Where do progressive evolutionary biologists ask each other questions?
July 28, 2017 5:42 AM   Subscribe

I am looking for a forum or discussion group (think: metafilter, reddit) specialised on evolutionary biology, and even more so on questions of symbiogenesis, horizontal gene transfer and other "lateral" processes in evolution. What I found are forums for general discussions on evolution (versus creation, on Darwinism etc.) – these do not interest me. The place I'm looking for could be a newsgroup or even a group on facebook, where, for instance, PhD-students or science writers exchange & discuss their work, or just meet up. Anyone knows the place to go?
posted by megob to Science & Nature (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Oh, hell, if you know where to go, please tell me, too! It would be nice if I could point you at the Slack where we're all hanging out at the bar, making nerd comments about underground orchids and weird reproductive systems, but as far as I know (and jesus someone please correct me if I'm wrong) there's no such thing. If anyone wanted to make such a thing, I'd be delighted, but in the absence thereof...

As far as I can tell, the closest thing to that is what's affectionately referred to as Science Twitter, which tends to have a bunch of accounts belonging to biologists at different career stages that sometimes discuss both political and professional topics. That said, members tend to be more united by progressive interests than by specific research topics. I can name a number of users you might want to follow, all of whom are professional biologists, but I can't think of anyone in my feeds who specializes in horizontal gene flow or symbiotic dynamics. I'm also pretty confused by what you mean by "lateral" processes, as an EEB type myself--I wouldn't necessarily lump symbiogenesis and horizontal gene transfer into the same category at all!

As in other journalistic disciplines, science writers do also have a distinct presence on Twitter. I personally follow and sometimes talk to Deborah Blum, Carl Zimmer, and Ed Yong, as well as a few people who are professional scientists who occasionally write on the side (e.g. Hope Jahren). I use TweetDeck to keep up with my feeds, and so I maintain a list of "Science Twitter" folks I follow which is publicly hosted on my twitter. There are a few MeFites in there, too.

There are some blogs you might like--I'd point you at perhaps Jeremy Yoder as the closest thing to what you're looking for, or Dynamic Ecology, but the latter isn't evolutionary biology per se so much as EEB. (I believe the two main bloggers there are in disease ecology/evolution and community ecology; Yoder is IIRC a phylogeneticist primarily with a side interest in LGBTQ issues.)

It is perhaps worth noting that there's a lot of blur between ecology, evolution, and often animal behavior in certain contexts (usually what's known as "behavioral ecology", but which tends to actually have more to do with behavior and/or neuroscience than actual ecology as we tend to think about it). Because most folks working in these fields are pulling information and concepts from a whole bunch of places and because most biologists have not really grokked social media, especially at upper levels, people tend to segregate based more on EEB identity and personal dynamics than they do around specific research topic. This reflects real life, too; my best friend in my own department is a conservation ecologist interested in spatial dynamics of Himalayan birds, while I work on individual decision-making about resource allocation and social behavior in singing mice. We aren't even in the same concentrations within the department, but in an unusually big year-size of eighteen or nineteen students you get to know each other.

ResearchGate has some of this also, I believe, but I don't think there is much of a discussion community there. Still, that's where you'll find the professional questions most commonly--but they tend to be specific and oriented to techniques and models, not really conceptual or very interesting unless you are trying to pull off a particular task. Mendeley has tried to do this and not done it well.

And then the last place I sometimes see these kinds of question and answer discussions is right here on MeFi itself--with respect to prominently posting MeFi biologists here whose comments I'm always delighted to see, I can point you at biogeo, ChuraChura, en forme de poire, hydropsyche, hydrobatidae, pemberkins, barchan, and maryr, among others. (I know I am forgetting a bunch of professionals right here whose opinions on biology I respect and like, dammit, and I am gonna apologize all over the place if you want.)
posted by sciatrix at 7:20 AM on July 28 [7 favorites]

Sciatrix has covered this tremendously thoroughly, but I just want to second Science Twitter as probably the closest existing thing to what you're looking for. Join us!
posted by pemberkins at 7:40 AM on July 28 [3 favorites]

Yeah, seconding sciatrix, don't think this exists. I mean, it does exist, just not on the web. The place where biologists ask questions and give answers is the same place it's been for a few hundred years: the scholarly literature, research conferences, seminars, colloquia, etc. Somewhere in the middle is bioRxiv, where papers are not (yet) peer reviewed, you often can get/give/see discussion, and papers flow through much more rapidly than in traditional research publication. You might also get some leads from EvolDir.

I'm not sure what your background is but it's important to note that a large open forum for online discussion of research in progress is actually disincentivized. People's careers hang on getting novel work published, with their name (and their institutions' names) firmly attached, and though a lot of us don't like this churning grind, it's not gonna change any time soon. So sure, there are a lot of people with cool ideas about things to look in to, useful methods, leads on settling old hypotheses, etc. And they will shout about it from the rooftops, but after they've published it and can use it to keep their career. Until then, they keep it under their hat, sharing with colleagues and acquaintances at lunch and seminars and conferences. Sometimes its a bit different once people get tenure, and don't have to be so paranoid, but in my experience they are not willing to buck the status quo either, just for different reasons.

Anyway: if you are affiliated with a university, or even just live near one, the best thing is to stalk their calendars for speakers and events related to your interests. While it's a bit uncommon, all the departments I've worked in would be happy to accept an interested member of the public in attendance, and for the most part nobody would even notice anything odd, assuming you belong as much as anyone else. In contrast to online fora where people are sometimes cagey, they are usually happy to brainstorm and chat irl.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:56 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]

I should note that depending on what you are looking for, I have been happy to vomit all the weird science ideas I can think of in a couple of Discords or otherwise un-google-indexable places for fiction writers to play with, if they're interested--I'm just not willing to do it anywhere where my ideas can be picked up and, as SaltySalticid mentions, taken off with without giving my actual career a leg up on. Same idea as a conference or Twitter, actually--not easy to find and index long after the fact, usually in the context of smallish groups of specific people who are networking and building relationships at the same time as they're sharing their ideas.

And I have effectively zero chance of being scooped--I would genuinely like to see someone try!--but I have the opposite issue of being easily identifiable to the point that deciding to be open about exactly what my study species is was a decision to openly tie "sciatrix" to my legal name--which is often what you'll find for folks working in less common species. Unfortunately those folks are also exactly the kind of people you'll be looking for if you're looking for people who work on symbiogenesis in particular, as well as many of the more unusual evolutionary ideas you seem to be mentioning. (Horizontal gene transfer, maybe not? but I'm not as familiar with common systems there.)
posted by sciatrix at 8:12 AM on July 28

Yep, what they said (though I'm a conservation biologist/landscape ecologist so they could all be hanging out without me).

I'd like to second SaltySalfcid's recommendation that if you're 'general public' go to local university seminars. That's probably the best way to see science as it's in progress, rather than the final version in a paper. The talks tend to be heavy on the methods since they're pretty long (~1 hour). I will caution that they're actually not great places for the 'general public' to ask questions. There's a specific culture around asking questions at a lecture/seminar (which can vary by institution) that depends on a lot of background knowledge. For example, if I went to a evolution talk, I wouldn't ask questions about the ecological context (even though I know a lot about this) or the particulars of their methodology or philosophy (because I don't know a lot about those). Someone could ask why they used one mathematical model vs. another more recent/simplier/complex one but they wouldn't ask like, why do you consider this system the be the best model for the question. That kind of question is overboard for this kind of lecture (it's more suitable for a thesis or dissertation defense).
posted by hydrobatidae at 8:20 AM on July 28 [2 favorites]

Yeah, I'd agree with trying to keep up with Science Twitter and zeroing in on particular accounts. BioTweeps and RealScientists are good accounts to follow to get a sense of the breadth of interests represented by scientists on twitter - they're rotating accounts hosted by different researchers each month. Anne Hilborn is an organismal biology grad student who's got a good sense of the pulse of science twitter and starts a lot of catchy hashtags (you may remember #junkoff and #cuteoff), but she also retweets a lot of interesting things and people who you may be interested in following. Jeremy Yoder is also very active on twitter. You may also be interested in George Perry and Melissa Wilson Sayres, who are also geneticists with an evolutionary biology perspective.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:39 AM on July 28 [1 favorite]

Just a quick comment – thank you everybody here – most ideas here are on who to follow etc., what can be interesting, but is not what I am looking for. I am afraid I maybe didn't make clear enough this point: I was really looking for groups, communities, forums etc. as a place for topic-specific discussions – my background is in philosophy of science and I am already competent on all the subjects I am working on. It would be great to find a group where participants (myself included) can ask questions like: Hey guys, anyone knows if there are other examples of this or that, if hypotheses X has been refuted convincingly by someone (and whom) and so on. It would just be so much easier than doing all that literature research, google scholar mining etc. etc.

But you are right: The inner laws of science (like it works today) make the the existence of such groups highly unlikely. Yet, I know them from other topics, mostly in the context of media and political science, where they work quite well and are appreciated by all participants.

Thus, still a big difference between humanities and "hard science", it seems ... I feel we deplore this all of us, but it's not easy to change the system ...
posted by megob at 1:48 PM on July 28

But anyway, a lot of good ideas here and things and people I will check out, thanks for this bunch of great information!
posted by megob at 2:19 PM on July 28 [1 favorite]

Ah, yeah, then you will want to start striking up relationships with particular people then. Honestly, for a question like those I would probably either head to ResearchGate or, more likely, straight up throw it into Ask here. There's enough biologists and people with weird hobby interests that you might well get good responses. Twitter is often a lot more hit and miss about who will see something, although it probably is a good venue to start finding specific folks with the knowledge base you seek to make friends. For all that academics are cagey about unpublished ideas and work, most folks will happily talk your ear off about the obscure literature or work they've seen for the price of a little flattery.

That or just straight up start emailing experts or people who have published on topics you want to know about. Explain why you're hunting the info down and that it will help you out, and most people respond well. This is probably also a better way to reach older profs who might have a more encyclopediac knowledge of the literature and history of a subfield but who are least likely to be on social media.
posted by sciatrix at 3:25 PM on July 28 [2 favorites]

It's specifically for ecologists, but Ecolog is an old school listserve where you could ask questions like that (we all have to understand evolution to understand ecology, and some folks' research focuses more directly on evolution). I would say lately it's about 75% job/grad school ads, 25% discussion, but the discussion can be quite good. You can browse the archives and see what you think.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:41 PM on July 29 [2 favorites]

I'm not a biologist and so I can't vouch specifically for the Biology Stack Exchange, but the physics and mathematics communities on that network are a surprisingly nice mixture of ordinary curious people and actual professionals who know things.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 8:33 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

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