Category: Books and Articles

The Luxury of Introspection

We at ESS have been planning to get the faculty at CES on board the blogging brigade for some time now. We start off with Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar kindly sharing his thoughts with us with the following blog. He looks forward to comments.

One day I was quite randomly switching channels on my television in India (we have over a 100 channels, though few that are worth watching) and I came across a channel on which Mr. Raj Kapoor was being interviewed. Raj Kapoor was an icon of India’s film industry; he was a most famous film producer, director and actor in Indian cinema before it got the vulgar label of Bollywood. The interviewer, a very beautiful actress by the name of Simmi Garewal, asked Raj Kapoor many difficult questions, especially about how he managed to balance his life with his wife and large family on the one hand and his many women on the other. But in the end she asked him the most difficult question: she asked him to name his most favourite among his many films. He hesitated, said it was very difficult but finally named the film ‘Mera Naam Joker’. The interviewer was surprised (as was I) and protested that the film was a total box office flop. Raj Kapoor said with a smile that all his films were wonderful, they were like his children and he loved them all but if he was forced to pick a favourite he would pick the one that did not do so well in the world. How I wish scientists had the courage to say something like that. In today’s world scientists only tell you how many times they have been cited and what their impact factor is and what their h index is, and so on. I sometimes wonder who is in show business – filmmakers or scientists! Since then I always tell my students this story and tell them that by the time they become independent scientists they should have the maturity to have an opinion of their papers, even of their unpublished manuscripts, independent of what the reviewers might think.

Indeed, one of my great frustrations with the scientific community and the scientific enterprise is the extent to which we jump onto bandwagons and succumb to prevailing fashions, the extent to which scientists almost entirely judge themselves by how their peers judge them and don’t seem to have an independent opinion of themselves or their work. This kind of peer judgment has now reached pathological proportions because people no longer seem to read papers and appear to be content at knowing the impact factor of the journal in which a paper is published. This has resulted in a mad rush to publish in so-called high-impact factor journals, which then begin to determine what kind of science is done. Funding, promotion, election to academies, getting prizes, our very social prestige seems to depend on these absurd quantitative measures of quality. It is also a great waste of everybody’s time because people would like to try their luck in the highest-impact factor journals and descend through a series of rejections until they land at the right place. Next to impact factor, the second instrument with which journals boast of their quality is the percentage of papers they reject. Until some years ago, I used to quite enjoy meetings where we evaluated scientists for one reason or another because I learnt a great deal of what each scientist had done. Today I have to listen only to numbers of publications, citations, impact factors of journals, h index and so on, without being told what was actually discovered. Younger people, somewhat legitimately, are afraid of not conforming to the system because their careers may depend on their h indices, although I think a little more protest and defiance is called for. The real burden of reform lies with senior, accomplished scientists who have the power to change the methods of evaluation. But I see no sign of that. This is the single most disturbing aspect of modern science. For my part, I have never ever paid attention to the impact factor of any journal- not when I read, not when I publish and not when I evaluate.


Some time ago I had the opportunity to speak during a workshop on Science Communication, and this brought home to me the difficulty of practicing and the near impossibility of teaching science communication in today’s world. Concerning science communication, I make two propositions.

Proposition 1: In an ideal world, there should be no need for science communicators as distinct from scientists. The producers of knowledge should be able to successfully communicate their findings to all of the rest of the world. Indeed, they should be able to do so better than anybody else.

Proposition 2: In an ideal world, there should be no difference between communicating science through the medium of a peer-reviewed, technical science journal, on the one hand, and through a newspaper article, on the other.

Of course we don’t live in an ideal world, but is there any harm in trying? At the very least we should not bend over backwards to make the world less ideal than it can possibly be. I suggest that we should try to put ourselves on a trajectory that leads to a world where these propositions are true, even if we will never actually get there. To get onto such a trajectory, three conditions must be met.

Condition One: Scientists must be interested in and must value effective communication. Unfortunately this condition is not usually met. Scientists seldom seem to be interested in effective communication. This may seem like an outrageous claim but let’s think about it. We never hear of one scientist tell another, “Oh! I read a paper in Nature last night, it was so well written.” If you indeed make such a remark, it will likely be construed as a backhanded compliment, suggesting that there was not much substance in the paper. This is because scientists seem to imagine, implicitly or explicitly, that there is a trade-off between form and content – if the results are very good there is no need to say it very well and if some one works hard to say it well, maybe this is to compensate for the lack of much substance. But of course there cannot be a trade-off between form and con- tent. Form and content can only enhance each other and never diminish each other. Scientists need to accept that there is always a positive feedback between form and content and cultivate a desire for effective communication. And they should stop deriding efforts by their peers to communicate science effectively, especially when it is done for the general public. We must endeavour to refute Stefan Collini’s charge (Collini, Stefan. Introduction. In: C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures, Cambridge University Press, Canto Edition, 1998, p.lix.) that in Science “writing plays no really creative role”, that “arranging one’s findings in intelligible form is regarded by many research scientists as something of a chore” and that “elegance of style tends not to be cultivated or prized as a professional ideal…” I agree with the charge but we must change the world of science so that the charge is no longer true.

Condition Two: Scientists must read widely and indiscriminately. This condition is also seldom met because scientists consider it a waste of their precious time; they prefer to get on with their work. My advice to students to read widely and indiscriminately, especially outside their field, is often seen as bad advice by my colleagues. All this is because we have bound ourselves to unrealistic and counterproductive standards for the quantum of output in the form of scientific papers per capita, per year. There is clearly a trade-off between quantity and quality that we must take note of. Unless we read widely and indiscriminately and-especially in peripheral and “irrelevant” fields, we are not likely to be able to develop an effective style of communication. It is not easy to prove this point by argumentation; one has to practice reading widely and indiscriminately to see its truth!

Condition Three: To move in the direction of collapsing the journal article and the newspaper article, we need to change our attitude both toward the readers of scientific journals and toward the readers of newspapers. ‘When we write for scientific journals, we assume far too much knowledge and intelligence on the part of our readers and when we write for newspapers, if we ever do, we assume too little knowledge and intelligence on the part of our readers. Besides, as Sir Peter Medawar has so convincingly argued (Medawar, Peter. “Is the Scientific Paper a Fraud?” Unscripted broadcast on BBC Third Programme, Listner 70,12 September 1963. Printed in: Peter Medawar, The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice, and Other Classic Essays on Science, Oxford University Press, 1996.), the scientific paper has quite unnecessarily been made into an unrealistic caricature of how we do science. The flow of a typical paper from Introduction to Methods to Results and finally to Discussion almost never reflects the actual way in which the research was done it strips the narrative of the true ups and downs and hides all the false starts and thus fails to convey the process of science. This is not necessarily inevitable and should be changed and, as Medawar says, “the inductive format of the scientific paper should be discarded”. On the other hand we need to take the readers of newspapers far more seriously and not only write more often for them but also write in a more honest way. This will help redress the present imbalance, at least to some extent. It is time we discovered the true value of newspaper articles written by scientists themselves. Here is one incentive: While the readers of our technical papers are likely to be our competitors, often with a conflict of interest, the readers of our newspaper articles are more likely to be our collaborators, with little or no conflict of interest. Let’s address the latter more often.

If communicating science is difficult, communicating about science communication is harder still. This relates to the larger problem of the difficulty (or impossibility) of teaching creative writing. We can teach people how to write but we cannot teach people how to write creatively, almost by definition. Think of why we like our favourite authors. It is because each of them has a distinct and unique style. How do we teach students of science communication to write with distinct and unique styles of their own? I do not formally teach science communication, but if I did I would not produce lists of Do’s and Don’ts and I would not hold up models of creative writing for emulation. Instead, I would make my students read widely and indiscriminately and especially outside their fields of interest and expertise. Then I would ask them to rank, say on a scale of I to 5, what they have read, in terms of whether they found the writing illuminating and interesting. Finally, and this is most important, I would persuade them to publicly articulate the reasons for their rankings. Merely indulging in repeated exercises of this kind can go a long way in getting students to learn the value of good writing and to develop a style of their own.


In recent years one of the great pleasures in my life has been the opportunity to listen to audiobooks and podcasts. An added advantage is that I can do so while I walk, exercise, wait for delayed flights or (occasionally) cook. An amazing number of great books, old and new, are now easily available as audiobooks, and sometimes for free. More importantly, the audio recording of a book is often a significant value addition, creating a whole new experience. No wonder I often go back and listen to books that I have already read in the conventional format. I also subscribe to a number of podcasts and have become addicted to them. Among them are the short weekly podcasts that journals such as Nature and Science put out along with their print and e-editions. I always listen to these podcasts and go to the journal only if something interests me. These podcasts not only contain summaries of several articles but also interviews with the authors, comments by independent experts and so on. Some time ago I was listening to the 26 August 2011 Science podcast. The Science podcast is usually hosted by two people (Stewart Wills and Kerry Klein, in recent times) and toward the end of programme, after the contents of the current issue of the journal are covered and various authors and experts are interviewed, their online science news editor David Grimm is interviewed as he brings news about a number of fascinating science stories published in journals other than Science. On that occasion David Grimm had brought a number of science stories, but his very last one was, for me, an icing on the cake. David Grimm had brought a bizarre story about bedbug sex. He told the interviewer Kerry Klein that, “Once they’ve finished feeding, males attack them [female bugs] or ‘attack’ them with bacteria-covered penises. And the reason I say attack is because the male bed bugs are quite likely to not use the proper plumbing, and rather just sort of randomly jab her in various places of her abdomen. So it’s very unpleasant to be a female bedbug. So the question with this study is, first of all, how do females survive this assault? And also, if the males’ penises are covered in bacteria, how do the females protect themselves from getting infected?” As David Grimm went on to give more details about how the female bedbugs step up their immune response and so on, the question that was running through my head was “why”, why should males do anything so bizarre? I could not, of course, ask the question and my only hope was that the host Kerry Klein would ask the question. But, instead of asking why the males do such a bizarre thing, she said, “So a question that is running through my head throughout this is, ‘Why do we care about bedbug sex?'” I was crestfallen. It is such an interesting thing that any child will want to know why, not why we care.

The best of science is driven by childlike curiosity, not by carefully weighing whether or not we should waste our time and money on finding answers to this or that. Kaushik Basu, the current economic advisor to the Government of India, put it well when reflecting on whether to leave academics and join the government. In an essay reprinted in his’:” delightful little book “An Economist’s Miscellany”, (Basu, Kaushik. An Economist’s Miscellany. Oxford University Press, 2011.) Basu says, “As a researcher, I did economics for the love of aesthetics, not for relevance. In defence; I will simply say that that is the only way to do good research. The primary motivation that drives a researcher is a creative urge, the urge to unearth beauty and order, be it in nature, society, or the chaos of the market.” And yet we are asked to justify all research, even before it is done, not only by politicians, but also, as I discovered on this occasion, even by science journalists. And we scientists obediently manufacture false expectations from our research. In his case David Grimm produced a most unconvincing claim that “a lot of people want to ex- terminate bedbugs from their homes, so the more we learn about how they regulate their immune response, the more we can actually take advantage of that and have a much more effective way potentially of getting these bedbugs out of our beds”. Why not say more honestly that the behaviour of the bedbugs is so intriguing that we cannot sleep well until we know why they behave as they do? The best way to choose a scientific problem is not by how important its solution is for our welfare but by how interesting it is, how it is the next gap in our knowledge that needs to be filled before other gaps can be filled and in- deed, before other gaps can even be identified. Science creates a body of knowledge the creators of which do not always care for the current perception of its utility.

But of course we cannot only blame politicians, administrators and journalists for the false and misleading emphasis on the utility of all knowledge. We scientists are as much to blame and have as much power to alter the current state of affairs. We often make our research more expensive than it needs to be, we attach more prestige to expensive research and belittle inexpensive research. As a result, we choose the most expensive research projects and the most expensive ways of solving a given problem. We inflate our budgets and make it hard for people to get small grants. Indeed we are well on our way to exterminating the whole genre of grant-free research by starting so called open-access journals where authors have to pay to publish. The most disconcerting trend that I have come across recently is that we are gradually replacing the category of “scientist” with “PI” (for principal investigator). I am often asked how many PIs there are in my institute. PI is the one who gets the grants and only he or she seems to count; all others who actually do the research, including students, are becoming irrelevant. There is much introspection and soul-searching that we scientists need to do.


Introspection however has become a luxury that we can increasingly ill afford. Scientists are so busy, producing so much science, never mind its quality. I myself could scarcely escape this trap if I did not have the luxury of coming from time to time to the Wissenschaftskolleg, where one can still afford the luxury of introspection. Indeed, one cannot help introspect, for here we meet not our competitors but scholars of unconnected disciplines who could care less about the quantum of our research output but often ask us naive questions driven by ignorance that often result in childlike curiosity. Joachim Nettelbeck, in whose honour this volume is being written by his friends and admirers, has not only been greatly responsible for making the Wissenschaftskolleg what it is, he him- self is also always available to discuss the kinds of introspections that I have exemplified above. I will always cherish the numerous occasions on which I tried out my ideas and thoughts before his critical and enthusiastic mind. I have even more to be grateful for. Nettelbeck has been a great source of inspiration for me to set up the Centre for Contemporary Studies (CCS) at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. CCS aims to be a kind of mini-Wissenschaftskolleg by bringing to the campus of a purely science and engineering institute scholars from diverse disciplines in the social sciences, humanities, arts and literature. The goal is to open the minds of students so that they can avail themselves of the luxury of introspection whenever an opportunity presents itself.


Reproduced from: Beyond the college - Joachim Nettelbeck, the Secretary of the Wissenschaftskollegs from 1981-2012)  (Eds.) Diawara, M.; Günther, K.,and Meyer-Kalkus, R., Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, Germany, pp. 152-157 (2012).

Variation abound!

After four sessions of variation, I think we kinda got the hang of what Darwin is trying to say in Chapter 2. The crux hasn’t differed much from what we had gathered from our first discussion of the chapter. The difference is a tinge of light peeking through the haze of all that confusion. There’s one thing that struck me while I was reading the second chapter for the third or fourth time. Darwin was writing this manuscript at a time when the creationist point of view was dominant. It’s hard for us (ecologists/biologists) to think of something like that right now in this era when we’ve been schooled to think that evolution is the only explanation to life, the universe and everything (ok, I’m exaggerating). But let’s just step back into time and place ourselves in Darwin’s shoes…figuratively speaking. I have no clue what his shoe size was. That’s when you’ll realise why he’s being so cautious in his approach to asking the ultimate questions, “Why should there be so much variability in nature?” and “Why should some genera have more variability than others?” if there was a God/Almighty Creator who just decided to create and populate the Earth. Darwin must have realised it’s not because God just felt like it. There was too much of a pattern that emerged from analysing all his tables (by the way, I have no clue what tables he was talking about) for variation to be attributed to something as random as God creating species. Where there is pattern, there is process. And Darwin very cautiously introduces and speculates on the processes which he thinks are at work that gives rise to those observed patterns.

In this chapter he introduces (very slowly) his ideas on the slow “manufactory of species” that is “still in action”. And the action is through “natural selection accumulating… differences of structure in certain definite directions.” He doesn’t define what natural selection is yet, although he does mention that such action is not only because of the physical environment in which an individual organism resides, but because of other factors such as competition with other individuals. Of course, there’s an entire chapter dedicated to natural selection. I’m sure he goes into great detail there. But before that he’ll be dealing with another of his musings…about the Struggle for Existence. That’s chapter 3, and, thankfully, a very straight-forward one. Looking forward to discussing that one this Wednesday, February 20th, 5:30pm.

PS: There were some points that we were still not clear about while discussing this chapter. I’ll list those out here so that we can continue the discussion online:

1. Viraj had asked if natural selection is something that would act on a population or an individual. Navendu and I thought that it would act on individual traits, but Viraj and Vijay thought it would most likely act on a population. Now, considering that a population is a group of individuals, what do you think?

2. A trivial point, but Navendu and I were very confused on a distinction that Darwin had made with the distribution of a species, because he had used “wide-ranging” and “diffused” to mean two very different things. Well, at least he explicitly said so. So to help us out with that you’ll have to read the chapter. Good luck with that.

To Lawton. May his tribe increase!

lawton_johnI don’t quite remember now, how I discovered John Lawton. I think it was in my first year as a PhD student, when I got to read more indiscriminate and interesting stuff that I ever have. It was in one of these wanderings that I found myself with ‘John Lawton’s view from the Park’, a regular feature in the journal Oikos, of the 90s. I was hooked immediately, zipping from article to article with surprising rapidity. I have read Lawton’s columns on warm, sleepy afternoons when only something truly engaging could keep me awake in the post-lunch haze. I would be often stunned with his ability to comment upon myriad things, starting from the population dynamics of Loch Ness monster, to ecology of the afterlife. As a kid, I remember my Dad buying us books called ‘Mathematics can be fun’ and ‘Physics for entertainment’. If someone ever conceptualizes an ‘Ecology for fun’, this is the sort of writing that should go into it.

Lawton’s writing was often direct and attacking, something politely short of being polemic, which would effectively drill home the point. Coming from a reductionist background, I’ve sometimes had doubts about ecology being a rigorous science. The absence of universal laws like in Physics and Chemistry, the lack of strong predictions from ecological processes, the profusion of exceptions to any rule and the absence of a strong, organized theoretical foundation have often made me wonder if all is in vain. But coming back to Lawton’s articles have almost always soothed my anxieties. When he talks about patterns in ecology (along with his commentary on ‘Are there general laws in ecology?’) or tells the story of a pigeon riding the London Underground, I realize there’s so much good work to be done in this field, fuelled with as much or more curiosity about the natural world.

Like any other doctoral student, I’ve had my own share of troubles coming up with the ‘right question’, which someone has likened to falling in love. I think both classes of people don’t hesitate lapping up any advice that can lead them to ‘the one’. I’ve often come back to Lawton’s (often hilarious) ‘(Modest) advice to graduate students’ after several dejections, and have taken back something useful from it every time.

This is my personal tribute to John H. Lawton. I hope reading this makes people read him, and more importantly, discuss him more.

“If you wanted to make a flying animal, you wouldn’t start with a hippo”

“We used to think our fate was in the stars. Now we know in large measure our fate is in our genes”   

-James Watson

Beholding the variations among each organism, triggers us to raise a question about what made them different from each other? And surprisingly, we have the answer – Evolution. Though, we also know that the basis for the intricate phenomena of evolution are DNA, mutation and natural selection which ultimately aids in understanding the gradual sequential ‘change’ from the most primitive form to the complex one. But for us, the actual mechanism of how they occur in nature is still a matter of curiosity. Therefore, we often prefer simple artistic way to quench our curiosity about this gradual upgrading amongst the organisms. Our pursuit, of knowing the actuality, has been simplified by Richard Dawkins. The metaphorical title of the book- Climbing Mount Improbable by Richard Dawkins not just only tempts its readers to read but also makes them to think in an evolutionary angle. Fortunately, I am one of them to be wooed by his graceful way of writing that unleashes the complexity into the simpler form. Being one of the World’s leading evolutionary biologists- Richard Dawkins, in this book, writes elegantly to define how evolution works under natural selection based on the gene-centered axis.

Professor Richard Dawkins, a British ethologist; an evolutionary biologist and on the top, an eminent writer, was born in Nairobi in 1941. He was an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford University and got his doctorate under Novel Prize winning ethologist Niko Tinbergen. As mentioned in this book, he is a ‘dyed-in-the-wool Darwinist’ who supports Darwinism. He works immensely to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the pursuit to conquer the narrowness of religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and suffering.  Dawkins wrote many fantastic books to support the gene-centered view of evolution. Some of his collection includes The Selfish Gene (1976), The Extended Phenotype (1982), The Blind Watchmaker (1986), River out of Eden (1995), Climbing Mount Improbable (1996),Unweaving the Rainbow (1998), A Devil’s Chaplain (2003), The Ancestor’s Tale (2004),The God Delusion (2006). With his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins came into eminence. This book popularized the gene-centered view of evolution and coined the term meme. With the aid of all his publications, he introduced the influential concepts into evolutionary biology; the concept of evolutionary gradualism, the concept of “all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities” and some astonishing concepts like- The Extended Phenotype and the non-existence of supernatural creator (The God Delusion). Being an atheist and humanist, he is renowned for his criticism of creationism and firmly believes in ‘genes gives rise to genes’.

Climbing Mount Improbable, like many of his books, follows the similar trend of broadening the horizon for an evolutionary explanation significantly based on the idea of natural selection with the gene-level perspective. The creative uses of metaphors, oxymoron and litotes have made this book- worth reading in the literary context. Ten different chapters, metaphorically entitled, describe in their best, for how to climb Mount Improbable. The vibrant examples define, vividly, what Mount Improbable stands for.

Climbing up the terrain from Facing Mount Rushmore, one can easily make out the concept of ‘nature selects the best of all’. Dawkins beautifully defines that before we start hiking up on Mount Improbable, it is essential to know that the resemblances are accidents, that the design object can be designed but the designoid objects which looks as if they were designed, are due to non accidental-cum-non-random cumulative process. True designs and designoid pseudo-design objects forms a chasm between chance and non-randomness. Some living organisms converged into the similar shape, of some usefulness, though they might not be mimicking each other, here comes the idea of Convergent Evolution. Beside the “nature-selects” concepts, Dawkins pops in the concept of Artificial Selection by a human chooser through computer-based program called Biomorphs. Though it worked, but still, they lacked the real world scenario of Prey-predator interactions and many other environmental factors that limits the survival.

The Silken Fetter artistically showed, by the help of the spider web, that the natural selection selects the best and many species of spiders have their own distinctive way of improving themselves to get the best survival strategy for catching the prey and minimizing the cost of weaving a web. The illustration, that impressed me, was of the independent evolution of Ladder webs in Spiders from New Guinea and Columbia. To understand the natural selection through artificial spider behavior under the influence of numbers in computer’s memory, so-called “genes”- NetSpinner I, NetSpinner II (asexually reproduced) and NetSpinner III (sexually reproduced) were used. The oxymoronic Artificial Natural Selection helped to understand how population evolves; generation after generation with further refinement even in artificial environment let-alone the natural circumstance.

The most significant chapter of this book- The Message from the Mountain-not just helps in justifying the use of title Climbing Mount Improbable but also holds the center theme of the entire book, whilst the rest of the chapters provides the strong circumstantial evidence to prove it. Generally, Darwinism was thought to be the theory of random chance. Dawkins clarifies the misconception-“It is actually the theory of random mutation plus non-random cumulative natural selection”. It’s all about the step-by-step progression from primitiveness to the complexity, a journey up from the foothills to the paramount. An organism, at the bottom of this Mount, will reach to the top by the gradual perfection due to random mutation and non-random selection. Example of Spreading Bush fire helps in understanding the role of heredity- hence DNA as the accumulated wisdom of the ancestors. Mount Improbable got its name –Improbable, because whoever is climbing the mount must know that- ‘there can be no sudden leap’ i.e. the complexity increases step-by-step, but not all of sudden; ‘there can be no going downhill’ i.e. no organisms can return to its primitive form and the best part of this Mountain is ‘there may be more than one peak’- i.e. like in spider webs, one species have many ways of acquiring the refinement. The best line in this chapter is:

“No animal ever made a living purely by being on the evolutionary path to something better. Animals make a living by eating, avoiding being eaten and reproducing” (P.83)

This addresses Pre-adaptation- where an organ of some function can be used for another function, on our way towards the top of Mount. Species on their way, sometimes, are surprised by the Macro-mutation or Saltation which makes them completely different from what they were and hence forming a new peak. Richard Goldschmidt, hence, called it as the “hopeful Monster’ theory”.

The title Climbing Mount Improbable best fits to explain the vivacity of the book – the complicated gradual evolutionary path, with the strict rules of no sudden leaps and no going down provided with the alternative way or peaks and hence justifies itself to be the best metaphorical title.

By now, we discern that the gradual refinements or improvements are needed, to be in the summit. Improvements or progressions in flight, sight, spirals and symmetry shows how genes keeps on mutating randomly to produce the best design and how these are non-randomly selected by the nature. Dawkins sprinkles some hilarity- “If you wanted to make a flying animal, you wouldn’t start with a hippo” (P.101) – to prove that many peaks exists with their own height of ‘fitness’ and that they can’t be clumped together. It’s flabbergasting to know how species developed their wings. What there was before?  The gradual evolution developed the feathers from scales. In nutshell, the best amongst all organisms are selected for their flying, gliding, jumping and swimming behavior coded in their genes.

Coming to the sight refinement, this is the chapter I liked the most- The Forty-fold Path to Enlightenment. The title itself gives us enlightenment! And marvels us with the fine splash of delight, as we keep on hiking high, we will see how eyes evolves from- a photocell, the layers of photocells, the layers bent inward, the pigment cup-shaped eye, the pinhole, the magic window-lens, then the vitreous mass and finally, we got our precious Eyes to behold the most beautiful World around us from the summit of Mount Improbable. Beside these fine-gradual slopes that leads to top, what lured me in this chapter is – “Loudspeaker as a ‘Silence-device’ of a radio”, where Dawkins flawlessly mention about the eyeless gene in Drosophila that actually makes eyes and small eye genes that makes the bigger eyes! That any mutational damage to these genes may act in counter way. Eyes developed forty times independently to give us many peaks of enlightenment – includes all those superposed, neural superposed, apposed, intermediate- Compound and Camera type eyes. Isn’t this so incredible?

Selection pressure helps in shaping the slopes and creating some impassable cliffs. All that matter is variation- a genetic one. Lack of variation, sometime, limits Evolution. The Museum of all shells shows the existence of some impassable cliffs. Natural selection, hence, needs an alternative to choose and genetic variation to work on. If there is no variation at all, but only the environmental factors, no evolutionary event will occur and so Mount Improbable will have no slope to cling on. Here Dawkins introduced ‘Blind Snail Maker’ computer-based selection.

‘The evolution of evolvability’- is the main theme of Kaleidoscopic Embryos. Some embryos make themselves good enough to be evolved further. Visual beauty of embryo provided with symmetry can oppose restriction and here mutation acts as a mirror. With gorgeous examples of Radiolaria and other echinoderms species, the amazing symmetries and segmentation within all organisms, hence showed the gene-to-organism mapping. The processes of random mutation and selection produces far better ‘likenesses’. He uses ‘Arthromorphs’ to make us clear about duplication-deletion process of mutation artificially and to produce best fit kaleidoscopic genes.

In last two chapters, Pollen Grains and Magic Bullets and The Robot Repeater, Dawkins talks about “for a benefit of” idea. All organisms are there cause of DNA and its replication. Like computer virus and Robot, DNA is assigned with a command of “Copy me and spread me around” in circular fashion. All it emphasizes on: is Genetic Variation and spreading of genetic information.

‘A Garden Inclosed’ strikingly presents the life of Fig wasps and Fig tree. It’s marvelous to observe how two different species on their way up the summit, can co-evolved following the stable balance theory. Unlike in evolution, where winners are selected, there exists an exception – Altruism- due to Kinship- which forces selfish genes to move ahead.

Thus, the whole book ends giving us a clear insight of how evolution occurs through ‘non-random’ natural selection which depends on variations (random mutation and recombination), individual or inclusive fitness and heritability. The Mount Improbable- ‘Evolutionary high ground’ can’t be climbed hastily. A gradual climb will lead us to the summit but we are not allowed to quit.

There are merely few flaws that can be pointed out in this book and that’s the only point I disliked and perplexed me. As he mentioned “Nowadays, the replicator that matters on Earth are the DNA molecules, but the original replicator probably was not DNA” (P.261) what was it then, if it was not a DNA?

Though Dawkins talk about the evolution of most of the species belonging to all phyla of both kingdoms, he didn’t mention about the primitive plants or animals (he mentioned some planktons in Kaleidoscopic Embryos). By primitive, I mean prokaryotes. Prokaryotes may have given rise to Eukaryotes? It would have been best, if Dawkins have mentioned about them. May be the prokaryotes were on the periphery of foothills of Mount Improbable, so remained unnoticed.

It is essential for us to think whether Darwinism and creationism are compatible? For me, both of them are strictly incompatible. Since we know, Darwinism is purely a theory of non-random chance and relies on Evolution where each primitive organism develops into the complex form gradually with purposeless process like mutation and best of them are selected to move further. While Creationism trusts in a Creator and have broad sense of God has created the world with purpose. If God had created the World, as per Genesis, the Mount Improbable wouldn’t have been “The Improbable”. No variations would have existed. But, we can now easily prove that each organism varies because of their genes. Fossils evidences and Carbon-dating mechanisms have proved the non-existence of supernatural designer and have supported Darwinism. All organisms that exist today are the refined species of the past. Whilst Creationists ideas wholly depend on the beliefs and myths, they lack the scientific basis.  Science (that relies on facts) and religion (that depends on beliefs) are, hence, incompatible.

To support Darwinism, one must be able to prove that Evolution is true. As Dobzhansky stated “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Generally, Evolution is a gradual change in an organism with respect to time while technically; it’s a change in the frequencies of genes or a gradual process where some sudden modification (Saltation) may give rise to a new species or organ. We have sufficient examples to show that evolution is true and it does occurred. Phylogenic studies can help us in tracking the ancestors of a species based on genetic information. We gradually climbed the Mount from Pre-biotic (Primordial) Soup to algae to slime moulds to slugs to reptiles to mammals and so on. The basis lies on DNA. The variation through mutation (Duplication and deletion or recombination) gives rise to various forms which are hence inherited generations after generation. Evolution act as a ‘Tinkerer’ (as said by Francois Jacob) who build or modify the stuffs which already exists around. Best example of proving that the evolution is true is the sequential development of eyes, brains and wings from the primitive forms.  Use of computer based software (Biomorphs, Arthromorphs etc) can also aid.

Last but not the least, we are at some crest, that we still have many slopes to crawl on and to reach to the zenith of Mount Improbable.

[ Apology for ‘this’ long post. One must read this book (Climbing Mount Improbable) to understand the enigma of evolution]

Photocredits: Internet



No, this isn’t a basketball game we were attending, but rather a desperate attempt by a clueless group discussion leader to bring a house to order. Little short of a parliamentary session, if you’d like an Indian analogy.

There was much variation in opinion within the group Friday last when we were discussing the second chapter of “The Origin of Species”, the larger group slowly diversifying into sub-groups and sub-sub-groups, with much confused looks on faces. Let me try and explain some of this confusion..

The second chapter “Variation under Nature” is where Darwin uses the classification of life (the Linnaean classification system) as

Darwin’s Shells Image from

a means to describe his theory of the origin of species, in a very brief way. The presence of “varieties” within a group of organisms was the baseline for the origin of “a new and distinct species” by “Divergence of Character”, was Darwin’s argument. Now here was where the confusion began… what did he mean by a “variety”?

In chapter one Darwin uses the terms “species” and “variety” without defining the terms (yes, I know, we researchers are hung up on definitions) leaving a lot of room for assumption. In the second chapter, he goes into great detail on the distinction between species and variety, and tries his best in defining what he means by a variety. I say tries his best because we were still confused even after all that discussion around the subject,  leading to confusion number one. The confusion wasn’t limited to us though.. Darwin also surmises that taxonomists (of his day) are a confused bunch over the topic, not being able to decide how much of a difference is necessary to distinguish variety from a species. However, he does mention his own definition of a variety as a form the characteristics of which “…. can be inherited for at least some few generations.“. This is an important point that he brings forth in the discussion, that of inheritance, which is, of course, a repeated theme in the book, but gets first mention here. It also got us thinking about whether he was alluding to epigenetics, and if he meant that forms otherwise just exhibited phenotypic plasticity. That got us arguing for at least a half-hour. We were just in the first para, by the way.

chapter2 2nd


On to confusion number two, and a jump to the concluding para of the chapter (as you can see, we were an organised bunch). Darwin talks about genera, how large genera have the most variation, and “larger genera thus tend to become larger”. But then he also says that “larger genera also tend to break up into smaller genera”. Now, pray tell, if this does happen, how do the large genera remain large?!

The gist of the chapter seemed to clear, but his justifications need more reading into, perhaps. We’ll be continuing with the confusions, sorry, discussion, this Wednesday, the 6th of February at 5.30 pm in the Tea Room. Do join us to add to the confusion. 🙂

Chapter 3 will be discussed most probably, on Wednesday next week on February 20th.

Origin of domestic races

Charles_Darwin_by_G._Richmond 1830's

Charles Darwin in 1830’s after the expedition by G. Richmond

Year 1831. 27th December. H.M.S. Beagle set on an epic expedition to survey Patagonia and other parts of the Neotropical coast. The captain of the ship, Fitzroy, would have never even dreamt that the journey is going to rewrite the history of life on Earth. Nor would he have realized that a young guy, who shared a cabin with him, will be the reason behind this. No marks for guessing who it was: Mr. Charles Darwin, my second hero (had given the first place to Mr. Wallace a long while ago!). The idea that of the origin of species, has its origin traced back to his five-year long journey (Are you listening?! Bloody five years, braving the odds of sea and uncharted landscapes. Imagine five long years of field work for your PhD. I wouldn’t have seen the end). That spark generated in him, generated a fire that burnt in him for almost twenty long years before culminating in a book, “the book” that shook the world. That’s 24 years after that expedition. In Darwin’s view an abstract. Hmm…what took him so long? More than that, what is that he wrote demands an understanding among students like us, separated in time by almost 150 years. Thanks to our ESS secretaries for deciding to explore this. The first meeting happened last Thursday. Target: The Introduction and Chapter 1.

I can summarise Darwin’s introduction based on three aspects.

  1. Darwin’s emphasis on the role of biogeography towards his insights,
  2. The controversy behind Wallace and Darwin and
  3. Influence of “vestiges of creation” on him.
200px-Charles_Darwin_aged_51 Maull and Fox 1859

Charles Darwin during the publication of Origin of species by Maull and Fox 1859

 As a student of biogeography, the first statement from Darwin’s Origin that remained etched in my mindscape is this one by him in the opening paragraph:

When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species—that mystery of mysteries.” Darwin, 1859.

It was astronomer Sir John Herschel, in a letter to Charles Lyell in 1836, who had referred to the origin of species as the “mystery of mysteries” (Costa, 2009).

The controversy behind Wallace’s influence on Darwin seems to have been resolved (watch the appended video). In the introduction, Darwin explicitly acknowledges that he was “induced” to write by Wallace’s research paper send to him from Malay archipelago.

The third thing that Darwin mentions is this work by Robert Chamber “vestiges of creation”. Costa (2009) explains Chambers view as saltational vs. gradualism as espoused by Darwin. Chapter one was his attempt to prove this point and provide an exhaustive evidence for variation under domestication.



We, a bunch of nine, discussed for an hour on this chapter. Borrowing from Darwin, I would like to call this chapter the “Origin of domestic races”.

Darwin goes to stunning details on variation under domestication borrowing examples from plants to pigeons. Why take so much pain? It was his attempt to get across the message that domestic races share a genealogical relationship, an end product of human mediated accumulative selection that is artificial selection (Costa 2009). To cite Reznick (2010) “This opening chapter presents the raw material that Darwin needs for his subsequent arguments about natural selection to work. The changeability of organisms under artificial selection proves that the availability of heritable variation and amount of change that is possible are easily sufficient to account for the diversity of living things that are present in the world today, given the age of the earth and the vast amount of time that has been available for natural selection to act.

One last point, keep at the back of your mind the distinction between natural selection and speciation. Researchers including Ernst Mayr and recently, Jerry Coyne have argued that Darwin’s origin of species doesn’t quite address the issue of speciation. Let’s deduce it for ourself first hand if that’s the case!

Rupees 1,27,41831.28 check

Rupees 1,27,41831.28 check

Meet you all next Wednesday 5:30 pm Friday 5.45 pm in either the Lotka Volterra lab or the Class room. I will post all the soft copies of references to ESS. Pick it up from them.


  1. Charles Darwin, 1859, On the origin of species by means of natural selection or the preservation of the favoured races in the struggle for life. John Murray.
  2. James T. Costa, 2009, The Annotated Origin. Facsimile of the first edition on the origin of species.
  3. David N. Reznick, 2010, “The “Origin” Then and Now: An Interpretive Guide to the “Origin of Species”, Princeton University.

Books on my list

23bDiamond.jpgI first heard of Jared Diamond a few years back, when a summer student at the lab I was interning in, happened to mention him. The discussion was about Ethiopian success in the Olympics, especially in athletics. From there, the conversation moved to traits associated with hunter-gatherers versus agriculturists, and that’s when Guns, germs and steel was quoted. I was ignorant of the book and Diamond at that point, which was embarrassing for two reasons. Not only is Diamond a well-known biologist and popular science writer, but also because the conversation was with an undergraduate engineering student.

Jared Diamond’s work has crossed paths with me several times since then. In the General Biology class, with Prof. Gadagkar during introductions in the Animal Behaviour class (when I could smugly say I was reading the book), Kartik’s course on Community Ecology and in Hari’s introduction to his Ph.D. work (where he mentions Diamond’s work with birds in Papua New Guinea). Three years since I first heard of it, I’m still trying to finish it (I blame it on the small print) but I’m sure I will someday. When I do, I’d probably follow it up with the book on the left . Here’s why one might want to skip it, and here’s why one wouldn’t.your inner fish

For the Animal Behaviour book assignment, I was handed A fish caught in time. The Search for the Coelacath by Samantha Weinberg. It is a very exciting story starting from the mystery surrounding the first fish which walked on land, to finding living populations of its predecessor in African and Indonesian waters. The human characters in coelacanth’s history show rich contrasts as well, from unyielding adventurers to ruthless scientists. Primed after reading this book, I got really excited about the Tiktaalik discovery back in 2006. The author of the second book on my list is one of the paleontologists who discovered the Tiktaalik fossil. Here is why one might read his book, Your inner fish.

Of Yetis and Sasquatches

Listening to Dr. Barry Noon, I was busy being amazed at the effort put into predicting the occurrence of a species that is most probably extinct. His take on Animal Planet’s documentary on finding the elusive Big Foot (or Sasquatch in North America), snapped me out of it. I later searched for the episode he was talking about and found this (Animal Planet video).  Now I don’t know much about Big Foot, but grown men and women grappling in the dark, quite literally too, about the existence of an urban legend is just sad.

But before that, while mentioning to Kartik how funny Dr. Noon’s take on the ‘Big Foot Adventures’ was, he told me of two scientific papers on yetis and sasquatches (both PDFs). Still unsure about who the joke really was on, I went through the papers.

Distribution of the two 'species'

Distribution of the two ‘species’
From J. D. Lozier et al.

The Sasquatch paper was quite a good read. It warns of the perils of using Ecological niche models (ENMs) and species distribution models without sufficient rigour, in a tongue-in-cheek manner. ‘The basic premise of the ENM approach’, the article says, ‘is to predict the occurrence of species on a landscape from georeferenced site locality data and sets of spatially explicit environmental data layers that are assumed to correlate with the species’ range.’ As I understand it (and it’s probably the first real attempt to understand it), ENM is about predicting the potential distribution of a species knowing its present extent from your own and others data. Now the possible caveat in this addressed by the article, is the problem of ‘poor taxonomy and/or misidentification’.

They constructed ENMs for sasquatches using putative sightings, auditory detections and footprint measurements; and for black bears using records backed by physical specimens. What they finally show is a highly suspect model where the current distribution of  sasquatch and black bear overlaps to a large extent. Now that’s making a point like a boss!

Phylogenetic position of YetiFrom M.C. Milinkovitch et al.

Phylogenetic position of Yeti
From M.C. Milinkovitch et al.

Now the Yeti paper wasn’t really making a point, as much as it was entertaining. It started off with a few anecdotes describing the first few sightings of “yeti” or the “abominable snowman”, calling it ‘‘A sort of enormous monkey . . . with a huge head like a coconut’’ and about yeti stealing whiskey bottles from camp sites (for some reason I always imaged Yetis would drink Rum). In 1992, two westerners chanced upon suspected Yeti footprints and recovered twisted hair samples that were clearly identified as Yeti hair by the local guides. The authors of the article were asked to analyse them. Their results show yeti nesting within ungulate clades suggesting ‘extensive morphological convergences’ between yetis and primates! The article ends quite cheekily saying ‘It is quite remarkable that Haddock already identified 44 years ago the correct phylogenetic position of the yeti (despite he had seen only footprints in the snow) when he yelled at it ‘‘You odd-toed ungulate!’’ (Herge, 1960, p. 26).’

I never had any doubt that scientists have a twisted sense of humour, but it’s good to see scientific journals having one too! Finally, I think this makes for a fitting follow-up blog (incidentally) to what Hari wrote about doubting his observations given the biases; not that I think Hari will mistake a black bear for a sasquatch, or see a sasquatch for that matter!