Theoretically speaking...

What floats your boat?

Abstract concepts such as evolutionary theory are what float my boat.

For many of the other bloggers assembled here at feedthedatamonster, the objects of their obsessions can be visualized by pretty pictures and charismatic organisms that they can interact with directly in the field.

Frankly, I am jealous.

If you are like me, you are drawn to details that cannot be seen, the person behind the curtain, the possibilities that could have been or “what ifs” of biology.

For example, our newest member, Seth Goodnight, just posted a few days ago about how sex is weird. While I agree sex is weird, the question that gets my blood boiling is this:

Could this plant sexually reproduce in a less weird way? If not, why? What historical context favored this strange methods of reproducing evolve?

In fact, how exactly sexual reproduction itself came about or evolved in the first place is still debated by scientists today.

Yes, I will subject you to my drawing skills. 

Yes, I will subject you to my drawing skills. 

In general, I think the modern field of evolutionary biology is hard to communicate and difficult for non-experts to read about. Below, I will try to illustrate why this is.

I will argue that there are two requirements that make nice hurdles for those potentially interested in this field:

  1. Simple math that looks hard.
  2. Time.

Lots of math

Why is math a hurdle?

I would argue is not math itself that is the problem. It is the presentation, typically in the form of equations.

Even in a room full of scientists, you can hear the audience squirm when a mathematical equation is put on the board.

Here is a simple example. Can you calculate the arithmetic mean or average of 2 and 8? Relatively simple: (2+8)/2 = 5.

Now, look at the mathematical equation version of exactly what we just calculated:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mean

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mean

Scary, right? Hard to imagine that the complicated mess above is actually the same calculation we just did if you are unfamiliar with this type of presentation.

Obviously, the equations usually get more out of hand. It is important to realize that the equations are simply models for how variables interact rather than a means to find a concrete answer in most cases.

An equation taken out of a publication on the evolution of sex in the Genetics journal by Gordon and Otto in 2007

An equation taken out of a publication on the evolution of sex in the Genetics journal by Gordon and Otto in 2007

The key is not to be intimidated. Variables can smell fear.

Okay, so far not so bad. If the other hurdle is this easy...

Time. 

Imagine you are standing in your living room with a tennis ball, blindfolded. Now, throw that tennis ball as hard as you can! Can you accurately predict what happens next? Will the tennis ball knock that blue lamp off your side table, smash a window or land harmless at your feet?

You could even repeat this experiment in your living room over and over again and actually generate data on the frequency of certain events. 25% that poor lamp breaks, 10% of the time your dog snags it out of the air and 1% of the time you happen to hit your significant other as they happen to pass by. You confidently predict that more often than not, the lamp will break. 

See what I mean? Not a lot of good visuals to go along with this section. It is a nice lamp, though.

See what I mean? Not a lot of good visuals to go along with this section. It is a nice lamp, though.

Now, imagine you do this every day for the rest of your life. How accurate do you think your lamp prediction is still? Your significant other (being pretty upset that you busted the nice lamp in your living room) may have gorilla-glued the replacement lamp to the table’s surface. Or maybe now you are single because you keep breaking stuff and won't stop pegging people who come over with a ball.

But hey, that is not fair. How could you have known?

Oh, it gets worse. Assuming you publish your findings on tennis ball-living room destruction, how generally applicable is your theory to...

EVERY HOUSEHOLD IN THE WORLD?

This futile attempt at predicting the future of events of your living room illustrates what evolutionary biology is trying to accomplish. These theories become complicated because they have to be accurate yet flexible enough to deal with any situation.

Hence the important question:

Is it even possible to make a theory that is generally applicable to all life that was, is or will be on this planet?

Maybe, maybe not. However, we may be able to come up with some fundamental laws that we can eventually string together into something remotely accurate.

Populations of individuals evolve NOT individuals alone. To think about evolution theory, you need to think about all the individuals and their traits in a population at any given time and in any context. A non-trivial task for a human mind (In fact, it may be impossible thanks to the monkeysphere).

The issue with dealing with some many generations of seemingly unpredictable individuals or scary variables is also why predicting the stock market is essentially impossible.

What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.
— Saint Augustine

To summarize, I tend to feel the same way about the questions that interest me.

Here, I will routinely post about evolutionary theories and dissections of primary literature while trying to provide some practical examples to illustrate the key concepts.

Oh, and don’t forgot about the scary math.

If you are interested, don't forgot to subscribe and let me know how I am doing in the comments.

Stay hungry.