Can smart people get anything done in an international week of talk?

We are now on the fourth day of this experimental workshop. We know more people than at the beginning. We can find the coffee, our offices, the meeting rooms, and the lunchroom. We know the fifteen-minute walk from our hotel to the Lorentz Institute, and we won’t walk into the head-high signs that felled us on the first day. We know breakfast will be elaborate and lunch will be simple. Unfortunately, either way, most of us will eat too much.
The third day was a day of lectures from the groups, not as fun as the discussions. We were proud of how coherently Aniek presented our work, even ending with a joke, Hammerstein’s Rule, bmt = mbs.
We expect water everywhere, and understand we are below sea level. We managed to stay sober, passing up forth and fifth rounds of dark Dutch gin, served in shot glasses on the dinner boat, drifting past fields lower than the canals.
Our group has a theme that we think we can turn into a small review paper. We are using certain economic principles that are traditionally applied to humans to explain a subset of microbial mutualistic markets. We hope that by so doing, people will better understand these tiny strategists. We worry a little about how much economics we know, though we have an economist on our team. We worry about sorting ecological from evolutionary responses. We also worry about how comprehensive we should be. Does a review, or a perspective, need to take a small corner of the canvas of life and paint it all in, or can we dash across the whole thing, a bit of red here, a line of green there, giving people a general overview but leaving the details for elsewhere?
One thing we do know is that whatever we put in must be absolutely accurate in its treatment of facts. A side discussion with a theorist from another group at lunch questioned this. What do you think? If someone publishes a theoretical model based on a certain kind of biological organization, then gives a list of examples that have the structure where the model should apply, shouldn’t those examples actually have that kind of structure? This seems dead obvious to me. It also seems obvious that the best models explain kinds of biological organization that actually occur. If they don’t, they should be set up as null models, and their utility made clear in that area. The theoreticians that make the most impact are those with a foot or two in the empirical camp, muddied with the reality of biological complexity. Yet in some areas it seems they review each other’s papers, publishing one after the other, ignorant of the cries for reality from the empiricists.
But the good thing about this meeting is that there is time for holders of these differing views to sit down together, to argue these points. Maybe all sides will learn. In the snippets of time between the within-group discussions, other points were also hammered out. Someone questioned the link between two fundamental theories in our field. He was able to sit down with the link’s originator and work on explaining his perspective. This could save months of work, opening some doors and closing others, perhaps for both parties.
We began the morning with a discussion of an alternative project from someone in our group who wanted to paint more thoroughly on a smaller canvas. Could we narrow our examination of the economics of microbial strategists to those that involved a single larger partner with many smaller ones? Could this narrowed approach then include non-microbial strategists? Is there a theme here that would result in a useful paper? Discussion was intense at times. We shortened coffee and lunch breaks to see if we could manage both topics and if we even wanted to. After all, when the main work is discussion, what are breaks for, except trekking upstairs to the wonderful coffee machine?
The younger set decided to pursue both topics, and divided up potential first authorships. We hammered out the details of one approach during a lively discussion that, I confess, came at a time of day when I pulled my hat over my eyes, nestled my head on my coat, and slept at the side of the room, the modulating voices, the many accents, putting me to sleep.
The sun came out, so we took the last session on the road, walking into town, and finishing the meeting in a bar around glasses of Grolsch and Duvel. Tomorrow will be a day of final presentations, with whole-group discussion. I wonder what the people pondering why macaques pass babies around will think of arbuscular mycohrrizae, or ant-aphid farms. I wonder too if, after the meeting is over, we will actually produce some thoughtful papers, or if we’ll look at the jewels away from the strobe lights of the meeting and decide they are simply glass? I do know I have made new friends, people whose work I will go home and read with new understanding.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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