Reza Aslan and Karen Armstrong are everywhere, and it’s not pretty

I can’t get enthused about discussing Karen Armstrong and Reza Aslan any longer. They’re both in the media spotlight because they coddle religion in an age when it’s eroding but some people desperately cling to faith; they’re both religious apologists, refusing to pin any malfeasance on faith; and they both say the same thing in interview after interview. So just let me drop a few quotes from Armstrong and move on. I’ll deal with Aslan tomorrow—if I feel up to it.

Karen Armstrong was interviewed in Salon (also known as “The Journal of Religious Osculation”), and, surprisingly, was handed a few tough questions, which she ducked.

She begins by saying that the distinction between religion and politics is a modern innovation, and continues by claiming that nothing, including suicide bombing, is solely or even largely motivated by religion (she cites discredited statistics by Robert Pape, misspelled in the article as “Robert Tate”). She argues further that humans need mythologies (i.e., religion) to give purpose and meaning to our lives:

Let’s try a different analogy: Perhaps our search for narrative and meaning is a bit like a fire. It can go out of control and burn people pretty badly. Seeing this destruction, some people say we should just put out the fire whenever we can. There are others who argue that the fire will always be there, that it has benefits, and that we need to work with it to the best of our abilities. And you’re sort of in the latter camp, yes?

I would say so … If we lack meaning, if we fail to find meaning in our lives, we could fall very easily into despair. One of the forensic psychiatrists who have interviewed about 500 people involved in the 9/11 atrocity, and those lone-wolves like the Boston Marathon people, has found that one of the principal causes for their turning to these actions was a sense of lack of meaning; a sense of meaningless and purposelessness and hopelessness in their lives. I think lack of meaning is a dangerous thing in society.

Armstrong apparently feels that religion is an essential source of meaning for modern people. And a lack of meaning, says Armstrong, plays a huge role in terrorism, for terrorists aren’t really motivated by religion, but by nihilism (WHAT?):

There’s been a very strong void in modern culture, despite our magnificent achievements. We’ve seen the nihilism of the suicide bomber, for example. A sense of going into a void.

The void clearly represents a failure to appreciate Armstrong’s notion of God as Love, Meaning, and the Ineffable Ground of Being, whereof we cannot speak.

But it seems to me that many of these terrorists clearly do embrace the “mythologies” that Armstrong sees as necessary for our world. They aren’t nihilists in any conventional sense of the word. She grudgingly admits that religion may be in the mix of terrorists’ motives, but, in the end, it’s really other stuff:

In fact, all our motivation is always mixed. As a young nun, I spent years trying to do everything purely for God, and it’s just not possible. Our self-interest and other motivations constantly flood our most idealistic efforts. So, yes, terrorism is always about power — wanting to get power, or destroy the current power-holders, or pull down the edifices of power which they feel to be oppressive or corruptive in some way.

Of course, she doesn’t consider that “power” might be “the power to impose your faith on others,” as in ISIS’s Caliphate and the actions of other Islamic extremists. She then goes on to blame Muslim terrorism completely on the West, though she neglects to discuss Muslim-on-Muslim terrorism, by far the most common form.  Somehow, I suppose, she’d also pin that on colonialism. But the worst thing she says is this:

When you hear, for example, Sam Harris and Bill Maher recently arguing that there’s something inherently violent about Islam — Sam Harris said something like “Islam is the motherlode of bad ideas” — when you hear something like that, how do you respond?

It fills me with despair, because this is the sort of talk that led to the concentration camps in Europe. This is the kind of thing people were saying about Jews in the 1930s and ’40s in Europe.

This is how I got into this, not because I’m dying to apologize, as you say, for religion, or because I’m filled with love and sympathy and kindness for all beings including Muslims — no. I’m filled with a sense of dread. We pride ourselves so much on our fairness and our toleration, and yet we’ve been guilty of great wrongs. Germany was one of the most cultivated countries in Europe; it was one of the leading players in the Enlightenment, and yet we discovered that a concentration camp can exist within the same vicinity as a university.

There has always been this hard edge in modernity. John Locke, apostle of toleration, said the liberal state could under no circumstances tolerate the presence of either Catholics or Muslims. Locke also said that a master had absolute and despotical power over a slave, which included the right to kill him at any time.

That was the attitude that we British and French colonists took to the colonies, that these people didn’t have the same rights as us. I hear that same disdain in Sam Harris, and it fills me with a sense of dread and despair.

This shows two things. First, Armstrong doesn’t want any criticism of religion, for religion is inherently good as a concept, and what bad things seem to spring from it come simply from misinterpreting true religion. Criticize it at your peril, for you’re being a Nazi when you do. (How lovely of Armstrong to play the Hitler card against critics of Islam!)

Second, she can’t distinguish between criticism of religious tenets and racism or bigotry. The Nazis were manifestly not saying that Jews should be killed because their beliefs were unsupported (though their supposed role as Christ-killers was certainly in the mix), but because they were Jews, and Jews were rats who deserved extermination. Further, the Nazis weren’t saying “Judaism is the motherlode of bad ideas.” They were saying “Jews are bad and should be killed.” You don’t hear Sam Harris or Bill Maher saying that Muslims should be exterminated.  They’re saying that bad ideas should be attacked. Perhaps Armstrong thinks that there are no bad ideas in religion, but then she’d be blinkered—as she is.

And here’s a lovely exchange:

. . . (Armstrong:) Fundamentalism represents a rebellion against modernity, and one of the hallmarks of modernity has been the liberation of women. There’s nothing in the Quran to justify either the veiling or the seclusion of women. The Quran gave women rights of inheritance and divorce, legal rights we didn’t have in the West until the 19th century.

That’s what I feel about the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. It’s iniquitous, and it’s certainly not Quranic.

She should have a look at the hadith as well, for that’s part of Muslim tradition, and adds some iniquity. But at least she decries the treatment of women in Saudi Arabia. By Gad, she’d better! However, she emphasizes that this misogyny is not based on authentic Islam. That leads the interviewer to ask a good question:

Where do you, as someone outside of a tradition, get the authority to say what is or isn’t Quranic?

I talk to imams and Muslims who are in the traditions.

What? Doesn’t she know that there is more than one tradition in Islam, and some of them are iniquitous? There is, for example the Quranic tradition that apostates deserve death. Doesn’t she know, too, that there’s more to religion than “tradition”—there is what the imams say now, how it’s based on the Qur’an, and how people follow their dictates? Her assumption that tradition is everything in determining religious dogma (which is wrong), and that any Islamic perfidy isn’t “traditional,” are just cheap ways of ignoring the bad religious dogma.

In the end, she simply admits that she’s cherry-picking scripture:

I think it’s easy to say, “Well the text isn’t binding” when you see something in there that you don’t like. But when you see something in the text that you do want to uphold, it’s tempting to go, “Oh, look, it’s in the text.”

Oh, it is. We do it with all our foundation texts — you’re always arguing about the Constitution, for example. It’s what we do. Previously, before the modern period, the Quran was never read in isolation. It was always read from the viewpoint of a long tradition of complicated, medieval exegesis which actually reined in simplistic interpretation. That doesn’t apply to these freelancers who read “Islam for Dummies”.

“It’s what we do.” That is, we can ignore the bad parts of scripture and pretend that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are based on just the good parts. And I doubt that many members of ISIS or Hamas have read “Islam for Dummies”. They have, however, read or heard the Qur’an.

Despite her constant self-promotion as an arbiter of compassion, Karen Armstrong is dangerous. She’s dangerous because her blanket of tedious verbiage hides the truth that she wants us to completely ignore the dangers of religious dogma. She thereby enables it. And it appears that for her, there is no harmful dogma that can be pinned on religion itself: it’s all about politics, oppression, or nihilism.

Well, tell that to the Catholics who prevent women from getting abortions, couples from getting divorces, and who demonize gays and inform Africans that condoms won’t prevent AIDS.  Tell that to the Muslims who kill other Muslims because they think the heads of the faith should be genetic descendants of Muhammad, and who mutilate the genitals of their daughters because the imams insist it’s a sign of purity. Tell that to the Hindus and Muslims who butchered each other by the millions in 1947 even though they lived cheek by jowl and were similar in most ways except for their faith.

It’s a curious fact that people like Armstrong, Aslan, and Pape can so easily see how politics can motivate people to do bad things, but yet insist that religion cannot. I wonder what observations would really convince them that people’s religious (as well as political) beliefs can make them do harm. Can they tell us?  The jihadis’ repeated insistence on religious motivation is apparently misleading, for they don’t know their own minds. Armstrong and Aslan know better.

 

 

Professor Ceiling Cat on video this afternoon

I’m supposed to appear today on the streamed podcast (vodcast?) Road to Reason: A Skeptic’s Guide to the 21st Century, an hourlong show broadcast on Fairfax County Public Television, streamed live on the Internet, and subsequently archived. (I’ll be Skyping in.) The live broadcast is at 3-4 pm EST in the US (2-3 pm Chicago time, 8-9 pm London time).

If you want to watch live, you can, I think, see it here, but you have to register for Usestream. But that’s dead easy, requiring you to furnish just an email address a user name, and a password. Then, I guess you can press “go live”. Here are the buttons and links to look for at the upper left of the page:

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 7.52.47 AMAnd her are the show’s regular hosts:

Rick Wingrove: Capital Area Representative for American Atheists.
Rob Penzcak: Physician turned writer.
David Tamayo: President and Founder of Hispanic American Freethinkers.
Larry Mendoza: Director for Educational Outreach, Beltway Atheists, Inc.
Liz Green, Secular Humanist

So far I’ve been communicating with Rob Penzcak, who sent me a 20-page list of questions (!) he thought of asking; this guy does his homework. (There may be another host or two.) At any rate, we’ll cover evolution, creationism, and the science-vs.-faith aspect of my upcoming book, out in May of 2015.

I am showered, shaved, sweetened with all the perfumes of Arabia, and ready to go.

6a0120a5c8d9a9970c0120a867e769970b

Reader’s beef of the week

There is only one beef this week, as none of the moderated/new comments were particularly memorable. This one comes from our old friend (?) Don McLeroy, the Texas dentist who rose (?) to the position of chairman of the Texas State Board of Education, serving as a board member from 1998-2011.

More than anyone else in Texas, McLeroy did his best to damage science education in the state. As a devout Christian and equally devout creationist, he engaged the Texas School board in a long series of battles against textbooks that portrayed evolution—as well as “revisionist” (i.e. non-Republican) views of American history. McLeroy ultimately failed, and was voted off the board, but for many of us he exemplified the retrograde scientific and political views conservatives want to force on schoolchildren.

Here’s a quote from an article in Washington Monthly on McLeroy and his fellow revisionists:

“The secular humanists may argue that we are a secular nation,” McLeroy said, jabbing his finger in the air for emphasis. “But we are a Christian nation founded on Christian principles. The way I evaluate history textbooks is first I see how they cover Christianity and Israel. Then I see how they treat Ronald Reagan—he needs to get credit for saving the world from communism and for the good economy over the last twenty years because he lowered taxes.”

Ronald Reagan saved the world from Communism! I wonder what they think about that in China and North Korea?

Anyway, McLeroy, now retired, still tries to promulgate his views on sites like mine, where his comments are moderated (i.e., displayed in posts like this). He tried to append his latest comment to my post “The Republican punishment of Obama begins“, and here it is, divided up so I could make a few remarks (McLeroy’s comment is in italics). The last line is a duplicate of mine, except he’s substituted “Democrats” for “Republicans.”  As you might expect, McLeroy is a Republican:

Our president has just defied the separation of powers doctrine with an executive order on granting amnesty to millions. The House Republicans are simply attempting to preserve that doctrine–to the benefit of all!

Here we have the typical Republican excuse for keeping minorities down: preserving the Constitution. That’s, and “states’ rights,” were the classic reason for opposing civil rights in the sixties.

Our founding fathers had a clear biblical understanding of the nature of man. They not only understood that man was great—having been created in the image of God, they also knew that man was bad—having a fallen nature. Having this in mind, they designed our Constitution accordingly.

Isn’t it strange that if the founding fathers supposedly based the Constitution on God, they don’t mention a deity in the document? McLeroy is full of it.

Clearly understanding the reality of sin, our founders made it difficult to govern—that is, they made it difficult for tyranny to succeed; they adopted the separation of powers doctrine with its numerous checks and balances.

Yep, that’s clearly all based on sin. . .

Actually, it is not surprising that when the president and many other modern men–who deny the thinking behind our Constitution–get thwarted in their dreams, they wrongly conclude our government is dysfunctional and feel justified in acting unilaterally.

Thankfully, however, this doctrine has not completely been neutered. When Congress over-reached and passed the unpopular healthcare bill, the control over the House of Representatives switched parties less than one year later. Our Constitution worked flawlessly!”

What a blight on our land some Democrats are.

Well, if the government is “functional,” a majority of the American public don’t see it that way. What McLeroy means by “flawlessly” is this: “the Democrats didn’t get all the legislation they wanted.”  Does McLeroy favor a Democratic president in 2016 to keep a Republican congress in check, so it’s “hard to govern”?

I shudder to think what would happen to this country if McLeroy really got what he wanted: a Republican President and Congress. We’d have endless wars, a Supreme Court that would be even more conservative than the one we have now, abortions made illegal, school prayers approved, executions accelerated, the rich taxed less, and a diminution of social equality. We’d have a plutocracy.

When the Republicans controlled the Texas School Board by a large majority, they damn near wrecked it, and made Texas the laughingstock of educators and scientists. That’s what the good dentist wants for our country as a whole.

 

Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Tim Anderson sends two bird pictures from Tumut, New South Wales, Australia.

The first bird is a New Holland Honeyeater (Phylidonyris novaehollandiae) of the race longirostris on account of his elegant bill. The species is fairly common throughout southern coastal Australia.

He also plays centre-back for the Geordies. [JAC: This is cryptic to me!]

20140420134609_IMG_0457

The second bird is a flame robin (Petroica phoenicea). Along with the scarlet, the rose, the red-capped,  the pink, the dusky, the hooded, the Eastern yellow, the Western yellow and about twenty other types, Australian robins are reasonably common in urban and rural areas. They are not closely related to European or American robins. Nor should they be confused with the Spangled Drongo.

image

Ah, the diligence and skill of the beaver (Castor canadensis)! On November 18 reader Christopher sent in three photos of their extended phenotype:

Possibly of interest—I found a tree being gnawed by a beaver nine days ago (this is in Nova Scotia):

Flextight1039

Two days ago I went back for another look and there was just about four inches of wood holding up a 35’ tree:

L1000323

 Two more days and it is down.

Wouldn’t it be fun to have a family of beavers, a configurable environment and watch them tackle various engineering problems until their algorithms for dam building are clear?

L1000327-2

And some ducks from Stephen Barnard of Idaho:

Here are a couple of nice Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) photos.

RT9A1412

 

This one clearly shows the origin of the phrase “like water off a duck’s back”!

RT9A1446

 

The most soulful soul songs

Wikipedia has about as good a characterization of “soul music” as I could find:

Soul music is a popular music genre that originated in the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s. It combined elements of African-American gospel music, rhythm and blues, and often jazz. Soul music became popular for dancing and listening in the United States – where record labels such as Motown, Atlantic and Stax labels were influential during the period of the civil rights movement. Soul also became popular around the world, directly influencing rock music and the music of Africa.

According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, soul is “music that arose out of the black experience in America through the transmutation of gospel and rhythm & blues into a form of funky, secular testifying”. Catchy rhythms, stressed by handclaps and extemporaneous body moves, are an important feature of soul music. Other characteristics are a call and response between the soloist and the chorus, and an especially tense vocal sound. The style also occasionally uses improvisational additions, twirls and auxiliary sounds.

The “soul” come not only from the “black experience” (which, after all, isn’t uniquely black in many of the romantic soul songs like several shown below), but mostly from the “especially tense vocal sound”: the urgency of emotion inspired by culture, oppression, and the irremediable sadness derived from the blues. Well, what can I say? I was young and in my music-loving prime during the heyday of soul music (roughly 1960-1970), which has now transmogrified into rap, a genre that has long outlived its novelty. I danced many miles to this music.

What I show below is Professor Ceiling Cat’s selection of the Most Soulful Soul Music. This is not what I consider the “best” soul music—although every song here is terrific—but the songs that are the most passionate, the most “tense,” as Wikipedia calls it. (I’ll put up my choice of the best two soul song tomorrow. Hint: they both have the word “baby” in their titles.)

As I have tons to do, and you don’t want to read much about this (but I hope you’ll listen), I’ll just put up a few words and the salient information on each song. Some of these I’ve posted before as individual songs.  As always, feel free to mention your Most Soulful Soul Songs in the comments.

I’ve used live versions when available, but some of the live ones below are lip-synched, and I’ve been unable to find good live versions of some songs. These are listed in no particular order.

Ask the lonely

You can make a good case that Levi Stubbs, the lead singer of the Four Tops, was the most soulful of all soul singers. His voice had an urgency and plaintiveness that was unmatched. Here, in a live recording of “Ask the lonely,” which has crummy video but good audio, is his most soulful song and, to my mind, one of the best soul songs ever performed live.

Release date: 1965
Songwriters: Ivy Jo Hunter, Mickey Stevenson

“Bernadette”

One of the Four Tops lesser-known hits, it’s still one of the most soulful. Stubbs can barely contain himself as he extols his inmorata.

Release date: 1967
Songwriters: Holland-Dozier-Holland (Motown’s greatest songwriting team)

“Try a little tenderness”

“Dock of the bay” was certainly Otis Redding’s greatest hit, but this one is at least as good, and is more soulful as it builds to a fierce climax. This is a stunning performance.

Release date:1966
Songwriters: Jimmy Campbell, Reg Connelly, Harry M. Woods

“Give me just a little more time”

Does anyone remember this one, performed by Chairmen of the Board? It came out in late 1969, the tail end of the great soul-music era. The soul crescendo begins at 2:10, culminating in the “brrrr”!

Release date: 1969
Songwriters: Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ron Durbar

“It’s a shame”

One of the Spinners’ biggest hits, this has a classic Funk Brothers beginning, with a guitar riff segueing into a drumbeat resembling a heartbeat. The soul intensifies when the lead singer (not sure who; there were several) lapses into falsetto at 1:10 and then gets down at 1:57 and then again at 2:25.

Release date: 1970
Songwriters: Stevie Wonder, Lee Garrett, Syreeta Wright

“Night train”

James Brown, as The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, was full of soul—so full that he successfully pulled off his schtick of pretending to be overcome by the music when singing onstage, then having his assistant come onstage, put a cape over him, and lead him off, whereupon Brown would throw the cape off and return to his singing. (I always wanted to do this during a science talk, as “The Hardest Working Man in the Science Business”). Of all his songs, though, this performance of Night Train, at the famous T.A.M.I. Show, is perhaps the most soulful. It’s a classic.

Release date: This song has a complicated history (see link above, beginning in 1940). Brown’s version was released in 1961 and the version below was recorded three years later.
Songwriters: Oscar Washington, Lewis P. Simpkin, and Jimmy Forrest

“Heat wave”

There’s no question that of Motown’s “girl groups,” Martha and the Vandellas was the most soulful, although as a soloist Aretha Franklin (“Respect’) came close. And this is, without doubt, their most soulful hit. It reached #1, and everyone who knows soul music knows this one. I suspect that, among oldsters like me, it’s a karaoke tune (I’ve never done that and never will!)

Release date: 1963
Songwriters: Holland-Dozier-Holland (of course)

“A change is gonna come”

There are several great songs that express the aspirations of the civil rights movement (Blowing in the Wind, People Get Ready [A fantastic song]), but this, written and performed by the great Sam Cooke, is to me the most moving. His voice fairly bursts with indignation and frustration. It’s one of the greatest soul songs ever released, and the one that Spike Lee chose to accompany the ending of his movie “Malcolm X,” as Malcolm walks toward the auditorium where he’ll be assassinated.

Release date: 1964
Songwriters: Sam Cooke

 

Sunday: Hili dialogue

Hili gets a theology lesson. I’ll leve it up to the readers to explain!
Hili: Why did Cain kill Abel?
A: Because carrots weren’t God’s cup of tea.
P1010994
In Polish:
Hili: Dlaczego Kain zabił Abla?
Ja: Bo Panu Bogu marchewka w zęby wchodziła.

 

Abbas’s condemnation of rabbi slaughter turns out to be a political ploy

I don’t hold out any hope that, on the Palestinian side, Hamas can play a meaningful role in solving the eternal Israel/Palestine dilemma. Given that their charter calls for the wiping out of Israel, and cites the forged and anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion, they don’t exactly look like great peace partners.

I looked instead to Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party, which are supposed to be more moderate. And indeed they are, but “moderation” is relative. When four rabbis and a policeman were slaughtered by terrorists in a synagogue in East Jerusalem last week, much of Gaza erupted in joy. There were sickening scenes of Gazans celebrating those murders and handing out sweets. Here are two photos. The first shows Palestinians celebrating the two murderers (themselves killed) and wielding axes:

axes

The second shows the obligatory handing out of sweets. I’m not sure whether the woman with four fingers up is making two “victory” signs or the number four—for the four dead rabbis.

lemon_bars

But that was in Gaza, where Hamas holds sway. What was more depressing were apparently pro-terrorist cartoons posted on the Fatah Facebook page. One is below: it drips with the same vile anti-Semitism that recalls the Nazi organ Der Stürmer (note that the car is painted with the colors of the Palestinian flag, and the driver is wearing the patterned keffiyeh). This kind of stuff is daily fare in the Palestinian media:

2A89ED66605A4F318D9FE39592B91F75

These scenes of hatred and public celebration of murder should disgust any decent person. Where is Fatah, then, in all this? I was slightly heartened when Abass issued a condemnation of the murders, even though it seemed a bit hedged, manages to pin some blame on Israel, and was embroidered with a political message. Here’s his statement (Abbas is still hanging on as President of Palestine):

The president always condemns killings of civilians from any party whatsoever, and condemns the killing of worshipers today in one of the houses of worship in West Jerusalem, and also denounces all violent acts no matter what their source is, and demands an end to the ongoing incursions into the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the provocative acts by Israeli settlers as well as incitement by some Israeli ministers.

The presidency also confirms that it is time to end the occupation and end the causes of tension and violence, affirming our commitment to a just-based solution on the basis of a two-state solution, in accordance with the resolutions of international legitimacy, and maintain an atmosphere of calm and understandings that have been made with King Abdullah II and Foreign Minister American John Kerry in Amman.

His original statement in Arabic is here.

Well, that’s better than nothing, I suppose, but it would have been nice to see a simple condemnation. But even those words now ring hollow, as Najat Abu-Balr, a Fatah spokesperson and Palestinian legislator, reveals that Abbas didn’t really mean it. Here’s a report on her statement (the Arabic original, from the Palestinian news agency Al-Quds, is here if you can read that language):

The Palestine National Liberation Organization, Fatah, has justified Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas’s statements in which he condemned the operation in Jerusalem yesterday.The organization considered these statements to be political diplomacy, according to a statement by Najat Abu-Bakr, deputy for Fatah in the Palestinian Legislative Council [PLC].

Abu-Bakr expressed her belief that President Abbas’s behaviour under such conditions is the height of diplomacy because he is required to make statements like everyone else. He is responsible for the entire Palestinian people. She pointed out that the public diplomatic front does not accept bloody statements, but ones that are extremely balanced and well-thought out.

In an interview with Al-Quds radio today, Wednesday [19 November], Abu-Bakr said: “The Palestinian president is forced to speak this way before the world. These statements are responsible for the plight of the Palestinian people.” She noted that the objective behind these statements is to light up all the diplomatic signs for the world to wake up to the importance of the Palestinian cause, which the settlers have encroached on through their practices against the Palestinians.

This implies that Abbas really would have made a “bloody statement” if he could say what was in his heart, and that even his hedged condemnation was feigned. Rarely do we see a politician “clarifying” the words of someone in her party in such a horrible way. I see no hope to any resolution of this conflict.

 

 

 

 

Baseball writer suspended from Twitter by ESPN after defending evolution against famous pitcher

I got this from a gazillion readers, but the first two to inform me were Jason and Scott, with thanks to all the rest. But the story isn’t pretty.  Curt Shilling was a great pitcher who played with the Red Sox, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Philadelphia Phillies. Since 2010 he’s been a broadcast analyst for the sports network ESPN, with a break for treatment for mouth cancer, caused by his constant use of smokeless tobacco (the powdery stuff you use like chewing tobacco).

He may have been a great player and now a good broadcaster, but he doesn’t know squat about evolution. Nevertheless, he’s been tw**ting about it constantly, getting into something I cannot abide: Twi**er fights. Here are some of his tw**ts, and you can see more at Deadspin.

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 6.27.55 AM

Oy gewalt, he’s fallen for that old chestnut? Why are there still apes?

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 6.28.31 AM Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 6.28.20 AM Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 6.28.48 AM Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 6.29.00 AM

 

I’m not sure what he means by “misses,” but there are plenty of fossils of creatures that went extinct without leaving descendants (trilobites are a famous case). And of course we have gazillions of transitional forms; you should all know about these by now.

Well, Schilling’s clearly an ignorant creationist (I’d like to send him my book), and so deserves some correction.

Unfortunately, that correction came from his ESPN colleague, senior baseball writer (and Harvard grad) Keith Law, who engaged in a twi**ter battle with Schilling and others, ardently defending evolution. Here are some of the exchanges, and Deadspin has another article showing more of them:

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 6.32.44 AM

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 6.32.05 AM

 

Law’s last comment is very good, but of course if Twi**er allowed more characters he could have explained about transitional forms, like “dino-birds” with teeth and feathers.

But after this social-media fracas ESPN suspended Law from using Twi**er (we don’t know how long the ban will last).  Now it’s not clear whether evolution had anything to do with this: as awfulannouncing.com reports, ESPN denies it:

ESPN has issued the following statement to AA on Law’s suspension:

“Keith’s Twitter suspension had absolutely nothing to do with his opinions on the subject.”

But that wording suggests that ESPN suspended him simply for squabbling with Schilling.  What other reason could there be for a Twi**er suspension? But that’s not fair, either, for Schilling was also engaged in that squabble. Right now, it’s a mystery, but if “squabbling” is the cause, Schilling should be suspended—and longer, because of his science denialism and embarrassing ignorance!

If you still want to complain to ESPN, or defend Law’s right to tw**t about what is, after all, scientific truth, there’s a simple form here (you needn’t register, just fill in the form and give them a piece of your mind). I think it’s important to let this important t.v. network know that defending good science is not something that deserves censorship.

h/t: Jason, Scott

Another messed-up sign

Okay, this sign, which appeared in the elevator of my building, is messed up. How many errors can you find? There’s one big one that is common and always peeves me.

(No fair telling me that it’s all okay because, after all, you can understand what it means. Read Pinker’s new book to see the problem with accepting such usage).

IMG_0390

Caturday felids: a rare male tortoiseshell cat, a paper-obsessed cat, and cats giving high fives,

You know why virtually all tortoiseshell cats are female, right? It’s all due to genetics.  Well, maybe some of you don’t, so a quick explanation is in order to introduce today’s felids.

Tortoiseshell cats, or “torties,” are cats with patches of orange and black fur, and sometimes a bit of white. Here’s one:

1280px-Tortoiseshellshorthair

How do they differ from calico cats? Only because calicos have more white in their fur.  But, like torties, calicos are almost always female.  Here’s a calico:

Calico_cat_-_Phoebe

Why are these cats nearly always female? It’s because, as in humans, female cats have two similar sex chromosomes (XX), while males are XY, with the Y chromosome largely genetically inert (it does carry sex-determining genes).  It turns out that the X chromosome (but not the depauperate Y) carries a gene that affects fur color, and that gene has two forms, a “black” form and an “orange” form.

The other thing you need to know is that, during development of females, one X chromosome is completely inactivated in each cell. That has evolved to keep the “dosage” of gene products identical between the sexes. So an XY male produces product from one X chromosome, and so do XX females, because one X is switched off in each cell (this mechanism is called “dosage compensation”).

The inactivation occurs at different stages of development, and is random, so, for example, early in development one cat embryo cell will have one of its X’s inactivated, and all the descendants of that cell will have the same X inactivated.  But since inactivation doesn’t occur at the very beginning, a live female cat will be a mosaic, with one of the X’s inactivated in part of its body and the other X in other parts. Which X is inactivated seems to be random.

So imagine a female cat with two X chromosomes, one carrying the gene coding for black fur, and the other for orange.  If the black-gene-carrying X is inactivated, those epidermal cells will express only the orange gene, producing orange fur. If the “orange” X is inactivated, the cat makes black fur. If a female carries both forms of the gene (i.e. she’s a “heterozygote” for black-X and red-X), the random inactivation of X’s will lead to a cat having patches of red and black fur, i.e., a tortie.  Males, having only one X, cannot be mosaics, and so will be either all black or all red. That is why male calicos and torties are almost nonexistent.

What about the calicos? Well, to be a calico you still have to have red and black patches, ergo you have to be female, but some of these cats have an additional gene, called “piebald”, which is not on the sex chromosomes. That gene has a form, S, causing white spotting (Hili has it), and is dominant over the alternative form “s”, so if you have two copies of the piebald form (S/S) you get white patches, if one copy (S/s) copies you have smaller white patches, and if you have no copies (s/s) you don’t have any white.  The only difference between calicos and torties, then, is that calicos have at least one S form of the gene as well as being heterozygous for the X-linked black and red genes.  Male cats, of course, can also show piebaldness, since the gene is not on a sex chromosome.

If you want this all explained with diagrams, go here, or go here for a longer explanation.

That is a long-winded but necessary introduction to a true rarity, a male tortoiseshell cat named Harry who has shown up at a cat shelter in Bonnyrigg, Scotland; his owners were allergic to his fur. Here’s the cutie, just a 3-month-old kitten:

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 8.48.58 AM

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 8.49.12 AM

Harry with Nicola Zelent from Lothian Cat rescue, photos from the Daily Record (link above):Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 8.48.42 AM

How can you have a male tortoiseshell cat? It has to have two X chromosomes to get that fur pattern. But it also needs a Y chromosome to be a male. And, indeed, the rare male torties have the chromosome constitution XXY, and are heterozygous for the X-linked fur-color genes. But because their sex chromosome balance is messed up, these male cats are sterile; they are, in effect, “intersexes,” but I suspect are identified as males because they have male-like genitals.  To quote from the article:

Margaret Riddell [the vet] said: “When I heard the cat was called Harry, I said to the owners, ‘I think that might have to be a Harriet’.

“I had to change my words when I discovered it was male. I’ve never seen one before and I’ve been a vet for more than 30 years.”

Well, it’s not really a “male” in the conventional sense; it’s an intersex. But no matter, it’s rare, it’s cute, and the good news is that it doesn’t have to be neutered.

The XXY condition occurs in humans, too, though rarely (in roughly 1 in 1000 individuals identified as male). It produces what’s called Klinefelter Syndrome. Because of the unbalanced sex chromosomes, that condition, as in cats, produces sterile males as well as a variety of traits described by the NIH:

Affected individuals typically have small testes that do not produce as much testosterone as usual. Testosterone is the hormone that directs male sexual development before birth and during puberty. A shortage of testosterone can lead to delayed or incomplete puberty, breast enlargement (gynecomastia), reduced facial and body hair, and an inability to have biological children (infertility). Some affected individuals also have genital differences including undescended testes (cryptorchidism), the opening of the urethra on the underside of the penis (hypospadias), or an unusually small penis (micropenis).

I suspect that an inspection of Harry’s willy (note the two royal names) would show abnormal but male-looking genitals.

*******

Okay, enough biology for the morning. Here’s a cat with paper-related OCD in a video that’s garnered 1.8 million views in the last nine days. Who knows what it’s up to?

*******

College Humor has a series of gifs showing cats giving high fives. Here are a few:

d4a02f29192ff9dce7a8c39443c03889

faff6f8225140788c0b456a44ac15951

6e3110959f5bbce3c486186f3077b063

680ade3f2a1d4946cc2c0f64ccd82f15

 *******

Finally, as lagniappe, at the latest Oatmeal the cats get their back:

cats_schrodinger

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 30,243 other followers