Francis Crick hosts a groovy party

by Matthew Cobb

As regular readers will know, Jerry and I are finishing up our books at the same time. His is The Albatross, mine has a name and a topic ‘Life’s Greatest Secret: The Race to Crack the Genetic Code’. I hope to press ‘send’ to my publishers tomorrow morning. [JAC: Mine is hard on the heels of Matthews']

One of the final things I’ve been doing is finding interesting photos that aren’t usually used in history books (will The Albatross have photos?).[JAC: No photos]. I came across this photo of Francis Crick, reclining in the foreground, at a party in his Cambridge house in the 1960s. They all look the worse for wear, under the influence of who knows what recreational chemicals. The leg in the very front of the picture is sporting a rather fancy pair of tights…

As you can see from the watermark, the photo is taken from Science Photo Library. The official caption is:

Crick hosting a flower party in the 1960s. This party was hosted by British biologist Francis Crick (1916-2004) and his wife Odile Crick (1920-2007). Crick is lying on the floor at lower centre, with his back to the camera. Francis and Odile had married in 1949, and this party was held at their house ‘The Golden Helix’ at 19 Portugal Place, Cambridge, UK. The dress code was ‘beads, bells, flowers’. It was in Cambridge that Crick and his co-workers had discovered the double helix structure of DNA in 1953. Crick, Watson and Wilkins shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.


Readers’ wildlife photos

Nature red in tooth and claw, from reader Peter Nothnagle:

Herewith attached, for your possible inclusion among the readers’  wildlife photos, a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) dining on an unfortunate sparrow (Passer domesticus), observed by its sibling and an incredulous bunny (Sylvilagus floridanus).


Reader Tony Eales has some photos from Oz:

I’ve just came back from a recent work trip to the outback and thought you might like to see a couple of the local residents.

I found a Shingleback or Stumpy Tail Skink (Tiliqua rugosa) walking across the road. They’re interesting for several aspects of their reproductive biology; there is a great deal of evidence that they form very long term monogamous pairs, they are viviparous with a placenta and because of the heavy armour the female organs like their lungs are pushed so far out of the way they can barely move or breath in the last part of pregnancy (their pregnancy lasts around 5 months).


I also saw a lot of emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae). There had been good rain for a few years and they were mostly groups of young adults foraging together. Their reproduction is interesting too with males looking after multiple eggs from multiple females then guarding and raising a group of chicks to young adulthood.


There were also clouds of Budgies (Melopsittacus undulates) as well as many other parrots. I think they’re called pet parakeets in the US.


From Stephen Barnard in Iowa, a bull and calf moose (Alces alces). He notes, “The bull was in rut and I was a little nervous about it.”



Diana MacPherson

This is the first post I’ve ever titled with a reader’s name, but it came to me instantly when I saw this picture.


If you don’t know what this means, you ain’t been around long enough. But I’m sure someone will explain in the comments.

Photo from Pet Stuff Web, in a series of ten cat confessions that are all worth seeing (especially the one involving “Grandmother’s ashes”).

Tuesday: Hili dialogue

When the dialogues are this enigmatic, I ask Malgorzata to explain them. Here’s what she said:

Hili’s stance indicates that she is seeing something, something tangible, something material. So she pronounced that she was seeing something. Andrzej asked what it was. And it turned out that Hili was peering into the future and could see the new times (new world order). She didn’t like what she saw and she shuddered out of dread.

Or it can just be that she sees winter coming… this is simpler explanation.

As always, we won’t know, for the ways of Cats are inscrutable.

Hili: I see.
A: What do you see.
Hili: New times.
A: And?
Hili: I shudder already.


In Polish:
Hili: Widzę.
Ja: Co widzisz?
Hili: Nowe czasy.
Ja: I co?
Hili: Już mi zimno.

RIP Flippy

I am deeply saddened to announce the death of one of our readers’ cats.  Flippy, the beloved master of biologist Sarah Crews (who has contributed readers’ wildlife photos to the daily feature), was euthanized last Wednesday after a long bout of illness of unknown cause.

Flippy was 12 or 13.

She was a beautiful female sealpoint snowshoe, and Sarah has memorialized her on her website Crews Control in a post called “Flippy’s Story.”  The post was actually written when Flippy was in bad shape but not yet dead, and it looked as though she would have to be “put to sleep”.  And she was, shortly thereafter.

My condolences to Sarah. Losing a long-time pet isn’t all that different from losing a human friend. In fact, it can be just as bad.




Lion fence

From a tw**t by Faces in Things via reader coel, here’s one of the more remarkable examples of pareidolia I’ve seen.  MUCH better than Jesus in a tortilla!

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Proof that Intelligent Design is about religion

I don’t read the Intelligent Design (ID) websites, but alert—and masochistic—reader Richard called my attention to a comment (or rather a moderated comment) on a post at the ID site Uncommon Descent.

Here’s what appeared in the comments:

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 1.40.55 PM


As Richard noted in his email: “All Science all the time, not at all religious, no sireee.”

Karen Armstrong osculates religion on the BBC

Reader Colin sent an email that Karen Armstrong was on the BBC this morning. His note, below, got me to listen to the first 15 minutes of the 43-minute show, the part that is pretty much a monologue by Armstrong before other discussants take over. His email:

If you can stomach it, you might find the interview on BBC Radio 4 this morning interesting.  In the UK, you can generally get repeats on BBC iPlayer and this one should be here.  The programme last 45 minutes, but KA gets the bulk of the first 15 minutes.  I only caught snatches of it, but heard her, inter alia, trot out the strawman that all wars are caused by religion, just in order to shoot it down.

A different reader from the UK added this while also calling my attention to the show:

It was a discussion between Karen Armstrong, writer/historian Justin Marozzi and Christopher Coker, chaired by Tom Sutcliffe, a splendid journalist and presenter, although I think he was rather lenient on Armstrong.

Well, if you listen, you’ll hear that Sutcliffe does put her in the hot seat a few times, and even gets her to admit that religion has done some bad stuff (about 8:15).

In the US, you can hear it at the link as well, or just click on the image below and hit “play now.”

It’s pretty much what you expect from the Great Apologist, but her statement “that you can never separate religion from other activities” makes me wonder: she singles out things other than religion, like economics, humiliation, and race, as causes of violence, but somehow religion remains inseparably intertwined with everything else. Religion gets a pass for no obvious reason (except that she’s soft on it).

Somehow, when I listen to her, I’m sensing a machine whose gears are locked in a tendentious output of faith-osculation, a machine that can’t be tweaked. I wish Hitchens were still here to take her on: imagine a Hitchens/Armstrong debate!

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The BBC description:

Karen Armstrong argues against the notion that religion is the major cause of war. The former nun tells Tom Sutcliffe that faith is as likely to produce pacifists and peace-builders as medieval crusaders and modern-day jihadists. But Justin Marozzi charts the violent history of Baghdad and asks what role religion had to play there. The philosopher Christopher Coker explores how warfare dominates our history, and argues that war, like religion, is central to the human condition.
Producer: Katy Hickman.

By the way, last night President Obama was interviewed by Steve Kroft on the t.v. show “60 minutes,” and I wrote down two statements he made:

1. ISIS is an “ideologically driven” organization.
2. The members of ISIS “think they can kill someone who doesn’t worship the same God.”

Isn’t that an admission that ISIS is driven by religion, and in fact adheres to a form of religion?



A bad pun

Over at his/her site Evolving Perspectives, reader Pliny the in Between has a cartoonish comment on a post I made this weekend. It’s a really bad pun; see if you can figure it out.

Toon Background.020

Rabbi Sacks goes after atheists and Dawkins with the usual religious inanities

Oy vey! As an atheist but also a cultural Jew, I have to say that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is an embarrassment.  As he was the Commonwealth’s Chief Rabbi for 22 years, a member of the House of Lords, a Ph.D. graduate in philosophy, and now a professor at Yeshiva University and New York University in New York, I would have expected better than his inane pronouncements in an interview in Saturday’s Salon. The title of the piece is below; click on the screenshot to get to the piece:

Screen Shot 2014-09-29 at 9.44.43 AM I am continually disappointed in my expectation that religious Jews will behave better than, say, religious Christians. True, most liberal Jews are a hairsbreadth from atheism (there’s the old joke: “What do you call a Jew who doesn’t believe in God?”, with the answer being, “A Jew”), but Sacks is an Orthodox rabbi and the orthodox, as we’ll see later today, are the most retrograde and misogynistic branch of Judaism (I suspect Sacks is not nearly as conservative as most Orthodox, though).

At any rate, the first screwup is not Sack’s but Salon’s: the interview is about many things, and Dawkins is mentioned only briefly. Further, Dawkins is not accused specifically of lacking a sense of humor as the title implies. It’s all of us atheists who lack a sense of humor.   The headline is clearly meant to draw clicks—or else the headline writer (generally not the piece’s author) is totally clueless.

I’ll try not to bash the good rabbi too hard, but here are a few snippets (indented) from his interview with the writer, Michael Schulson, a freelance writer with a degree in religious studies). Schulson’s questions are in bold, and Sacks’s answers are in plain type.

You write that “the mutual hostility between religion and science is one of the curses of our age.” What’s made this relationship so fraught?

There was a time when the church felt it could censure truths that it felt to be inconsistent with its own deeply held beliefs. Now it’s as if it were almost a mirror image. Science is claiming a monopoly of knowledge, and thus some scientific atheists are intent on depriving religion of any cognitive status. I think this has been a swing of a pendulum, and I think it has more to do with power than with intellectual integrity.

I will indeed claim that science broadly construed (i.e., the use of reason, evidence, observation, hypothesis testing, and replication) has a monopoly on knowledge about the world and Universe. If religion can give us knowledge, then do tell us, Rabbi Sacks, exactly what that knowledge is, and how it’s unique to faith. I will grant that religion appeals to emotionality, and can give some people a sense of community and solace, but knowledge? I still have not heard from anyone, though I’ve asked several times, about what knowledge religion imparts about the world that can’t be derived from empirical observation. (Or, if you consider philosophy to be “knowledge,” what does religion tell us that secular philosophy doesn’t?)

Well, at least Sacks tacitly admits above that “scientific atheism” is gaining power. Good for us.

In a recent interview, Richard Dawkins described you as very nice, but he said that attacking you was “like attacking a wet sponge.” Why does Dawkins have such trouble with your arguments?

Because Richard, who is a brilliant scientist, thinks that morality is a simple matter. Oh, we’ll get a few scientists and we’ll work out what we should do and what we shouldn’t do. And quite frankly, the whole history of humankind has borne testimony to the fact that we may quite reasonably know what is the right thing to do. Actually getting people to do the right thing is the hardest thing on earth. I really admire Richard Dawkins’ work within his field, but when he moves beyond his field, he must understand that we may feel that he’s talking on a subject in which he lacks expertise.

Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts them together to see what they mean. And I think the people who spend their lives taking things apart to see how they work sometimes find it difficult to understand the people who put things together to see what they mean.

See? No mention of Dawkins’s humorlessness. In fact, I find Richard funnier than Rabbi Sacks, who has never made me chuckle even once. Dawkins, like Sam Harris, has a sort of dry humor that comes across in their prose. But that aside, I don’t recall Dawkins every saying that “morality is a simple matter,” nor even that science will settle all moral questions. If a reader can find a quote to this effect, by all means cite it. But I’ve written Richard with the link to this piece, and perhaps he’ll deign to give us his take.

As for the sentence, “the whole history of humankind has borne testimony to the fact that we may quite reasonably know what is the right thing to do,” well that’s just crazy. Is Sacks ignorant of history, or how morality has changed so much over the centuries? Perhaps he could do with a read of Steve Pinker’s last book that shows exactly the huge temporal changes in our feeling of what is moral.  For, after all, it wasn’t so long ago that the “right thing to do” was to treat women like chattel, kill gays, torture animals, mete out terrible punishment for crimes, and possess slaves. It was also right (indeed, an obligation) to kill blasphemers and heretics.

And I wonder if Sacks isn’t “talking beyond his expertise” when he pronounces on science. Really, there’s too much credential-mongering going around in both the religious and atheist communities. Can’t we just deal with people’s arguments and not attack their credentials?

Finally, science is essentially reductionist, as Sacks says, but that’s because we need to see how the individual parts work before we put things together. After all, the Big Bang is a Big Thing, but is understood via reductionist physics. The claim that religion “puts things together to see what they mean” can’t possibly apply to the same questions that science engages (the reductionist bits), but must mean “religion gives us the big picture of life, and answers questions about meaning and purpose.” But religion doesn’t do that in any way that’s dispositive. Really, Rabbi Sacks, how do you know that your own way of “putting stuff together” gives the same results as, say, that of a Muslim imam or a Southern Baptist preacher? It doesn’t of course.  That’s because different faiths (or even different branches of a single faith, like Sunni and Shia Muslims) come to different conclusions when they “put things together”, showing that religion does not have any valid cognitive status.

Now for Sack’s atheist bashing:

In the past few years, there’s been a tendency to compare the New Atheists to certain fundamentalist religious groups. Is that a worthwhile comparison? Do you think that, when you look at the extremes of religiosity and scientism, you see a kind of kinship?

A fundamentalist is somebody who can’t really understand a point of view opposite to his own. He can’t really hear in stereo, he can’t really see 3-D. Whereas a really great scientist like Niels Bohr will say that the opposite of a superficial truth is a falsehood, but the opposite of a profound truth is very often another profound truth. Niels Bohr really got it. But some of today’s atheists don’t get it. They know that science is a profound truth, but they can’t understand that something opposite can also be a profound truth.

Sorry, Lord Rabbi Sacks, but many of us atheists can and have understood the point of view opposite to our own. For many atheists were formerly religious, often very religious. Look at Dan Barker, Mike Aus, Jerry DeWitt, and John Loftus: all former evangelical Christians, and now all nonbelievers and vociferous critics of religion. They don’t understand the religious mindet? PIFFLE! And of course while I’ve never been deeply religious, I have tried hard to understand where the faithful are coming from. But that doesn’t mean that I will agree with their claims—claims for which I’ll demand evidence. Finally, the stuff about the profound truth of science being met by the profound truth of religion is just word salad. If there are “profound truths” in Judaism, I want to hear them!

Here’s the best trope: the exhuming of poor old Nietzsche as an example of the best atheist ever. Why? Because he took its implications seriously: we’re supposed to be all melancholy and nihilistic when we truly realize that there is no God.  The funny bit (unintentionally funny, because Sacks has no discernible sense of humor) is that at the same time he takes atheists to task for not being funny enough.  We’re faulted for not being dolorous enough, but also for not being funny enough. What has the rabbi been smoking?

You write that “atheism deserves better than the new atheists.” What kind of thinkers do atheists deserve? Is there a type of atheism that our society needs?

Well, you know, Bertrand Russell was an atheist with a sense of humor. And the new atheists tend either to lack a sense of humor, or the only humor they’re capable of is sarcasm. I mean, somebody with a little intellectual humility does not say, “Anyone who disagrees with me is stupid.” That is fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the attempt to impose a single truth on the plural world.

There’s no question, Nietzsche was the greatest of all atheists. Because it wasn’t just that he didn’t believe in God, he tried to understand what is at stake in the belief or disbelief in God. His fundamental value was the will to power. So I think right now, for instance, if we’re looking at the jihadists in Iraq and Syria, I think that is a desecration of religion, and they are really Nietzscheans. Because religion can mutate into idolatry really quite easily.

Well, Rabbi Sacks isn’t exactly Steve Martin, either.  And if you read Bertrand Russell, and believe me, I’ve read plenty of him, he has the dry sense of humor that you can see in Dawkins and Harris. And Russell is full of sarcasm: here’s one quote from The Albatross; it’s the first sentence in Russell’s collection Sceptical Essays (“Why I am not a Christian” is also full of sarcasm.):

I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true. (Russell 1928, p. 1)

And to claim that Christopher Hitchens wasn’t funny? That’s insane: the guy could be a laugh riot. But really, Sacks just doesn’t like atheists, and is throwing every bit of mud he can at them, hoping some will stick.

By the way, who has said “Anyone who disagrees with me is stupid”? I think Dawkins said something about those who believe in creationism being ignorant, stupid, or deluded, but that was a one-off statement (and not far from the truth). New Atheists don’t go around saying what Rabbi Sacks claims.

Finally, there’s this:

I want to go a bit deeper into this relationship between religion and power. In your writing, you’ve made it clear that you believe individuals can be good without God. But you argue that societies can’t thrive without religion. So, for you, religion must play some role in politics, right?

Religion creates communities, and communities are essential for the moral life. They’re not essential for individuals, but they’re essential for any group cohesion. . .

My answer is this: Sweden and Denmark, dear Rabbi.  Are those countries, which are largely atheistic, immoral and falling apart? I don’t think so.

Oy, my kishkas are in knots!




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