Monthly Archives: August 2011

The Nowak controversy resurfaces…

Over at Boing Boing, Maggie Koerth-Baker takes up the issue of eusociality in insects that Martin Nowak and E.O. Wilson (and Tarnita, though she doesn’t get much attention when this issue is raised – I wonder if that makes her happy or sad?) raised such a hullabaloo over last year.  If you’re new to the issue or just enjoy good science writing, it’s well worth reading all the way through.  My own perspective?  I’m with most of the field in thinking that Nowak et al. were out to lunch on the evidence for kin selection, and as to whether group selection is in operation … well, let’s just say that I found this talk very convincing (h/t for that to Jerry Coyne).

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The follies of “chiropractic”.

This is an easy post to write:  you should read this.  Go, now.  It’s good stuff, I promise.

Gay zebra finches, oh my. Oh, wait…

Taeniopygia guttata (Zebra finch)

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve seen this paper about strong homosexual pair bonding in zebra finches pop up in a couple of places around the web, but it only really caught my eye when I read Carin Bondar’s somewhat breathless report on the matter entitled “The astounding strength of homosexual bonds in Zebra Finches: Ladies need not apply…”.  In essence, the researchers discovered that when you manipulate the sex ratio of zebra finch groups to be male-biased, male pair bonds form that display all of the same behaviours that female-male pair bonds do, and that when females are later reintroduced to these homosexual pair bonds, the male pair-bonds don’t break up.

It’s an interesting paper, and the findings are, well, pretty cool.  But I have to disagree – respectfully – with Dr. Bondar’s assessment of the startling nature of these results.  First, given that zebra finches tend to mate for life anyways, the finding that male-male pair bonds are strong shouldn’t come as a surprise if you think mechanistically.  In fact, I think it would have been a lot more surprising if the male-male bonds had been of a different quality;  if you think through the evolutionary implications, having a different mechanism for male-male as opposed to male-female bonds would imply that selective pressures on these types of bonds was different for some reason, and would really beg the question of why.  Instead of a single ‘mating’ mechanism (a combination of hormones and neurobiology among other things, which I’ll touch on again in a moment), this ‘conditional’ pair bonding would require either a single mechanism with an unintended consequence, or two separate mechanisms, one for male-male bonds and one for male-female.  That’s not out of the question, certainly;  many potential explanations for same-sex sexual behaviour in animals imply such mechanisms.  But to me, having a life long pair bond with females and then an entirely separate short-term pair bonding mechanism for male-male interactions would need explanation.  Indeed, as Dr. Bondar’s own blog post notes, “homosexual couples both COURTED and COPULATED with each other”;  even if homosexual pairings are adaptive (as they might well be!), it seems odd to waste even a little energy on copulation and suggests a single mechanism or set of mechanisms at work.

Second, it was already established that there are both hormonal and social / developmental mechanisms affecting same-sex preferences in zebra finches;  in particular, Elizabeth Adkins-Regan did a lot of work from the late 90s onwards on both of these mechanisms (and her student, James Goodson, has done a lot of great follow-up work on mapping the endocrinology and neurobiology of social behaviour in estrildid finches).  The finding in the article by Elie et al. that biased sex ratios promote homosexual pair bonds is interesting, but I wonder how different it is from the social deprivation work by Adkins-Regan and her collaborators.

Don’t get me wrong:  this is a cool article.  It deserved to be published, and it seems to make a couple of important contributions- exploring and quantifying the strength of these bonds was a worthwhile task, and the evidence it provides for the “social partner hypothesis” is worth looking at.  But the media has, as per usual, gotten most of the story wrong here (for instance, the BBC Nature story made it sound like the paper was the first to establish same-sex bonds in zebra finches – <sigh>), and while I share Dr. Bondar’s interest in the results, I don’t think that they’re nearly as shocking as she does.

As a postscript to this:  at the end of her article, Dr. Bondar says:

 However, long term studies will shed light on whether males will seek out females for the sole purpose of genetic propagation outside of their homosexual partnerships.  For the sake of their evolutionary future I hope they do :)

I’m not aware of anyone having tested this specifically.  But it’s been known for a long time that zebra finches engage in a fair amount of extra-pair copulating (i.e. they’re socially monogamous, but not sexually monogamous), so I would expect that the males are stepping out to enhance their reproductive fitness.

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Why I’ve been silent…

Note:  This post explains what’s been going on around here for the past while, and provides reasons for the radio silence.  It contains personal details that may be of little interest to some readers, so be warned.

I haven’t been able to post here in a while, but there’s been a reason for the silence.  Partly it’s because I’ve been involved in the process of moving across the world to Sydney, Australia, where I’ve begun a postdoctoral position at the University of New South Wales.  Moving from Canada to Australia has been a great experience, and I love my new home, but it’s also a massive process which requires pretty much all of a person’s time.

I also recently defended my Ph.D., another process which took a lot of time and energy.  It was complicated by the fact that we had to leave Edmonton, fly to Toronto for a family event, I drove to Montréal to defend during said family event, and then we flew to Sydney from there.  Frankly, it was a hell of a week.

However, as important as all that has been, it’s not the only reason I’ve been quiet.

The biggest reason that I’ve been quiet is that the day I drove to Montréal to defend, I received word that a friend and fellow Ph.D. student, Matthew Ian Helgesen, died suddenly and without warning.  Since hearing of that, I wanted to write about it here to express my feelings;  I’ve also been blocked on writing anything else until I did that.  But it’s taken me a while to come to grips with it and be prepared to say anything.

I met Ian when I came back to Edmonton during my Ph.D. (to help my wife deal with her mother’s terminal illness).  He was a student in the lab where I did my M.Sc., and as the Psych department at the University of Alberta was kind enough to give me an office to work at while I was in Edmonton, I thought that I would spend time with my old lab and perhaps do some work with them.

Ian was there from the moment I wandered back into the old digs, and I felt an immediate kinship with him. He was a geek’s geek, the sort of person that I could turn to and make a joke about British sci-fi or statistics or computers and get a laugh.  He was doing research in areas similar to the work that I had been doing before I left that lab, and we ended up collaborating on a couple of projects that were just beginning to bear fruit when he died.  Looking back, I had been worried because he was having health problems that were interfering with the pace of work (they seemed non-threatening at the time, though it’s impossible to know;  I still don’t know what eventually led to his death), and a part of me worries that I didn’t pay enough attention or that I missed something I should seen.  I know that that’s not true, logically, but it’s an impossible thought to shake.

Ian’s death shocked a lot of people, friends and family both, coming at as young an age as it did.  I can’t help feeling that he never had the chance to reach his potential, scientifically;  I’m hoping to help his (and my old) supervisor publish the work that we were doing at the time, but I’m certain that there was more and greater things to come from him.

I never got the chance to know Ian as well as I would have liked.  In part it was a lack of time, in part it was because Ian was a deeply private sort of person.   Even despite that, though, he was a good friend and colleague, and he’ll be sorely missed.

With that said, my future plans include writing more on this blog, especially related to behavioural ecology;  for my postdoc I’ve joined a group which isn’t in this area, but it’s still a field of great interest to me that I hope to continue publishing in and this blog will be a good place to express those ideas and interests.  So I’ll see you all around the blogosphere!