Tag Archives: evolution

Getting grumpy about PMS paper

On 11 August 2014, Michael R. Gillings published a paper in Evolutionary Applications entitled “Were there evolutionary advantages to premenstrual syndrome?” There is a strain of thinking that is common in the general public, but is also frequently found among academic researchers that I call adaptionism. This line of thinking assumes that, if a biological phenomenon exists, it must be there as the result of natural selection – i.e., be adaptive. This makes things like PMS seem like a great, evolutionary mystery to be “solved”.

Premenstrual syndrome (PMS) affects up to 80% of women, often leading to significant personal, social and economic costs. When apparently maladaptive states are widespread, they sometimes confer a hidden advantage, or did so in our evolutionary past. -from the abstract, Matthew R. Gillings (DOI: 10.1111/eva.12190)

I could spend pages on the problems with this approach to such a question. Fortunately for you and I, Kathryn Clancy, who is far more knowledgable on the relevant evolutionary anthropology than you and I, gutted this paper for The Daily Beast earlier this week:

…the fact that PMS is heritable and variable tells us nothing about whether women with PMS have more children than those who don’t, and this is the true test for adaptation. This crucial point—the third and most crucial condition for natural selection—is absent from the paper.
-Kathryn Clancy



Ow, My Head

Unlike the widespread reporting of the credulous media, the human skull is not specifically evolved to take a punch from other humans. Brian Switek explains the many problems with this hypothesis at National Geographic’s Phenomena. I admit that I thought, throughout my rugby career, that my head, and only my head, had evolved to be punched. It turns out that the way I played rugby had evolved to make people want to punch me in the head1. I was a particularly annoying person to play rugby against2.

Fortunately, human skulls are pretty robust in some key ways. It is just very unlikely that they got that way due to the evolutionary pressure of hominids punching each other in the noodle. One of the key problems with the punching hypothesis is that it is pure conjecture (and unreasonable conjecture, at that) without supporting experimental evidence. What would it take to really test the punching hypothesis?

WARNING: This post may contain a Game of Thrones spoiler “below the fold”. 

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I’ll Trade You an Evolutionary Theory for Your Creationism [Repost]

Originally posted on 31 December 2010, we thought this post was relevant to the social context of the Ham-Nye debate on evolution versus creationism, in particular the value of being “right” on the evidence.

Mixed emotions over PZ Myers’ condescending response to a 12-year-old child‘s email supporting creationism[1], reminded of a very interesting conversation I had with my father at a dinner this holiday season. Lemons and lemonade, people.

During our conversational meanderings, we touched on the debate between creationism[2] and evolution. We did not directly discuss the political/social issues surrounding the teaching of evolution in schools[3].  Rather, we discussed the difficulty of convincing individuals that evolution is right and creationism is wrong. Continue reading

Science Caturday: One Code, Two Code…

Like a DNA nucleotide, this LOLcat is capable of playing multiple roles. It is good for creation vs. evolution, and so much more. Global warming vs. something else? You are covered. Homeopathy vs. physics? Done. Duons vs. the genetic code? In the bag.

Duons vs. the genetic code? What is a duon?

Good question. A duon is a DNA nucleotide that can do two roles. This perhaps makes it a rather lame nucleotide. DNA nucleotides have a lot of potential tasks they can do (eg, help encode an amino acid, be part of a protein binding site, indicate a splice site, etc) as part of their role storing information in our cells. The idea that a nucleotide might be subject to evolutionary pressure from several different tasks simultaneously is nothing new.

There is, as Emily Willingham points out at Forbes, no real “duon” controversy outside the minds of the folks that wrote the press release (and, perhaps, John Stamatoyannopoulos, if the press release quote is accurate, which I suspect it might be based on his advocacy for the ENCODE Consortium’s “junk DNA is functional” boondoggle). These researchers have provided some evidence to support the hypothesis that evolutionarily conserved codon bias (using one codon, of the several possible for an amino acid, in the genetic code more than expected by chance) is due to selection to maintain transcription factor binding sites.

This is not an unreasonable hypothesis, but it is hardly shocking, hardly requires a new term, and is hardly a controversy.

Peer reviewers rejected Fisher’s paper that defined variance

The rejection of R.A. Fisher’s groundbreaking paper defining variance seems to be one of the bigger mistakes of peer review:

Fisher completed his paper on Mendelism and biometry by June 1916 and submitted the paper to the Royal Society of London for publication. The referees suggested it be withdrawn. He subsequently submitted the paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which with his financial assistance published it on 1 October 1918 under the title “The Correlation between Relatives on the Supposition of Mendelian Inheritance.”

- The Origins of Theoretical Population Genetics, William Provine (1971), p. 144

This paper has 2439 citations according to Google (which sounds extremely low), as well as its own Wikipedia page. I’d call that a success.

In addition to its importance in statistics, the paper was a key landmark in the synthesis of genetics, evolution, and biometry.