Steve Pinker’s new boots

A couple of years ago, Steve Pinker visited Austin, and I urged him to try to get Lee Miller—in my view the best custom bootmaker in America—to make him a pair of cowboy boots. Miller isn’t taking new customers because he has a backlog of several years, but he did take Pinker, perhaps because of his (metaphorical) stature. A few years before that, when the list was still closed, I got taken because I visited the shop just to meet the Master, and then sent Lee a copy of WEIT as a thank -you. Lee’s wife Carrlyn (who helps customers design the boots and runs the business side of the shop) told me that Lee would be glad to make boots for anybody who could write a book like that. I went back to Austin to get my feet measured (Matt Dillahunty was with me at the time) and waited about four years before I got the boots, which I show right below.

Mine are fancy, but made with a tough and not-too-expensive hide: Kangaroo. My name is stitched on them in “mirror writing” and there’s a pinched yellow rose—both specialities of Lee’s mentor Charlie Dunn. Lee and Carrlyn documented the making of my boots, an enormously laborious process requiring great skill, and I posted the process in a series of eleven reports called “My last pair of boots.” (I haven’t bought any since!).

Jerry’s boots, not Steve’s

Now as I’ve mentioned before, Steve is also a cowboy-boot aficionado, and always wears them to lecture or to teach. (He favors darker colors and simpler designs.) At times I’ve served as his informal boot consultant and helped him pick out some on eBay. But he wanted custom boots, and if you want the best, Lee Miller is the guy to see.

Yesterday Steve’s boots finally arrived, and I made him promise that I could post a picture of them. He actually sent two photos. The first shows the boots, which have black American alligator belly vamps and water buffalo tops. I asked him to explain the stitching, and he said this:

The stitching is red, green, and blue, which Carrlyn herself complimented. I like of the look of those three colors, especially against black; as you know, I prefer jewel colors to earth tones. Also, in color space those are the additive primaries, which harmonizes with my longstanding interest in human vision and with my major pastime, photography.

Without further ado:

On the feet. (He says they fit perfectly, as they should. Only a true boot lover knows the pleasure of slipping your metatarsals into a pair of boots made to measure.)

Note: do not carp about the use of animal skins, as both kangaroo and gator are farmed for meet and skins. Carping will lead to banning.

Panpsychism: a big bag of nothing

I was suckered by the Courtier’s Reply of panpsychists like Philip Goff, and so have finished his popular (i.e., trade) book, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness. I am not going to summarize it or review it at length, as it says little beyond what I’ve summarized previously. It has not convinced me that there’s anything to panpsychism: in fact, it’s turned me away from it, since it seems bundled up with all kinds of mysticism as well as additional bizarre and untestable views.

What is new in the book is Goff’s proposed “solutions” to the “combination problem”: How do atoms and particles with rudimentary consciousness, when they get together in a human brain, suddenly produce “higher”, self-reflective consciousness able to have subjective experience (“qualia”)? This is the “hard problem” of panpsychism, but there is no good solution. (Of course, it’s insane to accept at the outset that atoms and electrons are conscious, anyway.)

Goff offers two solutions, but neither makes sense. The first invokes experiments with “split brain” patients, which, he says, have “two consciousnesses” when you divide the corpus callosum. (I think neuroscientists would take issue with the “two separate consciousness” bits, for the patients, while having some aspects of their consciousness divided, don’t perceive of themselves as two distinct people.)  But Goff goes on to extrapolate downwards: if you divide the brain in two and get two consciousnesses, then eventually, if you keep dividing, you will get down to atoms or molecules that are also conscious. I kid you not. I repeat: the logic is that if you get two consciousnesses by dividing a brain in two, you’ll get trillions of consciousnesses if you keep on dividing. A quote (it’s a screenshot from Google books and there was yellow in my capture because I searched for a phrase:

Yeah, there are all those pesky dead people that have conscious atoms in their brains but inconveniently lack consciousness themselves! So there’s yet another problem to be solved.

And, of course, this doesn’t solve the problem at all, it’s just a “top down” way of saying that the consciousness of the brain’s material constituents manifests itself in a “higher” consciousness of the brain. “Reverse this process, and you’ve got mental combination” is simply a misleading way of restating the combination problem, not solving it.

Goff’s second solution involves something called the “Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness (IIT), proposed by his colleague Hedda Mørch at the University of Oslo. But that boils down to saying that when a system of atoms and molecules is sufficiently integrated (as in our brain), you get “higher” consciousness as an emergent property. I won’t go into the details of IIT, but there is no “there” there: what we have is just an assertion that at a certain level of “maximum integration”, consciousness appears. This is not a theory but merely a claim based on armchair speculation of the empirically uninformed sort. Here’s a bit of Goff’s discussion:

This isn’t a solution to the combination problem, but a form of magic that simply puts the problem into fancy words, invoking “basic principles of nature” (i.e., magic).

There’s a lot more I could say and criticize, but I have neither the time nor the will. Just let me mention one more issue: free will. Despite the assertion of some readers here that nobody really believes in “you can do otherwise” libertarian free will, Goff in fact does. He thinks that not only humans can decide at any given moment to behave in several different ways, so can particles! He posits a brain having particles that are not only conscious, but have free will of a sort, so they can “decide” what to do based on their “inclinations.” These inclinations appear free from the laws of physics:

This then is a form of pan-free-willism.  Particles aren’t compelled to act by the laws of physics, but via their own rudimentary consciousness.

But is there anything in the laws of physics that claims particles act on their own volition? Could you argue that when a radioactive atom decays—and that is unpredictable in principle—that the particle is decaying under its own volition? But of course it’s unwise to rest libertarian free will at a higher level on quantum mechanics, because we have no evidence that our decisions rest on indeterminate quantum events, and no libertarian wants to argue that their choosing fish rather than steak was based on a quantum event at the molecular level.

Goff’s explanation of libertarian free will makes no sense to me, unless he’s simply renaming “quantum unpredictability” as “the inclinations of particles.” And even so, the combination problem still obtains on the macro level: how is the so-called libertarian free will of particles translated into the libertarian free will of our brain? Remember, Goff is not a compatibilist like Dennett; he is a libertarian when it comes to free will. He’s also not a dualist, and so has to explain libertarian free will in purely physical terms. He does this by claiming that we’re made up of particles that have free will.  I needn’t dwell on the intellectual vacuity of that solution, nor on Goff’s annoying penchant of anthropomorphizing particles by saying that they have inclinations and pressures to behave in certain ways. 

At the end, the book degenerates into mysticism and the idea that the world may not be real but all a figment of our occupying a Matrix, but I’ll leave you to fry your brains on that bit.

To me, panpsychism remains a religion, which, though not accepting a deity, accepts a number of fiats for which there is no evidence, and yet is promulgated by fervent believers like Goff. (“Good afternoon. Do you have some time to talk about the consciousness of electrons?”)

Shall we call it a pseudophilosophy?


Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Ralph Burgess sent some lovely bird photos from Kruger National park,  taken from September to December of 2019. His captions are indented. Have a look at the weird black-bellied korhaan, a strange bustard.

African jacana (Actophilornis africanus):

Bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus):

Black-bellied korhaan (Lissotis melanogaster), two photos:


Brown-hooded kingfisher (Halcyon albiventris):

Cape glossy starling (Lamprotornis nitens):

Crowned lapwing (Vanellus coronatus):

Dark-capped bulbul (Pycnonotus tricolor):

European bee-eater (Merops apiaster), 2 photos:



Friday: Hili dialogue

Hola, bonjour, bom Dia, 早上好, and guten Morgen! It’s the end of the week: Friday, February 21, 2028, and only two days before I depart for Paris (I’ll be gone a week).

It’s a day of delicious but unhealthy breakfasts:National Pancake Day and also National Sticky Buns Day (the latter could denote what happens when you sit on chewing gum). It’s also National Grain-Free Day, which conflicts with the previous two holidays, and International Mother Language Day, a UNESCO holiday designed “to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote multilingualism.” (I participated with the morning salutation.)

Clicking on today’s Google Doodle reveals that it’s the birthday of the subject, Chesperito, otherwise known as Roberto Gómez Bolaños (1929-2014), identified by Wikipedia as “a Mexican screenwriter, actor, comedian, film director, television director, playwright, singer, songwriter, and author. He is widely regarded as the most important Spanish-language humorist of all time.” His name has an unusual origin:

His stage name, “Chespirito”, was given to him by a producer during Gómez Bolaños’ first years as a writer, and was concocted from the Spanish phonetic pronunciation of William Shakespeare — “Chespir” — combined with “ito,” a diminutive commonly used in Spanish, ergo Shakespearito, meaning “small Shakespeare”

Here’s a short segment of one of his television shows, showing King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Chesperito plays the King:

Stuff that happened on February 21 includes:

Here’s a relevant tweet sent by Matthew; Trevethick was the builder of that locomotive, and I’ve put a picture of the reconstruction below:

  • 1848 – Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels publish The Communist Manifesto.
  • 1878 – The first telephone directory is issued in New Haven, Connecticut.
  • 1885 – The newly completed Washington Monument is dedicated.
  • 1918 – The last Carolina parakeet dies in captivity at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Here’s what one of these lovely birds looked like (this one is a stuffed specimen at Chicago’s Field Museum):

  • 1925 – The New Yorker publishes its first issue. [JAC: Fie on them.]
  • 1947 – In New York City, Edwin Land demonstrates the first “instant camera”, the Polaroid Land Camera, to a meeting of the Optical Society of America.
  • 1958 – The CND symbol, aka peace symbol, commissioned by the Direct Action Committee in protest against the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, is designed and completed by Gerald Holtom.

We know it as the “peace symbol,” and you still see it everywhere:

Wikipedia describes its origin:

In the 1950s the “peace sign”, as it is known today, was designed by Gerald Holtom as the logo for the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), a group at the forefront of the peace movement in the UK, and adopted by anti-war and counterculture activists in the US and elsewhere. The symbol is a super-imposition of the semaphore signals for the letters “N” and “D”, taken to stand for “nuclear disarmament”, while simultaneously acting as a reference to Goya‘s The Third of May 1808 (1814) (aka “Peasant Before the Firing Squad”).

Here’s the famous Goya painting, and the man with his hands up is probably the bit of the painting to which they refer:

  • 1965 – Malcolm X is assassinated while giving a talk at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem.
  • 1975 – Watergate scandal: Former United States Attorney General John N. Mitchell and former White House aides H. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman are sentenced to prison.

Notables born on this day are few, and include:

  • 1621 – Rebecca Nurse, Massachusetts colonist, executed as a witch (d. 1692)
  • 1801 – John Henry Newman, English cardinal (d. 1890)
  • 1903 – Anaïs Nin, French-American essayist and memoirist (d. 1977)
  • 1921 – John Rawls, American philosopher and academic (d. 2002)

Here’s Rawls, whose Theory of Justice was enormously influential on me, and is still a benchmark in thinking about how to build a just society:

  • 1962 – David Foster Wallace, American novelist, short story writer, and essayist (d. 2008)
  • 1987 – Ellen Page, Canadian actress

Those who were extirpated on February 21 include:

  • 1941 – Frederick Banting, Canadian physician and academic, Nobel Prize laureate (b. 1891)
  • 1965 – Malcolm X, American minister and activist (b. 1925; assassinated)
  • 1968 – Howard Florey, Australian pathologist and pharmacologist, Nobel Prize laureate (b. 1898)
  • 1974 – Tim Horton, Canadian ice hockey player and businessman, co-founded Tim Hortons (b. 1930)
  • 1984 – Mikhail Sholokhov, Russian novelist and short story writer, Nobel Prize laureate (b. 1905)
  • 2018 – Billy Graham, American evangelist (b. 1918)
  • 2019 – Peter Tork, American musician and actor (b. 1942)

Meawhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is, as usual, famished:

Hili: I’m sad.
A: What’s the matter?
Hili: I would like to eat what I’ve already eaten.
In Polish:
Hili: Smutno mi.
Ja: Z jakiego powodu?
Hili: Bo to co bym chciała zjeść, to już zjadłam.
And the news from Dobrzyn is very good: the feral cat Szaron now has a forever home, apparently upstairs from Hili. Malgorzata reports:
Great news here. Yesterday, very late in the evening, Szaron came to the verandah when we were sitting on it. We both petted him and then Paulina [the lodger] came as well. While the door to the house and to the upstairs flat were open, Szaron ran inside and up the stairs. Then he refused to move from there and he spent the night with our lodgers! It seems he will be living upstairs from now on! I gave Paulina a cat bed and a packet of cat food and I’m waiting impatiently for them to wake up and tell me how the night went. Anyhow, the operation “Taming Szaron” was successful!
This morning’s report is that Szaron had a peaceful night upstairs and has gone out this morning. We will see if he returns.

Here’s the new cat with a Forever Home, Szaron:

From Wild and Wonderful. I love it when swans carry their young on their backs:

I can’t remember where I saw this on Facebook, but it’s cryptic popcorn:

From Jesus of the Day:

I retweeted this, which was sent me by reader Simon:

From Dom: a tarantula hawk wasp taking a tarantula. A single sting has paralyzed the spider, and the wasp will soon lay one egg on it so that the wasp larva can consume still-leaving fresh meat:

A tweet from Luana: a baby rhino gets a brushing.  I’d recommend doing what the site asks and saying something about their posts. The stuff is good.

The tweet above is one of their most recent ones, so you should support them with a “like” or a comment.

An off-the-cuff cat adoption:

Tweets from Matthew: the annual Christmas Island crab jamboree. I’ve put a video of it below the tweet; it’s truly an amazing spectacle.

Here they are going the other way: out to the sea. They seem to travel in packs:

I don’t think this is the only thermometer cricket, but it is amazing that it works for Fahrenheit. But it’ll also work for Celsius, as you can calculate (put the formula in the comments) .

Look at the face on that black cat!

Ruffed grouse at the feeder

Here’s some light entertainment for the afternoon: 11 minutes of a lovely Ruffed Grouse (Bonasa umbellus) visiting an Ontario birdcam. I’ve added the YouTube notes (indented) so you can see when it erects its plumage, which is a stunning sight. Such beautiful feathers!

I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of these in the wild, though I’ve mostly lived out of their range (map below). They are nonmigratory, and don’t seem to be near Chicago.

Well hello there! It’s always a treat when a Ruffed Grouse stops by the Ontario FeederWatch cam, and this individual isn’t shy about showing off its cocked crest and beautifully mottled plumage while strutting around the platform. You absolutely don’t want to miss when the grouse begins to display at 6:33 by fanning its tail feathers and erecting the glossy black feathers on its neck into a ruff!

Watch online with highlight clips and information about the birds at

Thanks to Perky-Pet for helping to make the Ontario FeederWatch Cam possible! The FeederWatch cam is located in a residential neighborhood in Manitouwadge, Ontario. This northern site is an excellent location to see winter finches like redpolls and grosbeaks as well as two species of Jays and even Ruffed Grouse!

The feeders sit in the middle of a large backyard with a large birch tree that the birds love, as well as a mixed stand of conifers and several fruit and berry producing shrubs. There’s a small swamp just beyond the backyard as well as larger stands of woods and a small lake.The feeder system is the product of the camera hosts’ ingenuity, making use of plastic piping to support the feeders high enough above ground to foil the occasional squirrel, and a rotating set of feeders that provide black oil sunflower seeds, nyjer seed, whole and shelled peanuts, and peanut butter suet in a homemade hanging log to the dozens of species that visit.

The range map from the Cornell Bird site:

Science educator invites questions about evolution from public by walking around with a sandwich board

I have to admit that Maggie Ryan Sandford is much braver than I. In the article below from Nature, and in the short video embedded in it (I put it below), she dons a sandwich board that says, “Ask me anything about evolution,” and parades around the Minnesota State Fair.  (Sanford is identified as “a science communicator and author of the 2019 book Consider the Platypus: Evolution through Biology’s Most Baffling Beasts.”)

  You can read her short piece by clicking on the screenshot below:

Clearly her object was to engage people in a discussion about evolution, and the implicit aim was to convince them that evolution is true. In the process, she says she learned some lessons about how to change people’s minds (sadly, that aim isn’t spelled out clearly.)

It didn’t hurt that Sanford answered “yes” when people asked her, “Do you believe in God?”, as a “no” would certainly turn away people bent on having a good time at the fair. But here are the lessons she said she learned from this perambulation:

. . . as a science communicator and former education researcher, I knew that, in matters of deep personal belief, facts matter less than feelings. The need to identify whom you’re dealing with is a natural human instinct. Answering was the only way to unlock the rest of the conversation. So I simply let people know I was a big fan of the globe and everything on it, and that I’d written a book about animals that I hoped people would find inviting.

And so to her three lessons:

Lesson 1: Don’t argue with beliefs. People tend to incorporate facts that align with their belief systems.

No problem. I just had to find topics that made sense to all of us — pro-and anti-evolution alike. Dogs or livestock breeding, for example. Half the folks within a 30-metre radius were there to showcase their carefully bred cows, horses and chickens. Open-faced and genuine, I invited them to school me on the areas of their expertise. Which, it turns out, is evolution.

I agree. If you’re there to change people’s minds, don’t mix anti-theism with pro-evolutionism. And if you can change the mind of a cow breeder by telling her that she’s actually practicing evolution by artificial selection, so much the better; but Sanford doesn’t say that she changed anybody’s mind!

Lesson 2: Listen. The most challenging group of the day consisted of two men and a woman in their late twenties. The men were just looking for a fight. Telling me why I was wrong was, I supposed, a way of asking me about evolution. I asked them to elaborate, to tell me why it was that they found evolution hard to swallow. This led to their female companion insisting: “She listened to you. Now you listen to her.” In the end, one man explained my points to the other. “She’s saying evolution is mutations in our DNA,” he said, forcing his companion to let him finish. “I’m just saying, I get her side.”

Agreed again. You can’t get in people’s face and hector them about evolution: you’d be acting like a Darwinian Elizabeth Warren. And if people are open-minded, then of course you should hear them out and answer them patiently, especially if you’re wearing a sandwich board that invites a give-and-take. But again, was anybody’s mind changed?

Lesson 3: Learn what people really think. Almost everyone — secular and religious — had misconceptions about evolution. Advocates of evolution often hadn’t learnt that evolution can now be tracked in genomes, not just fossils, and that humans are related to all living things, and that we didn’t come from apes because we are apes (keep in mind, ‘ape’ is a word that humans made up).

It’s extremely useful to learn what the most common misconceptions are about evolution (e.g., “in evolution, everything happens by accident”). This way you can prepare yourself for what you’re about to encounter, and have some ready answers.

Finally, Sandford avers that the ability to relate to another person as a fellow human is key in helping them accept evolution:

Lay people are more likely to trust and engage with science when they learn that researchers are human beings, fallible and conflicted. Yet somehow it seems hard for many in the scientific community to show those qualities to others. A common concern is that, in the anti-evolution, anti-science debate, any whiff of disagreement or uncertainty spells doom for scientific arguments.

When I began this ‘experiment’, my hypothesis was that a willingness to show vulnerability — to show that we science folks are willing to listen and receive criticism — boosts credibility, not the opposite. I think my experience supports that. When feelings speak louder than facts, appealing to feelings can actually work in favour of science.

I’m not sure what it means to “receive criticism” when you have the truth on your side, as Sandford does, but perhaps she means only that you should listen to people’s beefs about evolution.

But, as I’ve said several times, Sandford doesn’t mention whether she actually changed any minds—not one. What she did seem to learn is that religion is the biggest block towards accepting evolution:

But the misconceptions of religiously inclined folks often had greater personal significance. Listening to them, it became clear that they considered evolution an attack on all they held dear. Several asked me about a narrative they’d heard somewhere about how “life began when water was dripping on a rock”. Clearly, they were worried that such a narrative undercut the idea that humans were created in the image of God.

And indeed, you don’t even have to be especially religious to consider evolution an attack on your worldview—although it helps. Evolution undermines human exceptionalism and our self-image in many ways. In the book below, which I recommend, Steve Stewart-Williams goes through all of these ways (click on screenshot to go to the Amazon site):

And here are two of the slides I use when explaining why Americans are scared of evolution; many of the points are from Stewart-Williams’s book (and I credit him when I show these slides). The red bits are implications that I consider especially important in turning people off evoution:

In general, while teaching facts about evolution does work, as I know from the email responses I got to the book Why Evolution is True, American remains obdurately anti-evolution, with only 22% of us accepting naturalistic evolution for humans compared to 40% being young-earth creationists and 33% theistic evolutionists (those who think God intervenes in the process, especially in the origins of humans). In other words, 73% of us have a supernaturalistic view of evolution—more than three times the frequency of those who accept “Darwinian” naturalistic evolution as it’s taught in biology class.

In the end, the vast majority of opposition to evolution comes from religion. The more religious the country, the less acceptance of evolution. Religion immunizes people, at a every young age, against evolution, for they get their faith before they learn about biology. As I always say, if I could do just one thing to increase the acceptance of evolution in America, it would be “make religion vanish.”

That is a hard job, and will take decades or even centuries. And it’s why I wear two hats, one as an evolution teacher and promoter, and the other as an anti-theist. I’m not sure that Maggie Sandford’s strategy works, as she seems to go light on the facts and completely avoids criticism of faith. It’s no surprise that she doesn’t boast about her victories at the Minnesota State Fair!

But I’d be churlish to tell her to lay off, because she may well be planting seeds of doubt in people—seeds that may sprout only much later. So Ceiling Cat bless her for having the courage to parade her views in public and invite criticism. I do wish her success.

Here’s the video:

h/t: Dom

Discovery Institute makes hay of Dawkins tweet, and a geneticist mistakenly says that artificial selection won’t work in humans

Unless you’ve been in Ulan Bator (and actually, some people in Mongolia do read WEIT), you surely know about Dawkins’s latest twitter kerfuffle, in which he said, correctly, that human eugenics would “work”. That is true in the sense he meant it: artificial selection practiced on human traits would yield a change in mean trait values, for most traits have appreciable “heritability.” People misinterpreted that—most of them deliberately, I think—to excoriate Dawkins as favoring eugenics, something that’s clearly untrue, especially in light of his subsequent clarifications. It’s not clear to me why these people won’t admit that they mischaracterized Dawkins’s tweets. But of course people get stuck in their ideology and are loath to admit error.

[UPDATE: Dawkins reiterates what he meant on a comment on yesterday’s post: here.]

One commenter noted that most of the pushback seemed to come from the Left or from the woke. That may be true, for many of them hate Dawkins for being “the wrong kind of atheist”: seen (wrongly) as shrill and uncaring about oppression. But I have to note that the Right has been making hay about Dawkins’s tweet as well—especially the religious, who tend to be on the Right. That goes double for creationists, including those who are wasting their lives at the Discovery Institute.

And so, on the DI “Evolution News” website, David Klinghoffer, an Orthodox Jewish ID creationist, has evinced some glee about Richard’s tweet. To see it, click on the screenshot below (it goes to a Wayback Machine link that I’ve archived so that the site itself doesn’t get clicks):

Klinghoffer takes two approaches to denigrating Dawkins.

The first is to cite geneticist Dave Curtis’s recent Twitter thread arguing that eugenics wouldn’t work. (Curtis is an Honorary Professor in the Division of Biosciences at University College London.) Curtis’s tweets have cited widely to show that Dawkins was wrong, but, sadly, I think Curtis himself is wrong. Dead wrong. I’ll give a few of his tweets and briefly explain why.

Here’s the first one, and the assertion that “eugenics simply would not work” is not at all supported by human data, as I document below.

I’ve indented Curtis’s subsequent tweets (only the ones I see as relevant). My own comments are flush left.

I work on human genetics and am honorary professor at the UCL Genetics Institute. I’m the editor-in chief of a journal which used to be called Annals of Eugenics. I just wanted to say that we now know from the latest research that eugenics simply would not work.

This is not true at all. The up-to-date data we have suggests strongly that artificial selection on human traits would “work” in the sense of changing mean trait values in the direction you select. Moreover, it would work in this way for nearly all human traits (see paper below). By saying eugenics would “work”, of course, I am, along with Dawkins, not at all saying it should be practiced. While a limited form of selection in humans is acceptable—for example, preventing a couple who are carriers of a recessive genetic defect or disease from producing an offspring with that condition—the kind of wholesale and directed selective breeding of humans suggested by the word “eugenics” is immoral, and I don’t favor it at all.

On to more tweets. In this one, Curtis flaunts his expertise, but that doesn’t make the data showing him wrong any less convincing:

I have published hundreds of scientific papers on human genetics including on intellectual disability, mental illness and the predictive ability of genetic. You can view the list here:

On to his objections:

Animals are bred in controlled environments and have short generational times with large numbers of offspring. In these circumstances selective breeding can produce desired changes in a small number of specific traits such as milk yield or racing performance.

There are a number of different kinds of reason why eugenics would not work. One is that humans have long generational times and small numbers of offspring. This would make any selective breeding process extremely slow.

Well, “controlled environments” doesn’t mean that selection wouldn’t work, any more than saying selection wouldn’t work in nature because the environment in nature is variable. Artificial selection in animals is successful even in variable environments: I could, for example, select for more bristles on Drosophila flies, even while changing the type of food they get every generation and letting them experience variation in room temperature. We’d still get an increase in bristle number over time. If you think otherwise, I’d bet you a lot of money that you’re wrong.

The “long generation time” of humans isn’t a barrier to getting a result with artificial selection. It only means that, in terms of years (not generations), getting a response would be slower. But not infinitesimally slow!

For example, if you have a trait like height, which appears to show a heritability of about 0.8 (80%), then if you breed only from a group of humans whose average height is 5 inches above the population mean, in the next generation (ca. 20 years later), the response to selection—the average height of the selected group’s offspring when mature—would be 5 X 0.8, or four inches above the mean. That is, you would have raised the height of the population by four inches. That’s a big change in one generation: you’ve gone 80% of the way to your goal. It all depends on the heritability of the trait (which is usually appreciable) and how strongly one selects.

The “breeder’s equation” for this kind of calculation is simply response to selection = heritability of the trait in that population X the strength of selection practiced. And in fact this experiment is performed in miniature every day: tall couples produce tall offspring, short ones produce short offspring. That is really a form of artificial selection performed because couples tend to mate assortatively by height. Each couple mating gives us an idea of how much variation in that trait is genetic.

Finally, the low number of offspring doesn’t matter so long as you can keep the population going after selection. Note that offspring number doesn’t figure in the breeder’s equation.

As for the statement “selective breeding can produce desired changes in a small number of specific traits such as milk yield or racing performance”, that’s extremely misleading. As I’ve said before, I’m aware of only two artificial-selection experiments, out of hundreds practiced on genetically variable populations, that failed to yield a response, and both of those experiments were mine. (I was selecting on “directional asymmetry”, a trait with very low heritability.) “Small number of specific traits” is the misleading bit here. Better that he said, “selective breeding can produce desired changes in almost any trait.” After all, remember what Darwin said in The Origin, a conclusion based on breeders’ results before evolution and genetics were accepted or even understood:

 “Breeders habitually speak of an animal’s organization as something quite plastic, which they can model almost as they please.”

That, of course, means that animal traits have substantial heritability, for it is that heritability that make animals (and plants!) quite plastic. And so it is with humans, for we have evidence that natural selection has altered several human traits in the past 10,000 years or so, and in populations that are relatively small.

Another tweet by Curtis:

Another reason is that humans are exposed to very different environments, so most of trait variation is not due to genetic factors but to differences in environment. One consequence is that it makes it hard to identify subjects who have desirable genetic characteristics.

Here Curtis is again being misleading. What we do know from studies of heritability in our species is summarized in the article below (click on screenshot). The article shows that virtually all human traits have appreciable heritability (“selectability”), with none having zero heritability. And is it really hard to identify humans who are taller than others, or have higher IQs or better teeth? Yes, there is often substantial environmental variability contributing to the trait variation (diet and education in the cases I’ve cited), but this doesn’t mean that selection wouldn’t work.

Here’s the paper’s summary, showing that most traits have a substantial heritability (49% means that about half of the variation among individuals in a population is due to “additive” genetic factors). Further analysis suggests that (shared) environmental influences aren’t overwhelmingly important in these twin studies. Other studies of both identical and fraternal twins reared together and apart also show a substantial heritability and lower environmental effects than expected (see here, and here, for example). Further studies using not twins but identity by descent (e.g., here) also confirm heritabilities derived from the twin studies.

And from the paper’s discussion (my emphasis):

We have conducted a meta-analysis of virtually all twin studies published in the past 50 years, on a wide range of traits and reporting on more than 14 million twin pairs across 39 different countries. Our results provide compelling evidence that all human traits are heritable: not one trait had a weighted heritability estimate of zero.

That means that virtually all human traits would change when subject to artificial selection.

More of Curtis’s tweets with my responses.

We can now measure genetic potential directly from genetic markers and what we know from this is that these genetic predictors perform extremely badly. We can also tell that there are many important, very rare genetic variants which we will never be able to identify. 9/n]

Individual genetic markers are largely irrelevant here; what is important in judging whether selection would “work” is the heritability of the trait in the population, which reflects variation at all relevant genes, not just one or a few genetic markers. Again, using one or a few genetic markers is not the way to change traits. The way to change them is to select for or against certain trait values.

“We should bear in mind that harsh selection pressures have been acting on humans up to the present and that there may be very little scope for overall improvement. In any event, we can confidently say that selective breeding to improve desirable traits is not practicable.

Here Curtis is saying something not supported by the data. We know that there is still substantial genetic variation in humans from the heritability studies above, which directly contradict Curtis’s claim that “there is little scope for [change].” The average heritability at present is nearly 50% among all traits, which means that there is huge scope for “overall improvement” (I prefer “change”, as I don’t know what would constitute “improvement” in humans.) Of course it’s not “practical” to perform such broad-scale selection as a form of eugenics because of moral considerations, but that’s separate from whether that kind of selection would change the mean of a population.

With a recessive disease it may be possible to eliminate cases of the disease from the population using a combination of carrier testing, prenatal screening and selective termination. However this is not eugenics because the variants are still present in the population.

Of course that kind of selective breeding (termination of genetically afflicted embryos) is eugenics! Some variants would remain in the population, but their frequency would be reduced. That is a response to selection! And that involves “terminating” (a euphemism) genetically defective embryos. Just because calling selective elimination of embryos “not eugenics” doesn’t make it not eugenics.

Again, using one or a few genetic markers is not the way to change traits. The way to change them is to select for or against certain trait values.
TLDR: People who support eugenics initiatives are evil racists. Also, modern genetic research shows that eugenics would not work. 19/end

The first part of the statement is true in a qualified sense. However, “eugenics” practiced as “elimination of cases of disease from the population,” as Curtis mentions above, are certainly “eugenics initiatives”, and most of us support such practices. That doesn’t make us evil racists. What does make us evil racists is selective breeding practices on entire races or populations with an eye to differentiating races.

The second part of the statement—that artificial selection on human populations wouldn’t work—is just wrong, and dead wrong. I’m surprised that a man of Curtis’s expertise would make a statement like that. His Twitter thread should not be used as evidence against Dawkins’s claim for the efficacy of artificial selection in humans.

Klinghoffer’s second approach is to cite Behe’s claim that while artificial selection may create some success changing species, it can’t effect big changes. It can create breeds of dogs from wolves, for instance, but can’t change a wolf into a puma. This is an old creationist trope. Quotes from Klinghoffer and Behe are indented:
In an email, a geneticist friend notes the irony. Darwinian evolution is a massive extrapolation from selective breeding in animals. Of course animal breeding “works,” up to a point. Darwin in the Origin of Species cited the efforts of pigeon fanciers. In a New York Times book review, Dawkins once taunted Michael Behe with the successes of dog-breeding. But there are limits. Dogs can’t be bred to become cats, nor pigeons into bats. There appear to be set limits.

There appear to be set limits. Why? Behe has noted the problem that dog-breeding, canine eugenics, is accomplished largely by breaking genes:

Popularizers of evolution said if we can breed dogs that are so different from each other and only do it in the past few hundred years, how much better could nature do? But again, we didn’t know what was going on in the biology of these dogs. In the past 10 years, the entire genomes of many different dog breeds have been sequenced. And again, it turns out if you want a Chihuahua, you can break one of the genes involved in growth. If you want French poodles with curly hair, you break a gene involved in hair growth. If you want a dog with a short muzzle, you break a gene involved in facial shape development.

I and others have already refuted Behe’s claim (see also here and here) that selection for new features is ineffective because it involves broken genes that eventually stop selection in its tracks. And besides, the kind of changes that racist eugenicists proposed in the past (and again, I don’t favor them) are small-scale changes of the type involved in other forms of artificial selection. They didn’t propose turning humans into pumas!

Klinghoffer goes on:

Dave Curtis’s well informed observation is that even given the success of animal breeding, the analogy with humans is mistaken. But that leaves evolution…where? The extrapolation from dogs or pigeons to macroevolution fails because building genuine biological novelties, not just a Chihuahua as distinct from a poodle, requires more than merely breaking stuff, aka devolution, as Behe has shown in his book Darwin Devolves. If the many wonders of the animal world could not have proceeded from Darwinian blind shuffling alone, then human evolution, which can’t even stand on the shaky ground of human eugenics, all the more cannot have done so. 

As I’ve showed, Curtis has no data supporting him, and considerable data contradicting his claims. But in the end, this whole kerfuffle has nothing to do with macroevolution: it’s about microevolution. Even noting that, I’ll argue—but not here—that the IDers’ supposed “unbreakable barrier” between microevolution and macroevolution is totally bogus.

Debate discussion: chime in

As I said this morning, I didn’t watch last night’s Democratic debate, but I’m watching it now as I work (from the ink below). But it’s distracting, and I may have to stop.

I gather from the media reports that it was pretty fractious, with everyone going after Bloomberg and Sanders. I’m still amazed that Sanders is the front-runner, which seems to derive solely from his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, tiny states that are nearly all white. I’ll vote for him in November if he’s nominated, but he’s not my favorite candidate. (In fact, no candidate gets my juices flowing, and so I’m not sure who I’ll vote for in the Illinois primaries.)

The New York Times columnists and contributors have discussed the debate performances and ranked them on a scale from 1-10, with 10 being the highest. Here are their rankings and scores:

Elizabeth Warren, 8.4
Bernie Sanders, 7.2
Pete Buttigieg, 6.9
Joe Biden, 6.2
Amy Klobuchar, 6.0
Michael Bloomberg, a bottom-scraping 2.9!

I see you can watch the full debate (1 hour, 38 minutes) at the NBC News site (click on screenshot):

So, since I’ve only watched a few minutes of the debate (and am already cringing), I’m sure most American readers have, and so weigh in below with your take. Did Bloomberg shoot himself in the foot? Is Sanders unstoppable? If so, can he beat Trump? This is all prognostication, of course, and it’s not pleasant to see the Dems attacking each other this way, but hey, there are big stakes and they have to distinguish themselves from the other Dems.

Reader Pliny the in Between’s take on the debate:

Readers’ wildlife videos

Nature videographer and regular Tara Tanaka (Vimeo page here, flickr page here) has a new video, one that features some of my favorite waterfowl. I think it’s one of the best videos she’s done to date, so be sure to watch. Tara’s Vimeo notes are indented.  I’ll be speaking in Tallahassee next month and have been invited to visit Tara’s home and see her famous blind. Perhaps I’ll see my first wood duck in the wild!

The Great Backyard Bird Count, an annual, worldwide event, took place on February 14-17 this year, and over a quarter million lists have been submitted to so far. The second day was a spectacular winter day in Florida, and I spent the first two and the last three hours of daylight in my photo blind, which is currently located in our backyard cypress swamp that we manage as a wildlife sanctuary. This video represents the highlights of five hours of viewing condensed into five minutes. Enjoy!

Thursday: Hili dialogue

It’s Thursday, February 20, 2020: only three more days before my week’s R&R&E in Paris. Remember, posting will be very light next week, and access to email restricted, so please try not to email me from Sunday through March 4—unless it’s urgent.

It’s a double food holiday: :National Cherry Pie Day as well as National Muffin Day. (I prefer the pie.) It’s Fat Thursday, a Mardi Gras holiday, World Day of Social Justice, Love Your Pet Day (who doesn’t?), and Northern Hemisphere Hoodie Hoo Day, a weird holiday described thusly:

Founded by renowned holiday creators Thomas and Ruth Roy of Wellcat Holidays, this holiday was made to help chase away winter and usher in spring. In the Northern Hemisphere, spring usually begins on March 20, but can start on March 19 or March 21. Thus, the holiday is celebrated about month before the end of winter. A Southern Hemisphere counterpart is celebrated on August 22, about a month before the start of spring in that hemisphere.

I’d rather it be Duck Anticipation Day, it being about a month before my beloved mallard Honey is expected to return.

News of the Day: I didn’t watch the Democratic debate last night, but the news suggests it was a free-for-all. Here’s the first paragraph of the New York Times report:

LAS VEGAS — The Democratic presidential candidates turned on one another in scorching and personal terms in a debate on Wednesday night, with two of the leading candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders and Michael R. Bloomberg, forced onto the defensive repeatedly throughout the evening.

Here’s a sub-header from another article:

Oy! We shall discuss it soon, so, if you watched it, hold your comments.

Stuff that happened on February 20 include:

  • 1792 – The Postal Service Act, establishing the United States Post Office Department, is signed by United States President George Washington.
  • 1816 – Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville premieres at the Teatro Argentina in Rome.
  • 1872 – The Metropolitan Museum of Art opens in New York City.
  • 1877 – Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake receives its premiere at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
  • 1933 – The U.S. Congress approves the Blaine Act to repeal federal Prohibition in the United States, sending the Twenty-first Amendment to the United States Constitution to state ratifying conventions for approval.
  • 1935 – Caroline Mikkelsen becomes the first woman to set foot in Antarctica.

Here’s Mikkelsen, and a photo of her raising the Norwegian flag on the continent of Antarctica (she was part of an expedition in which Norway was looking for Antarctic land to claim). That’s not exactly Antarctic garb they’re all wearing in the second photo.

Første kvinne i Antarktis 20.februar. 1935. Caroline Mikkelsen heiser det norske flagget ved varden på Ingrid Christensen Land.

Here’s O’Hare in his Wildcat fighter; each Japanese flag represents a plane shot down, and five planes makes an “ace.” Note the Felix the Cat with bomb emblem, the symbol of Fighter Squadron VF-3 (now VF-31):

O’Hare airport in Chicago is named for the man, who was killed by a Japanese bomber in 1943.

Here’s the original of that painting, “Freedom of Speech,” which now resides in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I took the picture during the “Moving Naturalism Forward” meeting in October, 2012. A free-speech and genocide advocate stands beside it:

  • 1952 – Emmett Ashford becomes the first African-American umpire in organized baseball by being authorized to be a substitute umpire in the Southwestern International League.
  • 1962 – Mercury program: While aboard Friendship 7, John Glenn becomes the first American to orbit the earth, making three orbits in four hours, 55 minutes.
  • 2005 – Spain becomes the first country to vote in a referendum on ratification of the proposed Constitution of the European Union, passing it by a substantial margin, but on a low turnout.

Here’s a short video about Ashford. He started umpiring at 51, and worked four seasons, retiring after the league’s required retirement age of 55.

Notables born on this day include:

  • 1844 – Ludwig Boltzmann, Austrian physicist and philosopher (d. 1906)
  • 1901 – René Dubos, French-American biologist and author (d. 1982)
  • 1901 – Louis Kahn, American architect, designed the Salk Institute, the Kimbell Art Museum and the Bangladesh Parliament Building (d. 1974)
  • 1902 – Ansel Adams, American photographer and environmentalist (d. 1984)
  • 1925 – Robert Altman, American director and screenwriter (d. 2006)
  • 1927 – Roy Cohn, American lawyer and political activist (d. 1986)
  • 1941 – Buffy Sainte-Marie, Canadian singer-songwriter and producer
  • 1954 – Patty Hearst, American actress and author
  • 1966 – Cindy Crawford, American model and businesswoman
  • 1984 – Trevor Noah, South African comedian, actor, and television host
  • 1988 – Rihanna, Barbadian-American singer-songwriter and actress

Those who petered out on February 20 include:

  • 1895 – Frederick Douglass, American author and activist (b. 1818)
  • 1920 – Robert Peary, American admiral and explorer (b. 1856)
  • 1999 – Gene Siskel, American journalist and critic (b. 1946)
  • 2005 – Hunter S. Thompson, American journalist and author (b. 1937)

Here’s the gonzo man himself (he shot himself at age 67, and, at his funeral, his ashes were fired from a cannon to the accompaniment of fireworks.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is pensive:\

Hili: Contemplation takes up a lot of my time.
A: And what are you contemplating?
Hili: Whatever I can lay my eyes on.
In Polish:
Hili: Wiele czasu zajmuje mi kontemplacja.
Ja: A co kontemplujesz?
Hili: Co mi w oczy wpadnie.

And Szaron, the feral cat who’s in the process of being lured into a Forever Home in Dobrzyn, has stolen the lodger’s breakfast, running away with a pate sandwich in a plastic bag. (There’s a funny video of the theft on Andrzej’s Facebook page.) Here he is:

From Vintage Weird, a sign that was apparently at the National Zoo in Washington, D. C. in 1943 (h/t: Krod). The sign doesn’t note that losses could also be incurred there!


A baby giraffe from Wild and Wonderful:

From Jesus of the Day:

A tweet from Luana. TUNASHAMED! (I had tuna yesterday and oy, and I ashamed! Why didn’t Jesus stop me?)

From Dom. This thing could kill you from above. It’s a cone of the Australian confer Bunya (Araucaria bidwilli), related to the monkey puzzle tree.

Two tweets from Simon. First, they did the otter and squirrel genome (two squirrels)!

And here’s another release of the squirrel genome. I think you’ll guess early on what’s gonna happen. (Sound up by all means!)

A tweet from Heather Hastie. Hard to believe there are men like this around, or at least men who aren’t Amish or conservative Mormons.


Tweets from Matthew. Octopus see, octopus do. This is really lovely.

Spot the leaf frogs!

This is fricking amazing! What a lot of work, but he got a healthy chick!