Archive 2012

is this fish evil? Alison Campbell Dec 03


On Facebook a while back, I noticed a post with an image of a fish under the caption, “Is this fish evil?” What with the way FB stuff rapidly disappears down the plughole timeline to the past I couldn’t find that post again (where’s Dr Who when you really need him?), but this is that image (and thank you, Mr Google):

It’s a deep-sea viperfish, one of a gallery of rather alarming-looking creatures included in a post at Deep Sea News. The image, & FB post, caught my attention because of the use of ‘evil’ alongside the word ‘fish’. After all, the viperfish, like anglerfish & the truly alarming-looking stoplight loosejaw, are just fish, doing what fish gotta do. So why do people tend to characterise these animals as evil? After all, as the writer at Deep Sea News points out, they pose no threat to us, for all their Halloween appearance.

Part of it seems to be the dark colour and angular shape (Darth Vader, anyone?): both appear to trigger a fear response in humans. This is understandable enough for things like dangerous spiders, but deep-sea fish that we’ll never meet. Is there some sort of hardwired response to a particular set of characteristics that screams ‘danger! (danger, Will Robinson!) when we see them?

I suspect this is partially the case, but that there’s also an element of learning involved. Back in the days when I was working at Massey, I was privileged to be able to take a couple of Mahoenui giant weta out on trips to schools. The children’s responses were fascinating. Children from kindergartens, & early primary school, were absolutely fascinated – please could they have the weta sitting on them? They crowded in, got close & personal (& were really really careful to be slow & gentle around the animals). But secondary students were more likely to have an ‘eeewwww’ response. As did many of the kindy parents, who were far more likely to go ‘oh yuck’ rather than ‘ooh that’s wonderful’. Learning? Yes, I think so.

Also, there is surely more to the initial caption than this. What’s the difference between simple danger, & the suite of traits that humans label ‘evil’? After all, we recognise the danger in a lion or tiger (or bear), but you don’t often see them with the ‘evil’ label attached.

sasquatch dna!!! not so fast, pardner Alison Campbell Nov 29

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If this had been published in that august journal, The Onion, it would have fitted right in. It would certainly make more sense if today was April 1. I mean, really (& hat-tip, as usual, to PZ)…

A team of scientists can verify that their 5-year long DNA study, currently under peer-review, confirms the existence of a novel hominin hybrid species, commonly called “Bigfoot” or “Sasquatch”, living in North America. Researchers’ extensive DNA sequencing suggests that the legendary Sasquatch is a human relative that arose approximately 15,000 years ago as a hybrid cross of modern Homo sapiens with an unknown primate species.

What should we make of this? Surely it screams ‘lab contamination’, particularly given that the purported Sasquatch has 100% human mtDNA but a real mishmash of supposed nuclear DNA..But also, methinks that someone has been reading altogether too much of the works of Danny Vendramini.

But also: apparently the nuclear DNA includes ‘non-ape’ sequences. The DNA sample supposedly came from – wait for it – a blueberry bagel from someone’s backyard.

Actually, I find it hard to believe that anyone working in science could seriously suggest a blueberry bagel as a reliable source of Bigfoot DNA.  The word ‘hoax’ springs to mind (&, I’m glad to see, it’s not only my mind that the idea is bouncing around in.)


stingray x-ray Alison Campbell Nov 21

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Another in the occasional series of rather lovely biological images: an x-ray of a stingray (Heliotrygon sp.)

(from NatGeo, via Pharyngula)

The genus name means ‘sun stingray’, a name that was given for the way that the cartilage fibres that support its body (like sharks, stingrays have a skeleton that’s based on cartilage, unlike the hard, ossified skeleton of (adult) humans).

Another cool thing about this image is that you can clearly see that this stingray is, in fact, stingless!

a cute little piggy (but why do we find it so?) Alison Campbell Nov 17

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On Facebook yesterday, Science Alert posted a picture of a cute little piggy. Why, they asked,

do humans feel such love for baby animals? Assuredly, this is a psychology experiment waiting to happen!

Not so. For one of my favourite science writers beat them to it, by about 30 years. And in a rather entertaining manner. In an essay originally published in Natural History, Stephen Jay Gould approached this question via a discussion of … Mickey Mouse!

For Mickey, you see, started life as a much less lovable character than he is today. Gould describes him as a “rambunctious, even slightly sadistic fellow” when he first appeared in the film Steamboat Willie. And Mickey had a face to match the personality, with a longer nose, smaller eyes, and much lower forehead that he does today. But over time, “the blander and inoffensive Mickey became progressively more juvenile in appearance” – in other words, he was neotenised :) And in his essay A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse, Gould asked, why? Why would the Disney artists have made these progressive changes to the famous rodent’s appearance?

As Gould points out, the German ethologist Konrad Lorenz first suggested that the morphological differences between adults and babies provide significant behavioural cues, with child-like features triggering affectionate responses from most adults. Lorenz characterised these features as innate releasing mechanisms, which included a head that was relatively large compared to the body, large eyes, a bulging cranium, & chubby cheeks. Of course, the fact that baby animals (for example, Science Alert’s little pig) also have these features has absolutely nothing to do with causing humans to view them affectionately (although we often do).

So, Gould suggests, the Disney artists – consciously or unconsciously – drew Mickey as more ‘child-like’ in order to evoke an affectionate response – however biologically inappropriate – in those viewing their movies or reading their comics. (After all, an unlovable protagonist was hardly likely to inspire people to keep on buying tickets or books!)

Gould concluded his essay by pointing out that humans, like Mickey, retain some childlike features into adulthood (& that has served us well):

A marked slowdown of developmental rates has triggered our neoteny. Primates are slow developers among mammals. We have very long periods of gestation, markedly extended childhoods, and the longest life span of any mammal. The morphological features of eternal youth have served us well. Our enlarged brain is, at least in part, a result of extending rapid prenatal growth rates to later ages. (In all mammals, the brain grows rapidly in utero but often very little after birth. We have extended this foetal phase into postnatal life.)


I’m reminded on the quote that was on the whiteboard down at the Blood Service rooms, last time I donated platelets:

Growing old is mandatory. Growing up is optional.

S.J.Gould (1980) A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse in ”The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History”. W.W.Norton & Co. 

‘a newly discovered species of little people’ Alison Campbell Nov 09

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When the news first came out that Prof Mike Morwood & Thomas Sutikna were going to be giving a public lecture about Homo floresiensis, I was first excited & then seriously annoyed: yay! great topic, but rats! can’t get down to it.

So I was absolutely delighted to see the following in this week’s Royal Society news alerts. I get to hear it after all :) (And many thanks to David Bibby!)


8. Virtual event: ‘A newly discovered species of Little People’, 1 December

Note: Thanks to Professor David Bibby, Dean of Science, Victoria University of Wellington, this event will now be live streamed:

Coinciding with the celebrations centred around the much anticipated World Premiere of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit film, you are invited to attend a free public lecture on Homo floresiensis – a new human species discovered in 2003 on the Indonesian Island of Flores.  This new species is commonly referred to as the “Hobbit” – since it stood just over 1 m tall, had large feet and was capable of undertaking quite complex activities.

Two of the principal archaeologists involved in this remarkable discovery — Professor Mike Morwood (University of Wollongong, Australia) and Thomas Sutikna (Pusat Arkeologi Nasional, Indonesia) — will talk about the Hobbit’s discovery as well as ongoing excavations that seek to better understand this new and unique species of human. 

This event is generously sponsored and supported by Victoria University of Wellington, Te Papa, Wellington City Council, the Embassy of the Republic of Indonesia, and the NZ-Indonesian Friendship Council.

Details: 3 pm Saturday, 1 December, free public presentation & exhibition, Soundings Theatre, Te Papa.

Bookings are essential.  RSVP by emailing  with ‘Little People’ in the subject line or call 04 472 1000.

an interesting take on mousetrap evolution Alison Campbell Oct 30


One of the catchphrases of Intelligent Design creationism is ‘irreducible complexity’ – the idea that in some complex biological systems, it’s impossible to remove any one part without causing the whole system to fail. Supposedly this means that such systems could not have evolved but must be the product of a ‘designer’. The term – in its most recent incarnation – was proposed by biochemist Michael Behe, but it’s effectively the same as William Paley’s 19th century concept of the watchmaker.

Behe used to be fond of using the ordinary, bog-standard, everyday mousetrap as an example. I have always found this just a tad unimaginative of him, as while removing (say) the spring would render the mousetrap incapable of doing its current job, this is not the same as saying that the remaining parts do not (& cannot) have some other function. (In a better, biological, example various constituent parts of the so-called ‘irreducibly complex’ flagellum bacteria** do actually have other functions, including adhesion to other cells.) I could, for example, throw the wooden platform of our old mousetrap*** at a mouse. Occasionally I might even hit it.

There are other possibilities for mousetrap evolution, described rather amusingly here (& hat-tip to Peter Bowditch of the Millenium Project).


** Incidentally, there is no such thing as ‘the’ bacterial flagellum.

*** I say ‘old’ because we haven’t used it for a while. These days the fat (6kg) furry ginger monster does the job quite satisfactorily. He probably falls on them.


kissing cousins with kennewick man? Alison Campbell Oct 24

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While away on holiday (gloat!) I got the opportunity for uninterrupted listening to podcasts :) One of these was a July episode of the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, which included a discussion of the (in)famous Kennewick Man remains. These 9,000-years-old bones have been the focus of considerable controversy in the US, where they were claimed by Native American tribe as being an ancestor’s bones & so not available for scientific study. However, this belief was overruled in 2004 by a US Court of Appeals Judge, allowing scientists to continue studying the surprisingly complete skeleton.

Unfortunately, that study has had to focus on anatomy: an attempt to obtain and amplify DNA from the bones concluded that

No DNA suitable for PCR amplification could be extracted from the Kennewick samples studied. Thus, no conclusion regarding its ethnic ancestry or cultural affiliation based on DNA can be made.

While some sequences were found, these matched DNA from individuals involved in the analysis & so were most likely modern contamination. This means that data from – among other things – analyses of cranial and facial morphology have been used to try to determine the likely origins of Kennewick Man. As the fearless investigative team at Riddled, Inc. report, these analyses have been used to justify some rather shaky conclusions, including a rather tenuous link to New Zealand. One cannot better the Riddled team’s take on this one :)


talk nerdy to me Alison Campbell Oct 17

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Grant’s talked quite a bit about TED talks. This one’s a cracker: Melissa Marshall talking about science communication. Important point for scientists: clear, careful explanations of what we’re doing =/= ‘dumbing it down’!

And thanks, Annette, for passing it on :)

normal service will resume in about a week… Alison Campbell Oct 14

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 … because today the Significant Other & I are heading off for a week in balmier climes. Oh all right, in Rarotonga. So apart from a little something I prepared earlier, I won’t be blogging for a bit.

Also, I’m not sure what my internet access will be like & so I may not be able to approve comments. So please be patient – I haven’t forgotten you!

why kids should grade teachers Alison Campbell Oct 13

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Next week my first-year biology students will be doing an appraisal of this semester’s paper, & of those academic staff involved in teaching it. They’re asked about the perceived difficulty of the paper, the amount of work they’re expected to do for it, whether they’ve been intellectually stimulated, the amount of feedback they receive on their work, how approachable staff are, & much else besides. (The feedback one was always my worst scoring attribute – until I asked the students what they thought ‘feedback’ met. It turned out that they felt this described one-to-one verbal communication. We had a discussion about all the other ways in which staff can give feedback – & the scores went up.) The results are always extremely useful, as not only to we find out what’s working, but we also discover what’s not (or at least, what the students perceive as not working) & so may need further attention.

Anyway, my friend Annette has just drawn my attention to a lengthy post in The Atlantic, by Amanda Ridley. It made fascinating reading.

In towns around the country this past school year, a quarter-million students took a special survey designed to capture what they thought of their teachers and their classroom culture. Unlike the vast majority of surveys in human history, this one had been carefully field-tested. That research had shown something remarkable: if you asked kids the right questions, they could identify, with uncanny accuracy, their most – and least – effective teachers.

Ridley, reporting for the Atlantic, was able to follow a 4-month pilot project that was run in 6 schools in the District of Colombia. She notes that about half the states in the US use student test data to evaluate how teachers are doing.

Now, this approach is fraught with difficulty. It doesn’t tell you why children aren’t learning something, for example (or why they do, which is just as interesting). And it puts huge pressure on teachers to ‘teach to the test’ (although Ridley says that in fact “most [American] teachers still do not teach the subjects or grade levels covered by mandatory standardized tests”). It ignores the fact that student learning success can be influenced by a wide range of factors, some of which are outside the schools’ control. (And it makes me wonder how I’d have done, back when I was teaching a high school ‘home room’ class in Palmerston North. Those students made a fair bit of progress, and we all learned a lot, but they would likely not have done too well on a standardised test of academic learning, applied across the board in the way that National Standards are now.)

So, the survey. It grew out of a project on effective teaching funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which found that the top 5 questions – in terms of correlation with student learning – were

  1. Students in this class treat the teacher with respect.
  2. My classmates behave the way my teacher wants them to.
  3. Our class stays busy and doesn’t waste time.
  4. In this class, we learn a lot almost every day.
  5. In this class, we learn to correct our mistakes.

and the version used with high school students in the survey Ridley writes about contained 127 questions. That sounds an awful lot, to me, but apparently most kids soldiered on & answered them all. Nor did they simply choose the same answer for each & every question, or try to skew the results:

Students who don’t read the questions might give the same response to every item. But when Ferguson [one of the researchers] recently examined 199,000 surveys, he found that less than one-half of 1 percent of students did so in the first 10 questions. Kids, he believes, find the questions interesting, so they tend to pay attention. And the ‘right’ answer is not always apparent, so even kids who want to skew the results would not necessarily know how to do it.

OK – kids (asked the right questions) can indicate is a good, effective teacher. What use is made of these results, in the US? The researchers say that they shouldn’t be given too much weighting, in assessing teachers – 20-30% – & only after multiple runs through the instrument, though at present few schools actually use them that way. This is important – no appraisal system should rely on just one tool.

That’s only part of it, of course, because the results are sent through to teachers themselves, just as I get appraisal results back each semester. So the potential’s there for the survey results to provide the basis of considerable reflective learning, given the desire to do so, & time to do it in. Yet only 1/3 of teachers involved in this project even looked at them.

This is a problem in the NZ tertiary system too, & I know it’s something that staff in our own Teaching Development Unit grapple with. Is it the way the results are presented? Would it be useful to be given a summary with key findings highlighted? Do we need a guide in how to interpret them? Do people avoid possibly being upset by the personal comments that can creep into responses (something that can be avoided/minimised by explaining in advance the value of constructive criticism – and by being seen to pay attention to what students have to say)?

Overall, this is an interesting study & one whose results may well inform our own continuing debate on how best to identify excellent teaching practice. What we need to avoid is wholesale duplication and implementation in our own school system without first considering what such surveys can & can’t tell us, and how they may be incorporated as one part of a reliable, transparent system of professional development and goal-setting. And that, of course, is going to require discussion with and support from all parties concerned – not implementation from above.

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