Lots of reviewing and such

Hi --- sorry I haven't had much time to post. I totally overcommitted on some reviewing and proposal writing. Then I got one of my journal articles and one of my proposals back needing revising. Also, I gave a talk in Bern (which is quite beautiful) and learned about some new research that makes one of the grants I'd been trying to put together a lot simpler. So I dropped everything for a couple days & checked that out.

Will is here and it is very nice. We are not seeing each other much again; I was alone two weeks and will be again I think maybe for three, unless one of us breaks down & cancels some of the stuff we are meant to be doing this month. I think it should be Will since he gets more work done here than in Nottingham anyway, and so do I, but it is my turn to go there.

The talk in Bern went very well. It was an evolutionary biology department, so it seems I have learned how to address the weird questions on variation I was getting for a while. Bern also have a great system where they coerce their Masters students into asking questions by making their seminar series a mandatory unit which is only marked by each student handing in one page where they say what three questions they asked that term and explained & discussed the answers they got. But there were also professors there and I was able to answer all their questions too.

I can't remember if I blogged about the weird question I'd got at my first two biology invited talks before. I was demonstrating a model of how easy it is to evolve altruism, and I got this question "why is there any selfishness then." This is kind of like showing how useful walking is and then being asked why anything swims. This time I started out the talk (maybe the third slide) talking about fitness landscapes and how evolution is full of tradeoffs between conflicting pressures, and that these tradeoffs can produce ridges in the fitness landscape & you can expect to see various species at any location along that ridge. I am surprised by how many biologists are surprised by this. I think it is kind of basic, but it took me months to figure out that was the image they were lacking when they asked me the selfishness question.

I told you I have a great new collaborator in Bath that I'm looking forward to going back to work with, Nick Priest. I think we are going to be working a bunch on variation. Everyone is so obsessed with evolution being about selection, but they forget about the fact evolution also needs to maintain a population of options to select between. This can even be a kind of long-term species-level memory, so species can switch between phenotypes easily, though of course also there is innovation of new forms.

It is very fun to think about intelligence (or at least, intelligent behaviour) being learned across generations and species as well as within societies and within individuals.

Here is the other cool EuroTourist thing I saw this week (Will was there this time) -- we went to a Darwin Lecture in the main hall of the Rathaus (town hall.) There was a 3-day meeting for educating the public about evolution and celebrating Darwin. We only went to the opening talk which was about how much of the genome humans and Neanderthals share. Since the series was for ordinary people it was all in German, which is why I only went to one talk. Some of the people at the KLI were really mad because the organizers let the Cardinal of Vienna speak who is a creationist. It is hard because if you don't let him talk he says you are afraid, but you hate to validate him by letting him say he participates in scientific meetings. It's not really participating to say "I learned a lot here but I know due to faith you are just wrong." Given that two consecutive popes have said that Evolution is scientific fact and the pope is the ultimate authority in Catholicism I should think he should just be excommunicated. But obviously no religion -- or other organization -- would survive if they kicked out everyone who even partially dissented. It's a real sign of weakness to be afraid of subordinates who disagree with you.

Will and I are going to have tea with someone who used to do something concerning human rights for the UN and is now the director of the fundamental rights agency for the EU. Will met him in Nottingham through his colleagues in the human rights centre & it turns out he lives literally around the corner from us here, in the same block!