Zombies, homosexual ducks and other stories
Alison Campbell likes to talk dirty. That is, the biology professor gives public lectures on the quirky and kinky aspects of her specialisation. So the kickoff of Waikato University's annual lecture series will see talk of zombie behaviour and mallard duck homosexual necrophilia.
There is serious intent beneath the fun. She is a top science teacher - winning awards for it and basing her research around science communication. She helped write the biology curriculum for high school students and she sees talking about science as a duty.
“The community is paying my salary and it has a right to hear what I do with it.”
The mallard incident packs them in. A Dutch researcher worked in a glass-walled building that birds would frequently hit. After one incident, he recorded how a male mallard duck leapt onto the dead (male) mallard and started mating with it - for 75 minutes, with breaks, which the diligent scientist timed.
He published a paper on the phenomenon and did a lecture tour with the stuffed mallard as a companion. The point is that homosexuality is widespread in ducks, even though it means gay ducks don't pass on their genes and so, in a strictly scientific sense, are a biological dead-end. Campbell says science even has a possible explanation for that.
“They may hang around as part of their wider social group and so help to raise some of their relations.”
Her talks include the equally intriguing zombie ants.
A fungus that infects carpenter ants causes changes in their brains that make them grip onto the underside of leaves - which they wouldn't normally do - and die.
Then a tiny tree grows out of the back of their head, with spore-laden fruit that scatters on the jungle floor where it is picked up by more ants. Biologists think this cycle may have been repeating for 30 million years.
Other parasites can do the same zombifying trick. Rodents infected by toxoplasmosis suddenly become less afraid of cats and are actually attracted towards the smell of cat pee, therefore becoming much more likely to be eaten and to spread the clever parasite into its preferred cat host.
Water fowl and their strange sex practices feature heavily in her anecdotes. Mallards gang rape with abandon, but the female mallard can adjust her internal genitalia so to prefer one rapist over the rest and increase chances of conception. Which brings to mind the comments of the foolish United States Republican congressman Todd Akin, who recently said women who were "legitimately" raped couldn't conceive. “Bad man - there is absolutely no parallel,” says Campbell. “Senator Akin was almost going back to the ‘magical thinking' of the Middle Ages, where people believed what a woman saw or thought during pregnancy could influence the outcome for the child.”
It may seem it's all about sex. It is biology, after all.
“You could be forgiven for thinking biologists are obsessed. In evolutionary terms, you are not successful unless you both survive and reproduce and pass your genes on to another generation. So there is some focus on that side of things.”
But the sort of pseudoscience exhibited by Akin is also a particular bug-bear with Campbell. She has little time for homeopathy or acupuncture, even though faith in such treatments gives some people comfort.
“If it makes them feel better, that may drive them to not seek proper care for the problem. If it's a cold, it will go away anyway, but other things don't.”
She has written elsewhere on how “uncritical multiculturalism” can lead to dangerous health practices. “In the US, acupuncture and ‘energy healing' - chakras, reiki - are creeping into the teaching hospitals, with no evidence at all of efficacy.”
Sellers of homeopathic remedies, in particular, seem to be taking the mickey. Campbell tells of a compound called homeopathic Saturn, which is produced by pointing a telescope at Saturn and shining the light on a bottle of liquid. Homeopathic black hole and homeopathic plutonium are also available.
Traditional Maori remedies are interesting.
“There is a lot of matauranga Maori [traditional knowledge] around healing. Most of the products Maori have traditionally used for healing have been plant-based, with a spiritual component. I think for a lot of people the spiritual component is going to make them feel better or worse depending on how it is delivered. A lot of the products used do have some physiologically active compounds in them. But you don't have a standard preparation and you have no way of controlling what the active dose is.”
As in the US, New Zealanders debate evolution versus creationism. When Campbell was helping design the syllabus, some submitters in the public part of the process called for creationism to be included in science teaching. That didn't happen and evolution remains central to the science curriculum here. Campbell says some private faith-based schools teach "young day creationism", where the world is said to be 6000 years old, in line with the word of the Bible.
“I'm quite happy to discuss it in my science classes, but from the position of ‘what is science?' ”
The bio stories she tells in her public lectures are her duty, but she also sees their quirky accessibility as a necessity.
“Sometimes people are scared of science because it's too hard and dry and boring and I'd like them to see that it is not.”
Some at the top haven't got the word. Campbell is a selector for the team that represents New Zealand at the International Biology Olympiad. There is some Government support, but the biologists end up with about $15,000, with which organisers have to assemble kids from around the country for elimination rounds, then take the winners to a far-flung contest. There are plans to bring the global event and about 400 smart kids and top teachers to the university in 2014, but Government interest seems to be fading. In the dog-eat-dog natural selection world of taxpayer funding, a biologist understands well why such things are the dead duck in the pecking order. “It's not a sporting event,” she says.