Cuckoo Logic: The Alien World of the Brood Parasite

The cuckoo is at the emotional heart of evolutionary biology. Whilst puzzles such as altruistic behaviour and the peacock’s tail can be solved by a tweaking of evolutionary theory and a realigning of our image of nature; the behaviour of the European cuckoo, Cuculus canorus, is different. The cuckoo’s behaviour cannot be dressed up with human ideals of the family and morality. In the figure of the brood parasite, we see the bones of natural selection lain bare, naked and unavoidable.

A cuckoo egg mimicking the two reed warbler eggs in a reed warbler nest

The behaviour of the female cuckoo contradicts cultural ideas about what parenting, particularly mothering, is. There is no concept of parental love for the cuckoo; the mother will slip into the nest of the selected host, pluck out a host’s egg, quickly deposit her own egg and leave. She pays no part in nurturing the offspring; she is the proverbial bad mother. But the more paternal aspect of parenting is also absent in cuckoos. Most human cultures value parents passing down the knowledge and values they accumulate in addition to their genetic material to their children. Familial traditions have no meaning for the cuckoo, for it receives nothing from it’s parents except their gametes and the home range they return to in the breeding season.

The cuckoo hatchling comes of age in an environment very different from our bustling human world. They are fed by their hosts, each subspecies or gentes of cuckoo is host species- specific, and are unlikely to see any other cuckoos before they fledge. Despite this, by adulthood they must have an idea that only European cuckoos, not the host species, are sexual partners. The cuckoo chick must on some level know that the creature caring for them is not ‘their kind’, one of the first things they must do is understand themselves as a stranger.

A cuckoo chick ejecting reed warbler eggs

When the cuckoo chick hatches, sightless in a nest full of host eggs, it behaves in a way chilling to see, a puppet governed by pure evolutionary logic. Like a murderous sleepwalker, the naked red cuckoo will hoist the hosts’ eggs (or hatchlings) into a hollow of its back, shuffle to the edge of the nest and discard the hosts’ progeny, to die outside the nest. This grisly scene is repeated until all rivals are gone. It is left lord of the nest, and can enjoy the food the hosts brings unhindered. We may recoil from the cuckoo chick and it’s “odious instinct”, horrified by a babe whose first action is sin. But this exemplifies the error of applying human morals to all animals indiscriminately. They were never innocent so cannot fall from grace – they just act out a strategy honed by their ancestors.

See a short, if sentimental, video of this here.

Illustration by Laura Cooper of a cuckoo chick being fed by a reed warbler host

What baffles most about the cuckoo’s world is the behaviour of the host. Here “host” refers to the parasitic relationship between the cuckoo who exploits the resources of the unrelated pair who raise it, just as I may be the host exploited by Plasmodium in malaria. But the case of the cuckoo suggests a different meaning of “host”. The host pair appear to welcome the cuckoo chick; they are passive as it ejects their offspring and feed it even as it grows to monstrous sizes. The sight of a reed warbler contorting itself to ram an insect down the throat of a cuckoo twice its size suggests a relationship that has passed hospitality and become subservient.

This can lead us to see the host as either foolish or manipulated by the Machiavellian chick. Both of these descriptions are partially true. But the host is only temporarily foolish. In evolutionary time the species will become wise and the cuckoo will lose the evolutionary arms race and move onto a naive host species. The blackbird still has vestiges of its victory over the cuckoos, its chicks will eject strange eggs from the nest though cuckoos must have long given up parasitising this species.

The cuckoo chick does manipulate – it’s calls mimic a whole brood of the hosts’ chicks to trick the hosts to give it enough food to fill several host chick bellies. But as Nick Davies in the book Cuckoo: cheating by nature suggests, manipulation by the chick is not the sole reason for hosts’ care. Davies reports that reed warbler parents will accept odd chicks of many other species, it is not due to the skills of the cuckoo. It is instead due to the breeding patterns of the host itself.

The reed warblers have evolved great skill at recognizing cuckoos attempting to parasitise nests and rejecting cuckoo eggs. This is because at this stage there is still a significant chance they can have another brood before they migrate. But once a given pair has had a cuckoo hatch in the nest, it is too late to have another brood before they migrate, and only a 50% chance of making it to the next breeding season. Therefore, the hosts carry on as if they had their own offspring, as they can do nothing now to increase their reproductive success.

It is likely that it would benefit the host pair to reject cuckoo chicks and save the energy spent caring for them on preparing for the next breeding season. But this strategy cannot evolve. The low probability that a cuckoo-rejecting pair will ever breed means that the genes associated with this behaviour can’t pass to the next generation and so meet an evolutionary dead end.

Instead of the foolishness or manipulation, what is really seen when the reed warbler feeds the stranger in its nest is something that exists because of an absence of positive or negative selection pressures, as selection cannot touch it. The reed warbler responds to the cuckoo chick by replicating the behaviour it uses to feed its offspring as no counter-strike against the cuckoo can be evolved.

Adult male cuckoo

The “Deep Otherness” of Plants: On Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl


I’ve spent much of the time since reading Hope Jahren’s memoir Lab Girl in November pressing the book into the palms of anyone whom asks for recommendations. This is not because it is something tritely described as a science book which non-scientists can enjoy, as if this means it has been specially dumbed down. This book is not concerned with explaining scientific concepts about how the world works, which won’t attract a person not interested in thinking in causal mechanisms. Jahren is not concerned with detailed explanations of her work, instead the book starts prior to this and explores what draws us to look at the world with a curious mind, a thing we all inevitably do whatever our day job. It is more impressionist than explanatory, with the tautness and rhythm of literature, dealing with what drives a particular sort of person cram themselves into small lightless rooms with big questions and anxious hearts.

Lab Girl is Jahren’s autobiography of becoming and painfully establishing herself as a scientist. She works at the intersections of many disciplines and  could be described as a plant geochemist, one of the few scientists who spend their time sifting and sorting data extracted from rock samples to constructing landscapes millions of years gone. I enjoyed this spotlight on an under-hyped branch of science whose way of looking at the living world we all should learn from. Jahren and her colleagues see with the panorama of the palaeontologist and the eye of the environmental scientist for the interplay of living and non-living and so understand the environment as ever shifting, the present world should not be taken for granted.

Jahren structures chapters about her life and work around short vignettes about how plants live. Though she writes of the “deep otherness” of plants, plant scientists do find that the organisms so often on their mind inevitably colours their experience of their own lives. The perils and the struggles of life as a plant mirrors Jahren’s as a scientist, a woman and a person with bipolar disorder. For instance, a chapter on the curious S-shaped growth curves of corn which suggests the traumatic process of making seed is followed by a chapter detailing Jahren’s pregnancy; the emotional turbulence of going off medication in the first two trimesters and in the final trimester being formally barred from her lab as a “liability”. This juxtaposition is more than metaphor. What Lab Girl does best is to convey what it is like to think like a scientist, to have your mind percolated by your subject matter and methods until you yourself become entwined within it.

This is not to say Lab Girl is a romantic account. There are numerous horror stories about funding struggles, scrabbling enough money to pay the salary of Bill, her career long collaborator who spent much of the early days sleeping in the lab or his car. Bill is Jahren’s colleague, but they act more like siblings than two professional.They spend blissful nights in the lab constructing experiments and defrosting hamburgers, pepped up on a steady stream of dark humour. Rather pleasingly, both Bill and the many Mass Spectrometers Jahren has had in her life appear far more frequently than her husband. But Jahren does not dismiss family life, a scene towards the end of the books sees her refer to the two halves of her heart, both full when she puts her son to bed and goes off to the lab to put the half given over to science to use. She doesn’t see either side of her life as detracting from the other, they are all components of what she is.

Jahren does not make her bipolar disorder explicit for the first part of the book, no doubt mirroring its emergence in her life,though this did mean it took me a while to realise that her long hours and nocturnal lab habits are not typical, and shouldn’t be purposefully emulated. I’m cautious around first person account of bipolar disorder as they can be interpreted as glamourising mania and making it desirable for people who don’t have bipolar, which it ultimately never is. Thankful, Jahren avoids this.

On the flip side, except for her pregnancy, her bipolar or the stigma associated with it does not seem to have subtracted from her career significantly. I suspect however that Jahren was of the first generation to do so in significant number, as they would be doubly perceived as irrational and unscientific for being mentally ill and women. Jahren discusses the sexism she has faced, and locates its burden to the “the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be who you are”, the knee-jerk assumption of what a scientist can be which affects more or less all but the white European, wealthy middle-aged able-bodied man.

Whilst the title suggests the book’s subject is the “girl”, I think Jahren intended the stress to be on the “lab” in which the girl happens to be in. Jahren grew up in her father’s lab, and sees the labs she has built over the world as her home, a refuge from the outside world where she can be herself. The book is a love letter to the physical and mental space to think, play and discover that a lab of one’s own brings to the female scientist in particular.

Lab Girl is not a The Double Helix style account of one extraordinary discovery, Jahren sees science as work and herself as “like an ant, driven to find and carry single dead needles [..] and then add them one by one to a pile so massive that I can only fully imagine one small corner of it”. Whilst a science appears to be progressing in leaps and bounds from the outside, as seen from the individual point of view science stagnant with your budget or regresses as your work is made irrelevant.Whiggish narratives are irrelevant or dangerous on a day to day basis, so Jahren explores the pleasure of her work itself; to try to understand the logic of plants, from the inside. But the moments of discovery are beautiful when they happen, such as the blissful moment when Jahren is standing in the lab in the sunrise thinking herself the only one in the world with a newly discovered gem of knowledge, making her “unique existentially”.

As a young woman with designs on making a (increasingly circuitous) route into research science, I have absorb Lab Girl not as a manual for being a scientist, but rather as a suggestion of a way of being as a scientist, a path already flattening down the grass. A path which shows the principle is possible, but does not dictate the route. But it is more important to me as a showing how a life scientist can draw upon their subject – these strange ways of being as a way to reflect upon your own life, to use the subjectivity of another as a way to root yourself in the chaotic seas of your own subjectivity.

Revolutions in the History of Science and the History of Life: The Influence of Kuhn on Gould and Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibria

I wrote this essay at the start of last summer at the end of my Lower Sixth year as part of an extension project for A-Level Philosophy inspired by finding Turner’s Paleontology: A Philosophical Introduction and being given The Structure of Scientific Revolutions at an impressionable age. I have now decided to dig it out and publish it unedited since then, retaining my youthful zeal, naivety and poor essay titling skills.

Thomas Kuhn was one of the most influential 20th century philosopher of science known primarily for his idea that science advances by a series of revolutions. During a paradigm shift, the fundamental theoretical foundation of a science is overturned and a new generally accepted theoretical foundation, or paradigm, is established. Kuhn’s analysis of the way that scientists work, detailed in his essay The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, has influenced the way that scientists in general have thought about the way in which they do science. But the intellectual framework of Kuhn’s theory has influenced scientist further, even in the extent of influencing heavily the formulation of a scientific theory.

Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge’s theory of punctuated equilibria states that it is best to take a literal reading of the fossil record, as it actually shows long periods of stasis where species stay the same, punctuated by the rapid appearance of new species. The theory is commonly described as “Marxist”, often as an insult, despite that Marx, and other Hegelians, believed that everything in history is leading to a single goal or end-point; a telos. Gould and Eldredge stressed the contingency of evolutionary history, and hence evolution does not occur towards a telos. Hence, the lack of an end goal that Gould and Eldredge posited for evolutionary history distinguishes his broad theory of evolutionary history from Marx’s theory of human history. However, we will see that the structure of the theory of punctuated equilibria is much more similar to the structure of Kuhn’s theory of scientific revolutions, and indeed, that punctuated equilibria could not have been formed as a theory without the intellectual framework Gould and Eldredge borrowed from Kuhn and other philosophers of science. Though many scientists do not consider detailed philosophical study to be important, I will argue that punctuated equilibria is a good example of where a scientific theory could not have been formulated without a study of philosophy and the adoption of the sort of thinking common amongst philosophers of science.

Kuhn suggested that the history of an established, mature science is characterised by long periods of normal science, under which almost all scientists work with the same paradigm. Paradigms are suitably opened ended so that scientists work to “patch up” the science by asking unanswered questions, but seldom question the theoretical foundation of the science. Occasionally, the paradigm strains under the increasing weight of anomalies that scientists find in the data, so the data cannot be seen to be compatible with the current paradigm. Then a scientific revolution may occur; where an often younger, outsider scientists proposes a new theory for the interpretation of the data that explains enough of the anomalies to challenge the current paradigm. If enough scientist pledge allegiance to this new theory, it will become a paradigm. This shift from one paradigm to another is not wholly rational; it is due to a wide range of personal, sociological, psychological and professional considerations as well as the strength of the evidence. The new paradigm becomes incorporated into normal science, and a period of stability occurs as scientists labour under the same, new paradigm. Scientists must use background theories to decide where and how to collect data and the ways in which they analyse data. But this data obtained are interpreted (or possibly actually seen) in line with the particular paradigm that the scientist is working under, so data is theory-laden. Furthermore, Kuhn argued that science is not advancing to a goal of an immutably truth, clearly set by nature. Rather science evolves through revolutions, but to no particular goal, in a similar way that living organisms evolve, without a goal or telos.

Therefore, the broad frame work of Kuhn’s theory is characterised by: long periods of stasis, where the paradigm remains the same, punctuated by rapid periods of revolution, where a new paradigm emerges, but does not move the scientific field towards the goal of absolute truth. Hence, we can trace the intellectual trail from Kuhn’s theory to Gould and Eldredge’s punctuated equilibria; which is similarly characterised by long periods of stasis, where species remain the same, punctuated by rapid periods of revolution, when new species appear, but does not move the evolution of life towards an absolute goal of evolutionary fitness.

In order to understand Gould and Eldredge’s theory, it is important to understand what it was formulated to counter. Darwin wrote that evolution occurred gradually, primarily by natural selection, involving the gradual evolution of one form or species into another, a process known as phyletic gradualism. Darwin himself said that this view of evolution did not reflect what is shown in the fossil record, as there is no evidence of enormous numbers of intermediate varieties, so the fossil record cannot be interpreted as revealing “any such finely graduated organic chain”1 of species splitting and evolving into different species. But Darwin conceded that “the geological record is extremely imperfect and this fact will to a large extent explain why we do not find interminable varieties, connecting together all the extinct and existing forms of life by the finest graduated steps.” So the phyletic gradualist would see the fossil record as showing gradual evolution littered with gaps, and in many of these gaps fall transitional forms.

However, in 1972, Stephen J Gould and Niles Eldredge presented their theory of punctuated equilibria2, though it is a different way of seeing the fossil record rather than a true theory. They posited that the fossil record in actuality shows an ancestral species in an older layer of rock and many descendent species in the next youngest layer of rock with no intermediary form between the ancestor and the descendants. Phyletic gradualists would see this as a “gap” in the deposition of sediment, due for example to a lake drying up, and therefore a thin layer of rock represents a long period of time in which speciation was occurring gradually. Hence, the phyletic gradualist reassures themselves again that speciation is gradual and the fossil record is incomplete. Gould and Eldredge bemoaned the confines of the phyletic gradualist picture: “We have all heard the traditional response so often that it has become extremely imprinted as a catechism that brooks no analysis: the fossil record is extremely imperfect. […] renders the picture of phyletic gradualism virtually unfalsifiable.”

Therefore, they said, what grounds do we have for not taking a literal reading of the fossil record? Maybe the apparent “jump” between ancestor and descendants is not an artifice due to geological particularities, but represents something actually occurring in evolution. The literal reading invites the proposition that, often, species do not differentiate gradually. Species could differentiate by a subpopulation breaking off from the main population, the small numbers of the isolated subpopulation on the periphery of the ancestor’s range experience a different environment, so the lineage splits into two new descendent species rapidly. The descendants then reinvaded the ancestor’s geographical range, a process known as allopatric speciation. When species become established, they do not change for long periods, until the lineage becomes punctuated by another speciation event. This happens in too short a time period and in a different geographical range to most of the rest of the population, therefore the fossils of the ancestor and the transitional forms are extremely unlikely to be found directly about each other in the same stratum until the new descendent species reinvades. So, most of the time, no “insensibly graded fossil series.”2 is captured in the fossil record. The ancestor, transitional forms, descendants series occurs at a faster tempo than Darwin suggests, and these events are interspersed with periods of stasis.

Though Darwin did not posit that evolution had a telos, he did formulate his theory using the standard frame-work of Victorian, ideas of gradual historical progress and Hegelian teleology. Indeed, it is very likely that Darwin could not have come up with punctuated equilibria however hard he tried, given the intellectual environment he worked in. Gould and Eldredge are indebted to Kuhn for their frame-work for punctuated equilibria. But furthermore, their presentation of their theory was done so in a way that acknowledges Kuhnian ideas of the theory-ladenness of science, remarkably modest behaviour.

Their formulation of punctuated equilibria is based on idea of the theory-ladennes of evidence used by Kuhn; that your background theories, or the paradigm you are working under, might lead you to interpret (or even actually see) the data in a way different from another scientist working under a different paradigm. Hence a phyletic gradualist and a punctuated equilibria adherent may each interpret the same fossil sequence differently from the other; the former would interpret there to be gaps in the formation of rock, giving the appearance of an interrupted gradual evolutionary process but the latter would interpret there to be no actual gaps in the rock formation, but rather the “gaps” show suggests a period of rapid evolution in a different geographical area. Gould and Eldredge write, in a remarkably Kuhnian style, in their original paper, that “the idea of punctuated equilibria is just as much a preconceived picture as that of phyletic gradualism. We readily admit our bias towards it and urge readers, in the ensuing discussion, to remember that our interpretations are as coloured by our preconceptions as are the claims of the champions of phyletic gradualism by theirs.”2 Hence, Gould and Eldredge stress punctuated equilibria as just another way of seeing, and they are as biased towards it as Kuhnians as Darwin was to gradualism as a Victorian.

In their original paper, Gould and Eldredge went so far as to say that “the data of palaeontology cannot decide which picture [phyletic gradualism or punctuated equilibria] is more adequate”. Though later claiming that punctuated equilibria could be verified, here the theory-ladennes of evidence is suggested to an extreme degree, as they suggest that our interpretations are not merely “coloured by our preconceptions” but wholly fogged, implying disturbingly that we cannot know anything inductively, as everything is hidden implicitly in our theories, or paradigms.

This extreme approach did, however, not bring many adherents to punctuated equilibria, hence their later concession that punctuated equilibria could survive tests against the data. With this verificationist approach, Gould and Eldredge have won over the vast majority of younger scientists to varying extents, and hence launched the palaeobiological revolution.

In conclusion, the work of Kuhn and other philosophers in the philosophy of science heavily influenced the formulation and presentation of the scientific theory of punctuated equilibria, itself a considerable contribution to modern evolutionary thought. Therefore, I stress the importance of scientists learning about philosophical ideas, if only for the sake of scientific innovation. Broadening the intellectual horizons can only bring the possibility of scientists applying theoretical frame-works in novel ways to allow radical reinterpretations of current theories. If scientists learn to think like philosophers, at least some of the time, it can bring about innovative interpretations of nature, which is vital for the continued relevance, usefulness and intellectual robustness of science.


  1. Darwin, C. On the Origin of the Species (1859)
  2. Gould, S. J. , Eldredge, N. Punctuated Equilibria: An Alternative to Phyletic Gradualism (1972)
  3. Turner, D., Paleontology: A Philosophical Introduction (2011)

Of Whales and Women: The Importance of Nature in Culture and Culture in Nature

J2 or “Granny”, an orca estimated to be 80-105 years old, who has been post-reproductive for over 40 years.

A recent documentary broadcast on Radio 4 presented by Victoria Gill no doubt sparked a recent editorial in The Guardian on the topic of the increased post-fertility lifespan, the menopause, in orcas. The documentary followed Darren Croft of the University of Exeter and Daniel Franks of the University of York and other studying the Southern Resident orca clan, which boasts a number of older female orcas who have survived well after their reproductive years have ending, including J2 or “Granny” who had her last calf in the 1960s and is still swimming at somewhere between 80-100+ years old today. This is similar to the menopause seen in women today, and in only a single other mammal species, the short-finned pilot whale. The phylogenic oddity of the menopause, appearing not in our close relatives the chimpanzee but in animals with very different evolutionary histories and habitats to us is enough alone to spark a inquiring scientist to investigate how the menopause evolved.

Furthermore, under an earlier and more narrow definition of evolutionary fitness, the menopause has been seen to be evolutionarily inexplicable. An understanding of the reproductive success of an individual as increasing the frequency of their alleles in subsequent generations means that suddenly stopping reproducing seems the exact opposite of a trait that evolved by natural selection. But Croft and Franks argue in this programme that the orca menopause did evolve by natural selection in part due to the post-reproductive females taking care of their adult sons they already have rather than pushing out as many kids as possible. This therefore increasing the number of their sons’ children surviving to breed and so on, so her genes increase in frequency in the population. Rather than increasing her own personal reproductive fitness, the post-reproductive orca uses her sons to increase the frequency of her genes in the population. This account is not particularly revelatory, it is an application of W.D. Hamilton’s ideas of inclusive fitness applied to a particular case.

However, in The Guardian editorial, the author argues that research into the evolution of any trait in any non-human animal is irrelevant to human society and attempts to infer “what constitutes a well-ordered society”, in this case the value of older women in a society, from facts about how a trait has evolved is dangerous. But such a wholesale dismissal of the cultural importance of an understanding of the evolutionary basis does not accomodate the view of biology and nature having a dialectic materialist relationship, the phenomenon of gene-culture coevolution which has been proposed to occur in both humans and several whale species notably including the orca. In the scientists studying animal culture, culture is considered to be behavioural practices transmitted through a population through social learning and not genetic inheritance, this is the lowest common denominator definition of culture and not as intricate as human culture, but significant none the less. By the gene-culture coevolution model, as Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell describe in The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, the two streams of information in a cultural species, the genetic and the cultural, can interact. Whilst, as E.O. Wilson termed it, “genes hold culture on a leash” as our culture cannot reach beyond the limits of our biological limits, the favouring a behaviour by a culture, such as adult milk drinking in humans, can lead to the natural selection of genes allowing the most successful use of a cultural trait, which is why the frequency of genes for lactose tolerance is highest in pastoral populations.

Using an understanding of gene-culture coevolution, we can try to understand the evolutionary origins of our cultural practices, or most likely how the biological capacities to develop such cultural practices arose. Indeed, in the orcas the menopause may be one of the key elements in allowing the orcas to transcend the realm of purely genetic inheritance and learn socially and so develop their own culture.

As Whitehead and Rendell discuss, the menopause may have evolved as a means of preserving cultural knowledge. The older females are saved by the menopause from the risks of increasingly infrequent pregnancy at the age of 40 or older and so can live into their 80s and older. These grandmothers play an important role in helping raise children, especially in systems which Sarah Blaffer Hrdy describes as cooperative breeding, where the child is reared by a large extended family of parents, aunts and uncles, siblings, grandparents etc., the proverbial village it takes to raise a child, which she believes is likely the social organisation of early humans.Additionally, these older members of the (human) group will have amassed a great knowledge of the environment over time, which is very useful if a group is blighted by famines every 60 or so years and have to turn to alternative food sources, the knowledge of their edibility is preserved in the mind of the oldest grandmothers. Thus, cultural transmission of information may rely on these elders to preserve information, as in non-literate societies there is no way of preserving cultural information like DNA preserves genetic information, and applied to the early humans as to orcas. We look to orcas to give us clues as to how the human menopause evolved in part because of one of the key philosophical drivers of Darwin’s work, the principle of the consilience of inductions, as termed by William Whewell. By this, the power of a theory increase the more domains of empirical evidence it can explain. This is way Darwin bolstered this theory of evolution by natural selection using examples drawn from biogeography, embryology, behavioural instinct and the fossil record, and why modern menopause researchers use the evidence from orcas to increase the explanatory power of their theories. Crucially, the vast differences between women and whales, not least of all the lack of medical care received by the 80+ orcas, means that the menopause cannot be a pathological state in the orcas as their extended lifespan relative to the males cannot be explained by longevity alone. And explaining how the menopause evolved and therefore shows its advantages in a past environment, rather than dismiss as a pathological aberration of living longer, like Alzheimer’s disease, as some would argue, cannot be a dangerous thing.

I sense that I may be accused of spinning another “very interesting” evolutionary story, which has no relevance to human values and society now. But this society and values are supported by biological and social structures which have evolved, and upon which we have built our complex ethical and social systems. But we did not imagine these systems out of thin air a few thousand years ago, they have a long a gradual pre-history. We eventually had an explosion of social complexity in humans when our culture began to “rachet”, to become increasingly more complex as we built upon the knowledge of others, we stood on the shoulders of giants. It would be intellectually dishonest to refuse to try to encompass politically charged phenomena under an evolutionary frame-work if we call ourselves modern biologists, especially one so counter-intuitive as the menopause, in humans and in orcas. Indeed, not giving an accurate account of the origins of the menopause, gives power to those who would like to dismiss the menopause as pathological and showing womens’ inherent inferiority. Understanding the events of your body as having been selected for in evolutionary time for the advantages it brought your genes can only help understand and learn to value how you experience life. As Croft mentions in the radio programme, many menopausal women draw strength from learning of the menopasual orcas, as it shows “the important of older females in society really valued that story [and] empowered them to think what might be their role in society”. Revealing the evolutionary importance of a trait, thorugh comparison with those who also share this trait across the animal kingdom, can lead us to consider whether our social prejudices are the only way to be, and whether we could reassess our values in light of this.

I believe some of the confusion on these issues are draw in part from the different meanings of the word “value”. The evolutionary biologists uses the concept of evolutionary value as how a trait performs in a cost-benefit analysis in terms of the survival of the organisms. In contrast, value is used most commonly to refer to ethical values, which I will argue are mostly socially determined, though by the laws of causation these must have some sort of basis within the limits of biological possibility. Therefore the science vs. humanities debate comes to its apotheosis. Critics may claim that biologists equate is with ought, that what had the greatest evolutionary value in the human past is what we should value ethically today. I disagree with this position, but doing so does not mean that we should ignore the role of biology in being the basis from which culture springs, but something which does not tether all its ties to biology, as it can reach down and change it biological basis. Life is dialectic; never anything but subtle and dynamic.






Phallocentric Fallacies: On Gender Bias in Science

In the media and in the science classroom, it is common to hear the lamenting of the lack of women in science at the highest level. This is made evident in the statistics, such as the 12.8% of the STEM workforce in the UK being women as of 2014. The world over and in the majority of scientific disciplines, women are conspicuously absence at the highest level. Most agree that this is not due to women’s inherent inability to do science or their lack of ambition to do anything but raise their children. Therefore the gender disparity at the leading edge of scientific research and innovation is often bemoaned as a shameless waste of talent. In such an example, Athene Donald explores the phenomenon of girls interested in physical sciences being subtly or unsubtly discouraged from taking A-Level Physics and being “lost” from the path to a career in physics or engineering. Donald argues that such a phenomenon is harmful to the economy, as to simply maintain the status quo in terms of science industries in the UK, we need 10,000 more STEM graduates than we had graduating as of 2012, according to the Royal Academy of Engineers.

I don’t deny that women aren’t needed to make up the numbers of competent STEM professionals if we hope to expand STEM industries. Furthermore, I agree with Donald that it reflect poorly on an intellectual culture if those who are academically able and motivated to pursue a field of interest are discouraged from doing so for reasons unrelated to their ability.

However, these arguments apply to encouraging anyone who has the merely inkling of interest in science to pursue it in the educational systems, so are not in principle incompatible with having the upper echelons of scientific institutions filled with men of a particularly narrow social slice if this is how the dice have fallen in terms of interest.

But I will argue that women, as well as everyone else who isn’t of the demographic which has been historically the definition of a scientist; the middle-class white European man, have more to offer science than just another pair of hands.Though science aims to be objective it is inescapably subjective as it is done by human beings with subjective experiences. We gain our subjective biases through how we experience our lives in our society, these background biases act as “blinkers” and inevitably limit our outlook on the ever elusive truth of reality. This narrowing is not out of stubbornness to see reason, as the perjorative use of “blinkers” entails, but means it is very difficult to see otherwise. As Elizabeth Anderson writes in Feminist Epistemology: An Interpretation and a Defence: There is no reason to think our presently cramped and stunted imaginations set the actual limits of the world, but they do set the limits of what we now take to be possible.”

Those who have very similar experiences due to their similar social backgrounds are likely to have similar “blinkers” and similarly narrow outlooks, which becomes the status quo. As Anderson writes: “A scientific community composed of inquirers who share the same background assumptions is unlikely to be aware of the roles these assumptions play in licensing inferences from observations to hypotheses, and even less likely to examine these assumptions critically.” In contrast, those who have different experience and interests through being socialised differently will have their own slightly different set of blinkers and fields of vision of reality slightly askew from the status quo.

Science done by those with very similar life experiences, such as coming from the same social class, same country, same educational background, same sex-class and so on can be very fruitful, I do not deny the achievements of the Enlightenment, but this can only go so far. The introduction of someone with different backgrounds, such as that of being a woman in a patriarchal society, into a field previously dominated by androcentricism, the centring of the male means that she brings with her a different set of subjective biases about the field, so her blinkers are slightly offset to those of her male colleagues and she may have an outlook subtly different, and may encompass a patch of reality the men have so far missed. By contrasting ideas developed by those with divergent outlooks, scientists in the field should then conduct experiments to work out which idea matches reality most closely, and therefore help edge science ever closer to the truth.With such similar subjective biases, a field can only go so far until old hypotheses become rehashed again and again until the empirical evidence relevant to them is exhausted. But using her subtly different outlook onto the world, the female scientist may be able to come up with an innovative hypothesis which after sufficient empirical corroboration may be a theory which comes closer to reality than male scientists with their own particular outlooks have until then been able to.

My focus here will be on the use of what Anderson describes as gender symbolism, “which occurs when we represent nonhuman or inanimate phenomena as masculine” or feminine” and model them after gender ideals or stereotypes.” I will use a historical example of this where gender ideals are mapped onto a biological phenomenon where in fact no sound evidence of it’s existence is found, a true phallocentric fallacy where the masculine is seen where it does not exist. The episode which sparked this articles comes from a particularly obscure branch (or hypha) of biology: fungal reproduction.

As Nicolas P. Money writes in Mushroom, 19th century mycologists were very interested in the topic of fungal sexual reproduction, though the difficulties of studying the phenomena meant that, whist most specialists seemed to favour “the gentle fusion of colonies”, no experimental data nor a mechanism for this was proposed. However, during the First World War, Worthington G. Smith (1835-1917) proposed that he had observed through his microscope mushrooms producing sperm cells, which were ‘ejaculated’ onto the spores in the soil. Smith’s observations are flawed on two fronts. Firstly, he seems to have struggled to see these sperm cells, writing that “At first it requires long and patient  observation to make out the form of these bodies satisfactorily, but when the peculiar shape is once comprehended, there is little difficulty in correctly seeing their characteristic form.” It sounds rather like to see these cells, you must know what to look for, so you see what you know. But his most egregious mistake was to hydrate his samples with the shocking non-sterile “expressed juice of horse dung”, no doubt containing sperm-like amoeba. However, it is highly likely that due to his experience as a man in the patriarchal Victorian society Smith could only imagine sexual reproduction to occur by the forceful ejaculation of the active male sex cells onto the passive female sex cells, a clear projection of the gender symbolism of Victorian society onto the natural world. His blickers contributed to the poor quality of his science, as he did not or refused to acknowledge the contaminating effect of the horse dung on his samples so certain his results were correct.

In contrast, the young graduate Elsie Maud Wakefield (1886- 1972) appears to me to be the model of the “New Woman”, a graduate of the then all-women’s Somerville College, Oxford. Though information on her biography is sparse, as a woman in the late 19th century and early 20th century she would likely have been aware of ideas about human sexual relations being more mutualistic and equal than the Victorian ideals of male dominant courtship, such as those later expressed in the work of Marie Stopes. Whether she adhered to these political values or not, she would have been better able to imagine a non-phallocentric natural world which Smith could not. Therefore, her subjective ‘blinkers’ were different enough from those of Smith’s that she was able to conduct her experiments on fungal reproduction without the phallocentric assumptions of the active male sperm and passive female spores.

Wakefield conducted a series of experiments which demonstrated the necessity of the fusion of the mycelium, the fungal ‘roots’, to produce mushrooms in the Basidiomycete fungi, with no role for mobile sperm cells. But as Wakefield discovered, the nuclei of the two colonies don’t immediately fuse when the colonies fuse, instead the fused colony grows and forms mushrooms with the two, unfused nuclei inhabiting every cell. Nuclear fusion, the event which occurs in animals when sperm meets the egg, only occurs in the mushroom just before spores are produced. Neither colony engaged in sex takes on an ‘active masculine’ or ‘passive feminine’ role which the Victorian Smith expected to find in society and in nature, and so the phallocentric system of gender symbolism breaks down.

I do not claim that women are able to tap a magical reserve of female knowledge gained purely by virtue of having a female body. This sort of crude gender essentialism only aids in cementing differences. Instead, I argue that simply because no two people can ever occupy the same position in time and space, each person’s subjective experience of reality will be slightly different from that of others, and so will have different background assumptions and interests when entering science, including biases based on being socialised as a woman or a man. Instead a shuffling of subjective, gender biased perspectives is where real scientific innovation and the hope of objectivity can be found. As Anderson writes, “Each individual might be subject to perhaps ineradicable cognitive biases or partiality due to gender or other influences. But if the social relations of inquirers are well arranged, then each person’s biases can check and correct the others’.In this way, theoretical rationality and objectivity can be expressed by the whole community of inquirers even when no individual’s thought processes are perfectly impartial, objective, or sound.”

Innovation through Synthesis: the Methodology of Gregor Mendel


I wrote this essay for entry earlier this year for entry to the Galton Institute’s Mendel Essay Prize 2016, an essay competition open to British and Irish A-Level Students to write on Gregor Mendel and his legacy. I chose to write on what I identified to be Mendel’s principle contribution to biological thinking, a novel fusion of mathematical methods with biological subject matters, which in addition to furthering out understanding of inheritance and opening up the new field of genetics also provided a more rigourous mathematical framework which Biology has followed for much of the 20th century.

Abstract: Gregor Mendel is well known as the Moravian monk who in 1866 presented what became known as his Laws of Inheritance, later incorporated with Darwinian Natural Selection in the Modern Synthesis to form the basis of modern genetics. He is popularly seen as a model Baconian inductive scientist, however I will argue that Mendel’s true innovation was his synthesis of the two disciplines of combination theory and the study of inheritance. This allowed Mendel to describe a biological phenomenon using a mathematical model, a methodology adopted by that vast majority of 20th and 21st century scientists.

Scientific creativity is commonly seen as being either one of two apparently incompatible extremes. The first is that of logical creativity, whereby scientific discoveries are made and problems are solved through the use of logic and deductive and inductive reasoning. By this view, it is very likely that any particular theory would be postulated eventually, as all scientists use the same methods of reason and logic to reveal the same truths about the world. The other extreme is that of the creative genius, whereby the idiosyncratic cognitive patterns of a particular gifted individual allows, as William James writes, “the most abrupt cross-cuts and transitions from one idea to another”.1 Therefore, it is very unlikely that two geniuses will ever construct exactly the same theory, as each will have different ways of connecting ideas, whereas the laws of logic are always the same.

Gregor Mendel is popularly seen as the former; as a logical, deductive toiler. This concept of Mendel has it that, by carrying out many experimental crosses between plant strains, Mendel gained a large data set from which he logically coaxed out his Laws of Inheritance; making him a model Baconian inductive scientist.2 However, a closer reading of Mendel’s biography reveals that Mendel’s work was, as it is for all scientists, as much a product of his “standing on the shoulders of the giants” allowing him to “see further”, drawing on past scholarship in order to be creative. But crucially, Mendel’s creative innovation came through his ability to place one foot on the ‘shoulder’ of two different ‘giants’ and straddle the disciplines of mathematics and biology, and hence synthesis the two in an entirely novel and creative way.

Before Mendel, the study of inheritance was predominated by the idea of blending inheritance, whereby offspring inherited a combination all their parents’ traits, so would have an appearance midway between those of the parents. However, by the mid-19th century, other scientific disciplines had fallen in the path of an all-consuming “‘avalanche of numbers’”3. Therefore, it was arguably inevitable in this mathematically-fashionable context that another scientist would have applied some sort of mathematics principles to the problems of inheritance; indeed, both Hugo de Vries and Carl Correns did so independently, but not in so precise a manner as Mendel over thirty years earlier. The precision of Mendel’s Laws derived from his novel use of combination theory, which was taught to Mendel by its originator Andreas von Ettingshausen. Combination theory is a way of describing mathematically the arrangement of objects in a group in term of underlying laws, which Mendel readily understood and adopted.3 Therefore, Mendel’s innovation came in his ability to use his teacher’s tool to construct a mathematical model in the novel context of biological inheritance.

Though the destruction of Mendel’s experimental notes after his death means that the motivations for his experiments can only be guessed at, it is likely that Mendel approached the issue of inheritance with the hypothesis that the inheritance of particular traits was governed by underlying mathematical laws, derived from combination theory. In order to elucidate any laws present, Mendel had to use a deductive Newtonian, not Baconian, method: he first formulated a hypothesis and designed experiments to prove or disprove this hypothesis.4 The success of Mendel’s Newtonian methodology is shown by his ability to predict the ratio of pea pod colour in offspring produced by a monohybrid cross. Using modern terminology, Mendel’s experimental data shows that crossing together two heterozygous (Gg) green podded F1 plants produces F2 offspring with the phenotypic ratio of 3 green: 1 yellow, but with the genotypic ratio of 1 GG (green): 2Gg (green): 1gg (yellow), as the G (green) allele is dominant to the recessive g (yellow) allele. This F2 genotypic ratio can be determined using combination theory by simply multiplying out the F1 genotypes of Gg and Gg. Therefore, experimental observations confirm this mathematical model of the biological phenomenon of inheritance, permitting the adoption of this deductive, Newtonian methodology by much of 20th and 21st century natural science, to great success.

The Philosopher of Science Thomas Kuhn argued that scientific understanding consists of paradigms, or broad frameworks of theories. As experiments throw up anomalies in the current paradigm, the paradigm enters a period of crisis, leading a revolution after which a new paradigm is established.5 By synthesising the concepts of two different fields together, Mendel was able to creatively provide a revolutionary solution to the anomalies of blending theories of inheritance. Though Mendel lived in a period of interest in the application of mathematics, his ability to, as Robin Marantz Henig writes, “maintain […] two different mental constructs of the world simultaneously and apply […] the principles of one model to problems in the domain of the second”3 allowed Mendel to mathematically describe biological phenomena, a truly creative innovation not merely derived from inductive toil.

Mendel’s creativity does not fit neatly into either of the common conceptual extremes of scientific creativity. Mendel both carried out the “abrupt cross-cuts” of the genius in using combination theory to solve biological problems and underwent inductive toil to gather empirical evidence. Therefore, Mendel’s example suggests that scientific creativity cannot be achieved by one of these two extremes; rather only by combining logical problem solving with the “seething cauldron of ideas”1 of the mind of a genius can truly innovative and revolution science occur.

1William James in: Simonton, D.K. 2004. Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius and Zeitgeist. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press.
2O’Hear, A. 1989. An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science. UK. Clarendon Press.
3Henig, R.M. 2001. A Monk and Two Peas: The Story of Gregor Mendel and the Discovery of Genetics. London, UK. Phoenix.
4 Schwarzbach E., Smýkal P., Dostál O., Jarkovská M., Valová S. 2014. Gregor J. Mendel – genetics founding father. Czech J. Genet. Plant Breed. 50 pp. 43–51.
5Kuhn, T.S. 1996. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 3rd Edition. London, UK, University of Chicago Press