Worldbuilding. With SCIENCE!

Today, I felt like meandering around a random piece of my mind that is a bit outside my usual blogging territory. Most of my academic reading (and consequently, most of my stuff here) is in the general areas of evolutionary biology, developmental biology, palaeontology and intersections thereof. Occasionally I’ll see something about abiogenesis or exoplanets or animal cognition and read it for the coolness. However, besides being a scientist, I also happen to be an avid reader and occasional writer of fantasy fiction, and one of the most appealing aspects of that genre for me is worldbuilding.

I am fascinated by the diversity of human cultures; the myriad different ways of seeing the world and constructing identities for ourselves. I love reading novels with interesting, well thought-out cultures, and tinkering with my own world is one of my favourite pastimes. If I had unlimited money and weren’t the lazy sod I am, I’d probably be thinking about getting a cultural anthropology degree on top of my first one in evolutionary biology*. Since I have very limited money and motivation, I content myself with watching out for interesting titles in the generalist journals I read. Even as a worldbuilder, I can’t stop being a scientist, so I love seeing scientific takes on what makes cultures the way they are.

Music, the many ways thereof

The other day, for example, I bumped into an analysis of music from around the world in PNAS (PNAS is a pretty good general journal for the occasional worldbuilding fodder.) Savage et al. (2015) searched for universal features of human music in about 300 recordings from around the world. It was particularly interesting to me because I have a culture with what I always suspected was a really weird religious prohibition relating to music. From what I can gather from this paper, my suspicion was correct: my little religious gimmick would be very unusual in the real world.

One of the main points of the study, however, is that there aren’t really any truly universal properties of music. There are exceptions even to “self-evident” rules that stem from the way our brains work, like having a regular beat or (if the music isn’t purely percussion) a scale made of discrete pitches. (So: I can do what I want with the music of my imaginary cultures, as long as I don’t make them all weird in the same way. Science says so. *smug face*)

There’s also the fact that most of the music recorded in the database is performed by men despite the fact that women are just as capable of making music. This is a valuable piece of information for a worldbuilder, one I wasn’t (consciously) aware of before I read this paper, and also one that highlights the importance of context. Me being a girl and rather acutely aware of the curses of patriarchy from a young age, I have thought up several societies that are either gender-equal or matriarchal (most of these societies are not human). How would that change the balance? If the hypothesis that male-dominated music has something to do with sexual selection is correct, should we see pretty much equal participation in cultures where both men and women are promiscuous and participate in literal mating displays? (Playing with sexuality in a fantasy world is even more fun than playing with religion! Also, an evolutionary biology degree can give you some really funky worldbuilding ideas…)

(Incidentally, Savage et al. draw a parallel between male-dominated music in humans and male-dominated vocalisations in, among other groups, songbirds. I find it curious that they didn’t mention a recent study that suggested that actually, females probably also sang in the ancestral songbird, and pointed out that this state of affairs is still the norm rather than the exception when you look at the whole group [Odom et al., 2014].)

Religions evolving

Today, I found a paper introducing a really shiny new database in PLoS ONE (which is why I decided to ramble about worldbuilding). “Pulotu” (Watts et al., 2015a) is a free database of supernatural beliefs and practices from 100+ Austronesian cultures, designed to study the cultural evolution of religion. Austronesian peoples originated from Taiwan many thousands of years ago. Today, they inhabit a huge area including Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, zillions of Pacific islands (Polynesians!) and Madagascar. They are a very diverse bunch in every respect, and their family tree is pretty well understood from linguistics and genetics. A decent database of those diverse cultural traits combined with the understanding of history is truly an amazing resource for those interested in how said cultural traits evolve. (Seriously, this thing looks like a goddamned gold mine.)

The authors have clearly done thorough work, using multiple sources, ethnographies written by scholars who actually met the people in question where possible, to characterise each culture. The database has three separate time focuses to distinguish the “pristine” state of a culture from what happened after contact with major religions like Hinduism or Christianity. They recorded both characteristics of religion like the types of supernatural beings worshipped and the types of rituals practiced, and characteristics of the societies themselves such as how they get most of their food, and how many layers of political hierarchy they have. You can visualise these features on a map with a couple of clicks, so you can immediately see if they are randomly distributed or found in particular places.

So what can you learn about cultural evolution from this treasure trove? One example the paper gives concerns something I came across years ago when I was researching theories about the evolution of religion for an undergrad assignment. The idea is that fear of supernatural punishment, particularly the belief in “high gods” who punish immoral acts, fosters cooperation and promotes the formation of large and politically complex societies. The supernatural punishment hypothesis has been around for a while, but I think I first encountered it in Johnson (2005).

Johnson tried to test the idea by looking at correlations between belief in moralising high gods and various proxies of cooperation (e.g. size of the society, presence of money lending, centralised authorities) in a cross-cultural sample. However, correlation does not equal causation, so that kind of study leaves it unclear whether moralising gods lead to complex societies or the other way round. However, with a solid family tree of cultures, you can add a historical dimension to a cross-cultural comparison, which allows you to infer causality.

When the Pulotu authors did this (Watts et al., 2015b), they found that Johnson probably got his causal arrow pointing the wrong way. If moralising gods do indeed lead to complex societies, then societies with moralising gods should increase in complexity more often than societies without. What actually seems to be happening in Austronesia is that complex societies came first, and they were more likely to develop beliefs in moralising gods. Nonetheless, a more general version of the supernatural punishment hypothesis, in which agents that aren’t high gods (e.g. karma, ancestors) may do the punishing, is supported by the analysis.

That’s mostly irrelevant for worldbuilding, where the correlation alone is enough to work out what’s “realistic”, but I also find the science fascinating in its own right. And while I’ve not tried downloading the Pulotu dataset (as I said, I only found out about it today, and I’ve been writing this post since), from a brief look it’s a handy text file that appears to be useable by anyone who knows the first thing about spreadsheets. I might have to go and play with it. Just have to think of some interesting questions…

So, now you know. I’m a hopeless geek even when I’m not officially being a scientist. (Does this surprise anyone?)


*If I had unlimited money, I’d probably spend my entire life at university…


Johnson DDP (2005) God’s punishment and public goods. A test of the supernatural punishment hypothesis in 186 world cultures. Human Nature 16:410-446

Odom KJ et al. (2014) Female song is widespread and ancestral in songbirds. Nature Communications 5:3379

Savage PE et al. (2015) Statistical universals reveal the structures and functions of human music. PNAS 112:8987-8992

Watts J et al. (2015a) Pulotu: database of Austronesian supernatural beliefs and practices. PLoS ONE 10:e0136783

Watts J et al. (2015b) Broad supernatural punishment but not moralizing high gods precede the evolution of political complexity in Austronesia. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 282:20142556

A bit of Hox gene nostalgia

I had the most random epiphany over my morning tea today. I don’t even know what got me thinking about the Cambrian explosion (as if I needed a reason…). Might have been remembering something from the Euro Evo Devo conference I recently went to. (I kind of wanted to post about that, because I saw some awesome things, but too much effort. My brain isn’t very cooperative these days.)


I was thinking about explanations of the Cambrian explosion and remembering how the relevant chapter in The Book of Life (otherwise known as the book that made me an evolutionary biologist)  tried to make it all about Hox genes. It’s an incredibly simplistic idea, and almost certainly wrong given what we now know about the history of Hox genes (and animals)*. At the time, and for a long time afterwards, I really wanted it to be true because it appeals to my particular biases. But I digress.

Then it dawned on me just how new and shiny Hox genes were when this book was written. I thought, holy shit, TBoL is old. And how far evo-devo as a field has come since!

The Book of Life was first published in 1993. That is less than a decade after the discovery of the homeobox in fruit fly genes that controlled the identity of segments (McGinnis et al., 1984; Scott and Weiner, 1984), and the finding that homeoboxes were shared by very distantly related animals (Carrasco et al., 1984). It was only four years after the recognition that fly and vertebrate Hox genes are activated in the same order along the body axis (Graham et al., 1989; Duboule and Dollé, 1989).

This was a HUGE discovery. Nowadays, we’re used to the idea that many if not most of the genes and gene networks animals use to direct embryonic development are very ancient, but before the discovery of Hox genes and their clusters and their neatly ordered expression patterns, this was not at all obvious. What were the implications of these amazing, deep connections for the evolution of animal form? It’s not surprising that Hox genes would be co-opted to explain animal evolution’s greatest mysteries.

It also occurred to me that 1993 is the year of the zootype paper (Slack et al., 1993). Slack et al. reads like a first peek into a brave new world with limitless possibilities. They first note the similarity of Hox gene expression throughout much of the animal kingdom, then propose that this expression pattern (their “zootype”) should be the definition of an animal. After that, they speculate that just as the pattern of Hox genes could define animals, the patterns of genes controlled by Hoxes could define subgroups within animals. Imagine, they say, if we could solve all those tough questions in animal phylogeny by looking at gene expression.

As always, things turned out More Complicated, what with broken and lost Hox clusters and all the other weird shit developmental “master” genes get up to… but it was nice to look back at the bright and simple childhood of my field.

(And my bright and simple childhood. I read The Book of Life in 1998 or 1999, not entirely sure, and in between Backstreet Boys fandom, exchanging several bookfuls of letters with my BFF and making heart-shaped eyes at long-haired guitar-playing teenage boys, I somehow found true, eternal, nerdy love. *nostalgic sigh*)


*Caveat: it’s been years since I last re-read the book, and my copy is currently about 2500 km from me, so the discussion of the Cambrian explosion might be more nuanced than I remember. Also, my copy is the second edition, so I’m only assuming that the Hox gene thing is there in the original.



Carrasco AE et al. (1984) Cloning of an X. laevis gene expressed during early embryogenesis coding for a peptide region homologous to Drosophila homeotic genes. Cell 37:409-414

Duboule D & Dollé P (1989) The structural and functional organization of the murine HOX gene family resembles that of Drosophila homeotic genes. The EMBO Journal 8:1497-1505

Graham A et al. (1989) The murine and Drosophila homeobox gene complexes have common features of organization and expression. Cell 57:367-378

McGinnis W et al. (1984) A conserved DNA sequence in homoeotic genes of the Drosophila Antennapedia and bithorax complexes. Nature 308:428-433

Scott MP & Weiner AJ (1984) Structural relationships among genes that control development: sequence homology between the Antennapedia, Ultrabithorax, and fushi tarazu loci of Drosophila. PNAS 81:4115-4119

Slack JMW et al. (1993) The zootype and the phylotypic stage. Nature 361:490-492

Random of the day

Because productivity is too much effort. In my defence, it was paper writing-related curiosity that led me to Wikipedia, where I found this electron microscope image of a broken piece of mother of pearl/nacre by Fabian Heinemann. (In case you wondered, I wanted to check roughly how big nacre tablets were. And no, Wikipedia is not my only source for this ;)) So: this is what mother of pearl looks like when you zoom in a few thousand times.

Nacre is made of little tablets of aragonite stacked on top of one another and separated by sheets of organic matter. The way the tablets scatter light is what gives pearls their pretty, pretty shine.

(I have a thing for electron micrographs of biominerals. Actually, I’m a big fan of close-up images of pretty much anything. It’s like looking into the secret heart of things.)

Odd wording of the day

I’m evidently too preoccupied to come up with a proper post (*grumblegrumblepapersgrumblewhine*), but that doesn’t mean I can’t share my random amusements and bemusements. This one is courtesy of a paper I (as usual) found while looking for something else:

lophotrochozoans, the third large group of protostomes next to arthropods and nematodes

Which is, to my mind, an odd characterisation of lophotrochozoans to say the least. Arthropods and nematodes are important, make no mistake. The former has more species than every other phylum of animals combined, for starters. But dividing protostome animals into arthropods, nematodes “and the rest” is a slightly weird way of doing things.

For one thing, it’s not the convention of the field – generally, we talk about two large groups of protostomes, arthropods and nematodes being in one of them. For another, “lophotrochozoans” are an awful lot of different things. Molluscs, flatworms, annelid worms, worms of many other kinds, brachiopods… they’re all there. It seems unfair to spotlight arthropods and nematodes and then lump all the rest of protostome diversity into this huge mass with an unpronounceable name. (Disclaimer: I might be somewhat biased in favour of lophotrochozoans ;))

It’s also a weird choice because the authors, at least the ones I know something about or could be bothered to look up, aren’t arthropod or nematode specialists. Quite the contrary. Maja Adamska I know for her sponge stuff, and Florian Raible has been involved with everything from zebrafish to ragworms (and yes, occasionally arthropods). Harald Hausen’s publication record is teeming with annelids.

I kind of want to know what went on in the mind of whoever came up with the final version of that abstract.

Also, damn, I now have another paper to read. This one is even vaguely work-related.

(I can’t promise I’ll be back with more substance any time soon. This PhD thing is currently doing an impressive job of destroying my mental health. Only a few months to go…)

In which fangirling turns into philosophy

Textbooks may portray science as a codification of facts, but it is really a disciplined way of asking about the unknown. — Andrew Knoll, Life on a Young Planet

Some books change your life. When I was 12 or 13 or thereabouts, SJ Gould and others’ Book of Life rekindled my interest in prehistoric life, introduced me to the Cambrian explosion, and opened my eyes to a whole new worldview. It’s one of the reasons I hold a degree in evolutionary biology.

Life on a Young Planet was not a life-changer, precisely. That’s not why I love it to pieces. By the time I read it, I’d gained an appreciation of just how complex and full of uncertainty natural science was, and the book was permeated by an awareness of this complexity. Also, it was simply beautiful writing.

(I can’t emphasise the importance of good writing enough. I’ve read too many papers and books [Crucible of Creation and The Plausibility of Life, I’m looking at you] that had good information but were so atrociously written that I nearly put them down despite being fascinated by their subject.)

Last month, the author of Life on a Young Planet, Harvard professor Andy Knoll, came to visit my university. I was practically bouncing with excitement from the moment I saw his name on a newsletter. He gave four lectures in total; until the very last one, I actually contemplated getting my copy of the book signed. Or, to be a fangirl and a nerd, my printout of his lovely biomineralisation review. (I still can’t decide if I made a mistake. Damn, I didn’t even ask a stupid question. Four lectures, and I just sat there and drooled over my notebook.)

Knoll is nearly as good a speaker as he is a writer. He doesn’t have the liveliest voice and speaks quite slowly, but if you can get past that, his lectures are really good. (I’m glad of that; I really don’t like losing my illusions!) They are solid structures that you have no difficulty following the logic of.

Let me put it this way – Andy Knoll is an excellent storyteller.

That got me worrying, because I’m a sceptic and (truth be told) a little bit of a cynic at heart, and because over the years I’ve done a lot of navel-gazing about belief and knowledge and conviction. I have a tendency to grow suspicious when I feel too certain about something.

Am I – are we – too often blinded by good storytelling? How often do we get so enamoured of good ideas that we try to force them on situations they don’t fit? And how often do we doubt something just because it sounds too neat?

Here’s the specific example from the Knoll lectures that made me think of this. Knoll is a champion of the oxygen + predation explanation of the Cambrian explosion. (I didn’t realise he was involved in that paper until it came up in the lectures…) He is also an advocate of a similar explanation for the diversification of single-celled eukaryotes 250 million years before the Cambrian. He convinced me well enough, but then I immediately thought – really? Is it really that simple? Does one size really fit both events?

I often take note of these “pet ideas” as I read scientific literature. A group of phylogeneticists uses microRNAs to tackle every tough problem ever. A palaeontologist interprets every squishy-looking Cambrian weirdo as a mollusc. Researchers in the biomineral field look for slushy amorphous precursors to crystalline hard parts everywhere. (Remember, all generalisations are false ;))

Just to be clear: I’m not at all saying that being a “pet idea” automatically makes something wrong or suspicious. For instance, the hunters of amorphous biominerals have some good theoretical reasons to look, and they often do find what they’re looking for. Likewise, I’m impressed enough with Andy Knoll’s pet hypothesis about the Cambrian that I’ve rethought my own pet ideas about the subject.

I’m also not accusing these people of being closed-minded. Going back to Knoll, IMO he demonstrated ample healthy scepticism about his pets during his post-lecture Q&A sessions. (Which makes me a bit less nervous about the neatness of his stories.)

Someone better versed in the philosophy and sociology of science could probably write a long treatise involving paradigms and confirmation bias and contrariness here. I’m even less of a philosopher than I am a geologist, so I think I’ll leave the deeper insights to those who have them.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to be a fan of Andy Knoll and appreciate a good scientific story. So long as I remember to look beneath the surface – both of good stories and of my own suspicion of them…


Endearing optimism

Scientific American online made me smile today. I get the newsletter; I don’t usually read it, because the SciAm website ranks somewhere between Cracked and TVTropes on the scale of time sinks. I hardly need another chance to procrastinate. Anyway, for some reason I did open several articles this morning. One of them was headlined “Earth’s Days Are Numbered,” and of course I clicked the link for the opportunity to grump, because I was pretty darn sure that the title was pure sensationalism and I’m mean like that.

I was right. Right after the headline, the article (which they borrowed from Nature) warns us of the impending catastrophe thus: “Researchers calculate that the planet will leave the sun’s “habitable” zone in about 1.75 billion years.”

Yeah. Should I laugh or should I cry? (I have to say I laughed. I must be in an uncharacteristically charitable mood today.)

But then I read the whole thing, because my officemate started wondering what would kill poor earth in 1.75 billion years, and that made me wonder. Was it orbital instability, or was it just grumpy old Sol getting hotter and roasting us? (To spare you the suspense: it was the sun.)

The article closes with a quote from one of the folks who did the maths. A really sweet, naive, optimistic quote. A quote that makes you think this guy would never ever write dystopian sci-fi. Here’s the last paragraph and the quote:

Just as the sun brightens and the Earth becomes too hot for life, Mars will be entering the habitable zone. “If humans are going to be around in a billion years, I would certainly imagine that they would be living on Mars,” Claire says.

I… just… awwww!

Maybe I’m a cynic. (No, scratch that “maybe”.) But I’m also an evolutionary biologist and have more than a passing familiarity with the history of life. If you show me a species of animal that survived even for a hundred million years, never mind a mammal that lasted a billion, I’ll be impressed*.

(Of course, there could be a chance that the human lineage draws the jackpot and survives. Technically, cladistically speaking, maybe, all of our descendants should be called humans. “Human” is a colloquial term, not a clade name, but let’s forget that for a moment. Even so, I’ll bet you my beloved hat that whatever’s left of us in a billion years would only be “human” in technicality.)

Even though I should probably rage at the way these guys make it sound like humans being around in a billion years is a plausible idea, it only kindles a strange fuzzy kind of warmth around my shrivelled little heart. There go my principles… 😉


*No, “living fossils” don’t last billions of years. Don’t get me started on living fossils.

Fanworm fandom

In all my meanderings so far, I have never talked about my work in more than vague references to my connection to biominerals. Well, today won’t be the day I really start, but I would like to introduce the animals I work with. Because they are beautiful, awesome, and I love them (except when they’re sabotaging my experiments :-P). They are fan worms.

“Fan worm” is a bit of a loose term, and I’m still not entirely sure what group of worms it is/isn’t supposed to apply to. The group of fan worms I’d like to talk about today is family Serpulidae. (Call them “serps”. They won’t mind.)

Serpulidae are, if the latest phylogenetic research is to be believed, a subgroup of another “family”, the Sabellidae or feather duster worms (Kupriyanova and Rouse, 2008). All sabellids are sedentary filter-feeders. They live in tubes, putting a feathery crown of tentacles out into the water to catch their microscopic food. This is the fan in fan worm, and it’s all that most people ever see of these gorgeous creatures. It’s also today’s excuse to post some Nick Hobgood Christmas tree worms from Wikipedia, although their crazy spiralling tentacle crowns are not all that fan-like. (Bottle brush worms? :D)

These guys in the photo are mostly buried in a coral colony, with only their tentacle crowns sticking out.

Ancestrally, sabellid tubes are made of hard particles like sand and shell fragments glued together with mucus secreted by the worm. Serpulids are special in that they make their own hard material – calcium carbonate – instead of picking stuff up from the environment.

Serpulid tubes can have a highly organised structure that betrays sophisticated tube-building mechanisms (Vinn et al., 2008). Incidentally, some of them are pretty awesome if you look close enough. Below are the rather bland-looking tubes of Ditrupa arietina lying on the seafloor (from ten Hove and Kupriyanova [2009]). Then an electron microscope image of the outer tube layer showing the cool jigsaw-like cross sections of the calcareous rods it’s made of (Olev Vinn via Wiki Commons).


The general anatomy of the animal inside the tube is demonstrated quite nicely in the photograph below, from ten Hove and Kupriyanova (2009):


This is Serpula vermicularis, the species that gave its name to the family. The head end, obviously, is the one with the tentacles. Below it is a rather elegant thorax wearing a jacket of skin flaps (technically, “thoracic membranes”), with a wide collar folding down over the top. The collar builds the tube: when the worm wants to expand its home, it pokes its head out, wraps its collar over the rim, and deposits a new layer of material from glands under the collar.

The weird funnel-shaped thingy sticking out Serpula‘s head above is called an operculum. It’s another speciality of (most) serpulids, functioning in defence against predators. It’s used to close off the tube, but – at least in my species – it’s also a sacrifice body part that pops off at a predetermined point if you tug or prod it too hard. A bit like a lizard’s tail. (Or a sea cucumber’s guts, because gross examples are always better.) Also like the lizard’s tail, the operculum regrows easily, but unlike lizards, serps can regenerate a perfect new operculum. Some serps, including mine, have upgraded their defences further by reinforcing the operculum with calcium carbonate. A calcified body part that you can make develop on demand. What more can you dream of? 😉

Serpulids are found all over the world. Most of the 300+ species live in the sea, all the way from tidal rock pools to deep sea vents. There are a few that can handle brackish water, and there’s a single species that somehow found its way into freshwater-filled limestone caves along the Adriatic coast. According to Kupriyanova et al. (2009), this little explorer is closely related to the brackish-water species, so serps probably only figured out how to deal with lower salinity once.

They are nowhere near as famous as corals, but a few serpulid species are prolific reef builders. Ficopomatus enigmaticus (one of the brackish serps) can grow in roundish reefs made of generations of worm tubes. Although the individual tubes are only a few cm long, reefs can reach several metres across.

F. enigmaticus is an invasive species. Hitchhiking from their European homeland on boats and spawning wherever they felt happy enough, the worms have spread across the warm, shallow, brackish waters of the world. Below, their reefs are shown polka dotting the Mar Chiquita lagoon over in Argentina (photos: Alejandro Bortolus, in Schwindt et al. [2001]). Note the scale bar!


F. enigmaticus reefs have a pretty big ecological impact in their new territory. Their filter-feeding makes the water less murky (Bruschetti et al., 2008), which is good for the seafloor community, not so great for the phytoplankton that caused the murkiness. The reefs provide hiding places for native predators, changing the composition of the seafloor community (Schwindt et al., 2001), and they can also serve as resting stops and hunting grounds for birds (Bruschetti et al., 2009).

And finally, let’s talk a bit about serpulid babies, because baby worms are the best. I don’t know about other serps, but my species has very stylish BABY PINK EGGS. The moment you remove an adult worm from its tube, it panic-spawns all over the place. If you mix the pink eggs with the boring white sperm in some seawater, by the next day the dish will be full of tiny, zipping white balls. (At this point you’d better feed them, since unlike some other baby polychaetes, they don’t get a lot of food from mum. In nature, they’d swim off and live in the plankton, hunting tiny algae until they are ready to settle.)

In another day or two, the little balls grow quite a bit and turn into textbook examples of the type of larva known as the trochophore. If you’re good to them and give them enough food, they’ll keep growing like crazy. You can always see whether they’re hungry or not, since they are transparent and the colourful algae they like to eat show through their skin. This one, from McDougall et al. (2006) via Wiki Commons, was clearly well-fed when it fell victim to science:

They look all hairy around the broadest part – those are the cilia they use to swim. They are very good at swimming! Within a couple of weeks, they’ve transformed into a more mature form with three newfangled segments and a lovely pair of eyes, like this other one from the same paper:

They are now sniffing along the bottom, looking for a place to settle. When they find a spot they like, they lie down, secrete a tiny tube (made of just mucus at first), and metamorphose into transparent baby worms complete with an operculum and everything. This is what Pomatoceros lamarckii looks like mid-metamorphosis (again from McDougall et al.):


At this point, they are a bit ugly, but don’t worry, the ugly wormling stage doesn’t last long. I’ll finish off with one of my own photos what they turn into:


These are slightly over three weeks old, and they have tiny, iridescent tentacles and minute, transparent opercula. Their now-calcified baby tubes are just a few mm long.

Aren’t they lovely? 😀



Bruschetti M et al. (2008) Grazing effect of the invasive reef-forming polychaete Ficopomatus enigmaticus (Fauvel) on phytoplankton biomass in a SW Atlantic coastal lagoon. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 354:212-219

Bruschetti M et al. (2009) An invasive intertidal reef-forming polychaete affect habitat use and feeding behavior of migratory and locals birds in a SW Atlantic coastal lagoon. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology 375:76-83

Kupriyanova EK & Rouse GW (2008) Yet another example of paraphyly in Annelida: molecular evidence that Sabellidae contains Serpulidae. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 46:1174-1181

Kupriyanova EK et al. (2009) Evolution of the unique freshwater cave-dwelling tube worm Marifugia cavatica (Annelida: Serpulidae). Systematics and Biodiversity 7:389-401

McDougall C et al. (2006) The development of the larval nervous system, musculature and ciliary bands of Pomatoceros lamarckii (Annelida): heterochrony in polychaetes. Frontiers in Zoology 3:16

Schwindt E et al. (2001) Invasion of a reef-builder polychaete: direct and indirect impacts on the native benthic community structure. Biological Invasions 3:137-149

ten Hove HA & Kupriyanova EK (2009) Taxonomy of Serpulidae (Annelida, Polychaeta): The state of affairs. Zootaxa 2036:1-126

Vinn O et al. (2008) Ultrastructure and mineral composition of serpulid tubes (Polychaeta, Annelida). Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 154:633-650

Superfood shelf. Just-fucking-what.

After feeding every stupid health scare ever with its “free from” labels, Tesco has reached a new low. Or maybe it reached it long ago and my brain just refused to see it.

The damn place has a SUPERFOOD SHELF now. Because salad can’t just be healthy, it has to be SUPER healthy.



I have to go and do some real science now.

The post-eating monster

This is the second time I wrote an entry, pressed publish, and ended up publishing a completely empty post. Why is this thing eating my carefully written blathers?

At least last time I had a saved version I could start again from. This one just disappeared into the aether.

I am sad and pissed and all kinds of grumpy now. Probably not a good time to ask tech support about the problem.

I might be back once I stopped screaming obscenities inside my head.

In which I *don’t* blame journalists

Given the existence of this blog, you might have guessed that I’m interested in communicating science to a wider audience. Recently (well, in November) I went to one of Sense About Science‘s media workshops to learn more about science communication – specifically, about the representation of science in the media and issues surrounding same. When I’d digested the experience, I had some thoughts. Then I committed them to writing. Then the writing sat in a folder on my desk for half a year. I think it might just be time to publish it 😛

(Although this should go without saying, I don’t speak for all scientists. I have a personality and I have experiences, and both of those may distort my perspective. Read the following as my personal opinion.)


Once upon a time, I was a regular reader of ScienceDaily. It’s one of those places where science news gather, and I was interested in science news. I’d never been a big reader of other news, so it suited me perfectly.

Except I’m a pedantic nerd, and reading press releases can be… trying for my kind. I eventually got to the point of asking my supervisor how much scientists had to do with press releases of their papers, because so many of the ones I’d read on SD seemed to have been written by people who either wanted to blow everything out of proportion or simply had no clue.

The boss answered that the researchers would provide source material, but the press office write the actual release, and poor scientists can’t do a whole lot about its final incarnation. He made no secret of his dismissal of the press office, and opinionated little crusader that I am, I felt vindicated.

For a good long while, then, I felt completely justified in griping about journalists. They were, after all, churning out overblown claims and garbling perfectly good science to turn it into news. Was it a wonder, then, that so many people were becoming jaded and mistrustful of science? If you read articles touting miracle cures for cancer and marvelling at the biggest, oldest, most awesomest something ever, if every week decades-old paradigms seem to be turning on their heads, it isn’t at all surprising that you’d end up as some of my online discussion partners did. I saw these people, dismissive of science, firmly convinced that since science changes like the wind, it isn’t worth believing. Today’s knowledge will just become tomorrow’s outdated theory anyway. It infuriated me.

Sometimes, the scientists themselves seemed to be part of the problem. Remember “Ida,” the beautiful Eocene primate fossil? The sensational claims of her being a “missing link” in our own ancestry came from her describers, not their press offices. Likewise, the press release in which palaeontologist John Ruben was quoted as saying (to any vaguely well-informed dinosaur nerd) hugely outlandish things that weren’t even implied, never mind discussed or demonstrated, in the corresponding paper (Quick and Ruben, 2009), could hardly have been all the journalists’ fault.

I was (and still am) angry at such scientists. In my perception, we were at war with anti-science sentiments, and they were playing into the enemy’s hand. Still, it appeared, most of the problem was journalism. Well, this media workshop provided me with a few reality checks. It changed my perspective in some ways, and reinforced my convictions in others. Let me count the ways.

The opening panel in the workshop featured scientists. My first surprise was learning that one of them had absolutely no issue with journalists. He loved making headlines, even if said headlines would make my hair stand on end. He’d found that journalists were generally decent people who want to Get It Right as much as you do.

Then, of course, we got the journalists’ perspective. Their insane work schedules, their pressure to sell stories, their attempt to do so while still retaining accuracy. All in all, they did seem like decent people who wanted to get it right.

But here’s the first problem: given the demands of the job, that can be very difficult to achieve. If, as one of them explained, you might have to report on something even before you’ve had time to actually read the sources, you can very easily make mistakes with the best of intentions.

This is a problem we can help journalists with. Make sure the press office has clear and accurate information so the press release isn’t complete nonsense. When you write a paper, make sure your key points are made clearly and concisely right in the abstract, not in a long and complicated paragraph on page fifteen, where the people writing the news will never see it. If a journalist requests your help, be there to explain and clarify and provide non-wtf quotes. That’s one thing the panellists were very clear about: they need scientists’ cooperation, and they often need it at short notice.

The second problem, I think, is a more fundamental one: scientists and journalists mean something different by “getting it right”. (At least in my idealised world where all scientists think like me. :)) A journalist primarily wants to sell a story, where a scientist primarily wants to increase human knowledge. Of course, scientists also want to sell their stories – no one wants to publish papers that are never cited, and no one wants their career to wither without funding. The crucial difference is, I think, in what each group means by a good news story, and what compromises they are willing to make in order to write one.

For example. To me, direct fossil evidence of how an ancient fish reproduced (Long et al., 2009) is fascinating in itself. I was pretty miffed with the press release accompanying this publication, which turned a relatively mundane finding about the oldest evidence of live birth in vertebrates into a sensational story about the oldest evidence of sex in animals.

If it wasn’t a gigantic digression, I could rant long and hard about all the ways in which this press release mangles science to make it more newsworthy, but the real question is this: does it matter? (To people other than me, I mean.) Is this distortion of facts necessary or even beneficial for getting non-science junkies even a little bit interested? Must we, the scientists, lower our standards of rigour to engage the general public?

Here’s another one. In early 2009, New Scientist ran a controversial feature article about the limitations of the tree of life concept. This article included a discussion of marine ecologist Donald Williamson’s unorthodox hypothesis that the larvae of many animals – which often look very different from their adults and discard most of their baby bodies during metamorphosis – originated from ancient hybridisation events between distantly related critters.

To most people knowledgeable about evolution, genomics or developmental biology, his claims don’t stand up to scrutiny. In our eyes, Williamson is promoting a very implausible hypothesis on weak and superficial evidence. I would only ever bring up his ideas as an example of a “loony theory,” most likely wrong but perhaps interesting from a sociological point of view. But here is a high-profile science magazine, presenting it as an exciting, “different,” and above all, credible alternative to the mainstream view(s) of animal evolution. (In the section on Williamson’s hypothesis, there is no indication of how “fringe” this idea is considered in the scientific community.) The writers at New Scientist were interested in cool stories, and not necessarily in critically examining them.

I see these issues as a fundamental difference between the two professions. I think it’s very difficult to reconcile our demand for accuracy and sound evidence with the journalist’s job. Unlike some audience members at the workshop, I don’t think a formal education in science is necessary to be a good science journalist. Like anything else, a “feel” for science can be picked up by being exposed to lots of it, and scientists are (or should be) there to help out with unfamiliar issues.

However, I do think that we as scientists can’t expect journalists to tell the stories we want them to tell. We can’t expect them not to “dumb things down”, we can’t expect them to respect technical distinctions they don’t see the importance of, and we can’t expect them not to sensationalise a discovery whose true importance is subtle and requires a lot of background knowledge and perhaps a good deal of pre-existing science nerdery to appreciate.

And who knows, maybe the masses reached by sensational news stories are worth a few disillusionments. The angry are always the loudest, and they may not be the majority. I don’t know. But if you are dissatisfied with the way science is represented in the media, griping about journalists to your colleagues isn’t going to solve the problem. This is the age of communication. Anyone can talk to the public. So if you want to change what they hear, why would you wait for others to say the things you want said? Go forth, scientist, and make your voice heard!



Quick DE & Ruben JA (2009) Cardio-pulmonary anatomy in theropod dinosaurs: Implications from extant archosaurs. Journal of Morphology 270:1232-1246

Long JA et al. (2009) Devonian arthrodire embryos and the origin of internal fertilization in vertebrates. Nature 457:1124-1127