Young people today… Help them appreciate the Marx Brothers

by Matthew Cobb

I have just finished teaching to the second year Animal Diversity course here at the University of Manchester – I cover the invertebrates. I closed with 10 minutes on my favourite flies, some of which we have featured here with stupendous photos by Stephen Marshall. One of them is the Groucho fly (aka the hedgehog fly):


A Hedgehog fly, aka Adejeania – a Peruvian caterpillar parasitoid. Also known as the “Groucho fly”. The “cigar” is a pair of enlarged palps, probably used to detect prey. (c) Stephen Marshall

I realised that I would have to explain *why* it’s called the Groucho fly, as most of the students would never have heard of Groucho Marx. This turned out to be true – fewer than 10% of them knew the moustachioed one. So as part of their general education, I will put an extract of one of the Marx brothers films onto the internal website associated with the course.

But which one? I’ve come up with four brief extracts, from Horse Feathers, Duck Soup (x 2) and A Night at the Opera. Readers – please pitch in with your favourite scene, one that would inspire a 21 year old to go and delve about in the land of black and white…

EDIT: It has just occurred to me that some of our readers – in particular the younger ones, or those from non-Anglophone countries – may not have a very clear idea about Groucho’s talents, either. (My colleague Reinmar Hager, who is German, had never seen a Marx Brothers film.) If this applies to you, please chip in below and let us know if you thought the clips were funny…

Tarnovo: sights, noms, cats, and other splendors

We left Tarnovo two days ago, but I’ve yet to catch up on reporting my travels (these posts take a bit of time, you know).  But here are some holiday snaps in Tarnovo and surrounding areas.

Our first order of business once we parked the car (some distance from our pension) was to have lunch. While we were waiting, Lubo snapped a selfie of himself, me, and Vassy. This was with a camera, not a cellphone, so Lubo’s clearly experienced with selfies! You can see that Tarnovo, about 2.5 hours from Sofia by car (the country isn’t large), is built on hills:


Now for the menu, the traditional shropska salad to begin (tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers covered with grated local cheese). The quality of the vegetables is very high in this country: the cucumbers are solid, crunchy, and tasty, and the tomatoes very ripe:

Shropska Salad

And what they call “meatballs,” though they’re usually flat rather than spherical. These, made of pork and veal, were grilled and served with fries covered with cheese:

Meatballs with fries

The castle “Tsarvets” in the distance, the capital of Bulgaria from the late 12th to the late 14th century, was finally successfully besieged by the Ottomans.  The fortifications, ideally situated on a hill over a river, had a drawbridge and extensive walls along the cliffs:


Castle 2

The old town below the castle: a very colorful and peaceful place. I suppose it gets touristy in summer, but in October, when the weather was beautiful (tee shirts sufficed), it was wonderful:.


The castle is bedecked with signs like these, which vastly amused Vassy, who said, “What the hell? You’re not allowed to do tai chi on the walls?”

Danger 1

So of course I made them enact two of the dangerous actions:

Danger 2

The world’s most scenic outhouse on the slopes above the river. What a lovely place to excrete!


Below the castle and across the river is a small and colorful part of town where Lubo used to live as a child. The houses are splendid:

Old Town Houses

and are amply decorated with greenery. Many, such as the owners of this place, grow grapes on the windows, and you can see the ripe bunches hanging below:

Old town houses decorations

According to the sign above the number “26,”, this is an “exemplary home,” although you couldn’t tell it from the outside:

Old town exemplary home

We headed up the hills above the castle, where the dictator of Bulgaria under the Communists had his summer residence. It’s a large and sumptuous place with a fantastic view, and a helicopter pad. (It’s now a fancy hotel.)

The view from the palace: ranges of mountains separate Tarnovo from Sofia, which itself lies in a valley. You can spot the castle to the left of center and down a bit.

Castle from dictator's house

Lunchtime! We repaired to a restaurant, picked at random from those in Dictator Town (I can’t remember its name). The quality of the food we had shows that the average standard for a restaurant meal in Bulgaria is very high.

First, soups: yogurt-and-cucumber soup (with ground nuts) for Vassy and tripe soup for Lubo. He loves the stuff, but I couldn’t stand to take even a single bite:

Second lunch soup 1

Second lunch soup 2

Two kinds of flatbread: garlic bread and cheese-covered bread (you may have guessed by now that many dishes in Bulgaria are sprinkled with the shredded national cheese: there are but two national cheeses, white and orange);

Second lunch garlic bread

Second lunch cheese bread

Main dishes included a sausage and pepper casserole with a dollop of yogurt (it’s put on nearly everything in Bulgaria),

second lunch casserole

A delicious dish of yogurt mixed with fried eggs and other stuff,

Second lunch yogurg and eggs

And what is called “mishmosh,” a Bulgarian scrambled egg dish that is infinitely better than regular scrambled eggs:

Second lunch mishmash

Several local street cats besieged us during the meal, and of course I was a soft touch and fed them a lot (they are always hungry). There were so many that someone at the next table took our picture:

Second lunch cats

Two of the local felids: a lovely tabby and what must be related to a Turkish Van cat, a white-haired guy with one blue eye and one green (‘odd-eyed’). He’d obviously been scrapping:

econd lunch cats tabby

Second lunchs cats van cat

Time for walkies. We strolled through the shopping streets, where things are sold to tourists and others. Here, for instance, are a few Bulgarian specialties: old-timey shoes, the local pottery, and handmade silver filigree jewelry:

zz shoes

xxBulgarian pottery

xx bulgarian filigree

A custom in Bulgaria is to paste someone’s memorial notice on the door of the house where they lived. The pastings go up at regular and specified intervals post mortem, so a door can have half a dozen notices about a single person. Here’s a typical example, though I can’t read it.

xxDeath noticz

Coffee time, where Bulgaria, Turkey, and Greece converge. This quaint place had Greek (or Turkish or Bulgarian) coffee, boiled in brikis, the small copper vessels I’m used to from Greece. The coffee is boiled over very hot sand, and you specify how sweet you want it:


It’s served, as is traditional in Greece, with a spoonful of rose-petal jam immersed in a glass of cold water. You’re supposed to eat the jam and drink the water with your coffee.. We also had a local meringue and a fudge-like substance:

Coffee sweeets

Other things we saw while wandering the town included a bunch of street cats. Look at this little cutie!


And a black kitten I got to hold. Most of the street cats are skittish and won’t allow themselves to be petted, but a few, like this one, like to get fusses, and this one even purred. (I need a damn cat!):

Street kitten

A bunch of pastries for sale, including the ubiquitous and tasty banitsa (layers of filo dough filled with Bulgarian white cheese). One of these and a bottle of boza, a thick, sweetened grayish-brown drink made from wheat, will pretty much fill you up for hours.  The banitsas are at lower left, and one of them fills the pan from left to right. They’re huge!


We passed an old Eastern-European made car (I can’t remember where it was from, but I’m sure some readers will know the model). Vassy and Lubo got excited by these, as they apparently predominated in Bulgaria in their youth, but are now rare and have been replaced by Western cars (Lubo has an Audi with automatic transmission). I posed next to it; Vassy told me that they were made of cardboard but I’m pretty sure she was joking:


And a solipsistic end to this post: a selfie through a window, avec chat:

Selfie JAC



A creationist claims that Denmark is in moral chaos because it lacks “wholesome religion” to stave off “toxic religion” (aka Islam)

Ten days ago, the Intelligent Design promoter V. J. Torley wrote an essay at the ID site Uncommon Descent claiming that all was not well in Denmark. His piece, “Is something rotten in the state of Denmark?,” was written to refute my own claim that, despite being a largely atheistic and almost totally secular country, Denmark (Torley forgot that I always add Sweden here), is a highly moral, well-functioning society, proving that you don’t need God to be good.

My conclusions were based largely the work of sociologist Phil Zuckerman (see here, here, and here, for example), who surveyed Sweden and Denmark for their religiosity, and other work by people like Greg Paul showing that Sweden and Denmark are, using a basket of sociological indices, highly successful societies.  This is a general conclusion of other workers as well; in fact, among first-world countries (and I suspect across the world as well), the degree of religiosity of a nation is negatively associated with its well being: the more religious the country, the less “successful” it is as a society.  My own explanation is that religiosity arises from poor social conditions, as when the state won’t give you medical care or take care of you when you’re old.

But let’s leave my speculations aside. One response of the religious when faced with these facts is to claim that countries like Denmark and Sweden are showing residual religiosity—a societal well being derived from their historically Christian past, which gave rise to present-day morality, even among atheists.. That’s all well and good, but fails to explain the correlation mentioned above—for, if anything, residual religiosity should erod with time, and so one would not expect the least religious countries to still be the ones that are better off.

The other response, that of  V. J. Torley, is to assert that countries like Denmark and Sweden aren’t that well off after all.  His entire post can be summed up by his quote:

Perhaps Coyne might be interested to read an eye-opening article by Carol Brown over at American Thinkeron what is happening in Denmark. Ms. Brown paints a terrifying portrait of a society which is falling apart under the influence of religiously motivated violence. Crime in Denmark has exploded, and street gangs “have taken over large parts of Danish towns and cities”. There are numerous “no go” zones where even the police are afraid to venture. Is this Coyne’s idea of a successful secular society?

Some morals to be drawn from Brown’s article:

1. Not all forms of religion are good; some are toxic.

2. Nature abhors a vacuum. Secularism is powerless to drive out toxic forms of religion.

3. The only proven way to drive out toxic forms of religion, and keep them out, is with wholesome forms of religion.

You can guess what’s going on here. Brown’s piece describes a rise in crime in Denmark due to an incursion of Muslim immigrants, causing violence, the rise of thuggish Muslim street gangs and, Brown claims, a complete dissolution of Danish society.  If ever a piece was Islamophobic, and I hate using that term, it’s Brown’s (and by default, Torley’s). Just read Brown’s piece to see the kind of scare-mongering it paints, and the general bias against Muslims. The implication is that Muslims can never be peacefully integrated into Western society, and so must either be expelled or prohibited from immigrating.

And really, are Christianity and Catholicism the things we need to stave off Islam? Are they more “wholesome” than secular societies? And how does it work, exactly? How does “wholesome” religion stave off “toxic” religion? Does the pervasiveness of, say, Catholicism, make Muslims less violent? And why is atheism impotent to do this?

All that Torley’s article proves is that Islam appears to create more problems in a single European country than do other faiths. It does not demonstrate that countries with no faith are “less wholesome” than religious ones. In fact, the higher well0-being of countries like Denmark and Sweden (and most of northern Europe, which is also largely atheistic) before Muslim immigration refutes Torley’s implication that “wholesome” religion is good for a country.

In the present state of the world, Islam is, I agree, a more toxic faith than many others, perhaps the most toxic faith. But that doesn’t mean that its excesses can be defanged by some kind of bigoted prohibition of Muslim immigration or, God forbid, the forcible conversion of Muslims into Christians (would Torley like some kind of reverse ISIS?). The solution is simply to enforce civil law and Enlightenment values, and to insist that Muslims cannot practice dysfunctional social behaviors in a Western society. It’s worked in the U.S., after all. Sadly, rather than trying to integrate Muslims into their culture, Denmark may be capitulating to their religious demands, scared that what happened with the publication of the anti-Muslim Danish cartoons will happen again. This, I suspect—and not atheism—is what’s behind the rise in violent crime in Denmark.

But the notion that atheistic states are falling apart is bogus. Statistics show that while violent crimes have indeed risen in the last 7 years in Denmark, the total crime rate has stayed about the same there. (Violent crimes, by the way have also risen in one other place: Luxembourg, a state far more religious than Denmark!) And in Sweden, another place where atheism should be unable to stave off Islamic violence, both violent and nonviolent crimes have stayed pretty level. In fact, throughout Europe, crime rates are either staying level or falling.

Biochemist Larry Moran mentioned Torley’s claims four days ago on his website Sandwalkand a number of commenters (and Moran himself) testified to the moral health of Denmark.  Now these are impressions, but the only evidence for the moral disintegration of Denmark is the unique rise in violent crime in that nation compared to other European states.  Yet if atheism simply fails to stave off Islamic violence, violent crime should be rising all over the nonbelieving states of northern Europe: in places like Sweden, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and France (which has a higher proportion of atheists than Denmark). All of these places have experienced an increase in their Muslim population, but crime isn’t rising.

Torley is wrong. If the increase in violent crime in Denmark reflects Muslim immigration, I doubt that means that only wholesome religion can prevent that crime. I ssupect instead that the Danes are simply less insistent on the integration of Muslims into their society. Unfortunately, I can’t speak to (or support) that hypothesis. All I know is that Torley is basing his promotion of “wholesome” religions (presumably Christianity) on a single statistic, a statistic that fails to support his thesis when you look to other atheistic countries beyond Denmark.

So here’s my prediction: if Greg Paul redid his 2008 survey showing that the less religious countries in Europe were better off (using his 25 indices of societal health), he would get the same results today.

Three amazing photos by Melvyn Yeo

by Matthew Cobb

We’ve featured the arthropod macro photos of Singapore-based photographer Melvyn Yeo before. You can browse his amazing DeviantArt page. Here are two doozies I just stumbled across. The first is of a mantidfly. These are weird neuropterans that look like a cross between a mantis and a fly (they aren’t). This one has an amazing ‘neck’ and doubles up with some Batesian mimicry – it looks like a wasp. It’s only about 1 cm long…

The second is just a boring grasshopper. But what camouflage!

The third is a tiny (= 0.5 cm) Amblypigid or ‘whip scorpion’ (NOT a scorpion OR a spider, though related to both). In all Amblypigids the first pair of legs has been transformed into sensors – but these are utterly bizarre.

Click to see them in all their glory!


Readers’ wildlife photos

We have four photos today provided by three readers.

The first is a black-billed magpie (Pica hudsonia) from reader Stephen Barnard in Idaho, which came with this note:

These birds are common, but intelligent and of a suspicious nature on the farm. I find them hard to photograph. In town they’re bold, even harassing my B*rder C*llie.


Reader Jay Lonner sends two photos he took while diving:

Attached please find photos of a Hawksbill sea turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) and a Caribbean reef shark (Carcharhinus perezi) that I took on a recent trip to the Turks and Caicos Islands. These images were taken off the small island of French Key. Hawksbill turtles are critically endangered, and as an avid diver this is only the second one that I have seen in the wild.

Hawkisbill TCI 102014

The Caribbean reef shark is locally common, but I like the lighting on this shot. Also note the structure distal to the pelvic fin, which I suspect is a remora but could be a clasper.

Shark TCI 102014

From reader jsp, a red fox (Vulpes vulpes) taken on October 23 near Winfield, Missouri. Why did the fox cross the road?


Friday: Hili dialogue

I’ve returned to Sofia from Plovdiv, a lovely city. I have another day and a half here before I fly out on Sunday (at 6:40 a.m. with an 8-hour layover in Munich). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is looking in vain for the Door to Sunshine:

A: What are you thinking about?
Hili: Whether to take an umbrella.

In Polish:
Ja: Nad czym się zastanawiasz?
Hili: Czy brać parasol.





Anthony Hutcherson, a lovely guy who breeds Bengal cats and “toygers” in Maryland, and who was on Team Cat for the Great New Yorker Cats v. Dogs Debate, has renewed his offer of a gratis Bengal cat for me, and enclosed the above photo as a temptation.  He added:

Whenever you are ready for Bengal Cat or kitten let me know. The offer is indefinite with no expiration date – just like the beauty of a cat.

And, this:

. . . This little guy is going to be stunning.  He’ll be ready to go in a few weeks hint, hint

OMG.  It’s adorable. And it has a determined, self-confident look on its little face. Now I’ve got Bengals on the brain.

Ariel Levy’s New Yorker profile of Anthony and some other breeders (Ariel was also on Team Cat) is called “Living-Room Leopards” and can be read free at the link.


Felid photo takes top prize at Natural History Museum’s wildlife photography contest

This is the 50th anniversary of the London Natural History Museum’s “Wildlife Photographer of the Year” contest. Many venues have shown some of the winning images (drawn from 42,000 submissions coming from 96 countries), but the captions and explanations of the photos are best seen at the Torygraph.  The winner for Wildlife Photographer of the Year was Michael Nichols, and, surprisingly, his winning photo was in black and white (I’d like to see it in color as well). It’s below, along with all the Torygraph’s captions (indented). Unsurprisingly, Nichols’s photo features felids.

First, though, the BBC News site describes the photo:

Michael “Nick” Nichols tracked the pride of big cats for six months before capturing this stunning shot, which stretches all the way to the horizon and includes a dramatic African sky.

. . . Judge Magdalena Herrera is director of photography at GEO France, as well as being a veteran of National Geographic France.

She said American Nichols’ composition had all the elements of a perfect picture.

“It tells you about behaviour, about the photographic techniques today, and it shows you the relationship of the animal to its environment,” she told BBC News.

“What is striking about Nick’s picture is its narrative – it’s not just a portrait; there’s a whole story going on inside it. And the black and white gives it a feeling of reportage.”

This story is of the females of the Vumbi pride in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.

They are sleeping with their cubs in the late-afternoon sunshine, having just fought and driven off a couple of over inquisitive males. [JAC: remember that new males who invade a pride often kill the resident cubs so they can replace them with their own kin.]

Nichols caught the scene, which he calls The Last Great Picture, from on top of his vehicle.

He said the infrared transformed the light, turning “the moment into something primal, biblical almost”.

Three of the females were killed a few months later when the pride ventured on to land beyond the park.

And, without further ado, a selection of my favorites and the complete captions from the Torygraph (there are more at photos at its site; I’ve chosen just a few):

The winners in the 50th Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition have been announced, with this photograph of lazing lions beating more than 42,000 entries from 96 countries to the top award.

American photographer Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols was named Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2014 by a panel of international judges for his serene black-and-white image of lions resting with their cubs in Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.

Nichols followed the pride for nearly six months and they became used to his presence. This shot was taken in infra-red, which he explains, ‘transforms the light and turns the moment into something primal, biblical almost’.

The last great picture

Winner ‘Black and White’ and overall ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’


Hearing that masses of common frogs were gathering in a flooded gravel pit near his home in Västerbotten, Sweden, Anton Lilja set out to photograph the mating spectacle. Lying down on the bank at eye level with the water, he became fascinated by the light bouncing off the spawn and the water, which by now was vibrating with the activity of the frogs.

Experimenting with his flash, he achieved the effect he wanted just as a pair of frogs in amplexus popped up right in front of the camera, the male revealing his throat to be flushed with blue. They stayed posed amid the glossy wobbliness, allowing Anton time to compose his shot.

The long embrace

Winner ’15 to 17 Years’


Cheese and sausage are what Siberian jays like – so Edwin Sahlin discovered on a skiing holiday with his family in northern Sweden. Whenever they stopped for lunch, he would photograph the birds that gathered in hope of scraps.

On this occasion, while his family ate their sandwiches, Edwin dug a pit in the snow deep enough to climb into. He scattered titbits of food around the edge and then waited. To his delight, the jays flew right over him, allowing him to photograph them from below and capture the full rusty colours of their undersides more clearly than he had dared hope.


Finalist ’15 to 17 Years’


Planktonic animals are usually photographed under controlled situations, after they’ve been caught, but Fabien Michenet is fascinated by the beauty of their living forms.

Night-diving in deep water off the coast of Tahiti, he became fascinated by this juvenile sharpear enope squid. Just 3cm long, it was floating motionless about 20 metres below the surface.

Its transparent body was covered with polka dots of pigment-filled cells, and below its eyes were bioluminescent organs. Knowing it would be sensitive to light and movement, Fabien gradually manoeuvred in front of it, trying to hang as motionless as his subject. Using as little light as possible to get the autofocus working, he finally triggered the strobes and took the squid’s portrait before it disappeared into the deep.

Little squid

Finalist ‘Underwater Species’


A focus of Jan van der Greef‘s trip to Ecuador was the astonishing sword-billed hummingbird – the only bird with a bill longer than its body (excluding its tail). Its 11cm bill is designed to reach nectar at the base of equally long tube-shaped flowers, but Jan discovered that it can have another use.

One particular bird had a regular circuit through the forest, mapped out by its favourite red angel trumpet flowers and bird-feeders near Jan’s lodge. To get to the bird-feeders, it had to cross the territory of a fiercely territorial collared inca. Rather than being scared off, once or twice a day ‘it used its bill to make a statement’. To capture one of these stand-offs, Jan set up multiple flashes to freeze the hummingbirds’ wing-beats – more than 60 a second – and finally captured the precise colourful moment.


Finalist ‘Birds’

Picture: Jan van der Greef


I saw a stuffed specimen of the sword-bill when I visited the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia a few years ago. It was amazing—the bill really is longer than the whole bird!

Here are two more from the BBC’s site:

Chile’s Francisco Negroni won the Earth’s Environments prize for capturing the lightning show around an eruption of the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcano complex.


Alex Badyaev from the US [an evolutionary ecologist] took the Mammals category for this shot of a deer mouse standing on a mushroom in western Montana :


h/t: pyers~

Yes, Neanderthals are us!

by Greg Mayer

In a paper published today in Nature, Qiaomei Fu and colleagues report a high quality genome sequence derived from a 45,000 year old, anatomically modern human femur found in western Siberia. “Ust’-Ishim Man” has provided the oldest known genome of an anatomically modern human (there are earlier genomes of archaic humans).

Usht'-Ishim Man's femur (from Nature).

Ust’-Ishim Man’s femur (from Nature).

So, why is this interesting? First, it is a marvelous technical achievement to be able to get a high quality sequence out of a bone of such great age recovered from a riverbank. Kudos to Fu and her colleagues for this achievement. Second, Ust’-Ishim Man proves to be very interesting phylogenetically. While definitely non-African in his genetic affinities, he appears to be equidistant from both modern Europeans and modern East Asians. Fu et al. interpret him as being at or near the point in time when the split occurred between these two branches of humanity, making him part of the lineage of modern humans that had left Africa, but had not yet split into European and East Asian sub-lineages.  Third, by being able to identify the genetic differences between Ust’-Ishim and modern man, they were able to estimate the mutation rate in both the nuclear and mitochondrial genomes. The autosomal mutation rate was about .5X10E-9 per site per year, the Y chromosome mutation rate was higher, about .75X10E-9 per site per year, and the mitochondrial rate much higher, about 2.5X10E-8 per site per year. These rates and their mutual relations are about exactly what we would expect, but it’s nice to have fairly direct estimates, over a long time base, to confirm estimates based on short term de novo mutation studies and comparison of contemporaneous sequences.

And, finally, there’s what we learn about the interbreeding between anatomically modern humans and Neanderthals. As Jerry, John Hawks, and I have all argued before (and as I recently summarized at The Dish–  see the update at end of Andrew’s post), Neanderthals and early non-African anatomically modern humans (along with Denisovans), were all parts of a group of interbreeding populations in nature, and thus were all members of the species Homo sapiens. Ust’-Ishim Man’s genome is about 2% Neanderthal, just like modern Europeans and East Asians. This means that the level of admixture characterizing modern populations was already in place by 45,000 years ago. This is not too surprising. Neanderthals were going or gone by about then, so whatever interbreeding occurred should have (mostly) occurred by then. So Neanderthals are us.

Figure 5: Regions of Neanderthal ancestry on chromosome 12 in the Ust’-Ishim individual and fifteen present-day non-Africans. The analysis is based on SNPs where African genomes carry the ancestral allele and the Neanderthal genome carries the derived allele. Homozygous ancestral alleles are black, heterozygous derived alleles yellow, and homozygous derived alleles blue. (From Fu et al. 2014).

Figure 5: Regions of Neanderthal ancestry on chromosome 12 in the Ust’-Ishim individual and fifteen present-day non-Africans. The analysis is based on SNPs where African genomes carry the ancestral allele and the Neanderthal genome carries the derived allele. Homozygous ancestral alleles are black, heterozygous derived alleles yellow, and homozygous derived alleles blue. (From Fu et al. 2014).

But that’s not all. Modern humans are separated by some tens of thousands of years, and thousands of generations, from the time our forebears interbred with one another. During this time, recombination between the chromosomes of our anatomically modern and Neanderthal ancestors will have broken up the originally contiguous chromosome segments, dispersing the two sets among one another. Since the great majority of our genome is from anatomically modern ancestors, this will most easily be seen in our Neanderthal genetic component, which will become scattered throughout the anatomically modern part. This is exactly what is seen in the 15 modern non-African genomes in the figure above– the yellow and blue Neanderthal segments are scattered throughout the black anatomically modern background.

But when interbreeding first occurs, the two genomes will be separate. The first “hybrid” child will have one set of Neanderthal chromosomes, and one set of anatomically modern chromosomes. When that child produces gametes, its chromosomes will undergo crossing over– an exchange of chromosome segments– during meiosis, so that its children will receive a chromosomal gemisch: each chromosome will consist of alternating stretches of Neanderthal and anatomically modern parts. In subsequent generations, crossing over occurs again, so the contiguous segments from the founding generation keep getting broken up into smaller and smaller bits. So, if we catch the genome fairly soon after the genetic admixture has occurred, we should see that the chromosome segments occur in larger, contiguous blocks– and that’s exactly what Fu and colleagues found!

Look at the top row in the figure above. That’s Ust’-Ishim Man– note that his Neanderthal DNA occurs in larger blocks, indicating that it has not yet been fully broken up by crossing over. His genome represents an earlier stage in the genetic admixture of Neanderthals and anatomically modern humans. The actual interbreeding has already occurred– he’s 2% Neanderthal– but his Neanderthal DNA still largely occurs in unrecombined blocks. Based on this, Fu and colleagues have been able to calculate about how long before Ust’-Ishim Man the interbreeding occurred, and come up with a figure of about 300 generations, or about 10,000 years before Ust’-Ishim Man. So, the interbreeding occurred on the order of 50-60,000 years ago.

You might also wonder why our genomes are mostly from anatomically modern humans. If they and Neanderthals interbred, shouldn’t it be 50-50? Well, no– it would be 50-50 only if there were an equal number of ancestors from the two groups, but that’s not necessarily the case (in fact, we know it’s not the case in this instance). Most of the “hybrids” must have backcrossed (i.e. had children) with anatomically modern humans. There are many instance in history of two modern human groups meeting and interbreeding, but with a rather unqequal genetic contribution to the descendant populations. In the case of Neanderthals, the ratio was about 1 to 49. It’s easy to imagine how this might happen– a lone Neanderthal being adopted into a modern group, with its descendants therefore breeding mostly with the numerically predominant moderns. Many other scenarios could be posited, but they would be mostly speculative.

Whenever I see interesting results in human evolution, I always check to see what John Hawks has to say, but he’s not posted on this yet; fortunately Carl Zimmer at the NY Times has been able to get a hold of John personally, and ask him what he thinks:

“It’s irreplaceable evidence of what once existed that we can’t reconstruct from what people are now,” said John Hawks, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin who was not involved in the study. “It speaks to us with information about a time that’s lost to us.”

That’s absolutely right of course, but I’d like to hear more of what he has to say, and I hope he will post something on the new discoveries.


Fu, Q., et al. 2014.Genome sequence of a 45,000-year-old modern human from western Siberia. Nature 514:445-449. abstract

Beyond belief: The Werleman mess is worse than you can imagine

The Werleman Mess, involving an atheist journalist’s repeated plagiarism in pieces in both Salon and Alternet, seems to have reached its conclusion. I’ll  briefly give the upshot, as I’m soon off to walk around Plovdiv.

The Werleman story is not pretty. I think the following is an accurate summary; if there are errors or corrections, please put them in the comments and I’ll deal with them later.

1. On the website Godless Spellchecker, its author detailed about half a dozen instances in which Werleman copied phrases directly from other sources without attribution. This is plagiarism, pure and simple. Many people seem to have thought that plagiarism involves the theft of ideas, not words. It can be both. Facts and ideas, if not your own (or in common currency) should always be referenced. But you don’t need to reference a widely known fact like “Paris is the capital of France.” When you use someone’s words without attribution, however, it is always plagiarism.

2. The number of instances of Werleman’s plagiarism expanded when Michael Luciano, at the Daily Banter, listed fourteen cases in total. These are not merely coincidental usages of words, but must reflect deliberate copying.

3. Werleman first tried to minimize the theft, imputing it to failures in putting quotation marks around one quote and to a few editing mistakes, but the magnitude of the theft belied that. I predicted that eventually Werleman would have to apologize, and eventually he did, on his Facebook page.

4. Werleman’s apology was here, but seems to have mysteriously disappeared overnight, and I can’t find it anywhere. You can find a summary of it, however, in another post by Godless Spellchecker called “C. J. Werleman releases plagiarism nonpology.” It is a “nonpology” in the sense that while Werleman admits that he did commit plagiarism, he minimizes its importance by showing how many pieces he published, which, he thinks, dwarfs the fourteen known instances of plagiarism. That is a ridiculous defense, I think, for even a couple of instances of word theft are serious, impugning a journalist’s ethics. Certainly the evidence to date would have resulted in a journalist at a reputable venue, like the New York Times, being fired.

UPDATE: Werleman has written a newer apology that, as a reader notes below, is here. I won’t comment on the latest version; you can make of it what you will

5. Werleman also blamed his being hounded for plagiarism on Sam Harris and his followers, who dislike Werleman because he’s repeatedly gone after Harris. Harris, though, had nothing to do with Werleman being “outed.”

6. Bizarrely, Werleman then accused Harris of having also engaged in plagiarism.  As Harris explained in a post, that accusation was untrue: the “words” Harris lifted from somebody else had actually been written by Harris himself in a piece that appeared two years before the piece from which he supposedly plagiarized.

7. In what is surely the weirdest part of this incident, it appears that Werleman engaged in three instances of sockpuppeting to support himself, using a Twi**er handle “@Women4Atheism,” a later version of an earlier feed called “@ShitMyJesusSays”. Neither of these had anything to do with woman and atheism. Further, Werleman appears to be the creator of a website called “Critical Cranson” (subtitled “One New York girl’s musings”), which was where he/she/it accused Harris of plagiarism. “Critical Cranson” was created on October 20, and has only one post: the incorrect accusation that Sam Harris was guilty of plagiarism. There have been no posts since.

All of this sockpuppeting is described and supported with evidence by a site called “SomewhatMoreCriticalCranson.” It’s fascinating to see the evidence of sockpuppeting accumulating, and the website’s author appears to have done a fair amount of research. It’s the visible record of Werleman’s unravelling.

8. Werleman begins melting down on Twi**er.  My theory is that, caught dead to rights, he simply can’t accept his public humiliation, and so lashes out at others in a vain attempt to exculpate himself. Here’s one example:


“Hyper anti-theistic”? Werleman is an atheist, too, and has published stuff that would be seen as “strident” atheism. And what “death cult” is he talking about? If there’s any death cult, it’s jihadist Islam, not Sam Harris’s ideas.

9. But the most important issue is how Werleman’s two venues, Alternet and Salon, handled his plagiarism. Alternet did the right thing and simply removed all of Werleman’s pieces with an explanation:

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 9.26.45 AM

Salon, however, was completely lame, and simply said this:

Screen shot 2014-10-23 at 9.28.57 AM

I find this absoutely unbelievable. First, what Werleman did (by his own admission!) was plagiarism, not “improper sourcing.” Second, Salon did not remove the plagiarized articles but simply added hyperlinks to the sources of the plagiarized material. They apparently don’t even indicate on the four stories that parts of them were plagiarized. Finally, besides leaving the stories in, they leave all of Werleman’s stories in. In other words, he receives no sanction, and Salon buries the fact that it published plagiarized material—possibly because they don’t want to look bad for having done that.

Salon’s behavior is execrable, but that’s to be expected from an online source that has gone increasingly downhill to the point where it’s basically click-bait: an online tabloid. They clearly adhere to no journalistic standards, and have no sense of propriety.

As for Werleman, it’s sad that somebody with promise could stoop so low, and even sadder that he doesn’t seem to realize the gravity of what he’s done, which is to discredit himself as a journalist. Although he issued an apology, which to me is unconvincing, he continues to rage on Twi**er.  And, except for the possible Alternet ban, his career at Salon (if you call that a career) appears set to continue.

Finally, Sam Harris said on his terse post about the issue (“Just the facts: A response to a charge of plagiarism“), “This will be the last thing I ever write about C.J. Werleman.”

That goes for me, too.



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