Animals Grow: How an Idle Tweet led us to uncover a Whimsical Academic Exchange

In July, I was writing a paper that is, in part, about sexual selection on body size in Anolis lizards. I had found, as is common in many animals, that sexual selection favours bigger males, and was arguing that this might be tantamount to selection favouring older males because, well, animals grow.

I was agonizing over writing this section. On the one hand, I didn’t want to leave the reader to connect the dots between size and age. But on the other hand, was I really going to state the obvious? I decided that I was not only going to state the obvious, but also back it up—I found myself searching for a citation to lend the statement that animals grow a bit more gravitas, before I stopped myself and took to twitter instead.

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Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting this idle, procrastinatory tweet to lead me to an actual paper! Ellstrand (1983) tackles the question of the “evolutionary significance of…the fact that juveniles at birth are usually smaller than adults,” and goes on to discuss six (six!) adaptive hypotheses for why juveniles are smaller than adults (there’s even an acronym!—“juveniles’ small size” or JSS). What makes this paper fantastic is just how plausible each of these hypotheses sounds, until you stop to really consider the question at hand. It’s delightfully deadpan, with only the last paragraph cementing a casual or careless reader’s suspicion this paper is not in fact completely serious: “Both selective and historic forces are probably responsible for JSS and why it is so widespread. Adaptive explanations can be sought for other juvenile characters as well. In particular, another juvenile character is even more widespread than JSS and deserves some thoughtful theoretical attention, the fact that juveniles always seem to be younger than their parents.”

But the story of this paper, and of that last sentence, is perhaps as whimsical as the paper itself! It all began with a reply from Ellstrand himself to our conversation on twitter.

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After Ellstrand’s tantalizing response, Yoel Stuart and I decided we needed to pursue this story further. We emailed Norm with a request for the reviews and some commentary on the experience of writing and publishing this paper, and he most kindly obliged:

“The short story:  I was a post-doc with Janis Antonovics in 1978-79. He and his group would often lampoon the ‘Adaptive Paradigm’; the discussion would often end with Janis saying something like ‘somebody should write a parody using a trait that is universal but has nothing to do with adaptation’. That was the inspiration.

I had some time on my hands at UCR and wrote the first draft of ‘juveniles’ in a day.  After a month or so of polishing and getting feedback, I submitted it – without explanation – to American Naturalist to see what the response might be.”

The reviews from American Naturalist are fantastic. I guarantee, had I been reviewing this paper as a serious submission, I would have had the same earnest responses as reviewers 2 and 3, especially because the original submission lacked that telling last paragraph. Reviewer 2 tries valiantly, though perhaps a tad condescendingly, to rescue the paper, saying “since juveniles develop from the reproductive process of a parent, they are smaller at birth for trivial physical reasons. The real question the author is asking is not why are juveniles smaller than their parents, but rather, why is there so much variation among species in the size of the offspring at birth.” Reviewer 3 is more scathing: “While I suspect the subject and the things mentioned seem new and fresh to the author, in fact they are stale and have been worried over a great deal…I know of no papers with this title, and I can understand the author’s desire to get the question explicitly attacked. However, he does not in fact tell us anything that we don’t already carry around in our heads.” And Reviewer 1 comes so very close to figuring out the whole thing that we give you their comments in full:

“It is unclear to me that the author has chosen a significant question to study. Does the fact that juveniles are smaller than adults require an adaptive explanation, as the author indicates? How can an adult produce offspring or propagules that are in fact larger than itself? It is difficult indeed to imagine how organisms with a placental habit, such as mammals or flowering plants, could give birth to offspring with greater mass than their own. At a broader level, it is difficult to see how any organism with a nutritionally dependent juvenile could produce a juvenile with larger mass, unless the adult acts like a nutrient pump over a long time period, slowly inflating the ballooning infant.

The author suggests several adaptationist explanations, i.e. smaller infants are more easily controlled by parents, smaller juveniles eat different resources (unlikely with nutritionally dependent juveniles) that are facile. Perhaps if the question were rephrased “What are the constraints on juvenile size?”, the author’s other suggestions of dispersability, freedom from predation, etc., might provide interesting avenues for exploration. With the question as it stands, however, the author must demonstrate that in the absence of selection, juveniles larger than adults are equally possible as juveniles smaller than adults, before he invokes adaptationist answers. The author has not yet met this test, and unless he does, I am unconvinced that the question he asks is indeed meaningful.

A minor point: the lead quotation from a popular (?) record lyric [“Let’s get small”—S. Martin, 1977, actually a comedy album] does not contribute to the paper, and in fact leads me to wonder if the paper was written as a satire on the adaptationist program in general.”

SO CLOSE!

Norm continued, in his email: “The rejected [manuscript] stayed in my files for some months until it occurred to me to call Doug Futuyma [at the time, the editor of Evolution] for his advice about submitting it.”

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Doug’s response, published with permission:

“Dear Norm:

I’m amused by your tongue-in-cheek manuscript, and even more amused by the fact that reviewers took it seriously. After giving it some thought, I think it would be nice to lighten the tone of the journal by publishing the essence of it. The only problem is that I have trouble justifying using the very limited (and expensive) journal space. So if you wish to go ahead with it, I will, if you are willing to figure out how to cut one or two pages of text and also delete the figure (a nice touch, but you can make your point without it). The only other issue is that there are passages in which I can understand why reviewers took it seriously—these are where you seem to be talking about whether offspring should be large or small, rather than whether they should be absolutely smaller than the parent…You may also wish to include something at the very end that is so outrageous that even the dull-witted can’t miss the point.

So send me back a shorter version, and I’ll publish it.

Best wishes,

Doug”

And then, a hand-written postscript:

“P.S. I think I’d better insist that you pay page charges”

So the paper was published, and in the following years, both Ellstrand and Futuyma received many responses to the paper, the latter getting so many complaints that he composed a marvelous form letter to send out in response:

“Dear Colleague:

I have received several inquiries about the article by Dr. Norman Ellstrand in the September 1983 issue of Evolution, entitled “Why are juveniles smaller than their parents?” Dr. Ellstrand intended the article to be a parody, and it was accepted for publication in the same spirit. The last sentence of the text of the article should make its thrust clear. Some colleagues have expressed dismay at the possibility that the article was meant to be serious. Therein lies, perhaps, both a moral to the story and an explanation for the appearance of Dr. Ellstrand’s article.

Sincerely,

Douglas J. Futuyma

Editor”

And below, a handwritten note: “Norm – I have sent this letter to several people who wrote. I hope you don’t get too much flak about the article”.

Of course, Ellstrand received regular correspondence about the paper as well. “Also, I get a letter or email once every three years or so regarding the paper,” he told us.  “I have sent a scan of the one I treasure the most, from Isadore Nabi.  Surprisingly, it took me about two years to learn who Nabi actually is! (Google searches not available at the time – but that’s no excuse, I guess).”

“Dear Dr. Elstrand [sic]:

Just a note to congratulate you on the brilliant insight in your article in Evolution for September, 1983. I only wish I had seen the point myself and had written so brilliantly on it.

Yours sincerely,

Isidore Nabi”

I’ll do my best to sneak in a citation of Ellstrand (1983) into my next revision of the paper that led us to uncover this exchange, and hope that someday another of my idle tweets leads to something this delightful! Many thanks to Norm Ellstrand and Doug Futuyma for giving us permission to share their words, and for scanning their correspondence.

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Stop Bashing Rupi Kaur

I woke up annoyed at how much the world seems to enjoy hating Rupi Kaur (I discovered both people raving about this piece of scholarly criticism and this genre of parody yesterday). Well, not exactly. I woke up perfectly happy and excited to finish the book that I’m reading, and then went downstairs to brew coffee and also, somehow, annoyance.

It took a second or two to realise that the explanation for my annoyance was simple. One of my roommates has this poem by Kaur up on our fridge:

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I don’t care what you think of this “as poetry.” I’ve done my share of poetry analysis, and those aren’t the tools I want to deploy here. I also recognize that there are lots of interesting lenses—of race, of ethnicity and religion, of globalization—through which Kaur’s work can be viewed, and you may choose to do so. But those lenses do not then impose upon Kaur a standard that she, personally, needs to meet.

This imposition of a “higher” standard is what Giovanni seems to suggest in her piece in Buzzfeed. She writes, “It is only by eschewing complacency and holding such artists to account that mainstream media and culture will become more diverse: the kind of representation that, without compromise, accurately tells the stories of people of color around the world, and not just the stories that are the easiest to sell.” This makes a certain kind of sense, but isn’t the whole point of building diversity in the arts that people, regardless of their identity, feel free to make the art they want to make? Given that Kaur self-published her book (pretty much an antonym for “easy to sell,” I’d imagine), I don’t doubt that she’s making art that she wants to make. With time, maybe what Kaur wants to write will change, become more specific, become more explicitly political (consider Beyoncé’s  trajectory from Destiny’s Child to Lemonade), or maybe it won’t. But holding a particular woman of colour to some different standard that she needs to meet for the sake of someone else’s notion of authentic representation? That seems antithetical to the whole point of fighting for diversity.

What I care about, when I read Kaur’s poem every morning nowadays, or even just notice it peripherally, is what she says, clearly, simply, and powerfully. It reads just as well without the formatting that is the butt of so many jokes:

“I want to apologize to all the women I have called pretty before I’ve called them intelligent or brave. I am sorry I made it sound as though something as simple as what you’re born with is the most you have to be proud of, when your spirit has crushed mountains. From now on I will say things like, you are resilient, or, you are extraordinary. Not because I don’t think you’re pretty. But because you are so much more than that.”

Had I thought these thoughts of empowerment before reading Kaur’s words? Of course I had. But did I expect to see the words of a young South Asian woman in this home I live in temporarily, a home built by two young white women? No, I didn’t. As someone who has struggled with my body image in a uniquely racialized and culturally specific way for the last fifteen years, and who is emerging, because of a lot of hard work, from the fog that such a struggle builds in one’s mind, it matters to me that such a simple expression of everything I’ve struggled with has become so popular. That it can be a silent moment of connection between me and these once-strangers in whose home I now live.

Giovanni also writes,

“Kaur indeed seems to note little difference between her educated, Western, Indian-Canadian self and her ancestors, or even modern South Asian women of a similar age in rural Punjab. She suggests that the way all South Asian women move through life is universal, uniting herself with them by insistently returning focus to the South Asian female body as a locus of “shame and oppression” in her collection.”

Speaking as someone squarely in the middle of those two extremes that Giovanni paints, these words seem counter-productive. Are there differences among the experiences of millions of South Asian women across the last century? Duh. The extreme shame I felt about my body hair, growing up in the 1990s and 2000s in north India was alien to my grandmother and her sisters who grew up in south India more than a half century before, for example. Should there be work that examines all the ways in which country, class, and caste influence women’s body image? Absolutely. Could some of that work be poetry? Sure. But why must Kaur write that poetry and why on earth should we dismiss what she does write? Do those differences across time and place and culture mean that the South Asian female body isn’t a locus of shame and oppression? No. Kaur talks about that locus in a way that seems real to her, and her words matter to a lot of people. Surely that is enough to expect from a 24 year old’s first book of poetry.

A Conversation about Mental Wellness and an Important Distinction…(3/n)

Some days ago, a friend in academia sent me this question to ponder (mildly edited, and excerpted with permission):

I am heartened to see increasing visibility and discussion around anxiety in academia. I was curious as to your thoughts on why so many graduate students, postdocs, and professors struggle with this. Are those folks who have a higher propensity for it drawn disproportionately to academia? And/or does the academic work environment induce it? And perhaps most importantly: what structural changes might be made to the incentives and social environment of academia to reduce the anxiety-related issues for academics?

It took us several emails to get to what I think is the crux of the issue, or at least for me to understand how I view this question. Of course, I began by saying that it’s doubtless a bit of both:

It’s certainly a question that comes up again and again. I haven’t looked into research on this subject, so what I say is thoughts/experience. As with everything, I suspect it’s a bit of both of the factors you mention. I think in particular the lack of structured time in academia proves to be a challenge for many, many people with anxiety. Also the extremely delayed gratification for all work, and the lack of positive feedback, or growth-enabling, actionable feedback more generally. The latter is definitely something I struggled with a lot.

I’ve learnt from therapy that self-reflection can be both a blessing and a curse for mental health, and self-reflection likely correlates with the tendency to reflect carefully in general. Which is exactly the kind of person that would find a life dedicated to thought appealing. Personally, I realised that a lot of my struggles arose because I applied my scientific ways of reflecting onto myself. This can be useful sometimes, but it can also exacerbate poor mental health, and did so for me.

One thing I worried about a lot before going to therapy was if somehow my mood swings, my brain’s ability to focus intensely, obsessively and for long periods on work (a terrible thing for my mental health) was necessary for being a good, creative scientist. That turned out to be completely false. I am a much better scientist with almost no mood swings and with better mental health hygiene practices. I wonder if creative types are less likely to seek out help because of this fear…

In terms of structural improvement, I think the biggest thing would simply be better access to therapists, pretty much everywhere but definitely starting in college. Literally everyone I talk to about mental health (including me) had a bad experience with a therapist in undergrad, which scared them away from getting help later on. Other than that, I’m hopeful that more people talking about this everywhere and all the time would encourage people to find support.

He responded:

I was intrigued that you found that obsessiveness did not correlate with you being a better scientist. I’ve always assumed that those things went together; I think we have a lot of company in that assumption.

As for me, I have always sub-consciously and sometimes consciously self-identified as someone who does not struggle with anxiety or depression i.e. “As an outgoing, confident person, I’m not the sort of person who would ever experience this sort of thing, therefore these feelings that I’m feeling … aren’t actually happening. QED.”

Not very intellectually honest, with cognitive dissonance out the wazoo, I know, but so goes this [the?] human mind.

We then exchanged a couple of articles—I sent along this piece by Alex Riley on mental health and freelance journalism, and received in exchange this piece by Ardon Shorr, titled “Grad School Is Hard on Mental Health. Here’s an Antidote.” The author of this latter article describes how putting effort into science communication helped them through the stress of grad school.  While I certainly concur that science communication is a wonderful thing and can help curb the dissatisfaction of grad school’s delayed gratification problems, my response to this article wasn’t entirely positive, and I wondered why:

I skimmed this article because it started to annoy me, leading me to realise the crux of what you were getting at—there must be those people who struggle emotionally/mentally entirely because of academia (seemingly like the person who wrote this article, if their problems were all solved by engaging in science communication), and others of us who would struggle with mental health no matter what, but whose condition is exacerbated by academia. The improvements to my mental health have had almost nothing to do with changes to science/academia, but there’s clearly much that could be improved within academia that would benefit all of our mental health. Without making this distinction clearly, we’re likely to ignore one of these two facets.

So you can imagine academia as a cafeteria serving unhealthy food. All of us eating here could likely be healthier if we had access to better food, and some of us might be unhealthy only because of the food we’re eating here, but better food wouldn’t solve everyone’s problems–some of us would still need to go to the doctor more often, exercise more, and take medication (and yeah, we need health insurance for most of that). We’re going to have to hold this distinction–academia can and should be better about taking mental health into consideration, but that can’t be the whole answer–if we want anything to change.

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.

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?”