Nothing to do with science, but as I've not really had any snow since I was young I thought I'd share some pics. Glorious snow and sledging conditions in Nottinghamshire, at Kirkby-in-Ashfield. Hope everyone had a merry Christmas and is looking forward to a great 2015!
Snow glorious snow
BBC and babblers
The BBC have just finished filming some of the work that I did for my PhD (while I was at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute). The filming involved Chris Packham doing one of my experiments, which is pretty awesome.
They filmed work from my Proc Roy Soc paper
Thompson et al. (2013) The influence of fledgling location on adult provisioning: a test of the blackmail hypothesis
While at the KRR they also filmed the drongo -sociable weaver interaction from work that I helped Tom Flower and Bruce Baigrie carry out, also published in Proc Roy Soc
Baigrie et al. (2014) Interspecific signalling between mutualists: food-thieving drongos use a cooperative sentinel call to manipulate foraging partners
So all in all, a great bit of coverge for research carried out and funded by the Fitz!
The above picture is of the BBC film crew that came out and the members of Babbler Project who helped them with the filming.
This is my attempt at trying to address some of the common misconceptions that I regularly hear from friend, read in the newspapers or see on TV (including some documentaries by famous physicists) about evolution. I think they are important to address, because a lack of understand these aspects not only diminishes our understanding of an amazing concept that has changed the way we understand and look at the world, but also because it opens us up to the encroachment of creationism (which includes ID).
1. "We’re the pinnacle"
This misconception is based on the idea that evolution is a linear progression whose ‘purpose’ or ‘end goal’ is the development of the human species. This simply is not how the evolutionary process works, natural selection favours the individuals who are best able to survive and reproduce in the current environment. When environments change the goal posts are shifted and individuals with different characteristics will now survive and reproduce more. As we are all too aware with global warming, environments change and so the evolutionary goal posts are constantly changing. This means that there is never an end point in sight for the evolutionary process, just optimizing for what’s in front of it. A great example of this is the fact that lots of now ‘simple’ worm like species had ancestors that were fairly ‘complex’, the evolutionary goal posts shifted and the ‘simpler’ individuals did better than the more ‘complex’ ones.
2. "it's just random"
In almost the polar opposite direction to the previous misconception is the one that it’s all just completely random. This misunderstanding has probably arisen due to the use of the word ‘random’ when describing how mutations occur. Mutations are a crucial aspect of evolution; they provide the variation in individuals on which natural selection can act and without it the great diversity of life would never have happened. Mutations are random in the sense that it’s not possible to predict when they will happen, where in the genome they will happen or if they are good or bad. What is not random is whether those mutations will make a difference to the evolution of that species. Most mutations are bad, they occur in genes in a way that makes them no longer work or have a negative effect on an individual’s ability to survive and reproduce, some mutations don’t do anything as they occur in non-coding areas of the genome (although we’re finding out more and more about these areas and they may be important), only a tiny fraction of mutations will result in an individual being better adapted to its environment. So the mutations are random but natural selection is not.
3. "Species want to get taller" and "It's for the good of the species"
‘Giraffes are tall because they wanted to get taller to eat the leaves at the top of the tree.’ This misconception is from mixing up the end result of the evolutionary process with some sort of conscious decision on the part of the individuals that led up to that point. Firstly, giraffes have long necks for fighting not for eating leaves (although that’s unimportant here). Secondly, the ones with longer necks will be the ones that do have more offspring and there genes will be maintained in the population. But just because we can see the ‘end results’ of the evolutionary process, i.e. the species that exist today, and so can hypothesize and test the driving forces that have led to their current adaptation (ornaments, behaviours and abilities) does not mean that their ancestors were consciously trying to evolve them.
The phrase 'for the good of the species' is used because many people think that all members of the species are striving for the species to keep existing. Unfortunately this idealistic, utopian view of intraspecies harmony is not borne out by our observations of the natural world: infanticide, homicide and inter- and intra-group conflicts. Individuals will do best to maximize the number of their offspring, ensuring that their genes are passed on. Sometimes, due to ecological constraints, like availability of mates to breed with (and a few others), individuals will actually help others (almost always their closest relatives) to breed - cooperative breeding or eusociality. But these situations can always be explained by these individuals either doing the best of a bad job and helping their relatives to breed, kin selection, while they wait for a breeding position to open up for themselves.
4. “We’re Just constantly ‘eyeing’ up each other for mates” or “I can’t help it, I’ve evolved to be this way”
This is another misconception between intention, behaviour and the evolutionary process. A lot of human behaviour is driven by our unconscious, if we had to think about every single thing we did it would be crazy – I’d have to be thinking about every single muscular movement in my hand as I type rather than using muscle memory. Lots of studies have shown unconscious biases in behaviour that the individuals were not even aware of. Sexual preferences for members of the opposite sex fits easily into that, but it doesn’t mean that you’re some sort of sex drive beast. The humans subconscious is an area that we are only just beginning to understand, from why certain colour placebo pills work better than others to why men tip strippers who are on their period more than those who aren't. There are probably evolutionary reasons for these but they do not define us as individuals, understanding them empowers us as a species. It also does not mean that you can just blame bad behaviour on such things, we are highly conscious individuals and we can rationalise our behaviour and take responsibility for it.
5. ‘If we evolved, why are there still chimps?’
Chimpanzees are not what humans evolved from, they are our closest relatives. Roughly 2 million years ago there was a species, probably more like modern chimpanzees than us but was not a modern chimpanzee – this is our common ancestor. This species went along two evolutionary trajectories that have living decedents today, one leading to humans and one to chimpanzees, both of which are different from this ancestral species. Humans have common ancestors with every living species on the planet, something that blows my mind, and these species are the points at which we diverged on the evolutionary tree.
This misconception is also influenced by people calling crocodiles ‘living fossils’. Modern crocodiles are very similar to ancient ones, but they are different, they have evolved. Some ancient crocodiles had long legs and could probably run very fast (modern ones can too but only short distances). Things do change over the course of millions of years, it’s just that some (like crocodiles) don’t change quite so much.
If this has either interested you or confused you then I recommend reading Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Ancestors Tale’. It’s a really complete and accessible way of understanding how evolution works and provides a myriad of examples that are used in most university course.
Melvin does behav ecol!!
For everyone who wants to get a bit of an insight into the wonderful world of behavioural ecology, Melvin Bragg, who does the 'In Our Time' show on Radio 4, has just done an episode on behavioural ecology.
His guests are Becky Kilner (who is just awesome!!!), who has done so much amazing work on parent-offspring conflict in canaries, cuckoos and now burying beetles and was one of my favourite lecturers. John Krebs, who co wrote the best text book ever (An Introduction to Behavioural Ecology) with the brilliant Nick Davies (my favourite scientist). And finally it has Steve Jones who is wonderful to listen to.
Back to more normal fare for me, some cool papers!
The first, by Martinho III, is about 'beakedness' in New Caledonian crows, and has Alex Kacelnik as an author on the paper. The second, by Alpin, is about culture and it's spread in great tits (work similar to some of Alex Thornton's early stuff on meerkats) and has some big hitters on the author list: Ben Sheldon, Andrew Cockburn and Alex Thornton.
Martinho III et al (2014) Monocular Tool Control, Eye Dominance, and Laterality in New Caledonian Crows. Current Biology, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.10.035
Tool use, though rare, is taxonomically widespread, but morphological adaptations for tool use are virtually unknown [ 1 ]. We focus on the New Caledonian crow (NCC, Corvus moneduloides), which displays some of the most innovative tool-related behavior among nonhumans [ 2–6 ]. One of their major food sources is larvae extracted from burrows with sticks held diagonally [ 7 ] in the bill, oriented with individual, but not species-wide, laterality [ 8, 9 ]. Among possible behavioral [ 10 ] and anatomical adaptations for tool use [ 5, 11–15 ], NCCs possess unusually wide binocular visual fields (up to 60°), suggesting that extreme binocular vision may facilitate tool use [ 5 ]. Here, we establish that during natural extractions, tool tips can only be viewed by the contralateral eye. Thus, maintaining binocular view of tool tips is unlikely to have selected for wide binocular fields; the selective factor is more likely to have been to allow each eye to see far enough across the midsagittal line to view the tool’s tip monocularly [ 5, 16 ]. Consequently, we tested the hypothesis that tool side preference follows eye preference and found that eye dominance does predict tool laterality across individuals. This contrasts with humans’ species-wide motor laterality and uncorrelated motor-visual laterality [ 17 ], possibly because bill-held tools are viewed monocularly and move in concert with eyes, whereas hand-held tools are visible to both eyes and allow independent combinations of eye preference and handedness. This difference may affect other models of coordination between vision and mechanical control, not necessarily involving tools.
Alpin et al (2014) Experimentally induced innovations lead to persistent culture via conformity in wild birds. Nature, DOI: 10.1038/nature13998
In human societies, cultural norms arise when behaviours are transmitted through social networks via high-fidelity social learning1. However, a paucity of experimental studies has meant that there is no comparable understanding of the process by which socially transmitted behaviours might spread and persist in animal populations2, 3. Here we show experimental evidence of the establishment of foraging traditions in a wild bird population. We introduced alternative novel foraging techniques into replicated wild sub-populations of great tits (Parus major) and used automated tracking to map the diffusion, establishment and long-term persistence of the seeded innovations. Furthermore, we used social network analysis to examine the social factors that influenced diffusion dynamics. From only two trained birds in each sub-population, the information spread rapidly through social network ties, to reach an average of 75% of individuals, with a total of 414 knowledgeable individuals performing 57,909 solutions over all replicates. The sub-populations were heavily biased towards using the technique that was originally introduced, resulting in established local traditions that were stable over two generations, despite a high population turnover. Finally, we demonstrate a strong effect of social conformity, with individuals disproportionately adopting the most frequent local variant when first acquiring an innovation, and continuing to favour social information over personal information. Cultural conformity is thought to be a key factor in the evolution of complex culture in humans4, 5, 6, 7. In providing the first experimental demonstration of conformity in a wild non-primate, and of cultural norms in foraging techniques in any wild animal, our results suggest a much broader taxonomic occurrence of such an apparently complex cultural behaviour.
Sense about science
After a year trying to get a post doc I decided that I'd follow my other dream (not rugby) and try and go in for a more science communication/advocacy role. So I've recently started at Sense About Science and moved to London.
This has been a massive change, no longer am I narrowly focused on behavioural ecology but I'm working on projects relating to allergies, endocrine disruptors, nuclear and crime. I've had meetings with David Halpern from the Behavioural Insights Team and been to parliamentary meetings.I have also been able to keep up my joy of evolution by working on setting the record straight on some bad reporting.
Sense About Science has two mantras:
"we put science and evidence in the hands of the people"
"we're public led and expert fed"
Sense About Science is an amazing organization with loads of areas of work: from the All Trials campign with Ben Goldacre, trying to get all pharma companies to publish all of their trial data, to the new Ask for Evidence campaign, that seeks to empower everyone to hold companies and politicians to account for what they say. We do loads of behind the scenes work, putting journalists in contact with scientists, getting young scientists together and organising events.
I'll still blog about behavioural ecology, because it's awesome, but I might now throw some interesting stuff in from what I'm learning at work, e.g. cosmetics that are labelled 'hypoallergenic' don't have to go through any standardized tests!
I am a behavioural ecologist, my main interests revolve around familial conflicts and their resolutions. However, my scientific interests are fairly broad.