Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Natural Selection in the Meadow of Science

Imagine a meadow full of flowers. Imagine yourself as a bee, looking for flowers that have the nectar that you want to eat. Which ones will you go to? There are only so many hours in the day, and you have to make the best use of your time in the sun. You may choose the biggest and brightest flowers, if for no other reason than that they grabbed your attention.

Natural selection results. The bees choose the biggest and brightest flowers, and these are the ones that get pollinated and produce a lot of seeds. In addition to natural selection, there is also sexual selection. The big, colorful flowers attract pollinators to bring, and to take away, pollen, which is the male function of the flower. I am unclear on the concept of how a pollinator can enhance a flower’s male success without also enhancing its female success, but the scholarly articles about pollination customarily make this distinction.

Now imagine that the meadow is full of graduate students looking for jobs in academia. They want their scholarly articles not to just get published but to get noticed. How can a graduate student do this?

Of course, the article has to be well written and technically accurate. An inaccurate article is as counter-productive as a flower that, due to a genetic or developmental defect, cannot produce seeds.

And this used to be all that mattered. Scientific articles had to be correct, not necessarily interesting. As a matter of fact, old scientific articles seemed to me to compete with one another to see how boring they could be.

But now, scholarly articles have to catch the reader’s attention.

I think this is a positive development. Like many other professors, I am overwhelmed with work. I do not have time to read a bunch of scientific articles. All I can do is to visit the websites of the professional organizations to which I belong (for example, the Botanical Society of America), click on each monthly issue of the journal (American Journal of Botany, AJB), and scroll through the titles. If one catches my attention, I click on it. Right at the top, under the title and names of authors, is a summary, called an abstract. It might be one or two hundred words long. And that is usually all I have time to read. If I want to look at it again, I highlight and copy the title and put it in a digital file to which I can refer later. Even this I mostly do on vacation.

You can see how important it is to have a clear and interesting title. The title might be all that most members of the Society read. Sometimes, the titles sound more like something from National Geographic than from AJB. (I repeat, this is a good thing.) Here are some examples, from 2017 and 2018:

  • There was an article about the beautiful red-spotted golden flowers of Mimulus guttatus. I have long admired this flower, and was surprised to learn that in addition to being beautiful it had a nifty trick. The stigma (the surface on which pollinators deposit the pollen) closes itself up when it is touched. This is valuable for flowers that require pollen from a different flower. The ones that pollinate themselves, however, have lost the ability to close up their stigmas. The title began, “Losing one’s touch.”
  • Plant species related to Amsinckia, which produces flowers on a stalk that unfurls like the neck of a violin, are found in both North and South America. Genetic analysis has revealed that seeds of these plants journeyed from one hemisphere to the other 18 times. Interesting, but I might have missed it were it not for the first part of the title: “Memoirs of a frequent flier.”
  • There was an article about parasites seeking host vines. But these vines might be hard to find, interspersed with many other plants on which the parasites cannot live. The title began, “Reading between the vines.”
  • There was a series of articles about the computer-based analyses of plant evolutionary history. One was about the plant family Campanulaceae (bellflowers). The title began, “Can we build it? Yes, we can, but should we use it?” The title of another article, about the plant family Apocynaceae (milkweeds), began, “Evolution on the backbone.” The author was referring to the backbone of the phylogenetic tree, not animal backbones.
  • The August, 2018 AJB issue focused on how the “tree of life,” which shows the evolutionary relationships of all living species of plants, can be improved by adding in extinct, fossilized species, thus making it “The Tree of Death.” One of the article titles began, “Wanted dead or alive (probably dead).”

Interesting titles are good not just for us scientists, but also for science journalists, who write popular articles for everyday people to read. In case science journalists look over the titles, they will only notice the interesting ones. With a boring title, your research will never get mentioned in popular magazines or websites. One of the world’s leading journals, Science, has popular summaries of its technical articles near the front of each issue. The titles sometimes stretch themselves to the limit to get your attention.

For example, in the August 2, 2019 issue of Science, there is a technical article titled, “Laboratory mice born to wild mice have natural microbiota and model human immune responses.” If you read this title carefully, you can see that it is a pretty exciting article, bringing together two important aspects of modern medicine: microbiota (e.g. in your gut) and immunity. The summary at the front of the journal is titled “Walk on the wildling side,” and the news summary title is “Born to be a wildling.” The news summary titles tell you almost nothing about what the research is about; they exist solely to grab your attention. “Wildling” comes from the title of a 2018 movie.

In the immediately previous issue, there was a technical article about neutral mutations; that is, they are DNA mutations that have no measurable effect on the organism. Geneticists call these mutations cryptic. The title of the technical article is “Cryptic genetic variation accelerates evolution by opening access to diverse adaptive peaks.” The news summary article was entitled “Tales from the crypt(ic).”

Even the technical articles sometimes make a big stretch to gain attention. Several years ago there was a Science article about a Mediterranean volcano. The title began, “Bang!”

This has been going on for a long time, though less than at present. A 2002 article in the journal Oecologia is entitled, “It takes two to tango but three is a tangle: Mutualists and cheaters on the carnivorous plant Roridula.”

But sometimes the titles promise more than they can deliver. One 2017 article in AJB was entitled “Ecological and evolutionary consequences of tri-trophic interactions: Spatial variation and effects of plant density.” The title made me excited. It would make you excited, too, if you are a plant ecologist. It sounded like ecology at its best: biological processes having ripple effects up and down the food chain, that is, three trophic levels. I can almost hear John Muir saying that everything in the universe is hitched to everything else and that he would love to read the article.

But then I looked at the summary of the article. The seeds themselves are the first trophic level; the insects that eat the seeds, the second; and the parasites that eat the insects, the third. But the article simply showed that insects will be more abundant in places where there are more seeds, and that the parasites that afflict the insects are not affected by seed or insect density. The first conclusion was something we have already known for decades; the second conclusion was that the parasites didn’t affect the system. I thought that I was going to learn something new about ecology, in general, and was disappointed. If the authors had entitled the article “Seed predators eat more seeds when there are more seeds, and parasites have no effect on them,” the article would not have been noticed, perhaps not even published. All this, in spite of the fact that there was nothing technically wrong with the article.

If you want a job in the academic world, you have to publish articles with interesting titles (good) and that maybe promise more than they can deliver (not so good). Overall, I am glad that scientific titles are more interesting than they used to be. I certainly made some stretches for the chapter titles in my most recent book. But sometimes, just sometimes, a clever title makes me wonder if the author is hiding something.

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