Dances with evolution


Pete Wilton | 24 Jul 12

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Could you jive Newton’s laws of motion? How about waltzing Einstein’s theory of special relativity?

Such questions might occur to you after watching a video [above] about the evolution of mating strategies dreamt up by Cedric Tan from Oxford University’s Department of Zoology that recently won the NESCent Evolution Video Contest.

I quizzed Cedric, whose earlier video won the Biology category of Science’s Dance your PhD 2011, about the science behind the video and what it takes to communicate scientific ideas through the medium of dance…

OxSciBlog: Why did you choose this topic for your film?
Cedric Tan: Male-male competition is a well-known phenomena in the animal kingdom and is an important component of sexual selection.

However, males can relax competition with other males by changing social group and this has only recently been recognised. So we thought that it would ideal to illustrate and emphasise it. After watching the video, you will probably be wondering why your attractive friends are hanging out with you.

Secondly, Dr Stuart Wigby, my co-supervisor, had already created this original piece of music and it was thus convenient to combine the two forms of art (music and dance) for this film.  

OSB: What examples of real animal mating strategies does it draw on?
This mating behaviour has been demonstrated in house finches. During the non-breeding season, less elaborate males changed social groups more frequently, compared to more elaborate males.

By the onset of pair formation at the beginning of the breeding season, males that change their social groups more often effectively increased their attractiveness relative to other males in the same group. Consequently, these males attained a greater pairing success than less social individuals with equivalent sexual ornamentation.  

OSB: What were the challenges in turning science into dance moves?
CT: One major challenge is the communication of science with as little talking and and as few words as possible. We often disseminate science via written journal articles and conference presentations yet dance is non-written and silent.

On the other hand, physical art forms like dance can sometimes be too abstract and open to various interpretation.

As such, one needs to find a balance between rigorous methods of science and the artistic nature of dance to ensure that the scientific message is direct, accurate and still portrayed with a tinge of artistic beauty.

OSB: What tips would you give anyone looking to dance about science?
CT: The most important tip would be to ensure that the message is very clear. Try to get friends (especially friends from other fields) and family for a preview and after they have viewed the dance, ask whether they have understood the scientific question.

Of course, injecting humour into your dance always helps because the audience will likely remember a funny film.

Last but not least, practice makes perfect. If you look confident and synchronised with one another, it adds professionalism to the dance and the viewers will enjoy the film more. 

Evolution dance 2

The video was funded by and filmed at Green Templeton College, Oxford.