Dawkins’s Darwin Day lecture for Humanists UK: “Taking Courage from Darwin to Fight the Hubris of Faith”

Reader Michael called my attention to Richard Dawkins’s Darwin Day Lecture to Humanists UK (HUK). Richard is introduced by Humanists UK President and evolutionary biologist Alice Roberts, who was the moderator when I gave this lecture a few years ago. Richard’s lecture was just posted today, and as I write there are only 194 views. I’ll watch it as I write, and give any thoughts I have.

I was glad to see that Richard limned evolution and religion in an antagonistic light, which is what I did when I talked. After all, this is a talk to humanists, so it’s not hubris to do that, much as accommodationists like to argue that people can have their Darwin and Jesus too.

Ten minutes in, I was surprised at how hard Richard went after theology and religion, and especially after Islam and its obsession with “religious control-freakery” such as breast feeding. The audience likes it, of course, as they’re all a bunch of nonbelievers, but I don’t yet see any connection between the criticisms of Islam and Darwin.

The connection came at about 14:15, when Richard contrasts the certainty of theology with the doubt that’s endemic to science. “We don’t know” is his mantra here, and we should use it more often. At 17:30, he suggests a humorous Gendankenexperiment of the kind he’s famous for: he imagines what science would look like if scientists acted like theologians, operating from faith and revelation instead of evidence. (Note the mention of “SJW State University.”)

A quote:

“It isn’t that theologians deliberately tell untruths: it’s as though they just don’t care about truth, aren’t interested in truth, and demote truth to negligible status compared with other considerations such as metaphorical, symbolic, and mythic significance—or simply what feels good.”

Later on, he explains why he’s proud to be a product of evolution—a product with a flexible brain that has vouchsafed to us our ability, unique among animals, to understand our origins—and many other things.

Richard also argues that “the atheistic world view has an unsung virtue of intellectual courage.” To explain that, he introduces the “deep problems” that science might not answer, but that theology can’t, either: these include the “deep problem of consciousness” and the question of “why are the laws of physics as they are?” This leads to his conclusion (40:28) that science (and atheism) help kick ourselves out of the emotional reaction that the “big questions” defy naturalistic explanation—that they defy the scientific assumption that the whole universe arose and evolved through mindless naturalistic processes. As he says,

“However improbable a naturalistic answer to the riddle of existence, a theistic alternative is even more so. But it needs a courageous leap of reason to accept the conclusion.”

He then returns to Darwin as a good fount of courage to seek naturalistic answers to the Big Problems. After all, it was Darwin who, abjuring supernatural explanations, tackled the long-standing problem of life using purely naturalistic methods—and solved it!

In the end, Richard’s lecture is his version of “Faith Versus Fact,” and though it’s independent of my own ideas, I was pleased to see that he’s banging the same drum about the intellectual vacuity of theology as contrasted to the productive wielding of “the empirical attitude” that underlies science.

This lecture is also paean to the virtues of atheism, which won’t please religionists, theologians, and faitheists. Yes, New Atheism makes a brief comeback in this lecture.

If you’re a nonbeliever, you’ll find the last three minutes heartening, bracing, and eloquent. In the last 13 words, he connects atheism with social justice, though that won’t placate the SJWs who are always throwing shade on Dawkins.

At the end, Alice presents Richard with a “Darwin Day medal.”

It’s Abramek Koplowicz’s birthday

I didn’t know about this until I was told by Kelly Houle, who recently published a lovely art book containing English translations (from Polish) of Abramek Koplowicz’s poems, written in the Lodz Ghetto before he was gassed by the Nazis. Abramek Koplowicz was born on February 18, 1930, and had he lived he’d be 89 today. But he died at age 14, one of many Jewish children murdered by the Germans.

I’ve written about Abramek and his poetry, the English translations made by my friends Malgorzata Koraszewska and Sarah Lawson, and about Kelly’s book, here and here. The art book is beautiful, and you can see it and purchase it here.  (If you’d like to buy copies to donate to the Library of Congress, or places like D.C.’s Holocaust Museum, that would be great. I’m purchasing one for the University of Chicago’s rare book collection.) There’s also a recording of Kelly reading Abramek’s poetry, including the title poem “A Dream”, here.

Abramek’s stepbrother Lolek, who survived the camps and a death march, is still alive and living in Israel at 94. Lolek is the one who found Abramek’s poems in a school notebook among his father’s possessions (Abramek’s father also survived the camps). Lolek brought the poems to the attention of Israeli journalist Sarah Honig, who published the story in the Jerusalem Post, giving a longer version on her blog.  Here’s a bit of the story from that site:

[Abramek’s] father, Mendel Koplowicz, labored at a workshop producing cardboard boxes for the Germans. An ordained rabbi, he became a confirmed atheist after reading many secular philosophy books. Abramek worked at a shoe-making workshop, occasionally showing up at his father’s workshop to entertain the laborers by reciting poetry and satirical skits in verse. The handsome boy delighted his listeners, who unanimously agreed that he was a genius. One of those who heard him was Haya Grynfeld, Lolek’s mother and Mendel Koplowicz’s co-worker.

When the Koplowicz family was taken to Auschwitz, the mother, Yochet Gittel, was immediately sent to the gas chamber. The father and 14-year-old Abramek were sent to forced labor. But as he left for work, Mendel Koplowicz left his son in the barrack in order to protect him from the ordeal. Upon his return, he found it empty. The Germans had come and sent all those inside to death.

Lolek Grynfeld and his family lasted in Lodz even longer. The Germans rounded them up only in October 1944, by which time they no longer deported their victims to Auschwitz. Thus, Lolek – who was a bit older than Abramek –ended up in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, and his mother in Ravensbruck. His father was killed early on in the German bombardments; Lolek did his work quota at a ghetto hospital until it was liquidated in 1942.

At war’s end, having miraculously escaped death at Sachsenhausen, he was taken on one of the infamous German death marches: “On the fifth night of the ordeal,” Grynfeld recalls, “they locked us up in an old stable. Several of us conspired to escape. I tripped one of the guards and the others finished him off with their wooden clogs.” Thus, after several hair-raising encounters with the Germans, Grynfeld and his mother managed to survive and both returned to Poland.

And then Lolek met another survivor, married her, and they had children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Abramek’s memory is kept alive by Lolek (who has had a memorial to Abramek built in Israel and a street named after him in the Polish town where he was born), and also by this book.

Here’s the only existing photo of Abramek (from Honig’s blog); he’s in the center flanked by his parents. His mother was also gassed.

Abramek’s notebook with his poetry (note that it bears the date of 1943 and the fact that it was written in the ghetto):

A painting of a praying Jew made by Abramek (he was talented!):

And Kelly’s book:

Finally, here’s a small excerpt from Sarah Lawson’s introduction to the poems in Kelly’s book:

Between one and two million Jewish children were killed in the Holocaust. Most of their names are lost except in the memory of family members and the records at Yad Vashem. They had no time to distinguish themselves on a larger stage. A pitifully few names have come down to us. Anne Frank is the best known example, and there were a few other young diarists and letter writers. Out of a million and a half European children, how many might have had important careers in medicine, science, and the arts? How many would have become parents and grandparents of scholars and diplomats, of writers and musicians? This destroyed potential is unknowable but undoubted. Imagine them all lined up and holding hands. The line would stretch for more than 450 miles.

Readers’ wildlife photos

Today’s set of beetle photos comes from a regular, Jacques Hausser, who lives in Switzerland. His notes are indented. A “cockchafer” is not a woolen undergarment, but a species of brown beetle found in Europe that used to be a pest on grass and crops, especially during its periodic outbreaks.

When I was a schoolboy in the fifties, every third year was a cockchafer year. We used to hunt the clumsy critters at the sunset by shaking the trees – and also more sportingly in flight, with badminton racquets. We were paid by the town: ten cents for a full bucket of the unfortunate insects, then given to the chickens. But, alas, plane-sprayed insecticides (now forbidden) soon suppressed this attractive source of income, and the cockchafers all but disappeared. I think that from the seventies onward, I haven’t seen any here around. Until last summer, that is, when my daughter bicycling back from work discovered she had a large one (about 30 mm) hooked on her pants. Here it is in full glory: a male Melolontha melolontha, family Scarabeidae, subfamily Melolonthinae.

If the cockchafer is now very rare in western Switzerland, other species are still present. Like the cockchafer itself, all of them are a nightmare for lawn owners, their white grubs feeding on grass roots. Here is the slightly smaller (about 25 mm) June chafer, Amphimallon solsticiale, a female. They have a two-year cycle instead of three.

Amphimallon atrum, another species of the same genus.

Serica brunnea, a small species.

 Phyllopertha horticola, the garden chafer, at work on a wild rose, eating pollen (or maybe only the filaments of the stamens: note the discarded anthers on the lower petal of the flower). Note also  that they can fold and hide their antennae when eating. Even if it looks quite like a chafer and has a similar biology (two or three year life cycle, white grubs eating the roots of your lawn) it is usually classified in another subfamily, the Rutelinae.

Same species – with antennae. I like the shadows.

Closely related, but not exactly a chafer (it is called a “Monkey beetle”): although usually classified either in Melolonthinae or Rutelinae, depending on the specialist you consult, Hoplia argentea differs from the other species presented here by having only one claw on each leg and by its cover of scales producing interference colors (pale blue or yellow-green). This one is sharing a wild Angelica with two species of ants. The large one is probably Formica fusca and the small one Lasius fuliginosus, but I’m not sure…

Monday: Hili dialogue

It’s Monday, February 18, 2019, and National “Drink Wine” Day. Again we have the scare quotes, as if we’re only supposed to pretend to drink wine. At any rate, I’ll have to eschew the vino as it’s a fasting day for me.

We have three inches or so of snow on the ground, but the weather report says it’s pretty much done—and there will be no more snow this week. Unfortunately, I left my car on the street and so may have some scraping and digging to do.

Article of the day, from today’s Guardian, and sent by reader Chris. Click on the screenshot to read it:

News is a bit thin on this day. On February 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis was inaugurated in Alabama as President of the Confederate States of America. Then, in 1885, Mark Twain first published Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the U.S., which Ernest Hemingway characterized as the source of all modern American literature.

There are two aircraft firsts today.  On this day in 1911, according to Wikipedia, “The first official flight with airmail takes place from Allahabad, United Provinces, British India (now India), when Henri Pequet, a 23-year-old pilot, delivers 6,500 letters to Naini, about 10 kilometres (6.2 mi) away.” Then, jumping ahead 29 years, it was on this day in 1930 that (again according to Wikipedia), “Elm Farm Ollie becomes the first cow to fly in a fixed-wing aircraft and also the first cow to be milked in an aircraft.”

WHAT? A flying cow? Wikipedia adds this:

Elm Farm Ollie was reported to have been an unusually productive Guernsey cow, requiring three milkings a day and producing 24 quarts of milk during the flight itself. Wisconsin native Elsworth W. Bunce milked her, becoming the first man to milk a cow mid-flight. Elm Farm Ollie’s milk was sealed into paper cartons which were parachuted to spectators below. Charles Lindbergh reportedly received a glass of the milk.

You can read more about Ollie (that’s a man’s name!) at SquareCowMovers.com, where there’s a photo of Ollie about to enter the plane:

Backing up a year, it was on this day in 1929 when a very important event took place: President Hoover signed the Migratory Bird Conservation Act of 1929. Sadly, though this got the protection of waterfowl underway, little money was appropriated for the effort. More was to come. Then, back in 1930, on the day that Ollie was milked in flight, Pluto was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh from looking at photographs.  Yes, it’s a damn planet! On this day in 1943, the Nazis did two things: arrested members of the White Rose movement, who were executed, and Joseph Goebbels delivered the famous Sportpalast speech in which he called for “total war”. You can see it below. The “total war” ended a bit more than two years later, with Goebbels’s wife Magda poisoning their children and then Magda and Joseph committing suicide.

It was on this day in 1954 that the Church of Scientology was founded in Los Angeles (sadly, it’s still going), and in 1970 the Chicago Seven were found not guilty of conspiracy to cause riots at Chicago’s 1968 Democratic Convention. On this day in 1972, in the case of People v. Anderson, the California Supreme Court invalidated the state’s death penalty, with all condemned prisoners having their sentence changed to life imprisonment (this included Charles Manson). This lasted twenty years until executions began again.

Finally, it was nine years ago today that WikiLeaks published the first set of documents revealed by the soldier Chelsea Manning.

Notables born on this day include Isaac Casaubon (1559), Ernst Mach (1838), Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848), Nikos Kazantzakis (1883), Wendell Willkie (1892), Toni Morrison (1931), Yoko Ono (1933), Cybill Shepherd (1950), John Travolta (1954), Vanna White (1957), Matt Dillon (1964), and Molly Ringwald (1968).

Tiffany designed what I think are the world’s most beautiful stained glass windows. Here’s one from the Tiffany site:

Those who expired on February 18 include Fra Angelico (1455), Martin Luther (1546), Michelangelo (1564), J. Robert Oppenheimer (1967), Harry Caray (1998), Dale Earnhardt (2001), and Alain Robbe-Grillet (2008).

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is crowding Andrzej out of his chair:

A: You are taking more space than I.
Hili: Are you surprised?
In Polish:
Ja: Zajmujesz więcej miejsca niż ja.
Hili: Czy to cię dziwi?

A photo contributed by reader Merilee:

And a catty meme from Facebook:

A tweet from reader Barry, who says, “I’ve never seen a cat mesmerized like this before.” Indeed. And I may have posted this lovely video before, but it’s worth seeing again:

Interspecies love from Heather Hastie (via Ann German):

Tweets from Matthew. The first has a cleverly camouflaged spider in it, but Matthew says he can’t spot it. Neither can I!

And, well, live and learn. This is great:

Matthew wouldn’t retweet this (neither would I) because he wasn’t sure whether the monkey was trained. I’m sure it was: a wild primate simply couldn’t get on a tiny bicycle and ride it. And if the monkey is trained, it’s sad. . .

Now if you know the Beatles, you’re going to appreciate this a lot more than other folks. Did you have any idea? (And name the song!)

Tweets from Grania. Like the squirrels, this cat wants its dinner, but it’ll have to be satisfied with cat t.v.:

Check this out. Should we be scared?

Okay, somebody find out if this is normal pangolin behavior:

Sound up on this one, of course.



A weird tarantula with a honking big horn on its back

So they’ve discovered a tarantula with a very strange “horn” on its back. Reading the paper below, which recounts the discovery (access free; pdf here), one discovers that these “foveal horns” are uniquely large and weird; as the authors say, “no other spider in the world possesses a similar foveal protuberance.” Now other species in the genus Ceratogyrus do have smaller horns (see below), but not like this one.

Here it is, with captions taken from the paper. Look at that big thing sticking up off the cephalothorax!

Figure 3. Ceratogyrus attonitifer sp. n. paratype, cephalothorax. A retrolateral view B dorsal view C ventral view. Scale bar: 10mm (A).

But wait! There’s more, including a defensive posture:

Figure 2. Habitat, burrow and live habitus of Ceratogyrus attonitifer sp. n. in south-eastern Angola. A Aerial view of habitat at the type locality showing a dambo (wetland) amongst miombo (Brachystegia) woodland. The expedition campsite is to the right of the dambo. Specimens were collected primarily along the margins of the wetland area B live habitus, dorsal, showing full size of the foveal protuberance in life C specimen in defensive posture typical for baboon spiders; background is white sand at the type locality D burrow entrance amongst grass tussocks; entrance approximately 2cm wide.


The species, C. attonitifer, got its name this way:


The specific epithet is derived from the Latin root attonit–, meaning astonishment or fascination, and the suffix –fer, bearer of or carrier, and refers to the astonishment felt by the authors at the discovery of this remarkable species.

And the formal description of the horn:

Fovea strongly procurved with prominent, elongate protuberance extending over dorsal aspect of abdomen, as long as or longer than carapace length, anterior part extending from carapace sclerotized, remainder soft and membranous, bag-like in living specimens, becoming shrivelled when preserved, dark in colour.

As I said, other species in the genus have foveal “horns”, like C. darlingi below, but they are much smaller:

Photo from Wikipedia

However, as the authors say (my emphasis):

Members of other theraphosid genera from the Neotropics, namely Cyrtopholis Simon, 1892, Sphaerobothria Karsch, 1879 and Umbyquyra Gargiulo, Brescovit & Lucas, 2018, also possess similar foveal structures, as do some species of the ctenizid genus Stasimopus in South Africa, and several aganippine idiopid genera from Australia (M. Rix pers. comm.). The protuberance of C. attonitifer is unique in its length, as well as being soft, whereas this structure is fully sclerotized in all other genera where it is known to occur.

But what are these horns used for? Wikipedia (which we must now take with a grain of salt), says this:

C. marshalli features the biggest horn, where it stands straight up about 1 cm. There are several probable functions for this horn: according to a study by Rick C. West in 1986, it provides an increased surface for the attachment of the dorsal dilator muscle, which aids in drawing in liquefied food into the sucking stomach at a faster rate; this way, the spider can retreat to a safe place faster. It also increases the area for the midgut diverticula to expand during times of nutrient and water availability, analogous to a camel’s hump, helping it to survive in its arid habitat during droughts.

Okay, so that’s speculation: “probable functions.” But this big floppy horn? Who knows? The authors don’t even try to speculate. Note that every specimen of C. attonitifer they found, however, was a female, so it’s imperative to see what the males look like. That would tell if it has some kind of sexual function.

In the meantime, speculate away!


Midgley, J. M. and I. Engelbrecht. 2019. New collection records for Theraphosidae (Araneae, Mygalomorphae) in Angola, with the description of a remarkable new species of Ceratogyrus. African Invertebrates 60:1-13.

Godfrey Elfwick is outraged

Godfrey Elfwick (aka Titania McGrath) apparently now has a regular column in The Spectator USA, and, frankly, I’m surprised that even a semi-conservative magazine would present Elfwick’s musings without saying that they’re satirical. After all,  Elfwick, McGrath and their/hir/zir schticks are so close to the fulminations of exteme Control-Leftism that they sometimes gets mistaken for being serious Woke Leftism. In other words, Elfwick and McGrath present an ongoing “hoax” along the lines of Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay’s more arduous efforts.

The latest Elfwick production takes off from a recent cover of Esquire, which made the mistake of profiling a white boy during Black History Month in the USA. Here’s the Esquire cover.  You can tell just from the words underneath “AN AMERICAN BOY” that it would rile up the Outrage Brigade.

And, after all, well-off white males are the most demonized of all groups of Americans, and it’s not out of the question to ask how this demonization has affected them. But not during Black History Month! The expected pushback arose quickly, as documented by, among other venues, the Guardian, the Independent, and, of course, PuffHo.  Here are just a few examples:

Now I haven’t read the story, which may well be dire and cloying, and were I an editor I probably wouldn’t have run it during Black History Month. Nevertheless, it still demonstrates how quick the Callout Culture is to react, and how strongly white males are being demonized—as if they represent some sort of monolithic, toxic and repressive cult.

But Elfwick comes to the rescue, in a funny article claiming that it should have been him—a “transblack genderqueer Muslim atheist”—who was profiled by Esquire. He makes a compelling case!

He rewrites the article in a way that even PuffHo would be proud of!  A few excerpts (the captions are Elfwick’s):

Rather than waste my valuable time talking about this Trump-adoring pale manchild, I have decided to rewrite the article, this time featuring a true warrior. Someone who deserves the limelight. A role-model for the marginalized. A social justice icon who more accurately represents the youth of today.

Godfrey Elfwick is 27 and happy to be a genderqueer Muslim atheist, born white in the wrong skin. From an early age, xe knew xe was special. At the tender age of 14 months, xe was already making protest banners in support of marginalized people while xir’s older brother Moneer, played with his toys, oblivious to his sibling’s struggles.

Godfrey Elfwick knew from an early age that xe would change the world

Being an activist is hard and requires a lot of emotional strength, Godfrey tells me (ximself). A lot of people think it’s just posting stuff online and getting offended about meaningless things…but it’s so much more than that. There are important protests to attend.

. . . Only last year, I stormed into a home for the elderly close to where I live and no-platformed an ignorant racist who was giving the residents a talk called ‘World War II Memories’. There’s no place for that colonialist rhetoric in the current year.

After walking through the front entrance, I came face-to-face with a bunch of old white people (probably Nazis), openly enjoying a lecture on what life was like during the war. It made me feel sick to my stomach when I heard one of them make a positive comment on Winston Churchill. That was when I understandably lost my shit and demanded they shut down this endorsement of fascism ASAP.

Well, maybe it’s a bit heavy-handed, and less likely to be mistaken for real Social Justice Outrage than are the lucubrations of Ms. McGrath, but still. . .

Here’s Elfwick’s self-portrayal as a woke person:

Godfrey is a strong, powerful black woman who takes no crap from anyone

Straight from Brooklyn!

And, for good measure, Titania’s latest:

Rich Lenski answers ID creationist Michael Behe, dismantles “Behe’s First Rule of Adaptive Evolution”

Rich Lenski, a well known biologist at Michigan State University and head of the team which has conducted an equally well known long-term evolution experiment in E. coli (they have a generation every twenty minutes or so, and the experiment has run for 30 years), is the subject of a long attack in Michael Behe’s new Intelligent-Design (ID) book, Darwin Devolves.  Apparently Behe argued that Lenski’s work didn’t show real progressive evolution of a meaningful sort, but simply showed that bacteria could adapt to lab conditions by “breaking genes”: deactivating genes through missense or nonsense mutations. As Lenski and coauthors Nathan Lents and Joshua Swamidass showed in a short but damning review of Behe’s book in Science, Behe’s claim about Lenski’s experiment was wrong:

In the grand scheme of evolution, mutations serve only to break structures and degrade functions, Behe argues. He allows that mutation and natural selection can explain species- and genus-level diversification, but only through the degradation of genes. Something else, he insists, is required for meaningful innovation. Here, Behe invokes a “purposeful design” by an “intelligent agent.”

There are indeed many examples of loss-of-function mutations that are advantageous, but Behe is selective in his examples. He dedicates the better part of chapter 7 to discussing a 65,000-generation Escherichia coli experiment, emphasizing the many mutations that arose that degraded function—an expected mode of adaptation to a simple laboratory environment, by the way—while dismissing improved functions and deriding one new one as a “sideshow” (1). (Full disclosure: The findings in question were published by coauthor Richard Lenski.)

As I’ve written before, Behe’s thesis here is meant to show that, without the help of the “Intelligent Designer” (aka God), real progressive evolution is self-limiting, for all it does it create adaptations based on broken or deactivated genes. The accumulation of broken genes eventually makes further evolution impossible: once you have a genome full of broken genes, further progress is limited and so God has to step in to make those mutations that can’t occur naturally. (I’m always amused at the religious IDers diminution of God’s role from de novo creator of all organisms to that of a mutagen: a Divine Carcinogen.)

Behe’s thesis is expressed in his “First Rule of Adaptive Evolution”, which Lenski analyzes (and dismantles) in a post on his website (see link below).

I didn’t know that Lenski even had a website, but there you go. It’s called Telliamed Revisited, and his latest post (click below) is the first of three essays in which he’ll analyze Behe’s book. This is useful, as the three-authored Science critique was only 650 words long—not sufficient to analyze the scientific theses of a 352-page book. Lents has already expanded the criticism of Behe’s book on The Human Evolution Blog and on the AIPT site., but since Lenski and his microbial experiment were the targets of special criticism by Behe, it’s especially appropriate that Lenski himself respond.

First, Lenski summarizes Behe’s “First Rule” (my emphasis below):

Behe’s latest book is centered around what he calls “The First Rule of Adaptive Evolution: Break or blunt any gene whose loss would increase the number of offspring.” As he wrote in an immediate, dismissive response to our review: “The rule summarizes the fact that the overwhelming tendency of random mutation is to degrade genes, and that very often is helpful. Thus natural selection itself acts as a powerful de-volutionary force, increasing helpful broken and degraded genes in the population.

Then Lenski makes a simple point which appears to show that Behe is being intellectually dishonest. (He’s already been intellectually dishonest by implying that nearly all adaptive mutations are known to degrade or break genes, as we have many counterexamples.) Here’s what he says, referring to the sentence I’ve put in bold above (the bold below is Lenski’s):

Behe’s next sentence then asserts the power of the “de-evolutionary” process of gene degradation. This is an unjustifiable extrapolation, yet it is central to Behe’s latest book. (It’s not the sort of error I would expect from anyone who is deeply engaged in an earnest effort to understand evolutionary science and present it to the public.) Yes, natural selection sometimes increases the frequency of broken and degraded genes in populations. But when it comes to the power of natural selection, what is most frequent versus most important can be very different things. What is most important in evolution, and in many other contexts, depends on timescales and the cumulative magnitude of effects. As a familiar example, some rhinoviruses are the most frequent source of viral infections in our lives (hence the expression “common cold”), but infections by HIV or Ebola, while less common, are far more consequential.

. . . In the same vein, even if many more mutations destroy functions than produce new functions, the latter category has been far more consequential in the history of life. That is because a new function may enable a lineage to colonize a new habitat or realm, setting off what evolutionary biologists call an “adaptive radiation” that massively increases not only the numbers of organisms but, over time, the diversity of species and even higher taxa.

. . . Summing up, Behe is right that mutations that break or blunt a gene can be adaptive. And he’s right that, when such mutations are adaptive, they are easy to come by. But Behe is wrong when he implies these facts present a problem for evolutionary biology, because his thesis confuses frequencies over the short run with lasting impacts over the long haul of evolution.

This isn’t rocket science. If Behe’s thesis is that broken genes present a big problem for continuing adaptive evolution, then one has to accept the thesis that nearly all broken or degraded genes are those genes involved in adaptation. And yes, some inactivated genes are involved in adaptations. But we also know of many adaptations based on non-broken genes, including those with changed functions as well as duplicated genes, cobbled-together genes, horizontally transferred genes, and so on. If, as I’ve said, only 50% of all adaptations involve these sorts of genes as opposed to “broken” genes, the natural selection will not lead to the stalling of evolution so important to Behe. Further, if a higher proportion of “changed function/new function mutations” are involved in major adaptations that are associated with the rise of new taxa, then the broken or blunted genes become even less important.

As Lenski notes, the frequency of mutations that degrade rather than change the function of genes does not tell us the frequency of degraded genes that are involved in adaptation, and the frequency of degraded genes that are involved in adaptation does not tell us the frequency of degraded genes involved in adaptations that are associated with new biological diversity. Behe surely realizes this, as he’s not stupid, but chooses not to make that point. Lenski had to make it for him.

Lenski is being quite kind when he says “it’s not the sort of error I would expect from anyone who is deeply engaged in an earnest effort to understand evolutionary science and present it to the public.” I would go farther and say “this is the sort of error that I would expect from a neo-creationist who’s trying to distort the empirical data in order to delude the public into thinking that there are severe problems with modern evolutionary theory.”

Behe is notoriously thin-skinned, and will undoubtedly go after Lenski at the intelligent-design Evolution News site, which, understandably, does not allow any comments. Behe’s ID buddies will also pitch in and help him out, as they’ve already been doing, for they want this book to sell well and create the widespread scientific acceptance of ID that the Wedge Document said would occur by 2018. LOL on that!

ID has not been widely accepted in science: it’s been scorned, laughed at, and deemed by the courts as religion and not science. If it were scientifically accepted, you’d get a better panoply of people endorsing the book than these four people who constitute the entirety of the editorial reviews on the Amazon page of Darwin Devolves:

Axe and Minnich are both associated with the ID-creationist Discovery Institute, and so are already in bed with Intelligent Design. Carlson is a member of the Christian Faculty Forum, has testified publicly about his deep faith, and thus shows that virtually all proponents of ID are religious. He’s also a Fellow of the Id-ish International Society for Complexity, Information, and Design; other fellows include William Lane Craig, Alvin Plantinga, and the whole Discovery Institute crew (Nelson, Behe, Dembski, and so on). Leisola is also an ID advocate and has written a book about his transformation from advocate of naturalism to worshiper of the Great Designer.  Leisola’s  Finnish Wikipedia page notes (translated by Google):

Leisola is a creationist . He believes that the world is only a few thousand years old and sees the flood of water as a historic global flood. [18]

Leisola has delivered several books in Finnish, whose authors adopt a pseudo-scientific [19] concept of ” intelligent design ” and make claims against the scientific theory of evolution . In 1981, he delivered AE Wilder-Smith’s Natural Sciences Not Known for Evolution (WSOY, 144 p.). Leisola founded the Datakirjatpublishing company in 2000 because Finnish publishers refused to publish his translation of the book ” Evolution – critical analysis ” by Siegfried Scherer and Reinhard Junker . [20] Dictionaries published The first edition of the Evolutionary-Critical Analysis book in 2000. [21]  The dictionaries have since published other pseudo-scientific and evolutionary works:

  • William A. Dembski, 2002, Intelligent Plan Idea , Data Books, 256 s.

  • Marwin Lubenow, 2005, Myth of Monkeys – Controversy over Timing of Fossils , Data Books, 380s .


These are hardly the brand of endorsements you want if you’re trying to divorce ID from creationism and make it part of mainstream science.

Readers’ wildlife photos

We have some photos from New Zealand sent by reader Keith Cook, whose comments and IDs are indented.

These attachments are a collection of pics from around my home and the local beach. I include some landscapes a la Stephen Bernard, seeing and raising his with a South Pacific sunrise or two… and a moon rise to finish it off. I like how the praying mantis, kereru, poaka, seem to be checking me out and the honey bee’s world of colour.

For animals, the common name is given first,  followed by the Maori name.

Landscapes, Torea and early morning Nikau.

Pied Stilt/Poaka (Himantopus himantopus):

Asiatic Honey Bee/Pi (Apis cerana probably). While New Zealand already had native species of bees, they were not suitable for producing honey, as their role was as pollinators.

NZ Praying mantis/Ro (a general maori name):

South Island Pied Oystercatcher/Torea (Haematopus ostralegus):

New Zealand pigeon/Kereru (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae):

Giant Centipede/Hura (Cormocephalus rubriceps). I think this little creature got a little stressed before i returned it to the bush; it was interrupted while clearing scrub.

Leopard Slug/ngata reparo (Limas Maximus):

Northern Rata Tree (Metrosideros robusta).

The Rata tree unfortunately succumbed to a violent storm which knocked over its support as they are usually epiphytes (or plant perched on a host tree). It was a sad day. It was close to our home and it probably could not have stayed there if it had not been taken out by the storm. I was trying to think of ways to relocate it and where. I see now we may have the possibility of a few more Rata establishing themselves, they can be and are valuable source of food for the locals, a future resource.

Nikau palm (Rhopalostylis sapida).

This photo is a closeup of the same Nikau palm the Kereru is feeding on: a pair of Kereru, probably generational offspring that come duringspring/summer on their feeding runs (we have lived here for decades). The nikau seeds go shades of red when ripe.

The fronds are pushed aside at the base by a pod containing the seeds which you see here fully developed but not ripe. They are rather delicate and flower when they first burst out. The frond eventually severs its connection to the trunk as all this pod action happens. They are long, usually 2 to 3 meters plus in length and heavy at the base. They are no problem. . . until they start sailing down on you, and THUMP!


Sunday: Hili dialogue

It’s Sunday, February 17, 2019, and we have 1-3 inches of snow predicted for Chicago today. It’s National Café au Lait Day, another blatant instance of cultural appropriation. It’s also the Catholic Feast Day of Saint Fintan of Clonenagh.

On this day in 1600, philosopher Giordano Bruno was burned alive in Rome for denying Catholic doctrines, including the virginity of Mary. It’s a good thing the Church no longer has such power.  Exactly 201 years later, there was a tie in the U.S. Electoral College between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr for President of the U.S. A vote in the House of Representatives resolved it, and you know how.  On February 17, 1863, the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, later known as the International Committee of the Red Cross, was founded in Geneva.

On this day in 1867, the first ship passed through the Suez Canal. In 1904, Puccini’s opera “Madame Butterfly” was premiered at La Scala in Milan.  On February 17, 1949, Chaim Weizmann took up his job as Israel’s first President.  In 1980, two Polish climbers, Krzysztof Wielicki and Leszek Cichy, made the first winter ascent of Mount Everest.  Since then Polish climbers have specialized in winter climbs of “eight thousanders.”  Finally, on this day in 1996, world chess champion Garry Kasparov beat the Deep Blue supercomputer, and went on to win the match. The next year, however, the computer defeated Kasparov in a match.

Here’s a video of Kasparov’s defeat in 1997, showing how the computer did the playing:

Notables born on this day include Banjo Paterson (1864), geneticist Ronald Fisher (1890), Duane Gish (1921), Chaim Potok (1929), Alan Bates and Barry Humphries (both 1934), Christina Pickles (1935), Gene Pitney (1940), Huey P. Newton (1942), Larry the Cable Guy and Michael Jordan (both 1963), and Paris Hilton (1981).

Those who packed it in on February 17 include Giordano Bruno (1600, see above), Molière (1673), Jan Swammerdam (1680), Heinrich Heine (1856), Geronimo (1909), Thelonious Monk and Lee Strasberg (both 1982),  Randy Shilts (1994), and Billy Cowsill (2006, note that Wikipedia gives his date of death as February 18!).

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili sees the demise of paper:

Hili: Paper clips do not have any future.
A: But they have a rich past
In Polish:
Hili: Spinacze nie mają przyszłości.
Ja: Ale mają bogatą przeszłość.

Here’s a biologically informed and hilarious “meme” sent by reader Tom:

A tweet from reader Gethyn, who, with his partner Laurie, will become parents of two black kittens today. He asked me if this is real and all I could say is, “Well, it might be; we don’t know what the dolphins are experiencing.” Read the linked article:

Reader Nilou sent another tweet from the Tower of London’s Raven Master. I didn’t know that ravens had moustaches and beards.

Two tweets from Heather Hastie. Kakapos, New Zealand’s flightless parrots, are famous for “booming”, with males making loud noises to attract distant females. Sinbad was booming but didn’t want to be disturbed:

But then he got a treat: an almond. Oy, do I love these birds!

Tweets from Matthew. This finding is amazing, even more so than the recent discovery that falcons are more closely related to parrots than to hawks and eagles. Horseshoe crabs ARE arachnids: a sister group to one specific clade of spiders. As the paper below says:

In spite of uncertainty in the placement of some arachnid clades, all analyses show Xiphosura consistently nested within Arachnida as the sister group to Ricinulei (hooded tick spiders).

Is this normal in Ireland???

Another novel finding: sea snakes have light-sensing ability in their tails. Apparently this helps them hide their tails to avoid predators when lurking among the reefs. Read the linked blurb from Phys.org.

Tweets from Grania. This white cat can’t catch a break.

Is it any surprise that this cat lies atop a warm espresso machine?

I had no idea that rays did this. There are other hypotheses, of course, including parasite removal and communication.


Having trouble commenting? Read below

I’ve gotten a lot of emails over the last week from readers saying that they are having trouble commenting, with the most common complaint being that the “autofill”—your name and email address being automatically filled in when commenting on this site—no longer works.

I’m working on this issue, but here’s one thing you can try. What you want to do is clear from your browser the “cookies” connected with this site, but only from this site. Reader Michael, who’s helping out here, says this:


Browsers store information from websites in the form of cookies and a cache. This stored information helps web pages you’ve already visited load faster and remembers your personalized selections between visits (e.g., search location, page format, themes, language selection etc.). There are also other less ‘friendly’ cookies called 3rd party cookies that store data about your internet habits such as what sites you visit or the searches you’ve made. Sometimes, all this stored information can cause interference because a site may introduce a new updated cookie & the old version is still hanging around,  or a cookie is corrupted. The best move then is to delete all cookies for that site and they will reappear next time you use the site.


An advantage of using cookies is that they can keep you logged in a website so that you can skip the login page and quickly get to where you want. Facebook and Twitter’s cookies will let you do this, for instance. But if you delete a sites cookies you might find the login fields no longer autofill next visit for that site [other sites will be OK], just manually enter your details this one time & it will autofill from then on.

Before deleting cookies it is best to make sure you’re running latest version of the browser.

Me: Why do you want to delete your cookies?
Because the cookies a user has stored now [before deleting] contain an old cookie that may be conflict with a new cookie for example. I’m surmising that your WordPress or global WordPress has changed one or more cookies in the last few days & bollixed things up for users.
So, if you’re having a problem with autofill, check on your browser about how to delete site-specific cookes. The next time you comment, the autofill should start again and work fine from then on—if THAT is the problem.

I use Chrome, so I just Googled “delete specific cookies on Chrome,” and this is what I got:

Then, I searched for the name of this website in step 6, and got this.  I didn’t remove the six cookies for my site as I’m not having any problems, but this is what you should try if you’re having problems.

If this doesn’t work, or you have some other problem, please describe it below or email me. I have been talking to WordPress, and while they’re not always that helpful, they may be able to fix some people’s problems.

—The Management