Penis Fencing: Dangerous or Decadent?

I’ve gotta, say, Roughgarden’s The Genial Gene is so far pretty awesome. It is fulfilling its promise of being meaty, laying out the real some real testable predictions for her theory of Social Selection, and also pointing out some of the logical, historical, and cultural fallacies of sexual selection. I’m going to be very curious to read some of the reviews that will come out by sexual selection advocates, but so far, I think she is presenting a fairly compelling argument.

I just finished reading a section on penis fencing in hermaphroditic flatworms. The example was used to demonstrate how we write the narrative that we want to see – virile strong rapacious flatworms, dueling it out! The loser slinks away in shame to bear the burden of being a female. The winner is victorious, not having to incubate their own genetic progeny, but instead have farmed it out. It’s inspired papers such as Sex and Violence in Hermaphrodites (which shows that insemination is usually dominated by one individual, but doesn’t show anything about multiple copulation attempts, or the cost of being inseminated) or Evolutionary Conflict: Sprem Wars, Phantom Inseminations (about sea slugs, but, again, no fitness benefits v. costs). It’s also inspired at least one great comic strip.

There are a few questions this raises. First, if such a system of mating is SO harmful, then wouldn’t it be selected against? I mean, if “losing” a mating bout is such a huge cost to an individual…which implies a cost to their fitness, then selection should ultimately find a way around that? It doesn’t sound like the most evolutionarily stable of strategies – hurt the one who will bring your genetic contribution into the next generation! Make sure they’re in the worst possible condition while they go off and incubate your genetic future! This is not to mention the fact that all of the energy you’ve been putting into the eggs you yourself have produced (remember, these little suckers are hermaphrodites) have now been wasted! Yippee!

This does not sound like a good thing, when one stops to think.

More likely, she points out, a lot of this is just cultural bias creeping into our observations. I mean, I’ll be honest, fast moving flatworms whipping their penises around? It sounds like some frat parties I’ve been to! Well, ok, not really – I was in a co-ed literary society, but that is neither here nor there!

The point is, you can see how easy it is to write a narrative to these behaviors that can override more dispassionate reasoning. An example may help, however.

Below are two movies of flatworm penis fencing. One, the original, is dark, gritty, with the full on sexual selection narrative as its underpinning. If you’d like, ignore the narration, and just pay attention to the underscoring of the actual mating.

Now, compare this to the same mating event, but this time underscored with “No Quiero Otro” by the Bajofondo Tango Club.

Interesting stuff. Makes you think a little bit more about the true meaning (and evolutionary costs and benefits) of Apophallation.

UPDATE: Unbeknownst to me, it’s sex week over at Deep Sea News! All of which was inspired, in part, by their amazement at the very video shown here! How perfect! Whadda ya think of penis fencing, now, guys?

New Ideas in Ecology and Reviewing

ResearchBlogging.orgRecently on ecolog-l, there has been a thread going around about journal publishing – open access v. pay-for access, impact factor, elitism, reviewing, etc. The central question seems to be, is the publication system somehow broken? Do we need to fix it? Is the model of journals such as PLoS Biology or The Open Ecology Journal not enough?

I think the answer is that in the realm of experimental or solid theoretical work, yes, the open access model of science publishing is alive and well (although I often wished that more of the journals out there, such as Research Letters in Ecology, got more attention – but the question of why to submit in a new journal, and what makes a journal high on ones priority list is a whole different ball of wax).

What seems to not have as clear a home in the world of Open Access science is short novel opinion pieces. True, PLoS One and others may have some room for forum, review, and opinion articles. But it is not their mission. Indeed, even in the world of non-open access, the primary publishing point for these sorts of articles is the Trends series, such as Trends in Ecology and Evolution. Articles there are often high-impact and intriguing. But, not open access and can be long-in-the-publishing-cycle (which is not as ideal for ideas types of papers).

Now, one might say, if you want a short, rapidly published, open access opinion piece – well, that’s called a Blog. But this does not have the cachet of a formally published journal (even an online-only one).

So, I’ve been intrigued to see the emergence of Ideas in Ecology and Evolution. It’s mission is to be quick (5 days from acceptance to publication), idea focused, very open to peer-reviewed commentary, and open access. Their entire publishing model is laidout by Lonnie Aarssen, the journal’s editor, in this opening editorial. Some seems like relatively standard stuff. For example, the criteria for publication are:


(i) The paper must present a genuinely novel idea or commentary.
(ii) The new idea /commentary must be well-argued and plausible.
(iii) The paper must demonstrate the potential for the new idea /commentary to impact significantly on the subject area or broader discipline.
(iv) The paper must clearly differentiate the idea or commentary from any previously published similar ideas or commentaries.
(v) A new idea must be accompanied by a proposal for testing the idea, even if it is completely impractical with current technology. Testability may be addressed directly, e.g. through empiricism, or in terms of the consilience of inductions.

But then it gets interesting. What is perhaps most intriguing (and most controversial) is how the journal attempts to speed up the initial review process and ensure that all ideas are given a fair shot, rather than try to maintain ‘prestige’ of a journal. It begins with the premise that the current review system is somewhat broken, and that referees have little incentive to be speedy in their reviews or easily embrace new ideas that are counter to dogma. So, it proposes to whopping changes to the system. 1) Referees are paid for their job (current $150). 2) No blind reviewing. Reviewers are fully credited when a paper is published. Not only that, but 3) “If the paper is accepted for publication, each referee is entitled to publish his/her views on the paper as a response article – peer reviewed by both the editors and the author.” Although, reviewers are also allowed to merely click through a standard form and submit no written comments if they wish, in order to speed up the process.

In their own words “Ideas in Ecology and Evolution represents a completely transparent peer-review publication model that rejects elitism, guards against sources of publication bias, and serves to break down traditional barriers to the release of creativity…

Lofty stuff. Assuming that this bias against new ideas is real. I have to admit, I’m skeptical. Reviewers are rigorous and sometimes slow. And yet, I am highly skeptical of the idea of buying objectivity. When I review, I always strive for editorial objectivity, money or no. I like the idea of publishing commentaries and reviews along with papers – I’ve long wished that more journals would allow access to general reviewer comments. But my skeptical side really has to wonder if paying reviewers might make them actually less objective and more likely to accept a paper. I’m just not sure if I would feel comfortable being paid good money, reading something, and then giving it a thumbs down.

Also intriguing, authors pay a $400 submission fee up front (which goes towards reviewers) and $300 afterwards if accepted. The up front fee is indeed novel, and I admit, I can see many an author blanche at the idea of paying $400 for a possible rejection. It also ups the ante on the question of whether introducing money into the reviewing system will actually change objectivity.

This far, not much has been published there – one paper on parasites in behavior research and a response by one of the reviewers. Will there be more? Is this The Way? Or, is there an even more streamlined semi-peer reviewed meta-blog more the way to go for this sort of thing (something to think about, folk)? And how ethically sound is the journals reviewing policy? I am indeed curious.

Aarssen, L. (2008). Ideas in Ecology and Evolution – A new open-access model dedicated to the rapid release of creativity in peer-review publication Ideas in Ecology and Evolution, 1, 1-9 DOI: 10.4033/iee.2008.1.1.e