Friday, December 22, 2017

Is your mind riding on a runaway train?

“Man’s will-to-meaning represents the most human phenomenon possible, and its frustration does not signify something pathological, at least not in itself.  A person is not necessarily sick if he thinks that his existence is meaningless."
                                                                      Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frankl (1959), quoted from Choron (1964)                                                                            
Darwinian selection has equipped us with a mind unlike any other creature — one that has given us art, music, farming, literature, philosophy, mathematics, space shuttles, heart transplants, Facebook, and a science that is now able to sequence the genes that inform these skills, and even ‘edit’ certain genes whose effects we don’t like. It also gave us endless economic growth, addiction to consumerism, climate change, acid rain, landfills, armies, guns, and nuclear weapons. 

But long before all of these achievements, natural selection gave us minds with awareness of 'self' that could foresee our own death.  As Dobzhansky (1967) put it, “A being who knows that he will die arose from ancestors who did not know.”  Somehow, we became the only creature afflicted with a recurring self-impermanence anxiety, obsessed with finding 'purpose' and 'meaning' through hopes and suppositions about domains for 'extension of self' beyond mortal existence. "Here is the core of the enigma: This little consciousness, this feeling of a specific me, demands that it accompany us into infinity" (Maeterlinck 1913). This obsession unfolded together with an evolved psychology—informed by 'whispering genes'—driving (and blending with) a cultural evolution designed to help buffer these anxieties (Aarssen 2010).  But this requires a never ending chasing game of 'catch up'.  

By helping to mitigate the 'curse of consciousness', selection for these self-impermanence anxiety buffers — which I call Leisure Drive and Legacy Drive — thus rewarded ancestral gene transmission success.  And in the process, they fueled much of the cultural evolution in the ‘march of progress’ that we call civilization (Aarssen 2015).  As acclaimed philosopher Albert Camus often mused, we humans are creatures who spend our whole lives trying to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd.  And because we are only temporarily  and never really adequately  convinced, this long history of selection, I suggest, has ramped up in momentum like a 'runaway train'.  As Nettle (2005) put it, The idea of happiness has done its job if it has kept us trying.  In other words, evolution hasn’t set us up for the attainment of happiness, merely its pursuit. ... We don’t necessarily learn from experience that this is a trick, because we are not necessarily designed to do so”.  Human motivations did not evolve to deliver us untroubled minds — only fitness. It was the striving for an untroubled mind that delivered fitness, and this created ideal conditions for 'runaway selection'.
                                                                                              Evolutionists have used the 
concept of runaway selection to interpret a number of biological traits considered to have possible connections in driving certain species to extinction.  One of the most familiar of these speculations involves the Irish elk — a giant deer species, famous for its massive antlers, that went extinct about 8,000 years ago.  Antlers are produced in many mammals and are found mostly in males, where they are used as weapons for fighting (or intimidation) in competing for access to females and control of harems.  

Larger antler size advertises a formidable potential adversary to rival males, but it might also (as with the famous peacock’s tail) be associated with an evolved preference in female mate choice, if antler size is heritable and correlated with male quality.  A larger antler is more costly, and so a male that can successfully support one, may not only deter less endowed males from initiating a challenge; he is also likely to have exceptional health and superior survival prospects (regardless of any advantage in doing battle with other males).  According to a popular hypothesis therefore, Irish elk females who produced the highest quality offspring (and who therefore left the most descendants), were generally those with heritable attraction to (and who hence mated with) males displaying these larger ornaments (without knowing 
— or needing to know — why larger ones were more attractive).  Under an assumption of 'runaway selection', therefore, bigger is always better for attracting females, but the evolution of ever larger antlers in subsequent generations starts to take a greater toll on survival success, thus 
imposing a higher fitness cost. This eventually increases at a faster rate (per unit increase in antler size) than the rise in attractiveness to potential mates. If the fitness cost of larger antler size then 'overshoots' its fitness benefit, then larger antlers no longer truthfully signal superior survival success (or superior competitive ability against other males).  Extinction risk thus rises sharply  contributing possibly to the demise of the Irish elk. 
A similar kind of ‘runaway selection’, I suggest, may also be described in terms of potential effects of self-impermanence anxiety on our evolved psychology.  Our lives resemble the lives of chimpanzees more than any other animal. They have a rudimental theory of mind and capacity for culture through social learning.  But as Sterelny (2012) put it, chimps “…live in a world as they find it”; while humans “…live in a world as they make it.”  And we have made it mostly a world of delusions for chasing legacy, and a world of distractions for chasing leisure (Aarssen, 2015) — and this has made a world that is annihilating other species and their habitats at a rate not seen since the loss of dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

In an interesting commentary, Geoffrey Miller (2006) considers that the reason why we have not yet made contact with other advanced extraterrestrial life is perhaps not because we are alone in the galaxy, but because evolved technical intelligence (like ours) has some deep tendency to be self-limiting, even self-exterminating.  More generally, I suggest that runaway selection for Leisure and Legacy Drives has generated two dire consequences for humanity:  (i) a civilization now on the verge of collapse (yes, collapse); and (ii) the ramped-up demands of these drives (from biological evolution) are starting to exceed the supply rate of available domains (generated by cultural evolution) for satisfying them. In other words, the 'shelf lives' for 'newer and better' distractions and delusions become shorter and shorter, while Leisure and Legacy Drives become stronger and stronger.  And so, because of these elevated intensities, civilization moves faster and faster to collapse.  And despite their elevated intensities, these deeply ingrained human motivations are now, I suspect, becoming less effective as self-impermanence anxiety buffers, thus accounting possibly for the high and increasing incidence of anxiety disorders, depression and suicide (Curtin et al. 2016, Nock 2016).

Where is all of this likely to lead us?  In my recent book, I have suggested that a new model for cultural evolution might come to our rescue through 'biosocial management', involving deployment of a deeper and more broadly public understanding of the evolutionary roots of human motivations, especially those associated with our responses to self-impermanence anxiety (Aarssen 2015).  Failing this, perhaps through transhumanism — with technologies of nanobiology, robotics, gene editing, and interfacing computer chips — we might engineer ‘human 2.0’, complete with a mind permanently hard-wired / 'programmed' to be untroubled, free of self-impermanence anxiety (among other 'impurities', presumably).  

Or, if old-fashioned biological evolution continues to have sway, perhaps our distant descendants will persist and flourish by evolving a mind more like the minds of all other animals, and like the mind of our distant ancestor that we last shared with chimps:  a mind completely unaware that one’s existence is absurd  indifferent to the fact that time inevitably annihilates all that one does and all that one is, and that soon it will be as though one never existed at all.  

I think I would rather that cultural evolution somehow come to our rescue.


Aarssen LW (2010) Darwinism and meaning. Biological Theory 5: 296–311.

Aarssen LW (2015) What Are We? Exploring the Evolutionary Roots of Our Future. Queen’s University, Kingston.

Choron J (1964) Modern Man and Mortality. The Macmillan Company, New York.  

Curtin SC, Warner M, Hedegaard H.(2016). Increase in suicide in the United States, 1999–2014. NCHS data brief, no 241. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. 2016.

Dobzhansky T (1967) The Biology of Ultimate Concern . The New  American Library , New York .  

Maeterlinck M (1913) La Mort. Bibliothèque- Charpentier, Paris.  

Miller G (2006) Runaway consumerism explains the Fermi Paradox. Edge: The World Question Center.

Nettle D (2005) Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile. Oxford University Press, Oxford.  

Nock MK (2016) Recent and needed advances in the understanding, prediction, and prevention of suicidal behavior.  Anxiety and Depression 33:460-463. 

Sterelny K (2012) The Evolved Apprentice: How Evolution Made Humans Unique. MIT Press, Cambridge.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The evolutionary roots of happiness

A wonderful campaign to promote happiness and well-being — Project Happy — was launched recently by students at Queen’s University at Kingston.  I teach a biology course there called ‘Evolution and Human Affairs’, where students explore the evolutionary roots of a wide range of topics concerning the motivations and cultures of humans. Wanting happiness is, of course, characteristic of the human condition. As acclaimed philosopher and psychologist, William James (1902) put it: “How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure”.   Efforts to promote happiness then are likely to benefit from a deep understanding of why this emotion matters so much to our species. 

We can examine this using what evolutionary biologists call ‘Tinbergen’s four questions’ regarding a particular behaviour: (i) what mechanism triggers it? (Proximate cause); (ii) how does it develop within an individual? (Ontogenetic cause); (iii) what is its function in terms of adaptation? (Ultimate cause); and (iv) how has it evolved within lineages? (Phylogenetic cause). 

A model for the first three of these is depicted below for the interpretation of human happiness. Hence, we have happiness when we feel pleasure, we feel pleasure when we satisfy desire, we satisfy desire when we meet a need, and we have needs because they promoted gene transmission success —  evolutionary fitness — in ancestors.

Interesting to note here is that a happy life is not necessarily a ‘meaningful’ life. Life has happiness when desires/drives are sufficiently satisfied. But for many, life has 'meaning' only when a particular desire is satisfied, rooted in a particular need:  esteem for the 'inner self', characterized by a sense that it somehow exists apart from the material body, and so, unlike the latter, is not impermanent.  This need is uniquely human, and so then is the desire that satisfies it — something that I call Legacy Drive: a deeply ingrained susceptibility to delusions of being able to leave something esteemable about one's identity/personhood — an 'extension of self' — that will endure beyond mortal existence, e.g., involving influence through parenthood (mirroring one's selfhood by shaping the selfhood of offspring and grand-offspring), recognition (admiration/status/prestige) through deeds/accomplishments, or transcendence through religion or spirituality (Aarssen 2010, 2015). Thus, when life has 'meaning' in this sense, it normally evokes at least some degree of happiness.  And we strive for it because our predecessors who were so motivated were more likely to become our ancestors. 

But life can have happiness without being meaningful in this sense because there are other fundamental needs that, when met, also satisfy desires that trigger doses of pleasure (Fig. 1). Importantly, this includes the need (also uniquely human) to be distracted from 'self-impermanence anxiety' when delusions of legacy don’t seem to be (or aren't) working. These distractions are commonly deployed through something that I call Leisure Drive: a deeply ingrained disposition to be easily drawn to free-time indulgence in opportunities for enjoyment — as an 'escape from self'. Typically, these involve motivations that hack into pleasure modules/triggers (serotonin/endorphin/dopamine rushes) that have deep evolutionary roots associated with meeting core needs (e.g. for survival, social affiliation, sex, endearment, kinship) that rewarded the gene transmission success of ancestors — and manifesting in many modern cultural products for pleasure-inducing distraction / 'escape', like toys, stories, games, aesthetic entertainment, consumerism, humour, recreational sex, meditation, intoxication and psychedelics (Aarssen 2010, 2015).

Note that effective domains of Leisure Drive in this sense need not be particularly exhilarating.  In many cases, they may be pleasant enough (e.g. restfully reclining on the sofa while mindlessly flicking through TV channels) simply because they bring a welcome solace:  digression from the agonies of existence, and of the human condition in particular — the ‘curse of consciousness’ — personal knowledge of eventual mortality, and hence the nagging worry that time will inevitably annihilate all that we do and all that we are. The role of leisure here then is, most essentially, palliative. It delivers respite — a vehicle for periodic escape — from the human obsession of trying/needing to convince ourselves that our existence is not absurd.

Is there 'meaning' to be found in these domains for 'escape from self'?  Perhap not; maybe they are just about being "Distracted from distraction by distraction, filled with fancies and empty of meaning" (Eliot 1943).  But some might describe these distractions as providing a different sense of 'meaning' — one based not in striving for meritable legacy (wherein 'meaning' evokes happiness), but rather, in striving for an untroubled mind.  In other words, a central purpose in life, for some, may lie in maintaining just (and simply) that — an untroubled mind. And if this can be delivered through the intentional deployment of triggers for pleasure, the resulting happiness then indeed evokes a sense of 'meaning'. Of course, this requires a regular and repeated deployment of these triggers; it only works if we keep coming back for more.  Importantly then, the act of 'striving' here is just as true for those whose remedies involve mindfulness and meditation as it is for those who are drawn more to other distractions, like toys, stories, games, and good times with friends at the pub.

As Blaise Pascal (1670, Pensées) put it:  "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone."  The remarkable irony in this is that our predecessors who were most afflicted with this inability were probably those who left the most descendants.  Thankfully, at least, in our efforts to gain, keep, and recover happiness, there is a large 'menu' to choose from (Fig. 1) — although some options may be more edifying than others. One of the most edifying (and with deep evolutionary roots) is represented in the advice of many wise grandmothers: There is always someone worse off than you. Find them, help them, and you’ll feel better.


Aarssen LW (2010) Darwinism and meaning. Biological Theory 5: 296– 311.

Aarssen LW (2015) What Are We? Exploring The Evolutionary Roots of Our Future. Queen's University, Kingston.

Eliot TS (1943) Four Quartets. Harcourt.

James W (1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature . Longmans, Green & Co., London.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Three common sources of error in peer review, and how to minimize them

Researchers have an odd love-hate relationship with peer review.  Most think it sucks, but at the same time, necessary.  Peer review is of course a good thing when it provides the value that is expected of it: weeding out junk papers, and improving the rest.  Unfortunately, however, the former often doesn't work particularly well, and when the latter works, it usually happens only after a lot of wasted time, hoop-jumping and wading through bullshit. Perhaps we put up with this simply because the toil and pain of it all has been sustained for so long that it has come to define the culture of academia — one that believes that no contribution can be taken seriously unless it has suffered and endured the pain, and thus earned the coveted badge of 'peer-reviewed publication'.

Here, I argue that the painful route to endorsement payoff from peer review, and its common failure to provide the value expected of it, are routinely exacerbated by three sources of error in the peer-review process, all of which can be minimized with some changes in practice.  Some interesting data for context is provided from a recent analysis of peer-review results from the journal, Functional Ecology.  Like many journals now, Functional Ecology invites submitting authors to include a list of suggested reviewers for their manuscripts, and editors commonly invite some of their reviewers from this list.  Fox et al. (2016) found that author-preferred reviewers rated papers much more positively than did editor-selected reviewers, and papers reviewed by author-preferred reviewers were much more likely to be invited for revision than were papers reviewed by editor-selected reviewers.

Few will be surprised by these findings, and there is good reason to be concerned of course that the expected value from peer review here has missed the mark.  This failure is undoubtedly not unique to Functional Ecology.  It is, I suspect, likely to be a systemic feature of the traditional single-blind peer-review model — where reviewers know who the authors are, but not vice versa. The critical question is: what is the signal of failure here? — the fact that author-preferred reviewers rated papers more positively? — or the fact that editor-selected reviewers rated papers more negatively?

Either one could be a product of peer review error, and at least three explanations could be involved:

(1) In some cases, there will be ‘author-imposed positive bias’ — i.e. author-preferred reviewers are more likely to recommend acceptance because authors have an incentive to suggest reviewers that they have reason to expect would review their paper positively.

(2) Other cases, however, will suffer from ‘editor-imposed negative bias’ — i.e. editor-selected reviewers are more likely to recommend rejection because editors have an incentive to impose high rejection rates in order to elevate and maintain the impact factors of their journals, and thus compete with other journals for impact factor status.  Hence, in order to look like they are trying to meet the rejection rate quota imposed by their publisher or EIC, associate and subject editors are sometimes inclined to favour reviewers who they suspect are competitors, or even bitter rivals of the author, since they are more likely to recommend rejection and less likely to offer suggestions for improving the manuscript.  To achieve this, some editors even select non-preferred reviewers identified by authors.  I conducted an experiment to test for this a few years ago in a submission to a high-end ecology journal, where I named a non-preferred reviewer who was in fact a good friend (and who knew I was conducting the experiment). Sure enough, shortly after my submission, my friend contacted me to report that he had been invited to review my paper (to which he declined).

(3) Finally, in some cases there will be ‘unintended reviewer mismatch’ — i.e. editor-selected reviewers are more likely to recommend rejection because editor-selected reviewers are likely to be less equipped to understand the contribution of the manuscript, or to appreciate how or why it is interesting or important.  In some cases, this results because of editor ignorance; after all, in spite of best intentions by editors, authors will generally know better who is most qualified to review their papers, and best equipped to recommend effective revisions that can bolster the quality and impact of the paper.  In other cases (where authors choose not to name non-preferred reviewers), editors may inadvertently invite reviewers who are competitors or likely to provide a ‘retaliatory’ review, without being aware of this conflict of interest (an error that is not risked with author-preferred reviewers).  In still other cases, editors simply have little opportunity for quality control because they are forced to settle for whoever is willing to volunteer to provide a gratuitous review (and no one except the editor has knowledge of the reviewer’s identity, credibility or track record of reviewing quality).  With many traditional journals — because of low reviewer incentive — editors commonly end up sending a dozen or more requests before willing reviewers for a manuscript can be arranged, and so they are not the most ‘preferred’ — and hence not the best possible — reviewers for judging the quality of the manuscript.

Minimizing errors

All three of these peer-reviewing errors can be minimized by open, author-directed, peer review that combines identification of reviewer names in accepted papers, together with published declarations of ‘no conflict of interest’ (from both authors and reviewers), and incentives for reviewers to work together with authors to improve their papers (Aarssen and Lortie 2012):

Open review.  Some researchers prefer to be anonymous reviewers because this enables them to voice criticism and recommend rejection of a paper without fear of later retaliation by the author. These concerns may be reasonable.  But those who have them should abstain from peer-review, because these concerns are vastly outweighed by the cost — of single-blind review — to the progress of science:  by allowing reviewers to hide behind anonymity, there is no deterrent against biased and poor-quality reviews with draconian recommendations for rejection.  For many people, the reason why they volunteer their time to review is precisely because they can remain anonymous, not because they are nice people wanting to help advance science. Anonymous reviewing provides power over colleagues — power to approve manuscripts that support the reviewer’s own research and reject those that conflict with it.

In contrast, with author-directed open peer review, authors can seek and arrange review of their papers from the best reviewers and most reputable researchers in their fields — and can also avoid reviewers that the author suspects might be a ‘competitor’ or likely to provide a ‘retaliatory’ review.  [Editors, in contrast, are usually not sufficiently informed — nor as inclined — to avoid such biased reviewers].  Having the endorsement of a top quality, unbiased reviewer/researcher in hand when submitting to a journal (and acknowledged in the published paper) represents strong evidence in support of the paper’s merit.  The quality/impact of an article therefore can be judged by who the acknowledged reviewers are (combined with the article’s citation metrics), rather than relying on the usual inferior metric (the impact-factor of the publishing journal) .

No-conflict-of-interest declarations.  A conflict of interest occurs in peer-review when the quality of a review is potentially compromised because circumstances exist that could limit the ability of the reviewer to be objective and unbiased.  With NCOI declarations, signed by both authors (Fig. 1) and reviewers (Fig. 2) and published together with accepted papers, readers can be confident that the paper was peer reviewed and endorsed legitimately. Authors, in this case, will not be inclined to request reviews from close colleagues in order to avoid the perception of cronyism (and many editors and readers of published papers tend to know (or can easily discover) the identities of an author’s previous collaborators and close associates).  In addition, with reviewers’ names so identified, their reputations will be ‘on the line’.  Most, therefore, are likely to be honest, fair and rigorous in their reviews. Reviewers will not want their names used as public endorsements for inferior papers, or for papers whose publication will benefit the reviewer's own research reputation — at least not reviewers that will be regarded as having integrity with journals, authors, and readers. With this model then, reviewers have opportunity to develop reputations for high-quality, unbiased reviewing service.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Collaboration of authors and reviewers.  Most human efforts are better when people collaborate with a spirit of honesty and good will. This doesn’t always come easy, but it is guaranteed to be virtually non-existent under the traditional single-blind peer-review model.  When authors and reviewers collaborate to improve the quality of a paper, this can sometimes result in production of a reviewer response commentary that can be published alongside the author's paper, if accepted.  This can provide important inspiration for readers that exceeds that available from the reviewed paper on its own, and also gives credit to the reviewer for providing this contribution — thus, importantly, serving as incentive to participate productively in the dissemination of discovery that the author's paper represents. 


Aarssen LW, Lortie CJ (2012). Science Open Reviewed: An online community connecting authors with reviewers for journals. Ideas in Ecology and Evolution 5: 78-83.

Fox CW, Burns SC, Muncy AD (2016) Author-suggested reviewers: Gender differences and influences on the peer review process at an ecology journal. Functional Ecology. DOI: 10.1111/1365-2435.12665

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Religion is not in conflict with evolution — it is a product of it

In a previous post, I argue that humans have evolved unique categories of needs and motivations not shared with other animals.  One of these I call ‘legacy drive’.  This is a central theme in my recent book (Aarssen 2015), where I interpret religion as a fundamental domain for legacy.  Here I have posted an excerpt from the book.  

The human individual knows that he must die, but has thoughts larger than his fate. … Religion is an effort to be included in some domain larger and more permanent than mere existence.
—  Feibleman (1963)

A sense of legacy from religion is associated of course with faith in doctrines that promise some kind of afterlife.  Belief in a future life fulfills what Sigmund Freud (1928) recognized to be “… the oldest, strongest and most insistent wish of mankind”.  As discussed in Chapter 4 [in Aarssen 2015], evidence from paleoanthropology strongly suggests that the imaginations of our ancestors were sufficiently creative for conjuring such superstitions and cultivating them in symbolisms and rituals dating from at least 50 thousand years ago.  In the words of Malinowski (1931), “Religion … can be shown to be intrinsically although indirectly connected with man’s fundamental, that is, biological needs.  Like magic it comes from the curse of forethought and imagination, which fall on man once he rises above brute animal nature.” 

Organized religion is of course still very alive and well today, with many dozens of main varieties to choose from — providing reassurance, for the faithful, that the ‘self’ need not be impermanent, even while knowing that the body is.  This is the so-called transcendent, or ‘vertical’ component of the fitness benefit of religion, both ancestrally and today — i.e. as a domain for legacy, through everlasting life of the ‘soul’.  As Kaufman (1958) put it, “Man is the ape that wants to be a god.”  Even the most devoutly religious people know, however, that all religions are just delusions (except one, of course).  

For our ancestors, as well as today, organized religion has also had an important ‘horizontal’ component: congregational affiliation.  Worship-ping memberships like churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples can provide at least three significant benefits for genetic fitness:

(i) by reinforcing one’s confidence in the ‘vertical’ component (i.e. ‘our God and his promises of salvation must be real if there are so many fellow believers’);

(ii) as a vehicle for bolstering self-esteem (in terms of membership within a ‘larger-than-self’ cultural world-view), and a sense of memetic legacy (from attainment of social status/power through personal testimony before fellow parishioners, and personal accomplishment in the business of the religious institution); 

(iii) by serving as an incentive to behave in ways that promote pro-social reciprocal exchange benefits of group membership — e.g. by not stealing, lying, murdering, etc. — because the threatened consequences of transgression involve not only shaming by the group against the perpetrator (and hence compromising one’s intrinsic ‘need to belong’), but also banishment of the soul to eternity in a bad place (e.g. hell).  What was good for the prosperity of the social group was good for the gene transmission success of resident members.

Our ancestors probably also enjoyed an additional, perhaps even more ancient, benefit from belief in the supernatural: answers (when no practical ones could be found) regarding the mysteries of life and nature — thus satisfying the restless human curiosity, and calming fears of the unknown.  The answers here were of course interpreted in terms of favours, judgements and interventions of a ‘higher power’, involving spiritualism and/or deity.  And the early shamans, priests, prophets, and their esteemed disciples, were also likely to have enjoyed elevated social status and greater attractiveness to potential mates. 

Abundant evidence now indicates that attraction to religiosity has a partial genetic basis, and that religious people generally have more children than non-believers (Rowthorn 2011).  A predilection for superstitions then is in our genes.  Religiosity, for those who ‘believe’ (and ‘behave’ accordingly), is not only an effective self-impermanence anxiety buffer (calming the intrinsic fear of failed legacy);  it can also calm general fears of the unknown and unexplained, and promote social order and cohesion — group prosperity — and hence individual prosperity of resident members.  Plus — because public dedication as a ‘follower’ normally evokes trust from other in-group members — religion bolsters one’s local reputation, including with potential benefits through mate attraction.  All of it delivered genetic fitness for ancestors.   

Religiosity then is a fairly obvious cultural product of natural selection.  Interpre-tations of its evolutionary roots have been explored in no less than 18 recent books (published in the span of just a decade) [Box 10.1; in Aarssen 2015].

The old debates, therefore, between evolution and creationism (still active in some realms) are misguided; creationism is not in conflict with evolution — it is a product of it.


Aarssen LW (2015) What Are we? Exploring the evolutionary roots of our future.  Queen’s University, Kingston.

Feibleman JK (1963) Mankind Behaving: human needs and material culture. Charles C Thomas, Springfield.

Freud S (1928) The Future of an Illusion. Hogarth Press, London.

Kaufmann W (1958) Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Harper and Row, New York.

Malinowski B (1931) The role of magic and religion. In: Reader in Comparative Religion (Lessa WA, Vogt EZ, eds). Row Peterson, Evanston, IL.

Rowthorn R (2011) Religion, fertility and genes: a dual inheritance model. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 278: 2519–2527.

Monday, February 15, 2016

A wake-up call for PhD education in biology

For some people, going to graduate school may be an important experience just for the opportunity to explore interesting and important questions, to satisfy an intrinsic and pressing curiosity about the world or about life, and/or how to make them better.  A percentage of these people, at the PhD level, manage to turn that quest into a lifetime research career similar to that of their grad school mentors — in academia.  

Today however, that percentage (in the life sciences at least), is very small and shrinking (as a few mouse clicks on Google search will quickly show).  Another percentage, also relatively small, will find employment as researchers in government or in the private sector (most of the latter positions require only MSc or Bachelor's qualifications).  Overall then, the news looks bad:  there is now a large oversupply of PhD students spending typically about five years of their lives as research apprentices within universities, training to be career researchers that the vast majority of them will never be.  And all while living below the poverty line.

Clearly undergraduates need to think twice and hard about what they can realistically expect to get from going on to graduate school, especially in doctoral studies.  But as the grad students in my own department have been asking lately: maybe universities should also think about how to change what they can expect to get.

This calls on universities to revisit the definitions of their ‘learning outcomes’ (LOs) for graduate education, particularly for PhDs.  Traditionally, these LOs (at least in my own field of Biology) are virtually all about preparing students to become frontline researchers: asking good questions, collecting good data, making important discoveries, and publishing them vigorously.  Recognizing that most of them will never be directly involved with these activities after graduation (and will consequently soon thereafter be largely out of touch and inexperienced with the latest advances in methodology), PhD students are now asking (and doubting) whether — after five or more years of getting groceries from the food bank — they will at least have good LOs associated with other kinds of broader and peripheral expertise (e.g. in networking, collaboration and interpersonal skills, teaching, budget management, grantsmanship, people management, and other workplace ‘smarts’) that will equip them (and make them competitive) for other kinds of employment, e.g. as corporate executives, teachers, university/college administrators, supervisors in government, and managers in industry — positions in which they will inevitably not be called ‘researchers’.   

Universities then need to address an important question:  Does the ordinary working environment of grad school not already include sufficient opportunity for students to get these ‘broader skills’ LOs simply by ‘watching, asking, and doing’ in the course of routine research activities and interactions with colleagues and supervisors?  If the answer is no, then there is a second and tougher question to address:  How can universities do a better job of delivering these ‘broader skills’ LOs for PhD students, without compromising other things that universities aim to do?

An important consideration here is the perspective of the faculty supervisor.  Recruiting graduate students is part of the employment obligation of faculty, but only secondarily.  Faculty have graduate students mainly because they need them to fulfil one of their more primary employment obligations (and career goals):  to publish research (a lot of it).  Usually this involves competing successfully as a PI ('Principle Investigator') for research grants (especially NSERC, in Canada) that will pay for research costs.  And in order to accomplish the latter they need a team of research collaborators to spend the grant money on and thus generate publishable research.  And in order to win these grants, NSERC requires that the team consists mostly of members that will receive training as HQP (‘Highly Qualified Personnel’) — particularly, graduate students, and particularly with evidence that publication success for PhD students has been effective for their success in landing university postdoctoral and tenure-track jobs.  

The expected training involved here will normally include, in varying degrees, the ‘broader skills’ LOs mentioned above.  But one thing is certain:  the priorities and motivations of most supervisors will necessarily be driven to a very large extent by the accomplishment that is most rewarded by the university employer (and of course is also most important to the supervisor’s reputation) — i.e. whatever it takes to generate a high quantity and/or quality of published research.  This product is probably correlated to some extent with good mentoring of ‘broader skills’ for the grad students within a lab.  But it need not be, and probably isn’t strongly correlated.  Instead, publication success, and hence the employer reward to the faculty member (tenure, promotion, salary increases) will be strongly correlated with the number of graduate students that he/she has supervised, and the proportion that go on to obtain academic positions. 

This necessarily means that the most conspicuous LOs that grad students can presently expect to get will be as research apprentices — essentially, to become career researchers like their supervisors — with some ‘broader skills’ of course thrown in (including from grad courses, or by ordinary osmosis) — but only as time permits, and to the extent that they do not compromise the reputational and employer rewards to the supervisor. 

The current PhD graduate education experience then — as with the faculty job experience — is a product of the culture of academia.  Changing the first will require changing the second, and neither can be changed without changing the culture. 

If change is needed, and if it is going to happen, two things will be required from universities: (1) consultation with graduate students to better define, and/or revise (and publish) the expected learning outcomes of a PhD graduate education; and (2) ensuring that these LOs have substance and are taken seriously, by finding a way to make faculty supervisors accountable for delivering them.  But these measures will never get off the ground as long as granting agencies, like NSERC, continue — as part of the adjudication criteria for grant applications — to count how many graduate students an applicant has supervised, and how many have gone on to post-doctoral or tenure-track positions in academia.

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