Spiffy Darwin “Origin” tee shirt

Reader Peter called my attention to this lovely Origin of Species tee shirt. I know I’ve put it up before, but here it is again, and it has 40,000 words of The Origin on it imprinted by dye sublimation. That’s not the whole book by any means: as my friend Andrew Berry just found out by pasting the first edition into Microsoft Word, it’s about  153,000 words. Still, the shirt has about a quarter of the world’s most important science book, and is emblazoned with a picture of Darwin on the back, with his hair morphing into an ape face on the front:


screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-6-37-29-am screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-6-37-47-am

It’s $34, and you can also buy Origin purses, scarves, and temporary tattoos (2 for $5). Imagine how much of a hit you’ll be showing up at a party wearing this (not!):screen-shot-2017-02-22-at-1-29-41-pm



Niche construction: does it represent a “vastly neglected phenomenon” in evolutionary thought?

“Niche construction” is a new term in evolutionary biology—indeed, a buzzword—although the idea has been around under other rubrics for years. It is the idea that the niche of an organism is not something static, imposed by its environment, but that the organism, as it evolves in behavior, morphology, and physiology, can change its environment in a way that changes how natural selection operates. In this way, its proponents say, there is feedback between the organism and its environment, mediated by the evolutionary process of natural selection.

The classic example is the beaver.  The ancestors of this creature presumably evolved to cut down trees and build dams and lodges, eventually creating lake environments that they did not have before. And living in that lake and in the lodge will affect what evolutionary changes are useful to the beaver, that is, how it will evolve (presumably to cope with a more lake-y existence).


But you can think of many, many examples. Any animal that builds a nest, a tunnel, or a hole to live in changes its environment, though not necessarily in a way that would affect future selection. Humans, through evolution, got big brains that allowed them to not only eat many more sweets and fats (thus creating selective pressure for genes protecting against diabetes and heart disease), but also invented medicine, therefore relaxing many of the forms of selection that previously killed us. The list goes on and on, and is uncontroversial. (I should add that some aspects of the environment are unlikely to be altered by the evolution of its inhabitants. The hydrodynamic properties of water don’t change when a fish evolves, and the color of snow doesn’t change when a polar bear evolves a white pelage.)

What is new is that a group of “new wave” evolutionists, most notably Kevin Laland at the University of St Andrews, claim that niche construction (henceforth “NC”) is an unrecognized factor in evolution, a very important one, and is an evolutionary process like natural selection.  This is part of the “extended evolutionary synthesis” (EES) that is, in my view, largely misguided, but is also funded to the tune of $11 million by the John Templeton Foundation—a grant given to about 50 investigators headed by Laland. I’ve written before about the various issues subsumed by the EES, including NC, and so won’t reprise my criticisms here. Instead, I’ll direct you to a a new manuscript on NC by Manan Gupta et al. (it’s on the preprint server bioRχiv, where you can download the pdf file; reference and link below).

The manuscript (I don’t know where it will be or has been submitted) makes several points about NC, and is critical of its use as a buzzword and of the claim that it’s an area that has been sorely neglected by evolutionists until now. Here are the paper’s main points:

a.) Basically, every evolutionary change can be seen as NC. Every evolutionary change in an organism ultimately came about because it improved reproduction (and sometimes survival), and those changes almost always alter the environment. Even an improvement in the ability to eat, for example, depletes resources faster, and thus changes the environment. Coevolution, in which members of different species affect each other’s evolution (parasites and hosts, predators and prey, pollinators and flowers, etc.), are well known: each change in one species affects the other species, and that change feeds back on the first species.

Darwin’s orchid, for instance, has a long nectar spur, forcing the moth pollinator to get really close to stick its tongue in for nectar, allowing the pollen to stick to the moth’s head. (This is adaptive for the flower, which “needs” to spread its genes.) That, in turn, drives an evolutionary increase in moth tongue length (to get the nectar more easily), and that drives an increase in the length of the nectar spur to make getting the nectar more difficult, creating continuing reciprocal selection that has led to the evolution of moths with long tongues and an orchid with a long tube (see below). Each organism’s evolution changes its “biotic” environment, thus affecting its future evolution, and that is NC:



Gupta et al. also cite experiments in flies showing that crowding vials with larvae led to a change in natural seletion, leading to the evolution of two types of larvae: those developing fast to get to the pupal stage first, and those developing later that could tolerate larval excrement better.  In humans, our evolved big brains led us to domesticate animals for milk, and that, in turn, gave a substantial reproductive advantage to those individuals who, unlike their ancestors, were able to get nutrients from the milk’s lactose by keeping the previously-inactivated enzyme lactase (not useful after weaning in ancestors) turned on after childhood. Our “pastoral” habits of rearing animals led, in those areas where humans kept milk animals, to an evolution of lactase genes that were permanently activated.  That, too, can be seen as a case of NC.

b.) NC has already been incorporated into evolutionary biology, not just in the examples above, but in theoretical work. NC can be modeled by a simple two-gene situation in which evolution at one gene affects evolution at the other, and there are many such models. Even if they don’t explicitly evoke environmental change as the result of evolution at one gene, that is what could be the result, and that environmental change could impose selection on the second locus. The added feature with NC is that there may be a time lag between the changes at gene 1 and at gene 2, as the environmental modifications produced by gene 1 may take some time to exert selection on gene 2. The condition whereby the “fitnesses” of variants at one gene depend on the fitnesses of variants at another is called epistasis. And epistasis has long been a feature of models in evolutionary genetics.

c.) NC is not a “process” like natural selection. Gupta et al. assert, and I agree, that NC is simply a result of natural selection that itself can constitute a selective pressure, but the main process itself remains natural selection. As their paper says:

NC affects the way in which selection acts. Its role is thus of a modifier which affects how a certain category of evolutionary process acts in a given instantiation, whereas selection has a very different logical or epistemic status as a specific category of process.

d.) The proponents of NC as a novel, unrecognized evolutionary “process” tend to make the same arguments over and over again in different papers. I agree; one sees a surfeit of assertions and a deficit of examples—at least examples showing that NC has been neglected.  This is also true for other claims about the EES, including the importance of “Lamarckian” evolution produced by environmentally-induced methylation of DNA, the primacy of evolutionary plasticity in evolution, the self-organizing properties of organisms, and so on. As Clara Peller said, “Where’s the beef?”

e.) The relentless pushing of NC as a neglected but important aspect of evolution reflects in part the careerism of investigators. I agree again. Evolutionists are not ambition-free, and we are human. In science, you make a name for yourself not by confirming what somebody else already found, but by suggesting and pushing new paradigms. This is especially true of evolution, a field in which new paradigms are rare because Darwin got so much right. That’s why “Darwin was wrong” claims make headlines in the popular science press. (The “neutral theory” of evolution, which assumes that many genetic variants have no differential effect on fitness, was a truly new paradigm.)  It’s not seemly to say this, but I don’t see why not. Regardless of someone’s motivations, their scientific ideas are always judged against nature. One can then ask informally, “Well, if NC has long been recognized under other names, and isn’t really a new process, why is it being touted as a really important unrecognized aspect of evolution?” I think the answer has to involve big ambitions.

But the authors push this part too hard, saying that that careerism is “an instantiation of academic niche construction.” That’s pretty funny, and partly true, but is not going to win over the reviewers of the paper, for one can criticize ideas in a manuscript without assessing the psychology of one’s opponents. I suspect this part will work against the acceptance of Gupta et al.’s paper. And Gupta et al. say this in rather harsh ways, as in the paper’s abstract (my emphasis):

In recent years, fairly far-reaching claims have been repeatedly made about how niche construction, the modification by organisms of their environment, and that of other organisms,  represents a vastly neglected phenomenon in ecological and evolutionary thought. The proponents of this view claim that the niche construction perspective greatly expands the scope of standard evolutionary theory and that niche construction deserves to be treated as a significant evolutionary process in its own right, almost at par with natural selection. Claims have also been advanced about how niche construction theory represents a substantial extension to, and re-orientation of, standard evolutionary theory, which is criticized as being narrowly gene-centric and ignoring the rich complexity and reciprocity of organism-environment interactions. We  examine these claims in some detail and show that they do not stand up to scrutiny. We suggest that the manner in which niche construction theory is sought to be pushed in the literature is better viewed as an exercise in academic niche construction whereby, through incessant repetition of largely untenable claims, and the deployment of rhetorically appealing but logically dubious analogies, a receptive climate for a certain sub-discipline is sought to be manufactured within the scientific community. We see this as an unfortunate, but perhaps inevitable, nascent post-truth tendency within science.

That last bit, especially the “post-truth” characterization, is unnecessary and a bit mean. Were I a reviewer of this paper, I’d recommend acceptance, but after some revision, including removal (or toning down) of the psychologizing!


Gupta, M., N. G. Prasad, S. Dey, A. Joshi, and T. N. C. Vidya. 2017. Niche construction in evolutionary theory: the construction of an academic niche? bioRxiv.

Here’s the katydid!

As promised, here’s the hidden katydid, photographed by Mark Sturtevant, that was presented this morning. Did you find it? Click photo to enlarge.


Hijab news: The Independent becomes HuffPo, touting “modest wear” for Muslims that’s quite alluring; Marine Le Pen refuses to don hijab

If you saw the headline below on a website, you’d think it was from the Huffington Post, right? The combination of fashion news (with Muslim attire called “modest wear”), gratuitous editorializing, and fetishizing of the hijab and body covering are all characteristic of that liberal clickbait site.

But if you click on the headline, you’ll see that it goes to The Independent, which, like the Guardian, is converging on the HuffPo model. In fact, the author of this piece, Sana Sarwar, a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, used to write for HuffPo. Now she brings her osculation of faith to The Independent:


Sarwar first decries the plainness and ugliness she found in “modest” clothing:

Ten years ago, as a hijabi (headscarf wearer), I faced the constant battle to find clothing that looked good and didn’t compromise my religious beliefs. My wardrobe often consisted of plain, boring and oversized tops, straight leg denim jeans, neck scarfs that doubled as makeshift hijabs, and a mountain of maxi skirts I care not to count. I yearned for modest clothing that was easy to wear and didn’t require layering – a must for sheer fabrics. It’s fair to say I was a walking fashion disaster; even Trinny and Susannah would have refused to help me. However, since then, modest fashion has taken the industry by storm and is now becoming widely celebrated.

You might see a problem here: the religious beliefs that dictate the hijab do so for one reason—to keep women from calling attention to their looks by covering their hair—and often much of their body. Certainly Sarwar has a right to wear a headscarf up top and attractive and fashionable clothes below, but she shouldn’t pretend that wearing such clothes doesn’t compromise the very reasons that dictate hijabs: to prevent women from exciting the supposedly uncontrollable lust of men. Garments like the hijab aren’t just the symbol of oppression; they are oppression, for they’re dictated by male-dominated religious custom—a custom that holds women responsible for reducing the hormone titer of the dominant sex.

Sarwar then extols the UK’s “London Modest Fashion Week,” catering not just to Muslims but “anyone  from any faith looking for a more demure look.” She criticizes the burkini ban, notes that celebrities such as Adele have sometimes opted for less revealing clothing, and then says this:

Modesty is not to be forced on anyone and means different things to different people, but always remains a choice for women.

Well, modesty should be a choice for women, but somehow Sarwar fails to mention that it is forced on millions of women, not just in countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, where covering is legally required, but also on women in other Muslim countries and the West, who are forced by social, family, or peer pressure to cover themselves. Those who say that wearing hijabs is a “choice” fail to recognize that more often than we think it isn’t—not in the sense that in the absence of social pressure, many women wouldn’t wear one.

The article gives some examples of “modest” models during Modest Fashion Week, and I have to say that they don’t look either particularly modest or garbed in a way that avoids drawing attention to themselves. The clothes are loud, glittery, and the women plastered with makeup. Do these women exemplify the “empowering” modesty praised by Sarwar, who says this?:

There is no doubt that we are seeing more demure looks in today’s industry as the hijab and modest wear trend enter popular culture. They are a celebration of the inclusion of diversity in modern fashion. To see Muslim women and popular fashion brands leading the way to provide more choice for all women is truly inspiring.





As I said, women should certainly be free to choose what they want. And if they want, they can wear the hijab as a symbol of their faith while wearing flashy garb below the neck. But they shouldn’t pretend that there’s not a form of hypocrisy produced by the disparity between the religious reasons for wearing hijab and the secular reasons for wearing clothing like that on the models.

Finally, I object to the phrase “modest wear”. Does this mean that other clothing, like dresses or blouses that reveal a woman’s arms, are “immodest wear”? Perhaps those should be called “slutwear”!


Does it always have to be right-wingers who call out Islam for its oppression of women? I don’t like being in bed with these people, but occasionally they’re right. Marine Le Pen, the conservative French politician and National Front leader whose anti-immigrant stand and coddling of Syria’s President I find odious (she inherited her policies from her father Jean-Marie, but has tempered them a bit), just showed a resolve lacking in the Swedish politicians who visited Iran. While the women in the “feminist government” donned hijabs without a problem, Le Pen refused to wear a hijab when invited to meet the Grand Mufti of Lebanon. The requirement that she don the headscarf led her to cancel the meeting. As Reuters reported:

After meeting Christian President Michel Aoun – her first public handshake with a head of state – and Sunni Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri on Monday, she had been scheduled to meet the Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian

He heads the Dar al-Fatwa, the top religious authority for Sunni Muslims in the multireligious country.

“I met the grand mufti of Al-Azhar,” she told reporters, referring to a visit in 2015 to Cairo’s 1,000-year-old center of Islamic learning. “The highest Sunni authority didn’t have this requirement, but it doesn’t matter.

“You can pass on my respects to the grand mufti, but I will not cover myself up,” she said.

The cleric’s press office said Le Pen’s aides had been informed beforehand that a headscarf was required for the meeting and had been “surprised by her refusal”.

It always irks me that many feminists—who would excoriate anyone who told them how to dress—will cave in when they’re dealing with religious authorities. I think it’s okay to bow to religious custom when entering a house of worship like a mosque or synagogue, but not when entering a country.

h/t: Orli

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ humanism

Today’s Jesus and Mo, called “best,” came with this accompanying note in the email:

This one is in response to a story this week about the British Humanist Association sending out books to schools in the UK, and the ironic clerical reaction to it.

There’s a religious curriculum in these schools, and the humanists are trying to add humanism to it.  The story, in The Freethinker, is about this book being sent to schools by the Northern Ireland Humanists (click on screenshot to go to book). It’s being challenged by a Presbyterian minister because of its contents:

The books are being delivered to upper primary and lower secondary pupils following a crowdfunding campaign.

Northern Ireland Humanists, part of the British Humanist Association (BHA) charity, represent non-religious people in Northern Ireland.

The book also features content provided by broadcaster Stephen Fry, writer and broadcaster Natalie Haynes, and best-selling author Philip Pullman, who are all patrons of the BHA.

McIlveen, who has retired from Sandown Free Presbyterian Church in east Belfast, said that while it’s important not to censor literature, there is also a right to challenge the contents of the book.

I feel that for a child of primary school age, humanism is not something that should be put into their mind.

I think that they are far too young to even make that decision as to the rights and wrongs of humanism and I think this is an exploitation of young people to try and indoctrinate them into a view that many people in Northern Ireland would reject.

He added that he feels strongly that:

There should be a clear barrier between the message of humanism and impressionable minds.


No comment is necessary as Jesus and Mo undermine their own faiths:


Matthew on the BBC

Matthew Cobb was too modest to tell me that he was on Radio 4’s episode of The Infinite Monkey Cage (a science/comedy show) yesterday, but reader Kevin called it to my attention. You can download the broadcast by clicking on the screenshot below, and here’s the BBC’s summary:

Making the Invisible, Visible
Brian Cox and Robin Ince are joined by comedian Katy Brand, Cosmologist Prof Carlos Frenk, and biologist Prof Matthew Cobb to discover how to make the seemingly invisible, visible. They look at how the history and development of the telescope and the microscope have allowed us to look at the impossibly big to the seemingly impossibly small, to gain insight into the history of our universe and the inner workings of the human body. They look at how radio and space telescopes have allowed us to look back in time and “see” the big bang, and understand the age and content of the early universe, and how space telescopes have thrown light on the mysterious substance known as dark matter. They also look at the way microscopes and new biological techniques have allowed us to understand the seemingly invisible processes going on inside our cells. They also ask what, if anything, will always remain invisible to us – are there some processes or concepts that are impossible for us to “see”.

I’ve listened to about 25 minutes of the 46-minute show, and Matthew and Frenk impart some good biology and physics. The show is a great combination of humor and science.


Spot the katydid!

Reader Mark Sturtevant has another puzzler for us today. Can you spot the katydid? Click twice in succession (with a pause between clicks) to enlarge the photo. I’d rank this one “moderately difficult.”

I’ll put up the answer at noon Chicago time.


Readers’ wildlife photos

Please send in your photos; there’s always a need.

Today’s batch comes from reader Tony Eales from Queensland, who sends us pictures from the western part of his country. His notes and IDs are indented:

I recently went to Western Australia for a very short visit. It is my first time there and it’s like another country, the Central Desert of Australia is a very effective barrier for many species’ dispersal. Unfortunately on this short trip I wasn’t able to hunt for Western Australian endemics and the mix of birds around the capital was basically the same as any east coast city.

Nevertheless I got out and about to photograph some locals.

I went to some nearby small rocky islands on the coast. There they had a group of male Australian Sea Lions (Neophoca cinerea).


There was also a breeding colony of Australian Pelicans (Pelecanus conspicillatus), one of only 6 such places where they are known to breed annually. Despite being distributed continent-wide and commonly encountered, most Australian Pelicans only breed when there is a rare filling of inland desert lakes. The conditions on this small island in Western Australia are such that they can access fresh water close enough to an isolated and protected breeding spot. Hence here they can breed every year. See this link for more information.


On the main Island called Penguin Island there is, apart from the penguins a large colony of Bridled Terns (Onychoprion anaethetus) which were just lovely. I couldn’t stop photographing them.





The colony also has its resident large skink species, the King’s Skink (Egernia kingii), which, among other things, eats the tern eggs.


We also saw a couple of young Eastern Osprey (Pandion cristatus).


Back on the mainland I had a look around the excellent King’s Park Botanic Gardens in Perth and managed to photograph a White Cheeked Honeyeater (Phylidonyris niger), the classic West Australian Flowering Gum (Corymbia ficifolia) and some large Bulldog Ants (Myrmecia sp.), my favourite ants.




Wednesday: Hili dialogue

It’s Wednesday, February 22, 2017: remember that there  are but 28 days in this month. The temperatures remain high in Chicago, and today we may hit another record: a high of 71° F (22° C) is predicted. It’s another triple-header food holiday: National Cook a Sweet Potato Day, National Margarita Day, and National Cherry Pie Day. I doubt I’ll partake of any of these, though I do have a homemade cherry pie in my freezer. For Episcopalians in the U.S., it’s the Feast Day of Eric Liddell, the “muscular Christian” portrayed in the movie Chariots of Fire. 

News of the day: once again the judiciary has blocked regressive Republican policy: a federal judge in Texas ruled that the state could not withhold funding from Planned Parenthood.

On February 22, 1943, three members of the White Rose resistance group, Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, and Christoph Probst, were executed in Nazi Germany for treason: they had been caught distributing anti-Nazi leaflets. They died bravely on the guillotine. Here is the unspeakably sad last scene from the German movie “Sophie Scholl: The Final Days,” when the 21 year old Sophie says goodbye to her brother and Christoph, is given a one-minute trial, and then immediately taken to the guillotine. Note: while there’s no blood, there is a scene at the very end when she’s put into the apparatus. Her reported last words were these:

“How can we expect righteousness to prevail when there is hardly anyone willing to give himself up individually to a righteous cause? Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go, but what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?”

Here’s the real Sophie; imagine the bravery it took to stand up to the Nazis at that time:


And do you remember this day in 1980, when the U.S. hockey team defeated the Soviet Union hockey team at the winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York by a score of  4–3? I and millions of Americans were watching that game (even though I’m not a hockey fan); it was a political as well as sporting event, and the Soviet’s defeat was called “the miracle on ice.” The USA were huge underdogs in that game, but won, and went on to secure the gold medal by defeating Finland.  Here are the last two minutes, with the famous “Do you believe in miracles?” comment by Al Michaels. I remember this well:

Notables born on this day include George Washington (1732), Frédéric Chopin (1810), Robert Baden-Powell (1857), Olave Baden-Powell (1889, these two founded the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, respectively), Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892), Edward Gorey (1925), and Ted Kennedy (1932). Those who died on this day include geologist Charles Lyell (1875, Darwin’s pal), Kasturba Gandhi (1944), Oskar Kokoschka (1980), Andy Warhol (1987), Chuck Jones (2002), and Charlotte Dawson (2014).  Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili and Cyrus are nosing about:

Cyrus: Come on! What have you found there?
Hili: I’m checking to see what you were sniffing here.
In Polish:
Cyrus: Chodź już, co tam znalazłaś?
Hili: Sprawdzam coś tu obwąchiwał.

Milo falls on his sword

Here’s a video from today showing a cowed Milo Yiannopoulos falling on his sword—resigning as an editor at Breitbart. Within just 24 hours, his life has fallen apart: his book deal with Simon and Schuster was canceled, as was his keynote speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and he’s lost his job at Breitbart. He’s also going to be branded as a pedophile for the rest of his life.

Whether or not you think Milo had this coming to him, I still find it sad, especially when I found he was a victim of sexual child abuse. There’s no evidence that he himself was a pedophile, and I’m not sure whether canceling his book was the right thing to do. What I’m pretty sure of is that his notoriety has cost him his image; as one columnist said, the Right finally found it expedient to eject him. I was no fan of Milo, but I don’t think this is a time to gloat. Whatever you think of him, he’s smart and charismatic, and I hope he can leverage that into a new life.

I haven’t followed this complicated tale closely, and have listened only briefly to the tapes that led to his downfall. With luck, Grania, who has been following this more closely, will write a reasoned post on this soon.