A visit with Dick Lewontin

by Greg Mayer

While on the East Coast to attend the Evolution 2019 meetings in Providence, Rhode Island, I also stopped for a few days at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (Jerry’s and my alma mater), and got a chance to visit with Dick Lewontin, Jerry’s Ph.D. advisor, and my de jure Ph.D. advisor (my actual advisor, E. E. Williams, was retired, and so could not officially be my advisor). WEIT readers may recall that Jerry posted greetings for Dick’s 90th birthday earlier this year. I went to see Dick with Steve Orzack, another one of Dick’s Ph.D. students, who took the two pictures below.

Visiting with Dick Lewontin, Cambridge, Mass., 21 June 2019. Picture by Steve Orzack.

We chatted for an hour or two about various things. Steve and I both had some things we wanted to ask Dick about, one of mine being whether Dick’s advisor, Theodosius Dobzhansky, was Russian or Ukrainian. (Wikipedia claims he’s Ukrainian, and I once had a Ukrainian complain to me about an exhibit about Dobzhansky that I curated that referred to him as Russian.) Dick was adamant that Dobzhansky was Russian, noting that he spoke Russian at home with his wife, thought of himself as Russian, and had Russians as his lab assistants and technicians. Historians, friends, and colleagues of “Dodik/Doby” have always called him Russian, so I was not surprised by Dick’s response.

Dick hams it up for the camera. Picture by Steve Orzack.

Dick also regaled us with stories of when he worked with Buckminster Fuller on geodesic domes back in the ’50s, when Dick was at North Carolina State. Bucky, he assured us, did not understand the geometry of solids! Dick mentioned that he considered leaving academia to work full time with Fuller, but was now glad he hadn’t, as Fuller’s company went under a few years later. Steve replied that if Dick had joined the company full time, Dick could have saved the company!

Dick has given up essentially all his space at the Museum, and most of his papers (correspondence, etc.) have been taken by the American Philosophical Society, (which also has a considerable trove of Dobzhansky material), and Dick has given his books to the Ernst Mayr Library– the library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. This is appropriate, as Ernst Mayr, while Director of the MCZ from 1961-1970, engaged in correspondence with Dick on “genetical problems” (Haffer , 2007:265), and pushed for the building of the Museum of Comparative Zoology Laboratories, the MCZ’s lab wing, completed in 1973 (Mayr, 1973), of which Dick’s fly lab was one of the first inhabitants, arriving at Harvard in that opening year. (Dick mentioned that the proximity of the MCZ to his summer place in Vermont, which he’d had to travel to by train from Chicago, was a consideration in moving from the University of Chicago to Harvard.)

Dick’s books are being sorted, and I looked though several of them, finding a number of interesting inscriptions. First, a set of inscriptions from Mayr himself. These show that Mayr was presenting Dick with his books as early as March 1969, prior to Dick’s arrival at Harvard. I’m not sure if discussions involving Dick’s movement to the MCZ had begun this early.

To Dick Lewontin, | evolutionary geneticist, |who appreciates the importance of systematics, | in friendship | Ernst | March 1969

The ISBN stamp on the following cover page (and some further below) are from a cataloging effort in Dick’s personal library, not from the MCZ Library.

To Dick Lewontin | fellow worker in the evol. vineyard, | in the hope that he will crack | some of the nuts that were too hard for me! | With best wishes | Ernst | Christmas 1976


To Dick Lewontin | to whom I owe so much intellectual | stimulation | in friendship and admiration | Ernst


For Dick Lewontin | whose deep understanding of genetics | I admire beyond words (and song!) | in friendship | Ernst Mayr

[I am unsure of my transcription of the final word of the third line, “song”.]


For Dick Lewontin | in friendship and admiration | from the non-Marxist dialectic materialist | Ernst Mayr

The following is Dick’s MCZ bookstamp, which appears in many, though not all, of his books from his MCZ years.

The following is of interest, coming from Tom Schopf, one of the “young Turks” of paleontology in the early 1970’s, whom I mentioned in my tribute to David Raup.

To Dick Lewontin | I hope you will enjoy this effort to make invertebrate paleontology a “creative, chancy young man’s game” | As you will see from citations to your | work, you have had a large influence. | And I look forward to your continuing | analysis of problems critical to paleontologists. | Tom | December 2, 1972

The following is an inscription to Dick from a younger colleague, Jonathan Losos, on his book Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree. Note that Dick had been Jonathan’s intro bio professor!

Dick, | With great appreciation for the influence you have had on my | career through your writings, your teaching | of my introductory biology class) of which | I have vivid recollections) and your | helpful conversations with specific | reference to points herein. | Jonathan

And finally, some inscriptions from Dick’s Ph.D. advisor, Theodosius Dobzhansky. These I got from Dick several years ago, when I visited him while preparing my exhibit on Dobzhansky. I used all three inscriptions in the exhibit. The first is on a copy of the third edition of Dobzhansky’s classic Genetics and the Origin of Species. It was published in 1951, which is about the time Dick went to Columbia to work with Dodik. (Dick was in the Harvard class of 1950, but since he had been “rusticated” for a year, he actually graduated in 1951.) The inscription isn’t dated, but it seems to be earlier than the other two, referring to Dick’s “scientific youth”, and his “coming” eminence. According to Dick, Dodik referred to finishing graduate students as “soon to be professor” (as did Dick himself), so this inscription is probably early in Dick’s grad school days.

To Dick Lewontin, the coming | eminent geneticist, in his scientific | youth, with best wishes of continued | success | Th Dobzhansky

The next inscription is on a bound set of numbers I to XX of Dobzhansky’s monumental series of paper on “The Genetics of Natural Populations”. These 20 papers were published from 1938 through 1952. It is interesting that Dodik refers to the greater success of succeeding generations; the inscription was made only 5 years before Dick published his groundbreaking papers with Jack Hubby on allozyme polymorphism, confirming Dodik’s long-argued view that genetic variation was abundant and “normal” in natural populations.

Progress of science means that | succeeding generations do better than | preceding generations— and this | is what is to happen when the | genetics of natural populations | is investigated by my old | friend and spiritual son, | Prof. R. Lewontin! | Th Dobzhansky | New York, February 4, 1961

The final inscription is on a bound set of numbers XXI-XL of “The Genetics of Natural Populations”, published from 1953 through 1968. This inscription is undated but necessarily postdates initial Dick’s work on allozymes. There were three more papers in the series to come, published from 1969 through 1976; for the last, Dobzhansky was a posthumous coauthor, having died in December,1975. (The notation “GNP | XXI-XL” was made by me on the copy I made, and is not on the original.)

These lucubrations of the | old age of Th. Dobzhansky | dedicated to the super-star | R.C. Lewontin

You can see in these inscriptions the development of Dobzhansky’s appreciation of Dick as a scientist, from promising “youth”, to “old friend and spiritual son” (Dobzahnsky had one child, a daughter), and finally to “super-star”. You can also see Dodik’s colloquial phrasing and sense of humor, also evident in his  aphorism, “Heaven is where, when the experiment is over, you don’t need statistics to figure out what happened.” (Which Dick reconfirmed, on my latest visit, was indeed Dodik’s.)

Haffer, J. 2007. Ornithology, Evolution, and Philosophy: The Life and Science of Ernst Mayr 1904-2005. Springer, Berlin

Hubby, J. L., and R. C. Lewontin. 1966. A molecular approach to the study of genic heterozygosity in natural populations. I. The number of alleles at different loci in Drosophila pseudoobscura. Genetics 54:577-594.

Lewontin, R. C., and J. L. Hubby. 1966. A molecular approach to the study of genic heterozygosity in natural populations. II. Amount of variation and degree of heterozygosity in natural populations of Drosophila pseudoobscura. Genetics 54:595-609.

Losos, J.B. 2009. Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles. University of California Press, Berkeley.

Mayr, E. 1969. Principles of Systematic Zoology. McGraw-Hill, New York.

Mayr, E. 1973. Museums and biological laboratories. Breviora 416, 7pp. BHL

Mayr, E. 1976. Evolution and the Diversity of Life. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Mayr, E. 1988. Toward a New Philosophy of Biology. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Mayr, E. 1991. One Long Argument. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Mayr, E. 1997. This is Biology: the Science of the Living World. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass.

Schopf, T.J.M., ed. 1972. Models in Paleobiology. Freeman Cooper, San Francisco.

My critique of a defense of free will in Quillette

On July 6, philosopher William Edwards wrote a defense of free will in Quillette called “The Academic quarrel over determinism.” Besides a vigorous defense of free will, included two paragraphs that I saw as deeply misguided and misleading (see my preliminary note here):

Needless to say, there is substantial evidence that people who believe in free will, or at least believe that they are in control of their own lives, are more prone to exhibit good mental health and productive, ethical behaviour. There is a not inconsiderable moral dilemma here. As we illuminate the role of DNA and other fixed factors, we will acquire knowledge that should allow us to improve and save countless lives. On the other hand, if more and more people come to accept the idea that they’re not choosing their thoughts and actions, their subsequent behaviour may guarantee that a lot more lives are in need of saving.

Thinkers like Harris and Weinstein are preoccupied with how we build a less risky world, which may be partly why their thinking appeals to conservatives. However, it is worth remembering the well-established relationship between risk and reward, because whether or not we believe in free will may turn out to be the Pascal’s Wager of the twenty-first century. With that in mind, any professional gambler worth their salt should bet on free will. There is just too much about the universe that we don’t understand, and the potential pay-off from agency is staggering.

The first paragraph involves a lot of selective citation, since the data on whether belief in free will has salubrious personal effects is contradictory and complex. The second paragraph involves one forcing oneself to believe a proposition for which there’s no evidence, simply because the unevidenced belief is beneficial.

I’ve just published a rebuttal, also in Quillette, which you can read by clicking on the screenshot below.  Comment here or (preferably) on Quillette.

How much diversity of thought do you achieve by promoting diversity of gender and ethnicity?

A while back I was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences (AAAS), an honorific position in an organization that celebrates achievement in scholarship and arts, and promotes them through its quarterly journal Daedalus.  I was of course chuffed to be chosen, but now I see that the AAAS is striving for diversity, but not the kind of diversity it purports to be seeking. Here’s an announcement I got the other day (I’ve left off names and phones numbers as they’re not relevant:


Note that the avowed aim of this initiative is to “ensure that the Academy’s work is informed by, and reflective of, the breadth of intellectual life in the twenty-first century.” And the mechanism for ensuring this is to “increase the diversity of our members and staff.”

Now we all know what this means. “Diversity” means “the relative number of woman and minorities”, though it’s never stated. But you find that out when you take the “member survey”, for you’re asked about your work or the tenor of your thought, but about your ethnic origin: Asian, Caucasian, Black or African-American, Native Hawaiian, and so on. And that’s it.

The implicit assumption of this initiative is that the most efficient way to ensure diversity of intellectual life is to increase the diversity of sex (or gender) and ethnicity.

Now I recognize that these are connected to some extent. In my own field, the presence of women has put an increased and proper emphasis on the role of female choice in sexual selection, as well as other areas. And of course including underrepresented minorities with distinctive points of view clearly expands the intellectual breadth missing in the bad old days when the Academy comprised almost all white males. As Wikipedia notes, the founders included “John Adams, John Hancock, James Bowdoin, and others of their contemporaries who contributed prominently to the establishment of the new nation, its government, and the United States Constitution.” Early members included Benjamin Franklin and George Washington.

So yes, I do favor a sweeping diversity among the members. To me, that should reflect an equality of opportunity: that all people, regardless of ethnicity or gender, should be considered for membership based on merit and accomplishment. But I also favor a form of “affirmative action” as well, for an equality of opportunity at present may not remediate an inequality of opportunity present earlier on, when women and minorities don’t get the encouragement or resources to start them on an equal footing with everyone else.

What bothers me a bit about the announcement above, I suppose, is the implicit assumption that diversity of gender and ethnicity are roughly equivalent to diversity of intellectual breadth, as well as the remediation of the latter involves asking only about one’s sex and ethnicity. For surely there are aspects of intellectual breadth missed by these factors. In fact, it seems a bit shortsighted to think that one’s sex and ethnicity will be ineluctably connected with certain points of view missing in the academy. After all, women or Hispanics are not all of one mind!

We all know about the conservatives who say “What about diversity of viewpoints?” They are concerned that right-wing voices are missing in college faculties, and that’s indeed the case: the overwhelming number of college faculty sit somewhere on the Left side of the political spectrum. This means that the faculty do inculcate students with a left-wing point of view: something that Jon Haidt has emphasized when he holds faculty partly to blame for the Authoritarian Leftist views of many of today’s students. So yes, I think there is a case to be made for looking for political diversity of professors, and hiring ones whose views aren’t much represented on campus. But not just political diversity: diversity of opinion and other ideology that will give students a real opportunity to adjudicate opposing viewpoints. That, after all, is the main goal of an education.

And so it is with the AAAS. By all means do some remediation if some groups haven’t experienced equality of opportunity. And yes, we do need “role models” from different groups, although I know some readers will disagree with me. (I’ve always favored some form of affirmative action at various levels of academia.) But if the AAAS wants intellectual breadth, can’t it look for intellectual breadth rather than just determining the gender or racial origin of prospective members? Surely there are some mavericks out there—regardless of who they are—who have non-standard ideas worth exploring.

After thinking about this, and taking the survey that gave my “race,” I decided that the “intellectual breadth” aim is largely a euphemism for “diversity of sex and ethnicity.” The Society is striving not just for equal opportunity, but for equal outcome: they are looking for a membership closer to the sex and ethnic composition of America. And given that intellectual and artistic aspiration—unlike, perhaps, interest in physics—seems to be roughly equally distributed among groups, that’s a worthwhile aim. But why ignore the very diversity of thought itself and use sex-chromosome complement and ethnicity as surrogates for “intellectual breadth”?

What makes me cynical about the alignment of the AAAS’s aims with its methods of remediation is the following statement from the Academy’s 2018 “Strategic Plan”. First we have a goal determined by members and the AAAS’s leadership, and then the mechanism for achieving it:

Inclusivity. Promoting broad inclusivity of people and perspectives is of great importance to members and staff. This includes both the diversity of the members and the staff, especially in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, geography, institutions, fields, and professions. As one member stated, the Academy should be recognized as an organization in which, “all people feel included and comfortable with one another.” Members and staff highlight the importance of assessing all the Academy’s practices and activities through a lens of inclusivity and diversity, including demographic diversity, ensuring these values are reflected in all that the Academy undertakes.

. . . . Inclusivity: Continue to increase the diversity of the members and staff, and ensure that the Academy’s work reflects its ongoing commitment to diversity and inclusivity.

It’s pretty clear what they mean by “diversity and inclusivity” here, and it has little to do with intellectual diversity. Granted, they want to include a variety of fields and institutions, which they already do, as well as people from a variety of countries, which they already do in their class of foreign members, but one does not feel excluded or uncomfortable if there are too few members from Idaho, or if there’s a dearth of topologists.

As I said, I’m in favor of increasing the representation of underrepresented groups in the AAAS. But in the end, I think the goal should be to give people an equality of opportunity (which must start at the beginning of childhood) rather than striving mainly to ensure an equality of outcome. And how on Earth did intellectual breadth get lost in this endeavor?

Heather Hastie on abortion

Today Heather Hastie has a long and informative post on her website Heather’s Homilies. Click on the screenshot to read it:

If you want to get up to speed on the abortion debates (and antiabortion laws) currently roiling the U.S., you’ll find everything you need to know on this post. Heather concentrates on how Trump and the Republican party are dismantling women’s access to abortion, a trend that both she and I strongly decry.

I’ll give just one excerpt. Really, this post is must reading for all Americans and those who don’t know how a Constitutional right is being insidiously eroded in the U.S.:

The Myth of “Pro-Life”

Those who oppose abortion say they are doing so to save the lives of all the babies who would have been born if there was no abortion. This is absolute codswallop. The stupidity of it perhaps makes me even angrier than the attack on women’s rights, That’s because of what the truth really is.

Making abortion illegal does NOT mean no more abortions. What it means is:

1.Women being forced by desperation into breaking the law.

2. Women DYING from what is a simple medical procedure when carried out by a properly trained medical professional.

3. More women, especially poor women, suffering long-term medical complications.

4. More women being trapped in poverty.

5. More children suffering because their parent/parents have more children than they can look after financially, physically, emotionally, or mentally.

6. People, especially women, being trapped in unfulfilling (or even abusive) relationships because couples stay together, “for the sake of the child/ren.”

7. Places like Planned Parenthood forced to close. That means a lack of information about, and access to, contraception as well as other healthcare needs. It also means women who don’t have an abortion, which is most of their clients, lose access to healthcare.

Making Abortion Illegal Increases the Number of Abortions

But most of all, the evidence is that making abortion illegal does NOT reduce the number of abortions. The US’s Guttmacher Institute produced a comprehensive study: Abortion Worldwide 2017 (pdf here). It states:

Abortions occur as frequently in the two most-restrictive categories of countries (banned outright or allowed only to save the woman’s life) as in the least-restrictive category (allowed without restriction as to reason)—37 and 34 per 1,000 women, respectively.

Yes, you read that correctly. There are more abortions where it is illegal or heavily restricted than where it’s freely available.

And a tee-shirt she shows:

Pete Moulton died

I was shocked to hear that Pete Moulton, a regular contributor of fabulous bird, mammal and insect photos to this site, died on March 29.  I don’t know what happened except that Diana MacPherson, who along with me was Pete’s Facebook friend, said he’d been in and out of the hospital.

I never met Pete but we had email correspondence, often with me begging to use his photos that first appeared on Facebook. (One time I sent him a photo of me on my knees, begging with clasped hands, and that did the trick!). He was always cordial—a nice guy—and his lovely photographs often graced this website. We’ll all miss him and his pictures, too, which he clearly loved taking.

Here’s a small selection of Pete’s photos on this site, which go back four years (go here to see all of them). His last contribution was on December 7 of last year.  They’re all birds except for one dragonfly.

RIP, Pete.


I especially loved Pete’s photos of pie-billed grebes and their bizarre-looking chicks. Pete was taken with them, too.

And a dragonfly for good measure:


My condolences to Pete’s friends and family, and I will note this post on his Facebook page so people will know that he had a wide and appreciative following here.

Friday: Duck report (with extra zoomies)

This will serve as Reader’s Wildlife today as we have a memoriam coming up for one of our long-time contributors.

All the ducks are doing well and getting quite plump (I don’t think it’s possible to overfeed a duck, and at any rate the ones who can fly still do fly). Here’s the next brood that will achieve liftoff: Anna’s eight teenagers (their wing feathers are getting larger, but aren’t yet big enough to get them aloft).

We now have five of Katie’s brood left and all nine of Daphne’s, making a total of 22 “ducklings” and 3 hens. Four of Katie’s kids have fledged and one died in mysterious circumstances.

Daphne is a great mother (they all are), and her nine are growing rapidly. Here they are foraging on the grass.

. . . and preening like their mom. I hope they all survive the heat today!

As you can see from the three photos below, they’re starting to get their big-duck feathers. The feathers start growing on the neck and on their cute stubby little wings:

Their wings are barely recognizable as wings, but it’s adorable when they flap their little stubs.

A duck in statu nascendi:

Yesterday Katie’s brood had a contagious bout of zoomies, which I was lucky enough to see. I took two short videos of this crazy behavior, which I ascribe to restlessness as well as the need to practice flying, taking off, and landing. Note the very short flight at about 1:14:

Part II. There’s a nice flight at about six seconds in, and a longer one at 0:38.


Friday: Hili dialogue

It’s the end of the work week: Friday, July 19, 2019. Also, it’s National Daiquiri Day—Ernest Hemingway’s favorite drink—and, bizarrely, National Stick Out Your Tongue Day. Which reminds me of a Henny Youngman joke:

The doctor says to the patient, “Take your clothes off and stick your tongue out the window”. “What will that do?” asks the patient. The doctor says, “I’m mad at my neighbor!”]

It’s going to be in the upper 90’s in Chicago today, and muggy, with a heat-equivalent of about 106° F (41°C). And I have to schlep downtown to get a new iPhone because I put mine in the washing machine by mistake. (I am a dumbass.) Wish me luck. If there’s no posting tomorrow, you’ll know I’ve died of heat prostration.  I just fed the ducks at about 6 a.m., and after five minutes out in that weather, tossing goodies to my babies, I was drenched with sweat.

Today’s Google Doodle commemorates the Apollo 11 mission that put people on the Moon for the first time. If you click on the Doodle, below, you’ll go to a 4½-minute animation about the mission, narrated by Michael Collins, pilot of the orbiting command module. The Moon landing was 50 years ago tomorrow, and I remember it as if it were yesterday.

Stuff that happened on July 19 includes this:

  • AD 64 – The Great Fire of Rome causes widespread devastation and rages on for six days, destroying half of the city.
  • 1545 – The Tudor warship Mary Rose sinks off Portsmouth; in 1982 the wreck is salvaged in one of the most complex and expensive projects in the history of maritime archaeology.

Read about the ship and the salvage at the link; it’s fascinating. The ship was commissioned under Henry VIII, and served the British Navy for 33 years. It had at least 18 guns, nine sails, and about 450 sailors (!).

And here are two pictures of the recovered ship, which is remarkably complete.


  • 1553 – Lady Jane Grey is replaced by Mary I of England as Queen of England after only nine days on the throne.

She was executed on February 12, 1554.

  • 1848 – Women’s rights: A two-day Women’s Rights Convention opens in Seneca Falls, New York.
  • 1900 – The first line of the Paris Métro opens for operation.
  • 1963 – Joe Walker flies a North American X-15 to a record altitude of 106,010 meters (347,800 feet) on X-15 Flight 90. Exceeding an altitude of 100 km, this flight qualifies as a human spaceflight under international convention.
  • 1976 – Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal is created. [I hiked the park, which contains Mount Everest, both before and after it became a National Park.]
  • 1983 – The first three-dimensional reconstruction of a human head in a CT is published.

Here’s that first CT scan:

Notables born on this day include:

  • 1814 – Samuel Colt, American businessman, founded the Colt’s Manufacturing Company (d. 1862)
  • 1819 – Gottfried Keller, Swiss author, poet, and playwright (d. 1890)
  • 1860 – Lizzie Borden, American woman, tried and acquitted for the murders of her parents in 1892 (d. 1927)
  • 1898 – Herbert Marcuse, German-American sociologist and philosopher (d. 1979)
  • 1922 – George McGovern, American lieutenant, historian, and politician (d. 2012)

Those who began pushing up daisies on this day include:

  • 1965 – Syngman Rhee, South Korean journalist and politician, 1st President of South Korea (b. 1875)
  • 1980 – Hans Morgenthau, German-American political scientist, philosopher, and academic (b. 1904)
  • 2002 – Alan Lomax, American historian, scholar, and activist (b. 1915)
  • 2009 – Frank McCourt, American author and educator (b. 1930)
  • 2014 – James Garner, American actor (b. 1928)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, the cherry harvest is in full swing, and it looks pretty good this year. Hili, though, doesn’t like it:

Hili: It’s the start of the harvest.
A: So?
Hili: The orchard is full of strangers.
In Polish:
Hili: Zaczęły się zbiory.
Ja: I co z tego?
Hili: Sad jest pełen obcych ludzi.

From Facebook. The d*g didn’t nail it because that’s a jaguar, not a canid!



ABC Australia, which posted this picture on its FB page, added, “Is this the cutest version of the Australian coat of arms you’ve ever seen?”

So of course I had to look up Australia’s coat of arms. Sure enough, it has a kangaroo and an emu:



A tweet from Grania, sent October 28, 2018, with the note “Another one.” (I’d just sent her an email called “Cute kitten.”) Almost every morning when I woke up I found, in my email, a picture of a cute kitten she’d sent me.

I’ve written about the dangers of tourists going too near blowholes, which are located near very rough waters (that’s what makes the “blow”). Here, from Nilou, are two tourists who didn’t pay attention to the warning signs. Fortunately, the couple, who had also ignored the signs, survived.

In this tweet he called “strange cat behavior,” reader Barry added, “Car exhaust?!? Why isn’t the cat repelled by it? So bizarre. And disturbing.” You tell me!

Two tweets from Heather Hastie. The first features a man that many women find irresistible, and I just can’t understand that!

Heather says, “This is lovely,” and it is. How was this same-sex couple, now wed for 48 years, able to legally marry in 1971. Well, they did (watch the video to see how), and now they’re the longest-married same-sex couple in the U.S.:

Three tweets from Matthew. He calls the first one “Don’t fly too close to the storks,” and the Spanish says that this stork caught a swift. Oy!

I am still not convinced that the Scottish wildcat is anything other than a group of feral tabbies rather than an ancient F. silvestris that lived on in Europe, but I’m willing to be convinced. Anyway: wildkittens!

This is, as Matthew says, “depressing”. And I don’t know any way that it can be stopped.


Language policing goes crazy (excuse the last word)

Things are getting a bit out of hand regarding the policing of language by the Woke. From SFGate we hear that The People’s Republic of Berkeley has passed a new ordinance prohibiting gendered language (click on screenshot):

Here’s an example of verboten terms and their suggested replacements. I agree with nearly all of these changes (although some of the replacements are awkward)—after all, they express an era when men were dominant, an era that should be dispensed with.

But I do object to the elimination of “brother” and “sister”, which are supposed to be replaced by “sibling”. Yet that loses information, and I don’t see what is gained. Or do they mean “brothers and sisters” in the communist sense—the way Hitchens used address his audiences? But are we then supposed to address them as “Siblings”? Is “Big Brother” in Nineteen Eighty-Four to become “Big Sibling”?

And the replacement of “Manhole” with “Maintenance hole” is simply silly. The article quotes one engineer:

When King County, Wash. enacted a similar measure last year, some on Twitter were left wistful for the halcyon days when manholes were manholes; Many others were indifferent.

“I gotta say as a female engineer in Seattle,” one woman wrote, “I really don’t give a crap what you call a utility access point.”

But even the term “female” in the above is now questionable: have a look at Colorado State University’s new Inclusive Language Guide, which mandates, among other things, these (and their sometimes-awkward replacements). Female is OUT. I won’t explain why I find these grating; other folks will not, some will think they’re good, and still others will find even more objectionable replacements at the guide:

This next one may be appropriate for humans, but surely not in biology in general:


The first one I find ridiculous:


And this one is equally risible:

We live in a time when language is being purified to reflect a dominant ideology (that of the Authoritarian Left in this case), and is also being tweaked so it doesn’t offend the most easily offended person in the Anglophonic world. I don’t think that we have to accept every suggested change simply because a handful of people are offended. These things must be considered judiciously.


Matt Meselson describes his most famous experiment (with Frank Stahl)

In 1958 Matt Meselson, whom I knew slightly at Harvard (he was a terrific guy), performed, along with Frank Stahl, an experiment that John Cairns called “the most beautiful experiment in biology”. What he and Stahl did (see description here) was to use density-labeled components of DNA to choose among which of the three methods of DNA replication floated at the time was correct (people didn’t know how DNA replicated in 1958; this experiment settled the issue):

In “semi-conservative replication”, each strand of DNA unwinds and makes a copy of itself, so that each DNA helix in the next generation of DNA has both a parental strand and a new strand synthesized from nucleotides and sugars. “Conservative” replication involves each double strand making another whole double strand.  “Dispersive” replication involved the DNA breaking, with each break synthesizing new DNA, matched to the other strand, in bits. They’re portrayed above.

Meselson and Stahl’s genius was to use an in vivo replication in E. coli producing DNA strands labeled with heavy isotopes (15N) that, while chemically identical to non-radioactive nucleotides, would be distinguishable from the non-labeled strands because the former were heavier and could be separated by vigorous centrifugation. (They used labeled nucleic acids as the components of the original strands; those labeled nucleotides were themselves synthesized by growing the starting bacteria for a few generations on “heavy” ammonium chloride—the only source of nitrogen—a component of nucleic acids—in the bacterial medium.)

The beauty of the experiment is that the results—confirming semi-conservative replication—were visible in a single photograph (below), and were unambiguous. It was a lovely experiment, and I think deserved a Nobel Prize (sadly, one wasn’t given for this).

This nice 13-minute talk by Matt, taken from an iBiology talk website, describes this experiment. He and Stahl started by putting bacteria containing fully “heavy” DNA into medium with non-heavy ammonium chloride, so that all the new DNA synthesized would be light.

Under the semi-conservative hypothesis, the next generation of DNA would be “half heavy”, as each helix would have both an original heavy and new light strand, with the latter containing nucleic acids synthesized from the lighter nitrogen in the medium.

Under the conservative hypothesis, the next generation of DNA would consist of fully light double strands and fully non-heavy original double strands. There would only be two types of strands detectable, and those would stay, with the heavier ones eventually disappearing as their carriers died and new DNA was formed. And under the “dispersive” hypothesis, the next generation of DNA would be not fully heavy or not fully light, but a schmear of ‘partly-heavy helices”. You’d get a mess of mosaic strands in subsequent generations.

Well, listen to Matt describe this pathbreaking experiment below. I’ll give a link to their paper and the famous figure that convinced everyone below the video.

Here’s the famous figure, beginning with heavy DNA at the top from E. coli (right stripe in generation 0). The density of the centrifuge gradient increases to the right, and strands tend to settle where their density matches the density of the cesium chloride in the centrifuge tubes.

When the bacteria were put on non-labeled medium, and the tubes scanned with UV-absorption, which picks out the DNA, you see that in the first generation all the DNA is heavy (original bacterial DNA). As those bacteria replicate and form new DNA strands, the heavy helices begin to wane and we start to see half-heavy helices (lighter stripe forming in the left, lighter part of the gradient). This stripe gets darker after more “hybrid molecules” accumulate (generation time is shown on the right of the figure). After one generation of replication, you get hybrid strands which are lighter than the original ones (the bands show the position in the density gradient of the centrifuge). Then, after another generation, the hybrid stands themselves replicate, forming a double-light helix from the newly synthesized strand as well as the half-heavy strand containing the original heavy strand of DNA. By generation four, nearly all the helices are fully light (to the left), as the original strands are in a minority in the mix since their carriers have died or been outbred. In other words, the three bands predicted by the semi-conservative hypothesis were seen. The experiment ends three photos from the bottom, at generation 4.1.

The presence of the three well-demarcated strands forming in sequential order shows unambiguously that the semi-conservative model of DNA replication is correct. You don’t need statistics to get the answer here!

You can download the original paper by clicking on the screenshot:

I don’t know of a more beautiful—or unambiguous—experiment in modern molecular biology. And the stuff about Meselson and Stahl being locked in a room with food and a sleeping bag until they wrote that paper happens to be true. (For more, read The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson).

Ilhan Omar about to introduce pro-boycott (read: pro-BDS) resolution in Congress

If you had any doubts about Ilhan Omar’s Islamist and anti-Israel agenda in Congress, have a look at her latest attempt at legislation: House Resolution 496 (see pdf here).

The two screenshots below, which link to the articles, are from the Al-Monitor and the Forward, respectively.

From the Forward:

The bill was prepared by Omar, her fellow Muslim Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, and Democrat John Lewis of Georgia, an African-American with a long history of civil rights activism. (This underscores the sad fact that the black community is becoming increasingly dismissive of Israel’s right to exist. The Black Muslims became explicit anti-Semites a long time ago.)

If you read the resolution, you’ll see that it’s clever, not mentioning BDS but instead describing boycotts that were harder to criticize; and also affirming Americans’ civil rights to boycott nations or companies—which doesn’t need affirming. But it also criticizes recent legislation created by several states to punish companies that cut ties with Israeli companies operating from the West Bank. (I happen to agree that states shouldn’t be regulating companies in this way.) That legislation has been declared unconstitutional several times, and so it’s up to state governments and then the courts to confect such legislation and then adjudicate its legality. Congress, as far as I know, can’t make a law that prohibits states from penalizing countries via boycotts.

To support the “social justice” of her resolution, Omar uses several examples of boycotts, of course leaving out BDS resolutions:

“(1) attempting to slow Japanese aggression in the Pacific by boycotting Imperial Japan in 1937 and 1938;

(2) boycotting Nazi Germany from March 1933 to October 1941 in response to the dehumanization of the Jewish people in the lead-up to the Holocaust;

(3) the United States Olympic Committee boycotting the 1980 summer Olympics in Moscow in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the preceding year; and

(4) leading the campaign in the 1980s to boycott South African goods in opposition to apartheid in that country;”

How convenient of Omar to use boycotts of Nazi Germany as a way to leverage boycotts of Israel!

But the legislative proviso is largely irrelevant, for the real point of Omar et al.’s legislation is exactly what you’d think: to publicly punish Israel by affirming BDS and to give a Congressional imprimatur to that punishment.  In fact, Omar has made that explicit in interviews. From the Forward (my emphasis):

Representative Ilhan Omar introduced on Tuesday a Congressional resolution defending the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

The resolution does not explicitly mention Israel, but does state that “all Americans have the right to participate in boycotts in pursuit of civil and human rights at home and abroad” and criticizes anti-boycott legislation that has been passed in more than half of the 50 states. (Some of those laws have been overturned for violating the First Amendment.)

“We are introducing a resolution … to really speak about the American values that support and believe in our ability to exercise our first amendment rights in regard to boycotting,” the Democrat from Minnesota told Al-Monitor. “And it is an opportunity for us to explain why it is we support a nonviolent movement, which is the BDS movement.”

The Al-Monitor quote is exact, and can be seen at the first link above.

Now this resolution doesn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of passing, much less even making it to the House floor: as the Forward says, “Democratic leaders are reportedly planning to soon introduce their own resolution condemning the BDS movement. That resolution has 340 co-sponsors.”  If you want to say that Omar is indeed making legislation rather than tweeting and making speeches, here’s one example of that “legislation”.

And the 340-Democrat-sponsored condemnation is just: BDS is basically an anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist movement, its leaders deeply infused with the desire to get rid of Israel as a nation. If you don’t already know that, I’ve already adduced lots of evidence in previous posts.

At any rate, let there be no mistake about Omar and Tlaib’s aims in Congress: to undermine and destroy Israel and, I think, to push an Islamist agenda. While I defend their right to do this, and condemn Trump’s racist remarks about the four Justice Democrat—who include Tlaib and Omar—I see these two as anti-Semites who will use their time in Congress to forward an agenda of Islamism.  (You could claim that, at least for Omar, this reflects the will of her constituents, but I don’t know what their will is, and of course their are non-Muslims in her district as well.)

Elder of Ziyon analyzes this call for boycotts and explains why it’s more anti-Jewish than anti-Israel:

Even if this resolution gets defeated, their underlying logic that implies that Israel is a violator of human rights on par with Nazi Germany will be debated in Congress and enshrined in the proceedings of Congress forever. As I have recently noted, the debate itself is what BDS is after, not the boycott – they want to normalize anti-Zionism and its antisemitic components as a mainstream opinion.

As I have noted in the past, BDS is explicitly antisemitic. The call to boycott “Israeli” goods does not extend to good created by Arab Israelis. The call to boycott “settlement” goods only applies to goods created by Israeli Jews, not Israeli Arabs. A look through the businesses in industrial parks in Mishor Adumim, Barkan, Atarot and other “settlements” show quite a few with Arab names, like Radwan Brothers Refrigeration and Air Conditioning or Khaled Ali Metals or the Shweiki Glass Factory.

None of them are on the lists of “Israeli” companies to boycott. Because they are not owned by Jews.

Note well that these companies are owned by Israeli Arabs, who are citizens of Israel and live behind the “Green Line”. But they’re not called “settlers”—only the Jews in that area are given that name. Regardless of what you think about Israelis in the West Bank—and I think that any two-state solution will have to displace some of them—the fact that the targets are Israeli Jewish but not Israeli Arab companies bespeaks not an attempt to undermine Israel, but to undermine Jews.

Just as I (and Omar) contend that Trump is racist, I also contend that Omar and Tlab are anti-Semitic, and have behaved in accordance with that view since taking office. It will be interesting to see how Ocasio-Cortez votes if this bill ever comes to the floor. One thing is sure: although she may vote in favor of it, or may abstain, she won’t vote against it. After all, that would cause fissures in “The Squad.” In the past, Ocasio-Cortez has avoided answering all questions about BDS, and has waffled on Israel, about which her knowledge seems sketchy, and has also waffled on a two-state solution, which she once approved but then babbled incoherently when asked if she still supported it.

The usual anti-Semitic organizations are of course in favor of Omar et al.’s bill: here’s the odious and ill named “Jewish Voice for Peace”, known for their anti-Semitic activities on college campuses.