Voice of Fairness

My personal opinion on science, religion and politics

My wobbling years in academic world ... and some guardian angels

There is a commonly shared belief that old people are forgetful of what happened recently, but remember vividly events that occurred quite a long time ago. As I now qualify as belonging to the old people, I can testify to the truth of the first part of the belief, but am not quite so certain of the second. In fact, at this very moment, I am having difficulty recalling events that occurred during my undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral years. For this reason, I thought it high time for me to write down my experience before it fades away from my memory. This experience might be relevant to young researchers who are going through similar career paths, so here it is, in plain text, with no colors or shades.

My China years

My academic life started when I was enrolled in the Biology Department of Jiangxi University[1] in March, 1978, after working as a peasant in an agricultural farm for nearly three years. There was no academic life in the farm, in fact no life at all except sweating and hard manual labor, and a strong desire among young people to change their fate. I consider it wise to skip over that part of my life when inexplicable stupidity ruled the country.

People today often do not understand why we, the class of 1977, enrolled in March, 1978 instead of the expected enrollment time of September, 1977. There were two reasons. First, most university campuses across the country were occupied by the military and the industry during the 10-year Cultural Revolution. It took time for them to vacate. Second, most professors were sent to remote regions to do manual labor, to accept the so-called re-education by workers, peasants and soldiers. It took time for them to come back and get prepared to teach. We were supposed to enroll in September, 1977, but were delayed to March 1978.

I did not achieve high grade in Jiangxi University, but I could claim to be almost always the first one to exit the examination room. This was partly because I could not quite get myself interested in biology taught from 1930 textbooks. The three choices I made in my university application were: 1) Mathematics Program in Jiangxi University, 2) Electric motor Program in Jiangxi College of Industry, and 3) Physics Program in Jiangxi Normal College. Unfortunately I did poorly in math in my entrance examination after nearly three years of working as a peasant. This unexpected twist of life landed me in biology.

The four university years passed quickly, and I obtained my BSc on Feb. 1, 1982. Although my grade was mediocre, my teachers and the departmental leadership thought that I was alright and offered me a position in the Bureau of Scientific Research of the university. During that period in China, all teachers and all students lived on campus and consequently interacted with each other far more than we experience today. If I was judged by my grade only, I would have been sent to a remotely located middle school as a school teacher. In retrospect, a school teacher might have been a more appropriate career for me, but it was considered less desirable than a position in a university at that time.

The university treated me well, and I participated in several research projects right after getting my BSc degree. I became quite fascinated by the statistical techniques used in plant community classification and ordination, and applied them to my study of plant communities in collaboration with my former teachers WU Wen-pu and CHENG Jing-fu. At that time, accessing books on such techniques was like gaining secret scripture of martial arts, so I suddenly gained confidence to brave the world. It was quite exciting to see how plant communities were shaped by environmental factors such as temperature and humidity by 2-D and 3-D figures as well as trees from cluster analysis. One representative publication can be found here. I also began my fascination with computational algorithms. The reciprocal averaging algorithm for correspondence analysis used in plant community ordination allowed one to perform the computation with just a good calculator.

In 1983, Beijing Normal University won a grant on environmental assessment of De-Xin Copper Mine in Jiangxi Province, and it outsourced biological assessment to my department. I led the aquatic community assessment by sampling algal communities along Le-An River. Teacher CHENG Jing-fu taught me the trick in identifying algal species, especially diatoms. Using microscopes day and night for two months eventually resulted in myopia of my left eye. However, the result was fruitful. Algal community ordination showed clearly the dramatic effect of the effluent from the copper mine, and the community structure did not recover until more than 15 km downstream, helped by the entry of another river. My report was well received by people in Beijing Normal University. Their positive feedback motivated our departmental administration to immediately send the report to Journal of Jiangxi University for publication. I was not aware of it until I received some royalty payment from the journal office. The publication can be found here.

Around this time, the invisible hand of our Lord Almighty delivered a certain Mr. Hu to my university to persuade our university administration to send young teachers to Canada to further their education. Mr. Hu brought with him a bundle of application forms for postgraduate studies at University of Western Ontario[2] (because Mr. Hu lived in London, Ontario, where UWO was and is still located). Our university administration did not take this seriously because it seemed outrageous to apply to study abroad in such an informal channel without first seeking government approval. At that time, everything was supposed to be planned by the government. The official way of sending scholars to study abroad is first for the university to apply for quotas of studying overseas. The quota was allocated by Ministry of Education each year. Upon receive the quota, the university will then nominate scholars for government approval. These scholars would then be gathered to be trained in foreign language and culture. Those who passed would then be allowed to go abroad, protected by, and receiving funds from, Chinese embassies. For this reason, the application forms brought by Mr. Hu were not distributed to anyone. However, Mr. Hu was so persistent that the university administration eventually yielded and distributed the form to two young teachers, both in Department of Biology, one to me and one to Ms. HU Chun-fang. The department suggested that Chung-fang should apply for an MSc program in the Department of Plant Sciences, and I in the Department of Zoology. Both Chun-fang and I were very busy, and filled the form very reluctantly because we perceived this as our extra workload. The university paid the postage of RMB1.84 and sent the application off to Canada.

What came as a pleasant surprise was the acceptance letter from University of Western Ontario for both Chung-fang and me. Associated with this was a mishap with my birthday. The university administration decided to go ahead to help me apply for my passport and summoned me over for personal information. I had never had my birthday and had forgotten the exact date of my birth, except that I was born in February in 1959. The vice dean, Mr. JIANG Jian-ying, in a rush to fill in the form, decided to have February 1 as my birthday, so now it appears in all my official record beyond China. Only years later did I learn that my true birthday most likely was February 24, 1959. It might sound strange to westerners, but it is not in Chinese tradition to celebrate birthdays for children. To make things worse, my parents, although having joined the communist revolution early in life, were later labeled as counterrevolutionaries and my father was tortured to death in 1968, at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Remaining family members of counterrevolutionaries were typically driven to remote regions of the country to fend for themselves and would gradually fade away from official records. My family fared slightly better. Farmers in a village where my father worked before learned of our homelessness and came to our rescue. We were transported to Xi-Xi village where we lived until 1970 when the Communist Party implemented a new “Let them live” (给出路)policy to give the families of counter-revolutionaries, capitalist roaders and the like the right to survive. Nonetheless, the official records of our personal information seemed difficult to track down. In fact, my currently presumed birthday of February 24 was based on the recollection of my mother and a few of her peers, bracketed by the known birth dates of two other people, one born before me and one after me. Unfortunately, one of them might have altered his birth date to appear younger. The only thing that seems sure is that I was born soon after the lunar New Year.

Western years

I arrived in London, Ontario, Canada on Oct. 1, 1984, but my supervisor, Dr. John S. Millar (Jack), was away until mid-October. The department had arranged teaching assistant duties so that a fellow graduate student filled in for my TA duties in September, and I would do her TA duties in October. The double TA duties kept me busy. When Jack came back, we learned that I still had to take courses. One of the courses I took was animal behavior which I started literally by taking the mid-term exam. One exam question was something like "Who are the three best ethologists". The professor was expecting the student to write Konrad Lorenz, Karl von Frisch and Nikolaas Tinbergen who won a Nobel Prize for decoding the bee language. However, in my then rebellious mindset I thought the question silly and wrote the names of three Chinese farmers from the farm where I worked. The three farmers were particularly skilled with dogs, water buffalos and pigs, respectively. The professor was not pleased and I ended up with a C grade in spite of the TA (Mark Ridgeway) lobbying for me. Only later did I realize that grade was far more important in Canada than in China. Take heed, don't mess up with your grade!

The inherent rebellious spirit in me caused more trouble than the course grade alone. I was TAing one section of a large 2nd-year ecology course, and found it desirous to modify some of the experiments to make them more informative and to generate results that would be statistically more clear-cut. One experiment was on animal foraging with foragers (students) trying to pick up as many big pieces of food items (various dry pasta pieces) as possible. I thought it would be interesting to hide food items in 20 sites and let students find them and report the number of sites found as well as the time spent in searching. I wished to make a point that, if a group of 4 students went out searching together, the group would typically find more sites (~17 out of 20) than a single student (~13 out of 20), in a fixed amount of time. However, if we sent out four students individually to search for the sites, the total number of sites found by the four individual students would be greater (~18 out of 20) than the group of 4 banding together. Therefore, if the four individual students recorded their sites and allowed to communicate their sites with each other, then their joint food knowledge would be greater than the four students banding together. This was related not only to foraging, but also to a subject discussed at that time among Chinese scientists about whether the government should encourage the formation of large research groups or small independent research teams. I personally was against forming and herding very large research groups in the same direction, and wished to show that joint knowledge of individual independent research could be greater than large groups of researchers banded together heading in the same direction.

I mistakenly thought that I, as the only TA in the section, was fully in charge of the laboratory experiment and could do whatever modifications I saw fit. However, someone wiser told me that I should consult the lab coordinator, a Ukrainian lady whom I refer to in my diary as IT. I once made a half-hearted attempt to get permission from her, but gave up because she got rather impatient before I had a chance to explain myself. Consequently, my youthful rashness took over me, and the laboratory experiment went ahead according to my own plan. This brought upon me terrible wrath of IT who, when angry, would gnash her teeth and shake allover. Upon learning from some sources that I frequently modified laboratory protocols, she once burst into the middle of the lab and shouted at everyone to halt. The consequence of this unplanned drama was subsequently brought to the attention of Jack, my graduate supervisor. Being a good-natured fellow, Jack did not consider this mistake of mine terribly serious, and I privately suspected that he might have done something similar in his graduate years. However, Jack did advise me not to meddle with experimental protocols, and I did follow his advice. After all, I was clearly at fault. Students in different laboratory sections need to perform the same experiment to maintain consistency. Exam questions were based on the assumption that all students did the same set of experiments. What I learned from this was that people at a higher level do sometimes have a better perspective of things.

An unexpected but pleasant highlight coming out of this episode of events is that, at the end of the course, the brightest student of the class, Betsy Perrin, came up to tell me that I was the best TA she had. All the misery suddenly became worthwhile.

I seemed to have bad luck in communicating with female administrators, especially in the early years of my academic life. Once I received a call from a vice dean on graduate studies asking me why I still had not taken the required TOEFL test. I told her that my supervisor thought that my English was alright and that it might not be necessary for me to take the TOEFL test. An angry voice came through the wire shouting that “Your supervisor is not in a position to make such a statement” and that I would not be allowed to register if I did not take the test right away. I was quite terrified. Fortunately, it was not too much trouble to take the test and I passed without a problem.

The academic atmosphere in Collip Building, which housed all ecologists and evolutionary biologists, was excellent. The five or six faculty members spent much effort in cultivating friendship and mutual understanding, and hosted regular Wednesday night seminars in the basement of their houses. The hostess would typically prepare some snacks for everyone after the seminar. In this way, we got to know well not only the professors, but also their families. I still remember Jack frequently bringing me vegetables from his garden, and the late Dave Ankney who gave me a bear hug upon learning that I had applied for Canadian permanent resident status. Dave was an extremely caring gentleman. He was one of the few who had blind faith in me in spite of my getting a grade C, and offered excellent reviews of my manuscripts. He always returned the manuscript to me with his hand-drawn graph of a few poison darts dripping blood (signifying his poison-dart review) in the front page. The extraordinary collegiality we enjoyed allowed us to ask sharp questions in seminars without ever worrying about offending each other.

A short distance away from Collip Building is the B&G Building which housed molecular biologists and physiologists. My research on the mating system of deer mice and the method of genetic identification of paternity brought me in touch with Dr. Shiva Singh who represented another thread of positive influence on me. I once attended a seminar by Shiva on genetic markers after his sabbatical. Shiva showed photos of a number of places he had visited during his sabbatical, and asked the audience to identify the places. No one was successful. Shiva then flashed a picture of Eifel Tower and everyone knew that he was in Paris.

"You won't get lost if you know the landmarks", Shiva asserted, "and geneticists won’t get lost if they have genetic markers," and he proceeded to offer a nice presentation on the development and application of genetic markers in solving practical biological and biomedical problems.

Upon learning my interest in population genetics, Shiva recommended C.C. Li’s book entitled "An Introduction to Population Genetics" and told me that it was the best in the field. I subsequently read some of other publications by C. C. Li and enjoyed the feeling of walking by the side of a giant. I had the same feeling when I first read George Williams 1966 book entitled "Adaptation and Natural Selection" and Maynard-Smith’s 1978 book entitled "The Evolution of Sex". I truly aspired to think and write like them.

My research on population biology of deer mice started with a field season in the Canadian Rockies, trapping Peromyscus maniculatus in Kananaskis Valley. I subsequently found it more fruitful to monitor populations over years with nest boxes and to observe mice in semi-natural enclosures that I built in the animal room. All these effort helped me to start publishing in the second year of my MSc program, followed by more publications in morphological analysis, spatial distribution, parental behavior and genetic identification of multiple paternity. I kept a large colony of the white-footed mice (Peromyscus leucopus) which were also used by other researchers, including Dr. Martin Kavaliers who was at that time studying signal-transduction pathways of analgesics. Part of Martin’s experiment was to put white-footed mice on a hot plate. The control mice, when being put on the hot plate, would lift and lick their feet constantly when the temperature of the hot plate increased.

I was quite interested in Martin. The first time I saw him, I suspected that he might be a descendent of Dr. Norman Bethune because Martin looked very similar to the noble medical doctor featured in Chinse post stamps. I was disappointed to learn that neither his father side nor his mother side had a Bethune along the lineage.

One day I saw a gloomy and perplexed Martin and asked him what was the matter. I must be quite perceptive at that moment because Martin looked gloomy and perplexed all the time. Upon my asking, he replied that the experimental results on the white-footed mice were all inexplicable because the control mice did not lift and lick their feet on the hot plate as usually observed. It suddenly dawned on me that I had a least weasel in my mouse trap and I brought it back to the animal room alive. There were two reasons for me to bring the least weasel back. The first is that I could not release it on site because it would destroy my white-footed mouse population that I had been monitoring. The second is that I thought I could use the creature to impress or scare some people. It must be the smell of the least weasel that kept the experimental mice intensely focused, so the pain caused by the hot plate did not generate the expected effect. Martin subsequently did more experiment on the effect of the least weasel smell on the pain perception of mice. However, in his publication, he incidentally reported the least weasel as short-tailed weasel (Mustela erminea) which is bigger than the least weasel and would have a difficult time squeezing its way into a Longworth trap.

Experiments with mice eventually led to my allergy to these critters. My nose was constantly stuffy and bleeding. At one point, it got so bad that I would begin sneezing by just thinking about the animal room. In this context, the allergy must be at least partially psychological. The doctor in the university health clinic recommended a specialist who in turn suggested surgery. I woke up from the surgery and saw a group of medical students around my hospital bed, with the surgeon in the middle bragging about how he successfully cut the epithelium, exposed and trimmed the cartilage, and sewed everything back, within the confine of limited space. The surgical effect did not last long as my nose became stuffy again in just one month. This series of events, together with some other compilation of medical records later, instilled in my mind a suspicion that most surgical operations were probably unnecessary.

I could have graduated in 1989, and had sent a letter to Jiangxi University about my imminent return to the university. The letter reached its destination, but was never answered, perhaps because of the ensuing student democratic movement in Tian-An-Men Square. The student movement did get all Chinese students at Western fired up, and we spent all our time trying to raise funds for the students in Tian-An-Men square. I was invited by two local radio stations to voice our hope, our fight, and our frustration. My PhD thesis included a statement that “This thesis is dedicated to those whose blood stained Tien-An-Men Square in June the Fourth, and to their wives and mothers who wept over the permanently silenced bodies of their beloved ones”.

Through the interactions with westerners during the student movement and afterwards, I came to recognize two groups of people, a large group that was against the communist regime but genuinely wishes Chinese people to have a better life, and a small group that is simply anti-China and anti-Chinese. After studying the events following the crackdown of the student movement, I privately feel that the Tian-An-Men student movement was probably sabotaged by the second group of people.

Right after the June-4th massacre, Canadian immigration officers came to Western and conducted workshops teaching Chinese students how to apply for permanent resident status. We were interviewed individually for 15 minutes. The whole application process was much simpler than taking the TOEFL test. I defended my PhD thesis in February 1990 and went on to take my first postdoctoral fellowship in Helsinki in April, 1990.

My Helsinki year

I spent almost one year in Helsinki, from late April, 1990 to February 1991, in Dr. Ilkka Hanski’s laboratory. Ilkka was generous in his financial support for me, but there were three things that contributed to spoiling our relationship. First, I had assumed the same warm collegiality that I enjoyed in Collip Building, but realized, perhaps a bit too late, that pointed questions might be perceived as hostile beyond Collip Building. Second, I once offered to coauthor a paper with Ilkka, but he declined because the conclusions were not consistent with those of Finnish ecologists. He also insisted that I should not submit the manuscript to any journal for publication. Third, I was not free with the field data I collected in Northern Finland because the data were supposed to be the property of the supervisor. I had to hand over to him all the field notebooks. This was rather strange to me. In any case, I was the only one who traveled over Finnish Lapland to collect those field data. No one but me could interpret the field data properly, so the field notes were of no use to anyone but me.

Jack, who served as my MSc and PhD supervisor for five years and a half, had ever asked me to hand over my data or constrained my right to use my data. In fact, soon after my arrival, he introduced me to his file cabinet with field data and told me to have free access and free use of them. My first paper was actually based on the field data in that cabinet. I did not realize that Jack was a great supervisor when I was with him, and appreciated him more over years after I left him. My stay at Western had brought him many troubles, including my driving our field van into a ditch. Jack had towed me out of many trouble as he did to the van.

I would have some difficulty to tow myself out of Helsinki if Canada did not grant me Canadian permanent residency status in the summer of 1990. I immediately applied for NSERC postdoctoral fellowship (which was only for Canadians and permanent residents), and was fortunate to win the fellowship. I returned to Canada in February 1991.

Partly frustrated with Ilkka and with the fact that I could not use the data I collected in Finnish Lapland for publication, and partly worried by a temporal gap in my publication record, I submitted a critique of some conclusions by Finnish ecologists to Am. Nat, and had it published in 1992. This somehow infuriated Ilkka even more and we had never communicated ever since. In fact, our relationship was already beyond repair even before this publication.

Finland was a strange country, especially from my perspective.

My Toronto years

My NSERC postdoctoral fellowship was hosted in Dr. Rudy Boonstra’s laboratory in University of Toronto Scarborough Campus, from March 1991 to September 1992. I collaborated with Rudy and published some papers, but Daniel Brooks and Mart Gross represented the main intellectual influence on me during that period, Dan mainly through his 1991 book entitled “Phylogeny, Ecology, and Behaviur”, and Mart through his questions during the seminar series on evolutionary biology. They might not know me, but I consider them as my mentors in evolutionary theory. In a similar vein I consider as my mentors in evolutionary theory and population genetics George Williams, John Maynard-Smith, C.C. Li, Joe Felsenstein, Motoo Kimura, James Crow, Masatoshi Nei and Wen-Hsiung Li, although I did not meet anyone of them at that time.

My life in Seattle

My persistently stuffy and bleeding nose had bothered me to such an extent that I began to reconsider my academic path seriously. Leaving rodent ecology was a hard decision, partly because it might be perceived as betrayal to our mouse crew. I had made a promise to myself to eventually return to deer mouse biology, but the promise has not been fulfilled even to this day.

During the period when I was thinking about switching field, molecular evolution was clearly a very exciting field, and got talked about a lot in EvolDir. It seemed to be the path of my field-switching with the least resistance. The main problem was my lack of wet lab experience. I wrote to Joe Felsenstein, who had previously corrected a few mistakes in my writing, asking if he knew any lab that would be willing to train me, and he introduced me to Ben Hall at University of Washington in Seattle where I learned to do basic DNA extraction and sequencing from yeast cultures. I was very fortunate to have Ben and his crew of graduate students and a postdoc my guide, although I could perceive a certain degree of nervousness they shared in their mind, knowing that there was an ecologist at large in their lab in early mornings. While I could claim to have never destroyed any of my Longworth and Sherman mouse traps (had actually fixed a few broken ones), I did break a great deal of glassware in the lab. At one point, noting the decreasing amount of glassware for experiment, the lab mates joked about establishing a Society against Cruelty towards Glassware. I hope that this little story would not discourage molecular biologists from taking an ecologist into their laboratories. All what they need is just some extra glassware.

Knowing that the transition from rodent ecology to molecular evolution would take time, and that I could not use my Finnish data for publication, I thought that I could dig up my UWO data to keep my publication record continuous. Unfortunately, moving from Toronto to Seattle, I lost all my UWO data. So I was forced to write short papers without data. In this context, I was very grateful to several Am Nat associate editors, Peter Chesson, Deborah Charlesworth, and William Rice who accepted such speculative writings of mine. I just took a quick look at associate editors for some other papers of mine. My 1995 MBE paper was handled by Naoyuki Takahata, my 1998 Genetics by Andy Clark, my two Systematic Biology papers, in 2000 and 2003, by Chris Simon, and my 2001 software note on DAMBE by Sudhir Kumar. Journal AEs are unsung heroes.

Almost everyone (except for Joe) in the Department of Genetics at University of Washington in 1993 was studying yeasts, especially yeast cycle. Joe advised me to interact more with evolutionary biologists in Department of Zoology. This brought me in touch with Dr. Raymond Huey who generously donated data for my first MBE paper published in 1995. Given my Finnish experience, I repeatedly asked Ray if I really could use his data and if I might have him as a coauthor. To my first question he firmly replied Yes, and to my second question he equally firmly insisted on only an entry in the Acknowledgement. Ray was super-nice. He subsequently served as an external examiner for one of my PhD students.

Naoyuki Takahata who handled my 1995 MBE paper as associate editor was very patient with my repeated delay in revision. Yuki subsequently also handled as associate editor two other papers of mine, one in MBE in 1998 and the other in Genetics in 2002. He used to include a postcard of beautiful Japanese landscape in his correspondence as associate editor, which was a wonderful human touch. I had never had a chance of meeting him and would like to learn more of what he did in his research. When looking for him in the 1997 SMBE conference in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, I heard that he fell sick and left. I have since found Japanese biologists are all quite nice, although I still got angry occasionally when reading the history on Japanese invasion of China. Every nation has good and bad people. In fact, every person has a good half and a bad half. Overall, biologists appear to be better blessed with kindness than the general public.

In the small departmental library at University of Washington, there was a small book entitled “A genetic switch” by Mark Ptashne. The book was fascinating but guided me into an ill-fated romance with developmental biology. I remembered to write to a number of developmental biologists asking to be trained in the field. Only one in the dental school of University of Manitoba replied with funding support. I carved numerous number of chicken embryos, but gradually came to realize that this was not the direction that I should have taken. In spite of my initial infatuation with developmental biology, I was like Disney’s Bongo Bear constantly hearing the call of the wild. The excursion soon ended and I went to Louisiana State University as a postdoctoral fellow and museum associate to resume my trip in molecular evolution.

Around this time, I had my first job interview in University of Northern British Columbia. The application was sent off perhaps in 1992 or 1993, but I had not heard a single word back for almost one year, then suddenly there was a request for interview. I went there and found the university still under construction in Prince George. The selection committee consisted of three founding deans, one lady and two gentlemen. Knowing that my sail would typically break at the puff of a female administrator, I grew apprehensive when it came to the lady’s turn to ask me questions. She was actually nice and smiled, so I relaxed a bit, but her question took me by surprise. Here was her question in essence: “Our university caters to native students who are mostly not particularly well educated. However, according to your teaching philosophy, you would ignore them. How would you reconcile your teaching philosophy with our university’s mission?” I stuttered, faltered and denied that I had ever said anything like that in my teaching philosophy (To be honest I had totally forgotten what I wrote in my teaching philosophy submitted almost a year ago). The lady then circulated my written teaching philosophy which stated that I would focus my teaching effort on those bright and hardworking students. I felt that the meaning of my teach philosophy was distorted, but could not find tactful wording to express or defend myself. It was rather miserable for me after that point as I could not quite regain my cool (which I did not have much in store to start with).

That was my first job interview, and it did not end up well. I wrote this down in the hope that readers who are deans will be nice to junior researchers in the future.

My years at Louisiana State University

There were two things significant during my academic life in LSU in 1994-1996. The first is my submission of a paper to Genetics which was handled by Wen-Hsiung Li who then invited me to Houston for a meeting in the summer. Wen-Hsiung’s office was terribly cold, and the chair I sat on was directly under the vent of cold air. My brain was half-frozen during the conversation, but the interaction did not prevent us from developing a lasting academic relationship. The reference letters from Wen-Hsiung and Joe Felsenstein were instrumental for me along my career path.

The second noteworthy event at LSU was my interaction with Joe Slowinski who was also a postdoctoral fellow at LSU. Joe came my office to propose collaboration. He told me that he first went to David Foltz but was directed to me. In no time I discovered that Joe was extremely modest, even by the standard of Chinese gentry. We soon found that we both wanted to extend each other’s work and really seemed to understand each other. Joe was more advanced in molecular evolution and phylogenetics, but I was more advanced in age, which might have contributed to his modesty. It turned out that Joe, albeit quantitative and mathematical in his research, did not do programming, and I was glad to show him some of the programs I wrote for my own research. My academic record would surely be stronger had I maintained dialogue with him. It was unfortunate that the year 1996 soon came and we went separate ways, Joe to Southeastern Louisiana University and I to University of Hong Kong. Years later I learned that Joe died of a snake bite in a field trip to Myanmar on Sept 11, 2001, coinciding with the terrorist attack that caused delays in US Embassy’s rescue effort.

This concludes the struggling part of my early academic life. I am glad to report that the uncertainty and agony associated with my early academic years were more than balanced by the peace and comfort associated with a permanent academic job. My best wishes to graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.

(I will add to this if I recall anything significant)

[1] Jiangxi University changed its name to Nanchang University in 1993, after merging with Jiangxi Industrial College.

[2] University of Western Ontario was originally founded as Western University on 7 March 1878, but was renamed to University of Western Ontario in 1923. In 2012, the university rebranded itself as "Western University". It has always been referred to colloquially as "Western"

Power and Politics of the World

There are always people with more power than others. There are always nations with more power than others.

Even if there is no differential power distribution among people or among nations, some people will try to mislead others to think that he or she has more power than others. We have recently seen Mr. Juan Guaido posing with a few people in military uniform and claiming to have the Venezuelan military behind him.  Reacting against North Korea's Kim, President Trump tweeted that he has "a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!" There are two reasons for such fanfare. First, power, or even just the appearance of power, is often associated with personal fame, financial gain and political respect. Second, there is a mob of opportunistic people who constantly monitor who has more power than others and flock to where power lies. Thus, the appearance of power may materialize into real power with a large mob followers.

It is for this reason that no religion can spread by preaching love alone. The supreme love has to be associated with supreme power to have a chance among the mob. It is for the same reason that some preachers have to fly private jets instead of carrying the cross. The mob flocks to the jet-flying preachers instead of cross-carrying ones.

The mob know that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely", so the powerful will eventually start looting others for personal gain. Being with the powerful means that one can share the glory and grandeur of looting others. Not following the powerful implies the misery and misfortune of being looted.

The powerful often reminds the mob that you are either with me or against me.

Napoleon formed a large group of looters and looted far and wide. He was heralded as a great leader for the looting he had done. Paradoxically, he was condemned as a criminal for exactly the same looting when he lost power. It would have been nice if he was heralded as a great leader when he was loving and compassionate, and condemned as a criminal when he was not. Unfortunately, judges and historians are always very fond of acquitting people with power but condemning those without.

At this point it might be wise to digress a few steps into the concept of power. It would be entirely unscientific to discuss power and politics without actually understanding what power means. Leo Tolstoy repeatedly argued that power to society is essentially the same as force to objects in physics. To understand changes of motion in a physical object, one has to identify the force and its application to the object. To understand changes in a society, one has to understand the power that moves it. So what is power and its source?

For ancients, there was an almighty deity who interfered with earthly matters either directly or indirectly through his agents such as prophets or ordained kings and emperors. This deity acted as a micromanager and determines the evolutionary trajectory of human society all the way down to the floating path of a dust particle. However, scholars by and by discarded this divine power and started seeking power among mortals. Physical power is highly visible, especially in those like Hercules or many modern bullies. One can also perceive manifestation of moral power. Some preachers commanded a large crowd of followers when he behaved righteously, but became almost immediately powerless when he was found to solicit prostitutes. However, as pointed out by Tolstoy, it could not be personal power that enabled Napoleon, who was neither physically imposing nor morally virtuous, to move 600,000 soldiers eastward towards Moscow. After a short pause and reflection, Tolstoy concluded that Napoleon's power arose from a large mob that banked their individual physical and moral power in his trust.

Power banks exist in both democracy and dictatorship. The key difference is that, in a democracy, one is allowed to transfer one's personal power from one power bank to another, typically after a four-year term deposit. In a dictatorship, the power bank gathers power from individuals and ensures that all alternative power banks are eliminated, so it becomes impossible to transfer one's personal power from one power bank to another.

Napoleon was a successful political banker. He had a large mob who deposited their personal power in his bank and pledged to never transfer it elsewhere. The stable genius today did the same with his supporters.

A successful political banker without a moral compass always morphs into a looting master.

Some people have classified the most powerful looting masters as First World, the mob followers as Second World, and those being looted as Third World. This classification was criticized for not catching the dynamic nature of this caste system. For example, the mob and their children do not want to remain members of a mob forever. They know that Napoleon was originally a member of the mob, but managed to raise himself to become a grand looting master. In particular, many of the mob were inspired by what Napoleon once said:" Those soldiers who are not willing to be a general are not good soldiers." 

The caste system is therefore somewhat dynamic. The mob members wish to become Looting Master, and the looted wish to join the mob. But this creates an insurmountable problem of increasing number of looting masters and shrinking number of looting victims. The looters either have to loot more savagely, or find some way to increase the number of looting victims. Some politico-economists, as well as economy-minded communists such as Lenin, have sounded the warning a long time ago that the looting practice would not be sustainable. Alternative ways of looting had to be found.

Just as a large number of herbivores are required to sustain a few carnivores, a large colony is required for a small number of looters. An ideal world for looters is "the empire on which the sun never sets".

Napoleon very quickly arrived at the conclusion that Mideast, India or Africa could not sustain the looting in its full glory and grandeur. It is necessary to broaden the looting base to include wealthy European countries.

As a response to the warning on sustainability, military alliance was formed, and the Looting Master said to its allies: "Let's loot those who are not in our alliance. However, instead of getting what you have looted as before, I will now get 70% of the loot and you get the remaining 30%."

The allies, although not happy with the loot allocation, found it acceptable. They would rob the weak more savagely to compensate for the loss they had conceded to the Looting Master.

Then the Looting Master said to its allies: "Let's replace 70% and 30% by 80% and 20%, respectively. The alternative is to place you among the looted. You are either with me or against me."

The allies now face two opposing factions from within. First, some of them, especially the younger ones, consider this looting immoral. Second, some of them believe that they are just as capable as the Looting Master and deserve a fairer share of the loot.

So the leaders of the allies argued with the Looting Master, with the arguments running roughly as follows: We had been faithful allies. We had contributed to making you great, and would continue to make you great again. However, we have looted so savagely that we looked evil in the eyes of our children. This is too much a cost to balance the benefit of unfair share of the loot.

But the Looting Master wouldn't listen. Instead, he fumed: "You total loser! How dare you ask for more?"

The allies were terrified and dashed out of the door as if being chased by mad dogs. In the wildness outside, they had struck an idea of forming their own alliance so that they would not be slaughtered individually by the Looting Master.

So these allies formed their own alliance, which would be known as Hedgemoney for two reasons. First, they had jointly hedged a bet on money and power. Second, they wish to hide their intention to challenge the Looting Master, already well-known as Hegemony.

The Looting Master, or the Hegemony, got even angrier upon learning of the establishment of the Hedgemoney. "Total disaster!" he shouted.

But the leaders of the Hedgemoney were pretty cunning. They had clearly seen the division of the world into three castes, the Hegemony, the Hedgemoney and the Rest, and they went to lobby the leaders of the Rest: "You used to have a leader who recognized the world in three castes, but mistakenly thought that the Rest could stand on its own feet. He failed miserably because he, although having succeeded in uniting most of the Rest, did not make an effort to seek help from us, the Hedgemoney. The joint force of the Hegemony and the Hedgemoney is far greater than the Rest. However, the joint force of the Rest and the Hedgemoney might be greater than the Hegemony. If you follow us, we surely will not rob you as savagely as the Hegemony. We might even accept you into our membership."

The leaders of the Rest were all very glad to hear this proposal. After all, they had helped Hegemony and Hedgemoney to loot their own people for a long time, and were now fed up with the humiliating role of being both the looter and the looted. They wanted to be just the looter like those with membership in Hedgemoney.

The potential union between the Rest and the Hedgemoney had driven the Hegemony crazy, and it had come up with a smart strategy to break up the Rest+Hedgemoney alliance. It first approached the leader of its northern neighbor which Voltaire once dismissively described to be no more than a few acres of snow: "Listen, kiddo. I am going to spank you hard, and spank you so hard in front of all people to make you cry like a baby. However, if you condemn and alienate the leaders of the Rest, I will not only refrain from spanking you, but will kindly change your diaper."

The poor "kiddo" never realized that he was a leader in a vast land that is far more than just a few acres of snow, and he immediately caved in and hurled loads of curses upon the leaders of the Rest. As a reward, he did have his diaper changed so that he now looked smart.

Now this being done, the Hegemony went to tell the leaders of the Hedgemoney, "See the example of that kiddo? If you follow his example to condemn and alienate the leaders of the Rest, I will treat you the same way as I treated him", and he pulled out a few more diapers from his suitcase.

The cunning leaders of the Hedgemoney saw this as a valuable leverage, and they went to whisper into the ears of the leaders of the Rest: "The Hegemony is plotting against you. However, if you give us a very good deal......"

The leaders of the Rest were immensely touched by the timely information from the Hedgemoney, and promised to do their best. They also innocently spread out a large banner starting with the words "Our alliance with the Hedgemoney for the global economy......"

The Hegemony saw the banner, went across the Atlantic and angrily stared into the eyes of the leaders of the Hedgemoney: "You!" He shouted and was about to raise a finger from his small hand.

The leaders of the Hedgemoney were all trembling, and all said in unison, "Not me! It is the Rest that has tried in vain to seek alliance with me. I have steadfastly refused. Anyone who has ever thought of an alliance with the Rest is my enemy #1!" and they ran to and fro to evade the pointing finger of the Hegemony.

The Hegemony was pleased, and said, "I am going to punish the Rest for their attempt to divide us. I expect you to know where you stand." Each of the leaders of the Hedgemoney said "Yes" seven times, each time louder than the previous one.

So this brought us to the current geopolitics of the world.

Memory, feelings, and evolution

I wish to share an early experiment with my fellow evolutionary biologists. The key result of the experiment suggests that the length of an event staying in memory may be directly associated with the effect of the event on fitness.

The experiment was done many years ago on white-footed mouse (Peromyscus leucopus) when I was a graduate student at University of Western Ontario. It has never been published partly because I developed strong allergy to mice before the study is incomplete.

The story started when I was trapping white-footed mice with Longworth mouse traps and accidently caught a least weasel (Mustela nivalis), the most deadly enemy of wild mice. Out of curiosity I brought it back to our animal facility housing my mouse colonies on which I carried out genotyping and breeding experiment. The presence of a least weasel somewhere was almost immediately sensed by all the mice – they stopped regular eating and drinking.

For wild mice, there is no news worse than the arrival of a least weasel in their vicinity.

The news, while depressing for the mice, was found exciting by Dr. Martin Kavaliers who was at that time studying signal-transduction pathways of analgesics. Martin then did an experiment on my white-footed mice with a hot plate. The control mice, when being put on the hot plate, would lift and lick their feet constantly when the hot plate was turned on. In contrast, the mice exposed to the smell of the least weasel became so focused on the smell as to be oblivious of the burning heat under their feet – they did not lift or lick their feet as they should have when there is no weasel smell. Martin incidentally reported the least weasel as short-tailed weasel (Mustela ermine) which is bigger than the least weasel and would have a difficult time squeezing its way into a Longworth trap.

While Martin’s experimental mice were field-caught, the same phenomenon was also observed in lab-born white-footed mice that never had any real encounter with the least weasel, so that “memory” of the bad thing (i.e., the least weasel) may have been somehow encoded in DNA and re-enacted through proteins (which would be truly intriguing). In this way, the memory of the weasel becomes permanent and will not be eroded by the passing of time. (Of course there is also the possibility of new-born mice learning from others.)

I then did an experiment in my semi-natural enclosure which has been described in some of my early publications. The experiment also involved a hot plate, enclosed within a card box, and placed inside the semi-natural enclosure. In one part of the experiment (Memory-Of-Good-Thing-Expt), sunflower seeds and Purina rat chow were scattered on the hot plate, but the hot plate was never turned on. 

White-footed mice are crepuscular and active mostly during twilight hours. Similar to any other field mice, they are always cautious to new things added to their environment, and would investigate the box carefully before entering. After some initial exposure, however, the mice would recognize the box as a good source of food and would enter the box quickly to eat, and females would bring the rat chow back to their nest-boxes. If you take the box away for one day and put it back at the same location, the mice would still recognize the box and enter it readily without further investigation – their memory told them that it was a godsend. 

By the way, the white-footed mice have reasonably good memories and memorize the routes along which they dart from one hiding place to another. If you put a card box on such a route, they will typically dart head-on against the box, producing a loud sound breaking the silence of night, a consequence that the card box is not in their memory of the routes. Sometimes I wonder if they would run right into a predator if the predator knew their routes and just sit there with a wide-open mouth (They don’t, thanks to their smelling capabilities). Of course, there is also benefit of darting from one hiding place to another by using the map in the memory instead of by vision. These mice don’t see very well during twilight hours (Mice are not cats or owls). Relying on their vision might delay their escape from predators.

Leaving aside the many interesting biological aspects of the mice, let’s come to the other part of the experiment (Memory-Of-Bad-Thing-Expt), in which the setup is the same as Memory-Of-Good-Thing-Expt except that the hot plate did get turned on when mice were inside. These mice, experiencing the bad feeling of burning, avoided entering the box in spite of the inviting food inside. (A few things to keep in mind. Don't leave the hot plate exposed, otherwise mice will consider it unsafe and just take the food to a hidden corner to eat, so the experiment will not work. Also, females will always take the food on the plate back to their next boxes.)

The boxes were then taken away for three weeks, after which the mice were again exposed to their respective boxes. Those mice in the Memory-Of-Good-Thing-Expt seemed to have forgotten altogether the good food associated with the box. They resumed the cautious approach and restarted the investigation. In contrast, those mice in the Memory-Of-Bad-Thing-Expt appeared to instantly recognize the box as evil and avoided entering the box.

In short, memory of bad things lasts longer than memory of good things, at least in this particular case. From an evolutionary point of view, this is not difficult to understand. While the good thing may not enhance their fitness very much, the bad thing (the burning and the weasel) could do serious damage. I very much wish the conclusion generalized because it is important.

Mistakes are typically associated with bad feelings, but we learn from mistakes, with the consequence of a lot of bad feelings staying in our memory and lasting for a long time.

One corollary from the conclusion is that, when one gets old, if there is no constant reinforcement of good things and good feelings, then one could potentially be left with memory of bad things and bad feelings. This corollary was made particularly pertinent when a former colleague, a well-established Peromyscus researcher, Dr. Jerry O. Wolff, committed suicide, exactly seven years ago, on May 10, 2008. I met Jerry several times, mainly through conferences and through his visit to my former supervisor’s (Jack Millar) lab. We regarded Jerry as an excellent colleague and did not, and still do not understand why he would have chosen suicide to end his life. Had he lost good things and good feelings in his memory? Did bad things and bad feelings took an upper hand? While our knowledge of science and technology has progressed so much, our knowledge of hope and love has lagged so far behind.

We often see old people indulged in the so-called “good old days”, the kind of nostalgia that historians, psychologists and politicians all unanimously dismiss as mass delusion, i.e., a Garden of Eden that has never existed. Indeed, if we measure wealth, health, life span, degree of democracy and rationality in human behaviour, etc., we will find the present day beating all “good old days” by a wide margin. But do we have more human interactions to reinforce good things and good feelings in our memory if we get old today? Will our brain be gradually poisoned by the bad things and bad feelings?

The mouse experiment described above might also be relevant to parenting as well. Parents perhaps should be particularly cautious when dispensing punishment to their children, especially when parents sometimes do wish their children to remember the bad feeling of punishment for a long time. A child is likely to become troublesome and lost without constant reinforcement of good things and good feelings in his/her memory. A home should not be a transient Biblical Garden of Eden with a cruel one-strike law.

May we keep alive our fond memories of love and friendship until the end of our days!

(Written on May 10, 2015)

Science and Religion: II

Religious people often feel offended when they are told that God has no place in science. They should not if they know the fundamental difference between science and religion.

Suppose we have a financially stressed government official who suddenly became a billionaire. People with a certain degree of curiosity would want to know how he suddenly became so wealthy. One may suggest that the official might have a recent raise in salary, but such a salary raise typically can explain very little of the dramatic change in his wealth. 

Now suppose that the official, through one of his representatives, issued a statement that God had made him rich by dumping a billion dollar in his bank account. Of course, an almighty God has infinite explanatory power of everything. Making someone wealthy surely would not raise any difficulty to His almighty hands. However, a right-minded person probably would not believe in such a statement and would most likely demand a thorough investigation of the financial dealings of the official.

The simple truth is that, when we are dealing with earthly matters, we are satisfied only with earthly explanations. A holy explanation has no place in such earthly matters and will simply be rejected outright.

Now suppose we have another scenario in which a fully grown and sexually active young man came to us with the information that he was only one day old. Any modern scientist would reject the age information as false because the information is incompatible with our observation of the young man being fully grown and sexually active. Given the cell replication rate in human development, one day is simply not enough for a zygote to transform itself into a fully grown and sexually active young man. Modern science will simply deny the existence of any man who is only one day old yet is fully grown and sexually active, and will conclude that the man is much more than just one day old. Even deeply religious people would probably deny the existence of such a man if the Genesis story of Adam and Eve was not recalled in time.

Just as modern science would conclude that a fully grown and sexually active man is more than one day old, it would also conclude that the earth, which has recorded many time-consuming changes, must be much older than a few thousand years. An earth that is only a few thousand years old raises the same difficulty as a fully grown and sexually active young man who is only one day old. Just as most of us will reject the idea of the one-day-old young man, most scientists will also reject the idea of a young earth. A holy explanation has no place in the physical world and will consequently be rejected.

Yes, an almighty God can make a billionaire out of a pauper, or a fully grown and sexually active young man who is only one day old, or an earth (or even a universe) jumping out of nowhere a few thousand years ago, but scientists deal with only earthly matters where invocation of a holy explanation is simply forbidden. Based on earthly laws (which are often better known as natural laws) governing the earthly matters, we reject the possibility that a pauper can suddenly become a billionaire through God, that a fully grown and sexually active man can be only one day old, or that an earth (or a universe) that has experienced numerous time-consuming changes was formed only a few thousand years ago.

The most fundamental difference between religion and science is that God is allowed as an explanation in the former but absolutely not in the latter.

In fact, Jesus had made this point by his well-quoted statement: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's". Don't mix earthly matters with spiritual ones.

When scientists state that God has no place in science, they do not mean that scientists do not need love and are not caring. In fact, many of them are very loving and caring. By “God has no place in science” they only mean that God should never be invoked as an explanation for observed variation in things of nature. 

Scientists need public understanding and support in their practice of excluding God as an explanation for their observed changes in physical entities around us. Such a practice is sometimes quite challenging and difficult. For example, cancer remission has been observed in many cases, and many scientists have been wracking their brains day and night for an understanding of the remission so that they can better help those less lucky one. If we do allow God as an explanation, then the life of these scientists would be much simpler. Whenever they see a case of cancer remission, they will just give each other a knowing smile and say “He did it again”. But I doubt if any church or any religious group or any government would be willing to grant our scientists such an easy life. The world will indeed become quite a bit more hazardous if they do.

So don’t be offended if you are told that God has no place in science. If God does desire to be part of an explanation of the dynamic universe, He most likely will give us a clear sign. At the moment, I believe that His priority is with helping the victims of natural disasters and human atrocities, not with offering holy explanations of natural phenomena.

(Prompted by an article on the debate about including "creation science" in the science curriculum of public schools)

(Re-posted from my Google+)

Science and Religion: I

One thing particularly strange in this world is that one can achieve much and do a great deal of good even if his or her religious belief is entirely wrong.

An engineer can design great cars or trains or ships or airplanes, and his belief that the universe was created 6000 years ago or took shape 4 billion years ago has little to do with his accomplishment.

A physics professor can create photonic sensors to monitor minute changes in temperature in a minute particle, and her belief that the universe was created 6000 years ago or took shape 4 billion years ago has little to do with her accomplishment.

A surgeon can direct his lancet to a tumour with amazing precision, and his belief that the universe was created 6000 years ago or took shape 4 billion years ago has little to do with his accomplishment.

A farmer can plan all his crops and execute his plans beautifully, and his belief that the universe was created 6000 years ago or took shape 4 billion years ago has little to do with his accomplishment.

A real estate agent can sell 50 houses per year, and her belief that the universe was created 6000 years ago or took shape 4 billion years ago has little to do with her accomplishment.

If these people believe that the universe was created 6000 years ago, let them keep their beliefs, because their beliefs about the universe do not really matter in their career.

But there are people who will almost do everything wrong in their career if they believe that the universe was created 6000 years ago, and these include astrophysicists and evolutionary biologists. For these people, their beliefs about the universe matter a great deal. Indeed, nothing they observe in nature makes sense without believing that the universe is very old.

So what can we say about science and religion? The world is quite complex and we cannot be expert in everything, especially not in both the physical and the spiritual worlds. If you know something that works for you, or some theory that makes sense to you, then stick to it and you will be fine. However, it is important to keep an open mind when that something stops working for you or that theory no longer makes sense.

The world changes, so do religious views and scientific theories, but one thing probably will stay for a long time with little change, and that is the scientific method of validating our beliefs and establishing new theories about the physical world through observation, experimentation, and conceptualization.

(Re-posted from my Google+)

War and Peace

Canadian media today is full of claims that the Battle of Vimy Ridge was a defining moment for Canada, and that “For many historians, Canada truly came together as a nation in April 1917, when our troops sacrificed lives and limbs to win the Battle of Vimy Ridge in northern France.” [1]. It seems that "many historians" have apparently forgotten that the 1st Canadian Prime Minister started his duties in 1867. The poor ghosts of Sir John A. Macdonald and Alexander Mackenzie must feel deeply troubled upon learning that Canada had never been a nation under their watch.

At the same time, American media is full of claims that bombing Syria was a defining moment for Trump presidency, stating that Donald Trump became president of the United States only when he authorized airstrikes on Syria [2].

Will Canada never emerge as a nation without a bloody war? 

Will Trump never become an American President without flexing American military muscle?

Does a nation really have to gain her identify by wars?

Is raining missiles on another nation the only way for a president to gain recognition and legitimacy? Did Richard Nixon become a less president when he went to China to initiate a dialogue for peace?

Why does the western world, which often claimed to be civilized, have so many idiotic war-maniacs as news reporters and news anchors?

CBC Radio this morning (Apr. 9, 2017) was asking listeners what one can learn from these two wars, one in Vimy Ridge and one in Syria, separated in time by 100 years. I am not sure if Donald Trump ever tunes himself to CBC. If he did, he probably would say that the most important lesson is that one should never pick a fight against an enemy that is roughly equal in strength. Instead, one should find an enemy who is so weak as to be unable to return a punch. George W. Bush might add that, to avoid being perceived as a coward, one has to leak out some information to the idiots working in the media to initiate a propaganda campaign that the weak enemy is actually mighty strong.

Capitalists have learned from wars that they always get cheap labor whenever a prosperous society is bombed back to the Stone Age.

Media Moguls learned that people suddenly pay more attention to their news and their business profit jumps up every time a new war erupts.

Some retired generals learned that a new war is the only way for them to regain some limelight.

Bar owners learned that their customers are suddenly transformed into a group of agitated rednecks.

Ordinary people know that they will lose loved ones in wars, and their widows and poor children will then get brainwashed to prevent them from learning the most fundamental lesson, i.e., we should say no to warmongers, and that civilized societies should introduce legislature to allow citizens to refuse service in an aggressive war.

[1] http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/why-the-battle-of-vimy-ridge-was-a-defining-moment-for-canada-1.3345828
[2] https://www.commondreams.org/views/2017/04/08/essential-pundit-take-trump-became-president-bombing-syria