Host, parasite, and failure at the colony level: COVID-19 and the US information ecosystem

Trump campaign attempts to remove satirical cartoon from online retailer | Comics and graphic novels | The Guardian

This cartoon is offensive. And yet.


A few months ago I did some reading about viruses and other parasites, inspired by the obvious, but also those ants that get commandeered by cordyceps fungi, as seen in this awesome Richard Attenborough video:

Besides the incredible feat of programming ants to disseminate fungus spores, the video reveals two other astounding facts about this system. First, worker ants from afflicted colonies selflessly identify and remove infected ants and dump their bodies far away, reflecting intergenerational genetic training as well as the ability to gather and process the information necessary to make the diagnosis and act on it. And second, there are many, many cordyceps species, each evolved to prey upon only one species, reflecting a pattern of co-evolution between host and parasite.

This led me to reading about colony defenses in general, including not just ants but things like wasps and termites that leave chemical protection for future generations, and bees getting together to make hive fevers to ward off parasitic infections. I don’t find a video of exactly a hive fever, but this one is similar: It’s bees using their collective body temperature to cook a predatory hornet to death:

Incredible. That got me thinking about how information management and dissemination is vital to colony-level defenses against parasites. They need to process and transmit information to work together in the arms race against parasites (especially viruses) that usually evolve much more rapidly than they do.

And you may know where this is going: How the US failed against SARS-CoV-2. In an information arms-race, life and death struggle against a parasitic virus that mutates exponentially faster than we can react — who knows how many experimental trials it took to design SARS-CoV-2? — this kind of efficient information system is what we need. And it worked in some ways, as humanity identified the virus and shared the data and code necessary to take action against it. But clearly we failed in other ways — communicating with our fellow citizens, dislodging the disinformation and misinformation that clouded their understanding and led so many to sacrifice themselves at the behest of a corrupt political organization and its demented leader.

Is this social evolution, I asked (despairingly), in which the Chinese system of government proves its superiority for survival at the colony level, while the US democratic system chokes on its own infected lungs. Worse, is the virus programming us to exacerbate our own weaknesses — yanking our social media chains and our slavery-era political institutions, like the rabies virus, which infects the brain and then explodes out through the salivary glands of a zombified attack animal. Colonies of ants rise or fall based on how they respond to parasites, which themselves are evolving to control ant behavior, as they evolve together. How exceptional are humans? Maybe we just do it faster, in social evolutionary time, rather than across many generations of breeding. Fascinating, but kind of dark. lol.

Anyway, naturally my concern is with information systems and scholarly communication. How human success against the virus has come from the rapid generation and dissemination of science and public health information (including preprints and data sharing). And failure came from disinformation and information corruption. Dr. Birx in the role the rabid raccoon, watching herself lose her grip on scientific reality as the authoritarian leader douses the public health information system with bleach and sets it on fire with an ultraviolet ray gun “inside the body.”

So I wrote a short paper titled, “Host, parasite, and failure at the colony level: COVID-19 and the US information ecosystem,” and posted it on SocArXiv: socarxiv.org/4hgam.* It includes this table:

hpit2


* I barely took high school biology. In college I took “Climate and Man,” and “Biology of Human Affairs.” That’s pretty much it for my life sciences training, so don’t take my word for it. Comments welcome.

The sky is falling because of feminist biology, Factual Feminist edition

The other day I explained why, despite her mocking tone,  the “Factual Feminist” (Christina Sommers) doesn’t have the factual basis to undermine commonly-used statistics on rape. Now she has a video out on “feminist science.” No, it’s not a joke from The Simpsons, she says:

A new feminist biology program at the University of Wisconsin is all too real… Is feminist biology likely to contribute to our knowledge and understanding of the world? The Factual Feminist is skeptical.

The program in question is really just a post-doctoral fellowship. It looks like a privately-endowed fund to hire one postdoc. This is not a major curriculum intervention. The first postdoc in the program is Caroline VanSickle, a biological anthropologist from the University of Michigan who does work on ancient female pelvic bones and their implications for birth stuff. She was quoted by the right-wing Campus Reform (a project of the Leadership Institute) this way:

“We aren’t doing science well if we ignore the ideas and research of people who aren’t male, white, straight, or rich,” VanSickle said in an email to Campus Reform. “Feminist science seeks to improve our understanding of the world by including people with different viewpoints. A more inclusive science means an opportunity to make new discoveries.”

I don’t know the evidence on whether the ideas of biologists who aren’t male, White straight, or rich are ignored in science today, but this sentiment seems unobjectionable to me – we aren’t doing science well if we ignore anyone’s (good) ideas. Who could object to “including people with different viewpoints”? But Sommers, for some reason misquoting her only source for the story, says,

She explained to Campus Reform that, quote, in order to do science well, she said, we can’t ignore the ideas and research of people who just don’t happen to be male. But wait a minute. Women are hardly ignored in biology. In fact, they have far surpassed men in earning biology degrees. What is more, women are flourishing, and winning Nobel Prizes in that field.

On the screen flashes a table showing women getting 61% of BA degrees in biology, 59% of MAs, and 54% of PhDs. If we’re talking about whether women are ignored in biology, I think it’s the PhDs that matter, so 54% is not quite “far surpassed.” More to the point, although women first surpassed men in receiving biology BA degrees in 1988 — a quarter of a century ago — they are currently only 23% of full professors in biology. I’m not arguing about whether this reflects job discrimination against female biologists. The point is that if only a small minority of the most influential biologists are women, and if there are common differences in how men and women do biology, then the views of the latter are going to be less well represented.

To show overblown this worry is, Sommers then flashes this image of all those women winning Nobel Prizes in “that field” (actually the prizes are for “Physiology and Medicine,” since there is no Nobel for biology):

womennobels

Those women sure seem to be flourishing. And that’s every woman who ever won a Nobel in Physiology and Medicine — all 10 of them. Since the 1940s, when the first of these women flourished, men have been awarded 162 Nobels in that field — the other 94% of the prizes. The peak decade was in the 2000s, when women won 15% of the prizes (the most recent in 2009).

At Wisconsin, the single “feminist biology” postdoc will also develop an undergraduate course in gender and biology. This seems like a fine idea. Maybe it will encourage even more women to overrun the biological sciences. Call me naive, but we’re still not exactly drowning in female biologists.

After going on to pick on a few individual feminists, Sommers concludes that:

…feminist theory [has] been built on a foundation of paranoia about the patriarchy, half-truths, untruths, oversimplifications, and it’s immune to correction.

Raising the question: If feminism is rubber, and the Factual Feminist is glue, does what she say bounce of feminism and stick to her?

Full disclosure: My mother is a biologist. And a feminist. So you know I’m right. And objective.