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Twitter on

After a prolonged period of failure to update, I am trying to get back “au courant” with online activity. Nils Bunnefeld encouraged me to start Tweeting prior to participating in a field course in Africa, and I have now embedded the Twitter feed into the web page. Hopefully some of the material will now be more current than my recent record?

PhD studentship: how life history affects demographic and phenological consequences of environmental change

As part of the IAPETUS NERC doctoral training programme, I am happy to announce that along with colleagues Philip Stephens and Mario Vallejo-Marin, we are offering a competitive studentship in this year’s competition. Please go to the updated Opportunities page for more details and a link to the full studentship description.

Science Cake catch-up (long overdue): Oct 9, 2014

Science cakes – catch-up post

I have been seriously negligent in keeping the website up to date, thanks in large part to a ridiculously busy semester of teaching. But Adam Hayward has shamed me into catching up on our science discussions by promptly writing up a summary of the last meeting (which I missed). So before I publish his summary, we have some catching up to do. The notes below are brief but hopefully give some of the flavour of the sessions this autumn, as well as some potentially useful links to the original science that we have discussed.

Let’s start with the first session of last semester. Expect me to fill in the subsequent sessions in the next few days as I sit with a warm drink and watch the snow fall from the in-laws home in Norway…

Oct 9, 2014

Attendees: Andy, Clare, Doctor Paine, Lilly, Luc, Matt, Robbie, Rosalind

Robbie began proceedings by introducing himself and presenting a stats problem related to a recent Nature paper by Wilson et al., 2014:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v513/n7518/full/nature13727.html

The authors evaluated the relative importance of human impacts as opposed to aspects of the chimp populations (such as the density of the population and the number of male chimps) when predicting the incidence of conspecific killings. They concluded that the best models did not include any predictor related to human impact, whereas the population parameters provided better models.

The authors then used model averaging to report the coefficients, and Robbie’s question concerned the suitability of model averaging for this kind of analysis. This stemmed in part from a comment he had received during a recent statistics workshop in which the instructor recommended averaging predictions rather than coefficients.

We discussed this for some time, and although there was broad agreement about the contours, there were still some differences of opinion at the end of our discussion. It seems to me that the question is partly about emphasis (are you more interested in hypothesis testing or in prediction?) and partly about the causes of an inability to distinguish between models (is there collinearity between predictors, and if so, what is the causal relationship between these predictors?). Andy pointed out that for most data sets, the difference in approach is probably trivial, and I agree. In fact, if the difference is not trivial, one might question why this is true and wish to think about the covariance structure of your dataset more carefully before using model averaging in the first place…

Andy provided the next contribution, stimulated by a paper that was given to him by his undergraduate tutees, by Amici et al., 2014.

http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/281/1793/20141699

The experiment in question tested for prosocial behaviour (the tendency to behave in a way that benefits another) in some monkeys and apes. For example, the subjects were given the choice of pulling a lever that gave food only to the lever puller, or to both the lever puller and his neighbor. The authors failed to find any evidence for prosociality (the subjects seemed indifferent to what was happening to neighbours so long as they were getting food themselves), having controlled for some potentially confounding variables that may have been the cause of inconsistent positive findings in earlier studies of the same phenomenon.

We spent some time wrestling with the implications of these negative results. Matt noted that testing these kinds of phenomena empirically is difficult, while Robbie wondered if the expectation of prosociality is prefaced on social structure which may or may not have been absent in the current study. Rosalind asked if a different version of the experiment involving related individuals would be more conclusive?

My own comment concerned whether the entire question is relevant – is there ever a free lunch in nature (i.e., is there ever a situation where what an animal does can help another at no cost at all to itself)?

Andy mentioned the court case involving the non-human personhood of an ape   Does our provision of “human” rights to other apes depend on our assessment of their cognitive and altruistic tendencies? If our Science Cake session has just shown that chimps are murderous even without our intervention, and that apes and monkeys don’t give a damn about whether their neighbours get a biscuit, should that make us more or less inclined to attribute rights to other primates?

(Ed: I note that the court case has just recently been resolved as I write this, and the court did not consider the imbalance of evidence for chimpicide versus prosociality:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/dec/21/orangutan-argentina-zoo-recognised-court-non-human-person

– does that excuse the long delay in transcribing Science Cake notes?)

We closed the first session of Science Cake with a discussion of some dance fly data that Rosalind presented involving associations between characteristics of male and female mating partners. This was mostly motivated by her lousy supervisor (me), who received her initial pitch about how to sell the work skeptically. We batted around some suggestions for a while, and while there was no firm resolution, I think Rosalind came away with some good ideas and left a promise that the data would resurface later for another discussion once she has a better sense of the sales pitch. Perhaps the winning bit of motivating was performed by Matt, and echoed by Tim (paraphrased here because my notes are imperfect and this was so long ago): “It’s not so much a question of what you do, but what you say, in other words, make sure that your analysis addresses a story that you can tell convincingly.”

To be continued….

Graduation 2014

One of the best and worst parts of supervision is the mixed feeling of fledging a crop of graduates. This is definitely a happy occasion, and one worth marking. It represents the culmination of a lot of hard and industrious work. And while the collaborations will continue (we need to publish most of this work!), it’s still bittersweet to have so many great folks leave the lab. Best of luck to this year’s graduates! Please stay in touch regularly….

The 2014 graduating crew, in fancy dress, from left to right: Claudia Santori, Gregor Hogg, Toby Hector, Luc Bussière, Tom Houslay, & Sam Paterson. Photo by Miles Houslay.

The 2014 graduating crew, in fancy dress, from left to right: Claudia Santori, Gregor Hogg, Toby Hector, Luc Bussière, Tom Houslay, & Sam Paterson. Photo by Miles Houslay.

Ground control to Dr. Tom

Congratulations on his newly minted PhD to Dr. Tom Houslay, who successfully defended his thesis during a viva yesterday! Many thanks to Drs. Alexei Maklakov and Andre Gilburn for the engaging and constructive viva.

Some pictures of the post-viva festivities courtesy of Lilly Herridge below.

Shortly after finishing the viva, Rosalind presented Tom with his PhD hat. This is a tradition Luc stole from his time in Switzerland: the new most senior PhD candidate makes a hat to honour the achievement of the labs most recently fledged member

Shortly after finishing the viva, Rosalind presented Tom with his PhD hat. This is a tradition Luc stole from his time in Switzerland: the new most senior PhD candidate makes a hat to honour the achievement of the labs most recently fledged member

 

Close-up of hat to reveal the details: the balloons represent a spermatophylax nuptial gift transferred from males to females during courtship.

Close-up of hat to reveal the details: the balloons represent a spermatophylax nuptial gift transferred from males to females during courtship.

Tom posing with Lilly (left) and Rosalind shortly after passing his viva.

Tom posing with Lilly (left) and Rosalind shortly after passing his viva.

Post-viva celebrations at the Tappit Hen in Dunblane. tom is accompanied by his wife Kirsty on his right, and his external examiner, Dr. Alexei Maklakov

Post-viva celebrations at the Tappit Hen in Dunblane. tom is accompanied by his wife Kirsty on his right, and his external examiner, Dr. Alexei Maklakov

Tom’s thesis submission

This announcement is quite late, in part because in the post-submission haze and good cheer I forgot to let the rest of the world know via blog: Tom Houslay submitted his PhD thesis with dozens of minutes to spare at the end of last month. Congratulations Tom! This was a rather heroic effort. More news to follow once the viva preparations are in place.

Some photos:

Tom Submitting

Tom handing in (blurry camera photo, but probably appropriately mirrors Tom’s hazy view of the world as he submitted)

 

PartyPopper

Lilly celebrating shortly thereafter by firing a party popper in Tom’s face

The, Selfish Gene, The

A popular science article causing something of a furore right now is journalist David Dobbs’ latest offering, ‘Die, Selfish Gene, Die‘. Dobbs attempts to lay out the case for the ‘extended modern synthesis’ as proposed by researchers such as Massimo Pigliucci, but – to me, at least – tries to cover too much ground and fails to make a coherent argument. Beware also the ‘controversial’ statements made to pique the reader’s interest; here, even the sub-heading claims that the content will overturn the central idea of Richard Dawkins’ famous book:

The selfish gene is one of the most successful science metaphors ever invented. Unfortunately, it’s wrong.

Dawkins has responded to this ‘adversarial journalism’ on his own blog; meanwhile, Jerry Coyne at ‘Why Evolution is True’ has written two lengthy pieces which go into rather more detail on the science:

Part 1

Part 2

Dobbs himself has written another two posts on the subject on his own blog, the first being a ‘clarification’ of his original piece. The second is a more direct response to Coyne’s writing. PZ Myers has also weighed in on Dobbs’ side, expanding on the science while claiming that pushback is from ‘people who don’t quite get the concept‘.

It’s worth reading all these to get a feel for the different ideas flying around, although reading ‘The Selfish Gene’ itself (or Dawkins’ later book, ‘The Extended Phenotype’) should be on your xmas list if you don’t own them already.

I also tried to follow a twitter conversation between the likes of Richard Lenski, Razib Khan, Josh Witten, Karen James, Emily Willingham, Joel McGlothlin, Aylwyn Scally… among others… but it all got a bit too intense for me! Hopefully someone will gather those tweets together under one internet roof, but that someone certainly isn’t going to be me.

I’m pretty sure we haven’t heard the last of this, so I’ll try to keep adding links as I find them. In the meantime, feel free to weigh in below in the comments section…

Update: 15/12/13

I’m also covering this on my own blog, so the update is copied verbatim from there:

It wouldn’t be a scientific debate on Twitter without a blaze of capslock hulkspeak. SMASH LINK TO READ

‘Die, Selfish Gene, Die’ has evolved: David Dobbs has, rather wonderfully, published a revised version of his article. While I’m sure many will still take issue with the ideas contained within it, it’s fantastic that he has taken all of the criticism and comments onboard and updated his article. The original version still exists online, and I’ve changed the link at the top of this post so that it is linked there. There is also another (!) version of the revised article with links inserted by Dobbs to show his sources.

Finally (for today, at least), I just saw a great post by Sergio Graziosi on the whole affair, discussing both the public understanding of evolution and the technical points of Dobbs’ article. It’s well worth a read.

Movember

Not science, but maybe still worth noting:

It’s Movember 1st today — the start of a new field season for a rare annual species one finds only at this time of year on the upper lips of folks like me who forego shaving for a good cause. Feel free to donate to the cause of men’s health if you can: find our Institute’s Movember page here, where you’ll see links to the Movember pages for the whole clan. We’ll post updates to the facial hair phenology as it develops….

With

Tom’s topical podcast promulgation*

Given that Gregor brought along a paper from Andrew Jackson’s group to discuss at Science Drinks recently, I thought that it would be a good time for me (Tom) to start pushing my podcast on here, as the most recent guest was Dr Jackson himself!

The podcast is called Breaking Bio, and I co-host it alongside several other biology PhD students and postdocs scattered across the globe; it is a highly unprofessional, disorganised and low-budget affair that nonetheless seems to attract some pretty amazing scientists and science communicators to chat with us about their work. Previous guests that may be of interest to readers here include Ben Wegener on squid sex and spermatophores, our very own Stu Auld talking parasites, Michael Whitehead chatting deceptive orchid sex, Mike Kasumovic discussing everything from cricket sex to spider dancing (with interludes for academic beards and video game research), and Luc’s postdoc supervisor Rob Brooks making an appearance on one of our earliest episodes to tell us all about his new book and varied career (until I asked him about stuff that he didn’t really remember doing and it was all rather embarrassing for everyone, but mostly me).

You can find all the episodes at the BreakingBio website, or alternatively ‘like’ our Facebook page or follow us on Twitter for updates! The podcast is available on video via YouTube, or – if you don’t want to look at our horrible pale scientist faces or see into anyone’s grotty bedroom – the audio versions can be downloaded from iTunes.

With that, I’ll leave you to ‘enjoy’ the episode with Andrew Jackson. Any comments, requests for guests (or offers to be a guest) are all gratefully received!

* after the previous post, I’m hoping to continue some kind of semi-alliterative title ante…

New Biology Society at Stirling

Quick to spot a gap that needed filling in Stirling’s list of societies (I was going to try to make an ecological niche pun before realising that I’d probably need to read a bunch of papers first so as to make sure I didn’t make a scientifically inaccurate joke), Claudia has been helping to set up the new Stirling University Biology Society:

biosoc2

The Stirling University Biology Society was set up this year in order to increase each and every individual student’s chances of getting the job they deserve when they graduate. As well as this, some other Society aims are to have students helping each other with study sessions, to meet new people in the University (integrating both students and lecturers) and, of course, to have some top class fun!

We meet weekly to discuss any problem with our courses and to update on new Science. On top of this, we provide events such as trips to parks, conferences and expositions. We also invite special guest speakers to talk about their profession and perhaps give advice on how to get there yourself.

Finally, we offer students the opportunity to enhance their involvement in the subject of biology by registering with the national Society of Biology.

Head over to to the Stirling University Biology Society website to find out more!