On the ballooning of spiders and deep evolutionary branches


To keep track of projects, I use a sophisticated app called Moleskine. But early on in grad school, when I had a new project, I created a disk for everything related to that project. Like this:


One of these disks was labelled “Ballooning Spiders.” I had an idea for a side project that I humored for a few days.

I thought the ballooning behavior of spiders was pretty awesome. I still think the ballooning behavior of spiders is pretty awesome. I imagined it was quite likely that spiders could balloon across entire oceans. (Twenty years later, we know that’s true.) Continue reading

Driftwood faculty and decisions about course content


Here’s an incident, or really just a conversation, that left a little scar on me.

Around the time I was finishing up my PhD, I was given the opportunity to give a seminar at my alma mater. I had sit-down conversations with some of my undergraduate professors. As I was somewhere in the process of starting a faculty position, this was a mind-bending role change, no longer a student but now a junior colleague of my former professors.

I took three excellent courses with one professor, whose courses were well designed, all with engaging and creative labs, and with lecture content well grounded in the primary literature. I worked somewhat hard and I learned a helluva lot, especially in Evolutionary Biology and Biogeography. He definitely had his theoretical biases (a la Gould & Lewontin), but this didn’t stop him from being an excellent instructor.

When we were chatting, he was interested in learning what I was up to, and how I ended up working on the ecology of ants. I told him that my interest started with the evolution of sociality, and that I was curious about the Hamiltonian predictions for colony structure. (When I started my dissertation, people had only just abandoned using allozymes to look at relatedness inside colonies). He tilted his head and said asked me a bit more. Before I realized what was happening, he let me know he wasn’t familiar with kin selection theory. He said that he hadn’t heard of any of the WD Hamilton papers from the 1960s. He didn’t seem think that this wasn’t a big deal, that this was just an inside baseball discussion among social insect experts. We moved on to new topic.

But it was a huge deal. If you’re not a biologist, you might not recognize this But if you are a biologist, you’ll recognize that my professor openly volunteered (to his credit?) that he was ignorant of something really foundational in his field. Frankly, nobody teaching evolutionary biology at the college level, at the time, should have been unfamiliar with the concept of kin selection.

This blew my mind in three ways. First, it’s bizarre to think that the man who started me on the path to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology didn’t have an adequate map of the territory. Second, he was a top-notch instructor and it was clear to me that we didn’t suffer much (if at all) for his lapses of awareness in the field. Third, I suddenly realized why the supposed controversies that I learned in college were actually tired arguments among everybody in grad school. My professor was merely out of date.

In hindsight, I see he was a classic example of driftwood. But not deadwood. He was a dedicated teacher and engaged evolutionary biologist, but his research was not well engaged off campus.

The stereotype of the professor who teaches outdated material is one who is retired-on-the-job, uses the same powerpoints over and over, appears bored, and uses old textbooks because they can’t bother to update the course.  That stereotype was not embodied by my Evolutionary Biology professor. But the content itself was not only stale, but it wasn’t even up to date at the outset. And he was an evolutionary biologist!

Ironically, I think the content of the course would have been more representative of introductory evolutionary biology if it was taught by someone who was not an evolutionary biologist. This instructor would have been relying more heavily on a textbook, and covered the major topics as decided by the textbook authors.

So, which one would have been better for me? Either the professor who was an amazing teacher and specialist who was aware of some topics, or one someone who was not a specialist who covered all of the bases? I think that’s an unfairly dichotomous question, so I won’t answer it. But it’s fuel for thought.

If I had to list three undergradaute-level course titles that would be in my field of expertise, they would be ecology, insect biology and tropical biology. I would clearly choose to amplify some topics over others, and these decisions would result in a course that would look very different than if it were structured by a non-specialist who was merely assigned these courses.

For example, I’m not a cracker-jack population biologist, and I don’t build life tables for my work. This is, however, bread and butter for introductory ecology courses. Since I don’t regularly work in population biology, I can’t honestly tell you whether this is an actual skill that every undergraduate biology majors needs to know. (I’m not sure it is, though some of the embedded concepts are very important.) Would I include in my class? You bet I would, because it’s in every textbook and it’s expected of everyone who finishes introductory ecology and I wouldn’t want to be responsible for underpreparing my students. Even though I’m an ecologist, I wouldn’t teach only the parts of the ecology that are my specialty. But I can see how some others can be tempted to leave life tables out of an ecology course. And, I wonder if they need to be within the   30 lessons we get to teach each semester.

Overall, I have no idea how the community collectively decides what concepts are truly important. I don’t think the K-12 approach of statewide standards is the way to go for higher education, and the culture of Assessment is still leaving us plenty of latitude, which is good. But why do we teach some things as canon, and overlook others?

I get that some topics are important. But what makes them important? What defines a field? is it the people actively doing research or the people looking at a distance? When we define the topics of lessons in our syllabi, what are the criteria we use when making our choices? I haven’t thought much about this other than “I think it’s important,” but I realize that’s not good enough.

Today is Taxonomist Appreciation Day!


Many fields of science are important, and many fields of science are appreciated.

The field with the greatest importance : appreciation ratio is taxonomy.


BuzzHootRoar made this!

Taxonomy is critical for almost everything we do in biology, but few demonstrate appreciation for the hard work and expertise that is required for useful taxonomy to happen. Let’s change that!

We are deep in a taxonomic crisis. Our own species created the planet’s sixth major extinction event and we are lacking the expertise to understand what we are rapidly losing. Taxonomic work is the foundation for understanding how to save what we can and make plans for the future. Any fix to the taxonomic crisis requires a recognition of the essential nature of the work of taxonomists and systematists, and the value of museum collections and those who use them to explain our world. We must show taxonomists how much they’re worth to us. We need to back this up with the necessary resources, of course, but we all need to be showing them a lotta love too.

I’d like to write a bit about the taxonomist that’s made my work possible.

As an ecologist, most of what I do is only possible because because of the unfathomably detailed and dedicated work of one systematist and all-around-great guy, Jack Longino. I don’t even know where to begin with the awesomeness of Jack, and of what he’s done. En route to a bevy of discoveries in evolution and ecology, he’s provided a comprehensive picture of ant biology throughout Costa Rica, as well as Mesoamerica and beyond. Of course there’s always more work to do, and a lot of that is only possible because of the foundation of his natural history and systematic work.

Jack Longino worked on the ants of La Selva Biological Station under the umbrella of the ambitious Alas Project: The Arthropods of La SelvaWhile heading up (in part) this huge project funded by a series of four NSF grants, he focused on ants. In the process, he made the most comprehensive and easy-to-use guide to identifying ants to species for anywhere in the tropics, perhaps the world. In fact, it is easier for me to train a student to identify an ant in the rainforest of Costa Rica than in my home in California, because the tools that Jack created are just so perfect to get ants to species. And when you get to a species page, you get detailed natural history notes of the biology of the species, including the rare ones. (For great examples, check out his notes on Gnamptogenys banski and one of my favorite critters, the gypsy ant Aphaenogaster araneoides.) In recent years, he’s ported over to the globally comprehensive site Antweb, and expanded his range throughout Mesoamerica and northern South America. Which is much cause for rejoicing among myrmecologists in these areas. And NPR, too.

And, a spectacular part of all this is that he did this while serving on the faculty of The Evergreen State College. I’ve seen him in the field with students on several occasions, and he’s a thoughtful, attentive, realistic and enterprising mentor. (He’s recently moved to the University of Utah.) And whenever I have questions for him, he’s prompt, detailed and doesn’t even seem to mind. I don’t know how to make a taxonomy pun out of this, but he’s 100% class.

So when he went on an expedition sampling ants throughout remote areas of Mesoamerica, he took a bunch of undergraduates. Some of whom made this wonderful animation showing what an ant sampling field expedition looks like:

Acknowledgments: This year’s pun contest by BuzzHootRoar generated some great art and new attention to the importance of taxonomy for ALL of us scientists. I came up with the idea for Taxonomist Appreciation Day on a half-whim last year, but I’m serious about it. It’s an idea whose time has come. And I am so thankful for the people who’ve helped picked up the idea and shared it, including BuzzHootRoar, the NSF Division of Environmental Biology, and Alex Wild, and hopefully many more of you today. (If you’re a twitter person, #loveyourtaxonomist is the not-so-secret handshake.) The Smithsonian Department of Invert Zoology came up with an aptly timed post (beware: contains comic sans). Next year, let’s have a bigger and better Taxonomist Appreciation Day! I’m open to all kinds of ideas, in addition to the great ones of DEBrief.

Faith, knowledge, respect and science education


People sometimes make decisions and solve problems without using reason. It’s part of our nature. People seek understanding through a variety of modalities. It’s normal.

I don’t use reason and science to deal with everything I encounter in the world, but I rely heavily on evidence. Faith remains perplexing to me, and not for the lack of education about a variety of religious traditions. Faith is the choice to believe that something is true without evidence. I won’t choose to use faith about anything of real consequence. I am not a religious person, and I choose against faith.

I am aware that my approach to understanding remains a minority view. Remembering this fact is an important part of my job, if I am to be an effective science educator.

Last year, the blog Sci-Ed (I’m a fan of the site) ran a piece by Adam Blankenbicker arguing that we should not “believe” in science because the belief requires faith, whereas knowledge is gained though evidence and investigation. With respect to the facts and the concepts, I agree with Mr. Blankenbicker, wholeheartedly.

However, I never would attempt to sell his concept, as written, in a blog devoted to science education. Science is about evidence, but just because science educators put an emphasis on evidence that does not mean that we need to go out of the way to insult belief.

The first concern about this post was expressed by Holly Dunsworth, who wrote that an interview with her for that piece was taken out of context.

In contemporary culture, the prevailing view is that faith is a virtue rather than a vice. On the other hand, many scientists have gone to the great trouble to point out that faith more often leads to bad behavior. But, as a science educator, that’s never an argument I want to actively seek out. That conversation will not be resolved anytime soon, and if you bring that conversation to the forefront of science education, the conversation will promptly stall.

One cannot win the argument that faith is a vice, if the definition of winning includes earning respect from people of all backgrounds. In my book, science education wins when everybody learns and loves evidence-based science, and that includes people of faith.

Some science educators, such as Mr. Blankenbicker, attempt to convince others that the use of faith is a vice. I may agree with him, but delivering that argument would hobble my own efforts as a science educator. Once a person who has strong religious faith sees the “faith = bad” idea coming from science educator, the analytical part of the brain turns off.

Too much science education involves preaching to the converted, in which people who are already interested in science learn even more about science. A different approach is required when informal education efforts target an audience that arrives with both scientific ignorance and suspicion of the motives of the science educator. With some topics that are (allegedly) connected to religious doctrine, such as the origin of life on Earth and the diversification of biodiversity, lessons involving facts, knowledge, and evidence won’t be accepted if the same lessons simultaneously attack faith.

To bring new people over to science, we can’t start by insulting them. No matter how many fan emails published by Dawkins, this basic fact remains: Whenever a science educator argues that religious faith is a delusion, the receptivity of the target audience shrivels.

To put it more simply, when someone feels that an educator just insulted their beliefs, they’re not going to consider the content of that educator’s science lesson. Ever since Sci-Ed published a piece insulting the use of faith, I imagine that religious readers of the site, if any remain, will be less receptive to the science content within. I find it dismaying that some science educators have written off the majority of the US population because they are religious. That religious population is the one that informal science educators need to reach the most, if we are to reverse the nation’s decline in science education.

When people don’t trust science educators for information, they’re not necessarily leaning heavily on Descartes either. Lots of people simply make decisions without any useful evidence. Most people who reject facts generated by science don’t necessarily see their views as a product of “faith” or “belief.” Some people use faith about empirical matters in which it is often useless, when knowledge would be more useful is more useful. But most people who use faith for spiritual matters don’t have the theological or philosophical training to understand which kinds of decisions are better solved with knowledge instead of faith.

Here is a small story, to illustrate how people use faith when knowledge and reason is required. When my son was in kindergarten, he was having a friend over, and they were playing with some toys. The friend was struggling mightily to join together two pieces in a puzzle, even though these pieces weren’t designed to connect to one another. Literally, one piece had a square peg and the other had a round hole. When the friend was told that the pieces would not fit together, the child replied, “They will fit. I have faith that they’ll fit.” Then he continued to twist and push, but the pieces never joined.

If you know typical 5-year-olds, that conversation is perfectly normal except for the fact that the child specifically explained that he made his decision based on faith. This child learned, at home, to use faith to solve an everyday problem to which knowledge was suited. It so happens that one of his parents was being trained as an evangelical minister. I have no idea if the parents would have been proud of the child’s faith in this circumstance. I don’t know how the parents would have handled the situation if they were present. I’m sure that he eventually figured out that spatial problems using puzzles are solved using reason, and not with faith.

When it comes to more complicated problems that take a little more than round holes and square pegs, I don’t know if he’ll learn to drop faith and pick up knowledge. Will he use the same reasoning as biologists to measure natural selection and reconstruct evolutionary histories? Will he use the same logic and evidence that geologists and physicists use when seeking to understand the age of the Earth? Many adult Americans inappropriately apply faith instead of reason to these topics. Or, they use poor quality reasoning from lines of inquiry that originate from faith-based assumptions.

To get to the factually correct answers, faith must be set aside. Effective science education doesn’t require that the entire audience reject the use of faith for everything. It just requires that the audience uses reason when it comes to matters of science. Emphasizing that knowledge is useful and appropriate is a positive, but emphasizing that faith is useless and inappropriate is a negative. People rarely learn, or adopt constructive approaches, by focusing on the negative.

As far as I’m concerned, as a science educator, it’s beyond my job description to judge other people if they use faith about matters that are not informed by science. Moreover, if I do judge other people because they use faith, then I’ve just made my job impossible because I have cut myself off from my target audience. Some science educators don’t worry so much about teaching science content, but instead primarily argue that it’s stupid to be religious. This approach is not going to solve the science education crisis in the United States.

I want everybody to use the knowledge gained from science to make factual decisions about the natural world. If I can demonstrate that knowledge provides answers, then others will be able to conclude that faith is not suited to scientific matters. There are a small number of people who insist on using faith to directly controvert factual evidence. These people have no interest in knowledge, and these people are lost to science education efforts.

If science educators focus heavily on the small minority of the uber-faithful and anti-factual, we alienate the nearly everybody else: the people who who use faith at some times in their life but are open to knowledge. Effective outreach begins with respecting the notion that some people use faith and religion in some aspects of their life. Any science educator who can’t respect the fact some of the audience is religious and uses faith at times is in the wrong line of business.

Science and religion may or may not be compatible. But much of the country is religious, and it’s in all of our interests for this majority to use reason to understand and accept facts that have been established through science. It’s the job of the science educator to convince the faithful that science requires reason and knowledge. You can’t do it successfully if you start by insulting the faithful for their faith.