Evolution 2016: Food

August 20, 2016 • 10:30 am

by Greg Mayer

After Jerry noted that the world’s most expensive BBQ is dry-aged and in New York City, and that “true Texans wouldn’t have anything to do with” it, I thought it might be a good time to feature Texas BBQ, which I enjoyed at Iron Works BBQ in Austin while at the Evolution 2016 meetings earlier this summer.

Iron Works is in an old iron works at the corner of Red River and Cesar Chavez Streets, conveniently located just down the block from the convention center where the meetings were held. It was recommended by locals, and so I went with a couple of colleagues. You order and pick up your main course at a counter window, grabbing drinks out of an open ice chest and heading to the check out, and then get to sit down.

One of my colleagues had the pulled pork, with which she had a Shiner IPA (Shiner being a brewery to the southeast of Austin).


My other colleague had the sampler plate– brisket, ribs, sausage, and maybe you can spot some other sort of BBQ in there. (New category of WEIT post: Spot the meat!)

I had the sausage, with an added large pickle. For sides I had creamed corn– delicious, and you don’t often see it these days– and beans– also delicious. But they didn’t have my two favorite Southern sides: okra and fried pickles. There may well be regional variations in side preference and availability, which as a northerner, I am not accustomed to.


Like all good BBQ joints, there was a roll of paper towels at the table.


I went back another time with another colleague, this time enjoying the brisket, with potato salad and mac and cheese as my sides. I washed it down with a Big Red, a Texas-made soda of the cream soda/Dr. Pepper class.


For a more upper crust brunch, a colleague and I went to a classier joint, with bloody marys


and beignets with a cream sauce among the comestibles. Beignets are a New Orleans specialty, which I guess have migrated west to Texas.


Austin is famed for its musical nightlife, and there were two areas I got to see.

Dead robot soldiers.

The first was the Rainey Street District, which is an older residential neighborhood, now with condos, with the remaining low frame houses (and their lawns) converted into bars. It attracted mostly the young urban professional crowd. These two signs were in the neighborhood (the pictures obviously taken in daylight). I don’t know what the second one means, but it has a cat, so I liked it.

The other nightlife area was 6th Street, which seemed the more traditional honky-tonks-with-live-bands kind of a place I was expecting. This is Darwin’s Pub, which of course was a must see for visiting evolutionary biologists. My vision was not as blurry as the photo– it’s hard to get a decent picture in a darkened pub.


And one night at the street corner bar at the aptly named Corner, we discovered it was a colleague’s birthday, and the waitress managed to rustle up a filled red velvet cupcake for her, which was on the house. After singing Happy Birthday, we devoured it.


Evolution 2016: Mammals

July 2, 2016 • 10:30 am

by Greg Mayer

I spent June 17-22 in Austin, Texas, for Evolution 2016, the annual joint meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, and the Society of Systematic Biology, which is the premier annual gathering of evolutionary biologists from around the world. I hope to make a few posts about the goings on, and we’ll start with some natural history.

On the day I arrived I met up with my friend and colleague Steve Orzack, and we headed out to Pedernales Falls State Park, about an hour west of Austin, to do some birding and herping prior to the official kickoff of the meeting that evening. Also keeping an eye out for mammals, I noticed a sign mentioning “rock squirrels”, showing a black headed squirrel, and recalling how variable fox squirrels are, I wondered if this might be the local variety of fox squirrels. We soon came across a squirrel, which, however, was a rather interesting Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis).

Eastern gray squirrel at Pedernales Falls State Park, Johnson City, Texas, 17 June 2016
Eastern gray squirrel at Pedernales Falls State Park, Johnson City, Texas, 17 June 2016

In the northern United States, gray squirrels are typically gray above and white below, while fox squirrels are a slightly different shade of gray above and fulvous below. Very rarely a gray squirrel may be fulvous below, in which case the definitive character to look for is that gray squirrels have a white frosting or “halo” on their tails (the tips of the outer tail hairs being white). The squirrel above caught our attention because while gray above, it’s clearly ochraceous buff below, so I thought it might be a fox squirrel. We kept it under observation, and it soon showed its true colors.

Eastern gray squirrel at Pedernales Falls State Park, Johnson City, Texas, 17 June 2016.
Eastern gray squirrel at Pedernales Falls State Park, Johnson City, Texas, 17 June 2016.

Obligingly raising its tail while stopping to drink out of small puddles and pools in the spring-fed muddy track along which we walked, it revealed its gray squirrel-defining frosting on its tail, while also clearly showing it was reddish below.

I’ve never seen gray squirrels in the north drink like this, and it may reflect the scarcity of water sources in the dry scrublands of Texas. This squirrel was also of interest because the park is in Blanco County, and according to Texas Tech, Blanco County is just outside the range of the gray squirrel, so this would be a new county record. (The rock squirrel of Pedernales Falls turns out to be a rather bushy-tailed, black-headed ground squirrel, Spermophilus variegatus, but we did not see any).

The reddish ventral coloration was not a peculiarity of this individual, for the urban squirrels of Austin were also gray squirrels with ochraceous buff venters. This guy was hanging out at one of the bars on Rainey Street.

Eastern gray squirrel on Rainey Street, Austin, Texas, 19 June 2016.
Eastern gray squirrel on Rainey Street, Austin, Texas, 19 June 2016.

This one was in the parkland strip along Lady Bird Lake (actually an impounded strip of the Colorado River) just west of Rainey Street. The ochraceous buff venter is clearly visible.

Eastern gray squirrel,Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016.
Eastern gray squirrel, Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016.

This particular squirrel was first spotted with a mixed flock of great-tailed grackles, white-winged doves, and rock doves. Try spotting all four species in the picture below

Mixed feeding flock of rock doves, white-winged doves, great-tailed grackles, and an eastern gray squirrel, Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016. Can you spot all the species?
Mixed feeding flock of rock doves, white-winged doves, great-tailed grackles, and an eastern gray squirrel, Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016. Can you spot all the species?

Austin’s most famous mammals are the Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) that roost under the Congress Avenue Bridge, and emerge by the millions (or so I am told) each evening. I went out twice to see them, once from below the bridge, and once from the sidewalk above; they came out about 9 PM. Both times large crowds gathered both above and below, and many vessels, including tour boats, gathered on the lake below the bridge. Attempts to photograph them were unsuccessful with my limited camera, but you can see them briefly in the video; listen for the murmur of the bats in the background behind the voices. The red light is a search light used by one of the tour boats, and I tried to follow this light to catch the bats on the video.

On the last day of the meetings, I walked under the bridge to get to the concluding Super Social, and found this dead bat below the bridge. You can clearly see its ‘free tail’ (i.e. the tail is not completely contained within the membrane of the uropatagium).

Mexican free-tailed bat, Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016.
Mexican free-tailed bat, Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016.

The deposits of bat-feces rich sediments (bat guano) below bat roosts (especially if in caves) are often important sources of fossils of bats and associated creatures; there’s a ‘rain’ of dead bats into this sediment. But with a lake and sidewalk below, this cute fellow is unlikely to be fossilized.

Mexican free-tailed bat, Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016.
Mexican free-tailed bat, Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016.

The pièce de résistance of the mammals of Austin for me was a new species and family of mammals for my life list: I spotted a coypu (Myocastor coypus) swimming down Waller Creek in the heart of downtown Austin, right behind Iron Works BBQ. The coypu (or nutria) is an invasive species, originally brought to the U.S. from South America. They look like large muskrats, but do not have a laterally compressed tail. I was looking for the tail, which I could not see clearly, but once I looked at my pictures and video I could easily see the distinctive, diagnostic whitish snout of the coypu.

Outcome in Texas: Mixed but not that great. Lunacy spreads to Florida

March 28, 2009 • 6:07 am

The school board hearings have ended in Texas, and the outcome is mixed. In other words, we’ll all have to keep watching and fighting the benighted hordes who keep trying to insert scripture into the school curriculum. According to Gordy Slack’s report over at Salon, the motion to include teaching about the “strengths and weaknesses” of science (read: evolution) was rejected by an 8-7 vote, but Don McLeroy (the creationist head of the board) and his minions retreated, dug in, and won some stuff by proposing a variety of amendments:

Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland, Calif.-based organization dedicated to protecting the integrity of science education in the public schools, says that once McLeroy and his allies failed to pass the “strengths and weakness” language, “they had a fallback position, which was to continue amending the standards to achieve through the back door what they couldn’t achieve upfront.”

And they succeeded. Casey Luskin, a Discovery Institute lawyer, and its guy on the Austin scene, was psyched by the outcome. “These are the strongest standards in the country now,” he says. “The language adapted requires students to have critical thinking about all of science, including evolution, and it urges them to look at all sides of the issue.”

Here is what they voted in:

1). A requirement that students “analyze and evaluate scientific explanations concerning any data on sudden appearance and stasis and the sequential groups in the fossil record.” In other words, McLeroy succeeded in getting his “stasis is God” position officially adopted (see yesterday’s post).

2). A requirement that teachers and textbooks compel students to “analyze and evaluate scientific explanation concerning the complexity of the cell.” This is, as we all know, part of the intelligent design claim that cells are too complex to have evolved.

Now how in the world are public school students going to meet these requirements without having to be taught intelligent-design/creationist positions? I can see it now: textbooks will have to say, “Some scientists think that cells are too complex to have evolved by natural selection,” and “Some scientists think that the Cambrian Explosion and the existence of living fossils implies that A Great Designer created the world in an instant, calling all species into being.”

What really worries me is that textbook publishers are going to have to include nonsense like this to satisfy the Texas standards. I have been criticized for using the Holocaust analogy, but I think it’s an apt one: imagine a history class (which, after all, depends on assertions of empirical fact) being subject to the same standards. After reading about the Holocaust, students are then given the disclaimer, “Some people think that the Holocaust never happened, and that this story was fabricated by the Jews out of self-pity.” That’s what the Texas shenanigans really amount to. Remember, the Wedge Document of intelligent design is aimed not just at science, but at expelling ALL materialistic ways of investigating nature from the schools.

We’re in trouble.

And down in Florida, Tampa Bay Online reports that creationists have filed another bill in the state senate requiring “A thorough presentation and critical analysis of the scientific theory of evolution.” (Thanks to PZ over at Pharyngula for this link.)

NOTE:  Florida Citizens for Science says that this bill is dead for the year.  But given what has happened down there, I suspect that it– or something like it– will be back soon.

Clearly, this is the next-generation strategy of creationists. It has the merit of not looking explicitly religious, although of course its motivation is precisely that. It’s a clever strategy. Let’s see how the courts deal with it.

More on Texas: Good guys winning, but it’s dicey

March 27, 2009 • 5:41 am

According to the Dallas News and the NCSE report (and noted by Genie Scott yesterday), the Texas Board of Education voted down (by voting a tie) for the “strengths and weaknesses” clause discussed here yesterday:

Against the proposal were three other Republicans and four Democrats.” A final vote is expected on March 27, 2009, but the outcome is not likely to change. It remains to be seen whether the board will vote to rescind the flawed amendments undermining the teaching of evolution proposed at the board’s January 2009 meeting.

But the fight isn’t over yet: Board member Barbara Cargill is trying to slip in an amendment requiring children to learn that “there are different estimates for the age of the universe”!!! We all know what that means: she doesn’t mean 13.7 plus or minus .2 billion years, she means 6,000 to 13.7 billion years. In other words, this gives wiggle-room for the ridiculous Biblically based estimate of 6000 to 10000 years. Here’s the report from the live blog on the meeting by Steve Schafersman:

I can’t get a copy of these amendments right now. However, the first one she wants is to strike the current standard for the Big Bang and remove the 14 billion year old age from it. She says she wants teachers to tell students that there are different estimates for the age of the universe. What would these be? 13.7 billion years and 10,000 years? She is promoting a Young Earth Creationist view, of course. Many times in the past the SBOE has changed standards and textbook content that mention millions and billions of years to simply “a long time ago.”

Cargill wants to substitute a standard from Astronomy that simply adds, “and current theories of the evolution of the universe including estimates for the age of the universe” to the Big Bang standard 4A. This Astronomy standard is poor in several ways: it is vague, it is non-specific, there is only one current theory for the origin of the universe, and there is currently a well-established consensus that the universe is 13.7 billion years old, so there are not multiple “estimates.” It is sad that the astronomy teachers came up with such an incompetent standard, and now it is being inflicted on ESS. Cargill’s amendment that strips a very ancient number of years and replaces it with vague “estimates” that are equivocal about the age of the universe.

While speaking for her amendment, Cargill says she “has no intention of opening the door to teaching Creationist ideas about the age of the universe.” Yeah, right. Next, she made a Freudian slip and her secret intentions were revealed. She said “universal common design” when she meant to say “universal common descent.” Her unfortunate amendment passes by a vote of 11-3, with only Knight, Miller, and Nunez voting no. So the SBOE holds true to its wonderful tradition of stripping any date older than 10,000 years from science standards!

Stay tuned. In the meantime, some video clips from the controversy. First, the good guys (gals): Genie Scott testifying about the S&W clause the day before yesterday:

Second, the benighted dentist and chairman of the Texas Board of Education (it makes me cringe to write that), Don McLeroy, reading from Stephen Jay Gould in an attempt to prove that “stasis is God”.  I only wish Steve were still alive to respond to this — he would crush McLeroy like a bug.

Hijinks in Texas!

March 26, 2009 • 1:33 pm

Most of you know that there’s a crucial battle going on in Texas about science education in the public schools.  The school board (which is loaded with social conservatives and at least three unashamed creationists) and the state legislature are trying to water down the teaching of evolution by:

1.  Demanding that teachers expose students to the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories (as we all know, this is a transparent attempt to drag in the discredited creationist/intelligent design criticisms of evolution),

2.  Teaching about “the insufficiency of natural selection to explain the complexity of cells.” (Lord have mercy–this is right out of the Behe handbook!), and

3. Teaching about “the insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record”  (see below).

It’s hard to believe this is really going on in modern America, but it is.  The Guardian asked me to write an op-ed piece about the issues, which I have you can find here.  An excerpt:

Creationism in the classroom

Evolution is a scientific fact – except, perhaps, in Texas, where the school board is trying to cast doubt on it

Imagine that your state legislature has decided to revamp the way that health and medicine are taught in public schools. To do this, they must tackle the “germ theory of disease“, the idea that infectious disease is caused by microorganisms such as viruses and bacteria. The legislature, noting that this idea has many vocal opponents, declares that it is “only a theory”. Many people, for instance, think that Aids has nothing to do with viruses, but is the byproduct of a dissipated life. Christian Scientists believe that disease results from sin and ignorance, spiritual healers implicate disturbed auras and shamans cite demonic possession.

In light of this “controversy”, the legislature sets up a school board that includes not only doctors, but also shamans, faith healers and, for good measure a few “psychic surgeons” who pretend to extract veal cutlets from patients’ intact bodies. Taking account of these diverse views, the board recommends that from now on all teaching of modern medicine must be accompanied by a discussion of its weaknesses, including the “evidence” that Aids results from drug use and malnutrition, as well as from impure thoughts and evil spirits. And our failure to understand the complexities of chronic fatigue syndrome might be seen as reflecting its causation by an inscrutable and supernatural designer.

You would rightly be furious if all this happened. After all, the “germ theory” of disease is more than just a theory – it’s a fact. Like all scientific theories, it might be wrong, but in this case that chance is roughly zero. That is because the germ theory works. Antibiotic and antiviral drugs really do cure diseases, while spiritual healing does not. Only an idiot, you’d say, would try to tamper with medical education in this way.

But this is precisely what is happening in Texas with respect to another well-established theory of biology: evolution. . . .

. . . What’s next? Since there are many who deny the Holocaust, can we expect legislation requiring history classes to discuss the “strengths and weaknesses” of the idea that Nazis persecuted Jews? Should we teach our children astrology in their psychology classes as an alternative theory of human behaviour? And, given the number of shamans in the world, shouldn’t their views be represented in medical schools?

Our children will face enormous challenges when they grow up: global warming, depletion of fossil fuels, overpopulation, epidemic disease. There is no better way to prepare their generation than to teach them how to distinguish fact from mythology, and to encourage them to have good reasons for what they believe.

How sad that in the 21st century the Texas legislature proposes the exact opposite, indoctrinating our children with false ideas based squarely on religious dogma. Can’t we just let our kids learn real science?

One of the most bizarre aspects of this whole mess is that the head of the Texas Board of Education, appointed by the governor, is one Don McLeroy, a young-earth creationist whose day job is dentistry. McLeroy is also a born-again Christian and a Sunday school teacher.  (For the usual pungent comment on this guy, see P. Z. Myers’s take on Pharyngula.)    Yesterday, McLeroy wrote a bizarre Op-Ed piece in the Austin Statesman making his case for teaching the “problems” with evolution.  It seems to boil down to– of all things– stasis in the fossil record:

Stephen Jay Gould stated: “The great majority of species do not show any appreciable evolutionary change at all. [This is called ‘stasis.’] These species appear … without obvious ancestors in the underlying beds, are stable once established and disappear higher up without leaving any descendants.”

“…but stasis is data…”

Once we have our observations, we can make a hypothesis. The controversial evolution hypothesis is that all life is descended from a common ancestor by unguided natural processes. How well does this hypothesis explain the data? A new curriculum standard asks Texas students to look into this question. It states: “The student is expected to analyze and evaluate the sufficiency or insufficiency of common ancestry to explain the sudden appearance, stasis, and sequential nature of groups in the fossil record.” It should not raise any objections from those who say evolution has no weaknesses; they claim it is unquestionably true.

And the standard is not religious but does raise a problem for the evolution hypothesis in that stasis is the opposite of evolution, and “stasis is data.”

This is sheer sophistry based on an out-of-context quotation.  Gould, of course, was a firm believer in evolution, something that Dr. McLeroy conveniently forgets to mention.  And Gould never saw punctuated equilibrium as incompatible with neoDarwinism. He raged at creationists who used punctuated equilibrium to their advantage.   And you don’t have to be an Einstein to realize that the theory of evolution does not demand that every species must evolve all of the time!  Further, how does McLeroy deal with the many examples of real transitional fossils, and the many cases of palpable evolutionary change within fossil lineages (many described in WEIT)?  He doesn’t tell us.

This would all be comical if it didn’t have enormous repercussions for public education in this country.  Texas is of course one of the nation’s biggest consumers of public-school textbooks, and, to maximize sales,  publishers tend to bring their texts in line with the strictest state requirements.  This means that what happens in Texas may affect science education throughout the country.  And so the circus continues.

Fortunately, the National Center for Science Education is down in Texas in force, fighting hard for evolution at the school board hearings.  I have just heard from Genie Scott, and I hope she won’t mind if I quote a bit of her on-the-spot report.   It looks as if things are going fairly well:

But the good news is that 45 minutes ago +/-, an amendment to reinsert S&W [“strengths and weaknesses] failed on a tie 7:7 vote. One of the moderates is away taking care of a sick husband, so we don’t have a majority. But the moderates hung in there, and there was not a majority voting for the restoration of the old language.

We have several bad amendments to go, but that is the truly big victory that if we had lost, we would have been in very bad shape. But other bad stuff needs to go.

If anybody can get rid of the other “bad stuff,” it’s Genie & Co.  Keep your fingers crossed!