Picking Up the Dog

Last update of the day: Tomorrow's New York Times has a profile I wrote about Martin Nowak, a mathematical biologist at Harvard. Nowak uses games to understand how cooperation evolved--whether that cooperation is between people or between cells or between genes. I've written about Nowak in passing before--his work on language evolution turns up in my book Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, and there's a bit on his research on cancer evolution in an article I wrote last year for in Scientific American. But I was very curious to talk to Nowak and figure out how all these topics fit inside the head of one scientist.

If you want to read more about Nowak, he's got pdf's galore at his web site. Be prepared for a lot of math, though. All the equations may leave you wondering what the ethereal realm of math has to do with the blood-and-guts reality of life. And it turns out, Nowak informs me, that the annals of geek humor includes a mathematical biology joke.

A shepherd is tending his sheep, and a man comes by and says, "If I guess the correct number of your sheep, can I have one?"

The shepherd says, "Please try."

The man looks at the flock and says "Eighty-three."

The shepherd is completely amazed that he got the right number. The man picks up a sheep and starts to walk away.

The shepherd says, "Wait! If I guess your profession, can I have my sheep back?"

The man says, "Sure."

The shepherd says, "You must be a mathematical biologist."

The man says, "How did you know?"

"Because you picked up my dog."


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Heh. He used that same joke at the AIBS meeting he spoke at in DC this past May too.

I have his "Evolutionary Dynamics" book, but it's not an easy read--I've gone through the chapters on evolution of virulence, HIV and cancer dynamics, but the other ones just aren't light reading to me. He's definitely quite a personality, though...

The NYT article was very interesting, and I think Martin may be onto something with respect to his views on religion and evolution. His initial quote: "Evolution describes the fundamental laws of nature according to which God chose to unfold life" is thought-provoking from both a scientific and religious perspective. However, I'm not sure I agree with his second quote on the subject: "Like mathematics, many theological statements do not need scientific confirmation." I assume he doesn't place "...and on the sixth day, God created Adam and Eve" into that category. "Love thy neighbor" and "let he who is without sin cast the first stone" both work for me, though I'm not sure cherry-picking theological statements would go over too well with the fundamentalist crowd.

Are you heading to Rentschler Field tonight (7/31)? You fit the demographic...

I'm a big, big fan of Martin Nowak. Both his Evolutionary Dynamics and his Viral Dynamics are very, very good, and really are quite deep and inspiring. His mathematical intuition for looking at biological systems is magical, but he's also one of those mathematicians that really understands the biology, which is why I think he succeeds more than other physicists and mathematicians that try to dabble in biology. He's not afraid to admit when he doesn't know something, but he's also not afraid to say what he thinks.

He really makes apparent that evolution just can't be studied without mathematics, because any hypothesis about mechanisms of evolution needs to be made rigorous via measurement and quantification and studied to see how feasible such a "just so" story really is.

The real shame is that physicists and mathematicians who dabble in biology keep "rediscovering" and publishing stuff that he's already done 5, 10, even 15 years ago, and he never really gets as much credit as he deserves. I've found papers doing nearly exactly what he already did, and they don't cite any one of his landmark papers.

Can I be shamelessly pedantic about that joke? The sentence, "The man picks up a sheep and starts to walk away", shouldn't be in there. The man didn't pick up a sheep, did he?. A joke should at least have some kind of internal consistency: it shouldn't, as it were, tell a lie. Leave that sentence out, and you're left to assume the man picks up a sheep - and it's that assumption which turns out, hilariously (well, quite amusingly) to be wrong.

Sorry about that. Can't help myself sometimes.

To be even more pedantic: if the mathematical biologist couldn't tell sheep from dogs, he would have included the dog in his count, so that there were in fact eighty-two sheep and a dog, in which case the shepherd would not have considered eighty-three sheep to be the correct answer.

OK, OK, I'll go and quietly sit in a corner now.

The way I see it, neither genes nor organisms can survive on their own, without cooperation - with each other and/or the environment. Does anyone have a theory to explain the evolution of selfishness? Not sure how the maths works but the competitiveness of 'nature' is something of an anthropomorphism.

(Surely the shepherd discounted the dog, while the mathematical biologist discounted the sheep that was now his; thus they agreed how many there are.)

bob, if I were to take a guess, a simple game model to analyze benefit versus cost of selfishness per event in question might shed some light on that issue.

(and your parenthetical concerning the joke is spot on)

bobtwice, try The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins.