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Member since: Wed Jul 24, 2013, 01:10 PM
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the war on higher ed in Iowa continues; or, pray for us!

I work at a public university in Iowa. I would thus be under direct threat should any of these bills become law.

The bills, themselves, don't actually bother me very much. The bill to abolish tenure comes up pretty much every year. The state's business community is strongly opposed to it, and everyone saw what happened to the University of Wisconsin when that state weakened its tenure policies. So although I'm keeping an eye on it, I don't think it will become law.

Moreover, the proposed law that would prohibit non-disclosure agreements on research grants would get tossed by the courts almost immediately. It would violate HIPAA policies. The other bills would also run up against contradictory federal law, or even the Constitution itself.

What bothers me is the grotesque ignorance and vindictiveness that drives this effort. The state legislature here seems to think we're a bunch of liberal elitists who want to tear down western civilization. They genuinely don't know what we do, how research grants work, or what we provide to the state, if not the entire nation. I suppose this shouldn't surprise me, given the flagrant stupidity of our governor, who just lifted pretty much all COVID restrictions. (Two major highways - I-80 and I-35 - intersect in the middle of the state. A lot of shipping passes through the state. Think of all the truck drivers who will risk their lives just driving from point A to point B.)

I get really hacked off when a politician dismisses anything I say with "But you don't live in the real world." As if we professors don't put our pants on one leg at a time. We come from the same neighborhoods as anyone else. (My father worked in a dairy factory when I was born.) We work our asses off, just like everyone else. Yes, there's a specialized language that seeps into our daily conversation and we sometimes talk shop when in groups, just like everyone else. And yes, some of us are jerks. But you know what? That's equally true of police officers, dental hygienists, farmers, lawyers, sales representatives, auto mechanics, hair stylists, truck drivers, airline pilots, and anyone else in a field that requires training and dedication. But when it comes to academics, the rules just don't seem to apply in their eyes.

I honestly don't know what to do. I love my institution; my grandfather taught here, I did my undergrad here, and I've been here as faculty for more than 20 years. You know how they say New York is a great place to visit, but you'd never want to live there? Iowa City is a great place to live, but you'd never want to visit. But I am nevertheless feeling the urge to go somewhere else. Somewhere that values higher education.


how this ends - insights from really, really old alligators


A while back, I compared changes in the Republican Party since 1980 with the phenomenon of runaway selection in evolutionary biology. It's especially prominent in the context of sexual selection. When selective pressure on a feature is very strong - for example, if females have a very strong preference for males with elongated tail feathers, brightly colored scales, tall antlers, or some other display structure that doesn't necessarily improve survivability - that structure can evolve very rapidly to an extreme condition. This is even true if the sexually selected trait impairs the ability of a male to escape predators or find food - as long as it survives long enough to breed, an early death doesn't matter.

This is what we've seen with the Republican Party. The Reagan "Revolution" brought a higher levels of demonization of Democrats. This was amplified by AM radio, and then by partisan cable news and the internet, so that each succeeding Republican candidate had to be more conservative than anyone else or risk losing during the primaries. But this may be approaching the limit of survivability, because they've now become so extreme that they risk losing the general election.

I thought some more about this over the past few days, and my own work might indicate how this might end.

It's a generally accepted axiom that generalized ancestors evolve into specialized descendents, but not the reverse. Butterflies that can collect nectar from a wide range of flowers gradually become increasingly specialized toward a particular kind of flower to the point that, eventually, they can only really collect nectar from that one kind of flower. (This also happens with hummingbirds. Look up the sword-billed hummingbird, and you'll see what I mean.) In turn, the flower evolves to cater only to that one kind of butterfly.

(This axiom is actually false, as I'll discuss below.)

This has the benefit of ensuring a relatively competitor-free source of food for the butterfly as long as the flower is around, and it ensures pollenation of the flower as long as the butterfly is around.

But this implies a serious cost - if the flower disappears, so will the butterfly. Specialization, in general, increases the risk of extinction if the environment changes in ways that prevent the specialist from functioning. Generalists, being more capable of using other resources, are more likely to survive.

I really do think we're at the point where the Republican Party has become overly specialized. It is now directed at Trump-style populism and nationalism. There are still plenty of people who call themselves Republicans and regard themselves as economic conservatives or libertarians, but who also dislike Trump, but anyone watching the impeachment process can clearly see that fear of offending Trump's base is keeping them from doing anything about it. The party is now specialized for the collection of votes from red hatters in gerrymandered districts.

This hurt them in the 2018 midterms - they may have succeeded in the primaries, but not so much in the general election. It appears to have been less true in the 2020 congressional elections, but it was a weird election all around. I fully expect this trend to continue for the next several election cycles.

So how does this end?

There are two possibilities. The first, and most obvious, is extinction. But here, I see a disconnect between my analogy and political reality. A species goes extinct when none are left alive. The Republican Party might collapse, but its members are still going to be here.

This is where my work, and that of my students, might prove insightful, because we've helped show that specialists can, indeed, become generalists. (This is also where I run the risk of revealing my identity - not too many people do what I do - but so be it.)

A good example is the North American alligatorine radiation. Alligatorines comprise comprise the two living species of Alligator (American alligator, A. mississippiensis, and critically-endangered Chinese alligator, A. sinensis) and extinct forms more closely related to them than to the caimans currently found in Latin America. (Alligatorines and caimans together form Alligatoridae.)

There's only one species in North America today. But if you go back to between 65 and 40 million years ago, there were several. One could find as many as three species co-occurring in parts of the American West. (The same was true in Europe, by the way.) And none of them really looked like an American alligator - they were all very small (6 feet in length for some, no more than 3 feet for others), they had comparatively short snouts, and most had blunt, anvil-like teeth in the back of the jaws. These were specialized for hard-shelled prey.

At the same time, there were several other crocodylians living alongside these wee alligatorines. One was a kick-ass hoofed form with no close living relative, but others were distantly related to modern crocodiles. They also looked more or less like a modern crocodile - about the same size, with a long, flattened snout with conical teeth and a diet that included anything they could swallow. They took the larger prey that the small alligatorines were unable to process, and when young may have eaten fewer turtles or mollusks.

What happened? Climate changed abruptly. Temperature was probably not the main driver - the region was still plenty warm enough for crocs. It probably had more to do with changes in rainfall that led to the expansion of dry areas and the first grasslands. All crocodylians in western North America died out except one of the small blunt-toothed alligatorines.

The modern American alligator is basically like a crocodile, at least ecologically - fairly large, with a long, flat snout filled with conical teeth and a very broad diet. And its ancestors were specialized for small hard-shelled prey.

The transition from specialist to generalist took a very long time. The earliest forms to appear shortly after the diversity crash were still fairly small, though the snout was somewhat longer and the teeth not so knobby in the back. Body size and snout length gradually increased, as did the number of teeth in the jaws. It was another 10 to 20 million years before animals that would have lived like a modern American alligator arose.

I think this is what we'll see. The Republican Party won't go away - not completely, anyway. It might even have a different name. But over time, it will recalibrate toward the center. This will be necessary for its survival; demographic changes in the US will make it much less likely they'll win elections, an gerrymandering might not be able to rescue their chances. They'll see a choice between keeping some red hatters happy and actually being in office. Meanwhile, some media outlets (e.g. Fox "News" will begin to moderate, at least a little. They won't have had a change of heart - they'll be desperate for viewers and advertisers. And the initial changes will be so modest, many of us might not even really notice.

I have no idea when any of this will come to pass. I hoped we'd have seen stronger evidence for this in 2020. And I could be completely full of shit with my analogy. But I really do hope this happens sooner rather than later.

(For your viewing pleasure, here are a couple of skulls showing the kinds of changes I mean. The first skull is about 55 million years in age; the second is about 39 million years in age; the third is modern.)

back yard just now -

it's my 5-year-old daughter's first Accipiter.

(male Cooper's hawk)


some animals I've seen


I'm not a professional wildlife photographer. In fact, I'm not a photographer at all. I'm a vertebrate paleontologist whose camera equipment is optimized for objects within 4 or 5 feet of me that aren't moving.

Nevertheless, I've tried for some animal shots over the past few years. I apologize if these are substandard, but I did the best I could with the equipment I had.

I put up some bird shots on the Birding group. I'm a birder, so I tend to focus my photography on birds. But my research is dedicated to crocodylians, so there's also a gator and croc bias evident in my photos.

Not sure if I'm bragging or asking for advice on how to improve, but I thought some of you might appreciate them.

Scarlet tanager, Ryerson Forest Preserve, Illinois

Vermilion Flycatcher, near Tucson, AZ

blue-spotted salamander, Ryerson Forest Preserve, Illinois

Nile crocodile, Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda

American alligator, Cameron Prairie NWR, Louisiana

Ethiopian wolf, Bale Mountains NP, Ethiopia. (It helps when your birding guide did his thesis work on this species.)

Black-pencilled marmoset, Riberao Preto, Brazil. I don't usually have much use for primates, but this was cute.

giraffe, Maasai Mara, Kenya

bush elephant, Murchison Falls NP, Uganda

spectacled caiman, near Manaus, Brazil. This species is undergoing major revision and will probably be split up into several species.

blue mud wasp, Hickory Hill Park, Iowa City, IA

African giant snail, National Museum of Kenya grounds. (This was a juvenile about the size of snails I typically see in the upper midwest.)
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