Joanna loves science


I've had an amazing few weeks, because I've just been learning the coolest stuff. I don't know how much of it I can communicate to you quickly, and I do need to get going as I'm still not (never!) getting enough done.

I can't remember how much you know about the work that got me this fellowship, but it had to do with the evolution of culture, which is (among other things) an altruistic distribution of behavior. There are a lot of people who are skeptical that altruism can evolve, mostly because they haven't read past the cover of Richard Dawkin's "The Selfish Gene". The entire book is about why you get multi-gene organisms despite each gene being in the business of replicating itself.

So with respect to altruism, some people have focused on something called "reciprocation" whereby you are nice to someone who's been nice to you, but that's pretty complicated to keep track of & even bacteria show altruistic behavior (behavior that costs them but benefits others). The stuff I've done rests on something called "inclusive fitness" which basically means that since you are more likely to live near someone you are related to than not, you can just be nice to everyone around you.

So the first talk I saw that was amazing work on generalized reciprocity, which is kind of in between these two ideas. You are nicer when others have recently been nice to you. This is great, because it's obviously a more adaptive form of the basic inclusive fitness result -- how likely you are to be around other people who are altruistic (like you) can be measured by how nice people tend to be towards you. The work was done by Michael Taborsky & his colleagues in Bern. I got to talk to him afterwards and now I've been invited to speak in Bern in February! I'm very excited about going.

I was very impressed with how his lab works. He started getting this new idea so the first thing they did was model the idea in simulation to see if it really made sense. Then once they'd succeeded, they started looking for the behaviour, and found it right away (in wild rats! not monkeys or anything.) Now that they have real data, they are improving their model which is also their theory, just better specified. I think this is exactly how modelling should fit into science. I think every leading laboratory will be like this, not just in biology, but in the social sciences as well, including public policy. I've known a few other labs that incorporated modelling well, but not so completely. I'm very excited therefore both about the biology and about the methodology.

The next exciting thing was that I went to Bath to talk to two other lecturers [UK -- assistant professors US] in biology about writing a grant for my new PhD student, Marios Richards. It turns out that the newer of the two lecturers, Nick Priest, is doing a whole lot of stuff on understanding variation. OK, so back to the science again. If altruism is so easy to evolve, why isn't every action altruistic? This is kind of like asking why every animal isn't the same "optimal" species. A lot of people have treated variation in nature as "noise" -- accidents in reproduction, but there's a lot more to variation than that. Some variation is actually a set of solutions stored in the genome with different behavior expressed depending on the environment the individual develops in. Some variation may even be stored in ways that makes some kinds of changes easier or harder to evolve, reflecting what's worked well for species in the past.

Incidentally, Nick Priest is using fruit flies to study how mothers control variation in their offspring. (Obviously not intentionally!) What factors (environmental, life history) lead them to increase or decrease levels of recombination. This is amazing, and from an information perspective exactly like the question of how much information gets passed on as culture, so we have tons of questions in common, and complimentary sets of answers we've been working on, including about understanding aging. So we are very excited.

Incidentally, the most stupid thing Sarah Palin ever said was that it was a waste of money to have foreign graduate students working on fruit flies. Of course, she doesn't want to understand how life really works, she wants to make rules about how it should. That's the nature of all autocracies, they always attack science because it doesn't follow orders. But the countries that come to understandings about the real world have rather a big led in health, business and other kinds of well being. Incidentally, both of the scientists I was meeting with are Americans. One came to the UK several years ago to work on stem cells, Nick came this year because the good biology was going on here. That's what happens.

Not that I think migration is bad. For science, the worst thing is when people stay at the same universities their whole lives. They neither learn as much or disseminate as much as they would if they moved around. That's why sabbaticals are integral to research universities.

Well, as if that wasn't enough, I have also been to a meeting on social evolution at the Royal Society in London where I learned tons of amazing things. I learned that all the eusocial insects (the ones with huge hives / nests built by workers that never reproduce) descended from some of the few perfectly monogamous species there are. Though now their societies are so structured they can enforce altruistic behaviour even when they aren't perfectly monogamous but have multiple fathers or even queens kicking around. I learned about mammals that act this way too -- meercats. I got invited to go get involved with modelling by two very different and incredibly famous people I really admire. And I hope to, but I need to finish writing the grants I've already started with some other people.

Then I came back and this week I heard the most amazing talk about the evolution of the central nervous system. This is getting down to when the different cell types evolved, and how they came from wild single-cell organisms. I don't think I will ever be able to work on that stuff, it is too far away from what I do, but it was so cool to find out how things work! That talk was by a guy named Detlev Arendt, and the whole talk is basically in an article from last year in Nature Reviews Genetics, if you are curious you should go look in a library for it (page 868-882, issue number 11).

I hesitate to say this, but in the meantime I also gave talk to an AI Games meeting that was national (UK) and a Bath robotics meeting which was also very good -- there are some good roboticists in Bath, mostly in Mechanical Engineering. But what I'm hesitating to say was how much less exciting that was. But I'm good at it and trained in it, so I feel obliged to do it. I've submitted two articles so far this month, both to AI journals, although both on naturalistic intelligence. (Hopefully I'll get a biology article out this week...) I know I try to do too many things, and it's tempting to leave behind the stuff that's less thrilling. But I can't bring myself to do that, nor completely convince myself I should.

One thing about the science though is just that they have a higher standard of publication, they know better when they've likely made a contribution. I keep seeing AI chasing its own tail. And philosophy too. We had two philosophy talks at the KLI and they just seemed so much more pointless, though again in the absence of all the exciting other things I would have been more interested in them. I do enjoy philosophy; I submitted proofs on one article that was essentially philosophy just this last week --- philosophy & cognitive science. I think part of the problem was that for some reason KLI didn't get speakers in that were of the same international caliber as the University had gotten in for their Darwin lectures, which is ironic since the biology guys were from much closer by! But they were much better published. I'm not clear on why we didn't make the same effort to get well-established speakers in, but maybe I'm missing something.

OK, I need to get back to work. I'm trying to resubmit a biology article and write a new cognitive science article by the end of the week. I've also got a concert to attend tonight! Will is sadly not here this weekend -- we were together two weeks in a row this month so now we are apart two weeks, and then next month will be the same. I'm going to Prague Thursday to talk about AI as well. Hmmmm...
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