Category Archives: Old Books

The Bacterial Allstars

I wrote about Stephen Jay Gould’s book, Wonderful Life, in a previous post. While that book wasn’t an inspiration for starting the LTEE, I often quote passages from it when I give talks on the LTEE, because those passages frame the big-picture question about the repeatability of evolution.

I first heard Gould speak at a multi-day conference in Irvine, California, in 1994. The conference was on Tempo and Mode in Evolution, with the talks celebrating and building upon the ideas in a landmark 1944 book of that same title written by the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson (1902-1984).

Gould’s talk began with several pictures of dramatic newspaper headlines that read something like these:  Darwin Hammered, Darwin Rejected, and Darwin Trounced Yet Again. I remember nodding in agreement about the lack of respect for Charles Darwin and his ideas in the press, and I’m sure many of the others in attendance did as well.

But then Gould turned the tables to reveal his sly humor. These were all headlines from the sports section of Boston newspapers about ill-fated outings by Danny Darwin, who pitched for the Red Sox. Gould was not only an expert on fossils; he was an aficionado of baseball as well. In fact, he wrote many interesting and scientifically minded essays about baseball including, for example, a memorable piece on the extinction of the .400 hitter in his book Full House. (And see this interview with Gould on that subject.)

I had hoped to meet Gould at this meeting, or at least I hoped he might hear me speak when I gave a talk about the LTEE. (Here’s a link to the paper that I covered in my talk.) Alas, Gould gave his talk and then left the conference before my talk, and before I could meet him.

Luckily, though, I met Gould when he came to MSU, first as a commencement speaker in 1999, and then in 2000 when he gave a public lecture here. On that second visit, I served as one of his hosts. When I picked Gould up at the airport, I brought along two Lansing Lugnuts caps.  The Lugnuts are a local minor-league baseball team. I explained to Gould that I’d have liked to take him to a Lugnuts game, but the season had ended before his visit. I gave him one of the caps, and I asked if would autograph the other cap as a souvenir for me.

Gould hesitated for a moment. He explained he had been asked to autograph books by Darwin and others. He would sign books that he had authored, but nothing else. When he looked at the Lugnuts cap, however, he realized this was a different kind of request. And so, he signed it: “To the bacterial allstars, Stephen Jay Gould.” Now that’s a souvenir!

Gould and I also had the chance to have a meal together, just the two of us. We discussed our shared interest in the repeatability of evolution, and how our disparate study systems—fossils and flasks—could shed light on that fascinating question.

Sadly, Gould died just two years later. However, he managed to complete a massive volume, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, shortly before his death. That 1400-page tome included a recounting of the history of evolutionary thought—informed by Gould’s collection of rare old books—as well as a synthesis of modern research in evolutionary biology from his perspective.  I was pleased and honored that he discussed the LTEE at several places in that book.


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It’s a Wonderful Life

I’ve sometimes been asked whether the idea of the LTEE was inspired by Stephen Jay Gould’s book, Wonderful Life. In this bestseller, Gould put forward the idea of “replaying” evolution to explore the idea of whether evolution is repeatable. He wrote (page 48): “I call this experiment ‘replaying life’s tape.’ You press the rewind button and, making sure you thoroughly erase everything that actually happened, go back to any time and place in the past—say, to the seas of the Burgess Shale. Then let the tape run again and see if the repetition looks at all like the original.”  However, Gould then went on to say: “The bad news is we can’t possibly perform the experiment.”

Gould (1941-2002) was a paleontologist as well as an historian of science and prolific author, and he had in mind replaying life’s tape on a planetary scale over millions of years. The Burgess Shale is a geological formation in western Canada that contains fossils from about 500 million years ago. The fossils include exceptionally well-preserved early animals, many of which have body plans that are unlike any modern animals. Building on his thought experiment of replaying life’s tape, Gould pondered the potential outcomes: “If each replay strongly resembles life’s actual pathway, then we must conclude that what really happened pretty much had to occur. But suppose that the experimental versions all yield sensible results strikingly different from the actual history of life? What could we then say about the predictability of self-conscious intelligence? or of mammals?”

Of course, Gould’s experiment is impossible at a paleo-planetary scale. But at a more modest scale, one of the main goals of the LTEE is to study the repeatability of evolution. And so, I often quote from Wonderful Life when I’m giving talks about the experiment. Thus, it’s only natural that someone might wonder if Gould’s book had inspired me to start the LTEE.

In fact, though, Wonderful Life was published in 1989—a year after the LTEE began. I think I first heard about it when Mike Travisano shared some passages with me that were relevant to a paper we were writing on the roles of adaptation, chance, and history in evolution.

So, while Gould and I were thinking about similar issues, we were imagining them at vastly different scales. It’s one of the fascinating aspects of evolution that these broad categories of causality—adaptation by natural selection, chance events from mutations to asteroid impacts, and the effects of past history on future opportunities—play out at these different scales.

I was lucky to meet Gould and discuss these issues with him several years later, as I’ll describe in a future post.


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Fun in Philadelphia

Madeleine and I just spent a few magical days in Philadelphia, where I was inducted into the American Philosophical Society. While I had heard of the APS, and knew it had a long history, I didn’t know very much about it until a few years ago, when I heard about some colleagues being elected.

The APS was founded in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin, making it the oldest learned society in the United States, and making this the 275th anniversary year. George Washington was a member. Thomas Jefferson was a member. In fact, Jefferson was President of the APS while he was also serving as Vice President and President of the United States. Barrack Obama is another member. In other words, there’s a bit of history associated with the APS.

Our hotel was almost next door to the APS, including the Benjamin Franklin Hall (with the auditorium where the meeting was held) as well as the museum and library. (More on those later.) Here’s the view from our hotel room the evening we arrived. Yes, that’s Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was approved on July 4, 1776.

Independence Hall at night

The highlights of the meeting for me are almost beyond description, but here’s an attempt.

The people: From colleagues across all fields to the staff and officers of the APS, everyone was exceptionally welcoming to Madeleine and me. (Partners and spouses are as much a part of the meeting as the members.) I got to see some longtime friends from the field of evolutionary biology including David and Marvalee Wake; I got to chat with people from other fields who I’ve met before, but rarely get to see, including population biologist Joel Cohen and geneticist Michael Young; I got to meet people for the first time including APS President Linda Greenhouse, an expert on the Supreme Court, and her husband Eugene Fidell, who works in military law. And many other warm, welcoming, and interesting people.

The talks: There were several talks each day, across a wide range of fields, and they were uniformly lively and interesting. You can see the full program here, and I’ll just mention some of them that especially caught my fancy. Two talks on the history of the US census (Margo Anderson) and on political fights over its implementation (Kenneth Prewitt). Three talks on new technologies used to give voice to the voiceless (Rupal Patel), on interpreting interactions between police and motorists (Dan Jurafsky), and on future cameras that can reveal with extraordinary resolution a fingerprint on an object in a still life photo or capture the image reflected in a subject’s gaze (Shreer Nayar). Toni Morrison received the 2018 Thomas Jefferson Medal for Distinguished Achievement in the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences; while she could not attend, a moving letter of acceptance was read on her behalf. Bryan Stevenson received the 2018 Benjamin Franklin Medal for Distinguished Public Service and he gave an inspiring, hard-hitting, beautiful, and moving talk about his childhood and his life’s work for social justice, emphasizing the importance of proximity, memory, empathy, and persistence. You can—and really should—hear his talk on memory and justice. (The award starts at ~35 minutes, followed by a short acceptance speech, and then his hour-long talk at ~42 minutes. Set aside the time; you won’t be disappointed.)

The Treasures: Wow. The APS library includes over 13 million manuscripts, many of extraordinary historical and scientific importance. The amazing staff of the APS, including Library Director Patrick Spero and Museum Director Merrill Mason, pulled out some of the original treasures for us to see. Among them: Thomas Jefferson’s final draft of the Declaration of Independence, with his marginal comments showing the changes that were made (to Jefferson’s consternation) in order to secure approval from Congress. The only document signed by the first four US Presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison. All four were members of the APS, and they signed pledges to contribute financially to a cross-continental scientific survey of the flora by André Michaux, a French botanist. Although this expedition was eventually stymied by politics, it was a precursor to Lewis and Clark. Speaking of which, another treasure we got to see was one of the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition, with a beautiful, tiny, hand-drawn map of Cape Disappointment. On the science side, we saw Charles Darwin’s draft of the title page of The Origin of Species, which he had originally titled “An abstract of an Essay on the Origin of Species and Varieties Through Natural Selection.” We also got to see a notebook of the physicist John Wheeler, with his illustration of gravitational collapse producing a “black hole”—this was especially exciting because Wheeler was a mentor of Madeleine’s stepfather, also a theoretical physicist. As I said, wow! The APS has some of these items on display at their Museum, and you can see some of these treasures online as well.

Another treasure: Another great pleasure was spending time with my wonderful friend and MSU colleague Jack Liu. Jack holds the Rachel Carson Chair in Sustainability, and his work focuses on the complex interactions between people and the environment—from protecting pandas and their special habitat in China, to the effects of divorce on energy consumption in American households. As we rode together to and from airports, I learned Jack’s own inspirational story: from a tiny village in China to becoming the first member of his family to attend college; his experience learning English almost from scratch while a doctoral student at the University of Georgia; and becoming the first person from MSU ever elected to the American Philosophical Society.

Jack and me at APS Nov 2018

[Here’s a picture of Jack Liu and me standing below portraits of Franklin and Washington in the APS Auditorium.]

Signing the book at APS

[Here’s a picture that Jack took of me “signing the book” during my induction into the APS.]

Greeting from Linda Greenhouse

[This one, which Jack also took, shows me being officially welcomed by Linda Greenhouse, the APS President, after Robert Hauser (at left), the Executive Officer, has read a statement about my work.]


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Ex Laboratorium

The E. coli long-term evolution experiment, or LTEE for short, is approaching its 30th birthday, which will be on February 24th, 2018.

In honor of all the people who have worked on this project, I thought it would be neat to commission a special, but shareable, piece of art. Given the history of science and my own interest in old books, I decided that a bookplate would be appropriate for that.

So the next challenges were deciding what to depict, and who to make the image. I wondered what a smart, curious, but evolutionarily distant organism—like a cephalopod—would think about the LTEE. Who could make an image both interesting and aesthetically pleasing around that idea?

As Stephen Jay Gould wrote in his book Wonderful Life, the evolution of life—like our own individual lives—is often contingent on chance events. And luckily I stumbled via Twitter on TAOJB—The Art Of Jo Brown—during the “Inktober” one-ink-drawing-each-day-of-October event. You can see Jo’s 31 compositions from 2017 here. Looking at her website, I also discovered that she made wonderful images of cephalopods! So I wrote Jo and commissioned a work to celebrate the LTEE’s upcoming birthday!

In addition to an image, bookplates often say “from the library” or “ex libris” (Latin for “from the books”) followed by the owner’s name. I also decided that, instead of ex libris, mine would say “ex laboratorium” with my name.

But that presented another problem, because I want to give some of the bookplates to people who might like them with their own names. So I’ve asked Jo to make a second version that says ex libris along with a blank area for the recipient to write his or her name.

After Jo’s art is complete, I’ll have a printer use her drawings to make bookplates. I’ll give a few to anyone who has ever done an LTEE transfer and/or coauthored a paper based on the LTEE with me! Please let me know if you read this and are one of those folks.

I’ll also eventually post the images here, but for now you can watch Jo’s twitter feed as she shows her progress on executing the design!

ADDED on Nov. 29:  Here are links to Jo’s work in progress including one that shows steps along the way toward the first version and time-lapse videos of her drawing the second version. And the final one shows the two versions completed! Wow & wow!!


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Time fleas, with apologies to Jonathan Swift

Over on twitter, Kyle Card posted a photo of Halloween in the Lenski lab. That prompted Morgan Feeney to reply: “You mean you don’t all dress up as different generations of the LTEE? I am SHOCKED.”


And that got me thinking about Jonathan Swift’s rhapsody on fleas:

So nat’ralists observe, a flea

Has smaller fleas that on him prey;

And these have smaller fleas to bite ’em.

And so proceeds ad infinitum.


With apologies to Swift, here’s my rhapsody to the LTEE:

So ‘lutionists observe, a cell

Had older cells from which it came;

And these had older cells beget ’em.

So life proceeds and don’t forget em.


LTEE flasks repeating

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Infectiously Fun Science

Science is sometimes frustrating. The work is often repetitive and even tedious. It can be hard to explain to our friends and families—and sometimes even to peers—what we’re doing and why we think it’s important and interesting. The current state of the academic job market is terrible.

But science is also often fun. There’s the joy of discovery, which grows out of the quieter excitement of seeing data come together to support or refute an existing idea and, perhaps, to generate a brand-new idea. If we’re lucky, we enjoy the recognition of our peers that comes when a paper is accepted, a grant funded, or a talk well received.

For those of us who study evolution, the frustrations can be magnified by critics and trolls who aren’t interested in evidence or reason, having already closed their minds to even the idea of evolution based on their narrow, literal reading—or, more often, someone else’s reading—of texts written in other languages long before science provided an evidence-based way to understand the world in which we live.

At the same time—and perhaps driven in part by the controversy surrounding evolution and religion—the field of evolution has long been blessed with great writers and speakers who are willing and able to engage the public. Twenty years before he published On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin had already cemented his place in the public eye with his travelogue The Voyage of the Beagle. As a result, the Origin was an instant best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. And while Darwin shied away from speaking in public about his discoveries, Thomas Henry Huxley was a gifted orator who became “Darwin’s Bulldog” in public lectures and debates.

That tradition continues to this day. Some of my favorites include The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, Wonderful Life by the late Stephen Jay Gould, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett, and Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin. Experts argue about scientific issues, minor and even major, contained in these books. But it’s hard for me to imagine an open-minded reader, someone interested in science and evolution, who would not find these books highly stimulating—even infectious in the sense of wanting to share them and the ideas they contain with others.

And speaking of infectious, new ways of communicating science have burst onto the scene since the printing press. For example …

Baba Brinkman is a rapper who raps about science, literature, public policy, and more. For your scientific enjoyment, here are three of my favorites from The Rap Guide to Evolution:

Performance, Feedback, Revision

Creationist Cousins

I’m A African

Here’s another from The Rap Guide to Human Nature:

Short Term Mating Dance

And here’s a brand-new one—on microbiology and disease—with a cameo appearance by yours truly and three students who work in my lab:

So Infectious

Whether you’re a scientist or not, I hope you’ll agree that these are worth sharing with your students, friends, and families!

[Image source:]

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The Dechronization of Sam Magruder

Dechronization means time travel.  Think of synchronization as joining two things in time.  Now decouple them, and you have the idea of time travel.

The word dechronization is a neologism coined by the paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson (1902-1984).  But he did not use the word in the context of his research.  Instead, he coined the word for a short science fiction novel that he wrote, which was only published posthumously, in 1996, after his daughter discovered it years later.

The novel is called The Dechronization of Sam Magruder.  It’s about a “research chronologist” working on quantum theory.  In the year 2162, an experiment goes awry and Magruder finds himself back in the age of dinosaurs.  While struggling to survive, he keeps a diary (stone tablets, of course) and wonders whether he should interfere with future history by helping the scurrying little mammals – perhaps his own ancestors! – avoid being devoured by the dinosaurs.  Being a smart guy, Magruder leaves his tablets in fossil-prone sites where future scientists will be more likely to find them … which they do.

It’s a fun read, especially if you’re interested in quirky old books that have something to do with how scientists and philosophers think about the world.

If you find yourself in the possession of an autographed copy of The Dechronization of Sam Magruder, there are three possibilities.  Simpson really did figure out time travel … or it’s a forgery … or else I signed it*.

The book is readily available from on-line used-book sellers, and for only a few bucks in pristine condition.  The book has an introduction penned by Arthur C. Clarke and an afterword by Steven Jay Gould.  But perhaps the hideous dust jacket scared people away?

*I gave the presidential address at this summer’s meeting of the Society for the Society of Evolution, and I titled my talk “The Dechronization of E. coli: A 25-Year Love Story.”  I began with a quiz about what founding member of the society had written a science fiction novel.  Before I could even offer the first of several hints I had prepared, two graduate students simultaneously called out the answer.  The prize was Simpson’s book (luckily I had brought two copies), and I autographed one student’s copy.


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