Ducks Meet the Culture Wars

A few days ago, CNS News (“The right news. Right now.”) discovered that the National Science Foundation has been funding a study on the evolution of waterfowl genitalia.

When someone brought this item to my attention, I was puzzled. After all, this is not breaking news. I should know–I wrote about it for the New York Times almost six years ago.

This old news now seems to have gotten fresh currency thanks to the fact that some of the research was funded through the 2009 American Recover and Reinvestment Act, a k a the Stimulus Package. And so, CNS News believes, you can draw a direct line from the funds that went to this research on birds to the new cuts in government services due to the sequester.

I kid you not. See this tweet from CNS News:

This “news” then got picked up by other outlets, such as Human Events (“Powerful conservative voices”). Politifact, the Pulitzer-Prize-winning political fact-checking site, even got into the act–confirming that, yes, the government supports research on duck sex.

Commenters on these posts left remarks like “PLS SHOOT ME NOW AS I CAN TAKE NO MORE OF OBAMA AND HIS SPENDING.” (Of course, I wrote my article back in the Bush years, but, hey, who needs to get bogged down in reality?)

This is a tried-and-true tactic that politicians have trotted out for years–long before the sequester. Back in 2008, I wrote about how then-vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin sneered at spending that “goes to projects having little or nothing to do with the public good–things like fruit fly research in Paris, France.” In 2011, Republican Senator Tom Coburn groused about all the money NSF wasted on things like studying shrimp.

Now, I will not get into a debate about precisely how much money should go to the National Science Foundation versus, say, subsidies for oil companies. I just want to address the question of why we fund basic research in the first place.

Scientists use the word “basic” to distinguish scientific research that’s not directed at some specific practical problem. Developing a vaccine for the latest strain of the flu is applied research. Learning how the body generates antibodies to flu viruses is basic research. Basic research can lead to applications, but we don’t know in advance what particular studies will or won’t do so. That’s because we have much left to understand about how the world works.

For some reason, people like Palin and Coburn are fond of animals when they’re looking for something to make fun of. Understanding the basics of how animals work seems to them like a joke. This just speaks to a misunderstanding of the research.

Animals affect us directly in lots of ways. We eat them, they eat our food (think about insect chewing up wheat), they harbor diseases, and they produce interesting compounds that may lead to useful drugs. Scientists do a lot of applied research on animals to address these issues, and they also do basic research, which sometimes leads to applications. If you actually take a look at the animal research Palin was mocking, she could not have picked a worse example to make her point. The research she singled out involved looking for parasitic wasps that can kill a fly that is devastating California’s olive orchards. The wasps live in France. That, to Palin, is devastating.

Studying animal biology is not just important for our own direct well-being. It’s also important if we want to be good stewards of the environment. To write my story about ducks, I went to the Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy in Litchfield, Connecticut, where some of the research is taking place. Obviously, if you want to bring back these birds with captive breeding, the birds have to breed. And if you don’t understand the equipment they use for breeding, then you’re doomed. Sniggering about duck penises won’t change that.

Studying animals is also a way for us to look in the evolutionary mirror. We share a common ancestor with other animals, and the same kinds of evolutionary processes play out in both us and them. Now, you may wonder what ducks–with gigantic cork-screw-shaped penises and a gigantic cork-screw-shaped reproductive tracts–could possibly have to do with us. The manifestation of sex evolution may be different in different species. But the process is similar.

As in many other species, the evolution of ducks has been driven in part by something call sexual conflict. There’s a conflict between males and females: the best reproductive strategy for a male duck is not the same as the one for a female. Females will have the most duckling if they can choose the best males to father their offspring. Males, on the other hand, try to mate with as many females as possible. This sexual conflict leads to an extravagant arms race, which has produced their extravagant sexual organs. (In addition to my story for the Times, I’ve blogged about this research at the Loom, and Ed Yong has also written about it at his blog.)

Ducks are not alone. In various animals, sexual conflict takes many forms. Male flies, for example, will dose their mates with toxic chemicals to ensure that their sperm fertilize the female’s eggs and not the sperm of other males. The fact that they cut the lifespan of their mates short is irrelevant to their reproductive success.

And guess what? Human biology is shaped by sexual conflict too. Men’s sperm and seminal fluid show signs of having evolved through competition with the sperm of other males. (The journal Reproduction–dedicated to research on fertility–recently published a review about sperm competition in humans and other animals.)

Sexual conflict may also explain some of the disorders of pregnancy. Take preeclampsia, a mysterious condition in which pregnant women develop dangerously high blood pressure–so high that they risk death.

Some scientists have argued that the same sexual conflict that is manifest in other animals is the cause of preeclampsia. Male genes drive mothers to provide extra resources to babies, the argument goes, while female genes hold the flow of nutrients in check. Think of it as a tug of war that normally ends up as a stalemate–but every now and then gets out of control. If the placenta drives too much blood towards the baby, it can lead the mother to suffer high blood pressure.

A team of Danish scientists tested out this idea by reviewing 750,000 medical records of pregnancies and found that the data support this hypothesis. “Natural selection may be responsible for the maintenance of these disorders in modern humans,” they conclude in a paper they published last month.

These insights into sexual conflict’s effects on humans may  prove important to our own health. They may guide us to new ways to treat preeclampsia and infertility. But these insights have arrived late in the study of sexual conflict. Other scientists first explored sexual conflict in many other species–species including ducks. That’s just how science works, no matter what culture warriors may claim.

44 thoughts on “Ducks Meet the Culture Wars

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful article on the value of basic research. The only paragraph in the CNS story that caught my eye was:

    “E-mail and phone attempts by to contact the study’s Principal Research Investigator, Richard Prum, a professor at Yale University, were unreturned.”

    If true, I think this highlights a disturbing lack of commitment on the part of scientists to advocate directly for their research.

    But then, if the news has to happen “right now”, maybe he just wasn’t at his desk?

    [CZ: I’ve learned from personal experience that it can be tricky to get Prum on the phone. He’s just moving too fast. Anyway, the people at Politico managed to reach him.]

  2. I have to protest– Rick goes out of his way to talk to the media. This was simply bad reporting. It can be hard to get anyone on the phone if you have a last-minute deadline and want, to imply that someone is hard to reach and out of touch. (full disclosure: my office is next to rick’s)

  3. I feel like the more we talk about it, the more momentum the story will get; hence my refusal to promote the story or even click on the link to give their site hits.

    [CZ: I think once it’s showing up on sites like Politifact, it’s got plenty of its own momentum.]

  4. Thank you for this thoughtful piece advocating basic research. As with many other government-funded endeavors, the goal is not profit. It’s fundamental discoveries and caring for the basic needs of people

  5. Interesting article in the NYT. Neither that article or this one successfully make the case for why the US Federal government should be funding this research, or where that fits in the federal powers enumerated in the constitution. That aside, this research money is such a tiny piece of the overall budget, it’s laughable it’s getting any attention whatsoever. The 800lb elephant in the room is that entitlement spending is at over 60% of the budget. If anyone is going to be actually serious about reforming the budget, that’s where we need to start. Focusing on such small potatoes is a worthless distraction.

  6. Chris Smith, I appreciate your comments about this being a wrong-headed distraction. But to address your question about the legal basis for this (and many other Federal actions), I think we can assume it falls under both the “General Welfare clause” as well as the “Necessary and Proper clause” (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 18): “The Congress shall have Power – To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”

  7. In reply to Chris Smith; the military is where all the spending really is. Targeting “entitlements” as the elephant is intellectually dishonest.

  8. @Chris Smith there is none, well done! There is no reason that the government should be funding this and it’s not really part of the constitution.

    That being said if the US would like to maintain its position as a technological leader it probably should fund it; because industry won’t. Industry (take your pick: pharma, tech, heavy, chemical, film, whatever) will happily more abroad where they can develop whatever ideas their new hosts’ government-funded research labs will produce.

    No, duck sex probably isn’t going to create a cure for cancer but:
    a) Testing our models against extreme cases (and duck reproduction is pretty extreme) is the best way of finding deficiencies in it.
    b) We should test our models against more than just humans (because we’re pretty weird in all sorts of ways not least that we’re communicating via metal boxes on either side of the planet).
    c) There’s nothing wrong with knowledge for knowledge’s sake.

    I’m sorry if this assume far too much about your stance and I agree research funding is small fry compared to the majority of budgets, it’s worth noting that it’s often one of the few areas of government budget that probably has some payback (although calculating the contribution made to a country of having active and involving research projects is very hard).

  9. Excellent defense of basic science. Both sides, however, miss a valid question about these projects funded by programs like the stimulus. Decisions on funding in these cases are sometimes outside the normal, peer-reviewed grant cycle. These may be very worthwhile projects, they should be competing for funds in the normal way.

    [CZ: This particular project, as all other NSF projects, was approved after thorough peer review.]

  10. “Studying animals is also a way for us to look in the evolutionary mirror.”
    You may be forgetting, Carl, that Republican politicians don’t want to look in that mirror, because they don’t believe in evolution.

  11. Proxmire lives! Once again, the culture warriors prove that they are masters of propaganda techniques and are perfectly prepared to employ them against a community that, by its own codes of conduct (Randy Olson aside), may not use them. The miniscule proportion of the Federal budget (what, 2% of GDP if that?) is perfect for propagandist purposes, as the community affected is too small, and too hamstrung, to respond effectively. It makes a convenient springboard for the propagandists, from which they can seize power, and from power impose their broader agendas. Yes, Proxmire lives. So does Yeats.

  12. Unfortunately the flat-earthers do not fall off the edge of the earth at a rate sufficent to improve the odds of survival for us round-earthers..

    1. @Gordon D. Munro, I see your (witty) point — but remember that we round-earthers have survived until now, and we are still probably in the majority. The flatters make a lot of noise and attract attention, but at the moment they are a bedraggled bunch, going nowhere. Without a George W. Bush to lead them over the next cliff, they are a lunatic fringe and nothing more.

  13. When I got in my car, drove to the drug store for my life saving medication I suddenly understood oil company subsides, when I had to buy gas. What benefits can I expect from this study?

  14. @Ernest Barker, when you arrived at the drug store for your life saving medication, there’s a good chance that a majority of the pills on the shelves were only possible with research exactly like this from the NSF.

  15. Mr. Linus Van Pelt, I was referring to this specific study, not studies just like this. What benefits can I expect from this study? I don’t object to research or this study. All I am asking is what are the benefits of this study? I doubt the study would have been undertaken if their were no some benefits expected. I want to know the benefits, to society, of this particular study? On what grounds was it justified?

    [CZ: As I explained in the post, this research is basic science. You can’t predict in advance which pieces of basic research will lead to direct benefits. People might have wondered why we wasted money in the 1960s studying how bacteria fight off viruses. No one predicted that the discovery of restriction enzymes would lead to the entire biotechnology industry. But it did. And as I explained in the post, many important insights into human biology emerge through the synthesis of a lot of studies on other species. The justification for this sort of research is therefore not some specific benefit, but its importance to our growing understanding of the natural world.]

  16. Short version of why we should fund basic research… Humans are destroying the earth’s natural habitats at an alarming rate (fact). Studying humans had done nothing to address this (fact). Studying non-humans is our best bet to address this issue before it is too late for us (conjecture).

    There is a much higher probability of major discoveries of huge import to our future coming from basic research than from ‘translational’ studies.

  17. It is important to remember that, even though no one can tell in advance which basic research will lead to applied research, MOST basic research doesn’t lead to anything practical. Its expected, we fund a lot of stuff and wait to see what pays off. Kind of like venture capitalists funding start-ups. We accept the costs of the many things that don’t pan out in order to cash in big on the few that do.

    Your example about bacteria and viruses leading to the biotech industry illustrates something else that’s important. It can take a LONG time before applications of knowledge gained from basic research become visible.

  18. I’m reminded of a quote by Nobel laureate Dr. George Smoot:

    “People cannot foresee the future well enough to predict what’s going to develop from basic research. If we only did applied research, we would still be making better spears.”

  19. Politicians in my country once complained about a researcher spending money on something so useless as energetics of hummingbirds. I think the researcher was wrong to defend his work saying that the processes were old and likely shared with, among other species, humans. I thought he was caving in to anthropocentrism. I believed he should have instead replied that because of their extreme energetic requirements, hummingbirds were the best model (maximizing signal to noise) for studying this issue. But reading your article reminded me of this episode and I see that he wasn’t wrong in his defense.

  20. Interesting to complain about not mentioning that in one article that it was federally funded by Bush before, when Zimmer’s article doesn’t mention federal funding at all.

  21. In the 1950s, when India had just become independent, there was a fierce discussion about what research to support. A heavy emphasis on ‘applied’ research.

    The consequence is that India trains an overwhelmingly large number of people to carry out research – Ph.D.s, Engineers, Doctors, but compared to the investment and the number of researchers it trains, the output is tiny. You can measure it by the number of patents, the number of papers, the number of groundbreaking papers, or whatever metric you choose.

    Anyone who wants to know what an America without government funded research will look like in a few decades — look to India. Your best scientists and engineers will abandon you in a wave, and go where their research will be funded. And I bet that there will be a few countries willing to fund it, China, for one. And if anyone thinks I am exaggerating, check out the facts. China is the fastest growing source of funding for research. But even more to the point, it is funding basic research at unprecedented levels, which will grow, especially if its chief competitor commits seppuku.

  22. I’m not defending the CSM, but the point wasn’t when it was funded. the point was that it was funded at all.

    I know that pointing our oil company “subsidies” has great emotional appeal, but it is baseless. Only politicians describe the same tax breaks every other business receives as a “subsidy”. The government profits more off oil company products than what oil companies do. And some of them are investing up to 70% of their profits into research and development, including green energy research. That money in the hands of the government would pass through a million departments, all with hands outstretched, before it ever reached the hands of those that would use it.

  23. “The government profits more off oil company products than what oil companies do. ”

    How so? These oil companies take hundreds of billions in subsidies yet often pay no taxes despite making billions in profits. The number of people employed by the oil companies is not in the millions. It’s just in the tens of thousands.

    “And some of them are investing up to 70% of their profits into research and development, including green energy research”

    Name a single company. Also Research and Development by oil companies is said to be .0001 of their budget.

    1. Said to be .0001 of their budget by WHOM? This information is available in shareholder reports. In the last information I checked, which was for (I believe) the first quarter of 2011, Exxon’s profits were $10B. For that same quarter, they paid $8B in taxes. This is all publicly available information.

      Exxon, in particular, is spending in excess of 32B per year in establishing new resources and technologies.

      Oil companies profit, on average, $.12-.$.20 per gallon of product sold. The government taxes it, on average, at around $.42 per gallon sold. Oil company profits are so large because they sell so much oil. This is all simple math and it’s all publicly available information. It just requires typing something other than “oil companies are evil” into your search engine.

      1. Here is just one source that suggests your numbers are way off…

        “Exxon Mobil registered an average 17.6 percent federal effective corporate tax rate on its annual earnings in the three years spanning 2008 to 2010. Its average domestic profits exceeded $6.8 billion. And as a 2011 Citizens for Tax Justice report points out:
        Over the past two years, ExxonMobil reported $9,910 million in pretax U.S. profits. But it enjoyed so many tax subsidies that its federal income tax bill was only $39 million—a tax rate of only 0.4 percent.”

  24. Thank you for this. I really appreciate your voice on this issue, and I agree with one of the commenters above that we are the vast majority and these “flat Earthers” are just the loudest. Unfortunately, many rational people only hear the nutjobs and their opinions are being swayed.

    If I were President, the first thing I would propose is to cut 50% of the military budget and redirect those funds to science and education. More money for NASA, more money for NSF, more money for higher education, etc…

  25. What source is that? Wehateexxondotcom?

    According to the Washington Post, Exxon’s profits for 2011 were in the nieghborhood of $40B, which squares with what I said… a one quarter profit of $10B.

    What you are talking about are federal income taxes. You’re not talking about all of the thousands of different taxes companies like Exxon pay, which come out to about $32B per year.

    But I don’t care. Go ahead and raise their federal income tax. They’re just going to pass the cost along to you, like every other business in the history of the world has done. No business has ever paid a tax. Their consumers pay taxes.

    BP has invested over $7 billion into alternative energy in the last five years. Exxon has invested $600M into plants to turn algae into fuel.

    According to Business week,

    “In the last decade, the industry says, it has put $71 billion into zero- and low-emission and renewable energy technologies. The U.S. government, by contrast, has spent about $43 billion on similar efforts during the same period…”

    That’s not counting what they invest in conventional petroleum production technology.

    Hate them all you want. I, for one, trust an industry that knows the oil is running out and still wants to be around in a hundred years.

    1. The data come from center for american progress. Now that corporations are people in this country, it does seem odd to me that the person known as Exxon paid a federal tax rate of .4%, while I paid over 20%. Of course, as I understand that all corporations are greed houses that pass all costs to the consumer, I responded by not buying Exxon products. No hate involved, just the power of the individual to do what is right. Our dependence on oil will end us, if we don’t wise up first… Exxon has killed many technologies that would have reduced oil consumption. Those facts are there for anyone to read.

      1. You replied to nothing I said. I agree our dependence on oil will kill us.

        Saying that Exxon “killed” technologies makes you sound like a conspiracy theorist. Things like electric cars have no future in this country any time soon. The distances betwen point a and point b are simply too great. Throwing away tax money on pointless projects (which is what the government does) is why we should be paying less taxes, not more.

        From the WSJ:

        “Exxon isn’t stupid. It’s not the largest company in the world, in terms of value, for nothing. Exxon knows that, even as it spends money on oil and natural gas exploration, certain tides are changing. Exxon, instead of betting on biofuels, thinks that future is the hybrid car market. That’s why Exxon has been working on better lithium batteries since the 1970s.

        Exxon doesn’t actually make the batteries. Rather, Exxon scientists are developing ways that the batteries could withstand higher temperatures (the main problem with lithium batteries is that at some point they explode). Exxon’s design is used in a large number of lithium cellphones and other electronic device batteries. Now, Exxon is paying scientists to improve lithium battery technology in order to make it a practical replacement for the bulky, less efficient nickel-metal hydrid batteries that are currently used in hybrid cars. Exxon wants a share of the hybrid car market by selling its technology to Toyota (TM), Ford (F) and other makers of hybrid cars.

        Whether you agree with Exxon’s environmental record or not, there’s no denying that the company has made some very savvy business decisions in the past. This decision is no different. Exxon isn’t moving in a green direction because it cares about going green. Exxon is doing it because the company cares about making money. And, if Exxon continues to push the hybrid car market, the company is likely to continue to do well. After all, a hybrid car with a lithium battery designed by Exxon would be a double win for the company — it still needs gas, but even though it won’t need as much, the battery will make up some of the difference.”

        Your “greedy corporations” are what fund the retirements of every single person in this country who has any type of an individual retirement plan.

        Only in America could someone get upset because a company isn’t paying taxes through the right funnel. It all goes to the same place, but since it’s not called an income tax they’re just not paying their fair share.

        I’m an electrical engineer for a large electrical contractor. We pay a lot of money in taxes. If our federal income taxes were what yours were, as a percentage, we would go out of business and 5000 people would be out of work. Businesses pay plenty of taxes that most people have never heard of, starting with matching the payroll withholdings of every single employee.

        1. Are you suggesting that increasing income (greed) is not the goal of american business? What an inane thought. Big oil gets huge breaks from our government and in exchange they do R&D that makes THEM more money. Wonderful. Please explain to me the upside of the huge subsidies that I pay in taxes to Big Oil. What do I get in return? Neither shareholders nor CEOs need to maximize profit… That is the difference between greed and the social contract, something that apparently exists in all social species except ours… another hallmark of our exceptionalism. BTW, if you add the cost to the environment, many forms of transport are cheaper than oil based vehicles… funny thing is the current users don’t care because its their kids who will pay the cost to their destroyed environment. Money will not cure the ills of this world, only cooperation can do that.

          1. That was a nice straw man you put out there. I never said that all government spending was bad. What I said was that energy companies know more about energy than what anyone else does.

            And I don’t understand why you hate profit so much. I know you’re probably super jealous of the handful of rich people the profit makes, but most of the profit that flows to the bottom line goes to the shareholders, millions of whom are common people just like you and me.

            The motive for profit develops technology more quickly and more efficiently than anything else. Personally, I don’t give two craps WHY the artificial heart was developed (answer: to make money) I care that it was developed. I try not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

            Exxon has a bad environmental record. That’s what the government and the shareholders of the company should be focusing on. Not the fact that their tax money has a label attached that does not say “federal income tax”. Where I come from, money is money.

          2. And, a subsidy is taking money from person A, and giving it to person B.

            A subsidy is NOT taking less money from person B than you take from person A. It is especially not a subsidy if person B is contributing in a thousand different ways that you are not.

  26. BTW, that you trust an industry that you admit will just pass any of its EPA fines on to the consumer says a great deal about you. I bet you don’t trust government, right?

  27. Where do you think businesses get money? They have two sources. Shareholders and customers. Any time the costs for a business go up, the cost to shareholders and customers goes up. Do you really think they have a magic money tree to pay for this stuff?

  28. What I trust is a business that wants to stay in business. The government is a bureaucracy that can’t do much of anything right other than wage war.

  29. Most every medical development you take advantage of today was developed with funding from YOUR government. If that all sucks, then give it all up… Your government produces remarkable things… its just that you won’t hear about them on Fox News… Lastly, given our expenditures, I would not put waging war as one of the most effective activities of our government.

  30. Hi folks–Carl here. I’ve been away for a few days. I’m going to call an end to the debate about the value of Exxon and capitalism. It’s become an intense argument that is off-topic.

    1. I would argue that you made it fair game by including that emotional appeal in the article, but it’s your page and I respect your wishes. I apologize if it got out of hand.

      While this article was well-written, I feel that it bogs itself down in politics instead of defending the research itself. When the researchers applied for the grant, they would have had to include the reasoning for this study. They would have had to include what they hoped to gain from researching this. What I see here is more of the same “George Bush did it” that I see everywhere else.

      I don’t like Obama, and I liked Bush even less. A third of Americans are independent voters. Half of republicans disapprove of Bush and the Republican party itself.

      There are many of us, me included, who don’t buy what we perceive as political posturing to make an argument or to defend a stance. I would never presume to tell you what you should write on, but I would have liked to see a writer of your caliber defending the study on its merits rather than what I see as caving to the pressure of us vs. them.

      Science is science, and we should be doing everything we can to remove politics from science. This is just my opinion, but it is my hope that you will consider what I have said.

  31. Patrick, the post does, in fact, explaining the reasoning of the study, and the article I link to goes into even more detail.

    1. Ok, this will be my last post.

      I think you missed my point. I didn’t say that you didn’t explain the reasoning for the study. I said that your reasoning gets bogged down in the politics. I guess I am just lamenting the fact that science needs to be political. Truth doesn’t kowtow to politics.

      I read the article again, and while I still don’t like the politics, I do like the way you presented the study. I guess I’ll keep my National Geographic subscription after all.

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