Scocca on Toy Gender Apartheid

So, here’s an awesome piece to make you feel shitty about whatever you bought your kids for Christmas. Tom Scocca has written an excellent screed about “Toy Apartheid” and the cultural enforcement of gender norms on young children. Here are a couple of highlights:

Christina Hoff Sommers—who has made a nice career in the Boys’ Toys section of the opinion-having business by arguing over and over that men have been victimized by feminism—explained to the readers of The Atlantic’s website how dangerous this intervention in the toy-marketing business really is. “[N]othing short of radical and sustained behavior modification” can change children’s “elemental play preferences,” she wrote. And:

The Swedes are treating gender-conforming children the way we once treated gender-variant children.

They are calling them special epithets and beating them up and sometimes killing them? (Also: “Once”? Do tell.) But no, sorry, what she means is that these scheming Nordic elites are trying to modify the poor children’s natural behavior. Only they aren’t even doing that, really. They’re just putting some different photos in the toy ads.

Here, he responds to an anecdote Sommers tells about the time that her granddaughter, when given a toy train, placed it in a baby carriage and covered it with a blanket:

But as the sociologists say: so fucking what? What’s the damage if little Eliza wants to rock Baby Train to sleep? Baby Train is snug and warm, and is also an inanimate object. Little Eliza is enjoying herself. Why does her grandmother have to be an asshole about it?

And here is, I think the correct response to anyone who uses anecdotes about children to justify gender conformity as “natural”:

Children are stupid and rotten and conformist, and elevating their weakness to a point of pride is insane. Trying to make them to stop being that way isn’t confusing or cruel; it’s one of the basic duties of being a parent and adult. Any pundit who starts holding forth on the superior behavioral wisdom of small children deserves to be bitten by one.

I miss when he had a regular blog at Slate sooo much.

Epigenetics and Homosexuality

So, last week featured a lot of news about a paper that came out in the Quarterly Review of Biology titled “Homsexuality as a Consequence of Epigenetically Canalized Sexual Development.” The authors were Bill Rice (UCSB), Urban Friberg (Uppsala U), and Sergey Gavrilets (U Tennessee). The paper got quite a bit of press. Unfortunately, most of that press was of pretty poor quality, badly misrepresenting the actual contents of the paper. (PDF available here.)

I’m going to walk through the paper’s argument, but if you don’t want to read the whole thing, here’s the tl;dr:

This paper presents a model. It is a theory paper. Any journalist who writes that the paper “shows” that homosexuality is caused by epigenetic inheritance from the opposite sex parent either 1) is invoking a very non-standard usage of the word “shows,” or 2) was too lazy to read the actual paper, and based their report on the press release put out by the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis.

That’s not to say that this is a bad paper. In fact, it’s a very good paper. The authors integrate a lot of different information to come up with a plausible biological mechanism for epigenetic modifications to exert influence on sexual preference. They demonstrate that such a mechanism could be favored by natural selection under what seem to be biologically realistic conditions. Most importantly, they formulate their model into with clear predictions that can be empirically tested.

But those empirical tests have not been carried out yet. And, in biology, when we say that a paper shows that X causes Y, we generally mean that we have found an empirical correlation between X and Y, and that we have a mechanistic model that is well enough supported that we can infer causation from that correlation. This paper does not even show a correlation. It shows that it would probably be worth someone’s time to look for a particular correlation.

As a friend wrote to me in an e-mail,

I found it a much more interesting read than I thought I would from the press it’s getting, which now rivals the bullshit surrounding the ENCODE project for the most bullshitty bullshit spin of biology for the popular press. A long-winded-but-moderately-well-grounded-in-real-biology mathematical model does not proof make.


Okay, now the long version.

The Problem of Homosexuality

The first thing to remember is that when an evolutionary biologist talks about the “problem of homosexuality,” this does not imply that homosexuality is problematic. All it is saying is that a straightforward, naive application of evolutionary thinking would lead one to predict that homosexuality would not exist, or would be vanishingly rare. The fact that it does exist, and at appreciable frequency, poses a problem for the theory.

In fact, this is a good thing to keep in mind in general. The primary goal of evolutionary biology is to understand how things in the world came to be the way they are. If there is a disconnect between theory and the world, it is ALWAYS the theory that is wrong. (Actually, this is equally true for any science / social science.)

Simply put, heterosexual sex leads to children in a way that homosexual sex does not. So, all else being equal, people who are more attracted to the opposite sex will have more offspring than will people who are less attracted to the opposite sex.

[For rhetorical simplicity, I will refer specifically to “homosexuality” here, although the arguments described in the paper and in this post are intended to apply to the full spectrum of sexual orientation, and assume more of a Kinsey-scale type of continuum.]

The fact that a substantial fraction of people seem not at all to be attracted to the opposite sex suggests that all else is not equal.

Evolutionary explanations for homosexuality are basically efforts to discover what that “all else” is, and why it is not equal.

There are two broad classes of possible explanation.

One possibility is that there is no biological variation in the population for a predisposition towards homosexuality. Then, there would be nothing for selection to act on. Maybe the potential for sexual human brain simply has an inherent and uniform disposition. Variation in sexual preference would then be the result of environmental (including cultural) factors and/or random developmental variation.

This first class of explanation seems unlikely because there is, in fact, a substantial heritability to sexual orientation. For example, considering identical twins who were raised separately, if one twin is gay, there is a 20% chance that the other will be as well.

Evidence suggests that sexual orientation has a substantial heritable component. Image: Comic Blasphemy.

This points us towards the second class of explanation, which assumes that there is some sort of heritable genetic variation that influences sexual orientation. Given the presumably substantial reduction in reproductive output associated with a same-sex preference, these explanations typically aim to identify some direct or indirect benefit somehow associated with homosexuality that compensates for the reduced reproductive output.

One popular variant is the idea that homosexuals somehow increase the reproductive output of their siblings (e.g., by helping to raise their children). Or that homosexuality represents a deleterious side effect of selection for something else that is beneficial, like how getting one copy of the sickle-cell hemoglobin allele protects you from malaria, but getting two copies gives you sickle cell anemia.

It was some variant of this sort of idea that drove much of the research searching for “the gay gene” over the past couple of decades.  The things is, though, those searches have failed to come up with any reproducible candidate genes. This suggests that there must be something more complicated going on.

The Testosterone Epigenetic Canalization Theory

Sex-specific development depends on fetal exposure to androgens, like Testosterone and related compounds. This is simply illustrated by Figure 1A of the paper:

Figure 1A from the paper: a simplified picture of the “classical” view of sex differentiation. T represents testosterone, and E represent Estrogen.

SRY is the critical genetic element on the Y chromosome that triggers the fetus to go down the male developmental pathway, rather than the default female developmental pathway. They note that in the classical model of sex differentiation, androgen levels differ substantially between male and female fetuses.

The problem with the classical view, they rightly argue, is that androgen levels are not sufficient in and of themselves to account for sex differentiation. In fact, there is some overlap between the androgen levels between XX and XY fetuses. Yet, in the vast majority of cases, the XX fetuses with the highest androgen levels develop normal female genitalia, while the XY fetuses with the lowest androgen levels develop normal male genitalia. Thus, there must be at least one more part of the puzzle.

The key, they argue, is that tissues in XX and XY fetuses also show differential response to androgens. So, XX fetuses become female because they have lower androgen levels and they respond only weakly to those androgens. XY fetuses become male because they have higher androgen levels and they respond more strongly to those androgens.

This is illustrated in their Figure 1B:

Sex-specific development is thus canalized by some sort of mechanism that they refer to generically as “epi-marks.” That is, they imagine that there must be some epigenetic differences between XX and XY fetuses that encode differential sensitivity to Testosterone.

All of this seems well reasoned, and is supported by the review of a number of studies. It is worth noting, however, that we don’t, at the moment, know exactly which sex-specific epigenetic modifications these would be. One could come up with a reasonable list of candidate genes, and look for differential marks (such as DNA methylation or various histone modifications) in the vicinity of those genes. However, this forms part of the not-yet-done empirical work required to test this hypothesis, or, in the journalistic vernacular, “show” that this happens.

Leaky Epigenetics and Sex-Discordant Traits

Assuming for the moment that there exist various epigenetic marks that 1) differ between and XX and XY fetuses and 2) modulate androgen sensitivity. These marks would need to be established at some point early on in development, perhaps concurrent with the massive, genome-wide epigenetic reprogramming that occurs shortly after fertilization.

The theory formulated in the paper relies on two additional suppositions, both of which can be tested empirically (but, to reiterate, have not yet been).

The first supposition is that there are many of these canalizing epigenetic marks, and that they vary with respect to which sex-typical traits they canalize. So, some epigenetic marks would canalize gonad development. Other marks would canalize sexual orientation. (Others, they note, might canalize other traits, like gender identity, but this is not a critical part of the argument.)

The model presented in this paper suggests that various traits that are associated with sex differences may be controlled by distinct genetic elements, and that sex-typical expression of those traits may rely on epigenetic modifications of those genes. Image:

The second supposition is that the epigenetic reprogramming of these marks that normally happens every generation is somewhat leaky.

There are two large-scale rounds of epigenetic reprogramming that happen every generation. One occurs during gametogenesis (the production of eggs or sperm). The second happens shortly after fertilization. What we would expect is that any sex-specifc epigenetic marks would be removed during one of these phases (although it could happen at other times).

For example, a gene in a male might have male-typical epigenetic marks. But what happens if that male has a daughter? Well, normally, those marks would be removed during one of the reprogramming phases, and then female-typical epigenetic marks would be established at the site early in his daughter’s development.

The idea here is that sometimes this reprogramming does not happen. So, maybe the daughter inherits an allele with male-typical epigenetic marks. If the gene influences sexual orientation by modulating androgen sensitivity, then maybe the daughter develops the (male-typical) sexual preference for females. Similarly, a mother might pass on female-typical epigenetic marks to her son, and these might lead to his developing a (female-typical) sexual preference for males.

So, basically, in this model, homosexuality is a side effect of the epigenetic canalization of sex differences. Homosexuality itself is assumed to impose a fitness cost, but this cost is outweighed by the benefit of locking in sexual preference in those cases where reprogramming is successful (or unnecessary).

Sociological Concerns

Okay, if you ever took a gender-studies class, or anything like that, this study may be raising a red flag for you. After all, the model here is basically that some men are super manly, and sometimes their manliness leaks over into their daughters. This masculinizes them, which makes them lesbians. Likewise, gay men are gay because they were feminized by their mothers.

That might sound a bit fishy, like it is invoking stereotype-based reasoning, but I don’t think that would be a fair criticism. Nor do I think it raises any substantial concerns about the paper in terms of its methodology or its interpretation. (Of course, I could be wrong. If you have specific concerns, I would love to hear about them in the comments.) The whole idea behind the paper is to treat chromosomal sex, gonadal sex, and sexual orientation as separate traits that are empirically highly (but not perfectly) correlated. The aim is to understand the magnitude and nature of that empirical correlation.

The other issue that this raises is the possibility of determining the sexual orientation of your children, either by selecting gametes based on their epigenetics, or by reprogramming the epigenetic state of gametes or early embryos. This technology does not exist at the moment, but it is not unreasonable to imagine that it might exist within a generation. If this model is correct in its strongest form (in that the proposed mechanism fully accounts for variation in sexual preference), you could effectively choose the sexual orientation of each of your children.

Image: Brainless Tales.

This, of course, is not a criticism of the paper. The biology is what it is. It does raise certain ethical questions that we will have to grapple with at some point. (Programming of sexual orientation will be the subject of the next installment of the Genetical Book Review.)

Plausibility/Testability Check

The question one wants to ask of a paper like this is whether it is 1) biologically plausible, and 2) empirically testable. Basically, my read is yes and yes. The case for the existence of mechanisms of epigenetic canalization of sex differentiation seems quite strong. We know that some epigenetic marks seem to propagate across generations, evading the broad epigenetic reprogramming. We don’t understand this escape very well at the moment, but the assumptions here are certainly consistent with the current state of our knowledge. And, assuming some rate of escape, the model seems to work for plausible-sounding parameter values.

Testing is actually pretty straightforward (conceptually, if not technically). Ideally, empirical studies would look for sex-specific epigenetic modifications, and for variation in these modifications that correlate with variation in sexual preference. The authors note that one test that could be done in the short term would be to do comparative epigenetic profiling of the sperm of men with and without homosexual daughters.

As Opposed to What?

The conclusions reached by models in evolution are most strongly shaped by the set of alternatives that are considered in the model. That is, a model might find that a particular trait will be selectively favored, but this always needs to be interpreted in the context of that set of alternatives. Most importantly, one needs to ask if there are likely to be other evolutionarily accessible traits that have been excluded from the model, but would have changed the conclusions of the model if they had been included.

The big question here is the inherent leakiness of epigenetic reprogramming. A back-of-the-envelope calculation in the paper suggests that for this model to fully explain the occurrence of homosexuality (with a single gene controlling sexual preference), the rate of leakage would have to be quite high.

An apparent implication of the model is that there would then be strong selection to reduce the rate at which these epigenetic marks are passed from one generation to the next. In order for the model to work in its present form, there would need to be something preventing natural selection from finding this solution.

Possibilities for this something include some sort of mechanistic constraint (it’s just hard to build something that reprograms more efficiently than what we have) or some sort of time constraint (evolution has not had enough time to fix this). The authors seem to favor this second possibility, as they argue that the basis of sexual orientation in humans may be quite different from that in our closest relatives.

On the other hand this explanation could form a part of the explanation for homosexuality with much lower leakage rates.

What Happened with the Press?

So, how do we go from what was a really good paper to a slew of really bad articles? Well, I suspect that the culprit was this paragraph from the press release from NIMBios:

The study solves the evolutionary riddle of homosexuality, finding that “sexually antagonistic” epi-marks, which normally protect parents from natural variation in sex hormone levels during fetal development, sometimes carryover across generations and cause homosexuality in opposite-sex offspring. The mathematical modeling demonstrates that genes coding for these epi-marks can easily spread in the population because they always increase the fitness of the parent but only rarely escape erasure and reduce fitness in offspring.

If you know that this is a pure theory paper, this is maybe not misleading. Maybe. But phrases like “solves the evolutionary riddle of homosexuality” and “finding that . . . epi-marks . . . cause homosexuality in opposite-sex offspring,” when interpreted in the standard way that I think an English speaker would interpret them, pretty strongly imply things about the paper that are just not true.

Rice, W., Friberg, U., & Gavrilets, S. (2012). Homosexuality as a Consequence of Epigenetically Canalized Sexual Development The Quarterly Review of Biology, 87 (4), 343-368 DOI: 10.1086/668167

Update: Also see this excellent post on the subject by Jeremy Yoder over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense.

Having your awesomest grad school experience

So, welcome back for the third installment of me dispensing advice that no one asked for. Previous advice included two guides, the first to help you decide whether or not you should go to graduate school, and the second to help you to pick a program (and advisor).

Now, let’s fast forward to the point where you’re in grad school, and you’re thinking to yourself, “I wonder what advice that nice young Jon Wilkins would have to help me get the most out of grad school, now that I’m here and all.”

Well, you’re in luck, because here it is:

The Lost in Transcription Guide to Having Your Awesomest Grad School Experience Ever: A Guide

I’m going to assume that you’re already familiar with the basics here. You already know that grad school is hard work, that it requires dedication and creativity and the ability to maintain the veneer of work-life balance. In fact, I’ll assume that you have already mastered the seven habits of highly effective people (list-making, delegation, pretending to pay attention during meetings, not hitting Reply All, fiber, shaking the toner cartridge, and Adderall). Rather, I’m going to let you in on the stuff that I was told, or figured out, that applies specifically to grad school and might not be obvious.

1. Attend Talks, but not too many

If you’re at a large university, you’ll find that there are a crap ton of talks. There are departmental seminar series, topical seminar series, special colloquia, journal clubs, lab meetings and on and on. You could easily spend all of your time going from talk to talk.

The more likely outcome is that you will be so overwhelmed that you will avoid going to talks altogether.

This is a mistake. When you’re deep in your research, it will always seem like whatever you’re working on is more valuable than some talk. In the short term, that’s probably right. Attending talks is part of the long-term game. You go to talks with the hope that they will plant a seed in the back of your mind. That seed might not grow into anything for years. But eventually, when the time is right, it will blossom into a beautiful, original idea.

You will then harvest that beautiful idea and drain all the beauty out of it as you grind it up to fit it into a grant proposal.

One great piece of advice I received was to pick one seminar series (maybe a different one each semester) and go to every talk in the series. This forces you to stretch a little bit, attending some talks you might otherwise skip, while keeping a lid on the total number of talks.

Critically, don’t pick more than one series. You’ll still probably find another talk or two each week that you go to for various reasons. Maybe someone famous is speaking, or maybe the talk is closely related to your work, or maybe your advisor is worried that there won’t be enough people in the audience, or maybe that cute boy from your stats class is going to be there. Ha ha, I’m kidding, of course. There are no cute boys in your stats class.

If you find yourself going to more than three talks a week, you should either raise your standards or paint eyeballs on your eyelids, because there is no way you’re staying awake through all that.

2. Ask Questions

When you’re going to the too many talks that you go to, because you are ignoring my earlier advice, try to make yourself ask a question. You don’t need to ask a question every time. I mean, you don’t want to be that guy. But set hard goals for yourself, like, if you didn’t ask a question at the last talk, you have to ask something at this one.

The point here is not to draw attention to yourself, or to make sure that your advisor knows you are at the talk. (If this is important, you’ve chosen the wrong advisor.)

One very tangible benefit of asking questions in talks is that it keeps you awake. Even if you are in a field where people hold all of their questions till the end, pressing yourself to come up with a good question is a great way to keep yourself engaged.

The other thing asking questions does is help you to start thinking of yourself as a peer in your field. This is maybe the most important transformation you will undergo as a graduate student. As an undergraduate, you probably functioned mostly as a receptacle (for knowledge and/or beer). By the time you receive your PhD, you should be comfortable functioning as a real member of the scholarly community. When you start grad school, you probably view your advisor, and all professors, as some other species. By the time you finish, you should view them as an older, more experienced (and, in my case, better looking) version of yourself.

A lot of grad students feel like they should not ask questions during talks because they should leave that to the people who know more. That’s not peer thinking.

Also, like Big Bird says, asking questions is a good way to find things out!

If you’re having trouble coming up with questions, consider developing some questions that work in any talk. For example, if you work in Theoretical Ecology, try “What happens if you put that on a lattice?” If you’re in Statistical Physics, try “What happens if you substitute one of the generalized forms of entropy?” If you’re in Evolutionary Psychology, try “How does that correlate with the 2D:4D digit length ratio?” I’m certain that you can come up with the analogous question for your own field.

3. Decide when to Graduate

In some systems, like in the UK, there is a standard PhD length. In the US, however, the PhD tends to be more of an open-ended affair. It might take three years, or it might take ten. If you ask how long your PhD should take, the answer will probably be some variant of “as long as it takes to complete your dissertation.”

The secret is that there is no rule about what constitutes enough work to qualify as a dissertation.

There might be standards and norms. For instance, in my field, the rule of thumb is that you write three papers. Then, you write and introduction and a conclusion, staple them all together, and you’re done. But I have known people who have graduated with as many as ten papers, and as few as zero. Some advisors or departments might have stricter guidelines, but even in those situations, you probably have some say in when you graduate.

The advice I was given was this: Decide when you want to finish. Then, a couple of years before that, start talking about this as your graduation date. Soon, everyone will be convinced that you should actually finish then, including your advisor, and, more importantly, yourself. Next thing you know, you’re staying up all night to meet this totally artificial deadline. Moreover, however much work you have accomplished by that point (within limits), your committee is going to look at it and say, “Um, I guess that looks like a dissertation.”

So, how do you decide when to graduate? Well, it depends in part on what you want to do next. If you want to go on in academia (or an analogous, high-end research career), you want your CV to kick ass. You want to have good publications and something that looks like momentum moving forward.

That means you should not graduate too soon. There’s a weird thing. People tend to judge your CV by your rate of productivity: papers per year, or years per book, or something like that. But this rate-based evaluation does not kick in until after you get your PhD. In my experience, the person who published four papers during a three-year PhD comes off as only marginally more impressive than the person who published four papers during a seven-year PhD. Similarly, the seven-year, five-paper candidate often outshines the four-year, four-paper candidate.

On the other hand, grad school might convince you that you want to do something different. Maybe you’ll want to switch fields, or go into industry, or leave research altogether. Maybe you’re going to go into science writing, or go back to Law School and work in patent law. If you’re following one of these paths, the most important thing is going to be the fact of your PhD. If you graduate without publishing, it might make your ascent up the academic career ladder more difficult, but it won’t prevent you from forcing people to call you “Doctor” at parties.

Only good taste can do that.

4. Avoid the Lobster Pot Mentality

Academia is competitive. I mean, it would be really cool if we all got sinecures that let us work on whatever we wanted, and if we all wanted to work on things that were different enough that no one ever got scooped, but related enough that we could all collaborate in some sort of glorious transdisciplinary daisy chain.

Sadly, the reality is that there are limits to all of the resources most coveted by academics: jobs, grants, awards, prestige. If you continue on in academia, you’re going to spend the rest of your career competing with your peers for money, space, and recognition.

Here’s the thing, though. You don’t need to start stabbing people in the back yet.

It is easy in graduate school to let your horizon shrink. Sometimes it will feel like you need to be competing with the other grad students in your program for everything: grades, attention, approval.

Avoid this impulse as much as you can. Your peers from grad school are going to be some of your best friends in your life, and they are going to be your closest allies in your career. Years from now, they’re the ones who are going to suggest your name when someone in their department is assembling a list of speakers for a symposium. They’re going to tend to give you the benefit of the doubt when they’re reviewing your papers or grant proposals.

Sure, maybe it sucks to feel like your advisor’s second best student. Just remind yourself of the long-term benefits. Someday, that best student is going to be your best opportunity for name dropping. “Oh, yeah, I went to grad school with her. Why yes, I am pretty cool. Thank you for noticing.”

5. Don’t Learn a Skill

You might think that learning a skill is the whole point of grad school. You would be wrong. The point of grad school is to learn to be a scholar. A danger, especially in the experimental sciences, is in focusing on developing a set of technical skills at the expense of the conceptual skills that lie at the core of what you need to be learning.

I mean, sure, it’s really cool that you’ve mastered using this multi-million dollar piece of equipment, and maybe you’ve even gotten some cool results out of it. But there are two specific dangers here.

First, technology changes. No matter how cool that machine is, a few years from now it is going to be obsolete. If your expertise is really wedded to the machine, you become obsolete as well. However, if you can keep your eyes on the forest, you will have learned a much more valuable set of skills about how to pose and answer interesting questions. Those skills will transfer over to the next generation of technology just fine.

Second, if you have an unscrupulous advisor, you can find yourself painted into a corner, spending your grad school years effectively as an underpaid laboratory technician. In fact, I have seen cases where a grad student will master a particularly fickle piece of equipment. That grad student then becomes a critical resource for the lab, and their advisor will delay their graduation, so that they can keep milking that piece of equipment for data. Worse yet, you can get stuck being a sort of data mule, playing second fiddle on projects for other students and postdocs, at the expense of developing your own research program.

6. Don’t Be a Helper

Look, if you’ve gone to grad school, you probably have certain personality traits. You’ve probably got an impulse to respect authority, and you’ve always liked to please your teachers. This is part of how you got those good grades.

Some grad students tend to take this to extremes, and fall into a “helper” role. This could mean taking on part of your advisor’s teaching load. It could mean acting as a sort of lab mom/dad. No doubt, your advisor feels overworked and stressed out. If you take some of their stuff off of their plate, they will probably be grateful, and will praise the crap out of you. In general, though, this is not healthy for your own career.

This depends, of course. For example, if your long-term goal is to work at a small college where you mostly teach, taking on additional teaching in grad school might be a good thing. However, you need to make sure that you are getting the credit for it.

7. Be the Youiest You You can Be

Yes, really.

Grad school tends to have a homogenizing effect. Sometimes this is okay. Some things really need to be homogenized, like how we format our bibliographies, or we calculate our p values. However, there are also a lot of things that get homogenized that really don’t need to be.

More specifically, don’t get caught up in other people’s definitions of success. Just because everyone else in your lab wants to get that prestigious postdoc at Johns Hopkins does not necessarily mean that this is what you want.

Also, develop your own interests. People tend to converge on a narrow definition of what constitutes an “interesting” question in their field. This leads to situations where everyone is racing to answer the same question. If you have a different perspective, embrace it. You’re much more likely to do something truly original that way.

Even if you’re wrong, and the question that everyone else is asking really is more important, you should still follow your own interests. The fact is, you are going to do more good for the world working on something that you’re passionate about, even if that something is objectively dumb. So go for it.

Yes, go ahead and get that pierced.

No, I’m not going with you.

2012 Gift Guide for Population Geneticists

So, it’s that time of year again, when you have to come up with gift ideas for the population geneticist in your life. Personally, I like cash, but if you insist on coming up with personalized gifts, here are some ideas for you:

1. Mathematical Population Genetics, by Warren Ewens

This book was originally published in 1979. When I was in grad school, it had been out of print for years. People would pass around xeroxed copies that had been made from other xeroxed copies.

Finally, a couple of years ago, the second edition came out. So now the population geneticist in your life can own their very own book-shaped copy.

Of course, it’s a little bit pricey. Fortunately, there are plenty of other gifts on this list for the folks about whom you don’t care enough to buy this book. 🙁

2. The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, by Bobby Henderson

Okay, cheapskate, maybe this is a little bit more your speed. This is the perfect gift for the pastafarian population geneticist.

Or it could be a good evangelical gift for those who have not yet been touched by his noodly appendage.

And look, it comes with one of those little ribbon things that means you don’t have to use your wadded up Starbucks receipt as a bookmark!

3. Gene Pool Shirt

Get it?

It’s a jean shirt!

With a pool ball on it!

Great conversation starter!

Also comes in Flaming 8-Ball!

4. Obnoxious Car Decals

There are a number of different aggressively obnoxious things that you can get for your car, like a T-Rex eating a Jesus fish. But if your goal in life is to get your headlights smashed by some nice religious folk, nothing will beat this “Procreation Car Emblem.”

If you’re in the mood for something a little more subtle, there are some good options in the “Customers who bought this item also bought” section.

5. Remarkable, by Lizzie Foley

Okay, okay, I know what you’re thinking. That this is shameless promotion of my wife’s book, and has nothing to do with population genetics.

Yes, fine, it’s shameless, but it’s a great book, perfect for the population geneticist with one or more F1s a home (ages 8 and up!). And it does feature a cameo appearance by population geneticist and UCLA Professor John Novembre. For reals!

Also, the story features boy and girl identical twins. So, analyze that.

6. DNA Earrings

What’s that?

I can’t hear you.

I’ve got DNA in my ear.

7. DNA Portraits

Okay, check this out. You send in a swab of DNA, and $199, and they’ll send you a giant picture of a gel, which is I guess is supposed to be some fraction of your genome? Maybe? It looks like there are supposed to be eight sample lanes, and it’s that old-school sequencing analysis where each dideoxynucleotide terminator gets its own lane. So this might be about forty bases of sequence. Maybe?

To be honest, though, this looks a lot more like a protein gel to me. Maybe they use your DNA, clone a little tiny homunculus of you, grind it up, trypsin digest it, and this is that gel.

If that wasn’t bad enough, you also have the option of getting your DNA made into a giant QR code poster (that no one will ever scan).

For the money, I’d go with two copies of the Ewens book.

8. Personalized Genetic Analysis

The classic here is 23 and Me.

Okay, maybe you’re thinking, no, a real population geneticist would not want one of these goofy personalized genetic analysis things. Those are for amateurs, mere heredity enthusiasts. Will my population geneticist friend be offended by the ridiculous pinpointing of their Y-chromosome and mitochondrial ancestry, or the ridiculous breakdown of racial composition, or the ridiculous risk-factor analysis?

Well, that’s the beauty of this gift. If they are the wild-eyed, naive sort of population geneticist, they’re just going to be so gosh-darned excited to get all that cool information. If they’re the bitter, cynical sort of population geneticist (most of them, in my experience), you’ll be giving them the gift of feeling knowledgable and superior!

If you want to surprise them, order the kit and swab their cheek while they’re sleeping.

If you really want to surprise them, order a second kit, swab a random guy, get the results, and claim that the results are from their father.

9. Darwin Eats Cake Stuff

Yeah, you thought plugging my wife’s book was shameless? I’ll show you shameless! Check out these new items from the official Darwin Eats Cake store:

Look! It’s a mug illustrating the academic funding cycle: papers->money->caffeine->papers.
Also works for non-population-geneticist academic types.

Look! It’s a trucker hat featuring Guillaume the Adaptationist Goat’s credo!

Look! It’s a t-shirt featuring J B S Haldane’s moustache in a jar!

Don’t see anything you like? You can check out the comics and contact the “artist” here to submit special requests.

10. Ronald Reagan Riding a Velociraptor with a Machine Gun

Okay, so this one really has nothing to do with population genetics, but it is 100% pure awesome.

Prints available in 11×17 or 24×36 from SharpWriter at deviantART.

Other ideas? Leave them in the comments.

Bad Kid Jokes

So, here’s a Tumblr that will entertain you for a while. According to its creator

I moderate jokes on a Kids Jokes website. A lot of joke submissions can’t be published because they’re offensive (to kids, or to parents who would hear them repeated at home), or they don’t make sense… so I publish them here instead. I have not edited or made up any of these jokes.

Some of them are genuinely offensive in a way that seems to dovetail nicely with the spelling. Many, however, are pure joy. Here are a few samples

What does your mum need to make her fase very dirtey
SHE needs to go in the bin 474844747474747474474747474 times

knock knock
my penas and butt

what happens when you eat 100 tacos and 500 foooodz?

mum; we can eat camels you know honey

When I was young I used to pray for a bike, then I realized that God doesn’t work that way, so I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness.

why did mr potateo run from the cops? because he killed mrs carrot face and robbed mrr broccili pants.

Enjoy (via Boing Boing)