The moral of the story


Most of us have some inbuilt sense of right and wrong; don’t steal and don’t murder are as basic to us as our ability to breathe. But where does this moral sense come from? In general, people of a scientific bent don’t attribute it to God nor as some sort of free floating truth that can be grasped by the human intellect. If you hold a materialistic view, that is to say the idea that at its base the universe is composed of energy and matter, then it’s next to impossible to understand morality in those terms. Instead the scientific view proposes our morality is an evolved feature, something which gave group-living animals a selective advantage over their amoral competitors. A social group that tries to cooperate when it’s made up primarily of murderers, thieves and cheats won’t get very far. By contrast a crowd of goodies can gain the many benefits of cooperation.

There is a problem with this theory though. Irrespective of its truth, an evolved morality renders us with a situation where there is nothing objectively right or wrong about anything. Even an act of murder isn’t intrinsically immoral. One way to think of this is to compare it with our other adaptations. We don’t consider any other evolved traits ‘moral’, it’s not as if four legs good, two legs bad is something people really espouse. What we’re left with is a moral nihilism.

‘So what?’ you might ask.  We’re a smart species, we can decide for ourselves the best way to act such that our society can flourish. Why don’t we adopt some sort of utilitarianism, the moral system that promotes the greatest happiest for the most, and judge the rightness or wrongness of our acts that way? Indeed this is the way most secular societies establish what is permissible today. This idea can even allow for the expansion of our moral circle to include other beings who are capable of suffering.

Yet the modern understanding of our selves means even a created morality still can’t fairly punish or praise for a simple reason: humans have lost their soul. Modern neuroscience tells us there is no actor in our minds making decisions moral or otherwise. We are our brains, nothing more. There is no ‘I’, no ‘ghost in the machine’. The idea of a freely willed agent who can separate his or her self from their genetics and environment is anathema to anyone who takes materialism seriously.

Much follows from this. Most notably our justice system should be radically re-evaluated in light of this idea to become more biologically informed. Currently persons with certain mental disabilities are afforded more leniency when it comes to their sentencing because they are said not to be in full possession of rational thought processes. Something has affected their ability to have done otherwise. But as automata this is true for every person who has ever existed. This is not to say that we should open up the prisons and free every criminal the world over rather that we should focus much more on promoting environments that cause people to act in a way conducive to a functioning society.

We are all of us robots acting on inputs. Some people take these inputs and act like ‘goodies’ whereas others can take the same information and behave like ‘baddies’. Take your pick of a hero or tyrant from history. They don’t deserve your respect or your contempt. That is the price of a biological morality.

Author: Adam Kane, kanead[at], @P1zPalu

Photo credit:



Zoological Zodiac


Aries- March 20 to April 20. Your model will converge around the 13th, which is in no way related to your model convergence dance (turning in a circle three times and raising your left hand twice).  Please stop doing it, we can all see you.

Taurus- April 20 to May 21. A reviewer will suggest additional work prior to publication. Reply to the reviewer with an audio file of yourself singing Bruce Springsteen’s No Surrender and the reviewer will back down.

Gemini- May 21 to June 21. May is a great month for fieldwork. Even if you’ve never done it before and all of your prior research is theoretical, give fieldwork a try. Sure, it’ll be grand!

Cancer. June 21 to July 23. Luck is on your side! This is a great month for finicky experimental work. Optimize your PCR this month and it’ll work at least until June. Probably.

Leo. July 23 to August 23. As Mercury moves into retrograde, your ability to make Powerpoint videos run will be at its peak. Plan an exciting video filled slide show for the 17th. You can make it work this one time!

Virgo- August 23 to Sept. 23. Students in your research group will actually submit work on time. Be prepared for an influx of papers on the 23rd. Assign random grades and see if anyone notices.

Libra- Sept. 23 to October 23. Your research team is going to face an ethical issue within the month. Ask everyone in the department what they think of it and then pick a response out of a hat to solve it!

Scorpio- October 23 to Nov. 22. A research road block will be solved by just ignoring it until the email moves to the second page of your inbox. Go ahead, ignore the issues!

Sagittarius-  Nov. 22 to Dec. 22. News of your ability to comfort sad undergraduates will spread this month. Stock up on Kleenex and sweets in preparation of the post-exam panics.

Capricorn- Dec. 22 to January 20. Someone in the department will steal your lunch twice this month. Try leaving snarky post-it notes. People love those!

Aquarius- January 20 to Feb. 18.  Write a grant application. Please, just write it. Everyone’s waiting on you. Come on.

Pisces- Feb. 18 to March 20. You will be struck with inspiration for a fantastic research project at a conference but then forget it before you can write it down. You should really carry a pen and paper more frequently.

Author: Mystic Mo, william2[at]

Photo credit:



A few months ago in our weekly NERD club we ran a session on dealing with stress. Part of this session revolved around what made us stressed, and one of the big problems was feeling like we had too much to do and too little time to do it. To follow up on this, this week we looked at how to be more productive. Many of our discussions revolved around the ideas presented here and here.

What makes us less productive?

The causes of our lack of productivity varied across career stages and the types of work we were involved with. Almost everyone had one major problem – the internet. Postdocs and PIs complained about the huge volume of emails and the desire to deal with them. PhD students weren’t so distracted by emails, instead their issue tended to be things like news websites. All of us have problems with distractions like social media, cute animal pictures and xkcd. Solutions included strictly restricting time doing these things, and/or the number of links you are “allowed” to click and explore before going back to work!

Another big issue was other people. This included supervisors/collaborators who won’t respond to emails or always delay or cut short meetings, suppliers messing up equipment orders, arcane university policies requiring endless form filling, constant interruptions from students etc. This is probably impossible to solve, but did provoke an interesting debate – what if your productivity actually reduces the productivity of someone else? For example, many of us had examples of people who would delay replying to emails until it was convenient for them but this would severely delay someone else working on the project. Another common complaint was people who call you to ask questions – this is great for them as they get an immediate answer but often frustrating for the person who has been interrupted. The only solution we could think of was a) talk to the person involved and calmly explain the problem to see if it can be solved and b) to all think carefully about how our actions affect others (of course I’d like to think we all do this anyway but I know we don’t!)

Finally, we discussed how these distractions all become worse when you have something you really don’t want to do (for me this is grading!). You will do literally anything other than that task. Again this is hard to solve, as it requires self-discipline (and for many people it requires the sound of the deadline whooshing by). My solution has been to work out a really short amount of time that I think I can cope with doing that task for. I then set a timer and do it for that long, or often longer as these things are rarely that bad once you get over the initial hurdle of starting. I then reward myself with a break. I find this works even better if you can do it with a colleague. Yes, it takes far longer to get the task done than it should, but it does get done rather than sitting on your desk and giving you the side-eye all day/week/month.

Unique snowflakes of productivity

An important thing to note throughout these tips is that different things work for different people! I find working at home great for my productivity, others find they spend the whole day tidying the house. I work best in the evenings, other people work best at 6am. Do whatever works for you!

Potential solutions

  1. Be kind to yourself

I think this is most important, especially in light of the stress discussions we had earlier in the year. Most of us are more productive when we eat well, get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly and work sensible hours. Yes, you will get a lot of stuff done if you work crazy hours for a couple of weeks. But that increase in productivity comes at a price of burn out, getting sick or generally losing motivation for the project. Working a 35 hour week has been shown to be most effective for prolonged productivity. Taking breaks is also really important.

  1. Redefine and monitor your productivity

Sometimes our frustrations with how we are doing are related to what we think counts as productivity. We might set goals that are too high, or forget about all the little things we achieved during the day. A suggestion was to make a thorough to-do list (I use to keep my to-do list synced across multiple computers and because you still get the satisfaction of ticking stuff off!). Making the list is also a useful procrastination activity (see below)! It does make me feel weirdly better when I see small tasks being ticked off, even if the larger whole of the task is yet to be completed.

  1. Find out where your time is going

Another common complaint was coming into work, seemingly working hard all day, but then having nothing to show for it. One suggestion from @DRobcito was to try keeping a “time diary” for a couple of weeks. This involves just noting down somewhere what you’ve done and how long it took you to do it. Although annoying to do, this is a great way to see where your time is going, what you should be spending less time on, and what kinds of activities you might want to say no to in future because the time expended doesn’t match the benefits.

  1. To Pomodoro or not to Pomodoro

A lot of articles on this subject recommend the Pomodoro technique where you work for 25 minutes, take a short break, then work another 25 minutes. After four or five repeats you take a longer break. Most of us had tried this, or a version of it, and most of us found it didn’t work for us. I think this may be related to it being hard to get anything sensible done in 25 minutes when analysing data or writing a paper. But as mentioned above, I often use something similar when grading papers which works really well.

  1. Have a “me” day

This is perhaps more for people later in the their careers, but it’s good to have one day a week where you don’t do anything for anyone else, and you don’t go to any meetings. You only do things that will add to your CV. Essentially this means working on papers or grants. Maybe not such a big deal for PhD students, but I can definitely go for weeks without working on any of my research. Another thing to avoid on these days is admin and non-essential emailing.

  1. Procrastinate effectively

Instead of watching a video of a capybara bathing with ducklings during a break, move on to something that requires zero intellect, but still requires doing for your work, for example reconciling expenses/receipts after a trip, formatting references, playing with figures, searching for new literature etc. Having said that, it’s important to also take proper breaks, and to ensure you see the capybara video.

  1. More efficient meetings

Another suggestion from @DRobcito was to have 22 minute meetings. We were dubious about this but he claims it works, mostly because you have to cut to the chase immediately. He also suggested scheduling back-to-back meetings to prevent any of them from running over. Again this doesn’t always work and can just lead to all your meetings starting late which may be great for you but is unfairly detrimental to the productivity of the people waiting for you.

  1. Dealing with emails I

A number of people use the “5 sentence max” email rule to keep emails short and to the point. If an email needs to be longer you should Skype or meet in person. We decided this works sometimes but not others. Many of us like to have details on email rather than talking them through on Skype or in person. Additionally, some of us really hate the trend of really short email replies because it’s hard to gauge tone, and also it seems a bit rude not to address the email to a person. This may be a cultural thing.

  1. Dealing with emails II

Most of us can’t get much done without internet, so turning off the internet wasn’t an option. But we can all turn off our email notifications on our phones, tablets and computers. This prevents you from dealing with the emails as the come in, but also removes the distraction of the notification itself which can break your concentration. Different people had different strategies for emails. Some do emails in set blocks of time, others do them during breaks. I think in terms of not injuring other people’s productivity it’s probably polite to at least triage your email in the morning and sometime in the afternoon. I also use the rule that if I can respond to the email/do what it asks me to do in less that 5 minutes, I do it then rather than leaving it to fester in my inbox.

  1. Manage your time, energy and attention.

This article explains this in more detail. Essentially, being productive requires that you have time to work, the energy to work, and the attention to work. Even if you have an hour to work on a paper, you still won’t be productive if you’re too tired to do anything useful or keep getting distracted. All of the above are solutions to one or more of these issues.


Natalie Cooper @nhcooper123

Thanks to @DRobcito, @jonesor and @naubinhorth who helped with suggestions for our discussions.

Photo credit

wikimedia commons

No time like the pheasant


Let’s run another photo competition. Starting today and running until Monday 18th May anyone can submit one photograph to this album here. Just log in with username ecoevoblog and password is the same. Don’t make it obvious that it’s your image in case it biases the judge. The theme for this month will be ‘Fowl Play’. Prizes will be determined in due course.

Author: Adam Kane, kanead[at], @P1zPalu

Photo credit:

Tern the Tide

GoPro still 04

In a previous blog post we wrote about the Little Tern conservation project at Kilcoole, Co. Wicklow, which we worked on last summer. While working on this project we recorded a unique behavioural response from Little Terns in a response to inundation by high tides, which we have published in the latest issue of Irish Birds and write about below.DSCF3861

Little Terns nest in a scrape on shingle beaches and rely entirely on their camouflage for protection. Therefore they are acutely vulnerable to the effects of high tides. The terns of Kilcoole once again suffered the effects of high tides in 2014, when a tide breached the shingle ridge protecting the colony and washed over a large number of nests during the peak of nesting activity.

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When the tide receded and we wardens could survey the damage, we feared the worst, with the seaweed line having been thrown over a large section of nests. Confirming these fears 12 nests had been completely washed away. However, to our surprise, 13 pairs of terns had managed to re-gather and move their clutches into new nest scrapes further up the beach after inundation by the tide. Though the movement of eggs into new nests has been observed in waders and waterfowl, most notably in the Piping Plover [1], this behaviour has never previously been recorded in a tern species.

GoPro still 03-2

We closely observed the outcome in these nests and unsurprisingly found that a significantly higher proportion of eggs from tide affected nests failed to hatch than from nests that were unaffected by the tide. The chill of the Irish Sea coupled with the mechanical damage caused by tide inundation were likely to have been (literally) a killer combination for the developing embryos within the eggs. However the 13 Little Tern pairs which had nests inundated by the tide still managed to produce 20 fledglings (out of 32 eggs in these nests). This was a remarkable achievement given the circumstances, attesting to the robustness of the tern eggs and adaptability of the parent birds, key attributes when living in an unpredictable environment.

Authors and photo credits

Darren O’Connell, Andrew Power and Susan Doyle

A special thanks to Cole Macey and Jerry Wray, our co-workers on the 2014 Kilcoole Little Tern project and project manager Dr Stephen Newton of BirdWatch Ireland.

[1] Wiltermuth, M.T., Anteau, M.J., Sherfy, M.H. and Shaffer, T.L. (2009) Nest movement by Piping Plovers in response to changing habitat conditions. Condor 111: 550–555. doi:

The Inspirational Role of Ecosystems in Popular Music


Nature, natural phenomena, animals and ecosystems have always inspired human beings and references to it are omnipresent in ancient and contemporary cultures. To take just a narrow example, composers and songwriters have found inspiration in Nature an uncountable number of times. Rivers, mountains, forests, sea and desert are evoked by the lyrics of songsters far from their homeland, or just carried away by the beauty of Nature they are experiencing. In “River” Joni Mitchell wishes to have a river to skate on it on Christmas days. In a different mood, Bob Dylan sits down on a bank of sand “watching the river flows …. no matter what gets in the way and which way the wind does blow”; maybe a metaphor of a diverted and conformed society. In “Sea Song” Robert Wyatt comforts himself by confessing to his sea/lover “your madness fits in nicely with my own, your lunacy fits neatly with my own”.

The environmental philosopher Mark Sagoff once cited the 60’s popular rock ‘n’ roll group the Drifters, singing:

At night the stars put on a show for free,

And darling, you can share it all with me …

Up the roof …

somehow reminding us that this “inspirational” role is a service that Nature gives us for free, available for everyone who wants to enjoy it, or write a song about it.

Anyway, just for the sake of curiosity, let’s try to make a quick calculation. By searching the website AllMusic (a 30 million track repository of popular music) I found around 1.35 million songs that referred to one of the main biomes. Lakes and rivers lead the chart with 400,000 titles, followed by prairies and steppes with around 300,000, then forests and shores (and beaches) with 270,000 titles each. Coral reefs, jungles, the sea and the deserts stand in the middle of the chart, each of them scoring in between 50,000 and 80,000. At the bottom of the chart we find pastures and grasslands, and swamps or wetlands with 30,000 and 26,000 titles.

If we consider that the average price for a song on iTunes stands at $1.20 we can calculate the overall value of these “ecosystems inspired” songs, as equal to $1.6 million. Notice that this is a minimum estimate because we are considering only a single download for each song. Furthermore, if Dylan’s river or Wyatt’s sea inspired their valuable songs, what about all the other rivers and seas that are out there just waiting to be sang about and flattered? In order to do justice to more of them, I hereby invite all readers to share their favourite “ecosystems” songs in the comments below!


Luca Coscieme COSCIEML[at]

Photo credit

wikimedia commons


Sagoff, M. (1997). Can we put a price on nature’s services? Philosophy and Public Policy. 17 (3), p.7-12.

iTunes Store average price per song estimation is based on this article.


Joni Mitchell – River 

Bob Dylan – Watching the River Flow 

Robert Wyatt – Sea Song 

The Drifters – Up on the Roof 

Mixed Messages, Pesticide Pestilence and Pollinator Populations


“We’re getting mixed messages from scientists about the effects of neonicotinoids on bees” – I have heard this from several sources, including a very senior civil servant in the UK and from an intensive tillage farmer in Ireland. A recent article in the US media says pretty much the same thing. An article in the Guardian last week entitled “UK drew wrong conclusion from its neonicotinoids study, scientist says”, reports on Dave Goulson’s reanalysis of the Food & Environment Research Agency (FERA)’s own data, but draws the opposite conclusion.

So why is there confusion on bee decline and the role of neonicotinoids? I believe it’s down to several factors:

1. “Bees” are a diverse taxonomic group of insects, including the well-known eusocial honeybee Apis mellifera, the familiar bumblebees in the genus Bombus, plus hundreds of other species of bee, which have quite different life histories and ecologies, most of which do not form social colonies. When talking about bees, we need to be clear about which ones we are discussing. If everyone is clear about which taxonomic group they are talking about, this could cut down considerably on the confusion. (By the way, the Guardian used a picture of honeybees as the image accompanying their article on bumblebees).

2. Honeybees are managed by beekeepers. If a colony dies out (especially over winter in temperate countries), it is replaced by splitting a strong colony in spring. If the colony is sick, it is treated. When we talk about honeybee decline, we are either referring to colony losses (i.e. colonies dying out, which can be caused by a range of factors, especially parasites and diseases, and is highly spatio-temporally variable); OR we are referring to the fact that there are fewer beekeepers out there, or that each one is keeping fewer colonies. The point is, when colonies die out, beekeepers can restock and the total number of honeybee colonies depends on the activity of beekeepers. This is why there appears to be no decline in honeybees in the US. This is not the case for wild bees.

3. Eusocial bees, by the very nature of their colonial societies, are to some extent buffered against environmental stochasticity and pressures. If a few hundred honeybees are killed whilst out of the hive foraging during the summer, it may have little impact on the colony, because there are 50,000 or more honeybees left in the hive. This may be a reason why lab-based findings cannot always be scaled up when replicated at field level. Measuring effects at the colony-level is also another problem. A range of different experimental approaches has led to mixed conclusions on the effects of neonicotinoids on honeybees.

4. A huge number of independent peer-reviewed studies have shown negative lethal and sub-lethal effects of neonicotinoids on wild bees and other non-target organisms (e.g. see review by Pisa et al. 2015), in laboratory, and semi-field studies. Realistic field-level studies on the other hand are challenging methodologically: some bees have large foraging ranges and so studies must be conducted over large areas; pesticide free “control” sites are very hard to find; and wild bees are subject to a range of interacting pressures (loss of forage resources, parasites and disease, cocktails of pesticides, use of managed bees for pollination purposes, climate change…), and disentangling the effects of these pressures in a field experiment is hard. However, those few studies that have been conducted properly appear to support the lab and semi-field findings.

5. The media band-wagon… When the media polarise environmental issues, it’s very hard for people to make an informed decision – instead of crediting the general public with the intelligence to understand that the environment is highly variable in both space and time, and that ecological systems and interactions within them are highly complex, issues are presented as cut-and-dried in one direction or another. Thus the confusion is maintained, so that the next big news story, that contradicts the previous one, can have a bigger impact.

There shouldn’t be any confusion – neonicotinoids have sufficient negative impacts on non-target organisms for us to be concerned about their widespread and often prophylactic use (e.g. as seed dressings). We should also worry about the wider environmental impacts of pesticides like neonicotinoids – how persistent they are, how they get into the soil and water-courses and affect other organisms that provide essential ecosystem services. And we shouldn’t just be concerned about neonicotinoids – the massive cocktail of chemicals we intentionally and accidentally unleash on the natural environment could have long-term and very damaging effects to our natural capital. Including bees.

Author: Jane Stout, stoutj[at]

Photo credit: wikimedia commons