The OTHER turkey

The title above comes from reader/biologist/photographer/artist Lou Jost in Ecuador, for he reminds me that there’s another turkey besides the American turkey. His note:

There is one other turkey species, the little-known Central American endemic Ocellated Turkey (Meleagris ocellata). This lives in rainforests of the Yucatan peninsula in extreme southern Mexico and adjacent parts of Belize and Guatemala. It’s a very fancy bird! My pic was of a wild bird walking across the lawn in front of the field station in the Rio Bravo conservation reserve of Belize. It doesn’t do the bird justice; the internet has great pictures of them.  Unfortunately Google also turns up astonishing numbers of dead ones shot by gringo hunters of this near-threatened species, as in this picture.

I won’t show that one, but here’s Lou’s shot of this beautiful bird:

OcellatedTurkey (2)

I’ll add a video from Belize of these birds:

Sam Harris drains the intellectual cesspool of Salon

Over the years, Salon has proven itself an organ of the Regressive Left, vilifying atheists at every turn, constantly flaunting the canard of Islamophobia, and coddling religion. With the exception of Jeff Tayler’s “strident” antitheistic Sunday Secular Sermons (see his most recent piece on the soppy, faith-osculating David Brooks), it’s a pretty vile place for those who adhere to Enlightenment values.

A while back, after Sam Harris had been subjected to a number of misguided and hateful pieces in Salon—like this one—he decided to write the place off, refusing to be interviewed by the site and telling his publisher not to send them review copies of his books. I don’t blame him.

Recently, however, Sam suspended his boycott and sat down for an interview with Sean Illing, a Salon staff writer whom I’ve criticized in the past for bashing New Atheists (Illing is a nonbeliever), as well as for Illing’s osculation of religion and promulgation of the Little People’s Argument (“everyone but folks like me need religion”). Illing, by the way, appears to have been butthurt by my piece, and mentions it in his interview.

Sam gave several conditions for the interview, which you can see at the transcript (Sam kept his own record), but he couldn’t prevent Salon from editing it—which it did. It’s a good interview, and Sam is quite eloquent, giving a few choice words about regressive Leftists like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald. He also makes a few remarks about the incompatibility of science and religion, as Illing, here and in the column I criticized previously, suggests that almost no religious people take the empirical claims of their faith as literal truths.

I recommend reading all of Sam’s piece as a good digestif after today’s food orgy. I’ll highlight just one Q&A bit before I mention the perfidy of Salon.

Below Sam discusses why religion must surely play a role in jihadism and the brutality of organizations like ISIS and Boko Haram, and I can’t see how he’s wrong here (my emphasis in Sam’s answer).

[Illing]: Let’s start with your views on Islam. You’ve acknowledged that Islamic extremism is a hydra-headed problem that can’t be reduced to single variable – certainly I agree with that. Given that the Islamic world has not always been what it is today, and has at times been more civilized than the Christian world, how much weight can we give to factors like history, geopolitics, foreign policy, or Western interventionism? And if these non-religious variables are significant, does it undermine the argument that Islam is a uniquelyproblematic religion?

[Harris]: The short answer is that I think the problems we are seeing throughout the Muslim world—jihadism, sectarian conflict, and all the attendant talk of Muslim “humiliation”—are almost entirely religious. And wherever rational grievances do exist, they are invariably viewed, and become magnified, through a religious lens. The truth is that a belief in specific religious doctrines is sufficient to produce all the violence, intolerance, and backwardness we see in the Muslim world.

The abysmal treatment of women, the hostility to free speech, the daily bloodletting between Sunni and Shia—these things have absolutely nothing to do with U.S. foreign policy or the founding of Israel. And, contrary to the assertions of many regressive Leftists and Islamist apologists, violent jihad is not a product of colonialism or the 20th century. The tactic of suicide bombing is relatively new, of course, as is the spread of jihadist ideology on social media, but if you had stood at the gates of Vienna in 1683, you could have not helped but notice the civilizational problem of jihad.

Yes, politics and ordinary grievances enter into many of these recent conflicts. It isn’t difficult to see why a person who has lost his or her family in an errant drone strike might hate America, and there is no question that a desire for revenge transcends religion or culture. But the truth is that a sincere belief in the metaphysics of martyrdom can turn an ordinary person into a dangerous religious maniac. And only Islam preaches this doctrine as one of its central tenets.

I have yet to hear the blame-the-West crowd explain why the items in bold, not to mention the killing of apostates, Yazidis, and gays, can be pinned on the West. Saudi Arabia’s brutality, which I mentioned in the last post, can’t really be pinned on colonialism, either, as the country is supposedly our ally. Seriously, can you make any coherent argument why the oppression of women endemic to most Muslim lands  stems from colonialist missteps by the West?

Every country that criminalizes apostasy, some imposing the death penalty, is a majority-Muslim land. Is that a result of colonialism—or religion? And the death penalty for blasphemy—also given only in Muslim-majority nations (save Nigeria, which is largely Muslim)—how can that be blamed on anything but religion? After all, the very idea of blasphemy involves religion!

But I digress. One thing that stands out in Sam’s interview is the bit that wasn’t published by Salon. As you might expect, that was the one part that was critical of the website. Here’s Sam’s transcript of what Salon said when it published the piece:

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When I checked the interview on Salon, I noticed that that disclaimer was gone, and in the interview’s preface, Illing now says this:

This was mostly an email correspondence, not a traditional interview, so remarks were edited throughout.

Sam has verified that in the first version, the disclaimer was the first one pasted above. It was changed by Illing, apparently in response to Sam’s own post.

Why did Salon change this disclaimer? Because the first bit on editing was simply a bald-faced lie: Salon did make substantive changes in the interview. And those changes were the ones eliminating the critique of Salon. Here’s the stuff Sam said that Salon chose not to print:

As long as we’re talking about the regressive Left, it would be remiss of me not to point out how culpable Salon is for giving it a voice. The problem is not limited to the political correctness and masochism I’ve been speaking about—it’s also the practice of outright deception to defame Islam’s critics. To give you one example, I once wrote an article about Islamist violence in which I spoke in glowing terms about Malala Yousafzai. I literally saidnothing but good things about her. I claimed that she is the best thing to come out of the Muslim world in a thousand years. I said she is extraordinarily brave and eloquent and doing what millions of Muslim men and women are too terrified to do, which is to stand up to forces of theocracy in her own society. I also said that though she hadn’t won the Nobel Prize that year, she absolutely deserved it—and deserved it far more than some of its recent recipients had. And in response to this encomium, Salon published a piece by the lunatic Murtaza Hussain entitled, “Sam Harris Slurs Malala,” which subjected my views to the same defamatory and dishonest treatment that I’ve come to expect from him. And this sort of thing has been done to me a dozen times on your website. And yet Salon purports to be a forum for the civil discussion of important ideas.

Most readers simply don’t understand how this game is played. If they read an article which states that Sam Harris is a racist, genocidal, xenophobic, pro-torture goon who supported the Iraq war—all of which has been alleged about me in Salon—well, then, it’s assumed that some journalists who work for the website under proper editorial control have actually looked into the matter and feel that they are on firm enough ground to legally say such things. There’s a real confusion about what journalism has become, and I can assure you that very few people realize that much of what appears on your website is produced by malicious freaks who are just blogging in their underpants.

I’m not saying that everything that Salon publishes is on the same level, and I have nothing bad to say about what you’ve written, Sean. But there is an enormous difference between honest criticism and defamatory lies. If I say that Malala is a total hero who deserves a Nobel Prize, and Salon titles its article “Sam Harris Slurs Malala,” that’s tabloid-level dishonesty. It’s worse, in fact, because when one reads about what a nanny said about Brad and Angelina in a tabloid, one knows that such gossip stands a good chance of not being true. Salon purports to be representing consequential ideas fairly, and yet it does this sort of thing more often than any website I can think of. The latest piece on me was titled “Sam Harris’ dangerous new idiocy: Incoherent, Islamophobic and simply immoral.” I don’t think I’m being thin-skinned in detecting an uncharitable editorial position being taken there. Salon is telling the world that I’m a dangerous, immoral, Islamophobic idiot. And worse, the contents of these articles invariably misrepresent my actual views. This problem isn’t remedied by merely publishing this conversation.

I love the bit about “malicious freaks who are just blogging in their underpants.” Sam is clearly extremely angry at Salon, and it shows, but I can’t blame him given the site’s one-sided behavior, dressing up hatred as journalism.

And that behavior continues. The first disclaimer was simply a flat-out lie, with Salon leaving out the stuff that makes it look bad. That’s reprehensible journalism—if you call what Salon does “journalism. If a website solicits an interview, they can’t simply expunge the criticism of their own behavior without looking duplicitous. Well, that first disclaimer has mysteriously vanished.

And even with the amended disclaimer, with remarks “edited throughout,” the piece is still mendacious, for “edited throughout” implies that they simply tweaked the piece because it was “email correspondence.” The amended disclaimer is still a lie, for, as Sam told me, it wasn’t “edited throughout”: the only edit to the text was the section Salon omitted.

Since Illing apparently wrote the emended disclaimer himself, he’s responsible for this, not his editors, and it’s more dishonest journalism. Salon can’t even conduct an interview without trying to cover its tuchus, and Illing is complicit in that. But. as a staff writer, he knows who butters his bread.

Saudi Arabia sues man who tw**ted that poet’s death sentence was “Isis-like”

If you’re an American, one thing you can be thankful for today is that you’re not a Saudi. It galls me continuously to realize that this barbaric land, where apostasy, homosexuality, and blasphemy are crimes punishable by death—and death by beheading—is our ally. Obama, of course, refuses to raise his voice against the brutality of this medieval theocracy, for, after all, they’ve got OIL, and claim to be on our side.

So spare a thought today for Ashraf Fayadh, a 35-year-old Palestinian poet (born in Saudi Arabia) who was sentenced to death for these horrific crimes (from Human Rights Watch):

The religious police held him for a day, then released him, but authorities re-arrested him on January 1, 2014. Prosecutors charged him with a host of blasphemy-related charges, including: blaspheming “the divine self” and the Prophet Muhammad; spreading atheism and promoting it among the youth in public places; mocking the verses of God and the prophets; refuting the Quran; denying the day of resurrection; objecting to fate and divine decree; and having an illicit relationship with women and storing their pictures in his phone.

What kind of country kills people for this? A backwards one, one not touched at all by the values of the Enlightenment.

Fayadh denied the charges, and was sentenced to 800 lashes and four years in prison, but the prosecutor appealed. And, although Fayadh repented of some of the accusations, and denied most of the others, another judge said that repentance wasn’t enough and sentenced Fayadh to death. An appeal is pending.

Saudi Arabia has executed 2015 people this year, and the year isn’t over yet. And it doesn’t matter, of course, that Fayadh is formally a Palestinian—in fact, that may be one reason he’s being persecuted. If you blaspheme in Saudi Arabia, you’re subject to its laws.

And, in further proof that the world is becoming complete fodder for The Onion, Newsweek reports that the Saudi government is suing a Twi**er used who called Fayadh’s sentence “ISIS-like”. It’s not yet clear what “suing” means: it may mean a jail sentence, a fine, or both. And here’s how far freedom of speech goes in that nation:

“Questioning the fairness of the courts is to question the justice of the Kingdom and its judicial system based on Islamic law, which guarantees rights and ensures human dignity”, [the newspaper] Al-Riyadh quoted the justice ministry source as saying. The ministry would not hesitate to put on trial “any media that slandered the religious judiciary of the Kingdom,” it said.

You can’t have pictures of women on your cellphone, you can’t leave Islam, you can’t slander the prophet or the Qur’an, you cant “object to fate and divine decree,” and now you can’t even compare the government to ISIS, which is absolutely a fair comparison. Orwell would have a field day were he still alive.

Obama’s busy pardoning turkeys, but he can’t spare a word to speak up against the repeated violations of human rights by one of our “allies.”


Ashraf Fayadh

h/t: Grania

Some recent student demands

Walter Olson is a fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute, and has made a “storyfied” collection of some of the demands of college-student protestors in the last few weeks. As I’ve said, some of the “demands” (I prefer “requests”) are reasonable, but many are not only ridiculous, but hilarious. A few of Olson’s tw**ts:

This one is reminiscent of the public shaming during China’s Cultural Revolution:

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From Dartmouth:

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This one augurs no good:
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The Wesleyan demand didn’t go down well:

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No more campus cops!

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Would this work in biology?:

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From Michigan State:Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 7.59.22 AM

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And two more reactions:

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Happy Thanksgiving! (with readers’ wildlife)

I think it’s nicer today to look at living turkeys than to eat roasted ones, but any reader who sends me (today) a photo of their cat nomming Thanksgiving dinner will have it posted tomorrow.

Here are some photos of wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo). The first one is from reader Al Blazo, who took it a while back:

I was sitting in my yard yesterday grilling a couple of pork chops when these guys suddenly crept into view – 16 of them!  They’ve almost turned into pets; none of them seemed to be disturbed in the least bit by my presence or motion.
Many were born and raised in and around our property.  We watched them grow up from peephood  to what you see here.  It’s hardly a mystery that they’ve all grown to be pretty large in a single season given that a supply of cracked and whole corn is available to them on a regular basis at our bird-feeding area!
Al Blazo turkey
And two other photos from reader James Billie:

Wild turkeys, Washington State:



A cartoon courtesy of reader Jon M.:
And a cartoon sent by Lauren:
Reader Diane G. sent two cartoons; the first is from Off the Mark by Mark Parisi:
and the second is from Snow Sez by T. Shepherd (be sure to read the caption):
Finally, a bit of history from the Great Seal website. It’s a common misconception that Ben Franklin wanted the turkey rather than the bald eagle as the bird symbolizing the newly formed United States, but the truth is even nicer:

A year and a half after the Great Seal was adopted by Congress on June 20, 1782 – with the American Bald Eagle as its centerpiece – Benjamin Franklin shared some thoughts about this new symbol of America in a letter. He did not express these personal musings elsewhere, but they have become legendary.

Writing from France on January 26, 1784 to his daughter Sally (Mrs. Sarah Bache) in Philadelphia, Franklin casts doubt on the propriety of using the eagle to symbolize the “brave and honest Cincinnati of America,” a newly formed society of revolutionary war officers.

The eagle on the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati Medal looked more like a turkey, which prompted Franklin to compare the two birds as a symbol for the United States.

The eagle on the badge of the Society of the Cincinnati Medal looked more like a turkey, which prompted Franklin to compare the two birds as a symbol for the United States.

The medal:


Franklin’s words, in a letter to his daughter:

“For my own part I wish the Bald Eagle had not been chosen the Representative of our Country. He is a Bird of bad moral Character. He does not get his Living honestly. You may have seen him perched on some dead Tree near the River, where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the Labour of the Fishing Hawk; and when that diligent Bird has at length taken a Fish, and is bearing it to his Nest for the Support of his Mate and young Ones, the Bald Eagle pursues him and takes it from him.

“With all this Injustice, he is never in good Case but like those among Men who live by Sharping & Robbing he is generally poor and often very lousy. Besides he is a rank Coward: The little King Bird not bigger than a Sparrow attacks him boldly and drives him out of the District. He is therefore by no means a proper Emblem for the brave and honest Cincinnati of America who have driven all the King birds from our Country…

“I am on this account not displeased that the Figure is not known as a Bald Eagle, but looks more like a Turkey. For the Truth the Turkey is in Comparison a much more respectable Bird, and withal a true original Native of America… He is besides, though a little vain & silly, a Bird of Courage, and would not hesitate to attack a Grenadier of the British Guards who should presume to invade his Farm Yard with a red Coat on.”



Thursday: Hili dialogue

It’s Thanksgiving in the U.S., so everyone (with a few exceptions I won’t name) is off work today, and most will consume mass quantities of turkey, mashed potatoes, dressing, and pumpkin pie, later falling asleep on the couch in front of a football game on t.v. Although there’s no Thanksgiving holiday in Poland, I asked Malgorzata if we might have a special Thanksgiving Hili, and she and Andrzej kindly complied. Here’s the Princess watching President Obama pardoning a Thanksgiving turkey, a strange but annual Presidential rite that you can read about here. I always thought the pardoned turkeys lived a happy life rather than being slaughtered, but the truth is more complicated—they’re factory birds and so are unhealthy:

What happens to the turkey afterward?

This is where the story turns very sad. They are sent to a farm in Virginia, where a former governor raised his own turkeys, but they do not live very long. In fact, every pardoned turkey is dead except for two — “Cheese,” the second half of last year’s duo (“Mac” died in July of this year), and “Courage,” pardoned in 2009.

These birds, though, are bred to be eaten. Many industrially grown turkeys are fattened up with a protein-rich diet of corn and soybeans. They can’t fly, because they are too big; their bone structures can’t hold up all that weight for very long; and their organs fail if they’re kept alive too long.

Oh dear; that takes some of the sheen off turkey-pardoning. But Hili aped Obama this year:

A: Why are you so pleased with yourself?
Hili: I pardoned the neighbor’s turkey.
A: And?
Hili: And I ate a sparrow.


In Polish:
Ja: Czemu jesteś taka z siebie zadowolona?
Hili: Ułaskawiłam indyka sąsiadów.
Ja: I co?
Hili: Zjadłam wróbla.


A pair of felid tw**ts to usher in the holiday

Here are two tw**ts brought to my attention by the indefatigable Matthew Cobb. The first is a rare sighting of a Russian tiger with three cubs:

And. . . cats asking for directions:

NYT reviews Hitchens’s new book of essays

The Sunday New York Times Book section has a favorable review by Dwight garner of Hitchens’s new book. The book, a compilation of published essays, is called And Yet . . ., and was released yesterday. I’ve read all of Hitchens’s essay collections (in fact, I think I’ve read every book he’s written), and they’re great for dipping into at bedtime. I’d put it in the bathroom, but I have no place to put any books there.

As usual, the book is extremely diverse, which makes it even more appealing:

“And Yet …” is a miscellany, a book of essays and book reviews and reported pieces on topics political, social and literary. Mr. Hitchens was that rare public intellectual who was as comfortable pronouncing on V. S. Naipaul and Joan Didion and Edmund Wilson as he was on Bosnia and Iraq and Hezbollah. Few other writers would (or could) compare Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., as Mr. Hitchens does in this book, to Fabrizio in Stendhal’s novel “The Charterhouse of Parma.”

This book revisits Mr. Hitchens’s animus toward the Clintons. It includes“The Case Against Hillary Clinton,” an essay written during the 2008 presidential campaign. Mr. Hitchens asked: “What would it take to break this cheap little spell and make us wake up and inquire what on earth we are doing when we make the Clinton family drama — yet again—a central part of our own politics?”

. . . As a book critic, Mr. Hitchens was sui generis. He tended to pronounce on the topic rather than the book at hand. There is one miraculous performance in “And Yet …” in which he “reviews” for The Atlantic three books loosely about imperialism while mentioning their authors only in fleeting asides and their titles not at all. Somehow he makes this work for him.

He could read very closely indeed, when he felt like it. About critics, he declared: “One test of un homme sérieux is that it is possible to learn from him even when one radically disagrees with him.”

There is a major essay in “And Yet …” about the Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci, whom he admired, and the fading art of the non-sycophantic interview. Mr. Hitchens pivots to lightly roast Charlie Rose’s telegraphic interview style (“‘Your book. Why now?’”) and mocks the way Larry King lobs softballs in a weirdly aggressive manner. (“‘So — you got the big advance. Movie rights up the wazoo. Married to a babe everybody loves. Top of your game. What’s with that?’”)

And remember this series, accompanied by a picture of Hitchens in a mud mask, cigarette stuck in his earthy gob?

The best reason to read “And Yet …” may be its inclusion of a three-part essay, “On the Limits of Self-Improvement,” that Mr. Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair about trying to get himself in shape. It is as hilarious as it is wise, and I predict it will be published before long as its own pocket-size book.

You can read that series free online (part I, part II, part III).

I’m looking forward to the book already. And, since I have no room for books anywhere, I’ll simply ask the University of Chicago Library to order it (they would anyway) and put me on the list.

Here are the contents; I see I’m familiar with about 25% of the pieces:

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I remember reading the Vanity Fair series, in which Hitch claimed to have quit smoking, and then meeting him a few years afterward in Puebla, Mexico, taking a cigarette break outside the Ciudad de las Ideas venue. I was surprised to see him smoking, and didn’t know that within three years it would kill him.


Christopher Hitchens takes an unauthorized smoking break in a “Moor Mud Mask” at the Four Seasons Biltmore Resort, in Santa Barbara. Photographs by Art Streiber.

In misguided attempt to achieve gender equity, kindergarten teacher prohibits boys from using Legos

We are living in an Onion world now, where no act of political piety surprises me. When I sent this article to a colleague, he even thought it came from the Onion. But it didn’t, it comes from CBS in Seattle, and I’ve verified it from other venues.

As  CBS Seattle reports, a kindergarten teacher in Washington state, trying to promote gender equity by not restricting her pupils to “gender-appropriate” toys, has made a misstep by taking Lego blocks away from the boys. And then she lied about it:

Bainbridge Island Review reports that Captain Johnston Blakely Elementary teacher Karen Keller doesn’t allow male students to play with the blocks in order to encourage use among females. She even makes up excuses sometimes to set her agenda in order.

“I always tell the boys, ‘You’re going to have a turn’ — and I’m like, ‘Yeah, when hell freezes over’ in my head,” Keller told the Bainbridge Island Review. “I tell them, ‘You’ll have a turn’ because I don’t want them to feel bad.”

Keller says she started doing this because boys were flocking to the colorful blocks during their “free choice” playtime, while girls tended to play with dolls or crayons. Keller hopes by blocking use of the toys for boys that female students may be encouraged to play with them.

The teacher says that Lego play helps with development acceleration and math skills, while dolls offer little challenge or opportunity for growth.

So she’s lied to her pupils, and simply prohibits the boys from having Legos. I’m wondering what notion she was laboring under when she decided to rectify the tendency of boys to go for Legos and girls for dolls and crayons. Most likely she sees that as a result of the kids’ previous social conditioning—conditioning that to her is both sexist and an impediment to future achievement when the girls grow up. And it might be.

But we should consider that perhaps there are real biological (i.e., genetic) differences in those preferences which don’t result from cultural indoctrination. Should she still try to rectify those; and, if so, who is she to make that decision? (The source of behavioral differences that cause future inequities might, of course, be completely irrelevant to what we do.) Regardless, it seems to me that the children should have equal access to the toys. After all, what the hell is wrong with crayons? And I had stuffed animals when I was a kid (I still have my teddy bear here in my office.) How does that differ from a doll? After all, I played for hours with Toasty and his faithful sidekick Tiger (Tiger’s here, too!).

Keller also deceived her bosses as well as the kids:

She first used pink and purple Legos to try to attract the girl students to play with the toys, but she found this ineffective. Soon after she requested funds from the school to purchase Lego Education Community Starter Kits. She did not tell school officials that access to the toys would be denied for male students.

“I had to do the ‘girls only Lego club’ to boost it more,” Keller said. “Boys get ongoing practice and girls are shut out of those activities, which just kills me. Until girls get it into their system that building is cool, building is ‘what I want to do’ — I want to protect that.”

Keller says the practice is “fair” because she’s giving different students the tools they need to succeed.

“I just feel like we are still so far behind in promoting gender equity,” Keller added.

While Keller’s motivation is admirable, the way she’s achieving her ends is not. What we’re seeing now, and this holds for campuses, are ironic attempts to address perceived inequalities by promoting actions that are inherently divisive, or in some cases punitive. This holds whether we are talking about buildings designed for the use of only one ethnic group or the shaming of certain classes of people for “appropriating” types of clothing, food, or hairstyles invented by one ethnic group.
Now some attempts to address inequities by “divisive” actions are justifiable. I am, for instance, in favor of affirmative action in hiring and schooling for historically oppressed minorities, though some whites see that as divisive. On balance, though, I think such things are good for society. But when denying boys Legos, forcing students and administrators to take propagandizing courses in “cultural competency,” or denigrating “cultural appropriation,” you run the risk of creating—on balance—increased discontent, misunderstanding, and resentment.

I think most of us would favor children being given the choice of all manner of toys from the very moment they start playing with toys, and then letting them choose what they want. But I don’t think that any child should be denied toys as a mechanism of social engineering.

Punctilious scientists correct Google Doodle, possibly incorrectly

I wrote yesterday about the “Lucy” Google Doodle, which looked like this:


Some of my colleagues didn’t like that Doodle, and fixed it. They couldn’t help it . . .:

Actually, I’m not sure this is scientifically accurate, as it shows Lucy (middle figure; A. afarensis) as a lineage that split off from modern humans rather than being one of our direct ancestors. We don’t know that, as Lucy’s species could have continued evolving into modern H. sapiens. The leftmost ape, if it’s a modern chimp, is correct, as they certainly branched off before hominins. But I’m not even sure, nor are the people at the Beacon Center, whether it’s a modern chimp or some ancestor of modern humans.

I therefore asked Greg Mayer, who knows more about this stuff than I do, to tell me if I was right in what I just said. He responded at some length, and even made a figure (upshot: I was right, and readers not conversant with taxonomy needn’t read on). Greg’s comments:

Yes, afarensis may have living descendants, and thus to show it as a terminal lineage isn’t quite right (or, at least, it involves additional assumptions). Some conventions for depicting fossil species in a tree with living species are needed, and it could be plausibly argued that they should be shown as terminal taxa (i.e at the tip of a branch, as in the corrected Google doodle Figure A).

Lucy phylo tree

But when a fossil species may be ancestral to a living species, we would consider the branch leading to the fossil species to have 0 length (i.e. it is at the node: Figure B).

Fossil species are usually depicted as terminal taxa, on the reasonable notion that of all the many species in an ancestral group, the probability of finding the ancestor is small. (For example, we know that early synapsids are ancestral to mammals, but the chance that Dimetrodon grandis is the ancestor of all mammals is small, so it probably is accurate to show it as a terminal taxon.) But when dealing with recent events with a rich fossil record in a geographically proscribed area, the probability of finding the ancestor does go up to the point where it’s no longer safe to make the assumption that it won’t be found.

For molecular and chromosomal data, where a complete description of the phenotype/genotype (i.e., nucleotide or banding sequence) is possible, actual ancestors can often be identified, and are often shown in trees as lying along the branches or at nodes in the tree.

Based on what we know about how speciation occurs, most ancestral species are probably paraphyletic relative to their descendants (Figure C, with afarensis zoomed in on and shown as ancestral to the lineage leading to Homo), and thus some parts of afarensis are terminal relative to Homo. If Lucy were in one of these terminal bits (the X in Figure C), then the corrected Google Doodle could be construed as accurate.

(I made the figure before checking the original Google doodle, and now realize that the leftmost ape was not identified as a chimp. If it was intended to be a chimp, then all of the above holds. However, if Google intended it to be a fossil ancestral species– which I think most likely– then it should fall along the branch, and not be a terminal taxon.)


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