Crows pulling tails

In my dotage I’ve decided to cut back on work on Saturday, and I’m sure readers will forgive me if I take a weekly break (that means lighter posting, not no posting). So let’s end Professor Ceiling Cat’s writing day with a simple series of photographs of “Tail pulling” given on The Corvid Blog.

Corvids are species in the family Corvidae, and include crows, ravens, rooks, and jackdaws, magpies, jays, and sundry other species (120 species total). They’re known for their intelligence, and I’ve posted about them fairly often (see here). As Wikipedia notes,

Corvids display remarkable intelligence for animals of their size and are among the most intelligent birds thus far studied.  Specifically, members of the family have demonstrated self-awareness in mirror tests (European magpies) and tool-making ability (crows, rooks), skills which until recently were thought to be possessed only by humans and a few other higher mammals. Their total brain-to-body mass ratio is equal to that of great apes and cetaceans, and only slightly lower than in humans.

You can see how smart they are by clicking on the last link above. But they’re mischievous, too! Here are corvids pulling tails, including each other’s:

A quote from the Blog’s piece:

This behavior is so common it’s noted in many scientific papers, with a nice summary from Lawrence Kilham in his 1989 book The American Crow and the Common Raven, page 34-35:

Tail pulling is a habit common to a number of corvids (Goodwin 1976). The crow that robbed the otter by pulling its tail could have done so by happenstance or as a deliberate piece of strategy.  It is hard to know.  The crows had pulled the otters’ tails many times before, to no seeming purpose except an urge, shared by Black-Billed Magpies (Lorenz 1970) and Common Ravens, to provoke animals larger than themselves, whether there is any immediate advantage to doing so or not.  Bent (1946) reported three Common Ravens robbing a dog of a bone, one bird pulling the dog’s tail while others stood by its head.  It is conceivable that crows, like ravens, are capable after trial and error of seizing upon the right movement for pulling a tail to advantage.  Another use of tail pulling can be to get a larger bird or mammal to move from a carcass, as I describe later for Common Ravens contending with Turkey Vultures and as Hewson (1981) did for Hooded Crows contending with a Buzzard.  Goodwin (1976) described crows and magpies pulling the tails of mobbing predators. 

The behavior appears to be innate, for one of my hand-raised crows pulled a sheep’s tail and a hand-raised raven a cat’s tail when they were less than three months of age.

This is WRONG!:

But this is RIGHT; a d*g gets the pull:

h/t: Charleen

Penn faculty and students brutally attack law professor for her conservative op-ed; Dean asks her to take a leave of absence

Today’s Wall Street Journal contains another tale of university censorship, in this case involving Amy Wax, the Mundlein Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School in Philadelphia. The screenshot links to the essay, but it’s mostly paywalled, though judicious inquiry might yield you a copy. The article also notes that “This essay, adapted from a speech that she delivered in December, is reprinted by permission of Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College.”

Wax recounts one of those authoritarian horror stories that makes me glad that, when I was teaching, I was at the University of Chicago, which would never pull a stunt like Penn did on Wax.

It started when Wax and Larry Alexander (a professor at the University of California School of Law) wrote a joint op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer last August. Click on the screenshot to see it (it’s free). The title and photo of John Wayne alone tell you that Wax and Alexander were in for trouble.

It’s a conservative editorial decrying the breakdown of bourgeois values that America had in the 1950’s, and here’s some of the stuff that angered Wax’s liberal colleagues and many students:

That culture laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.

These basic cultural precepts reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s. They could be followed by people of all backgrounds and abilities, especially when backed up by almost universal endorsement. Adherence was a major contributor to the productivity, educational gains, and social coherence of that period.

Did everyone abide by those precepts? Of course not. There are always rebels — and hypocrites, those who publicly endorse the norms but transgress them. But as the saying goes, hypocrisy is the homage vice pays to virtue. Even the deviants rarely disavowed or openly disparaged the prevailing expectations.

Was everything perfect during the period of bourgeois cultural hegemony? Of course not. There was racial discrimination, limited sex roles, and pockets of anti-Semitism. However, steady improvements for women and minorities were underway even when bourgeois norms reigned. Banishing discrimination and expanding opportunity does not require the demise of bourgeois culture. Quite the opposite: The loss of bourgeois habits seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups. That trend also accelerated the destructive consequences of the growing welfare state, which, by taking over financial support of families, reduced the need for two parents. A strong pro-marriage norm might have blunted this effect. Instead, the number of single parents grew astronomically, producing children more prone to academic failure, addiction, idleness, crime, and poverty.

And you can tell that this paragraph was going to offend many people. By criticizing the cultures of Native Americans, working-class whites, inner-city blacks, and Hispanics, Wax ensured that a tsunami of offense would follow.
All cultures are not equal. Or at least they are not equal in preparing people to be productive in an advanced economy. The culture of the Plains Indians was designed for nomadic hunters, but is not suited to a First World, 21st-century environment. Nor are the single-parent, antisocial habits, prevalent among some working-class whites; the anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks; the anti-assimilation ideas gaining ground among some Hispanic immigrants. These cultural orientations are not only incompatible with what an advanced free-market economy and a viable democracy require, they are also destructive of a sense of solidarity and reciprocity among Americans. If the bourgeois cultural script — which the upper-middle class still largely observes but now hesitates to preach — cannot be widely reinstated, things are likely to get worse for us all.

You can judge for yourself whether this is racist or bigoted. It does criticize practices of different cultures, holding up the non working-class white culture as an implicit “model culture”, but it also makes empirically testable statements (e.g., working-class whites have a higher frequency of single-parent families and “anti-social habits”); and it also makes some value judgments that can be questioned (e.g. patriotism is good; “anti-assimilation” culture, a slippery notion, is bad for the U.S.) The essay doesn’t really strike me as particularly thoughtful, but may have some useful points, though they’ve been made many times before. For example, perhaps we should strive to somehow reduce the incidence of single-parent families, though I don’t know how to do that.

At any rate, Wax and Alexander’s (W&A’s) essay deserves discussion, not banning, and those who take issue with W&A’s claims should have attacked those claims, not Wax. One person who responded properly was Wax’s Penn law colleague Jonathan Click, in an essay at Heterodox Academy called “I don’t care if Amy Wax is politically incorrect; I do care that she’s empirically incorrect.” Click addresses and attempts to rebut some of W&A’s assertions, such as the statement that “Everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.” Have a look at Click’s essay as well as the comments.

That’s the way to deal with speech you find either incorrect or offensive: argue the facts, point out which claims are based on preferences, and so on. But do not call the writers names or try to shut them down or get them fired.

But the latter is what Wax experienced at Penn. As she states in the WSJ:

So what happened after our op-ed was published last August? A raft of letters, statements and petitions from students and professors at my university and elsewhere condemned the piece as hate speech—racist, white supremacist, xenophobic, “heteropatriarchial,” etc. There were demands that I be removed from the classroom and from academic committees. None of these demands even purported to address our arguments in any serious or systematic way.

response published in the Daily Pennsylvanian, our school newspaper, and signed by five of my Penn Law School colleagues, charged us with the sin of praising the 1950s—a decade when racial discrimination was openly practiced and opportunities for women were limited. I do not agree with the contention that because a past era is marked by benighted attitudes and practices—attitudes and practices we had acknowledged in our op-ed—it has nothing to teach us. But at least this response attempted to make an argument.

. . . Not so an open letter published in the Daily Pennsylvanian and signed by 33 of my colleagues. This letter quoted random passages from the op-ed and from a subsequent interview I gave to the school newspaper, condemned both and categorically rejected all of my views. It then invited students, in effect, to monitor me and to report any “stereotyping and bias” they might experience or perceive. This letter contained no argument, no substance, no reasoning, no explanation whatsoever as to how our op-ed was in error.

Do read that short open letter. It rejects W&A’s claims without giving reasons, and does implicitly urge students to report any further “transgressions”.

Wax reports that another colleague accused her of using “code words for Nazism”. She also quotes Jon Haidt who, in defending some of her claims and her right to speak without bullying, wrote this at the Heterodox Academy:

I said earlier that I think it is important for the academic community to reflect on this case. In the coming academic year, many of us will receive multiple emails from students and friends asking us to sign open letters and petitions denouncing each other. My advice is to delete them all. We already have bureaucratic procedures for investigating charges of professional misconduct. If you think that a professor has said or done something wrong then write an article or blog post explaining your reasons. But every open letter you sign to condemn a colleague for his or her words brings us closer to a world in which academic disagreements are resolved by social force and political power, not by argumentation and persuasion.

Finally, two of the most odious attempts to shut Wax up. First, a deputy dean told her that the open letter was “needed” to get her attention so that she “would rethink what [she] had written and understand the hurt [she] had inflicted and the damage she had done, so that [she] wouldn’t do it again.”

Second, and worse, her own dean at the Penn Law School asked her to take a year’s leave of absence and stop teaching her required first-year course so that the controversy would die down. In response to Wax’s counterargument that he shouldn’t be caving in to the protestors, the dean said that he was a “pluralistic dean” who had to listen and satisfy “all sides.”

No, deans don’t need to be pluralistic in that way. W&A’s editorial in the Inquirer was free speech. It was not “hate” speech, but conservative speech that decried intra-American cultural relativism. If it hurt people, it hurt only their feelings, and, as we know, nobody has a right to not have their feeling hurt by speech. The way to answer Wax was to write counterarticles and take issue with her arguments, not to shut her up and ask her to leave the law school till the dust clears.

She will be a pariah forever now, and that’s a shame. Her message needs to be heard, and her opponents need to muster their arguments. If they can’t do that, they better start thinking hard, for hard thinking and not name-calling is the response that we need, and is what our democracy is supposed to rest on.

Addendum: Above the Law, a law-school news site, reports that UC San Diego law students have asked their school to ban Alexander from teaching first-year students. (It apparently doesn’t matter what he says in the classroom; he’s been permanently declared an Unperson for that editorial). The Dean of the Law school has issued a statement that, while meekly admitting that Alexander had a right to write the op-ed, genuflects obsequiously to those who objected. The proper response would be like the one my University issued in response to calls to ban Steve Bannon’s upcoming talk. Short and sweet, it basically said that “Every faculty has the right to invite anyone to speak, and we defend that right.”

This all depresses me deeply. Are we really living in this kind of Orwellian world now: a world in which you’re no longer supposed to teach first-year students if you write an op-ed they don’t like? I urge you to read the W&A piece and judge if its authors deserve that fate.


Here’s Wax talking about the controversy. This is not the speech she delivered in December, but it must be pretty similar. This one was given in October of last year at Penn’s Federalist Society.

h/t: cesar

Caturday felid trifecta: Cat weather vanes; cat runs for rector at Scottish university; cats review a laser toy

To introduce today’s trifecta, here’s a cartoon contributed by reader Blue:

Reader Kevin called my attention to West Coast Weathervanes, which sells the eponymous product in custom designs. What’s nice about the place is that many of its weathervanes are shaped like cats, and they also have a page of cats who live in the shop or who have visited the shop. The page is called “Shop cats and friends“. Here are two screenshots of the page; they even had a visiting bobcat!


And they make the loveliest copper “Cats and kittens weathervanes“, which you can see at the link. If you’re in the market, how can you pass up one of these? (There are several others, including a bobcat.)


There’s a big kerfuffle in Scotland, as the students at Aberdeen University have seriously nominated a white cat, Buttons, to be the University’s rector. But they won’t allow him because of speciesism. Since the rector, I’m told, doesn’t have any real duties except to preside over meetings, it seems to me a cat could do the job well.  The Herald of Scotland has the story (click on the screenshot):

Some of the story:

HUNDREDS are protesting a ban over a cat becoming a candidate in a new University of Aberdeen Rector election.

A group of sixty students signed a rectorial nomination form supporting Buttons the campus moggie’s bid to become the new Rector in the wake of disillusionment with the election process.

The bid has already been officially rejected by the election co-ordinator because the cat was not human.

Now hundreds have supported an online campaign to have Buttons reinstated as a runner in the race to become Rector.

Here’s a poster for Buttons:

More news (my emphasis):

It comes just two months after the University was at the centre of an “abuse of power” row as it ratified a decision to scrap the Rector election over allegations of “dirty tricks” by the campaign for Maggie Chapman, the co-convenor of the Scottish Greens.

. . . The nomination explains that Buttons is a white cat who lives on campus and that campaigners decided that he is the “right individual to represent the interests of the student body”.

They said the reasons to vote for Buttons were that he lived locally, engages with the student daily, is a political and “is fluffy and friendly”.

“Buttons is a chance for the student population to truly stand up and have their say after such an unfortunate election last year. Buttons stands for change,” says the campaign group.

“Vote for Cats not Bureaucrats!”

But Phil Hannaford, the election returning officer has ruled that Buttons does not meet the requirements under the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator Guidelines to being a charity trustee.

Election co-ordinator Nicholas Edwards told the campaigners: “Both the returning officer and I appreciate Buttons’ interest in the role and wish him well in his future endeavours.”

What a patronizing answer! It’s time to stop this prejudice against felines holding positions for which they’re perfectly qualified.

Here’s the petition for his nomination. I think we readers can put it over the top—only 101 to go! Professor Ceiling Cat would be so pleased if it exceeded 500! (Of course this is just for the record; the University will not bend to their ridiculous stipulation that the Rector be a human). Click on the screenshot to sign (I have):


Finally cats and their staff review a laser toy—unfavorably. I’m told you shouldn’t use lasers as toys since the cats never get the satisfaction of a capture.

h/t: Kevin, Beckie, Grania

Readers’ wildlife photos

Today we have some herp photos sent by a new contributor. Let’s have a warm welcome for—Peter Uimonen! His notes are attached:

Here are two photos I took in Big Bend National Park in the summer of 2014. The first is of a Trans-Pecos Rat Snake (Bogertophis subocularis). They are not often seen because they are nocturnal. However, I came across this one out and about on a warm summer night.

The second is of a Greater Earless Lizard (Cophosaurus texanus). They are diurnal and quite common in the lowland desert of Big Bend, particularly along the Mule Ears Spring trail (one of my favorite hikes down there). This beautiful male specimen is in an aggressive posture.

Here are two photos from the Osa Peninsula [Costa Rica]; my wife and I are going back down there in June. The first is the helmeted iguana (Corytophanes cristatus). This was a lucky shot in two ways. First, it’s a gorgeous specimen (see the yellow and blue scaling along with the green). Second, they’re cryptic and hard to spot. I was the lucky one to spot it. As I recall even our local guide was impressed.

The second is of two green and black poison dart frogs (Dendrobates auratus) along with a Golfo Dulce poison dart frog (Phyllobates vittatus) below the root buttress. All three were competing for territory along this buttress.

Yesterday’s optical illusion: the hearts are the same color!

On yesterday’s Hili Dialogue, I posted this tweet, an optical illusion provided by Matthew:

The hearts are said to be the same color, with the illusion of their being different colors due to the different-colored stripes running through them. The was lots of argument among the readers, and, as far as I can remember, no consensus.

I put this question to Matthew (why do you readers make me do these things?), and he responded by checking. Here’s his response and his image. The conclusion is that the hearts are both the same color: a blue-tinted green.

They are the same colour. I have been in and checked the image, see here. The left half, with the orange, is from the ‘green’ heart. The right half, with the pink, is from the ‘blue’ heart.

Another response showing the color identity:

I think this settles it: if Matthew’s satisfied, so am I. However, if you can prove to Matthew’s satisfaction that they are really of different colors, you will win an autographed copy of his latest (and terrific) book: Life’s Greatest Secret, about the cracking of the genetic code. The first one to disprove color identity of the hearts will get the book. You can email me or put your “proof” in the comments.

Matthew sets out the rules:

People need to download the original large image (attached) and then enlarge it to show they are differerent colours. They won’t be able to do it.

Saturday: Hili dialogue

It’s the weekend: Saturday, February 17, 2018, and the temperature in Chicago has dropped to well below freezing. It’s National Café au Lait Day, and if a latte counts I’ll oblige shortly. In Catholicism, it’s the Feast Day of Bernadette Soubirous, the girl who thought she saw the Virgin Mary at Lourdes. Sadly, the rest is history.

Not much happened on this day with respect to either births or history. I guess people don’t copulate in June (which is mysterious), and they don’t do much either, accounting for the absence of historical events—at least in the Northern Hemisphere.

On February 17, 1600, the philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned alive for heresy in Rome. And on this day in 1801, an electoral tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr was resolved in this way (from Wikipedia):

In 1800, the Democratic-Republican Party again nominated Jefferson for president and also nominated Aaron Burr for vice president. After the election, Jefferson and Burr both obtained a majority of electoral votes, but tied one another with 73 votes each. Since ballots did not distinguish between votes for president and votes for vice president, every ballot cast for Burr technically counted as a vote for him to become president, despite Jefferson clearly being his party’s first choice. Lacking a clear winner by constitutional standards, the election had to be decided by the House of Representatives pursuant to the Constitution’s contingency election provision.

Having already lost the presidential contest, Federalist Party representatives in the lame duck House session seized upon the opportunity to embarrass their opposition by attempting to elect Burr over Jefferson. The House deadlocked for 35 ballots as neither candidate received the necessary majority vote of the state delegations in the House (the votes of nine states were needed for a conclusive election). Jefferson achieved electoral victory on the 36th ballot, but only after Federalist Party leader Alexander Hamilton—who disfavored Burr’s personal character more than Jefferson’s policies—had made known his preference for Jefferson.

Of course a little more than three years later, Burr shot and killed Hamilton in a duel.

On this day in 1867, the first ship passed through the Suez Canal. On February 17, 1904, Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly” premiered at La Scala in Milan.  And in 1980, Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy, two Polish mountaineers, made the first winter ascent of Mount Everest. Finally, on this day in 1996, world chess champion Garry Kasparov beat the “Deep Blue” supercomputer in a match. However, the computer won one game and there were two ties, so the final score was 4-2.

Those born on February 17 include geneticist and statistician Ronald Fisher (1890), Duane “Galloping” Gish (1921), Chaim Potok (1929), Gene Pitney (1940), Huey P. Newton (1942), and Michael Jordan (1963; he’s 55 today). Those who expired on this day include Giordano Bruno (1600; see above), Jan Swammerdam (1680), Heinrich Heine (1856), Geronimo (1909), Thelonious Monk (1982), and Mindy MCready (2013).

Here’s Gene Pitney singing my favorite of his songs, “Only Love Can Break a Heart”, written by Burt Bachrach and Hal David. Pitney made it a hit in 1962, but this more recent performance (the only live one I could find) is still pretty good. The original version starts at 2:28, so you get two for one. (A live medley of his hits, sung when he was young, is here.)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili has found place to rest, but it’s in Andrzej’s chair:

Hili: You are sitting on me.
A: You can find another place.
Hili: No way.

In Polish:

Hili: Siedzisz na mnie.
Ja: Nadal możesz poszukać sobie innego miejsca.
Hili: Mowy nie ma.

Purely by chance, all of today’s tweets (save one) involve cats. Here’s one showing a woman’s crazy moggies:

From reader Blue, a box ‘o Bengals. Look at those spots! Some day one of these will be mine.

From Matthew, a “particularly fine” painting, and you can see why! For once the artist has drawn the cats correctly. I think there’s a Ph.D. thesis waiting to be written on why artists can’t paint cats properly.

And something I know we’re all curious about: what happens when the flight attendants inflate the emergency slide:

Grania found this cat tweet, and the short video has gone viral. Apparently this cat hangs out at the top of the Taksim Square metro station in Istanbul, and has been doing so for several years. It’s the most chill cat I’ve ever seen. Naturally the cat-loving Turkish commuters carefully avoid hurting it:

Here’s another photo of it, and you can read more on BuzzFeed (as you can see, people feed it, too). I’m sure there’s at least one Turkish-speaking reader who can translate this for us:

Another Olympic-watching kitten

This morning we saw a cat trying to catch televised snowboarders from the Olympics. Now we have a reader’s cat, Minnie, who does the same thing, except to skiers.  Staff member Alexandra reports:

My grandkitty enjoying the Olympics. Minnie is a rescue, about 5 months old, living happily with my  nearby daughter and several Great Danes. She watched for quite a long time, with that delicate little paw interaction.

Here’s Minnie and her Great Dane housemate:

Pinker on the science “wars”, identity politics, and his new book

Steve is doing a full-court press publicizing his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, which has now risen to #10 on Amazon.  And this publicity is exactly what I’d be doing if I had his renown and intellectual chops. At any rate, I’ll call your attention to three news items that are based on the book, including two excerpts or rewrites.

The first is from The Chronicle of Higher Education, and you can see it by clicking on the screenshot below.  It’s fairly similar to Steve’s 2013 piece in The New Republic, “Science is not your enemy“, in that it calls for an infusion of science into some areas of the humanities while still extolling those areas of the humanities, like literary interpretation, that have little to do with science.  That piece drew an intemperate response from literary editor Leon Wieseltier in the same magazine, “Crimes against humanities” (Subtitle: Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let it happen.”)

Nevertheless, check out the comments after the Chronicle piece to see the humanities scholars fighting for their turf. There’s no need to, really. Their endeavors are a vital part of a liberal education, and I, for one, would have had a much poorer life were it not for my English, fine arts, philosophy, and ancient history courses in college. By suggesting that some areas of the humanities could benefit from a more quantitative and empirical (i.e., scientific) approach, Steve has been criticized as “scientistic”, and I expected this misguided kvetching will get even louder when people read the book.

This week Pinker also gave an interview on NPR’s program 1A (I’ve listened only to the first bit).  It’s still up, and you can hear the 35-minute show, in which Pinker discusses his new book, by clicking on the screenshot below. From the part I’ve heard, he shows his usual eloquence, speaking in full paragraphs that, if written out, would also be excellent prose.

Finally, there’s this, which I quite like. I’ve thought a lot about identity politics but never as clearly or succinctly as Pinker. This is from The Weekly Standard, a venue I never go to.

This is clearly connected with the new book, and is an interview with Adam Rubenstein. I’ll give just one or two excerpts (I especially like the last paragraph of this first excerpt):

Steven Pinker: Identity politics is the syndrome in which people’s beliefs and interests are assumed to be determined by their membership in groups, particularly their sex, race, sexual orientation, and disability status. Its signature is the tic of preceding a statement with “As a,” as if that bore on the cogency of what was to follow. Identity politics originated with the fact that members of certain groups really were disadvantaged by their group membership, which forged them into a coalition with common interests: Jews really did have a reason to form the Anti-Defamation League.

But when it spreads beyond the target of combatting discrimination and oppression, it is an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values, including, ironically, the pursuit of justice for oppressed groups. For one thing, reason depends on there being an objective reality and universal standards of logic. As Chekhov said, there is no national multiplication table, and there is no racial or LGBT one either.

This isn’t just a matter of keeping our science and politics in touch with reality; it gives force to the very movements for moral improvement that originally inspired identity politics. The slave trade and the Holocaust are not group-bonding myths; they objectively happened, and their evil is something that all people, regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation, must acknowledge and work to prevent in the future.

Even the aspect of identity politics with a grain of justification—that a man cannot truly experience what it is like to be a woman, or a white person an African American—can subvert the cause of equality and harmony if it is taken too far, because it undermines one of the greatest epiphanies of the Enlightenment: that people are equipped with a capacity for sympathetic imagination, which allows them to appreciate the suffering of sentient beings unlike them. In this regard nothing could be more asinine than outrage against “cultural appropriation”—as if it’s a bad thing, rather than a good thing, for a white writer to try to convey the experiences of a black person, or vice versa.

My one beef with this is that there still is very real oppression of non-binary people, women, and gays in the U.S. and other parts of the world—that is not a “multiplication table” or a myth. It is an objective reality, even if, at least in America, such oppression is not “institutionalized” in law.  But I agree with him that cries of “cultural appropriation” are almost always risible, and will hinder rather than improve the world.

Oh hell, one more—a defense of free speech:

AR: There is, as you recognize a “liberal tilt” in academia. And you write about it: “Non-leftist speakers are frequently disinvited after protests or drowned out by jeering mobs,” and “anyone who disagrees with the assumption that racism is the cause of all problems is called a racist.” How high are the stakes in universities? Should we worry?

SP: Yes, for three reasons. One is that scholars can’t hope to understand the world (particularly the social world) if some hypotheses are given a free pass and others are unmentionable. As John Stuart Mill noted, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” In The Blank Slate I argued that leftist politics had distorted the study of human nature, including sex, violence, gender, childrearing, personality, and intelligence. The second is that people who suddenly discover forbidden facts outside the crucible of reasoned debate (which is what universities should be) can take them to dangerous conclusions, such as that differences between the sexes imply that we should discriminate against women (this kind of fallacy has fueled the alt-right movement). The third problem is that illiberal antics of the hard left are discrediting the rest of academia, including the large swaths of moderates and open-minded scholars who keep their politics out of their research. (Despite the highly publicized follies of academia, it’s still a more disinterested forum than alternatives like the Twittersphere, Congress, or ideologically branded think tanks.) In particular, many right-wingers tell each other that the near-consensus among scientists on human-caused climate change is a conspiracy among politically correct academics who are committed to a government takeover of the economy. This is sheer nonsense, but it can gain traction when the noisiest voices in the academy are the repressive fanatics.

This, using words like “repressive fantatics” (I agree!) is about as explicit as he gets about the foibles of the Left. And you can be sure that the usual suspects will be going after Steve, calling him an “alt-righter”, a misogynist, or even a racist for sentiments like these.

The last question posed to Pinker is this: “What should the president be reading? And why?” I’ll let you read the answer for yourself (hint: it doesn’t involve Pinker’s books).

I’ll be starting Enlightenment Now this weekend. It’s a big ‘un, and will take a while, but stay tuned for my take.

h/t: Michael, Thomas

Sweet Ceiling Cat: Not another shooting!

It’s been just a few days since the Florida shooting occurred, and now this breaking news (click on screenshot):

There are no reports save that the school is locked down and the police are setting up a perimeter.

Let’s hope it’s a false report, or that nobody was hurt if it was a real attack, but I’m not optimistic.

No ant left behind: Ants carry injured comrades back to the nest and tend to their wounds

This is a science post, and if you don’t read it I’ll shoot this kitten:

Today we learn of an amazing behavior of termite-hunting ants, who carry their wounded comrades back to the nest and tend their injuries, licking them in a way that appears to heal them. It’s the first time that anybody’s shown “social wound treatment” in ants. The paper, by Erik T. Frank, Marten Wehrhahn and K Eduard Linsemair, appears in the new Proceedings of the Royal Society B (reference at bottom, free access, and pdf here).

Remember when you read this that these are haplodiploid organisms, which means that males have a half set of chromosomes produced from the queen’s unfertilized eggs, and, further the diploid female workers who raid the termite nests are sterile. They’re all sisters: daughters of the queen and the single male she’s presumably mated with.

The species at hand is the ant Megaponera analis, a termite-eating specialist found in sub-Saharan Africa.  A column of 200-600 ant raiders leaves the nest, heads for a termite colony underground, breaks it open, collects the termites for food, and carries them back to the nest. Because termites aren’t unprotected—they have “soldiers” with huge heads and formidable biting mandibles—some of the ants get hurt on these raids. Their legs and other bits get chomped off, and termites even clamp onto the ants with their jaws, with the ants running about with a termite attached to them.

An injured ant releases “alarm” pheromones—dimethyl disulfide and dimethyl trisulfide—from a gland on their head. This attracts the other ants. Here’s a video showing an injured ant attracting its nestmates and then being carried back to the nest.

The carried ants become quiescent and compliant, tucking their legs underneath the body—almost like a kitten being carried by its mom. The injured ants are tended in the nest, with other ants actually cleaning the wound with their mouthparts (the ants can easily get infected from bacteria in the soil or from the termites). They also try to remove any termites clinging to the ants, and this can take up to several hours.

The authors did a number of experiments that involved artificially injuring ants, either lightly (2 legs removed) or severely (5 legs removed). Of 20 ants in each class, 45% of the lightly injured were taken back to the nest (this is on the return journey from the raid), while only 5% of the severely injured ant were (that is one ant). This, of course, is an adaptive behavior, as four-legged ants can survive and raid in the future, while one-legged ants can’t do squat.

Ants who have lost more than three legs are never found in the nest, and, as I said, those with five legs artificially removed (I have to say, I don’t like hurting insects this way) are rarely brought back to the nest. There’s some evidence that lightly injured ants may exaggerate their injuries, flailing about when nestmates are nearby, though as soon as they’re touched by the antennae of a nestmate, this behavior ceases and they curl up for carrying. If the lightly injured are not discovered and carried back, they trot back on their own.

To see if ants were actually counting the legs of the injured, the experimenters crushed the legs without removing them, rendering the legs unusable. Again, those with five injured legs (which were still attached) were ignored by their nestmates and left to die, while those with only two were carried back and tended. Ants with two legs can apparently function well, even participating in raids, while those with more legs injured are useless to the colony. The ants apparently discriminate between the lightly and severely injured not by counting but by the behavior of the wounded: those with a number of injured or removed legs can’t right themselves, and fling themselves about in an attempt to do so. Ants that do this aren’t picked up (they may be harder to pick up anyway). This is a form of insect triage.

Here’s a video of an injured ant whose leg wound is being cleaned:

How effective is this cleaning? Some experiments compared the mortality of artificially injured ants (two legs removed) when they were tended by their nestmates for either 1 or 12 hours (two treatments), and also when they were placed on sterile soil after injury as well as on unsterile soil, and also the mortality of control (unmanipulated) ants. Here’s the curve of mortality for all the five treatments. As you can see, injured ants placed on nonsterile soil die quickly, while being placed on sterile soil, being uninjured, being injured, or having only a one-hour treatment results in survivorship as high as in the controls—in fact, there’s no difference among these four classes. It looks, then, as if it’s nonsterile conditions that cause mortality, implying that ants in the nest, besides removing debris, may well be applying some anti-microbial substance to the wound. I suspect this is the case, but we don’t have evidence yet.

Now remember that the injured ants, like their nestmates, are STERILE. Saving them, it would seem, doesn’t help anybody propagate their genes, so if this rescue behavior is evolved, as it almost certainly is, what is the selective advantage?

The answer is probably this: since injured ants are numerous compared to the size of the colony, any ant who saves its nestmates allows the colony to flourish better (the rescued can function in the colony), and that helps the queen, who shares half of the workers’ genes. In other words (and as Darwin surmised) even if you’re helping a sterile worker, you’re giving a marginal reproductive advantage to the only reproductive female: the queen.

But how much of an advantage can that be given the size of the colony? Is saving one ant going to make any difference to how well the queen does? The answer involves three considerations. First, this evolution is more likely to happen in a smaller rather than a larger colony, for in the former case each ant constitutes a larger fraction of the population than the latter, giving the queen a larger marginal advantage. (There could also be some “colony selection” here—a form of group selection—but its efficacy requires that we posit differential extinction of entire colonies based on whether or not they contain “nursing” workers.)

Second, if injured ants nearly always died, there would be little advantage to tending them. But the tended ants are the lightly injured ones, and survive as well as uninjured ants. Those who are more severely injured are left to die.

As the authors note, however, Megaponera analis has small colonies and the rescued ants nearly all survive; the species thus “fits all the criteria where a rescue behavior focused on injured ants has a large benefit for the colony”.

Finally, if the behavior first showed up in just a single mutant worker, the advantage to the colony would be small. What’s more likely is that the queen herself or her haploid mate contained the first mutation for helping. The male, who doesn’t undergo meiosis, would pass it on to all the colony’s workers (assuming females mate but once and store sperm); the female to half the workers. Either way, a mutant gene for helping might first show its effects in a large fraction of the colony’s workers, thus tremendously boosting the evolutionary advantage of the queen who contained that mutant and produced helpful workers.

h/t: Matthew


Frank, E. T., M. Wehrhahn, and K. E. Linsenmair. 2018. Wound treatment and selective help in a termite-hunting ant. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 285. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.2457