Science vs IDiots: My Talk at Eschaton 2012

Here's a video of my talk at Eschaton 2012 in Ottawa (Dec. 1, 2012).



Jumping for Joy

Jerry Coyne has posted a video of a happy young antelope jumping up and down in a style called "pronking" or "stotting" {Antelope pronking].

If you're a certain type of evolutionary biologist you will immediately ask yourself what kind of selective advantage could have led to the fixation of stotting alleles in antelopes? Here's a list of possibilities that Jerry offers ...
  • It allows an animal to jump out of high grass to look for predators
  • The behavior startles the predator, giving the gazelle more time to escape
  • It’s an alarm signal (like bird alarm calls), alerting herd members that a predator is nearby. This would probably evolve only if herd members were closely related, so the behavior could evolve via kin selection (assuming it’s individually maldaptive, which isn’t proven).
  • It’s simply play behavior. But not only the young do it: adults pronk too when they’re chased by predators.
  • It’s a way, in young gazelles, of letting the mother know the baby has been disturbed. This may be one function, but doesn’t explain stotting in adults.
  • It confuses the predator. Presumably a herd of gazelle, all pronking, would puzzle a pursuing cheetah or wild dog, making it hard to pick out a given individual to chase. I don’t believe this for a second; predators aren’t that dumb, and in fact a predator would probably either learn to or evolve to concentrate on the stotting individuals because they might be easier to catch. (This “confusion” explanation was once used to explain zebra stripes: it might be hard to single out one zebra in a mass of fleeing stripey equids. But see my earlier post on another explanation for stripes.)
  • It’s a way to attract mates, possibly by showing how fit you are. Sage grouse in the western U.S. form “leks” in which males group together and jump up and down for hours (making loud noises at the same time) while the females watch from nearby. Invariably it is the males who jump the longest that are chosen as mates. Females want a fit father for several reasons. This doesn’t wash for gazelles since both sexes do it, and not in a sexual context.
  • This is a favored hypothesis: the “honest signal” theory. This posits that the behavior is saying to potential predators, “Don’t bother trying to catch me as I can bounce really high, so imagine how fast I could run if I wanted to!” In other words, the behavior deters the predator from attacking that individual.
  • This is the hypothesis I find most credible: stotting warns the predator that it has been seen, thus discouraging it from pursuing the stotting animal. (Predators like to sneak up on a prey, getting as close as possible before they’re detected.) That is, stotting evolved via individual selection. Remember that predators often don’t go after a whole pack of quadrupeds at once, but single out certain individuals—often young or weak ones—to pursue.
Here's another example of animals jumping up and down in a stylized manner. Surely there are specific alleles that make them behave this way? And the alleles must have become fixed in the Maasi population by natural selection. In other words, it has to be an adaptation, right?

How many just-so stories can you think of?



Beat Australia!

The Atheist Census is a project of Atheist Alliance International. You have to answer a few questions but it won't take more than a minute or two.

Please fill out the form if you are Canadian because the reputation of our country is at stake. So far the top ten countries are ...

1. United States of America: 51,541
2. Brazil: 10,971
3. United Kingdom: 10,683
4 Turkey: 9,795
5. Australia: 7,593
6. Canada: 6,852
7. India: 3,100
8. Italy: 2,948
9. Iran: 2,797
10 Poland: 2,679

Do you see what's happening? Some upstart British colony from the bottom half of the world is beating Canada! We can't let that happen. If you are Canadian get yourself over to Atheist Census right away. If you're from Australia you can get your vote counted at Atheist Census for Australians. (Agnostics need not apply.)



[Hat Tip: Veronica at Canadian Atheist: Canada Versus Australia.]

Scientific American Chooses ENCODE Project as One of the Top Ten Science Stories in 2012

It's pretty hard to ignore the ENCODE papers if you're selecting the top ten science stories of 2012. This doesn't mean it's a "breakthrough" as Science magazine claims [Science Magazine Chooses ENCODE Results as One of the Top Ten Breakthroughs in 2012]. And it doesn't mean that the results overthrow Darwinian evolutionary theory as implied by the Intelligent Design Creationists [Intelligent Design Creationists Choose ENCODE Results as the #1 Evolution Story of 2013].

The Scientific American article was written by Bora Zivkovic, a long-time blogger who knows the difference between hype and reality. He apparently knows which scientists to believe and which ones to ignore [The Top 10 Science Stories of 2012: Publication of the ENCODE Encyclopedia: A Milestone in Genome Research].
Unfortunately, much of the discussion surrounding the publication of ENCODE failed to focus on the usefulness of the catalogue and the techniques that built it. Instead, much of the debate centered on the failure to understand that transcription does not necessarily imply meaningful biological function. Cells are messy biological entities, with lots of gunk and goo floating around, so mistakes happen all the time. Many DNA sequences get translated into RNA, only to have the cell degrade that RNA. Much, perhaps most, of the DNA in our genomes—despite being occasionally transcribed, and thus recorded in ENCODE—is still functionless “junk DNA.” That is actually not surprising; it is in fact expected from evolutionary theory. Thanks to ENCODE, though, we should eventually learn which sequences are the junk and which are the gems of cell activity.
This is a very different take on the subject than that published by the editors of Science and the Intelligent Design Creationists.

I wonder why?