a 2009 paper by Jones and Ratterman with examples of empirical work on several non-adaptive models of sexual selection.


A Google Scholar search for papers on sensory bias (an idea that seems a direct descendant of Darwin’s ideas on beauty) and sexual selection readily yields empirical examples, such as this 1990 paper from Mike Ryan and Stan Rand on female Tungara frogs’ preference for particular male calls that “emphasizes the nonadaptive nature of female preference.” They even open their paper with this quote from Darwin!

“. . . it is obviously probable that [females] appreciate the beauty of their suitors. It is, however, difficult to obtain direct evidence of their capacity to appreciate beauty”

-C. Darwin (1883 p. 413)

A quick scan of the bibliography of Prum’s book suggests that he doesn’t cite this work directly. The word “frog” doesn’t appear in the index. Nor does “swordtail fish,” or even “fish”, or a reference to this 1990 paper by Alexandra Basolo (the example at the top of my head for sensory bias) showing a pre-existing preference for long sword-like tails by female fish belonging to a closely related swordless species.

I’ll have more thoughts, I’m sure, once I’ve read the book, but for now, I’m mostly confused by Prum’s characterization of the field of sexual selection. I’d be the first to admit that what I think we know may in fact be an illusion, and I look forward to being convinced I’m wrong. I’ll no doubt have opinions on a book that Ed Yong has described as “explicitly feminist,” and this post is mostly a way to ensure that I do get around to reading the book and writing a more in-depth review. But for now, I’m skeptical.



Mixed Emotions about Marching for Science

The day before the event, Science March DC co-chair Mona Hanna-Attisha said, in an interview with PRI,

“So I understand that [diversity in science and the Science March is] an issue, but I think there’s huge other diversity issues that we need to be tackling. I think where we need to be attacking diversity is not in science labs and in medicine but in our legislative offices.”

Yikes. Talk about deflating the enthusiasm of those of us scientists who pour hours of our time doing uncompensated work to try to make academia more inclusive and welcoming of underrepresented groups, or those of us who do research that demonstrates how the lack of diversity in science limits what we can discover about the natural world. Talk about invalidating the feelings of members of underrepresented groups in science who struggle daily with the impact of this absence of diversity on their work, their health, and their well-being.

sign skeptical

After much indecision, and holding onto some skepticism, I ended up going to the March for Science in Boston, and I was glad to be part of an affirmation of the importance of science to society. But I couldn’t help but wonder–if we had used the March for Science as an opportunity to truly strengthen our commitment to making science welcoming of underrepresented groups, if we had seen this as a chance to reckon with the bias and discrimination that plagues not only scientific progress but also how science impacts society, would a young, white man have marched at this event with a sign that said “Science is a pretty girl. Don’t you want to get to know her?”


*New Paper*: Flower Size and Shape Evolution Following the Transition to Separate Sexes

The main results of my undergraduate honours thesis are now published (open access) in the American Journal of Botany! A few thoughts about it below, and then, because I wanted an excuse to look through my photos, some pictures from the trip to Baja California with my wonderful undergrad advisors, Jill Miller and Rachel Levin, on which we collected the flowers for this work.

  • Lycium is a genus of poky, shrubby plants in the tomato family (Solanaceae) that’s distributed near-globally, in drier environments. Research on these plants has focussed primarily on their systematics, biogeography, and reproductive systems. Most species in the genus have hermaphroditic flowers, with a genetic way of preventing self-fertilization. But in some species, changes in the genome lead to the breakdown of this genetic mechanism, and this change is accompanied by the evolution of separate sexes. Lycium californicum is particularly interesting, because populations of this monophyletic species can have either hermaphroditic flowers or male and female flowers (see  the companion paper to this one, published last year in Annals of Botany for more details). This lets us examine, in the new paper, how selection may have acted on males and females to change the shape and size of their flowers from the ancestral hermaphroditic condition, using present day hermaphrodites from nearby populations as a close proxy for the hermaphroditic ancestor. IMG_1943
  • To this end, we collected hundreds of flowers, and I spent many hours hunched over a microscope listening to This American Life and measuring tiny floral traits. In making these comparisons, we had to take into account a stark environmental gradient in rainfall and temperature across central Baja California. IMG_1975
  • We found that while these abiotic environmental gradients influenced both overall flower size and shape, flower size dimorphism in L. californicum appeared to arise through selection for larger flowers in males but not smaller flowers in females. Axes of flower shape were related to sex (male/female/hermaphrodite) and sexual system (hermaproditic populations vs. separate sex populations). Working at GN
  • Someday I will use this paper as a jumping off point for writing more about differences between botantists’ and zoologists’ approaches to studying reproduction, and specifically how the people studying plants do a much better job of quantifying both sex and mating systems continuously as opposed to categorically. But those thoughts are still forming…in the meanwhile, check out the paper if you want to learn more details about this study, and here are some picture from fieldwork! This trip is when I learnt to love fish tacos, tidepools, and the West Coast light.









How do we know what we know? Sexual selection, in humans and in lizards.

Over the last few months, there’s been a slow-boiling battle underway between Holly Dunsworth and Jerry Coyne about the evolution of sexual dimorphism in humans, surrounding the question of why male and female humans, on average, differ in size. The battlefield ranged from blogposts to twitter to magazine articles. In a nutshell, Coyne argued that “sexual dimorphism for body size (difference between men and women) in humans is most likely explained by sexual selection” because “males compete for females, and greater size and strength give males an advantage.” His whole argument was motivated by this notion that certain Leftists ignore facts about the biology of sex differences because of their ideological fears, and are therefore being unscientific.

Dunsworth’s response to Coyne’s position was that “it’s not that Jerry Coyne’s facts aren’t necessarily facts, or whatever. It’s that this point of view is too simple and is obviously biased toward some stories, ignoring others. And this particular one he shares…has been the same old story for a long long time.” Dunsworth went on to propose, seemingly off the cuff, alternative hypotheses for sexual dimorphism in body size in humans that were focussed not on men but on women, as examples of the kind of hypothesis that is relatively rarely considered or tested in this field.

Though on the surface this battle may seem to be about specific biological facts (Coyne certainly tries to win by treating it that way), in reality this disagreement is, as Dunsworth argues, about the process by which hypotheses are tested and about how knowledge comes into existence. About which hypotheses are considered for testing in the first place. As a result, the two ended up arguing past each other quite a bit.

As I followed this whole exchange, I shook my head at the timing–I had a paper in preparation that was SO RELEVANT to the centre of this debate! That paper is now available as a preprint, so I can try to outline why I think that Dunsworth is right, and Coyne is being short-sighted. My argument has *nothing* to do with humans, however–I don’t know the human sexual selection literature well enough to weigh in on that. Instead, my argument is by analogy with our knowledge of mating systems in Anolis lizards.

Until relatively recently, it’s been widely accepted, on the basis of behavioral studies, that anoles are territorial and polygynous. This description is so prevalent, in scientific as well as popular accounts of these lizards’ biology, that anyone who knows anything about anoles wouldn’t stop to think twice about it.

Following a somewhat circuitous path (which you can hear about at or after my thesis defence on March 28th!), the main project of my Ph.D. ended up being an investigation of exactly this “fact”–are anoles really territorial? Genetic evidence, which has shown evidence for females mating with multiple males as well as complex spatial relationships between mating pairs, led me to wonder if territoriality was a useful description of these lizards’ mating system. And while an important part of my work is empirical, my best sampling was restricted to a single population of a single species. So a complementary and equally important endeavour has been reviewing all of the evidence we have in support of the conclusion that anoles are territorial. And an outcome of this endeavour has been realizing that even things that we *think* are well-supported scientific facts–like territoriality in Anolis–may in reality be based on very little evidence.

I’m not going to rehash the whole argument of the review paper (co-written with my advisor Jonathan Losos) over here. The gist is that the earliest studies concluded that anoles are territorial based on strange and limited data, but the idea caught on. Most subsequent studies, therefore, ended up assuming territoriality implicitly or explicitly. This assumption affected choices made in sampling design, analysis, and interpretation, such that it became unlikely that studies would consider important, or even be able to detect, behaviours that were not quite territorial but were still potentially important for reproduction.

To illustrate what we meant, I am going to excerpt a couple of paragraphs below (edited for out-of-context clarity and to remove examples). In this section,we argued that if studies are designed with the assumption, implicit or explicit, that individuals remain in relatively small, exclusive areas (i.e. they are territorial), then these studies end up being designed such that they will not detect, or won’t consider important, evidence suggesting otherwise:

Because by the 1970’s the consensus seemed to be that anoles are territorial, research at this time was not often designed to explicitly test if these lizards behave territorially, i.e. to show that they stay in the same place and maintain exclusive areas. Specifically, territoriality was an almost foregone conclusion in studies with a limited spatial and temporal extent of sampling.

If the sampling period of a study of social behavior is not long enough, then relatively infrequent but reproductively consequential departures from territorial behavior are unlikely to be detected often enough that they are considered signal and not noise. This includes not only occasional forays away from and returns to a fixed territory, but also shifts in territory location that may take place only a few times per breeding season—neither would be detected by studies with short durations.

Moreover, if a study of social behavior does not sample over a large enough area and a sampled individual disappears from the study site, researchers cannot know if the individual has died or simply moved. Thus, studies with limited sampling areas will be most likely to sample only those individuals who stay in the same place, that is, animals whose behavior appears territorial.

You can read the paper for details and examples of limited sampling, as well as other ways in which research choices were shaped by assumptions of territoriality. But in sum, because of this dependence on territoriality throughout research on anole social behavior, the facts we have come to hold about these lizards’ biology look very different than they may have if biologists had started out with different assumptions, or had clarified what their assumptions were. The upshot is that, at this point, we simply don’t know if anoles are territorial or not–they may well be, but we don’t yet have good evidence for it.

If you read the paper, you may glean that I now think that instead of arguing about whether or not anoles are territorial, it’s more fruitful to ask if territoriality is a useful way to describe behavior. In the case of Anolis, I don’t think it is. Others of course may disagree, and our disagreement could be resolved by testing predictions emerging from territoriality against predictions that do not depend on territoriality. But this would be very different from considering the predictions made by two hypotheses that both reside within a territorial framework. And this, I think, is Dunsworth’s point–which hypotheses we consider and how we decide to test them not only shapes what facts we have the capacity to discover but also depends an awful lot on what we think we already know. What we think we know in turn depends an awful lot on the particular trajectory that a body of research has followed. Consequently, the hypotheses that get tested do not emerge from a vacuum. All hypotheses emerge from assumptions, whether we recognize them or not.

While our paper, by design, deals primarily with assumptions about Anolis territoriality originating within science, it hasn’t escaped my attention that the existing description of these lizards’ social behavior are positively Victorian. This struck me most clearly when I explained my empirical research to non-biologist friends and family. “They sound so old-fashioned!”, I was told, which made me realise that this might well be because the science on which the descriptions are based originated in the social milieu where these now-old-fashioned ideas were a given *. It also hasn’t escaped my attention that most of the research that suggested departures from territorial behavior in Anolis remained unpublished in scientific journals, and that three of the four genetic studies showing female multiple mating were conducted by women scientists. These observations wouldn’t sway anyone who believes that science is 100% objective, and it’s certainly possible that animal behavior could conform precisely to Victorian ideals, but I think the coincidences are at least worth pondering.

In this world where the very concepts of knowledge, facts, and scientific expertise are under dispute, I fully recognize the danger of writing about how science can do an incomplete or even incorrect job of discovering truths about the natural world. But it isn’t doing science any good for us to ignore how our processes of discovery can be blinkered by unwarranted assumptions, assumptions that can originate either inside of science or outside it, from myriad sources of bias that afflict every single one of us. The future of science cannot depend on us pretending that we scientists are infallible.



*Of course, none of this is new to sociologists or historians of science–check out, as just one of many examples, Erika Milam’s Looking for a Few Good Males ^

Beware the Terns

Took this picture last July on the Isle of May in Scotland–at this location and time of year, the probability that you will be dive-bombed by nesting terns is high. Solicited captions on Twitter, and the incomparably talented Rosemary Mosco (creator of the wonderful Bird and Moon comics) supplied these winning words. Now this is my desktop background and makes me smile daily, so I figured I’d share it here too 🙂

tern poster