I’ll not only try to revive a weekly tradition of good words, but go fishing quotes, biological quotes, from wherever, whatever. This is the first shoot (however).
Natural selection will tend to render the organisation of each being more specialised and perfect, and in this sense higher. Darwin, 1859
I like this one. Context certainly matters, and this tells us a lot about history. Higher and Lesser organisms and features are concepts that were heavily in use in biology, until disgrace but still occasionally revived though in much less vaporised heat. Indeed, there’s this idea that one can judge between basic features and more elaborate ones. For a long time, natural scientists were enclined to think organisms could fit on a scale with lower and higher at both ends. Darwin and his work probably shifted the scale where it did not merely expressed a rank in creation anymore but a direction in evolution. Probably that’s where scientists started using the earlier scale within the new framework, higher and lesser reflecting primitive and evolved features (historian of sciences would confirm this, I’m not a specialist in science history). Quite interesting here is that Darwin is issuing a way of understanding that long lived notion of a scale between organisms: natural selection can result into such a ladder. Whatever he thought about the ladder worldview that was generally accepted at this time is not expressed here, all he was doing is pointing to evolution by natural selection resulting into differences from less fit to fitter.
Of course, there are two things that are today known as misconceptions: first, natural selection doesn’t necessarily work toward increased specialisation (it could also undo things way out whenever undoing is going to be fitter solutions to specific life issues –as long as things may be “undone” but this is another debate). Second, natural selection (adaptive evolution) cannot produce perfection, merely things that are better, among the available alternatives. Which translates most of the time as improved characteristics, but almost never as perfect ones. Save for the spandrel debates…
I can’t possibly produce an excerpt from this post without actually quoting the whole… You should go read this wonderful letter at Adventures in Ethics and Science. Especially if you ever had students asking questions about the exam that you could not imagine were actual or relevant questions but hopelessly designed to get bits if not the whole expected answer. A really good read, unfortunately reminding teachers the worst situation ever: when students realise they will regret their own decisions about what was important to know the big day and what wasn’t…
I suspect, from your crestfallen look, that you are now rethinking the cost-benefit analysis that led you to skip that lecture and those reading assignments.
It’s sad but you can’t possibly do more at this time. My latest crispation was students asking me, with regard to a distance from place X, whether the starting point was 0 or 20 (meters -that is, which ends of the graph does place X stand?). Hey, a senior is expected to know better!
I belong to this kind of biologists that takes natural selection quite seriously, though this is a conceptual bias I rather easily acknowledge. It doesn’t mean that I’m completely indifferent to other processes impacting biological evolution neither*. I’m perfectly aware that the omnipotence of selection to shape life is a long standing and recurring debate, and many aspects of life indeed clearly don’t fit the simplistic view of adaptive wonderland (a classic strawman by the way). That said, I don’t think blowing up everyone as soon as natural selection is invoked as a so interesting position. Sure, it is important to remind lay people that many other things impedes selection to achieve its powerful canalisation -drift, constraints (be they devo or of any other kind) and so… But please let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater: there are still so many features which are best explained by natural selection (and for which the closest ‘best’ explanation would be intelligent design rather than things like randomly drifting developmental pathways).
Before I share with you what’s probably my most unpleasant experience this year, let’s have some background setting info. This was during a (yearly) national application campaign to fill up full-time research positions. Basically you come up with your own research plan and a lab willing to defend your application. You have 10 minutes to convincingly present yourself and argue* about your outstanding research project and (best) your 10-year (pun intended) perspective in science. Every applicant is interviewed (though this rule will probably change in the next future, because this results into a time-costly and administratively procedural application round). In the session I was applying to, we were 80 candidates to 4 opening positions. Not a bad ratio, quite the contrary. But statistics show that your odds ending up with a position only become slightly greater than zero when you’ve published over 10 papers (the unofficial minima required), if possible all in the top 5 journals of your field. My application was thus slightly borderline of course, therefore I wasn’t expecting much beyond a “see what happens“. A lot of people encourage you to do so (“scientific tourism“), so that at least you’ve already experienced the bitterness when your time comes up, and you can withstand the harshest criticisms. As a consequence, I was ready for a cold shower. I hadn’t prepared myself for the interview instant killer though… (more…)
Sorry people I wasn’t really here in the internet recently. And posts were quite less about science bits but sock odds (at least there were sock options). I have a temporarily paper reading block. It does not help, you guess. I think this might have to do with being somewhat tired making up new projects without ever having the chance to realise one. Not to say I should have necessarily had the opportunity to do most (I have to admit some were quite bad), but keeping your projects in a back drawer is sort of frustrating in the long run. Particularly when you’re too deeply committed (hey, they’re mine after all!).
That said, I had my first real position interview last month (next one by the end of the month, so be prepared to very slow blogging activity in here), and I realise I didn’t post anything about it. It went bad, but that’s not too bad as I was anticipating it. Curiously, it took a very unexpected flip, and I think it is illustrating a rather unfortunate side of science, that is, when people get so accostumed to a way of reasonning that any other must be fallacious.
I pondered the possibility for an actual post about it in here and couldn’t reach for a decision (note that it’s cold and I don’t think it would be damaging whatsoever). So why not let you decide? Here is a poll as to whether I should digress on an interview instant killer…
While climatic events can drive dramatic selection events in natural populations, it is (sort of) difficult to think of tornadoes as triggering specific adaptations. Maybe that’s because we are particularly impressed by the power of these (gosh!) _really big_ storms. Maybe there’s another bias in that we mostly think of life as mainly animal based, and it’s even harder to think of a potential adaptations to hurricanes when dealing with squirrels or rodents of some sort (actually, if you are biased toward inverts, hexapodic adaptation to tornadoes might be easier to get through… but we’re dealing with plants today, okay? ;).