Tuesday: Hili Dialogue

Hania: Why do cats purr?
A: Because they have very serious reasons to purr.

In Polish:
Hania: Dlaczego koty mruczą?
Ja: Bo mają bardzo ważne powody do mruczenia.

Tw**ets from Darwin and the Beagle: the Great Man envies kittens

Darwin had both cats and d*gs, but it’s clear that he loved his d*gs more. I’ll forgive him for that; after all, he wrote the best science book ever, and that outweighs a lot of flaws.  In fact, I don’t think The Origin even mentions cats, though I recall that it has a few words on canids.

Nevertheless, Darwin did occasionally refer to the feline group of mammals, and here, in a tw**t taken from Darwin’s Beagle journal, he even wishes he were a kitten. This appeared 7 hours ago:


But why are there tw**ts from a man who’s been dead since 1882.  The Darwin Twitter comes from David Jones, who has it as a project described on his website Metaburbia. Jones explains that he doesn’t just make up the tw**ts:

2009 was the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of On The Origin Of Species. I’ve had an interest in Darwin since I  first read the Origin when I was a child, I’ve been to Down House, Darwin’s home for many years and now a museum, several times, Helen (my partner) teaches a course on evolution and I decided that it was high time Charles found his way onto Twitter.

Several people had already bagged Darwin-related names but cdarwin was free so @cdarwin I became,tweeting content from the Beagle Diary (and other journals, notes, essays, letters and books by him to fill in when he wasn’t too productive). At the time of writing, Charles is still on the eastern coast of South America, flitting about between southern Argentina, Tierra del Fuego and the Falklands. He’s getting quite fed up and looking forward to rounding  the Horn.

I load the tweets into an on-line  database periodically and then a cron job posts across to Twitter according to the current date and time so that the Tweets shadow the real world. When it’s the 5th of August here, it’s the 5th August on board ship, albeit 176 years in the past.

Shortly after setting up this automated tweeting I contacted Twitter and they permitted me to use the name TheBeagle for my tweeting client so that Tweets are apparently posted from TheBeagle. Twitter has recently changed the way client applications authenticate themselves to do this and although they’re not yet insisting that legacy applications use the new OAuth system, I’ve already created an OAuth-enabled client ready to deploy to my server.

I took to The Origin as soon as I read it and I’ve never accepted Darwin’s reputation for turgid prose. A whole new audience, responding to the humour, insight and imagination of the young Darwin as he begins to think about the marvellous, curious, and unexplained world he is circumnavigating  agrees with me, I think.

I agree with Jones that Darwin’s prose was not turgid; indeed, as in the end of The Origin, and many places in the Beagle books, it is positively inspiring. But I doubt Darwin would have taken so eagerly to social media. He was a shy man, deeply wedded to his work and not eager to travel or interact with many people. Indeed, after he returned to England on the Beagle in 1836, he never left that country again, and, after moving to Downe, he rarely even went to London, which wasn’t that far. I also recall he had a mirror installed in his study so he could see who was approaching Down House, presumably so that he could hide or tell the staff to put off the caller if it was someone unwelcome.

At any rate, I wanted  to check that kitten reference, and, sure enough, 181 years ago today on this date Darwin made the following entry in his diary (my emphasis):

 August 18, 1833:

Patagones to B. Ayres

. . . Sunday 18th

The Beagle had not arrived. — I had nothing to do, no clean clothes, no books, nobody to talk with. — I envied the very kittens playing on the floor. — I was however lucky in a hospitable reception by Don Pablo, a friend of Harris. —

[page] 351

Remember that most of the time when the Beagle was surveying the coast of South America (the purpose of its voyage), Darwin wasn’t aboard: he was traveling in the interior, observing the people, collecting specimens, and collecting most of the data that would eventually come together in The Origin. His entry on this day clearly reflects his boredom waiting to meet the ship.  What puzzles me a bit is that today’s entry is not, as Jones says, 176 years in the past. It’s 181 years into the past. Maybe I’m missing something.

Finally, to show that Darwin didn’t neglect cats completely, there is a discussion in Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) about how they can be both hostile and affectionate, a discussion illustrated with two plates:

“Cat in an affectionate frame of mind”:


“Cat terrified at a dog”:



Irish pregnancy flowchart

This is a bit macabre, for it’s sad and funny at the same time. It is in fact an Irish Pregnancy Flowchart, created and updated by an Irish blogger, Bock the Robber. I’m putting it up because it’s relevant to what we learned this morning. Note where most of the paths converge. Also, it isn’t completely accurate in light of the 2013 laws, for there is one path that should lead to “You’re getting an abortion in Ireland.”

The header (screenshot links to Tw**t):

Screen Shot 2014-08-18 at 1.05.26 PM


BvVsSJPIcAA7BWIh/t: Grania


Monday: Readers’ wildlife photographs

Whoops—I almost forgot to post this selection of bird photos from three different readers:

Joe Dickinson sent this picture of a black-crowed night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), taken near the mouth of Aptos Creek, CA (Rio del Mar Beach) in the last couple of days:


From Stephen Barnard we get a female mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) in flight:


as well as a red-tailed hawk (Buteo amaicensis):


And from reader Ed Kroc photos of sandpipers and some information:

First are some photos at the Cluxewe River estuary on northern Vancouver Island of the upper west coast’s favourite sandpiper, the Western Sandpiper (Calidris mauri).  You can see the half-webbing of the feet in the first picture.

I don’t understand the physics well enough to exactly model it, but I hypothesize that this half-webbing makes it easier for these birds to run with the tides where they spend most of their time feeding.  Too much webbing would make it difficult to run fast, but too little and they would lose control on the wet sand.  Some kind of compromise position would seem to confer a selective advantage.  The Semipalmated (meaning “half-webbed”!) Sandpiper shares this trait, as well as the feeding behaviour.  The other BC piper I’ve observed is the Least Sandpiper which actually lacks any substantial webbing; however, these smallest pipers tend to feed further upshore, not quite on the cusp of the surf.

Western Sandpiper1

Wester Sandpiper2

The last picture gives a sense of their wonderful camouflage.  If it wasn’t for the water crashing underfoot, they would blend in perfectly with the rocks, the driftwood, and the kelp.  This particular contradiction* contained twenty-two individuals of three separate species – the Western (C. mauri), Semipalmated (C. pusilla), and a single Least Sandpiper (C. minutilla) – all visible in the photo.

*A “contradiction” is one of the many fanciful names for a group of pipers.



Catholic barbarity in Europe

This is a true story from a country in Europe, a country that one would normally deem civilized.

The sequence of events is this:

1. A foreign woman (country unspecified) arrives in the European country, seeking asylum.

2.  The woman is eight weeks pregnant, and the pregnancy is due to a rape.

3. The country in question prohibits abortion except in cases when the pregnancy will result in the mother’s death. Those cases can include a mother’s potential suicide. They do not include rape, incest, or fetal deformity.

4. The pregnant woman is suicidal and wants an abortion badly. She presents herself at the hospital and requests an abortion shortly after her arrival in the European country. 

5. To approve abortion under the law in those cases, however, requires unanimous approval of a panel of several physicians.

6. The panel is convened: two psychiatrists and an obstetrician. The psychiatrists concur that an abortion is warranted by the woman’s suicidality, but the obstetrician, while agreeing with the potential suicidality, doesn’t go along because he considers the fetus viable. By this time the woman is 21-23 weeks into her pregnancy. 

7. The woman, in protest, goes on a hunger strike, intending to kill herself through starvation or dehydration.

8. Determined to have its child, the country straps the woman to a bed and forcibly feeds her through a nasogastric tube.

9. Finally, at about 25 weeks after conception, the fetus is forcibly removed from the woman by caesarian section. Reports are that it is healthy and will be given into state care.

Okay, which country has those kind of draconian abortion laws (prohibiting it even in cases of rape an incest), and not only overrules a woman’s clear suicidality, in violation of the law, but then straps her to a bed and forcibly feeds her, keeping the baby alive until she can be cut open and the fetus extracted? How many violations is that, by the way? I count three horrible  and unwanted penetrations.

It’s Ireland, of course, and the law applying here (a new and supposedly liberalized one) is heavily conditioned by the wishes of the Catholic Church. Before 2013, no abortions were allowed in Ireland under any circumstances. Irish women who wanted abortions had to travel abroad (usually to England) to get them. That, too, had been illegal until 1992, when Irish courts ruled that pregnant women could not be prevented from traveling even if authorities suspected they were off to get an abortion. Still, Irish women who were poor for such a journey were forced to stay home and bear the child.

Then came the highly publicized death of death in 2012 of  Savita Halappanavar at University Hospital Galway. 17 weeks pregnant, Halappanavar sought an abortion because her fetus was infected and she was miscarrying; of course the mother was infected as well. The hospital refused an abortion and, on October 28, the woman died of septicemia after the dead fetus was finally removed and the woman given antibiotics—too late.

This debacle led to the passage of the Protection of Life During Pregnancy Act (pdf at link), supposedly remedying the problems with the Halappanavar case. But the “liberalization” consisted only of allowing abortion when the mother’s life was endangered by suicidality (not fetal infection or deformity)—suicidality caused by something like rape or incest. Rape or incest alone was not sufficient: a woman is, by law, forced to bear her rapist’s baby, even if she doesn’t want it, so long as she is not suicidal. The act also allows a woman to leave the country to obtain an abortion (something prohibited previously), but in the case of this refugee, that may have been difficult, for she would have needed a special visa to re-enter Ireland and, at any rate, it’s not clear that the woman was even informed that she had this right. Nor do we know whether she could even afford the trip.

Does the Catholic Church show any sympathy here? Don’t make me laugh. It simply piles insult on top of injury: the newest Catholic bishop of Ireland, Kevin Doran, Bishop of Elphin, saw went public with his opinion that the woman should have been forced to stay pregnant for longer:

[Doran] said the church has always taken the view that legislation “certainly doesn’t resolve the concerns”.

“You are creating greater risks for the child by terminating pregnancy at an early stage,” he said.

He also said: “I don’t think that anybody has established the right of a mother to terminate the pregnancy because she feels that she’s at risk of suicide”.

The Bishop described the early delivery of the baby as “not without its difficulties” and “simply not a healthy option” given that the normal period of pregnancy is somewhere around 38 – 40 weeks.

He said to terminate the pregnancy at 24 weeks with a caesarean “places the child more seriously at risk”.

The Bishop questioned what assistance the State provided the woman with her psychiatric problems.

He said he has seen “nothing to suggest that there is a good reason why” the pregnancy could not have progressed to full term.

 Indeed; the good Bishop has no problems with having the woman strapped down for another 11 weeks or so, force-fed while the fetus gets older.
This whole scenario conjures up images of the Catholic Inquisition: women tied to boards and tortured. This poor woman was strapped down and intubated, forced to serve as an incubator for a fetus that nobody wants—save the Catholic Church with its twisted morality. And of course the Church had no problems with the previous law, nor any problems with the present law that won’t allow abortion if a woman harbors a deformed fetus, or one produced by rape or incest.
The Church has long been behind society’s opinions about women’s issues, and their barbarity, and lack of concern for the well-being of pregnant women at the expense of church doctrine, is palpably clear in this case.  The people of Ireland want a liberalization of Ireland’s abortion laws, and so does the European Union. Only the Church, clinging to outdated doctrine, objects.
How long can an institution continue to force a medieval mentality on a country that doesn’t want it? Apparently for many years.  But it’s time for the people of Ireland to rise up against the retrograde and sexist mentality of Catholicism. Given the power of the Church in Ireland—similar to the power of the National Rifle Association in the U.S., which overrides the will of the people by threatening legislators with defeat—action will be slow. But even the Church must eventually bow to enlightened reason. The only question is how many more women will suffer before the Irish government comes to its senses.
See an analysis of (and objection to) the woman’s treatment at Doctors for Choice Ireland

Work to do

I’m working like gangbusters on the Albatross, which is coming along nicely but slowly. However, due to the existence of a real job, things on this website are either going to be either slow, video- and persiflage-oriented, or thin until this bird is off my neck.  The appropriate song was recorded in 1972 by the Isley Brothers:

Here’s the nightjar!

JAC: Many readers spotted the nightjar in yesterday’s post. Either it was too obvious, or you’re getting better. Here’s Matthew’s answer:

by Matthew Cobb

Jolyon Troscianko of the University of Exeter, whose great web-site was the source of the photo of the fiery-necked nightjar, also helpfully provides this highlighted version of the photo:


c5b808fdc8-images-Nightjars-Nightjar in Leaves highlighted

Here’s the original again:


Monday: Hili dialogue

Is it Monday already? Oy! Well, here is Hili:

Hili: What have you sniffed out?
Cyrus: A bitch was here.
Hili: Don’t you have any other problems?

10600669_10204057044493722_3905803661414426647_n In Polish:

Hili: Co tam wywęszyłeś?
Cyrus: Tu była jakaś suczka.
Hili: Nie masz innych problemów?

Marmot video-bombs time-lapse film of Glacier Park, licks camera

For some reason I don’t understand, photobombs by rodents are one of the most appealing things on the internet, drawing far more attention than, say, cat or dog photobombs. Perhaps it’s that adorable rodent face with its bulbous nose magnified by the camera. That, for example, may explain this old chestnut, perhaps the best—and certainly the most famous—animal photobomb of all time (full disclosure: I can’t vouch that it’s real, and I don’t know the species—perhaps a ground squirrel):


But now we have its video equivalent, thanks to Greenpeace, which was trying to do a time-lapse video of Glacier National Park, hoping that, seeing its beauty, people would work against the global warming that would sap its beauty (oil drilling has also been mentioned as a potential subject of the video). But Greenpeace didn’t count on this cute little marmot interrupting, and even licking the GoPro camera:

As IFL Science reports, though, Greenpeace wasn’t fazed at all:

The folks at Greenpeace apparently weren’t too disappointed by the marmot’s cameo, and have even adopted it for the mascot of their message:

“But let’s be fair about this. This marmot took a minute out of its busy day to show us some love. It’s time for us to do the same. Global warming is shrinking marmot habitat — alpine tundra. Help protect his home from climate change.”

Not only that, but this marmot has gotten Greenpeace’s campaign far more attention than it would have otherwise. Posted just about a week ago, on August 9, it’s already garnered over 1.2 million views.

Oh, and here’s Andrzej and Leon the Kitten, just because I have it and don’t know where else to put it:


More readers of Andrew Sullivan go after Michael Robbins’s Sophisticated Theology

In a post on July 26 I kvetched about the continuing Sophisticated Theology™ of poet Michael Robbins, who, as I wrote about a whle earlier, had an annoying penchant to use book reviews as a club to bash New Atheists. Robbins’s faux review on Slatebrought out a number of angry responses, and he took a shellacking not just at my site (390 comments, very few of them favorable), but also at reader Maggie Clark’s site, and even at Andrew Sullivan’s site, The Dish, where a number of readers went after him. 

Much as I differ with Sullivan on matters like God and Israel, and despite his failure to allow comments on his posts, he has the admirable habit of allowing some pushback from readers, usually picking the best comments and presenting them anonymously in a separate post, much as I do with the religious and creationist trolls who annoy me. Sullivan, however, treats his comments with respect, for he chooses the good ones.

I had missed the fact that Sullivan allowed a secondset of comments criticizing Robbins’s views, particularly his annoying but persistent argument that New Atheists, by attacking literalists or garden-variety believers, are attaking “strawmen” and missing The Best Arguments for God. Further, Robbins likes to argue that the New Atheists aren’t dolorous enough. Failing to realize the huge hit that the absence of God gives to morality, or on our personal finitude, we are not nearly as sad and miserable as we should be. Most atheists are fairly cheerful and well-fed people, and Robbins can’t stand it that we don’t mope around or put guns to our heads (or, like Camus, crash our cars into trees). These are simply trite and refuted claims, but they’re especially annoying coming from a wannabee hipster poet like Robbins.

And so the venerable Sullivan put up another dollop of Robbins criticism in a post called “Nostalgic for Nietzsche, Ctd.” I love ‘em! I’ll reprise three; the last (though anonymous) comes from one of our readers.

Reader 1:

Michael Robbins’ latest defense of his essay review of Spencer’s book, which you posted, conveniently skips past a colossal point that one of your readers quite cogently articulated in dissent:

The religious intelligentsia want to embrace the vast majority of Christians (who believe nothing like they do), as part of their faith, and at the same time decry atheists who focus on that vast majority as failing to engage “true” Christianity and the deep, meaningful arguments for the faith.

Robbins goes on to prove your reader right when he, like John Haught and David Bentley Hart and other “Sophisticated Theologians”, makes the boring mistake of saying that “religious fundamentalism is a soft target.” Is it really that soft when almost half of America believes that God created the world in its current form according to Genesis? Is it really?

I’m going to take credit right now for the term “Sophisticated Theologians,” which of course I trademarked from the outset. It seems to be becoming a term of art. Oh well, I suppose the coining of a widely used neologism, even uncredited, is a mitzvah. And of course Reader 1 makes a good point. Hart, for example, would have to repudiate the many Orthodox Christians whose notion of God is not a nebulous Ground of Being.

Here’s a comment sent to Sullivan by another reader:

Dammit. I never said anything, positive or negative, about the Hart quote other than Robbins wanted us to focus on it. More to the point: When Michael Robbins writes “Christians have recognized the allegorical nature of these accounts since the very beginnings of Christianity”, or “it’s not God, at least not God as conceived by a single one of the major theistic traditions on the planet”, he’s ignoring the belief of most Christians in the US and elsewhere. To be clear, most living Christians do not recognize the allegorical nature of these accounts (a statement easily proven).

When Robbins says, “I had assumed it was obvious that Origen and Augustine would hardly have taken the trouble to deny literalist readings of the Bible if such readings did not exist” he’s faking left and going right. Reading the Bible literally came after the Reformation (a fact Robbins flags in his article “He Is Who Is“). And while I am insufficiently educated to speak to Origen, I’m happy to go head-to-head on Augustine: $50 for every place Augustine denies literalist readings of the Bible vs. every place Augustine did not. For example, did Augustine believe in a literal Adam and Eve and original sin? (Yes.) Does evolutionary theory destroy both? (Yes.) Will I make good money if Robbins takes me up on my offer? (Yes.)

You go, reader! He/she continues, and makes some good points.

“Young-earth creationism” is “of course” not based on the Bible. He seriously said that. Robbins’ use of the phrase “of course” illustrates a startling ignorance of the mass of Christianity and their scriptural exegesis. Apparently Ken Ham and Bill Nye’s debate on a 6,000 year-old earth missed the point – nobody watched it.

OK, enough whining, to the heart: Michael Robbins continues to miss the point.

“But the New Atheists did not write books that simply attacked creationism. They wrote books that purport to challenge theistic belief as such. They therefore have a responsibility to address the best cases for God, not the dullest.

They wrote books to challenge the theistic belief … of the vast majority of Christians. The audience that believes Noah stuffed 9 million unique species on a boat, and the kangaroos hopped from Mount Ararat to Australia without leaving a single skeleton. That doesn’t require challenging the best cases for God, that requires pointing out that 18 million animals would require a lot of food, produce a lot of waste, and the wolves would probably eat the rabbits. If the target audience doesn’t care (or understand), the best cases, why should atheists focus on them?

Yes “religious fundamentalism” is a soft target – but it is the important target, and the target on which atheists should focus. If Robbins disagrees, he needs to make the argument that attacking the best cases for God is worth doing, not that it’s the “right” thing to do.

I suppose, in response to the last paragraph, Robbins would respond that if you really want to kill the notion of God stone cold dead, you have to refute people like David Bentley Hart or Karen Armstrong.  But they’re deliberately designed their concepts of God to be irrefutable, so that’s not on. Further, even if you kill that Sophisticated God, the mass of believers will keep on believing their Unsophisticated One. They don’t care if you refute the Ground of Being, since that’s not their God.

Finally, here’s a comment Sullivan calls “Another piles on.” In fact, this was written by reader Thomas. who posts here under the name “Another Tom”. He emailed me proudly that this came from him:

I’ve found Michael Robbins essay and response both unconvincing. The “New Atheists should be more like Old Atheists,” trope aside, there are other tropes I saw in Robbins’ response. Let’s play spot the trope!

“But the New Atheists did not write books that simply attacked creationism. They wrote books that purport to challenge theistic belief as such. They therefore have a responsibility to address the best cases for God, not the dullest. When Dennett asks if super-God created God, and if super-duper-God created super-God, he is simply revealing a lack of acquaintance with the intellectual traditions of the major religions. If you want to argue against something, you have to understand what you’re arguing against. That’s axiomatic.”

I would say there are two standard tropes in here. First is the atheists don’t address “the best cases for God.” As far as I can tell atheists always deal with the argument for God being made. Whenever I see that phrase I’m reminded of the practice of goal-post shifting. Often when an atheist addresses a “case for God” they’re told that they haven’t addressed the “best case for God.” Which makes me wonder, why don’t proponents of theism use the “best case for God?” Maybe Robbins should check out Jerry Coyne’s website (not blog)Why Evolution is True; he has addressed various “best cases for God.” Most recently he covered David Bentley Harts’ latest book and found that that “best case for God” was a series of non-sequiturs. X exists therefore God is hardly a convincing argument.

The second I noticed has already been addressed through the Courtier’s Reply. I don’t need to spend several years studying fashion to point out someone’s naked just as I don’t have to spend several years studying theology to point out arguments for theism are not rational.

Another thing, this sentence: “Some atheists believe that their faith in scientific naturalism suffices to disprove the existence of God, for instance.” Speaking of caricatures … I will admit that there may be atheists like this but I know of no atheists who make arguments like that. Science simply eliminates various things from various gods portfolios and finds natural explanations. Germ theory of disease is one example. Do bacteria and viruses disprove God? Of course not, it simply means that God is not needed for people to get sick.

The atheists I know are atheist because they found the argument for theism unconvincing. Personally I’ve always found evidence for theism lacking and the philosophical arguments for theism either irrational or creating an irrelevant deity whose existence is identical to it’s nonexistence. Robbins should check out QualiaSoup’s three-part series on morality without God if he wants to some idea of what he’s arguing against.

[snark] Oh wait, stuff like that can’t exist because of the intellectual shallowness of atheists. [/snark]

I love my family and friends. I help others because it is right. I share what pleasure I have with the people I care about. I celebrate life as best I can and share what joy in life as best I can, because this is all we get. There’s no way I’m going to celebrate life any less just because someone told me I should be sad about the death of God.


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