Saturday: Hili dialogue

It’s already in the seventies (Fahrenheit) in Chicago, with the high temperatures set to brush 90• F today. But later in the week it will cool as we begin our inexorable slide into the Arctic winter. But as the Labor Day weekend begins, South Side residents will gather along the lake at Promontory Point to set up barbecues, swim in Lake Michigan, and enjoy a fine view of Chicago. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is acting out something he learned from Andrzej. I hope that nearly all of you will recognize what Andrzej read to Hili, but if you don’t, click here.

A: You were out again for half a day…
Hili: But you yourself read to me: “It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes…”
In Polish:
Ja: Znowu nie było cię przez pół dnia…
Hili: Sam mi czytałeś: “Jakże zajmujące jest spoglądanie na gęsto zarośnięty brzeg, pokryty roślinami należącymi do różnych gatunków, ze śpiewającym ptactwem w gąszczach…”

Isaiah’s prophecy fullfilled: cats and birds lie down together

Let’s begin the Labor Day weekend with a cute video, one sent to me by reader/writer Heather Hastie with the superfluous comment, “I hope you like this.” Who wouldn’t?

And the kitten shall lie down with the bird. . .


Weekend special: cat shows its feelings about Putin

This shows that cats cannot be fooled (although most of Europe was):

Kim Davis remains in jail, but seeks compromise

Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who was jailed for contempt of court for failing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples (she directly violated a Supreme Court order), clearly doesn’t like having her tuchus in stir. Ordered to remain in jail until she complies with the Court, Davis has now proposed a compromise. According to CNN:

Mat Staver, Davis’ attorney, told CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper” that his client would issue licenses if her name and title were not on them.

“Because that in her understanding and mind is authorizing something that is contrary to her Christian values and convictions,” he said. “That’s where the conscience rub is.”

Davis’ husband, Joe, told reporters Friday that his wife was willing to remain in jail until the state government allows her to keep her name off the licenses.

That’s not satisfactory, for as county clerk her name must be on the licenses. If it isn’t, she’s not doing her job, and the licenses will not have the proper imprimatur. I don’t know how long she will stay in jail before she agrees to follow the order, for she appears to adhere strongly to her faith and she may be in a long while. But there’s an easier solution to the problem. If she wants to get out of jail free, she should resign her position.

I can’t say that this photo causes me much distress:



On a related note, reader Doug N. alerted me to a nice piece about Davis’s religious defense written by John Corvino, a philosophy professor at Wayne State University in Detroit: “Davis defenders no better at interpreting Bible than interpreting Constitution.” (He had a nice piece in the Detroit Free Press about her, too.) By now Davis’s tortuous marital history is widely known; as Corvino notes:

. . . “she has been divorced multiple times, which shows how inconsistent she is in enforcing Biblical law. Others have made the point more sharply, noting that she became pregnant with twins from husband number three while married to husband number one, in Maury-Povich-worthy twists. Husband number two, who adopted the twins, is also her current, fourth husband.

Davis’s own answer, and that of her defenders, is that these are past actions, and ones that have been forgiven by God. As another country clerk said, ““That’s something that’s forgivable just like any other sin, but if you continue in it and live in it, there’s a grave danger in that.” But Corvino quotes the Bible in his response:

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10: 11-12).

Notice that, in Jesus’ words, divorced and remarried people are not people who did sin (past tense) and then had their slate wiped clean. They are people who are sinning, as persistent and unrepenent adulterers. Why isn’t there “grave danger in that”?

Why? Because Davis and her defenders are doing what all Christians do: cherry-pick morality from the Bible.

Pope Francis declares a one-year moratorium on Hell for those who have had abortions

I’m not a Catholic, but it’s my understanding, reinforced by a new piece in PuffHo, that abortion, like homosexual acts, constitute a grave sin. In fact, it’s an even graver sin than being gay, for having an abortion leads to automatic excommunication for both those who undergo the abortion and those who perform it. And that means, unless certain designated or high church officials forgive you (these Official Forgivers include “bishops, missionaries or the chief confessors of a diocese”) you’re going to fry—or, according to more liberal theologians, just get “separated from god”.

I’m not quite sure how women who have not confessed an abortion to the proper officials are become excommunicated. I thought excommunication was a formal act of the Church, not of God, and that would require the Church to know who has sinned. But never mind that.  There are big doings.

For now the Reform Pontiff, Pope Francis, has temporarily lifted this punishment—but only for a year. According to PuffHo, during Holy Year every priest now has the ability to forgive women who have had abortions, de-excommunicating them and reinstating their chances of attaining Heaven.

Here’s the bit on abortion taken from the Vatican’s new bulletin (conveniently given in eight languages). The lifted penalties apply only to women who have had abortions, as those who perform the procedure aren’t mentioned:

One of the serious problems of our time is clearly the changed relationship with respect to life. A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life. The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails. Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision. What has happened is profoundly unjust; yet only understanding the truth of it can enable one not to lose hope. The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father. For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it. May priests fulfil this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.

I suppose this is a step in the right direction, although the step will be reversed within a year. And that’s one big problem with this decision, for it makes no sense.  There are two other issues:

First, who gave the Pope the authority to determine God’s punishment of sinners? Was he speaking ex cathedra in this missive, and thus his pronouncement is, as Archie Bunker once said, “inflammable”? Did God tell Francis that He changed his mind, as implied above (“the forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart”)? The language of the statement does not imply that the Pope’s is speaking as God’s mouthpiece, yet it marks a huge change in the post mortem fate of women who have had abortions.  What I don’t understand is how the Pope, speaking on his own, seems to have the ability to determine whether someone once doomed to Hell is now eligible for Heaven.

And that, more than anything else, shows that these stupid “rules” of Catholicism are not ordained by God, but are made by man. (And by “man”, I mean “males,” since that’s who runs the church.)

Second, why is this change only for one year—Holy Year?  Given the language above about God’s forgiveness for sinners, why is that forgiveness under time limits?  Why just a year instead of forever? Is this just a token move to eliminate the backlog of those who have been excommunicated, or have left the church—a move to make the Church look more progressive?

I would like to join the chorus of those who praise Francis for his modernity, but his reforms, clearly enacted under the joint pressures of changed secular morality and widespread egress from the Church, always have qualifications. Global warming is real, but it’s not due to population growth. Gays should be treated better, but homosexual acts remain a grave sin. Abortions can be forgiven by any garden-variety priest, but only for one year.

The qualifications clearly exemplify the cognitive dissonance of the Vatican. The Church knows it must reform if it is not to die, but if it changes too quickly, or too obviously, it risks violating its own ancient and long-standing dogmas in ways that will discomfit believers.

Ben Goren on a major problem of Christian theology

Reader Ben Goren often makes comments on this website about a major flaw of Christian belief: the failure of God (or Jesus, who’s the same thing if you accept the Trinity) to intervene in dire situations involving endangered lives. This is, of course, the insoluble “problem of evil.” Ben sent me a longer piece on it, which I reproduce it below:


The One Question a Christian Can’t Answer

by Ben Goren

Imagine you find yourself in one of any number of calamitous situations — somebody you’re with clutches her chest in pain and falls to the floor; you hear, coming from the far end of a dark alley, the voice of a frightened old man crying for help; a tree falls as you’re driving down a lonely road, missing you but smashing the car following you.

In all such cases, the very first thing you — or anybody else — would do is call 9-1-1. By now, it’s practically an instinct, even to the point of being unthinkable that you wouldn’t make that call. You might not know CPR; you might not be a big and burly cop; you might not have a MEDEVAC helicopter … but the 9-1-1 dispatcher has people standing by who meet all those qualifications and more, and will make sure they get where they’re needed the most as fast as humanly possible.

Though far from perfect, our first responders are amazingly effective. Sure, they might not be able to save everybody they’re sent out to help, and, of course, they can only help when they’re aware they’re needed. . . but hold that thought for the moment. Nonetheless, they do help, and help hugely, in ways that are regularly mind-blowing and humbling to those of us who aren’t in their line of work.

Which, of course, is why we all call 9-1-1 whenever their help is needed — and why we have such a low opinion of those who, when the need arises, fail to make the call. We’d be sympathetic if they tried but failed because of an equipment malfunction, of course, and we’d join them in expressing sadness at the missed opportunity to save the day. . . but, if the reason was anything other than that, the questions start to get probing, if not outright damning.

The claim, “I was afraid to get involved” might again garner some sympathy, but only in cases where the person with the phone was being at least implicitly threatened — the proverbial “gun to the head” or some other realistic concern of retribution. Even so, we would still hope that the person would find the courage and ingenuity to place the call anyway, despite the risk.

But an excuse like “I had too many other important things to do” isn’t going to win any sympathy at all. Even if you’re the world’s most important brain surgeon hurrying to the operating room to save the life of the world’s most important scientist, you’d still be expected to make the phone call—even as you’re rushing to save someone else.

And imagine the questions that would ensue if your reason was something along the lines of, “I had planned for this to happen since forever and did not see fit to interfere in the course of events as they unfolded according to my expectations.” No matter what, you’re gonna get grilled by a detective. . . and, if that statement turns out to be true, you can expect to spend some quality time in prison for some pretty serious crimes — conspiracy, at the very least.

Now, imagine that it’s not just a single incident you observed and yet stood silently by, but every such case everywhere. Never mind the fact that you’d be a pervert for looking in everybody’s bedroom windows, but to look in a bedroom window, see a lit cigarette fall from sleepy fingers and catch the curtains on fire and then not call 9-1-1 to get the firefighters on the scene before the baby in the crib burns to death in uncomprehending screaming agony, well, that would go unimaginably far beyond mere perversion and move solidly into the worst brand of criminal psychopathy. There are those who get their kicks from so-called “snuff” films, in which victims are murdered on camera for entertainment purposes, but you’d be hard pressed to imagine a more horrific type of criminal mind than the one who would seek out or produce such.

Yet that is exactly how every god of every religion is described. Most modern religions claim an all-knowing ever-present all-powerful deity, but even the ancient gods were far-seeing, far- and fast-roaming, and very strong.

Theologians offer all sorts of obfuscatory excuses on this subject, with an entire field of “study” devoted to it: “theodicy.” In common language, it’s the “problem of evil,” or, “Why do good things happen to bad people?” But the official discussion leads far astray from the reality of everyday life, getting tangled up in obscure questions of “freedom of the will” or placing the blame on an ancient ancestral maternal progenitor who procured culinary counseling from a speaking serpent.

Even more unsatisfying, theologians often reassure us that their gods do dispense justice, but they do so only after death— as if post-mortem divine retribution is of any help to the person bleeding out by the side of the road after running into a falling tree, or of any comfort to the umpteenth victim of a serial criminal who enjoys continued success despite the desperate efforts of investigators hoping for a lead or even the slightest hint of a clue.

A certain class of divine taciturnity can illustrate the point most graphically and also show the irrelevance of theological attempts to divert attention from this issue.

In recent history, a number of religious orders have been discovered to harbor vicious sexual child predators. The Catholic Church has been the most notorious in this regards, but the predation has spanned many denominations of many religions — and, indeed, to be fair, is far from an exclusively, or even predominately, a religious problem.

But the religious case is especially relevant to this discussion.

Whatever the religion, whatever the denomination, there are trusted official authorities who have committed some of the most horrific and repulsive crimes known to humanity. These people will, in the morning, convey to the congregation the commandments and desires of the corresponding deities and even actually manifest them in any number of ceremonies (such as transubstantiation); and, in the afternoon, they might rape children placed in their care.

And these monsters even use their positions of divine authority to compel the cooperation and silence of their victims. Children have been told by their priestly rapists that they’ll burn in Hell for all eternity if they tell anybody about the crime — and, again, these are the same priests who, along with their non-rapist colleagues, publicly preach similar messages of divine retribution for moral transgression in sermons and in classrooms. The exact same divine retribution, it must be noted, that (or so theologians say) excuses the lack of divine intervention in the first place.

Most corporations that discover an employee committing violent sexual assault would practically instinctively — once again — call the police. The perpetrator would be immediately fired, and the company may well issue a press statement condemning the crime and the criminal and putting as much distance as possible between itself and the horrors. And, of course, the company would bend over backwards to help in the investigation and prosecution. Many companies would also have the decency to voluntarily provide or make available all sorts of assistance, financial as well as medical and emotional, directly to the victim.

Yet not once in all of history has any deity ever alerted any civil authority to the misdeeds of one of its official representatives. For that matter, there hasn’t even been a single case of some minor insignificant demigod showing up at a press conference to read a “notapology” expressing vague regret over possible unspecified mistakes that might or might not have been made by an unnamed individual.

Even — indeed, especially — if you’re a non-Catholic Christian, this is a problem, even if all the members of your denomination are and have always been as pure and innocent as the driven snow. You may well think that the Pope is the antichrist and all Catholics are devil worshippers … which just gives Jesus as you understand him all that more incentive to call 9-1-1 on every last devil-worshipping Catholic priest every time he spots one of them sacrificing a child’s sexual innocence to Satan — exactly as you yourself would do should you be the one to stumble upon the priest raping a child behind the altar or in the confessional.

And that, at last, brings us to the question that nobody from any religion can satisfactorily answer — at least, not if at least one of its gods (however many there are) has enough awareness and ability to answer the simplest of prayers—or, for that matter, merely has a cellphone and the compassionate instincts of even a young child.

Why doesn’t Jesus ever call 9-1-1?

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Karen Bartelt previously sent us some Galápagos photos, and here’s another batch. The first one shows the remarkable tameness of the animals, which of course was noted by Darwin. The reason is almost certainly because of the lack of predators on the archipelago, for animals like snakes and mammals (except for seals and sea lions) simply couldn’t get there. (Yes, there’s a hawk, but that’s just one predator.)

The tameness means that there’s a tradeoff to being watchful and skittish: doing so means you can’t forage or look for mates as diligently because you’re always watching for predators. Since that selection pressure doesn’t exist on the archipelago, the animals have evolved tameness. Now it’s possible that the tameness is learned rather than evolved, but that could be checked by rearing animals in the lab so they’re never exposed to the environment, and seeing if they remain extraordinarily tamer than controls, also hand-reared but from islands with predators. I’m not sure that that’s actually been done for animals like Galápagos finches, as it’s illegal to take them off the islands. If readers know of such experiments with animals from other oceanic islands, let me know.

Here are Karen’s notes:

Cactus ground finches (Geospiza scandens) in my husband’s hand at the home of Gil de Roy in Santa Cruz:

Pale iguana (Conolophus pallidus), Santa Fe:


A “regular” land iguana (Conolophus subcristatus), South Plaza:


Large cactus ground finch (Geospiza conirostris), Espanola:


Medium tree finch (Camarhynchus pauper), Floreana:


Small Volcan Alcedo tortoise (Geochelone vandenburgi), near Urbina Bay:


Red-footed boobies (Sula sula websterii), Genovesa Island:



Friday: Hili dialogue

It’s Friday, the nominal beginning of Labor Day weekend, which for most Americans is a holiday (formally on Monday). However, Professor Ceiling Cat takes the name seriously, and so will be laboring much of the time. But of course the Furry Navel of the World doesn’t deign to labor—her staff does it for her. She spends her time mousing a bit and resting; and today she’s contemplating Great Things:

Hili: I’m thinking about black holes.
A: And?
Hili: They are mysterious things.

In Polish:

Hili: Zastanawiam się nad tymi czarnymi dziurami.
Ja: I co?
Hili: Tajemnicza sprawa.


Kim Davis, who answers to a Higher Authority than the law, faces contempt of court charges [now Jailed]

UPDATE:  Reader James B. informs me, and this is verified by the New York Times, that Kim Davis has been sent to jail.

At the hearing, Judge Bunning told Ms. Davis, who is an elected official, that she would be released once she agreed to comply with his order and issue the marriage licenses.

“The court cannot condone the willful disobedience of its lawfully issued order,” said Judge Bunning, who was appointed by President George W. Bush. “If you give people the opportunity to choose which orders they follow, that’s what potentially causes problems.”

. . . The White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, said he had not discussed the developments with President Obama. But he said Ms. Davis should not defy the Supreme Court.

“Every public official is subject to the rule of law,” Mr. Earnest said. “No one is above the law. That applies to the president of the United States and it applies to the clerk of Rowan County, Kentucky, as well.”

How delicious: a George W. Bush appointee enforces the law against a Christian. While I have a bit of Schandefreude toward Davis, my main feelings are happiness for the gay couples of Rowan County, Kentucky.


Two days ago I wrote about Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who refuses to issue marriage licenses for gay marriages, claiming (as a member of the Christian Apostolic Church) that she’s answering to God’s authority rather than the government. And this is despite a Supreme Court order that she must issue those licenses.  As I said at the time, she should be fired, though as an elected official this would be hard. Too, the sympathies of the locals are with her, as I saw on the news this morning.

Well, as NBC News reports, Davis will be in court today to face contempt charges, charges that could land her in jail and face a hefty fine.  The arguments of her defenders are unconvincing:

Lawyers for Davis said in court filings late Wednesday that she should not be held in contempt for disobeying the judge’s August order, because she cannot obey it.

“Davis is unable to comply with the order,” her lawyers say, “because it irreparably and irreversibly violates her conscience.” They cite federal court decisions, including a U.S. Supreme Court case, holding that someone cannot be held in contempt when complying with an order is factually impossible.

But complying with that order is not factually impossible—she just doesn’t want to because it conflicts with her religious belief (as do her four marriages, since divorce is against the tenets of her own church).  And court rulings have shown that her type of refusal violates the law:

But the U.S. Supreme Court has held that while public employees have the right to speak out on matter of public concern, just as any citizen would, their First Amendment rights concerning their jobs are different.

“When a citizen enters government service, the citizen by necessity must accept certain limitations on his or her freedom,” the court said in a 2006 decision involving a prosecutor’s comments about the work of his colleagues.

Though that decision involved the First Amendment’s protection of free expression, legal experts say the same principle limits the freedom of religion of public employees.

“She waived any right to have an objection to issuing same-sex marriage licenses when she ran for the job,” said Prof. Steve Vladeck of American University’s Washington College of Law.

Adds Prof. Jonathan Adler of Case Western University School of Law, “Insofar as the state’s definition of an acceptable marriage differs from her own, Davis is obligated to follow the state’s rule so long as she maintains her current office.”

If Davis is exculpated by the court today, and returns to work, it will be a blot on the state of Kentucky—a tacit admission that “God’s law” (whatever that is) is higher than humans’.

Finally, Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has shamed himself by supporting Davis. According to the Washington Post, he stands behind her:

“I spoke with Kim Davis this morning to offer my prayers and support.  I let her know how proud I am of her for not abandoning her religious convictions and standing strong for religious liberty. She is showing more courage and humility than just about any federal office holder in Washington,” Huckabee said in a statement.

Seriously, how can anyone—even Republicans—vote for a man who thinks that it’s okay to flout the Constitution and federal law in favor of “God’s law”.  What a mess that view would produce!


Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis, right, talks with David Moore following her office’s refusal to issue marriage licenses at the Rowan County Courthouse in Morehead, Ky., Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2015. Although her appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court was denied, Davis still refuses to issue marriage licenses. Timothy D. Easley / AP

Comics and convergent evolution in trees

Here’s a recent xkcd strip called “Magic tree”, which has an evolutionary twist:


When you “mouse over” the strip, you see this:

Screen Shot 2015-08-29 at 7.46.04 AM

In other words, artist Randall Munroe is giving a humorous example of “convergent evolution,” in which those trees that most closely resemble cellphone towers are those that leave their genes. This form of evolution would, over time, produce trees that resemble those towers. This example is bogus, of course, because a tree generation lasts a long time—longer than cellphone towers have been around. But if you want to read about real examples of convergent evolution, try the Wikipedia article or Eric Pianka’s nice essay at the University of Texas zoology website.

In WEIT I briefly discuss convergent evolution, giving the famous example of convergence between species of placental mammals and marsupials in Australia. I also give an example from plants: the strong resemblance between cacti in the New World and euphorbs in the old.

But there are also examples in which non-treelike plants have, similar to the example above, evolved to resemble trees. I’ll leave readers to hunt for those, but put your answers in the comments below.

h/t: Steve, John


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