Sunday: Hili dialogue

It’s Ceiling Cat’s Day, when all cats rest (that’s actually every day): Sunday, June 24, 2018. It’s also National Pralines Day. (Shouldn’t that be “National Praline Day”, singular?) In Scotland it”s Bannockburn Day,  celebrating Scottish independence (see below).

The ducklings are fine and VERY big. They’re also ravenous and downed a huge breakfast, slurping noisily as they ingested their duck pellets and dried worms from the water. It will be warm and sunny in Chicago today; a good day to feed and photograph waterfowl.

On June 24, 1314, the Battle of Bannockburn was won by the Scottish forces headed by Robert the Bruce in the First War of Scottish Independence. Exactly 60 years later, the people of Aachen, Germany were afflicted by an outbreak of St. John’s Dance, which, according to Wikipedia, “caused people in the streets of Aachen to experience hallucinations and begin to jump and twitch uncontrollably until they collapse[d] from exhaustion.” But why? This phenomenon, which recurred through the Middle Ages in several places, has always fascinated me, but we still don’t know the explanation. The Wikipedia entry under “dancing mania” says this:

Numerous hypotheses have been proposed for the causes of dancing mania, and it remains unclear whether it was a real illness or a social phenomenon. One of the most prominent theories is that victims suffered from ergot poisoning, which was known as St. Anthony’s fire in the Middle Ages. During floods and damp periods, ergots were able to grow and affect rye and other crops. Ergotism can cause hallucinations and convulsions, but cannot account for the other strange behaviour most commonly identified with dancing mania. Other theories suggest that the symptoms were similar to encephalitis, epilepsy, and typhus, but as with ergotism, those conditions cannot account for all symptoms.

Numerous sources discuss how dancing mania, and tarantism, may have simply been the result of stress and tension caused by natural disasters around the time, such as plagues and floods. Hetherington and Munro describe dancing mania as a result of “shared stress”; people may have danced to relieve themselves of the stress and poverty of the day, and in so doing, attempted to become ecstatic and see visions. Another popular theory is that the outbreaks were all staged, and the appearance of strange behaviour was due to its unfamiliarity. Religious cults may have been acting out well-organised dances.

That would have been something to see!

On June 24, 1509, Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon were crowned King and Queen of England. She ruled until 1533, when she was deposed after Henry became enamored of Anne Boleyn.  On this day in 1880, the first performance of O Canada, the song that would become the national anthem of that country, took place at the Congrès national des Canadiens-Français. Let’s hear the anthem of our friendly neighbors to the North:

On this day in 1948, the Soviet Union started the Berlin Blockade, making transport of goods and travel between West Germany and East impossible. That, of course, instigated the Berlin Airlift.  Exactly two years later, apartheid was formalized in South Africa by passage of the Group Areas Act. And read about British Airways Flight 9, which lost power in all four engines after flying through a cloud of volcanic ash on this day in 1982. That scared the bejeesus out of all the passengers, most of whom thought they would die for sure. Fortunately, the engines were restarted and the plane landed safely. Here’s a brief video in which a passenger on that flight describes what happened:

Finally, on this day six years ago, the last known individual of the Galápagos turtle subspecies Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii, known as “Lonesome George“, died in captivity.  He was about 102.

Notables born on  this day include Henry Ward Beecher (1813), Ambroce Bierce (1842), Jack Depsey (1895), Fred Hoyle (1915), Jeff Beck (1944), Robert Reich (1946), Mick Fleetwood (1947), and Lionel Messi (1987; NO GOOOOOOOOOOOAL!).  Those who died on this day include Grover Cleveland (1908), Stuart Davis (1964), Jackie Gleason (1987), Paul Winchell (2005), and Eli Wallach (2014).

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili plays Robert Frost:

Hili: I’ve decided.
A: What did you decide?
Hili: That this is not the right path, let’s look for another one.
In Polish:
Hili: Podjęłam decyzję.
Ja: Jaką?
Hili: To nie jest właściwa ścieżka, szukamy innej.

A tweet I found: The BBC shows how there can be such a thing as being too “woke”. This is a funny take on a “cure from wokeness” seminar:

Tweets sent by Matthew: Ziya Tong shows a lit-up frog who’s ingested a firefly:

And Tong shows how a ladybird beetle follows a line:

Poor turtles!

I’ve seen rare blooms in Death Valley, California, and they’re stunning. Here’s one in the deserts of Utah:

Look at this insect!

That’s the chill White Basket Cat (Kagonekoshiro) harboring (and ignoring) a snail:

Aposematic coloration to the max:

Use this tweet for the link; it’s a great resource:

And I name this video Tweet of the Month:


Saturday: Duck report

I’ll start with a photo from yesterday morning when the ducks were huddled on the bank in the rain. I think it’s one of the best “brood” photos I have, mainly because of the duckling at upper left of the Duck Pile sticking its bill out (click to enlarge):

It’s stopped raining here (we had quite a deluge the other day), and although it’s a bit overcast, it’s warmed up and the duck islands are above water—though still muddy. Tomorrow and Monday will be sunny and warm, so everybody should be happy.

Here’s the pond in the early morning with the family swimming about. But they’re still resting on the bank, which is more dangerous than on the duck islands, and I wish they’d move back to them. I suspect they’re waiting for the mud to dry out.

I gave them extra food today because of the cold and rain, and they’re eating ravenously. Look at these ducklings: they’re getting so big that they’re sometimes hard to tell from Mom! There’s some dabbling going on here, too.

After breakfast they again had mandatory dabbling practice. Notice that their feathers are almost grown in.

Just to remind you how fast they’ve grown, this photo is from exactly a month ago. It’ll be at least another month till they can fly.

Before the mid-morning feeding, they were huddled on the bank again, though it’s no longer cold. As usual, Honey was watching over the gang, and standing between the Pile O’ Ducklings and the entry to the area—the place where a predator might come from. She clearly knows how to position herself to protect the four copies of her genome embodied in the ducklings:

Pile O’ Ducklings (yes, there are eight in there):

I was a bit worried because Honey was standing on one leg while watching them, and I thought she might be injured, though ducks do stand that way to warm up their feet. But then I looked at yesterday’s photo, in which she was also standing on one leg, and it was the other leg. Plus she seems to be walking fine.

Notice how well she balances:

My avian inamorata, Ms. Honey, Mother of the Year:


How pterosaurs flew

Matthew Cobb called this video to my attention, and I thought it was worth putting up.  Anhanguera is a genus of flying reptile that contains three described species. They were about 1.2 meters tall (four feet) with a 4.5-meter (15-foot) wingspan, and were heavy—weighing about 23 kg (50 pounds). They lived roughly 120 million years ago. Although Wikipedia describes them as fish-eaters, the New Dinosaurs site says this:

This is one flying reptile that you may not recognize from Anhanguera pictures. That’s because this pterosaur was discovered relatively recently – as compared to other flying reptiles – and doesn’t get the media attention that pterodactyls do. Which is quite a shame because this was one remarkable creature.

. . .  its wingspan was about 3 times larger than a Crowned Eagle and its weight was about 12 times heavier than a Red-tailed Hawk. It had crests not only on top of its beak but also on the bottom.

One of the most interesting facts about Anhanguera is that it had relatively weak legs. Which means that it probably spent the majority of its time flying. If it did spend any time whatsoever on the ground, then it most likely walked with a very unusual gait and probably was a little wobbly.

Most paleontologists believe that this pterosaur used its beak to scoop up fish, but it is also possible that it hunted for carrion from dead animals that it discovered on land as well. It may have also eaten a variety of different insects as well. Which means that it may have had one of the most diverse diets of any flying reptiles of its time.

We have much of the skeleton, and reconstructions vary in external appearance, because of course we don’t have feathers. Here are two:

Here are some bones used in the reconstruction of a specimen’s skeleton (species not clear), and below that is the holotype (original specimen) skull from  A. blittersdorffi:

Skull: (lower jaw missing); note the crest near the tip of the beak:


The cool part is the video below, which was made by London’s Natural History Museum. It doesn’t name the narrator, but it sure sounds like David Attenborough to me. The single-leap takeoff is amazing:

This animal is Anhanguera, one of the flying reptiles that lived alongside the dinosaurs. Pterosaurs lived alongside dinosaurs, but they formed a group of their own. Pterosaurs were evolutionary cousins of dinosaurs, and shared many features of their skeletons with them. But unlike their land-dwelling cousins, they took to the air. For the first time ever, we can watch how it might have flown. This animation was made for Hold the World, a virtual reality experience set behind-the-scenes at the Museum.

Notice that what supports the wing membrane is a single digit: the elongated fourth digit, shown below. The other digits were present, as they are in the reconstruction above, but are tiny. They may have helped the creature clamber about on the ground, as shown above, or they may have been relatively useless vestiges of ancestral fingers.

Caturday felid trifecta: Miniature cat created from its own fur, photos of cats on ‘nip, cat named “Ford” travels 80 miles in a car grille

From Bored Panda, we hear of a Russian cat owner who made a miniature cat from the real cat’s fur (click on screenshot):

And a good job it was, too!


Well, three sites, Laughing Squid, My Modern Met, and Bored Panda all published pictures this week of cats high on catnip, all taken by cat photographer Andrew Marttila . I’ll show just a few.  Getting your cat stoned is merely one of the many pleasures of owning one of these lovely creatures.

Has anybody ever studied whether cats get the munchies when they’re stoned?


Both The Independent and the BBC have stories about a cat caught in a car grille that traveled 80 miles. It was rescued by the RSPCA, who had to take the grille apart, and has temporarily been named “Ford”:

cat is amazingly unhurt after getting stuck in the air vent of a family car and travelling up to 80 miles in it.

The male tabby was only noticed when the family parked up in Clacton-on-Sea after hours on the road. They say he could have been inside the grille of the Ford Focus for up to two days.

Steven Kane, the owner of the car, said: “We’d pulled up at the seafront and I was playing on the green with my brother’s little girl when I looked up and spotted him.

“He is lucky that I saw him. I have no idea where we picked up our little hitchhiker, it could have been anywhere.”

RSPCA inspector Lucy Brennan attended the scene and contacted the AA to free the cat.

“The cat was trapped in the grille of the car and the driver was unsure how long he had been there or where he had come from,” said Ms Brennan, revealing the cat has been named Ford by the charity.

“Luckily, the cat didn’t appear to be injured but he was well and truly trapped. We contacted the AA who came out to carefully dismantle the car by taking out the headlights and bumper and freeing the poor moggy.

“He was very smelly and very hungry. The AA explained that even if the cat had been trapped when the motorist was driving the car, luckily the area he was in has no moving parts and doesn’t get hot when the engine is on. Having said that, it must have been quite an ordeal for poor Ford.”

Ford has been checked over by staff at the RSPCA Danaher branch where an existing problem with his tail was spotted. It will need amputating.

If you’re in Essex, you might want to adopt this lovely kitty; the Danaher adoption center is here.

h/t: József, Kevin, Michael, Su

Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Robert Jase has been feeding raccoons (Procyon lotor), striped skunks (Mephitis mephitis), and a Virginia opossum (Didelphis virginiana). He’s a man after my own heart, and let’s not have any kvetching about feeding wild animals here. I’ve told him that I prefer pictures in focus, but he admits that he has trouble focusing (it is dark in there, after all). Never mind; I have ducks, and he has mammals.

Robert’s notes are indented. His first raccoon was named Rackets.

The first two pics are of Rackets, she has been coming by since she was a kit two years ago.  I make it a point to always talk around her as all other wild visitors in a calm but natural tone so they can learn my sound & smell. BUT only mine rather than people in general. Rackets sort of knows her name, will come when I call her and will not only nuzzle my hand but will also let me rub her nose with my fingers .  Also she will reach out and touch my hand with her paw.  The third pic shows Rackets and my cat Tippie checking each other out in passing.

The next two pics are of Bebbiz.  She(?) is a year old and one of Rackets’ three kits from last year.  She isn’t as friendly yet as her mom nor does she know her name.  They used to travel together regularly until about two months ago, which makes me think Rackets is carrying a new litter. [JAC: indeed she was; see below.]

Raccoon and friend, sharing a meal

Skunk and other friend, sharing a meal:

“My skunk friend” was how these pictures were labeled. And indeed, skunks are our friends:

And. . . raccoon kits!

Last night Rackets brought her four kits over for supper, she’s the larger one in the center of the first photo.  They are just as fluffy and plush as they look – I spent about twenty minutes playing with them, they like grabbing fingers and taking apart my clothespins, and petting them.  As the third photo shows, it was a long hot night and Rackets needed to just crash for a while while I acted as babysitter.  That water bowl got changed and refilled four times between the dabbling and standing in the water.

BTW, Bebbiz has at least two kits also, that makes four generations of this racoon family.  She’s more cautious so I haven’t gotten pics of them yet.

Saturday: Hili dialogue

It’s Saturday, June 23, 2018, and it’s GRANIA’S BIRTHDAY! On her natal day, let me thank her for covering for me when I’m traveling, and contributing mightily to this website as Our Correspondent in Ireland. Happy birthday!

Sadly, it’s also Nation Pecan Sandy Day, a cookie so dry it will suck the saliva right out of your mouth.

On this day in 1868, Christopher Latham Sholes received a patent for an invention called the “Type-Writer,” and in 1926 the first SAT exam was administered by the College Board. The test may be on its way out: some schools, including the University of Chicago, no longer require it for entry.  On June 23, 1972, Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was altered to prohibit sex discrimination by any educational institution that receives federal funds. That was a good change, but its further interpretations under Obama’s “Dear Colleague” letter has created a huge muddle when it comes to sexual harassment and assault cases. On this day in 1993, Lorena Bobbitt of Price William County, Virginia, cut off the penis of her husband John. If you were alive then, and a male, you probably involuntarily reached for your nether parts when you heard that news. On June 23, 2013, Nik Wallenda became the first man to successfully cross the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. Here’s his 1500-foot walk, actually not over the Grand Canyon proper but a subsidiary Canyon (no tightrope-walking allowed in the National Park). Notice he had no safety harness; it was a sure fall to the death if he slipped.

This is about the scariest feat I can imagine:

Finally, it was exactly two years today that the UK voted to leave the European Union. Brexit Day! Surely an unwise move, and we’ll see what ensues.

Notables born on this day, besides Grania, include Alfred Kinsey (1894), Edward VIII of England (1894, abdicated in 1936), Alan Turing (1912), Bob Fosse (1927), June Carter Cash (1929), Wilma Rudolph (1940), Martin Rees (1942), and Clarence Thomas (1948).  Those who died on June 23 include a rhyming pair: Jonas Salk (1995) and Peter Falk (2011).

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili, as usual, wants to be the center of attention, but Cyrus obscures her:

Hili: Am I visible enough?
A: Not really.
Hili: Well, sometimes the best of friends may spoil everything.
In Polish:
Hili: Czy dobrze mnie widać?
Ja: Nie bardzo.
Hili: No tak, czasem najlepszy przyjaciel może wszystko popsuć.

Some tweets from Matthew, first some Arty Fish. I like the “Munch”:

Matthew has been tweeting paeans to the power of natural selection, and someone responded showing the power of sexual selection (which, despite what Martin Nowak tells you, is a form of natural selection, one based on mate choice):

We’ve seen this before, but you can’t see it too often. Kitty brings home a toy.

From Grania: a nice photo of Maajid and Ayaan celebrating Maajid’s victory over the odious Southern Poverty Law Center, which defamed both of them:

I still maintain that the Pope, though he seems like a nice guy and all, is still being the Vatican’s Useful Idiot: perpetuating the harms of Catholicism but with a genial and smiling mien:

Grania also sent this groaner:

A nice simile, but that must make the wearer dizzy!


From reader Blue, a very sad clip of a cat viewing its owner on the phone after the owner had died: (actually, the translation “hostess” is better than “owner”).

Friday: Duck report

Anna and I just fed the brood, which were resting, huddled in a cold, sodden mass on the bank, sadly unable to rest on their inundated duck island. Anna told me that when they saw me approaching, without my making a sound, they perked up. She suspected that they know me from my appearance!  Anyway, here’s the poor wet group on the bank. Yes, there are still eight.

Eight—count them—eight ducklings. Mom is always between them and danger.

Foraging in the lily pads, with mom watching closely. They seem to actually be finding food there:

I don’t know what this duckling found, but he tried to nom it, and another came by and tried to steal it. Any ideas? But look how big they’ve grown! The yellow down on their head has disappeared.

Food fight!

My beloved Honey, speculum in full glory:

Spot the mallard!


The ACLU backs off defending free speech in favor of promoting social justice, a libertarian site, reports on a leaked memo from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) that makes it pretty clear that the organization wants to ratchet back on defending free speech that is “hate speech”, i.e., speech that goes after “marginalized groups” (see below). You can discount the article if you want, but do read the leaked ACLU memo (called “confidential attorney work product) as well as Wendy Kaminer’s Wall Street Journal piece (below) and see for yourself. The pdf of the ACLU’s memo is here.

While the ACLU memo repeatedly assures its readers that the group is not giving up on defending speech considered widely offensive, it’s pretty clear to me, and to former ACLU board member Kaminer, that for the ACLU “free speech has become second among equals.” (Link below, but probably paywalled; judicious inquiry will get you a copy.)

The ACLU’s new guidelines (these are suggestions, not yet policy) suggests that they won’t defend speech that seeks to “engage in or promote violence,” which is okay by me, so long as that promotion of violence is also the kind of “imminent violence” interpreted by the courts as not covered by the First Amendment. They also won’t defend speakers who “seek to carry weapons.” I don’t mind that, either, as that’s close to an incitement of imminent violence, and I don’t accept the courts’ interpretation of the Second Amendment.

No, the problem is this: the ACLU now will weigh “the impact of the proposed speech and the impact of its suppression”, so that now certain kinds of “hate speech” will be demoted on the ACLU’s agenda. From the memo (my emphasis).

The ACLU is committed to the fundamental rights to equality and justice embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment and civil rights laws. See Policies #301-332. We are determined to fight racism in all its forms, whether explicit or implicit, and the deep-rooted institutional biases that continue to reify inequality. We are also firmly committed to fighting bigotry and oppression against other marginalized groups, including women, immigrants, religious groups, LGBT individuals, Native Americans, and people with disabilities. Accordingly, we work to extend the protections embodied in the Bill of Rights to people who have traditionally been denied those rights. And the ACLU understands that speech that denigrates such groups can inflict serious harms and is intended to and often will impede progress toward equality.

Note that they now claim that speech that denigrates groups—including religion!—can “inflict serious harms” and “impede progress toward equality”. Here is the beginning of the slippery slope of “hate speech”. Is criticism of the Vatican, or the excesses of Islam, sufficiently harmful that the ACLU will not defend it? What about religionists who demonstrate for the right of bakers and others not to serve gays?

And remember when the ACLU defended the Klan when it wanted to march through the Jewish suburb of Skokie, Illinois? Well, no more.

We recognize that taking a position on one issue can affect our advocacy in other areas and create particular challenges for staff members engaged in that advocacy. For example, a decision by the ACLU to represent a white supremacist group may well undermine relationships with allies or coalition partners, create distrust with particular communities, necessitate the expenditure of resources to mitigate the impact of those harms, make it more difficult to recruit and retain a diverse staff and board across multiple dimensions, and in some circumstances, directly further an agenda that is antithetical to our mission and values and that may inflict harm on listeners.

In other words, “Free speech, but . . .  “.

I’ve written at length why the speech that deserves the most protection and the strongest defense is speech considered most offensive. I am not a Nazi or a racist or a misogynist, but people espousing such views deserve their First Amendment rights, and if you want a long explanation of why, read John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Traditionally the ACLU has defended that speech, as a country in which only politically approved speech is allowed is a country in danger. Free speech is to a democracy as oxygen is to an animal. Now, however, they are bowing to the demands of social justice, and the secret memo makes that clear.

This, of course, goes along with the Regressive Left’s new dislike of the First Amendment, since it enables “hate speech”. Remember when Black Lives Matter students at my own alma mater, The College of William & Mary, shut down a talk by the Virginia Executive Director of the ACLU—a talk called “Students and the First Amendment”? That talk was never delivered because of the disruption, and how ironic is that? We are now in a time when all of us who are First Amendment mavens have to fight hard against its erosion by the Left, and that apparently includes by the ACLU. There was a reason, of course, why the memo was confidential, as otherwise there’s nothing embarrassing or secret in it.

As I said, author Wendy Kaminer was a former ACLU board member, and wrote a book describing her disillusionment with the organization.  Now she’s even more disillusioned, as am I. I will no longer donate to them nor rejoin as a member until they start defending the groups they used to defend: both progressive groups and “offensive” groups.

Here’s Kaminer’s piece; ask and ye shall receive:

Here are a few quotes from that piece (if you’ve read her engaging books, you’ll know that she is not a right winger):

. . . . free-speech advocates know the ACLU has already lost its zeal for vigorously defending the speech it hates. ACLU leaders previously avoided acknowledging that retreat, however, in the apparent hope of preserving its reputation as the nation’s premier champion of the First Amendment.

But traditional free-speech values do not appeal to the ACLU’s increasingly partisan progressive constituency—especially after the 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville. The Virginia ACLU affiliate rightly represented the rally’s organizers when the city attempted to deny them a permit to assemble. Responding to intense post-Charlottesville criticism, last year the ACLU reconsidered its obligation to represent white-supremacist protesters.

The 2018 guidelines [in the memo above] claim that “the ACLU is committed to defending speech rights without regard to whether the views expressed are consistent with or opposed to the ACLU’s core values, priorities and goals.” But directly contradicting that assertion, they also cite as a reason to decline taking a free-speech case “the extent to which the speech may assist in advancing the goals of white supremacists or others whose views are contrary to our values.”

In selecting speech cases to defend, the ACLU will now balance the “impact of the proposed speech and the impact of its suppression.” Factors like the potential effect of the speech on “marginalized communities” and even on “the ACLU’s credibility” could militate against taking a case. Fundraising and communications officials helped formulate the new guidelines.

One half of this balancing test is familiar. The “impact of suppressing speech”—the precedents that suppression might establish, the constitutional principles at stake—is a traditional factor in case selection. But, traditionally, the ACLU has not formally weighed the content of speech and its consistency with ACLU values in deciding whether to defend it.

And this (my emphasis):

Tension between competing values isn’t new to the ACLU. Given its decades-old commitment to defending civil rights and liberties, the organization has long navigated conflicts between equality rights and freedoms of religion, speech and association. The guidelines assert that “no civil liberties or civil rights value should automatically be privileged over any other.” But it’s clear that free speech has become second among equals. Where is the comparable set of guidelines explaining when the ACLU should decline to defend gay-rights claims that infringe on religious liberty or women’s-rights cases that infringe on due process?

The speech-case guidelines reflect a demotion of free speech in the ACLU’s hierarchy of values. Their vague references to the “serious harm” to “marginalized” people occasioned by speech can easily include the presumed psychological effects of racist or otherwise hateful speech, which is constitutionally protected but contrary to ACLU values. Faced with perceived conflicts between freedom of speech and “progress toward equality,” the ACLU is likely to choose equality. If the Supreme Court adopted the ACLU’s balancing test, it would greatly expand government power to restrict speech.

Kaminer guesses that the ACLU will no longer defend the First Amendment rights of those it used to defend, like a Klan leader charged with for calling for ‘revengence” against blacks and Jews. And she concludes with this:

All this [the ability to choose cases using varied criteria] is the ACLU’s prerogative. Organizations are entitled to revise their values and missions. But they ought to do so openly. The ACLU leadership had apparently hoped to keep its new guidelines secret, even from ACLU members. They’re contained in an internal document deceptively marked, in all caps, “confidential attorney client work product.” I’m told it was distributed to select ACLU officials and board members, who were instructed not to share it. According to my source, the leadership is now investigating the “leak” of its new case-selection guidelines. President Trump might sympathize.

One wonders why the ACLU took such pains to keep the document secret. Well, read it for yourselves, and you tell me.

h/t: Eli, cesar

Do hyenas smash the patriarchy?

UPDATE: In the comments, reader PJ calls our attention to a piece showing that Wu even gets the biology of hyenas badly wrong. Click on the screenshot:

The criticisms Herzog outlines, which come from experts on hyenas, are far more serious than the logical fallacies I identify below, for it shows that Wu, a graduate student in biology, can’t even get the basic biology right. Vox really should take down that article.

See a related critique by author and illustrator Beth Windle (click on screenshot):


Here we have an article (click on screenshot below) that demonstrates two things at once. First, that Vox, where it was published, is not only a Control-Leftist site (it’s been that way for a while), but also has very low standards for publication. Second, that we should never draw lessons from nature about how to structure human society.

The author, Katherine Wu, a graduate student in microbiology and immunology at Harvard, is also a 2018 AAAS mass media fellow at Smithsonian Magazine. And she manages, in this dog’s breakfast of an article, to not only characterize the matriarchal society of spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta; also called the “laughing hyena”) as infinitely superior to any patriarchal animal society, but then says that (in light of #MeToo and other recent demonstrations of male sexual malfeasance), we should take a lesson from hyenas. In other words, we should be more like hyenas in terms of sexual equality.

Perhaps we should, but we don’t need hyenas to tell us that! The idea that we should take lessons about human morality and society from nature is called “the naturalistic fallacy,” often characterized as “is equals ought”. That is, the supposed peacefulness and other advantages of matriarchal hyena society—supposedly including greater genetic variation and a larger population size—should compel us to be more like hyenas—to treat women better. To be sure, Wu isn’t favoring a matriarchy, but more equality of the sexes.

The thing is, we’re all in favor of that, but we don’t need hyenas as a model system! In fact, we should never make the argument for equality from observing animals. And I’ll tell you why in the rest of this post.

You can read about the matriarchal society of spotted hyenas at Wu’s article. In this species, females are dominant and males subordinate. This is not common in the animal kingdom, but is not vanishingly rare, either. Males are smaller than females, must leave their groups to join others (lions do the same thing, and in some ways, like hunting, lion society is matriarchal). Female spotted hyenas also have a well-known pseudopenis, which is an enlarged clitoris through which they copulate, urinate, and give birth. Males copulate with females by inserting their penis into the pseudopenis. In fact, the female structure so resembles the genitalia of a male (including an ancillary false scrotum), that it’s hard to tell the sexes apart. Here’s what the female genitalia look like:

This is a female.


Here are some aspects of hyena biology and social behavior that, claims Wu, are things that, in one way or another, offer lessons to human society:

  • Females run the show; males are subordinate (to be fair, Wu says, “I’m not suggesting that we try to emulate hyena societies. We’re striving for gender equality, not a reversal of traditional subjugation.” Yet she also says “We could stand to take a leaf or two out of the hyena playbook”).  It’s clear she’s using hyenas as something we should emulate, at least in part.


  • Spotted hyenas have complex social behavior and great intelligence. This is true; they are far more intelligent than most of us think, although not as intelligent as some primates that have “patriarchal” societies. Wu seems to feel that there is a connection between matriarchal societies and high intelligence, saying that “perhaps it’s no coincidence”). I doubt this, and at any rate she cites no studies correlating matriarchal societies with the intelligence of their members. I can’t see an obvious reason why matriarchy would select for more smarts than patriarchy. Octopuses, after all, aren’t matriarchal. And honeybees are, but aren’t particularly smart.


  • Spotted hyenas have large populations, outnumbering all other carnivores in Africa. I’ll take her word for it, though I don’t see huge populations as something we need to emulate.  Wu, however, at least sees large populations as a consequence of “female empowerment.” This is an instance of her wish-thinking overwhelming her scientific judgment again, as there are no data that I know of correlating matriarchy of species with their population size.


  • Wu argues that the matriarchal society increases the genetic diversity of the population. Her hypothesis is that because males are subordinate, they are less likely to show a high variance in reproductive success (some males having far more offspring than others), which would lead to the successful males spreading their genes more and reducing genetic variation below that which would obtain if the species were closer to being monogamous. Leaving aside whether the question of higher genetic diversity is a good thing once above a certain level, there is no evidence for Wu’s speculation. The paper she cites to support her claim simply shows that comparing two spotted hyena populations, one that went through a population bottleneck and the other didn’t, there was no significant difference in genetic diversity. But the authors attribute this to male dispersal as well as social structure, and also note that other species—species that aren’t matriarchal, like turtles, eagles, and mouflon sheep—also don’t show appreciable reduction in genetic diversity after bottlenecks. There’s simply no evidence across species that matriarchal societies maintain more genetic diversity than patriarchal societies.


  • Females must cooperate with males to effect copulation; as Wu says “sex doesn’t happen without the female’s full consent and cooperation.”  This is unlike ducks, for example, where copulation is often forced. We shouldn’t be like ducks!

What Wu shows is that a stable and numerically successful species can survive despite a matriarchal organization. We’ve known that for a long time, though, and there are of course other matriarchal species, as well as populations of humans that are matriarchal.  She then makes a misstep (and derails her article) by tying this to the #MeToo movement and other forms of mistreatment of women:

I’ve been thinking a lot about the spotted hyena this year — and not just because of the mind-boggling fact that these ladies push multiple 3-pound cubs through a fake penis and live to tell the tale. In many ways, their complexities echo so many human notions about the roles women can and cannot occupy. The idea of a woman at the helm remains a hard pill to swallow in our own society.

This past January, hundreds of thousands across the world marched for the second year in a row to protest the constraints on women in all walks of life. Fifty-five years after the passage of the Equal Pay Act, women still make only 80 cents for every dollar earned by men — a gap that widens into a chasm for women of color. And in the prolonged wake of the #MeToo movement, stories of sexual misconduct by powerful CEOs, Hollywood stars, and White House staff continue to appear in the news week after week.

The scandals surrounding Harvey WeinsteinLarry Nassar, and countless others have empowered women everywhere to speak out. But every woman who has come forward to share her story also reminds us that ignorance and female marginalization are still the norm rather than the exception.

. . . I’m not suggesting we try to emulate hyena societies. We’re striving for gender equality, not a reversal of traditional subjugation.

But we should not have to succumb to the binary of patriarchal or matriarchal. There is a middle ground, and it’s completely achievable. To someday reach that compromise, our male-dominated society needs to study female empowerment.

We can start by acknowledging that patriarchy isn’t a necessary natural order. Powerful females abound in nature and govern complex societies of intelligent individuals. A culture led by women is not doomed or damned.

In spotted hyena clans, male stalking, harassment, and aggression toward females are taboo. These tactics simply don’t work. If a guy wants to woo a girl, he waits patiently and earns her respect through deference and altruism — because he knows he is not entitled to her affection or anatomy simply by virtue of being male. When it comes to hyena sex, it’s the considerate guys who get the ladies. Human males, take note.

You get the idea. We should be like hyenas, and maybe studying and learning about hyena behavior will compel us to be more like them.  But, of course, if you studied patriarchal societies, and accepted the naturalistic fallacy, you’d say we should be more like elephant seals or gorillas.

Wu has gone badly wrong in underlining the wonders of a matriarchal society and then asserting that this should tell us to be more like hyenas.  Why is she wrong? Because she brings to her analysis a view that precedes her study of biology: that women should be treated more fairly and equally. In other words, she’s picking out an animal society to buttress what she already believes.  And I agree with her about the preconception: we should certainly strive for greater equality between the sexes, more respect towards women, and equal opportunity for all sexes and genders. But we don’t need hyenas to tell us that! And we shouldn’t USE hyenas to support that argument!

We come to the conclusion that sexes should be treated equally not from seeing how well hyena societies work (because, after all, patriarchal societies work well, too), but from rational contemplation of how people should be treated, and the bad consequences if they’re not treated equally.

We should never draw lessons about how to structure human society by looking at animal societies, for an “is” is not an “ought.” (We can, of course, help understand human societies by studying our evolutionary past, but from that we’d conclude that the patriarchy, in the end, is biologically based: males originally dominated females because of sexual selection: males are larger than females, and females are constrained by the fact that they reproduce and often take care of the offspring). While biologically based patriarchy can be and is indeed reinforced by social strictures—once males have power, they can use it to disempower females even more—I believe that the dominance of males ultimately goes back to our biology and to sex differences created by sexual selection. But of course we needn’t blindly follow that pattern, and we shouldn’t. Being a modern human means doing many things to overcome our biology (contraception is one, medical intervention to cure disease and injury is another).

In my view, then, Wu has erred badly, and mislead her readers by asserting that we should try to emulate this and that aspect of this and that animal society. And what she’s done is commit a scientific version of the Euthyphro fallacy: the fallacy that God is the source of morality. Plato refuted that fallacy by showing that there is a pre-God morality that comes into play when you make that claim. If God told you to do something like kill an innocent child, for instance you wouldn’t do it simply because God ordered you to. That’s because we have an idea (evolved or cultural) that committing such an act is bad. If you then argue that “God wouldn’t ask us to do that because God is good” (but see the case of Abraham v. Isaac), then you are espousing a notion of good that precedes your notion of God.

Likewise, Wu has a preconception that women should be treated no differently from men. I agree, especially if we’re talking about civility and opportunity. She starts with that idea, and then finds support by describing in extenso the supposed wonderfulness of matriarchal hyenas. But we don’t need the damn hyenas! What Wu has done is simply find a species that conforms to what she wants human society to be more like, and then say, “We should take a lesson from that society.”

What she’s doing shouldn’t fool anyone, though it apparently fooled the editors of Vox. And it’s absolutely terrible science writing because it commits the naturalistic fallacy. The sad part is that Wu gains no more traction for feminism by describing hyenas than if she simply made the moral argument. I doubt that learning about hyenas is going to make a sexist say, “You know, hyena societies really do work well. I’m going to be nicer to women.”

I agree with the moral argument that really underlies Wu’s lucubrations. But her use of biology to support it is fallacious, tendentious, and misleading.

If I were a postmodernist, I’d say that Wu’s article is a great example of the Euthyphro Phallus-y, instantiated in the lived experience of hyenas.


Readers’ wildlife photos

Time to gather together your wildlife photos and send them in! The photo tank is dropping, though I still have a reserve.

Tony Eales from Australia sent some creepy-crawlies, because of course everything in Australia is venomous. But these animals are also lovely. His notes are indented:

Went back up into the rainforest last weekend to a different section of the national park to find some more creepy crawlies to photograph.

I managed to find and photograph my first Mygalomorphs. This is the infraorder of spiders that includes tarantulas and the deadly Sydney Funnel-web [JAC: the Funnel-web is regarded as the world’s deadliest spider]. The ones I found are in the family Dipluridae aka the Curtain Web Spiders. The second photo was positively identified as Australothele jamiesoni by Robert Raven who was the researcher to first describe the genus and the seven species in it. The second photo looks similar and photographed very close by, it’s probably A. jamiesoni as well but I can’t be certain. The two long spinnerets that can be seen in the photos are characteristic of the family. The spiders look scary but they’re not large: only around 20mm long.

In addition to spiders I found a couple of scorpions. Homurus waigiensis the Rainforest Scorpion, although I have found them outside of rainforests in swampy open forest. And an unidentified member of the Lychas spinatus species complex.

Lastly a Water Spider, in the family Pisauridae. Robert Raven said it looks like a Megadolomedes trux juvenile but has an unusual pattern. I have seen full-grown M. trux years ago and they are an impressive sight. While having relatively small narrow bodies their span can be as large as a man’s spread hand. They hang out on the underside of rocks above rainforest streams and can eat fish, tadpoles and even small frogs and toads.