Biosphere 2: Better than Fiction

biosphere2I have vague memories of learning about Biosphere 2–the huge, hermetically sealed bubble built in the middle of the Arizona desert–in school. I think there was some Scholastic-type newsletter about it, with a photo of all the Biospherians in their jumpsuits, and a rundown of all the ecosystems present in the big globe. Remember how much time kids in the 80s-early 90s spent learning about the rainforest? I’m pretty sure we must have learned about Biosphere 2 during the media blitz that accompanied the Biospherians’ entrance into their new home. And I’m sure what we read was totally optimistic, as coverage of current science for elementary school students usually is. But what happened after their big entrance? Were they really able to live totally sustainably for years in their big glass bubble? I had no idea.

Last week, when I came across a retro report on Biosphere 2 in the New York Times, it was like getting a forgotten part of my childhood back!  (For anybody who hasn’t seen it yet, the retro report series is awesome. And one of my favorite reporters, Michael Winerip, wrote this one up.) The retro report movie and the accompanying article were long on interest but short on detail.  Rumors of cults? Starvation? Oxygen shortages? A division among the Biospherians that erupted into physical violence? I wanted to know more! So I did some digging, and here is what I found.

The origins of Biosphere 2. Apparently the idea for Biosphere 2 was hatched on the Synergia Ranch, in New Mexico. The ranch was founded in 1969 by a guy named John Allen; it was an ecovillage/commune that counted some future Biospherians as members. The commune members, or Synergists, practiced organic farming, ate silently at mealtimes as they contemplated their food, and were part of an improv troupe called the Theater of All Possibilities. One Synergist, Texas oil billionaire Ed Bass, provided the funding for Biosphere 2 (~200 million from 1985–2007). Some people were discomfited when they learned about Mr. Allen’s vision, in which biospheres like this one would serve as refuges in an apocalyptic world laid to waste by nuclear war or some other disaster. So the PR people tended to focus on the neato science aspects of it. Ecology, rainforests and coral reefs, sustainability, etc. Originally, the biosphere was conceived of as a grand 100-year experiment. But it didn’t proceed exactly as planned.

Mission 1. The adventure began in September of 1991, when the 8 Biospherians (4 men and 4 women) sealed themselves in the bubble. The sphere, which covered an area the size of two and a half football fields, included a number of different ecosystems: a rainforest, an ocean with a coral reef, mangrove wetlands, a savannah grassland, a fog desert, an agricultural area, a human habitat, and a below-ground area that housed infrastructure. In all, 3,800 species of animals and plants were sealed inside, including hummingbirds, monkeys (!), and earthworms. Prior to the spherians’ entrance, two Native Americans in full dress and a Tibetan Buddhist monk participated in a sunrise prayer for their success.

The primary goal was to figure out whether the Biospherians could live totally sustainably for 2 years–with no food, air, or other supplies from the outside. Although the Biospherians were often called scientists in the media, only one, Roy Walford, was actually trained as a scientist. Walford was the crew’s physician, and his research interests focused on aging and diet. Apparently, inside the sphere, the residents soon broke into two factions: one group supported director John Allen and one questioned his methods. The anti group felt that the spherians should be formulating research hypotheses that would then be evaluated by the Science Advisory Committee. The pro-Allen faction, was against this idea. Apparently, despite the magnitude of this scientific endeavor, no regular scientific records were kept during the Mission! In February 1993, the 10-member scientific advisory team resigned. One of the remaining sources of scientific advice for the project was the mysterious Institute of Echotechnics. There were rumors that critics in the world of science were silenced by threats of lawsuits. However, a group of respected scientists wrote up a report on the project at the request of Ed Bass. Among other things, the report criticized the lack of a well-developed scientific plan, the project’s excessive secrecy, and possible “embellishments” of data. Walford later said, “Management thinks it knows more science than it does, but they don’t understand that in doing science you have to be asking a particular question, not just collecting a lot of random data. They have been [called] environmental zealots, and I think that’s true.”

930926_B2CrewAfterReentry_HM_UAThere were also allegations that the anti-Allen faction was punished with extra work and the withdrawal of privileges. Fights turned nasty–there was even spitting involved. It’s natural for a small group of people in trying circumstances to become short-tempered. But critics have pointed out that the way in which the spherians were chosen and prepared probably contributed to the level of dysfunction. Astronauts, for example, are carefully chosen for space missions. They must have stable psychological profiles, be very physically fit, and have extensive training in their fields. The Biospherians, by contrast, selected themselves. They were enthusiastic environmentalists and most of them were good friends, but they were not trained scientists (with the exception of Walford), they didn’t have any special training for their roles in the biosphere, they made decisions by consensus as questions came up rather than following a pre-established plan, and there was no real external scientific oversight. In other words, chaos may have been inevitable.

Fighting wasn’t the only thing that made life inside the sphere unpleasant. Oxygen levels dropped and carbon dioxide levels soared, making it very difficult to breathe. Later, researchers figured out that the concrete in the structure was absorbing oxygen, and the high organic matter in the soil also appears to have contributed to the oxygen/carbon dioxide problems. It got so bad that oxygen from outside had to be pumped in, and eventually a carbon dioxide scrubber was installed, which critics said voided the project’s raison d’etre (remember: nothing in or out, including air). In the end, all of the vertebrates except for the Biospherians and the pollinating insects died as a result of the wildly fluctuating carbon dioxide levels. Plus, the spherians had the bad luck of entering during an unusually cloudy time, which impaired the photosynthesis of the plants. Because the crops did not grow well, the Biospherians had very little to eat, and they lost weight — a lot of it. They had to resort to eating emergency food supplies, including seeds that were meant for planting. The coral reef dissolved into sludge. Cockroaches flourished, until they were eaten by an army of ants that seemed to appear out of nowhere. Although in the beginning there were domesticated animals, there wasn’t enough food to support them. The residents had to kill them. And one detail that especially interested the public and may have been difficult for the Biospherians to get used to: there was no toilet paper.

After the mission, a number of glaring mistakes were identified. When populating the various ecosystems with plants, species from all over the world were chosen and clumped together. Rather than resembling a natural ecosystem, in which different species have evolved to occupy different niches, brand new combinations of species were inadvertently being tried out. It did not work well, and  a few very successful species tended to crowd out the rest. The soil chosen was way too rich in organic matter, which contributed to the oxygen/carbon dioxide problems. And crops (like peanuts and soybeans) that depend on species-specific soil bacteria called rhizobia to grow didn’t get what they needed. These were all problems that agricultural specialists could have identified quickly. In fact, experts at the University of Arizona pointed out the problems with the rich organic soil, but they were ignored.

Eventually, the crew threw in the towel. The mission ended exactly two years after it started, in 1993. It’s pretty amazing they toughed it out for so long! I would have been banging on the air lock after a week.

Mission 2. The second mission lasted from March 1994–September 1994 and included 7 Biospherians. This time, having learned from the problems encountered during Mission 1, it was decided that spherians would rotate in and out in 180 day shifts and scientists and other personnel would be allowed to visit. By April of that year, some of the top managers of the project (including John Allen and Margaret Augustine) were replaced. Apparently Biosphere 2, which was originally conceived as a money-making venture, was requiring big infusions of cash and funder Ed Bass had had enough. A few days after Allen and Augustine were dismissed, two of the original Biospherians broke into the sphere, breaching the airlocks and deflating the system’s air pressurizer. They said their goal was to warn their comrades inside about the change in management. In the aftermath, a number of people connected to the Biosphere project accused John Allen of running a cult, including former Biosphere official Stephen Storm and the mother of Biospherian Abigail Alling. Among other things, they accused Allen of brainwashing and even physically abusing the Synergists who lived on his ranch.

Post-Biosphere Events. Eventually Ed Bass washed his hands of Biosphere 2.

First, Columbia University bought the facilities in 1995 and used them to conduct experiments. A lot of their work focused on manipulating carbon dioxide levels to simulate global warming.

Then, in 2oo7, the University of Arizona took over research at the sphere. It’s in their hands now. If you want to learn more about current research, you can visit their website. It seems like they are leveraging the unique blend of ecosystems to do some interesting ecology experiments.

I did a literature search to try and figure out what kind of scientific legacy this project left behind. It’s biggest contribution seems to have surrounded the hunger the biospherians were subjected to–a lot of great studies on calorie restriction came out of the work. As miserable as it must have been to be constantly hungry, the low-calorie, nutrient-rich diet that they ate contributed to pretty excellent health among the Biospherians. Their cholesterol, blood pressure, and glucose levels all fell. Perhaps Biosphere 2 should be rebranded as a health spa!

The early years of Biosphere 2 were a sort of fascinating debacle, but there may be many decades of research that lie ahead. Maybe it will end up lasting 100 years.

Want to go visit the Biosphere after reading all of this? You’re in luck. They give tours! And apparently they are pretty good–Trip Advisor reviewers gave them 4 out of 5 stars. Next time I’m in Arizona…

Margie Profet, Lost then Found

01aaa-margieprofetWhen I started my PhD program in Evolutionary Biology, I read all of Margie Profet’s articles. Basically, she looked at some of the things that make being female unpleasant (menstruating, morning sickness, etc.) and asked if they might have some adaptive function. She hypothesized that menstruating could be a female’s way of shedding sperm-borne pathogens and that morning sickness could be a warning system to keep pregnant women away from foods that might be dangerous to the babies they are carrying. If you have spent any time in evolutionary biology, you know that proposing adaptive features for medical issues/non-ideal biological states is like holding a lightning rod up in a storm. Other scientists will start quoting the Spandrels of San Marcos, and everyone will get excited about poking holes in your theories. Especially if they get a ton of media attention, as Profet’s ideas did, and you give dramatic advice that flouts convention (like telling women to avoid vegetables in early pregnancy). Picking apart hypotheses is just the nature of who we are and what we do. And often times, Panglossian theories about adaptive silver linings do turn out to be wrong. So it’s no surprise that Profet’s hypotheses were controversial or that fellow researchers began to refute some of her arguments with their own data.

Following these articles and the spirited responses they evoked was fun. It wasn’t until years later that I found out Profet was pretty fascinating in her own right. I hadn’t heard anything about her for a while, and I wondered what she was up to and started googling. First, I found out she was awarded a MacArthur genius grant for her work in evolutionary biology. That’s a pretty big achievement in and of itself. What’s even more amazing, though, is she published all these articles and won this award without an advanced degree in Biology. Instead, these ideas started incubating when she was working in Bruce Ame’s lab. I remember reading that post-MacArthur award, she had moved to the University of Washington and was studying math (after becoming frustrated with the reception she got in Evolutionary Biology was my guess). And after that it was like she fell off the map. I couldn’t find out anything about her current work.

Well it turns out she really did disappear. This summer I remembered the Margie Profet mystery and tried googling her again. And I came across an article by Mike Martin in Psychology Today: The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Genius. She had last been seen taking math courses at Harvard. The last electronic traces of Profet stopped in 2002, when she cut ties with her family. The last sightings of her were in 2004–2005. After that, radio silence. It was a disheartening article–the quotes from her friends and family were very sad. But maybe getting the story out into the world was important, because in May of 2012, Martin published an update on his website. After learning that her loved ones were seeking her, Profet reached out to her family and they reunited. It sounds like those missing years were very difficult ones for everyone involved.

I haven’t really kept up on the status of her major hypotheses, but Martin says that her ideas about allergies as a defense against cancer have gotten support from some recent studies by other investigators. I hope that now she is back, she’s gratified to hear about these new findings. More than that, of course, I hope she finds love, support, and comfort among the people who love her. Maybe all of her work in science seems like another lifetime. Welcome back, Margie Profet. You were missed.

Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes

imagesI started grad school around the same time that Darkness in El Dorado by Patrick Tierney came out. In this book, Tierney accused a famous anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, of doing some terrible things during his fieldwork among the Yanamamo, a group living in the Venezuelan Amazon. My graduate advisor was in the Anthropology department, and the scandal was a big deal in the field. It was impossible not to be fascinated by the whole thing. As a naive 22 year old, the wild accusations that Tierney made somehow seemed reasonable to me–even the ones of genocide. In grad school we all spent a lot of time thinking about the responsibilities of researchers to the people they study, and the accusations Tierney made against Chagnon seemed to fit into a long history of people from high-income places using and abusing people from low-income places. Frankly, I feel pretty guilty about giving this book the time of day.

Chagnon wasn’t the only one Tierney accused of doing terrible things to the Yanomamo in the name of science. James Neel was a famous geneticist with whom Chagnon worked, and Tierney leveled many of the same claims against him. In particular, Tierney accused Chagnon and Neel of setting loose a measles virus among the Yanomamo in order to document its effect in an immunologically naive population. It’s pretty instructive  to compare the way that the genetics community responded to the accusations against Neel and the way that anthropologists responded to the accusations against Chagnon. Both the American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG) launched investigations into Tierney’s claims. By January of 2002, the ASHG had published their findings, which amounted to a spirited defense of Neel. They stated “The ASHG inquiry finds these allegations to be gross mispresentations and basically false. This commentary represents the response of the ASHG to the various charges against a major, widely honored figure…” They also had choice words for anthropologists Terence Turner and Leslie Spondel, who had widely circulated Tierney’s claims as truth even before his book’s publication, as well as the media coverage that ensued: “These two individuals showed a lack of judgment in propagating these allegations without some effort to ascertain their truth. We deplore their lack of objectivity in accepting as fact statements that, on investigation, can be shown to be false, resulting in severe damage to the reputation of a leading and highly respected human geneticist who was unable to defend himself. We also condemn the actions of certain newspapers and magazines, particularly The New Yorker (usually known for meticulous fact checking), The Guardian, and The Guardian Weekly, that repeated these allegations, now shown to be false, and thus ensured their widest circulation.” By contrast, the AAA didn’t exonerate Chagnon until 2005– and only after they had aided in ruining the poor guy’s life. Alice Dreger, a historian, studied the AAA’s handling of the Darkness in El Dorado scandal and concluded: “While the [AAA’s] Peacock and the Task Force Reports contain some critiques of Tierney, both explicitly took Tierney’s book as the roadmap to follow for further inquiries. Both even essentially thanked Tierney on behalf of anthropologists. The Peacock Commission concluded this: “Patrick Tierney’s provocative book, Darkness in El Dorado, has contributed a valuable service to our discipline” (Peacock et al. 2001). The Task Force later concluded this: “Darkness in El Dorado has served anthropology well” (AAA 2002a:9). No other scholarly organization treated Tierney’s house of cards as constituting a valuable service to their discipline.”

It’s also interesting to delve a little into Tierney’s background. In order for such dramatic accusations to be taken so seriously, this guy must have serious reporting chops, right? An impressive history of investigative reporting? Nope. Prior to Darkness in El Dorado, he’d written a single book, The Highest Altar: Unveiling the Mystery of Human Sacrifice, which is now out of print. And Dreger reports that although Tierney provided copious notes in Darkness in El Dorado, “many of Tierney’s hundreds of citations lead nowhere. Others essentially say the opposite of what is claimed.” The fact that this book was taken seriously by a number of prominent anthropologists, reported on widely in the media, and even named a finalist for the National Book Award is pretty scary.

Now, in Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes, Chagnon finally gets the chance to tell his story. And not surprisingly, he is pretty pissed off. The book deals with both his work among the Yanamomo and his trials and tribulations at the hands of his colleagues in Anthropology. There have been a lot of high profile, well written reviews of Noble Savages by Charles Mann, Douglas William Hume, Rachel Newcomb, Greg Laden, and others. And if you missed the fabulous profile piece on Chagnon in the New York Times magazine by Emily Eakin, timed to coincide with the book’s release, check it out. I thought Noble Savages made for really interesting reading. Despite all the hoopla surrounding Darkness in El Dorado, I’d never really learned much about Chagnon’s findings, and this was a great introduction to his work.images-1

The controversy, of course, isn’t over. Marshall Sahlins recently resigned from the National Academy of Sciences in protest over Chagnon’s induction. And the response of many anthropologists to Noble Savages has been far from positive. I was surprised that some critics, like Elizabeth Povinelli, felt the way that he portrayed the Yanomamo was very negative, irresponsibly so. In her opinion, Chagnon  depicted a “hideous society” composed of “deceitful, stubborn and murderous people.”  I finished the book with a completely different assessment. I felt Chagnon’s portrayal of the Yanomamo was nuanced and pretty evenhanded. Some of the people he met in Venezuala were kind, and some were cruel, and that was true of both the Yanomamo and the non-Yanomamo with whom he interacted. Chagnon certainly didn’t sugarcoat things, but he was quick to point out all of the acts of kindness he witnessed. It seems as though some of his detractors in anthropology believe that vulnerable study subjects should only be portrayed in a flattering light. While I can understand that no one wants to write something negative about a group of people that might provide a reason for other groups to treat them badly, sacrificing honesty to avoid writing something that could be construed negatively doesn’t seem very respectful to the people with whom you’re working. No self-respecting reporter covering a story in the United States, for example, would decide to depict his or her subjects in a wholly positive light prior to even beginning their investigation. If we treat the people we study differently than we expect to be treated ourselves, it seems as though we are automatically turning them into “others.” Whether anthropologists are studying workers at the World Bank or people living in some remote region of the Amazon, their research involves the study of other human beings. And humans deserve to be treated as individuals. Portraying whole groups of people as uniformly “good” or uniformly “bad” plays into stereotypes–which isn’t helpful to anyone involved and certainly isn’t scientific.

I guess if anything positive has come out of this decade-long saga, it is that it has thrown into relief some of the schisms inside Anthropology. Perhaps bringing these different approaches to ethnography into the light will lead to some fruitful debates. I haven’t seen much evidence of that so far, though. Chagnon’s book has also led to some interesting considerations of his actual work. After gathering data for decades, he has drawn some fascinating and controversial conclusions about the motivation for violence in human societies, and engaging with his hypotheses in a scientific way is important. I can’t imagine this mess has improved anyone’s perception of Anthropology, though, and I doubt many anthropologists feel they can count on support from the AAA if they find themselves unfairly accused of something. And that’s a shame.

Retraction Ruckus at Rutgers

51xmqlhnzxL._SY380_If you have ever studied evolutionary biology, you probably know who Robert Trivers is. His groundbreaking articles on reciprocal altruism, the evolution of sex ratios, and parent-offspring conflicts are staples in every Evolutionary Biology course. They make great reading, and his theories pop up all the time in all sorts of disciplines. I’m sure his work has inspired many budding scientists.

Currently, Trivers is a professor at Rutgers. In 2005, he co-authored an article on body symmetry and dance that made the cover of Nature. A couple years later, he and his colleagues started to suspect that the first author on the paper may have fabricated data. In 2008, they contacted Nature about their suspicions and tried to retract the article. According to Trivers, because at least one co-author anonymously disagreed with the decision to publish a retraction, Nature didn’t publish one, although this month they did publish a great piece by Eugenie Samuel Reich about the saga in which Trivers has become embroiled. Frustrated that he couldn’t get the word out about the faked data, in 2009 he and two other scientists self-published a short book called The Anatomy of a Fraud, detailing evidence that the data in the paper had been forged. After the book came out, Rutgers was forced to investigate the matter, and in 2012 they issued their conclusions. In the Research Advisory Board’s report, which Trivers posted on his website, they agreed that it was pretty clear that the first author of the paper had manipulated the data in order to make a good story. The fall out from this episode has been major. A glance at his website shows how aggrieved Trivers is about the failure of so many institutions (Nature, Rutgers) to take the accusations of fraud seriously. And in 2012, Trivers was banned from campus for months after an unpleasant exchange with a collaborator who is also on faculty at Rutgers.

While there has been a lot of chatter about the aftermath of these accusations (he said, she said type-stuff about the way the co-authors have interacted with one another), it seems like the real issue at stake is how hard it is to blow the whistle on scientific fraud. No one looks forward to admitting that they co-authored a doctored study–especially when that study appeared in a high profile journal like Nature. It takes integrity to investigate whether fraud was committed in your own lab and, after finding it was, to promptly try to retract the affected work. Since scientific progress is cumulative,  with current studies building on past findings, this kind of self-policing is exactly the type of behavior all of us want to encourage. Trivers and colleagues published their book outlining the problems with the symmetry and dance study in 2009, but that didn’t stop the citations. According to Google Scholar, the article has been cited 128 times, many of the citations occurring as late as 2013. It’s well-known that articles continue to be cited even after they are retracted, but certainly a retraction in Nature would have helped in this example–the odds that someone doing a literature search would link this article to a little known, self-published book are extremely low. While the problem of retractions (their growing frequency, their inability to effectively remove false findings from the literature once the original articles have been published) is attracting increasing attention, especially with help from blogs like Retraction Watch, retracting a fatally flawed article is certainly better than not retracting it. Unfortunately, retractions are an unpleasant business for all of the important players involved: the journal, the academic institution, and the co-authors. If a very prominent scientist has this much trouble trying to reveal a case of academic fraud in his own research group, what hope is there for everyone else? Hopefully all of the attention this case has received will put the pressure on Nature to rectify this situation, but I’m afraid events like this may dissuade junior scientists from coming forward with unpleasant but important information.