Category Archives: comic

Two new characters at Darwin Eats Cake

So, if you’re a regular reader of Darwin Eats Cake, you’ll already know that two new characters have been introduced to the strip: R A Fisher’s Pipe and J B S Haldane’s Moustache.

If you’re not a regular reader, you should be, because it will make me happy (and it is, after all, the holiday season), and also because Robert Gonzales once called it “my [meaning Robert’s] new favorite webcomic” over at io9.

For those of you who are not population geneticists, or at least evolutionary biologists, Fisher and Haldane are two of the major figures of the “modern synthesis” in evolution in the first part of the twentieth century. This was basically the integration of the Mendelian idea of the gene with the Darwinian idea of gradual change via natural selection. Fisher, in addition, created a whole lot of modern statistics, which have found applications far outside of evolutionary biology.

R. A. Fisher smoking his pipe. Not a euphemism.
J. B. S. Haldane, um, I guess, having his mustache. Note the lack of “o” in the American spelling of mustache.

Fisher loved himself a good smoke. In fact, late in his life, he publicly challenged research purporting to show a causal link between smoking and lung cancer. Oops.

Haldane once chased my former officemate and his mother down the street in a rainstorm in Calcutta to offer them an umbrella.

These two anecdotes provide all the information you need to accurately reconstruct the political views of each.

Fisher passed away in 1962, and Haldane in 1964. Fortunately, one of the most salient features of each was preserved in a jar for posterity. And now, half a century later, the two have reunited to bring you their genetically inspired comedy stylings.

Here’s what you’ve missed so far:

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The selfish herd

So, one of the most interesting questions in evolutionary biology is the origin of collective behaviors. This can be the complex division of labor that we see in social insects and human societies, flocking behavior in migratory birds, or microbial formation of biofilms. It can be predators engaging in collective hunting, or prey engaging in collective being hunted. It’s this last one that we’re going to be talking about today.

As with many questions in evolutionary biology, there are a couple of dimensions that people are interested in untangling: proximal and ultimate causation. Proximal explanations focus on the “how” part of the solution, as in, “what are the molecular, genetic, etc. mechanisms and environmental cues that result in this behavior?” Ultimate explanations focus on “why,” in the evolutionary sense of “what were the selective pressures that led to the evolution of this behavior?”

Herding or flocking behavior is a classic case. For example, why do sheep hang out in a big group, in contrast to say, leopards, which tend to be pretty solitary? There are a number of possible (and not mutually exclusive) ultimate explanations, but the most talked about one is probably defense against predators.

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Back in the mid-twentieth century, it was common for biologists to talk in fairly loose terms about collective behaviors having evolved as a result of their benefits to the group. Then, in 1966, G. C. Williams published Adaptation and Natural Selection, which dropped a lot of truth into the community. In particular, it emphasized the gene-centered view of natural selection that hit the public consciousness with Richard Dawkins’s 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, and which has remained the dominant paradigm in evolutionary biology ever since.

Williams demonstrated that group selection, while possible, will generally be a much weaker force than selection acting on the individual. Therefore, it is good practice to look for evolutionary explanations at this lower level. Given plausible adaptive stories at the individual and group levels, one should favor the individual-level story. While the two stories might not be mutually exclusive, individual-level selective pressures are more likely to have played an important role in  the evolution of any particular trait than group-level selective pressures (all else being equal, of course).

In 1971, W. D. Hamilton published a theoretical analysis that brought this individual-level perspective to herding behavior. Hamilton argued that all you need is for animals to be trying to evade predators as individuals. If there are other individuals of their type around, they just need to try to position themselves between other individuals. Here’s how Hamilton draws it:

This frog wants to position itself between the two frogs on the right. That way, when the sea snake comes up, it will eat one of the frogs at the edge, and the one in the middle will be safe.

All you need is for everyone to follow one simple rule: when a predator comes, position yourself between two other individuals. What you get then is a tight cluster of individuals.

You can actually try this at home. You probably need about eight or ten people. So, most of you might not be able to try this at home, but you could maybe try it at school or work. Have each person pick two other people in the group (but don’t tell who your picks are). Then, everyone tries to get between the two people they picked. What you’ll get is something a lot like a cluster of frogs climbing all over each other to get away from a sea snake.

Frogs maneuvering to get between other frogs results in the formation of a clusterf**k of frogs. I know, right? I was surprised, too, but my herpetologist friends assure me that “clusterf**k” is the official collective noun for a group of frogs. Don’t even ask about sea snakes. You don’t want to know.

Bonus activity: after you’ve disentangled yourselves from the frogpile, try this one. Each person picks two people again, labeling them “A” and “B” (in your head). Again, no one needs to say whom they picked. Now, each person should position themselves so that their “A” person is between them and their “B” person. If it helps, imagine that “A” is Mitt Romney, that “B” is the American People, and you are Mitt’s tax returns. Your job is to position yourself so that Mitt keeps the American People from seeing you. I won’t spoil how it comes out.

So, Hamilton’s model provides a nice, simple model that can produce the observed behavior. The model is attractive because (1) it requires selection only at the level of the individual, and (2) it requires each individual only to follow a very simple behavioral rule. The collective behavior is an emergent property requiring no coordination at the group level.

Now, there’s a new paper out that is attempting to look at this empirically, in sheep. The study involves strapping adorable GPS backpacks on a bunch of sheep (Figure 1c, below) and then letting a sheepdog chase them around.

You can look at the movies here. It’s only a brief communication, and does not really nail anything down, but the authors interpret their results as broadly consistent with the selfish herd model. In particular, they are able to see that individual sheep seem to be trying to get to the center of the flock.

The cool thing is more the potential for this type of experiment. Yes, Hamilton’s model is attractive and parsimonious, but if we want to understand the rules that actually govern the behavior of sheep when they are faced with a predator (or, in this case, an annoyator), we will need to get good quantitative data on individual behaviors in a variety of contexts.

Plus, look at that little GPS backpack!

I’ll leave you with this.

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King AJ, Wilson AM, Wilshin SD, Lowe J, Haddadi H, Hailes S, & Morton AJ (2012). Selfish-herd behaviour of sheep under threat. Current biology : CB, 22 (14) PMID: 22835787

Hamilton, W. D. (1971). Geometry for the Selfish Herd Journal of Theoretical Biology, 31, 295-311 DOI: 10.1016/0022-5193(71)90189-5

Happy May Day from Occupy Darwin Eats Cake!!

So, today is May Day!! Hopefully, you are out General Striking right now, or will be later today. If you’re stuck inside, are far away from one of the occupied cities, or just want to feel like you’re saving civilization in a way that doesn’t involve getting wet, I have assembled here a retrospective of Occupy comics from Darwin Eats Cake. Links to individual comics will open in a new window

Here are all of the “Occupy Darwin Eats Cake” strips, where the cast abandoned me last fall to join in the protests at Zuccotti Park, along with the Occupy-related strips that have come up along the way:

The Economic Brain
Episode 1
Episode 2

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What’s the plural of "octopus"?

So, how do you refer to more than one octopus? “Octopuses”? “Octopi”? “Octopodes”? In case you’re uncertain which way to go, here’s a handy guide from Darwin Eats Cake, which you can print out for easy reference.

The text may be a little bit hard to read here, but you can view a higher-resolution version here. More discussion after the picture.

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Some of you may recall this video from Kory Stamper, who argues that “octopuses” is fine, as is “octopi,” as is “octipodes,” for that matter, although, as she says, if you’re going to use it, you’d better be prepared to explain and defend it.

I think that’s all dead on, with one small addition. Stamper argues that when a word is borrowed into English, it gets the standard english pluralization, hence “octopuses.” I feel like there actually is a living grammatical rule in spoken English, where you are allowed pluralize a word ending in “us” by changing it to “i” provided that the word is long enough, and especially if the word sounds sort of foreign-ish.

Now, I mean “allowed to” in a descriptive, rather than a prescriptive sense. That is, I take the viewpoint that if I say a word (or a phrase, or use a grammatical construct, etc.), and most native English speakers understand that word in roughly the sense in which I meant it, then it’s a part of English, whether or not it follows a rule that has been codified in a book.

So, if I were talking about more than one Krampus, and I used the word “Krampi,” I think that most people would understand what I meant (assuming that they had heard of Krampus in the first place). On the other hand, if I drop by an elementary school and start talking to the children about the line of yellow schoolbi, I’m probably going to get arrested.

From where I stand, then, “octopuses” and “octopi” are both native English pluralizations. “Octopi” just happens to use a rule that came into English through an appeal by (prescriptive) grammarians to Latin. “Octopodes,” by contrast, will only be comprehensible to someone who either has studied Greek, or who has had this particular debate pointed out to them.

The poet in me feels the need, of course, to point out that there is no such thing as an exact synonym (blah, blah, blah). So, while “octopuses” and “octopi” both refer to more than one octopus, they don’t mean the exactly the same thing. In particular, if I say “Look at the octopi,” I am really saying something like “Look at the more than one octopus, and, hey, I’m doing that Latin thing.” Whichever one you use, there are aspects of social positioning involved (maybe I want to look smart, or educated, or maybe salt-of-the-earth-ish, etc.), the details of which are going to depend a lot on the specifics of the social context in which you’re talking. Really, pluralizing “octopus” is the third rail of talking about cephalopods (cephalopodes?), in that there is no way to do it where someone in the room is not going to make an issue out of it.

I also feel like maybe I should clarify what I perceive to be the game in the dorky/sophisticated outcome. The goal is not necessarily to implement pluralization as it would be done in language X by a native speaker of language X. Rather, it is to take a simple pluralization rule from language X, remove it from its native context, and implement it in English, sort of like the Krampus / Krampi thing. It’s like trying to figure out how to pluralize something in a sort of Xglish (the language-X analog of Spanglish). For example, David Winter (@TheAtavism) points out that in Maori, one octopus would be “Te wheke,” while two or more would be “Nga wheke.” I take that to imply that the appropriate Maoglish plural of “octopus” would be “ngactopus,” which is pretty fun to say.

That being said, in addition to this Maori tidbit, I have already learned some cool stuff via Twitter responses to the cartoon. Here’s a sampling:

@symbolicstorage notes that the same ambiguity exists in German, where one might say “oktopusse” or “oktopi,” adding that “octopusen” is 100% wrong. But, you know, I don’t know about that. It only looks about 20% wrong to me. 30% at most. 100% wrong would be more like “farfegnugen.”

@BobOHara says that Finns would most often use the partative form “octopusta,” rather than the plural “octopust.” I still don’t fully understand the distinction, but is seems that “octopusta” would best be translated something like “some octopus, like probably more than one, but I’m not going to count them right now, since I have better things to do, like participate in my world-leading public education system.”

And “Kraken-wrangler” @DrSeaRotmann suggests “octoposse,” which is the only plural I am going to use from this day forward.

Have you got more? How do you say “octopus” in your native (or secondarily learned) language? How do you refer to more than one? And, how would you create an English hybrid (Xglish plural) using that pluralization rule? Post in the comments, or send a note on Twitter (@jonfwilkins), and I’ll update the list!

Oh, and by the way, I forgot to include the French “octopeaux.”

Calamities of Nature, RIP

So, nature got a little bit less calamitous last week when Tony Piro announced that he would no longer be updating his absolutely superb webcomic Calamities of Nature. Fortunately, he has announced that he intends to keep the site up, so you can peruse the archive of over 650 of the smartest meditations on science, philosophy, religion, and bacon that you’ll find anywhere.

I’m writing about this here because of something that he said in the post where he announced the end of the strip:

Today is my last update for Calamities of Nature. And I’ll be perfectly frank about the reasons. My full-time career is in academics, and I need to put everything I have into it if I’m going to have any chance of keeping it that way. As much as I love this comic, I can’t have it taking precious time away from my work. It’s time to move on.

Now, I hope, for Tony’s sake that he had also grown tired of maintaining his updating schedule, that he felt that five years was long enough, and that he is happy committing his efforts full-time to his academic career.

But, whatever the actual situation in this particular case, there is no question that he has hit on an unfortunate truth about academia. The fact is, it is extremely difficult to establish and maintain a traditional academic career while devoting time to other interests. Once you add in family (Tony also mentions that he has two kids), traditional academia basically demands that all of your time not spent sleeping or parenting be devoted to a very specific, constrained set of activities.

I think this is a shame. Certainly, there are people out there for whom this is the ideal lifestyle, people whose interest line up neatly with the demands of an academic career. I’m glad that they exist, and hope that they will continue to populate our Universities. But, for a lot of people, a more piece-meal career with time devoted to a broader range of activities would be more compelling, more fun, and would lead to their doing higher quality work over all.

Calamities of Nature is consistently smart and thoughtful, and it has a huge readership (roughly 5% the traffic of the mega-popular xkcd, according to alexa). It has probably engaged more people with ideas from science and philosophy than most academics do over the course of their entire careers. It seems criminal to me that the all-or-nothing structure of traditional academia means that someone with this much talent, and this great a platform, has to abandon it in order to maintain their career.

This is one of the things that the Ronin Institute aims to change. We are building an alternative model of scholarly research, one where scholars would be able to scale their commitment to research based on their personal interests and constraints. I imagine an ideal world in which someone like Tony Piro could commit, say, two-thirds of his time and effort to traditional scholarship, and one third to maintaining Calamities of Nature. I’m putting words in his mouth, of course, and I don’t know whether or not this is something that the real Tony Piro would want, but I think the world is full of Tony-Piro-esque scholars out there, who have other talents and interests that they have had to set aside in order to commit themselves to academia.

Of course, a part of this alternative model is that the two-thirds-time scholar would only be paid, say, two thirds as much as the full-time scholar. For people whose outside interests also made money, this would likely be an ideal scenario. For people whose other interests have no corresponding income stream, full-time academia might be the only way to pay the mortgage. However, I suspect that there are a lot of academics and would-be academics out there who would gladly trade a portion of their paycheck for a saner and more well rounded life.

Here’s the final Calamities of Nature strip. When you have a chance, go check out the whole archive.

Best of luck to Tony Piro in his all his future endeavors, academic and otherwise.

[Reposted from the Ronin Blog]

Darwin Eats Cake Fan Art!

So, here we are, five days after celebrating Darwin Eats Cake’s birth, and the little comic that could has just received its first piece of fan art. To set the stage, here is Darwin Eats Cake number 88 — The top five underutilized Watchmen references:

And here is this awesome piece, submitted by Iona Bellamy:

which is so much more clever than any of the ones that I came up with. Thanks, Iona, for this piece of genius!

Toxoplasmosis Extravaganza: Ride Complete!

So, this week at Darwin Eats Cake, we celebrated our one-year anniversary with a series of nine strips on the zooparasite Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite, which causes Toxoplasmosis, is the reason why pregnant women are encouraged to avoid cat litter.

Here’s the full series, presented for your one-stop-shopping viewing pleasure. The strips do not, I think, assume any expert biological knowledge, so you don’t need to be a parasitologist to enjoy them. However, a dorky and juvenile sense of humor will help a lot. Alternatively, you can read them on the Darwin Eats Cake website, where they look a little better, I think. The series starts at

At this point, Darwin Eats Cake will return to its regular programming schedule, with twice-a-week updates, usually on Mondays and Thursdays, except for those days that have been recognized as official holidays by the Darwin Eats Cake Council of Freeholders and its chairwoman, the duly elected Queen of Naboo.

So, stop by on Monday for a new strip, or any time to trawl the archive:

It’s Toxoplasmosis week at Darwin Eats Cake

So, tomorrow (March 13) marks the one-year anniversary of the launch of my webcomic Darwin Eats Cake on its very own website (here). Normally, Darwin Eats Cake updates approximately twice a week (hemicircaseptanally), on approximately Monday and Thursday (circa-Mondarily and circa-Thursdarily, I assume). However, to mark this special anniversary occasion, we are rolling out a daily series of strips on Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite responsible for Toxoplasmosis. This bug was recently in the news thanks to a profile of Jaroslav Flegr published recently in the Atlantic (here).

Here are the first two of this week’s six strips:

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Introducing: Cogitations of a Houseplant

So, with the various things on my plate at the moment, it has sometimes been difficult to maintain Darwin Eats Cake’s hemicircaseptanal (about twice a week) update schedule. Fortunately, Todd approached me with an idea to help fill in the gaps. You see, Todd sits around and thinks a lot, because, well, he’s sort of stuck in a pot. Anyway, he thought that maybe he could share some of his thoughts with the Darwin Eats Cake audience. He hopes that both of you will enjoy it.

The good news is that this means more regular updating. In fact, thanks to Todd, we were able to post three updates this week. The bad news, if we’re honest, is the quality of Todd’s thoughts.

For better or worse, here are the first two cantos of “Cogitations of a Houseplant, with Todd”

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