Photos of readers

Send your photos, in please (2 max); I have a decent number but there are a lot of subscribers.

Today’s reader is Loren Parfitt from Vancouver, and his notes are indented (cat photo is lagniappe):

I have been following your blog since 2014.  I am an atheist, likely for my whole life (haha I cant remember all the way back).  I love cats and kiteboarding.  I live in Squamish, BC Canada, which is a small town north of Vancouver.  It is a pretty amazing spot surrounded by nature.  We regularly see bears, eagles, seals and sea lions.  This year I had the pleasure to see a couple of Orcas while on the water kiting!  It was a little nerve-racking but an incredible experience.

Here is a picture from the King of the Air competition that I went to in Cape Town in February.  It was an incredible event in a beautiful spot. [JAC: Loren is in foreground; it’s a selfie]

Here is a picture of me kiting at the Squamish spit,  an old river training dyke that we use as our launching spot for the Squamish Windsports Society.  As you can see the spot is surrounded by mountains, which makes for a gorgeous backdrop.  Because the ocean temperature is colder than the land in the summer, we get wind almost every day.  The chief (granite monolith to the right in the picture below) and another mountain range to the left (which you can’t see) create a Venturi effect that guarantees strong winds most sunny days.
I kite every day I can in the summer time, so I end up spending a lot of my time at this spot.
PS Here is my cat Goku.  He is a silver tabby that I got from the SPCA in 2012. [JAC: Look at that fur!]


Postmodernism explained—and criticized

The title of this 2017 article in Areo by Helen Pluckrose (also editor of the site) pulls no punches, and the piece is well worth reading—unlike the tedious and impenetrable lucubrations of the postmodernists themselves. Pluckrose not only explained postmodernism clearly—well, as clearly as one can—but also outlined the dangers it poses to academic education in sciences and humanities, to society at large, and then suggested a way to combat it. Click the screenshot to read:

I’ll give just three quotes (indented) from Helen on the topics above, but I recommend you read the whole thing. The headers are mine, and any comments of mine are flush left.

What is the gist of postmodernism?

Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida are just three of the “founding fathers” of postmodernism but their ideas share common themes with other influential “theorists” and were taken up by later postmodernists who applied them to an increasingly diverse range of disciplines within the social sciences and humanities. We’ve seen that this includes an intense sensitivity to language on the level of the word and a feeling that what the speaker means is less important than how it is received, no matter how radical the interpretation. Shared humanity and individuality are essentially illusions and people are propagators or victims of discourses depending on their social position; a position which is dependent on identity far more than their individual engagement with society. Morality is culturally relative, as is reality itself. Empirical evidence is suspect and so are any culturally dominant ideas including science, reason, and universal liberalism. These are Enlightenment values which are naïve, totalizing and oppressive, and there is a moral necessity to smash them. Far more important is the lived experience, narratives and beliefs of “marginalized” groups all of which are equally “true” but must now be privileged over Enlightenment values to reverse an oppressive, unjust and entirely arbitrary social construction of reality, morality and knowledge.

What are the dangers of postmodernism to science education? (Helen says, correctly, that science will go on, practiced in the future as it has been in the past, but how it is seen by people will be severely corroded by postmodernism.)

How much of a threat is postmodernism to science? There are certainly some external attacks. In the recent protests against a talk given by Charles Murray at Middlebury, the protesters chanted, as one,

“Science has always been used to legitimize racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, ableism, and homophobia, all veiled as rational and fact, and supported by the government and state. In this world today, there is little that is true ‘fact.’”[9]

When the organizers of the March for Science tweeted:

“colonization, racism, immigration, native rights, sexism, ableism, queer-, trans-, intersex-phobia, & econ justice are scientific issues,”[10]

many scientists immediately criticized this politicization of science and derailment of the focus on preservation of science to intersectional ideology. In South Africa, the #ScienceMustFall and #DecolonizeScience progressive student movement announced that science was only one way of knowing that people had been taught to accept. They suggested witchcraft as one alternative. [11]

I remember the first quote, which made me cringe, and is one of the reasons I was not a big fan of the March for Science, which appears, by the way, to have accomplished nothing.  The issues mentioned are political and moral issues, not scientific ones in the sense that they cannot be decided by empirical observation. That doesn’t mean they’re not important issues—just not scientific issues, though they can be informed by empirical study. As for “other ways of knowing”, I discuss that at length in Chapter 4 of Faith Versus Fact, and conclude that there are no valid ways of knowing other than the empirical approach that I call “science construed broadly.” Certainly witchcraft, revelation, religion, art, and “feelings” are not ways of knowing.

What are the dangers of postmodernism to the humanities? 

The social sciences and humanities, however, are in danger of changing out of all recognition. Some disciplines within the social sciences already have. Cultural anthropology, sociology, cultural studies and gender studies, for example, have succumbed almost entirely not only to moral relativism but epistemic relativism. English (literature) too, in my experience, is teaching a thoroughly postmodern orthodoxy. Philosophy, as we have seen, is divided. So is history.

Empirical historians are often criticized by the postmodernists among us for claiming to know what really happened in the past. Christopher Butler recalls Diane Purkiss’ accusation that Keith Thomas was enabling a myth that grounded men’s historical identity in “the powerlessness and speechlessness of women” when he provided evidence that accused witches were usually powerless beggar women. Presumably, he should have claimed, against the evidence, that they were wealthy women or better still, men. As Butler says,

“It seems as though Thomas’s empirical claims here have simply run foul of Purkiss’s rival organizing principle for historical narrative – that it should be used to support contemporary notions of female empowerment” (p36)

I encountered the same problem when trying to write about race and gender at the turn of the seventeenth century. I’d argued that Shakespeare’s audience’s would not have found Desdemona’s attraction to Black Othello, who was Christian and a soldier for Venice, so difficult to understand because prejudice against skin color did not become prevalent until a little later in the seventeenth century when the Atlantic Slave Trade gained steam, and that religious and national differences were far more profound before that. I was told this was problematic by an eminent professor and asked how Black communities in contemporary America would feel about my claim. If today’s African Americans felt badly about it, it was implied, it either could not have been true in the seventeenth century or it is morally wrong to mention it.

What are the dangers of postmodernism to society? Pluckrose floats the idea that if there is no such thing as “objective fact”, a view originated by Leftist philosophers, it can be (and has been) adopted by the Right as well.

The dangers of postmodernism are not limited to pockets of society which center around academia and Social Justice, however. Relativist ideas, sensitivity to language and focus on identity over humanity or individuality have gained dominance in wider society. It is much easier to say what you feel than rigorously examine the evidence. The freedom to “interpret” reality according to one’s own values feeds into the very human tendency towards confirmation bias and motivated reasoning.

It has become commonplace to note that the far-Right is now using identity politics and epistemic relativism in a very similar way to the postmodern-Left. Of course, elements of the far-Right have always been divisive on the grounds of race, gender and sexuality and prone to irrational and anti-science views but postmodernism has produced a culture more widely receptive to this. Kenan Malik describes this shift,

“When I suggested earlier that the idea of ‘alternative facts’ draws upon ‘a set of concepts that in recent decades have been used by radicals’, I was not suggesting that Kellyanne Conway, or Steve Bannon, still less Donald Trump, have been reading up on Foucault or Baudrillard… It is rather that sections of academia and of the left have in recent decades helped create a culture in which relativized views of facts and knowledge seem untroubling, and hence made it easier for the reactionary right not just to re-appropriate but also to promote reactionary ideas.”[12]

What is to be done?

In order to regain credibility, the Left needs to recover a strong, coherent and reasonable liberalism. To do this, we need to out-discourse the postmodern-Left. We need to meet their oppositions, divisions and hierarchies with universal principles of freedom, equality and justice. There must be a consistency of liberal principles in opposition to all attempts to evaluate or limit people by race, gender or sexuality. We must address concerns about immigration, globalism and authoritarian identity politics currently empowering the far-Right rather than calling people who express them “racist,” “sexist” or “homophobic” and accusing them of wanting to commit verbal violence. We can do this whilst continuing to oppose authoritarian factions of the Right who genuinely are racist, sexist and homophobic, but can now hide behind a façade of reasonable opposition to the postmodern-Left.

Our current crisis is not one of Left versus Right but of consistency, reason, humility and universal liberalism versus inconsistency, irrationalism, zealous certainty and tribal authoritarianism. The future of freedom, equality and justice looks equally bleak whether the postmodern Left or the post-truth Right wins this current war. Those of us who value liberal democracy and the fruits of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution and modernity itself must provide a better option.

Although Pluckrose’s essay was written 2½ years ago, it sounds as if were written yesterday.

For further reading, I’d recommend these four books (click to get Amazon links), all of them strong critiques of postmodernism and its antiscientific tenor:

and this book by Gross and Levitt: the first shot across the bow of postmodernism:

h/t: Douglas (for the “Pomo Way” photo


Caturday felid trifecta: Mother cat carries food to her one surviving kitten; rude cats; cheetahs vs. lions: one roars, the other meows and chirps (and lagniappe)

We have four items today, including lagniappe.  The first video is of a feral mother cat carrying off a bag of food provided by kindly humans. Watch where she takes it.

If this doesn’t make you tear up, you’re made of stone. What a lovely story!


From BuzzFeed, we have a selection of rude cats. I’ll show just a few.


From the Treehugger site, we get a useful lesson on why cheetahs can’t roar but some other big cats can:

Tigers, leopards, and jaguars all roar too. As members of the genus Panthera, not only are they totally fierce creatures, but the epihyal bone in the voice box is replaced by a ligament, explains BBC Wildlife Magazine. “This can be stretched, creating a larger sound-producing passage and thus a wider range of pitch. The more the ligament extends, the lower the sound generated when air passes across the vocal cords. In addition, the cords are large, unbroken and fleshy, which produces deeper sounds.”

In fact, one study found that a tiger’s roar has the power to paralyze animals that hears it, including human with experience around tigers.

And then there’s the cheetah.

Listen to the King of the Jungle (well, the savannah) sound off:

Weighing in at up to 150 pounds, cheetahs are the world’s fastest land mammal. They can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles an hour in only three seconds, striking prey in the blink of an eye. But fearsome as they may be, there is something they can’t do: Roar. Nope, cheetahs meow like a housecat. And, unlike their roaring cousins, cheetahs also have the ability to purr. Listen here:

BBC explains that the bones of the cheetah’s voice box comprise a fixed structure, with divided vocal cords that vibrate with both inhaling and exhaling. “This structure is the same for all the ‘small’ cats. While this design enables these cats to purr continuously, it limits the range of other sounds and prevents them from being able to roar.” Awww.

Cheetahs have also perfected the chirrup – a bird-like chirp they often use to locate one another.



Lagniappe: Not an ideal way to transport a kitten, but still better than nothing:

h/t: Michael, Merilee, Su

Watch Bill Maher’s show while you can

This, sent by reader Michael, is a video of Bill Maher’s show last night, featuring Andrew Sullivan and Sarah Haider, as well as Samantha Power, Timothy Naftali and Heather McGhee Watch it while you can, because these things are taken down soon. I haven’t even watched it in my rush to make it available here.

Haider is the special guest, and appears at 31:32.

I’ve now watched it. It’s a good show overall: there’s discussion of Justin Trudeau’s blackface, NZ prime minister Jacinda Arden’s unwise donning of a hijab after the Christchurch mosque massacre, Trump Derangement Syndrome, and much more.

Saturday: Hili dialogue

I thought it was the first day of Autumn, but that’s actually on Sunday, and today is just September 21, 2019. It’s National Pecan Cookie Day, but there are also tons of holidays today, including:

Batman Day
Big Whopper Liar Day (are you supposed to pretend you ate a Big Whopper?)
International Red Panda Day
International Eat An Apple Day
National Chai Day (cultural appropriation)
National Gymnastics Day
Responsible Dog Ownership Day
Thank a Police Officer Day (you won’t be seeing much of that on campuses)
and others.

Wikipedia also notes, “In the popular 1978 song “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire, the date of September 21 is mentioned in the lyric “Do you remember the 21st night of September?” This reference has gained popularity on the internet due to the song’s spread as an internet meme.”  I don’t remember seeing that.

There’s a new Google Doodle today, one that celebrates the PRETZEL, in turn marking the beginning of Oktoberfest. When you click on it, or on the screenshot below, you go to a movie that shows pretzel-making making. From 9 to 5 Google:

Today’s Doodle, freshly baked by Esther’s German Bakery, celebrates the one and only pretzel—one of the world’s most versatile and beloved foods! As Oktoberfest, the Bavarian fall festival, begins today, Brotfrauen (or bread ladies) will be carrying baskets of chewy Brezeln through Bierhallen (massive tents) in Germany, the center of Oktoberfest revelry.

With help from a local bakery, the Google homepage has been taken over by pretzel dough carefully crafted to spell out “Google.” Each letter piece is then baked, garnished with salt, and a bowl of butter is added to form the second “o.” The end result makes for an appetizing presentation that leaves you craving a warm pretzel to begin your own Oktoberfest celebration.

Click below. I do love me a soft German-style pretzel with mustard.

Stuff that happened on September 21 includes:

  • 1780 – American Revolutionary War: Benedict Arnold gives the British the plans to West Point.
  • 1921 – A storage silo in Oppau, Germany, explodes, killing 500–600 people.

Read about that explosion, which was huge and horrific (click on “explodes”).

  • 1937 – J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is published.

A first edition and first printing of this book, signed by Tolkien himself, will run you a cool $65,000:

  • 1949 – The People’s Republic of China is proclaimed.
  • 1981 – Sandra Day O’Connor is unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate as the first female Supreme Court justice.
  • 1996 – The Defense of Marriage Act is passed by the United States Congress.
  • 2003 – The Galileo spacecraft is terminated by sending it into Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Notables born on this day include:

  • 1866 – H. G. Wells, English novelist, historian, and critic (d. 1946)
  • 1874 – Gustav Holst, English composer and educator (d. 1934)
  • 1912 – Chuck Jones, American animator, producer, and screenwriter (d. 2002)
  • 1924 – Hermann Buhl, Austrian mountaineer (d. 1957)
  • 1934 – Leonard Cohen, Canadian singer-songwriter and poet (d. 2016)
  • 1940 – Bill Kurtis, American journalist and producer
  • 1950 – Bill Murray, American actor, comedian, producer, and screenwriter
  • 1967 – Faith Hill, American singer-songwriter, producer, and actress

Here’s Faith Hill and Carlos Santana performing Hill’s big crossover hit, “Breathe,” which hit #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in April of 2000:

Those who died on September 21 include:

  • 1832 – Walter Scott, Scottish novelist, playwright, and poet (b. 1771)
  • 1860 – Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher and author (b. 1788)
  • 1904 – Chief Joseph, American tribal leader (b. 1840)
  • 1974 – Walter Brennan, American actor (b. 1894)
  • 1998 – Florence Griffith Joyner, American sprinter (b. 1959)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is outside remarking on the plants:

Hili: And what did this plant grew up here for?
A: It wanted to conquer the world.
In Polish:
Hili: I po co ta roślinka tu wyrosła?
Ja: Chciała podbić świat.

From Merilee: Note the caption: “Please read instructions before assembling your cat.”

From Jesus of the Day via Diana MacPherson:

Cat lessons from Jesus of the Day:

Sadly, we have run out of tweets that Grania sent me. There will be no more.

Two tweets from Nilou. This is from Antarctica. Do you know what it is?

And Andrew Yang boogying. I still don’t have a warm feeling towards this Democrat:

Two tweets from Heather Hastie. They’re going to have to start locking the bathroom door here. What a pain!

real catwalk. The moggie is wearing a one-piece fur tuxedo styled by Karl Lagerfeld:

Tweets from Matthew. This first one is simultaneously sweet and hilarious. The “other” Brian Cox teaching a toddler Hamlet’s soliloquy:

A lovely bird giving a distress display:

This is really, really sad. A quote from the Guardian article:

Hasankeyf is thought to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements on Earth, dating as far back as 12,000 years and containing thousands of caves, churches and tombs.

But this jewel of human history will soon be lost; most of the settlement is about to be flooded as part of the highly controversial Ilisu dam project.

And the first crossword editorial I’ve ever seen:



Sarah Haider and Andrew Sullivan on Bill Maher’s show tonight

From an email from the Ex-Muslims of North America:

And from Andrew Sullivan’s New York Magazine column today (which you should read):

See you tonight on Real Time With Bill Maher on HBO at 10 p.m. ET. And, of course, next Friday.

If I got HBO I’d surely watch this (though I don’t stay up that late!). But I will post any clips that appear on YouTube.

Photos of readers

Do send in one or two (no more) pictures of yourself engaged in some interesting or characteristic activity so that people can put a face to the name.

Today’s reader photo is from Liz Strahle, who says this:

Here are a couple of pictures of my sisters, nieces, and me. I love both of these pictures. My older sister, Jenn, is on the left, I am in the middle, and my younger sister, MaryKate, is on the right for both pictures. My nieces are all my older sister’s. I have a brother also but he is not pictured.

David Brooks prognosticates about a Warren Presidency

I found this column very interesting, though it posits a recession whose existence is quite uncertain. Looking back from a hypothetical vantage point in 2050, after Elizabeth Warren was elected as President in 2020 (something I’d approve of), Brooks thinks that even if the Senate went Democratic, things still wouldn’t magically improve. Read it for yourself:

One excerpt:

After that election, the Republicans suffered a long, steady decline. Trump was instantly reviled by everyone — he had no loyal defenders. Only 8 percent of young people called themselves conservatives. Republican voters, mostly older, were dying out, and they weren’t making new ones. For the ensuing two decades the party didn’t resonate beyond its white rural base.

The American educated class celebrated the Warren victory with dance-in-the-street euphoria. In staffing her administration, she rejected the experienced Clinton-Obama holdovers and brought in a new cadre from the progressive left.

The euphoria ended when Warren tried to pass her legislative agenda. One by one, her proposals failed in the Senate: Medicare for all, free college, decriminalizing undocumented border crossing, even the wealth tax. Democratic senators from red states, she learned, were still from red states; embracing her agenda would have been suicidal. Warren and her aides didn’t help. Fired by their sense of moral superiority, they were good at condemnation, not coalition-building.

When the recession of 2021 hit, things got ugly. The failure of two consecutive presidencies had a devastating effect on American morale. It became evident that the nation had three political tendencies — conservative populism, progressive populism and moderate liberalism. None of them could put together a governing majority to get things done.

Before Warren, people thought of liberals and progressives as practically synonymous. After Warren, it was clear they were different, with different agendas and different national narratives.

But in the end, the moderate liberals win out.

Nicholas Christakis on “creative abrasion”: Why free speech and inclusion are incompatible

In this Big Think video, Nicholas Christakis, who of course was involved in the Yale Halloween Kerfuffle in 2015, resulting in him and his wife Erika resigning as heads of Silliman College, discusses why the clash of ideas—as clash guaranteed to make people uncomfortable—is not only an inevitable part of being in college, but it a required part of being in college. Like many who have suffered at the hands of vociferous and invidiously woke students, Christakis has become an eloquent defender of free speech.

The fact is that if you have an idea, or a personal set of guiding ideas and beliefs, you are going to take it personally when people attack them. This is only human. Indeed, you might regard pushback against your beliefs as “hate speech”, because you feel your persona is under attack. Your ideas are, after all, yours. 

In science we constantly face this kind of criticism, and most of us are inured to it. We get critical reviews of our papers, and even rejections, we face hard questioning when we give a seminar, and we’re always asking ourselves, “What flaws could there be in my study? Did I analyze the data properly? Is the interpretation sound?” For we have learned that this kind of professional captiousness is the only way to move science forward.

As it is in science, so it should be in college. You never know whether your ideas are flawed until someone who disagrees with you goes after them with hammer and tongs. You can, of course, shut up your critics by calling them racists or purveyors of hate speech or simply “haters.” But then you don’t get to test the mettle of your beliefs.

Here, Christakis eloquently conveys this point of view. It contravenes those pusillanimous and craven college administrators who tell their students, “Yes, you can have your free speech and your inclusion too.” For, in the end, if your ideas are attacked or refuted, you don’t feel “inclusiveness”—unless you’ve inured yourself against taking the battle of ideas personally.

h/t: Kit

Bret Weinstein goes awry when claiming that neo-Darwinian theory is missing an important part

After Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying resigned from The Evergreen State College under trying circumstances, Bret started a Patreon site and a YouTube channel in which he discusses evolutionary biology. As I mentioned in a post yesterday, Weinstein has been claiming in some of his onstage conversations that modern evolutionary theory has made no progress since the publication of Richard Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene in 1976. And I discussed why I didn’t think that was a fair criticism, suggesting that Weinstein might be unaware of the progress that’s been made in the three areas he singled out as stagnant: speciation, sexual selection, and the correlation of diversity with latitude.

In this 9-minute video, Bret argues not only that evolutionary biology is stagnant, but its central paradigm—evolution via natural selection—is lacking a very important part.

As he argues, “The most important unanswered question, at least in evolutionary biology, has to do with where the power of evolution comes from.” He claims that the standard story that random mutations (mostly bad but occasionally good), winnowed by selection, doesn’t come “anywhere close to explaining how a shrewlike animal becomes a batlike animal by having membranes and bones extended in its hands, that become wings”.  He says that “There’s a flaw in the story that surrounds the question, ‘How do mutations alter the morphology of one creature so that it can take on a different ecological role?'”

Listen to Bret’s answer.

Bret’s answer to the question that he sees as heretofore unanswered is the evolution of “explorer modes,” which he defines as “mechanisms in which an evolved clade [related group of organisms] explores design space, so they can discover opportunities that it would not find by accident.”

What does this mean? He argues that an “explorer mode” gives natural selection a way to create new types of organisms in a way “that would not be discovered by accident”. I presume he means here that there are many organisms in which a combination geographic isolation “by accident”—e.g., via haphazard colonization of a new area such as an island, or separation of populations by geographic barriers or continental drift—followed by random mutation and selection, is a combination simply inadequate to explain evolution.

But why not? Bret argues that mutation and selection are “not powerful enough to account for the vast array of niches that have been discovered by species over the history of life.” But he gives no calculations to show this; he’s merely hazarding a guess, a guess without any empirical support. In other words, he’s making up a problem that hasn’t been shown to be a problem.

So what Weinstein is positing is not that animals invade new niches by accident and then evolved new species and morphologies, but that there are evolved “explorer modes” built into organisms by natural selection that help them find new niches.

He gives two examples of this. The first is Pacific salmon, which home to their natal streams, returning to fresh water from the sea every couple of years to breed. Very rarely, a salmon might invade a new stream, and, if that stream was devoid of other salmon, it would find a bonanza: lots of food and empty space. The descendants of that first explorer would thrive, and eventually, perhaps, become sufficiently genetically different that they’d constitute a new species.

The invasion of a new stream by a few stray individuals surely must have happened in evolution, but Weinstein insists that this is not an accident—a case of wayward salmon losing their way—but that they have evolved to explore. And that evolution was prompted by a form of selection that, while risky, has big payoffs: finding a new stream. He sees this form of selection as general, and essential to account for Earth’s diversity.

But there are big problems with this scenario. First, it applies only to changes in behavior: migration or wandering behavior. It does not and cannot explain the difference in morphology between a bat and its ancestor, or any differences between species in morphology, physiology, and so on. Those still require random mutation and selection. Even if his mechanism operates—and I don’t think it does in the way he posits—it only explains how an animal finds a new habitat in which garden-variety mutation and selection then proceed to work, and to create new morphology. The morphological differences evolve by same-old same-old.

But are “explorer modules” even plausible? Perhaps occasionally, but surely the cost of leaving your habitat and finding another one must frequently exceed the chance of finding a new, open niche in which you can thrive. At present, for instance, Pacific streams are pretty much tapped out for salmon residents, so invading a new stream would have no payoff. In other words, even if “explorer modules” were advantageous, they are self-defeating. Selection would favor not exploring.

Weinstein, then, hasn’t shown that the payoff from an explorer mode would generally exceed the costs. Yes, an individual could hit the jackpot, but what about all those individuals that don’t? If the average cost of exploring exceeds the benefit of a rare payoff, then exploring won’t evolve.

Further, and importantly, if these modules were favored by selection, you would see many more animals exhibiting them than do. If all salmon had evolved explorer modes, then you’d see many, many salmon leaving their streams and trying to find new ones. You don’t see that: migration is rare. This supports the idea that, in salmon, colonization of new streams is an accident: a bug rather than a feature. Weinstein has failed to explain the infrequency of exploring.

It’s clear that Bret thinks that “explorer mode” is something that is selected for. As he says, “It stands to reason, then, that selection would discover a mechanism that searched design space, rather than finding opportunities in design space haphazardly.” That’s clearly a claim that exploring is somehow built into an organism’s genes. Further, he says, it creates new morphologies faster than the conventional scenario. But we don’t know that the conventional scenario—wandering followed by the conventional mutation + selection—is too slow to create life’s diversity.

Now there are animals in which “exploration” is ubiquitous and a general phenomenon. One is the ballooning of spiders, in which spiderlings, when hatched, throw out a thread of silk to waft them away on the wind. Another is, of course, the dispersal of dandelion seeds via their fluff. Still another is the migration of young male lions away from their pride.

But these phenomena aren’t what Bret means by “explorer mode”, as they are ubiquitous in the species, and have evolved because finding a new habitat is essential if you are to avoid competition and thus leave your genes.  And even in these cases, the difference between species in morphology—why a tiger is striped but leopards are spotted—evolves by conventional natural selection.  Yes, a different habitat may be involved in creating that selection, but there are many ways that animals can find themselves in different geographic areas by accident. I don’t think that finches colonized the Galápagos island because they were showing their evolved tendency to explore. Most finches heading out over the Pacific, or blown over the ocean, would perish.

The other example Bret uses is human consciousness. We evolved consciousness, he says, so we can explore new ways of life. But this is not at all analogous to a salmon evolving “wandering behavior” because that kind of behavior helps you invade an empty niche. True, consciousness helped us invade a “cognitive niche”, and that may have had ramifications for the evolution of other parts of our body, like our brains or our hands, but you don’t need to invoke a new type of evolution to see how consciousness (or big brains) might have evolved. They could have evolved simply because they give individuals a reproductive advantage. There was no real “exploring” here analogous to Weinstein’s scenario of salmon taking risks because they could have big payoffs, as there was no risk involved in acquiring a mutation that made you more conscious. So I’ll ignore that scenario.

In general, I think Bret advances a thesis here that a.) isn’t needed, because there isn’t really a question that needs answering (nobody is worrying, “Hey, evolution was faster than mutation and selection could create”), b.) has its own problems, as payoffs have to be greater on average than the costs of exploring, c.) fails to explain why exploring is so infrequent, and d.) completely fails to account for the morphological differences between species that, he says, prompted this theory.

I think Weinstein’s explanation, then, is misleading: certainly so if it’s a general one intended to fill an important lacuna in evolutionary theory. Weinstein hasn’t shown that such a lacuna exists. And if there’s no need for such a theory because neo-Darwinism hasn’t been shown to be insufficient to explain diversity, then invoking “explorer modes” is an exercise without a motivation.