Wednesday, 28 August 2013


I admit, the first time I saw this phrase in print, I was a little put off. Lie-to-children? That sounds like the kind of thing that gets you a lot of extra time in purgatory.

Then I learned more about it and decided that perhaps it wasn't so bad after all. Well, maybe. It still could be bad.

I should explain all that. The first thing I thought when I saw the phrase "Lie-to-children" was that people were talking about the kind of thing that you tell kids because it's convenient, even if in the long run it doesn't help them at all. That's not what it actually is.

What lie-to-children refers to is the type of simplification that happens when you are teaching someone (anyone, it turns out: doesn't have to be a child) about physics, or math, or chess, or any field of human endeavour with a deep and complicated body of knowledge. The idea is that throwing the full force of, say, quantum electrodynamics at a beginner will only turn them off the field all together, so you teach them simplified forms (in this case, simplified electricity and magnetism) that you know aren't entirely correct. Since it wouldn't really be good teaching practice to emphasis their incorrectness at each turn, you're sort of lying. Hence, lie-to-children.

In this sense the concept has some merit. I've come to realize, though, that there's two different types of simplification. One is a type that, while simplified, gives students the right intuition about how the more complicated process works. The other type does the opposite: it is a subject simplified in such a way that students either don't make any progress towards understanding the fuller ideas.

Here's an example of the good type. In high school and early undergraduate physics, we teach students a theory of friction. In this theory, friction forces depend on the materials rubbing past each other (eg rubber on concrete or skin on carpet) and the force pushing them together (gravity in most cases)--and the dependence of friction on the force pushing the two objects together is linear (double the one force, double the other). There's no dependence on the size or shape of the contact area, or any other factors.

Clearly this can't be the complete theory of friction. If it was, then all cars with the same material in their tires would have the same stopping distance, and sports cars wouldn't need fat tires or good suspension for good handling--skinny tires would work just as well. But it works as a lie-to-children because it lets students figure out things like force, energy, and work in ways that serve them well as they move on to more complete forces. (As an aside, the wikipedia article about friction is terrible. Please don't read it unless you want to be seriously confused and misled).

An example of the bad type of lie-to-children is how we teach uncertainty estimates. The most common way of introducing students to measurement uncertainty in high-school and first year labs is to tell them to look at the four or five data points we've told them to collect, and subtract the largest from the smallest to get a range of uncertainty.

Why is this so terrible? For starters, it gives students the idea that a range of uncertainty on a reported value means that the true value cannot possibly be outside of that range. That's an unfortunate idea, though one that even professional scientists sometimes seem to have. It's not the worst of it, though. The worst part of calculating uncertainty this way is that the uncertainty goes up the more measurements you take. Taking more measurements gives you a higher chance of having a particularly large or particularly small one, which makes an uncertainty based on max minus min get larger. This is bad; we want students to get an intuitive feel for uncertainty as a measure of the confidence in a set of data, then we give them a way of calculating it that implies that the more data you have, the less confident you are in it.

I'm not going to go into how I think uncertainty should be introduced in high school. All I want to do here is point out that we need to shift the question from "how can we simplify this body of knowledge?" to "does this simplified version build students' (or readers', depending on context) intuition in the right direction?" If we can do that, the lie-to-children will be a little less of a lie.

Friday, 23 August 2013

Scientific Notebook: Depletion Forces and Protein Folding

A new feature

In addition to doing science and writing about science (and writing about how we write about science...) I occasionally indulge in my artistic side. It's not much, mind you, but every so often I sit down with an art notebook and sketch out some science-y stuff. Since I'm writing this blog anyway, I've decided that every so often I'm going to upload those sketches for the world to see.

So far what I've discovered is that it's a lot of work to turn a sketch in a book into something that looks decent on the screen. And I don't mean looks like a professional painting, I just mean good enough that you can read the writing and follow what's going on.

Anyway, this next post is the first entry in My Scientific Notebook. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Worlds of Biophysics

The other day I received a brochure from the Biophysical Society, the world's largest association of biophysicists, with a call for papers for their 58th annual meeting. The brochure contained a world map with the number of Biophysical Society members listed for each region. Since I'm far more interested in maps than in whatever society business the rest of the brochure was trying to tell me about, this is the section that I actually paid attention to.

Here's what I learned: there's a lot of biophysicists in the US. Not so much in Africa. The list of Biophysical Society members by region, sorted by which region has the most members, is as follows:

US: 5,823
Europe: 1,790
Asia: 762
Canada: 348
Latin America: 151
Australia/New Zealand: 99
Middle East/Africa: 95

That's right, the Middle East and Africa together have less biophysicists than Australia and New Zealand. I suspect that the comparison would be even worse if the Middle East and Africa were considered as separate regions, since Israel and Iran are both relative science powerhouses.

Even as it stands, though, the numbers are stark. Here's a variation on the list above: the number of people in each region per biophysicist:

US:                    1 biophysicist per 54,000 people
Canada:             1 biophysicist per 95,000 people
Australia/NZ:    1 biophysicist per 282,000 people
Europe:             1 biophysicist per 413,000 people
Latin America:  1 biophysicist per 3,900,000 people
Asia:                 1 biophysicist per 5,050,000 people
Africa/ME:       1 biophysicist per 13,700,000 people

When weighted by population, the US has 250 times as many biophysicists as Africa and the Middle East. That's a far larger disparity than the economic one--the richest countries in Africa have about a quarter of the GDP per capita of the US, which the poorest have around a tenth (based on a rough estimate from here and here).

Now, you may object that I'm conflating "biophysicist" and "member of the Biophysical Society" here. And you'd have a good point; the society makes no effort to survey everyone to make sure they've gotten all the biophysicists, and it's likely that rates of scientists working in biophysics that pay to join a society are lower in parts of the world where research funds are less available.

This brings up an interesting point. Why wouldn't someone want to be part of an organization like the Biophysical Society? Perhaps because the main point of joining is to gain access to the conferences. There's no professional designation granted by the society, and it's not really something to put on a CV. Sure, you get a subscription to Biophysical Journal, which is probably a motivator for a few people, but not many. No, the main reason to join is that each year the society hosts it's annual meeting, the largest gathering of biophysicists in the world, as well as a number of smaller, more focussed conferences.

In principle the organization is international, but the meetings are always held in the US. For researchers in Africa, this means that the society membership and meeting registration are the smallest costs of attending: a couple of hundred dollars isn't much compared to a flight and hotel. Quickly searching United Airlines tells me that a round trip flight from Nairobi to San Francisco, where the next annual meeting is to be held, will run you about $1,800 (and also take about 30 hours each way). That would be small change in the research budget of a large American group, but for researchers at cash-strapped African universities it puts the trip out of reach. And if you can't go to the conferences, there's really no point in becoming a member of the society.

Not being able to attend conferences is important because they are where a large part of scientific networking happens. I've written before about the role of social networks in scientific careers. By being priced out of conferences, African researchers are also being kept out of the social networks that are advancing the careers of their American "colleagues".

Beyond that, conferences are vital for simply keeping up with the field at the level required to contribute to it. Here's an example. This past March, I went to a conference and presented work I had done that we were "submitting next week" to a journal. That work was finally submitted a month later, revised, accepted, and will be published in a couple of months--October, maybe. I'm not under any illusion that anyone in any part of the world is racing to react to this particular work, but it sets a typical timeline: someone who is reliant on published research articles to build off of is about half a year behind someone who went to the conference and saw the work presented there. In some areas this won't matter so much; in others six months is an eternity.

This isn't a problem specific to biophysics. Across disciplines, high profile conferences tend to happen where there are concentrations of high profile researchers, leaving poorer regions on the outside. And obviously underlying this all is a whole host of economic and political systems that the Biophysical Society can hardly be held accountable for fixing. Still, there is one step that they could take. They could hold the occasional meeting in Africa. Or Asia, or Latin America. Anywhere outside the US or Europe. Ostensibly the organization is international, after all. Hold the occasional meeting in Africa and a bunch of researchers (and students!) suddenly have a small bit of access to the professional networks and early results they are typically denied.

Why don't they do this? The cost isn't the biggest concern; I've already mentioned that travel costs would be a small amount of a typical research group's budget. The travel time is probably far more significant--most faculty I've met would far sooner part with a few thousand dollars from their grant than with sixty hours.

The biggest obstacle is apathy. As far as I can tell there is next to no concern among the research communities in the West for those in the developing world. We, they say, are a biophysics group. We are not a development organization, nor is it our job to build a scientific community in countries that don't have the economic base to support one even if they had the talent.

Perhaps. But everyone who works in science should realize that the historical scientific community in Europe and later the US was nurtured by an economy that was deeply exploitative, in a way that the rest of the world has yet to recover from, particularly since in some areas the exploitation never stopped. Extending a hand to researchers in countries on whose backs we built our scientific enterprise is the absolute least we can do.

For the moment, though, it seems like we're not even doing that.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The "link" Between Autism and Induced Labour Could Be Just Noise (and in any case is being reported poorly)

Again with the autism links. This time, a study out of Duke University (which is unfortunately paywalled) showed a statistical link between autism and induced or augmented childbirth.

There are, of course, a few qualifying comments. The study authors note that their result doesn't imply that induced or augmented childbirth causes autism, even some of the time. There could be other factors at work. As a hypothetical example, if there was an unknown foetal developmental issue that both caused an increased risk of autism and interfered with the signalling that starts labour (which is still not well understood), such an issue would explain the study results--especially since the authors did not separately consider mothers who had labour induced because they went past term and mothers who had labour induced at term or before for other reasons. Most importantly, the authors stress, in such hypothetical case it would be useless from the point of view of autism prevention and downright harmful from the point of view of general maternal health for parents to refuse a medically recommended induction on the basis of this study.

There's another issue that the authors don't address, and it's worth mentioning: the study could just be picking up noise. The study reports a number of different results for various models, but they all are just barely significant. For example, the odds of an induced only (as opposed to induced or augmented) baby developing autism are 10% larger than that of an un-induced childbirth--with a confidence interval of 9%. 10+/-9 isn't very precise; the confidence interval is almost as large as the effect. Further, the confidence intervals reported are 95% confidence intervals, meaning there is a 1 in 20 chance of seeing an effect that large by chance.

A 1 in 20 chance is fine for most studies (though, if you think about the hundreds of studies published each year, it means an appalling number are wrong through sheer randomness). It's dangerous, though, in look-back studies of this type. I've written before about the problems here, but it's worth summarizing again. The key point is that if researchers are working on a problem with many possible connections, 1 in 20 suddenly seems quite poor. The question that needs to be asked is, how many other connections with autism were, at the start of the study, as likely as that between autism and induced labour?

Or to phrase it another way, was there some reason to think a priori that induced labour was more likely to be linked to autism than, say, breastfeeding vs formula, or the mother's food choice, or early life air quality, or lack of any number of vitamins, or abundance of any number of vitamins, or certain types of stimulation, etc? If there's not, than 1 in 20 isn't very good. This would be obvious if you actually tested all the possibilities: if you did a study that looked at 40 different possible causes for autism and came back with a positive result for one of them, with a 1 in 20 chance that the result was just due to random fluctuations, that obviously wouldn't mean anything. Not checking the other 39 possibilities doesn't make your statistics better.

Of course, we know that look-back studies like this are the most popular type reported in the media, and we've seen that even the study authors were either unaware or ignored the statistics of such studies. So it's not surprising, though it's still disappointing, to see all of the all of the nuance and caveats go out the window in the way this study has been reported.

“Pregnant women who have procedures to induce or encourage labor might have an increased risk of bearing a child with autism, according to a new study,” reads the opening line of the Wall Street Journal's article. Readers who finish the article will learn that at best this a gross simplification, but assuming that readers who are both busy and lacking a science background will realize that the opening sentence here is at odds with the quote is either a naive estimation of the audience or a deliberate confusion for the sake of an attention-grabbing hook.

The write-up in the NY Daily Mail has this helpful caption below their related picture: "Among autistic boys in a new study, one third of mothers had labor induced or hastened, compared to 29% of boys without autism." This is head-scratching on multiple levels: most obviously, why compare a percent with a fraction? People hate fractions. Second, they're reporting the numbers in the form of a probability the mother had induced labour given that child has autism. But this is entirely backwards, since what we actually want is the probability a child gets autism given that mother had induced labour, relative to the probability a child gets autism under any circumstance. The former is a needlessly confusing way of reporting the numbers, given that the latter form is available in the study, and is what's actually discussed in the study's conclusions.

(As an aside, the NY Daily Mail also wins the look-back study reporting award, with the following "Related" links scattered throughout their article: "STUDY LINKS IVF TO SMALL RISK OF MENTAL DISABILITY"; "ANOREXIC GIRLS ALSO HAVE AUTISTIC TRAITS: STUDY"; "HIGH LEVELS OF AIR POLLUTION LINKED TO AUTISM RISK".)

We also have the BBC News report. I should mention here that the BBC News story was the most responsible of the ones I looked at in stressing the limitations of the study and the importance of consulting with your doctor about delivery decisions. In it, though, we learn that "Children whose mothers needed drugs to start give birth are slightly more likely to have autism, US researchers say." Beyond the caveat noted above, that this actually could be just noise, there's an additional, subtle problem. Suppose the statement itself is true. Then is the statement, "If you have an induced childbirth, your child is slightly more likely to have autism," true? The answer is no.

Another example is helpful here. Suppose you and your spouse both have dark hair. Suppose also that your parents both had dark hair, and their parents, all dark hair stretching back to the dawn of recorded history. Suppose this is true of your spouse as well. Now let's imagine that the two of you move to Sweden together for work, and while you're there you have your first child. As you're being taken to the delivery room, the doctor says to you, "Did you know that 85% of children born in Sweden are blond? Since your child is a child born in Sweden, there's an 85% chance he or she will be blond."

Obviously this is ridiculous; moving to another country doesn't change your DNA, and if neither you nor your spouse is carrying blond genes, your baby isn't going to get them, no matter where you live. So even though it's true that 85% of children born in Sweden are blond1, and it's true that your child will be born in Sweden, it's not true that your child has an 85% chance of being born blond.

The exact same structure carries over: Even if it's true that children whose mothers had induced childbirth are 10% more likely to develop autism, and even if it's true that you had an induced childbirth, it is not necessarily true that your child is 10% more likely to develop autism.

This last point needs to be stressed, because it would be tragic if any mothers or infants were harmed out of a belief that inducing labour increased the chance of the child developing autism.  I will most likely come back to it in another blog post, because the conflation of general odds with individual odds is at the heart of many of the most controversial misunderstandings we face.

In the mean time, while this blog doesn't exactly have the readership of the NY Daily Mail, I'll do what I can to spread what should be the take-home message here: at the moment there is no reason to believe that YOUR child is at a greater risk of autism if YOU have an induced labour. It's a message that would be clearer if news outlets and study authors were more focussed on getting the message right than on getting it out.

1Full disclosure: I have no idea what the actual rate of blond babies is in Sweden. It's just an example.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Who owns your genes?

There's been a flurry of activity lately around the topic of genes and ownership. There was the Myriad case before the US Supreme Court earlier this year centring around the issue of whether genes can be patented. (The answer: not really, but sort of). The same case is now being appealed in Australia.

Another aspect of genes and ownership has arisen with the publication of the HeLa genome.

In case you're unfamiliar with the story, Henrietta Lacks was a woman who lived in the US and died of cervical cancer in 1951. Before her death, some of her cells were taken from her, and unlike almost every other set of human cells they kept multiplying, to the point where people are still using them today. They've been instrumental in a hugely wide range of biomedical research.

A few years ago Rebecca Skloot, a science journalist, tracked down the Lacks family, and told their and Henrietta's story in one of the most well-received and read books of 2010, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Lacks' story has multiple layers: the cells were taken from her without her knowledge or consent; she was an African-American woman; she was poor. The US has a long and troubled history around medicine, consent, poverty, and race. There's far too much to summarize here, so I would just encourage you to read the book.

Fast forward to this past March, and we have yet another chapter of Henrietta Lacks and consent. A German team sequenced the HeLa genes and published their data. When the Lacks family learned of this, they felt that yet again their consent had been unsought in working with their family's cells.

Fast forward again to last week, when Francis Collins, the director of the NIH, met with the Lacks family and, after explaining the various ways in which publishing the genome would benefit medical research, obtained their consent for a limited publication of the genetic data. The data will be available, but only by application, to prevent it from being completely public.

It is, obviously, good that Collins was willing to meet with the Lacks family, and that the family was willing to meet with Collins. Ignoring the family's wishes would be unconscionable given the history of denied consent surrounding the HeLa cells. It's worth noting, though, that this is the beginning of a discussion about genes, ownership, and consent, and not the end.

The way the situation was handled has been presented as a precedent, but if so it's an extremely limited one. For one thing it's completely unclear what would have happened had the family not given consent at all, and insisted that the genome data remain private. Even if the NIH had agreed to that, they don't have the force of law, only funding. I don't know the law well enough to say if the family could have launched a lawsuit in the US to stop publication of the data, but they certainly wouldn't have the resources to launch similar challenges in every country with labs in possession of HeLa cells and the capacity to sequence them.

Hopefully tissue samples at stake in the future will be from consenting donors, but this brings up another issue. As Michael Eisen asked, if the donor consented, does their family still have the right to withhold their consent to the genome being published later on the basis that the data affects them as well? Rebecca Skloot seems to think so, judging by the New York Times editorial she wrote about the HeLa genome publication.

The issue of gene ownership isn't going to go away. The capacity to sequence someone's genome is steadily coming down in price, and the data processing power to analyse the sequence (and identify who it came from, even if it's "anonymous") is becoming ever more widely available.

If we're going to address this we need a framework with two qualities: the force of law, and international scope.

 Force of law is needed because the cheaper it is to acquire genomic data the less effective large organizations like the NIH will be at setting policy. Someone biohacking in their garage is presumably a lot less concerned with being on a NIH blacklist than a large university lab. The only way to realistically enforce a gene policy in a world where individuals can acquire the means to sequence and process genomes is to give those who feel they've been wronged an avenue for legal redress.

International scope is needed because research ties stretch across borders, and information doesn't even notice them. What good is a guarantee from the Canadian government that an unconsenting individual's genome will be protected if groups in the US or Germany can publish it with impunity?

Beyond these requirements are a whole host of discussions around access and consent. The question "who owns your genes?" may not have one answer. Even if I do have ultimate control over any tissues in my body, what about the genetic information itself? Generally information about my body isn't protected. (Doctors are bound by confidentiality, but if a journalist somehow found out about my heart condition, for example, the law wouldn't stop them from publishing it). And speaking of tissue, every day I shed small amounts of skin and hair everywhere I go, not to mention the chunks I might leave on the floor of a barber shop. Does that abandonment of tissue imply that someone else can pick it up and sequence any DNA they find in it?

There's a lot to discuss, and unfortunately the discussion that has come about from the HeLa genome has so far been somehwhat muddled. We already saw that Skloot seemed to be confusing the issue about whether the consent of the Lacks family was needed because Henrietta's consent was never obtained (a situation specific to the HeLa cells) or whether it was needed because HeLa DNA contains information about her descendants as well (a situation that would apply to all genome sequences).

Collins' interview contained an answer that I found even more worrisome:
Why not ban all research on tissues from unconsenting donors?

The goal of medical research is public benefit, to try to make discoveries that are going to help people. And although the use of archived specimens is limiting in certain ways, [those tissues still offer] an incredible trove of material. If you shut off access to them, you would undoubtedly slow research right now, in terms of diseases such as cancer. The trade-off would not justify that extreme position.
Collins seems to be saying that banning research on tissue from unconsenting donors wouldn't be worth it because it would slow research down. But this in and of itself isn't a good argument. If continuing to use tissue from unconsenting donors wasn't any faster than banning it, it wouldn't be an ethical dilemma: banning the research would be the best thing to do from all angles. Collins doesn't show any indication that he's grappling with the balance between collective good and individual harm.

And perhaps he doesn't have to. He is, after all, not the medical world's Ethics Czar; he's the head of the NIH. Someone needs to be talking about this, though; preferably a lot of someones. And if the public doesn't have the framework to do so now, then we in the science communication community have a mission ahead of us.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Humans vs Robots, in Space!

I noticed a couple of stories popping up over the weekend.

First, there was this one, about a Japanese robot that is heading to the International Space Station as part of a study to see if talking robots can provide emotional support to astronauts on long missions.

The second story was Chris Hadfield's official retirement, and the angst this prompted about the future of Canada's human spaceflight program, which is set to be overhauled soon.

It seems like there's something about the humanoid shape. After all, there are tons of robots in space; there's a giant one crawling around Mars right now (that just celebrated its first birthday there!). Given that almost any human-less space probe fits the definition of "robot", robots have done by far the bulk of the space exploration to date. But now that we're sending a human-shaped robot into space, well isn't that something?

The angst over human spaceflight is also a little puzzling. After all, there is the aforementioned giant robot crawling around Mars. There have also been high-profile missions to Jupiter and Saturn in the past few years. Looking at the enormous recent progress in miniature robots and the interfaces we might use to control them, and the nascent rise of private space flight, and it's tempting to conclude that we're on the cusp of a golden age of space exploration. The angst is understandable for those people who have dedicated their careers to getting bodily into space, but for the rest of us the future looks exciting.

Perhaps it's a narrative failure. After all, we have all kinds of stories of the intrepid space pilot piloting their intrepid spaceship (more than a few times the stories have even gone so far as to name the spaceship "Intrepid"). Not so much with the autonomous robot probes.

It's worth noting, though, that the intrepid space pilot largely came out of a piece of government propaganda. As Tom Wolfe notes in The Right Stuff, when NASA originally looked for people to send into space, they weren't looking for pilot skills. They knew better than anyone that whomever they sent up needed primarily to be able to keep their cool and occasionally press the right buttons; there was no actual flying involved. The decision to pick astronauts from the test pilot ranks was due to simple expedience: the test pilots had already signed up for dangerous work, had already passed security checks, had already passed fitness checks, etc. Once that decision was made, then the government started putting it around that these were the best pilots on earth, and that they were chosen for their supreme piloting skills.

As for the humanoid robots? The main reason to tell stories about them is the technical issue that it's a lot easier on a TV or movie screen to portray a sentient robot by putting makeup on a human actor than by creating something guided by ideas about what functional future robots might actually look like.  Humanoid robots really only make sense in a limited number of situations--like if they have to operate in an environment designed for humans. Floating freely in space, or even crawling, flying, jumping, or swimming around an unknown world, opens up possibilities for form limited only to the imagination. 

So given that astronauts never actually needed mad pilot skills (well, except for landing the Shuttle, but that's a whole different kettle of WHY!?!?!), and robots don't need to look like humans, maybe it's time to build some new narratives. Unless the structure of space, time, and energy is very different than what we now think it is, non-humanoid robotic exploration is the future. I refuse to believe that we as a species might have the imagination to build machines to explore the cosmos, but not the imagination to put them in a compelling narrative.

So bring on the robot stories!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Animals, people, and choices

According to a new study, guys stopped sleeping around and settled down in respectable families once their friends starting killing their kids.

Okay, that's not actually what it said. The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), was a study that correlated various traits in primates with the emergence of monogamy to better understand how it might have evolved. Their data showed that monogamy correlates better with infanticide than with any other behaviour that had been hypothesized to lead to monogamy. Infanticide is presumed to be an offensive strategy; a male in a given group increases the chance of his own offspring surviving by killing off other young. So they conclude that monogamy evolved as a defence mechanism against infanticide.

Another study, published in Science, disagrees. They see monogamy arising from females spreading out and becoming more territorial, reducing the benefit gained from a male moving from female to female, and hence enhancing the relative benefit gained from sticking with one woman.

One point that both studies make, though, is that their results are for non-human mammals. It's an open question as to whether humans are "naturally" monogamous, or even whether the question is one that can have an answer, given the dominant role that culture plays in human sexual and child-raising arrangements, and given that just about every type of arrangement has been observed in various human cultures through the ages.

Which is why it's curious that many news reports on this story start out with a hook along the lines of, "Why are humans monogamous?" The summary of the research on the Science news site even includes a picture of Will, Kate, and royal baby at the top of the article, subtly suggesting that perhaps the pomp and pageantry of a British royal wedding all springs from His Royal Highness' instinctual desire to keep the Duke of Somerset from killing wee Prince George1.

It's an inaccuracy, to be sure, but on the whole it's forgiveable; the research does relate, even if it's more tangential than the headlines would imply. (As an aside, it's interesting that the report in the CBC, a government funded agency that hence isn't as reliant on page-views for revenue, is much more cautious--and accurate--than the reports from profit-driven private media companies.)

The bigger problem is one that plagues almost every story about evolutionary research. We can't seem to get away from the language of choices (and hence morality) when talking about animal behavioural strategies. As an example, CNN summarizes the infanticide driven pairing by noting that, "a male that lives with a female mate can protect their offspring from other males, that might want to kill these children." The author is trying to be neutral, but it's hard to see phrases like "protect their offspring" and "want to kill these children" without overlaying human notions of choice and morality on them.

To get away from this, it's important to note that evolution in the genetic sense has nothing to do with choice. Evolution acts on behaviours that are hard-coded into genes, because ultimately it's the genes that evolve, not individuals.

As an example, let's consider a set of identical, early human twins. One of our primordial twins, whom we'll call the Fonz, doesn't let anyone tie him down.  He has a girl in every cave, an no idea of how many kids he may have fathered, let alone their names. The other, whom we'll call Ward, is a devoted father, marrying his cave-sweethard and dedicating himself to raising his little cave-children. Now we could argue about which strategy was more successful: perhaps the Fonz's promiscuous strategy will pay off and he'll have dozens of children that go on to have children of their own. Or perhaps he'll have more kids but, without a father, they won't do well and Ward's six well-raised children will ultimately out-breed them. Since we started with the assumption that they're twins, though, none of this matters. They carry the same genes, so there can't be any selective reproductive success, which is the driver of evolution. As soon as individuals can choose one strategy or another, all bets are off. Evolution does not select between strategies that individuals choose.

This is, of course, getting into deep philosophical waters. How much choice do any of us actually have, and how much is determined by genetics? It's not a debate I really want to get into here. The point is that evolution only acts on behaviours that are determined by genes; in that sense, it's incompatible with choice. If we want the public to understand evolutionary science, then, we need to come up with a new vocabulary. One that doesn't rely on words that imply thought out strategies, or foresight, or choice. How do we do that? I don't know, but if we take science communication seriously it's worth the effort to try.

1I am in no way suggesting that the Duke of Somerset actually wants to kill wee Prince George. I'm sure the Duke has no baby-killing tendencies whatsoever and is a very nice person, even though he has a huge amount of money and power for no better reason than that his great-great-...-great-great-grandmother was the only one of Henry VIII's wives to die before he got tired of her.