It’s National Squirrel Appreciation Day!

How could I forget? Well, I am still feeding my gang 3 times per day: sunflower seeds, pecans, and peanuts.

Be good to your squirrels, even though there are some nasty people on the Internet who want to hurt them.  And you can get bonus points here if you do something nice for a squirrel. Send a photo of your sciurophile activities
and, if there’s a really good one (has to be taken today or tomorrow), I’ll send out a copy of Faith Versus Fact with a squirrel drawn in it.

squirrel-2Here’s a new photo freom reader Diana MacPherson:

Black Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), Sheltered from Winter Weather, Eats a Nut


h/t: Nicole

Welcome to the Regressive Left in the Trump era: no “safe spaces” for those you oppose

I was saddened to hear about the violence in D.C. this weekend, with over 100 people arrested and substantial damage to property.  If a march is to succeed, it should be nonviolent, as was the case with the civil rights and Vietnam marches in the Sixties (yes, I know there was some violence).  If the Left is to keep the moral high ground, we simply can’t go around physically attacking those whose views we don’t like. In fact it’s ironic, because when progressives do this, they’re implicitly denying someone a REAL safe space: a space to be free to express your opinions and remain physically safe. “Safety” refers to freedom from physical attack or illegal harassment, not to freedom from hearing views you don’t like.

As a conscientious objector, I’ve always adhered to the nonviolent philosophies of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi, for if you start violence, you lose credibility.

Here’s a white supremacist, Richard Spencer, getting punched in D.C. during the anti-Trump rallies:

Spencer is odious, but he doesn’t deserve to be punched. And yet here’s atheist Dan Arel, whose behavior has become increasingly bizarre, defending that punch on Twitter: 

Stephen Knight (“Godless Spellchecker”) weighs in:

And a few other unhinged tweets by Arel:

I guess Arel thinks that gives us license to punch anyone we don’t like. I no longer have any use for Arel, even though at one time he wrote a good book on godless parenting.

But wait, there’s more!

More excuses for violence; this one is particularly pernicious:


Dave Rubin chimes in with a tw**t by CNN correspondent Jake Tapper, probably referring to Rosie O’Donnell’s claim that Barron Trump was autistic (no evidence for that, I think):

One more from Rubin:

Peter Boghossian decries the violence:


More people defending the violence against Spencer:


And Sarah Silverman strikes back:


We were all worried about Trump supporters creating violence if Hillary Clinton won, but here we have exactly the opposite outcome.  Let’s knock off the violence, the punching, and the destruction, folks. It’s neither productive nor progressive. Even a white supremacist deserves to have his say without being physically attacked.

Yet another accommodationist book

Yes, it’s called Let there be SCIENCE: Why God loves Science and Science Needs God. The first part of the title presumes, without evidence, that there is a God, and the second part is just bogus: science operates best by ignoring God, operating as if gods did not exist. It’s appropriate that the book is coming out on April Fools’ Day of this year.

The authors? Amazon says this:

Tom McLeish is a physics professor, chair of the Royal Society’s education committee, and an Anglican lay reader. He is the author of Faith and Wisdom in Science. David Hutchings is a physics teacher.

Chair of the Royal Society’s education committee? What the bloody hell is a theist doing in that position?

Why, do you suppose, that people are always trying to comport religion with science instead of, say, religion with business or with sports? It’s obvious! Science and religion are both areas that make truth statements about the universe, and are in that sense competitors. But only science has a valid way of adjudicating its findings, and thus is infinitely superior to religion, which has no way to justify its “truths.” (Evidence: all religions have different truth statements about the universe, and they can’t be reconciled.)

At any rate, here’s part of the Amazon blurb, which is pretty truthful about science but tells two big lies about Christianity. (Any why are they comporting science with Christianity instead of some other religions?)

Too often, it would seem, science has been presented to the outside world as a robotic, detached, unemotional enterprise. Too often, Christianity is dismissed as being an ancient superstition. In reality, neither is the case. Science is a deeply human activity, and Christianity is deeply reasonable.

I suspect someone’s been reading Plantinga. Christianity is no more reasonable than Hindu mythology or the pantheon of Greek Gods.


From the book’s website, we learn about the “fatal glass of beer“. Beware of the dregs!


. . . and we get this palaver:

Like its background text, Faith and Wisdom in Science (good for further reading by the way), it’s main task is to blow away the myth that science and orthodox Christian faith are in any necessary conflict now, or at any time in history.

On the contrary, we find that throughout the ages, the faith required to do science, that our minds might just be up to the job of perceiving the inner structures of the universe, as well as its cosmic glories, is motivated by the same ‘Faith’ that dares to suppose that those very minds reflect in some way that of their Creator.

Furthermore, we find that the reason to do science is also theologically grounded.  Historically, the great scientists at the start of the early modern period when experimental science got off the ground, had a worked out theological reason for acquiring knowledge of the natural world.

There is of course no “religious-like faith” required to do science; there is confidence that the scientific toolkit—what I call “science broadly conceived”—will help us find truths about the cosmos and solve problems like curing diseases and landing rockets on comets. And unlike faith, which is belief without evidence, the confidence in science is there because, as they say, “Science works, bitches!” In other words, there’s evidence that science approaches the apprehension of truth. (See my article on this issue here.) In contrast, the faith that supposes that God created our minds is garden-variety religious faith: confident belief without sufficient evidence to command assent from all reasonable people (that’s philosopher Walter Kauffman’s definition).

Finally, while it may be true that some scientists like Newton had theological reasons for studying the natural world, that was by no means always true, even in the past: think of the ancient Greeks. And even if it were true, scientists no longer have religious reasons for doing science; in fact, most of us are atheists. We do science because we’re curious, because some of us want to help society or the afflicted, and so on; and the best way to do that, we’ve found, is to take no notice of gods.

h/t: Matthew Cobb

Caturday felid trifecta: Sneaky cat barks like dog until caught, girl gets replacement for her late cat, and a sledding moggie

I may have shown this before, but it’s worth seeing again. Here’s a sneaky cat showing that it can bark like a dog; when caught, though, it reverts to kitty noises:


From the reliable ailurophile site Love Meow, we have the story of nine-year-old Marley and her new kitten:

Last summer Marley had just turned nine when her mother, Nikki Frost, brought home something that she had been longing for since the day she lost her best friend Simon the black cat.

“Marley’s a big animal lover. She’s always putting her change in the donation cans at the pet supply store, and we already have two dogs, two cats and a guinea pig in our family,” Frost told Love Meow.

“Our elderly black cat Simon had passed away the year before and she’d been asking for a kitten since.”

With two cats, the family was not looking for another one until Ella the kitten came along.

“Ella was actually found under a friend’s porch with a sibling, their mother believed to have been killed on the road,” Frost told Love Meow.

They were bottle fed and when they were ready for adoption, Frost happened to meet her that day. “I had no intention of bringing another cat home, but… sometimes you just know these things are meant to be.”

She brought little Ella home and placed her in Marley’s room, waiting for her daughter to return. “Marley had NO IDEA, she had come home from a friend’s house and the rest is history!”

Here’s Marley receiving her kitten an; it’s a heartwarmer:

Ella has grown by leaps and bounds since this summer. The two buddies share a very special bond. “Ella is a great cat, very friendly and cuddly.”

Something was missing in Marley’s heart after she lost Simon. Little Ella the rescue kitten came to her home to fill her heart with joy.



Here’s Weston the cat, who appears to enjoy sledding. For more of Weston and his buddy’s adventures, see the Facebook page “Westin and Ellinore: Adventure Cats“.

h/t: Bob T. and another reader whose name I’ve lost (sorry!)

Readers’ wildlife photos

Let us have grasses today! We never get enough plants here, so I’m delighted to show these photos taken by reader Amanda Ingram. Her notes are indented:

This loyal reader, a fellow William & Mary alumna (who also studied population genetics with Bruce Grant!), thought you might enjoy some wildlife photos from a charming but underappreciated group of plants, the grasses. I’m a systematist, and focus on Eragrostis (the lovegrasses) and their relatives; these photos came from a collecting trip I took several years ago to South Africa and Namibia. 

This is Eragrostis bergiana, a charming little grass that grows in what the South Africans call “pans” (slight depressions that are seasonally inundated). I wish I could replace my lawn with it—the plants are just a few centimeters tall, so no mowing required!


The spikelets (clusters of flowers, and yes, grasses have flowers) are especially charming. Here’s a closeup:


The next grass, Stiburus alopecuroides, is a close relative of Eragrostis and is quite beautiful with its purple spikelets and hairy foliage:


A closer look at the spikelets (with anthers in a beautifully contrasting color; AKA plant porn):


And finally, Cladoraphis spinosa, one of the strangest grasses I’ve ever seen:


…and its spikelets (see—it really is a grass!)


For the ailurophiles, here are our two cats:  Julius and Cleo, snoozing on the William & Mary seal (in blanket form):


Saturday: Hili dialogue

Well, I’d say “good morning” but it’s not so good, for it’s January 21, 2017, the first full day of Donald Trump’s Presidency. And now I find myself worrying—way too far in advance—that he might even get reelected!  What if the Democrats can’t field a decent candidate in 2020? I have received all sorts of despondent emails from friends, but one reader also sent me a photo of a lovely California sunset, adding “our world is still a beautiful place.”I would like to think so, but there are certain folks without whom it would be more beautiful.

Trump is losing no time taking out petty revenge on people, as well as starting to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. (Did you hear his divisive Inaugural Address?). His latest antic, according to Gizmodo (h/t: reader Bryan) is to punish the National Park Service (NPS) for retweeting items that could be construed as anti-Trump. Here are the two original tweets; the first is from the Washington correspondent for the New York Times:

I mentioned this issue yesterday; the tweet comes from landscape architect Anne Trumble:

Both of these were retweeted by the National Park Service yesterday at about 4:340 pm, but before that happened the retweets were noticed by Mr. Applebaum:

These have been removed by the NPS, but, as Gizmodo reports, “the NPS has been ordered by its Washington support office to ‘immediately cease use of government Twitter accounts until further notice,’ according to an internal email obtained by Gizmodo.

Apparently because of these retweets, which could have been an accident, the NPS has been ordered to cease tweeting, with its employees receiving the following email yesterday


We have received direction from the Department through [the Washington Support Office] that directs all [Department of Interior] bureaus to immediately cease use of government Twitter accounts until further notice.

PWR parks that use Twitter as part of their crisis communications plans need to alter their contingency plans to accommodate this requirement. Please ensure all scheduled posts are deleted and automated cross-platform social media connections to your twitter accounts are severed. The expectation is that there will be absolutely no posts to Twitter.

In summary, this Twitter stand down means we will cease use of Twitter immediately. However, there is no need to suspend or delete government accounts until directed.

This does not affect use of other approved social media platforms. We expect further guidance to come next week and we will share accordingly.

Thanks for your help!

Now perhaps it was unwise for a government department to retweet things like this, but they could have been quietly removed after a private word from the Trump Administration. What we’re seeing here is the petty vindictiveness that will characterize the next four (or eight) years.

Back to our regular message. Today is both National Granola Bar Day and National New England Clam Chowder Day. I have little use for granola bars, which are gradually morphing into candy bars (I predicted this years ago), but New England clam chowder is one of the glories of American cuisine:  far superior to the tomato based “Manhattan clam chowder.” Am I right? In Poland it’s “Grandmother’s Day”; while “Grandfather’s Day” is tomorrow.  On this day in 1954, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S.S. Nautilus (I once went aboard) was launched in Connecticut by First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. In 1976, commercial service of the Concorde began (now terminated), and, exactly five years later, the iconic DeLorean DMC-12 car, the only model ever made, was first manufactured in Northern Ireland. (For a while they shut down production, but now the company is said to be producing more.) The DMC-12 was famous for its gull-wing doors:


Notables born on this day include John C. Frémont (1813), Telly Savalas (1922), Jack Nicklaus (1940) and Geena Davis (1956). Those who died on this day include Vladimir Lenin (1924), Lytton Strachey (1932; be sure to read his great books Eminent Victorians and his biography of Queen Victoria), George Orwell (1950 ♥) and Peggy Lee (2002). Here’s a portrait of Strachey by painter Dora Carrington, who was in love with him—a hopeless relationship given that Strachey was gay. She committed suicide with a gun two months after Strachey died of stomach cancer (the movie “Carrington,” starring Emma Thompson, is a good account of their relationship and the Bloomsbury Group:


Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Andrzej is down with a bad cold (as am I), and is also being bothered by Hili as he tries to write on Listy:

Hili: We work together well.
A: Yes, for the moment, but stay off my lap.
In Polish:
Hili: Mamy dobrą współpracę.
Ja: W tej chwili tak, ale nie wchodź mi na kolana.

A beetle to end the week

What better way to console ourselves in Times of Trouble than to look at animals? Here, from biologist/photographer Piotr Nackrecki’s Facebook page (his website is here), is a gorgeous beetle with a political caption:

We are only hours into the new presidency and I have already been attacked for merely documenting how the nation reacts to this new reality. To lighten the mood, here is a beautiful rhinoceros dung beetle (Coprophanaeus lancifer) from Suriname.


Friday squirrel feeding

My squirrels are all depressed today: they’re worried about whether Donald Trump might grab their nuts. Fortunately, Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus) is around to assure them of a full larder during the hard winter. Here’s a timid and hyperactive squirrel snatching a pecan from my hand. (The pecans were a generous gift from reader Barn Owl.)


Are male and female brains absolutely identical?

The Guardian has a review out of Cordelia Fine’s new book, Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Societywhich continues her critique of innate differences between male and female brains and behaviors. The Amazon summary includes this:

In Testosterone Rex, psychologist Cordelia Fine wittily explains why past and present sex roles are only serving suggestions for the future, revealing a much more dynamic situation through an entertaining and well-documented exploration of the latest research that draws on evolutionary science, psychology, neuroscience, endocrinology, and philosophy. She uses stories from daily life, scientific research, and common sense to break through the din of cultural assumptions. Testosterone, for instance, is not the potent hormonal essence of masculinity; the presumed, built-in preferences of each sex, from toys to financial risk taking, are turned on their heads.

Moving beyond the old “nature versus nurture” debates, Testosterone Rex disproves ingrained myths and calls for a more equal society based on both sexes’ full, human potential.

Now I can’t quibble with the last sentence, though I can say that we simply don’t know very much about evolutionarily-based differences in behavior between the sexes. I guess I’m an equity feminist, feeling strongly that members of both sexes (or of a spectrum of genders) must be offered equal opportunities and educations from the very outset: from birth.  But if there are innate differences between genders or sexes, that won’t necessarily guarantee equality of outcomes. All we can do is ensure that nobody is discriminated against based on their genitalia, their chromosomes, or their own perception of gender.

I read Fine’s previous book, Delusions of Gender, and thought it was pretty good in taking apart some poorly designed experiments that themselves seemed to reflect the researchers’ ideologically driven agenda of hard-wired sex differences. But I also thought that Fine herself was at least partly motivated by ideology (the view that there are absolutely no behavioral differences between the sexes that don’t arise from social conditioning), and so my opinion of the book was mixed. In the end, I agreed with Diane Halpern’s take in Science on that book (Halpern also reviewed Brain Storm by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young, a book I did not read):

Cleverly written with engaging prose, Delusions of Gender and Brain Storm contain enough citations and end notes to signal that they are also serious academic books. Fine and Jordan-Young ferret out exaggerated, unreplicated claims and other silliness regarding research on sex differences. The books are strongest in exposing research conclusions that are closer to fiction than science. They are weakest in failing to also point out differences that are supported by a body of carefully conducted and well-replicated research.

I haven’t read Fine’s latest book, and so will address only the Guardian‘s take on it, which I find bizarre. One caveat is that it may be misrepresenting Fine’s views. But the quoted part below, which I’ve put in bold, suggests that the whole paradigm of sexual selection, and attendant behavioral differences between males and females, should be thrown out because of one flawed experiment:

Here’s one example Fine offers of Testosterone Rex mangling the way we think about sex. In the 1940s, biologist Angus Bateman conducted a series of experiments on fruit flies that appeared to show conclusively that competition between males for “fertile female vessels” was the driving force of evolution. The hypothesis goes something like this: laying eggs is a more substantial physical investment than producing sperm. Therefore, to maximise reproductive success, females should be selective and cautious while males should be promiscuous and competitive; therefore, women are domestic and monogamous, while men are thrusting away both in the public sphere and in as many beds as possible.

It’s elegant, it’s intuitive, and it’s wrong. Bateman’s experiments were biased by design and by his unexplained exclusion of data that, when included in a recent reanalysis, actually showed that males and females both produced more offspring when they had more mates. But there are limits to promiscuity as a strategy: taking into account female fertility, a man has more chance of being hit by a meteor than fathering 100 children with 100 different women in a year. The player who says it’s in his genes is missing a vital part of the story.

It’s true that Bateman’s experiment, purportedly showing that males had a much higher variance in mating success than did females—a crucial assumption of sexual selection theory—was flawed. This was pointed out in a PNAS paper by Patricia Gowaty et al., who noted that the use of certain mutations as genetic markers biased the outcome towards the sexual-selection hypothesis: that males are more promiscuous in mating, and females pickier, because females make a greater reproductive investment than males. But they didn’t say Bateman was flat wrong in seeing males more promiscuous than females; they said his results were “inconclusive.”

The Guardian‘s canard about the unlikelihood of a male fathering 100 children with 100 different women is simply misdirection: the question is whether some males get a lot of offspring compared to others (higher variance in reproductive success) while the variance among females is smaller. If that is the case, then there will be male-male competition—either direct or through display, ornaments, and so on—to woo discriminatory females.

In fact, Bateman’s experiment has been repeated properly in other species, with exactly the predicted finding of higher male variance and of males competing to fertilize scarce uninseminated females. To throw out the whole edifice of sexual selection (and I’m not using it to claim that “women are domestic and monogamous, while men are thrusting away both in the public sphere and in as many beds as possible”) because of one flawed experiment is to neglect the pervasive evidence from many areas that males are indeed evolutionarily adapted to try to mate as often as possible, while females are adapted to be more choosy. We don’t jettison an entire body of consilient evidence because one guy did a bad experiment.

Data supporting sexual selection, and a greater promiscuity of males rather than females, include the following:

  • In human, primate, and many other animal species, males do indeed have a higher variance in reproductive success than do females (it’s been measured). It would be extraordinary if that was just a coincidence based on “social conditioning” in humans but evolution in all the other species that don’t have social conditioning.
  • The theory of sexual selection is well worked out, and precisely explains this difference in sex-specific behavior.
  • In species in which males make a greater reproductive investment than females, like seahorses and pipefishes (the males get “pregnant,” holding the eggs and young in pouches), we see the exact opposite of what we normally see. The males are choosy, while females, who produce eggs faster than males can accept them, are promiscuous. In fact, in those groups it is the females who are brightly colored and ornamented while males are drabber: the opposite of the normal situation, but exactly as sexual selection theory predicts.
  • The difference in body size and strength between human males and females implies an evolutionary basis, almost certainly having something to do with male-male competition, as it does in many mammals, insects, and other groups (see my posts here and here). Holly Dunsworth, whose theories I’ve criticized, has never responded to my comments.
  • Replicated experiments in both humans and other animals show a strong difference in promiscuity (in humans it’s done using experiments in which attractive strangers proposition people of the opposite sex). Again, it would be extraordinary if the parallel between human and animal behavior were purely coincidental.
  • There is no convincing way to explain the pervasive existence of bright coloration, elaborate plumage (maladaptive for survival), calling and displays, and other “look-at-me” features of males versus females other than sexual selection.  How that selection works may be enigmatic (do the male traits show good genes? good phenotypes? appeal to some innate preferences of females?)—but all of it supports the action of sexual selection.
  • Bonobos (“pygmy chimps”), which may behaviorally more similar to humans than are “regular chimps”, have a fairly matriarchal society with more promiscuous mating of females than do other chimps, but still show a 25% greater body weight in males than females. Is that a holdover from an ancestor, or a byproduct of males competing for females? (After all, bonobo females are still saddled with pregnancy and child-rearing, and thus have far fewer potential offspring over their lives than do males.)
  • Finally, insofar as the morphological traits are connected with differences in sexual behavior and proclivities of males versus females, it shows some genetic differences affecting behavior between the sexes—and differences that may rest largely in brain wiring. Now that needn’t reflect a difference in male versus female brain structure, as it could simply represent how brains that are identical produce different responses when affected by different hormones produced outside the brain. (Testosterone, for example, may trigger “promiscuous mating” genes that reside in both male and female brains but are activated only by male hormones.)

As I said, I haven’t read Fine’s latest book; what I’m reacting to here are the two bolded paragraphs in the Guardian summary—paragraphs implying (based on the flawed study of Bateman) that sexual selection simply doesn’t exist: it’s all social conditioning and the Patriarchy. But there are simply too many biological facts (first adduced by Darwin) to support that conclusion, not least the number of animals lacking a “patriarchy” who show strong evidence for sexual selection and sexual behavior resembling those of humans.

While some of those whom Fine has criticized may have distorted their science in the name of ideology, I worry that Fine is doing the same thing. I will find out when I read her book. But certainly the Guardian has engaged in scientific distortion in its article about Testosterone Rex. 

Ladies and gentlemen, we have President Trump

The Dark Days of Mordor have begun, for my CNN news feed tells me this:

Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States during a historic transfer of power.

Trump took the oath of office on the West Front of the Capitol, swearing to preserve, protect and defend the US Constitution. That moment marks the culmination of a stunning upset victory in last year’s bitter presidential election.

From over in England, Matthew, equally dispirited, wrote me this:

Trrump’s first act has been to take down the energy pages.

And to threaten the Climate Action Plan.