Prof. Steve Steve (invisible edition) at Evolution 2006

Hi, everyone! This is Prof. Steve Steve blogging the Evolution 2006 meeting here on Long Island at SUNY-Stonybrook, home of Douglas Futuyma, Massimo Pigluicci, and other muckety-mucks of evolutionary biology like me. I am a special guest for the spiffy day-long symposium on the Kitzmiller v. Dover case that showed that the ID movement had no clothes, which of course I helped to win. Many of the experts and lawyers, as well as a plaintiff and reporter, are going to be speaking at the symposium.

My buddy Nick Matzke is also here, unfortunately that idiot forgot to bring a camera so this will be a picture-free blog by Prof. Steve Steve. If anyone else has a camera, don’t bother trying to find me at the meeting, because I am currently practicing my invisibility superpower and hanging out with the Invisible Pink Unicorn. Don’t believe me? Invisible Pink Unicorns and Invisible Prof. Steve Steves are not testable hypotheses, you say? Well, do you hold a B. Amboo Chair in Creatoinformatics at the University of Ediacara? Are you a J.D.-M.D.-quintuple Ph.D., seven-time Nobel nominee, often called the Izaak Walton of information theory and the Ulysses S. Grant of drinking contests? I didn’t think so. It takes special training, like mine, to understand IPU and IPU-like phenomena.

Well, onto the meeting. I got here on Saturday at about the same time as Nick, who didn’t look so good after having taken an overnight flight from the West coast. It appeared to me that he was dozing off in several sessions yesterday, but I was paying attention. And, contrary to popular creationist belief, the sessions are the main thing here at the Evolution meetings. So far I have not seen any evidence that an Evil Evolutionist Conspiracy (EEC) is in the works here to crush God, patriotism, mom and apple pie. Believe me, if there was some kind of Evolutionist Conspiracy, I would be involved in it, although I would make sure that it wasn’t evil and that apple pie and the rest were not targeted. No reason the creationists should be allowed to coopt the apple pie fans of this country.

Anyway, I actually found it interesting that in fact, no one seems to be talking about creationism and religion here at all, except when they talk to me. Instead, everyone is talking about biology, speaking in loving terms about intron-exon ratios in invertebrate worm taxa, or passionately discussing the mating habits of various Drosophila lineages, or mapping the geographic history of bivalves, or what have you. There is an awful lot of graphing and statistics and everyone, including students who look like they just graduated from high school, are putting on terribly professional-looking powerpoint presentations that actually have lots of graphics and little text and generally serve rather than hamper communication. They must be giving the kids powerpoint training these days.

The only thing that there appears to be a conspiracy against here at Evolution 2006 is ties and dresses. I got all dressed up in my famous bow tie and graduation cap to attend the meeting, and here everyone is in shorts and T-shirts! Even the professors, who I thought would have higher standards! (But I guess most of them only have one PhD, so I’ll let it slide.) It’s quite warm and muggy this time of year in Stony Brook, which I guess is why everyone is dressed down, but I actually haven’t seen the sun since I’ve been here, since it is also cloudy and often thunderstorming, causing everyone to run back and forth between the various buildings on campus. Being invisible and immaterial, I walk through the rain in a quite serene fashion, of course.

Anyhow, onto the talks. At any one point there are a dozen concurrent sessions running on phylogeography, adaptation, evo-devo, phylogenetic reconstruction, species diversity gradients, education, behavioral ecology, etc. I spent much of my first afternoon in the plant-insect interactions session. The first talk I saw was “Sex Signals, Mimicry And Deception By Orchids” by Anne Gaskett. Anne is from Australia and gave a talk on five Australian orchid species in the genus Cryptostylis. These orchids mimic female wasps, thereby enticing male wasps to come attempt to mate with them, at which point the clever orchid sticks its pollina on the wasp’s back. When the wasp gets tricked by another orchid, the pollina are deposited and fertilization has occurred. Apparently the mimicry is a combination of visual, tactile, and scent signals that those male wasps find irresistable. All five orchids evidently mimic the same female wasp, but they don’t do it in exactly the same way, perhaps to avoid the wasps “catching on” in an evolutionary sense. Now, if I were studying this system, I would just use my super senses to sniff the differences between these orchids, write it up, and have another one of my Ph.Ds. But Anne, a hominid (not her fault, of course), instead ran those orchids through a battery of machines like a gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer to identify and measure the chemicals in the scents, and a UV-visual light spectrometer to measure the reflectance of the orchid flowers at a range of different wavelengths. Then she did a bunch of statistics, and combined all that with experiments to see how the physical measurements matched up with wasp behavior. Then, to see if the wasps were sensing the chemicals that GC-MS indicated were present, she actually chopped off some wasp antennae and hooked them up to electrodes to measure the response. Not so good for the wasps, but definitely good research! Anne concluded that one of the five species had enough differences that might actually be trying to trick a different pollinator, and so the search is on for what that might be.

And that was just one 15-minute presentation from one student! The other sessions I went to on Saturday were on phylogenetic reconstruction with inverted DNA sequences near bacterial replicon origins, evolution education in tropical greenhouses in New York City, several papers on Begonia pollination in Central America, and a paper following up on Darwin’s work on heterostyly in Primula flowers.

All in all, it was a botany-heavy day. That night, after attending the huge poster session, I met up with Rob Pennock and Patricia Princehouse, both veterans of various battles with the creationists. Patricia, Nick, and I, along with Eugenie Scott, spent the night at the house of longtime NCSE Board Member Jack Friedman, who lives a ways away on Long Island. What I find interesting is Jack Friedman’s definition of a “little snack.” Last night, this included herring, chopped liver, and crackers, then moving up to barley and mushroom soup, and then stepping up to lamb chops and potatoes, and finally settling concluding with ice cream.

Well, that’s all for now. Perhaps tonight or tomorrow morning I will get a chance to blog Day 2, which includes a day-long symposium on the ecology and evolution of the latitudinal species diversity gradient, and a showing of Flock of Dodos, the documentary on evolution, creationism, the media, and communicating science to the public. That may get people talking about creationism! And of course Monday is the all-day ID symposium, where I and the other expert witnesses from Kitzmiller will all get to meet together for once.

Should be a blast!
Until then, Prof. Steve Steve (invisible edition)