The politics of speciation

From reader Pliny the in Between’s newly renamed site, The Far Corner Cafe, we have a cartoon called “If you catch my genetic drift.” Click to enlarge.


I would never mate with a Republican!

Discovery Institute and Commentary laud Tom Wolfe’s evolution-bashing in “The Kingdom of Speech” (and diss Professor Ceiling Cat)

Think of the poor schmucks who work at the Discovery Institute (DI). Having completely failed to get Intelligent Design taught in schools, or ever moderately accepted in the scientific community—and they predicted such acceptance would have happened by now—they are reduced to carping about evolutionists like me, making ad hominem arguments, and touting those scholars—like Jerry Fodor and Tom Nagel—who have jumped the shark by claiming that evolutionary theory is fatally flawed.  The IDer’s main gambit, which has always been the strategy of Intelligent Design, is to point out that evolution can’t explain everything, and that therefore an Intelligent Designer (read “Jesus and God’) did it.

While they differ on how much real Darwinian evolution really occurred (Michael Behe, for instance, says he has no problem with “common ancestry”), and whether the Earth is old or young, the IDers are united in spending their time attacking evolutionists on nonscientific grounds as well as emphasizing the things that evolution hasn’t yet explained, all while ignoring the great sea of evidence for evolution around them.

And so, when Tom Wolfe’s book The Kingdom of Speech came out, the IDers were elated. For the premise of Wolfe’s book is twofold. First, evolution is a non-starter (as Wolfe said, ““Darwin offered nothing at all.”), although Wolfe was cagey about admitting whether he believed that any part of evolution was true. Second, Wolfe, like his hero Alfred Russel Wallace, promoted human exceptionalism: that human biology, and speech in particular, has no possible evolutionary explanation, and that therefore some other explanation must hold for both the origin of speech and the large human brain. Wolfe spent much of the book attacking Noam Chomsky for asserting that the structure of human speech (“universal grammar”) has anything to do with evolution.

I reviewed the book for the Washington Post, and showed that Wolfe was way out of his depth, completely ignorant of both linguistics and evolutionary biology, as well as of the evidence that natural selection is at partly involved in the origin and elaboration of human speech.

Now there’s a new review of Wolfe’s book, one on the Jewish-oriented site Commentary. The review, “We’re only human” is by Andrew Ferguson described by Commentary as “formerly our Press Man columnist, [Ferguson is] senior editor at the Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.” He’s also a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. The review is extremely laudatory, praising Wolfe’s book for its attack on materialism, its emphasis on human exceptionalism, and for breaking the stereotype (what stereotype?) that scientists have a monopoly on describing science in the popular press—a trend that Ferguson thinks is invidious and self-serving. Ferguson’s book also goes after yours truly, but let’s ignore that for the nonce. Let’s just say that the review, by tacitly promoting creationism, human evolutionary exceptionalism, and by dissing the canard “scientism”, should be an embarrassment to Commentary. It’s especially galling to me, as one of Jewish ancestry, that a Jewish site is so credulous.

Over at the ID creationist site Evolution News & Views (who will love this attention), an anonymous writer for the DI calls attention to Ferguson’s book and uses the excuse to criticize my negative view of it. Why? Because I like cats and cowboy boots!. And apparently wear Birkenstocks, a bogus accusation leveled by Ferguson.

EN&V’s quote of Ferguson:

The reviewer was Jerry Coyne, a biologist from the University of Chicago and a volunteer border cop who patrols the perimeter where science and popular culture meet, making sure that scientists are accorded the proper deference. The Kingdom of Speech is deeply transgressive in this way. Wolfe makes sport of scientific pretensions generally and neo-Darwinian pretensions specifically, and Coyne, a neo-Darwinist to the soles of his Birkenstocks, isn’t going to let a mere journalist, or even a Grand Old Man of Letters, get away with it.

And their own criticism:

Fact-check: Coyne wears specially custom-handmade cowboy boots, not Birkenstocks. He must own closets full. We know because he spends a great deal of space on his evolution blog detailing this with accompanying photos of the boots both under construction and on his feet. Only imagined dialogues between a cat and a dog receive more attention. Even Wolfe would have a hard time spoofing Coyne. Otherwise this is spot-on.

When the IDiots go after stuff like this, it’s clear that they have nothing. The resort to this kind of criticism (and, after all, don’t IDers have hobbies?) instead of substantive criticism of what I said, is telling. After all, I don’t go after Wolfe in my review in that way, except to mention briefly his famous white suits.

But on to Ferguson.  Here’s a precis of his main points, with quotes indented.

Scientists are wedded to fundamentalist materialism, and we do that because that gives us a good living. But it blinkers us from seeing “other ways of knowing”. 

You don’t hear much about Wallace anymore, and you hear even less about Muller, while their contemporary Darwin became, of course, one of the most famous men who ever lived. Human exceptionalism has a lot to do with their relative reputations. Wallace embraced it and so did Muller; indeed, they thought it was self-evident. Darwin didn’t. And most scientists, especially fundamentalists like Jerry Coyne, have inherited Darwin’s materialism as dogma. It’s a good deal for scientists. After all, if everything we consider uniquely human is a consequence of purely materialistic processes, then the guys who study materialistic processes for a living hold the key to every human question. It’s nice work if you can get it.

Right away this shows Ferguson’s ignorance of science. We don’t inherit materialism—I prefer the word “naturalism”—as dogma; rather, it is the only strategy that has worked. Here, for instance, are Sean Carroll’s three tenets of naturalism taken from his recent book The Big Picture:

  1. There is only one world: the natural world.
  2. The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature
  3. The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.

These principles developed by a process of trial and error over centuries. As I’ve emphasized for years, there were times when naturalism wasn’t all-encompassing in science, and when supernatural process were invoked. Before Darwin, God’s hand was the only credible explanation for the “design-like” features of plants and animals. But that didn’t work, and was displaced by natural selection. Newton couldn’t explain why planetary orbits were stable, and thus invoked the hand of God interceding by pushing the planets around. Now we know that we needn’t do that; we have no need of the God hypothesis to explain stable orbits.  If there were any evidence of supernatural or preternatural influences in science, like the efficacy of intercessory prayer (tested and rejected), or the ability of humans to practice telekinesis or remote viewing, scientists would be studying those phenomena. But we aren’t because there’s no credible evidence. Once again, naturalism (“materialism”) is the only route that has ever given us reliable evidence about the world, and about human biology.

Evolutionary biology hasn’t explained speech, and therefore there must be Some Other Explanation. This, of course, is a God of the Gaps argument. (Ferguson doesn’t mention God, but it’s clear where he’s going.)

There’s a problem, though. Evolutionary theory is no closer than it was in Darwin’s day to explaining in materialist terms how traits like self-consciousness and language came to be. The scientists keep trying, of course, as scientists should.

But should we keep trying if the explanation be supernaturalistic? If materialism isn’t the solution, then why bother?

One thing that neither the DI nor Ferguson deals with is the pervasive evidence for human physical evolution as seen in the fossil record. You may say that part of human biology, like consciousness or speech, could not have arisen by natural selection, but you can’t deny that the evidence shows that the human body, including our big brain, evolved gradually over time. If God was doing that, he made it look remarkably like evolution! And we have evidence for the evolution of speech capacity as well, evidence that I give in my review.  A good refutation of Ferguson’s GOTG argument was in fact given by a commenter on my WaPo review:


Wolfe was attacked by scientists because he is an “outsider” who dares criticize our field. That is, we had to attack him because he wasn’t a scientist.  The first quote above, about the Birkenstocks (which I’ve never worn and dislike, as I find them ugly), shows this, as well as the following one:

Those earlier books [The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House] provoked outrage from the specialists, and The Kingdom of Speech has inspired the same reaction from the same quarters. Coyne is not the only scientist who rushed to the blogs and manned the message boards to post dozens of objections to the book and its argument. Wolfe is simply in over his head, they say. A recurring charge is that he never takes care to define his terms—using, for example, the words “speech” and “language” interchangeably, which a specialist would never do.

. . . Clearing the popularizers from the field, as many specialists would like to do, would cede all scientific argument to scientists, who in many notable cases have not earned the deference they demand. The danger is doubled when scientists use science to draw metaphysical lessons—when, that is, they assert that human beings and primates are in essence the same kind of creature. A flurry of data and polysyllabic detail shouldn’t obscure the fact that such a thesis defies human experience and devalues the noblest human endeavors (including science, by the way).

I don’t know where to begin on this one. First of all, we don’t want to clear popularizers from the field. Who would want to dispose of Carl Zimmer’s great scientific reportage, or David Quammen’s wonderful books, or Jonathan Weiner, or David Attenborough, or James Gleick, or. . . . the list is long. Yes, some scientists have also been popularizers, like Jared Diamond, Steve Gould, and Richard Dawkins, but in fact many of them have been criticized by other scientists for popularizing instead of doing science!

On this issue Ferguson is just wrong. Why I and others criticized Wolfe was that he was simply wrong about many issues—issues in both linguistics and evolution. If you read the bit on evolution, and know anything about it, you’ll see that Wolfe simply didn’t do his homework, and it showed. It is the non-scientist reviewers who didn’t catch these errors, and that’s one reason why the press should get scientists who can write to review works of popular science.

Wolfe had to “skirt complicated niceties” as he was writing as a journalist and entertainer. 

As a journalist and entertainer, Wolfe has an obligation to avoid the tedium that makes scientific publications interesting to scientists and nobody else. That obligation doesn’t relieve him of the obligation to be accurate; the two demands live side by side. But it does require him to shun pedantry, to keep his readers away from thickets of technical arguments and counterarguments that will leave them half-dead. The trick for the popularizer is to write both generally and vividly, skirting complicating niceties here and there, while never failing to steer the reader toward the truth.

Sadly, Wolfe wasn’t accurate about nearly anything, as you can see from my review. In fact, the “complicating niceties” are crucial in evaluating his book.  Is there a naturalistic explanation for the increase in human brain size, giving us a capacity to do more than could ever have been subject to direct selection in our ancestors? Was Daniel Everett’s claim that the Pirahã language didn’t show recursion accurate? Is there really no evidence for an evolutionary component of human speech? In Wolfe’s book, the devil is in the complicating niceties, for they completely overturn his thesis.

If you doubt the worthlessness of Wolfe’s book, and know something about evolution or linguistics, by all means read it. That is, if you can do so without buying the book.

Nullius in verba, abuntantia imprimitus

by Greg Mayer

The title of this post is recycled from an earlier one (which you should go back to and read), with a linguistic upgrade from reader Shuggy. The Royal Society, the oldest scientific society in the English-speaking world, is marking International Open Access Week by making all of its 350+ years of publications open access from now until November 6. I am especially happy to report that this includes many publications by “Mr. Anthony van Leeuwenhoek”, (also known as “Leeuwenhoeck” and “Leewenhoeck”), including those papers mentioned earlier today in celebratory remarks by Matthew commemorating van Leeuwenhoek’s birthday.

The full set of publications, available as pdfs which may be downloaded and saved for perusal at leisure, can be accessed from the Society’s publications webpage. Go and sample the abuntantia for yourself!

Image result for nullius in verba tattoo

The motto of the Royal Society, meaning roughly “nothing upon another’s word”, was a radically empirical challenge to the prevailing reliance upon the acceptance of authority. (From Pinterest.)

Google celebrates Antonii van Leeuwenhoek

Today is the birthday of Antonii van Leeuwenhoek, and in honor of his achievement Google made an animated Doodle (click on it to go to Google). Since Matthew is an expert on the man and his science, which forms a part of his book The Egg and Sperm Race (also called Generation), I asked him to write a few words about the honoree (below).


by Matthew Cobb

Antonii Leeuwenhoek (he adopted the aristocratic ‘van’ as a pretension later in life) was one of the great figures of 17th century discovery. He was a draper, not a scholar, and yet he was able to make two of the most amazing discoveries in the history of science. Like many other people in the 17th century Dutch republic (including the great philosopher Spinoza), Leeuwenhoek (roughly pronounced Lay-wen-hoak) made microscopes out of a tiny bead of glass.

The lens was then put into a rectangular metal frame, and the object to be looked at (an insect, or a fluid in a capillary tube) was put on a rod on one side of the lens. The Google doodle shows this quite well. He then had to hold the apparatus into the sunlight (candlelight would not do) to see what he could see. Single lens microscopes were much more powerful than the compound microscopes of the time.

Leeuwenhoek’s two great discoveries were made early in his career (he was introduced to the Royal Society by one of his neighbours, the Delft-based Reinier de Graff, in 1672). In 1674, de Graaf was trying to find out why pepper is hot, so he ground up some pepper corns in water and allowed the solution to move up a capillary tube. His idea was to see the structure of whatever it was in pepper that made it spicy. Instead, he observed bazillions of tiny ‘animacules’ – bacteria and protists – zipping about in the water. For some years, it was assumed that the tiny things were released from the peppercorns, and it was called the ‘pepper water’ experiment. Until someone did the obvious thing of leaving out the pepper… Micro-organisms are still called ‘infusoria’ after this principle of making an ‘infusion’.

Leeuwenhoek’s second, and astounding discovery was made in 1677, when following the suggestion of a medical student, called Ham, Leeuwenhoek looked at his semen (this had previously been suggested to him by the Secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, but Leeuwenhoek declined to take the step). The description of how he did the experiment, which eventually appeared *in Latin* (not English) in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society is interesting:

He reassured “his Lordships” that he had not obtained the semen by any “sinful contrivance” but by “the excess which Nature provided me in my conjugal relations.” Think about that. He goes on to say that a mere “six heartbeats” after ejaculation, he found “a vast number of living animalcules” in his ejaculate (it is not recorded what his wife thought of this…). The Royal Society didn’t believe him, and in classic modern style sent him away to do more experiments. Eventually, they published his report in 1678.

Several points: firstly, Leeuwenhoek at first thought that the sperm he saw were simply parasites (and this is reflected in the name we still give them – spermatozoa, the animals that live in semen). Second, he thought the interesting bit of the ejaculate was some weird thready material that no one else has seen before or since. He eventually changed his mind on this. Finally, although it had been suggested 10 years earlier that women have eggs, and de Graaf had shown experimental support for this idea in 1672 in rabbits, the scientific world did not recognise that egg and sperm were complementary components of the future organism.

That did not happen until the 1840s, after a) it was realised that something was inherited (the word ‘heredity’ had no biological meaning before the 1820s) and b) it was realised that all organisms are composed of cells, and therefore that egg and sperm were both cells. Instead, for 140 years science was more or less divided into the ovists and the spermists. For the spermists, like Leeuwenhoek, the egg was either non-existent (as in mammals) or food for the sperm; for the ovists (most people) the sperm somehow ‘awoke’ the egg, like an electric shock, but played no equal role in producing offspring.

Leeuwenhoek was an extraordinary man who made remarkable contributions to our understanding of the world. If you want to know more about him, and the weird route ideas took to come to our current understanding, despite it looking so obvious in retrospect, you can pick up a good second-hand copy of my 2006 book Generation, for less than $4! (In the UK it was called The Egg and Sperm Race…)


Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Robert Lang made a trip to Costa Rica earlier this year, and sent some photos of arthropods. His captions are indented:

We saw fewer arthropods (other than butterflies) than I expected in the various wet forest environments, but the ones we did see were quite spectacular.
The Blue Land Crab (Cardisoma guanhumi) was shot near the Caribbean coast.


The Golden Orb Weaver (Nephila clavipes) was fairly common. The guide called it a “golden oar” spider, because the wide parts of the legs looked like oars, he said. This is a female, about 5 inch leg spread. If you look closely, you can see the male just above, trying not to get eaten.


The Orange-Kneed Tarantula (Megaphobema mesomelas) was coaxed out of its burrow at night by wiggling a twig near the entrance to simulate prey. The tarantula was not happy being fooled.


The scorpion (unidentified species) was interesting because it had all its babies hitching a ride on its back.


The walking stick (unidentified species) was about 9” long. The guide pointed it out on a night walk, and even looking right at it, it was hard to identify as what it is. To add to the illusion, it held its forelegs and antennae out straight, inline with the body. Eventually, though, it relaxed, as here.


Monday: Hili dialogue

It’s October 24, 2016, and appears to be National Food Day. In honor of that, please have some food today.

Tom Hayden died last night at age 76 from the aftereffects of a stroke. One of my youthful heroes, he was a noted anti-war and pro-civil rights activist, and one of the Chicago Seven tried in 1968 for protesting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot in that highly publicized trial, Hayden and his co-defendants were later acquitted. Hayden spent the rest of his life as an activist, winding up as a California state senator. Those of a certain age will also remember he was married to Jane Fonda for a short while.

LOS ANGELES - APRIL 6: Former U.S. Senator Tom Hayden (D-CA) arrives to the funeral services for lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. at the West Angeles Cathedral on April 6, 2005 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES – APRIL 6: Former California State Senator Tom Hayden (D) arrives to the funeral services for lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. at the West Angeles Cathedral on April 6, 2005 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

On this day in 1260, the Chartres Cathedral was dedicated. It has some of the most beautiful stained glass windows in the world, so if you go to Paris, don’t miss a day trip to Chartres. Also on this day in 1945, the United Nations was founded with great hopes; it’s now devolved into a largely useless organization. And on this day in 1947, Walt Disney testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, giving them the names of his employees that he suspected of being Communists. Feel differently about Uncle Walt now?

Notables born on this day include Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632; see Matthew’s tribute a bit later today). Those who died on this day include Vidkun Quisling (1945; executed for treason), G. E. Moore (1958), Jackie Robinson (1972), Gene Roddenberry (1991), Rosa Parks (2009), and Maureen O’Hara (2015). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili makes her first comment on the American Presidential election. When I asked what Hili meant, Malgorzata explained:

It’s a choice between pest and cholera. What can someone, who – fortunately – doesn’t have to make this choice say about it? That the great America went crazy and wants to be governed either by a dangerous buffoon or by a dishonest, greedy politician who refuses to take responsibility for her actions?

And so Ms. Hili:

A: You’ve never said anything about the choice between Trump and Clinton…
Hili: I better say nothing.
p1050009-1In Polish:
Ja: Nigdy nie mówiłaś co sądzisz o wyborze między Trumpem i Clinton…
Hili: I lepiej, żebym nadal nic nie mówiła.

Reader Keira McKenzie from Oz sends a lovely portrait of her black cat, Plushie with a caption:

She watches, she knows, she remembers.


And Grania sent a cat gif:


PuffHo’s demonization of Trump: can it get any more extreme? (And Glenn Greenwald on the canonization of Clinton)

PuffHo’s frenetic demonization of Donald Trump (who’s already demonized himself out of contention for the Presidency) is growing—to the point of lunacy. Look, for instance, at the Entertainment section, where virtually every article is not about entertainment, but about how some entertainer has produced the “perfect” takedown of The Donald. Even “Weird News,” which used to have great nuggets of bizarreness, has jumped the shark, as witnessed by the article on “Grabby Donald” below (click on it, if you must, to see the piece)

screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-11-16-14-am screen-shot-2016-10-23-at-11-16-26-am

But enough, as I’m trying to get PuffHo off my lawn. I call your attention instead to a recent piece by Glenn Greenwald, known to us as the mendacious and oliagenous atheist-hater and osculator of Islam, published at The Intercept. Called “The unrelenting pundit-led effort to delegitimize all negative reporting about Hillary Clinton,” the piece actually seems reasonable to me. Let us always remember that even those journalists whom we dislike, or whose ideology we reject, can sometimes produce something good. This may be one of them, but I invite readers to weigh in.

Greenwald is no fan of Trump, and clearly thinks Hillary is the far superior choice for President. I agree. But he also thinks, and I also agree, that the liberal media has gone overboard in trying to dismiss all criticism of Clinton, either out of some misguided form of Democrat worship, or—as we’ve I’ve seen from some readers—out of fear that criticizing Clinton could cause her to fall in the polls. (I hope you realize that the latter is no longer an issue.) He especially excoriates Paul Krugman for an unrelenting defense of Hillary (I’ve noticed that too, and wonder if Krugman isn’t angling for some Cabinet or government position), and takes the liberal media to task for the same behavior. I’ll give a few excerpts.

That American journalists have dispensed with muted tones and fake neutrality when reporting on Trump is a positive development. He and his rhetoric pose genuine threats, and the U.S. media would be irresponsible if it failed to make that clear. But aggressive investigative journalism against Trump is not enough for Democratic partisans whose voice is dominant in U.S. media discourse. They also want a cessation of any news coverage that reflects negatively on Hillary Clinton. Most, of course, won’t say this explicitly (though some do), but — as the wildly adored Krugman column from [Sept. 5] reflects — they will just reflexively dismiss any such coverage as illegitimate and invalid.

. . . . it would be journalistic malpractice of the highest order if the billions of dollars received by the Clintons — both personally and though their various entities — were not rigorously scrutinized and exposed in detail by reporters. That’s exactly what they ought to be doing. The fact that quid pro quos cannot be definitively proven does not remotely negate the urgency of this journalism. That’s because quid pro quos by their nature elude such proof (can anyone prove that Republicans steadfastly support Israel and low taxes because of the millions they get from Sheldon Adelson and the Koch brothers, or that the Florida attorney general decided not to prosecute Trump because his foundation and his daughter donated to her?). Beyond quid quo pros, the Clintons’ constant, pioneering merger of massive private wealth and political power and influence is itself highly problematic. Nobody forced them to take millions of dollars from the Saudis and Goldman Sachs tycoons and corporations with vested interests in the State Department; having chosen to do so with great personal benefit, they are now confronting the consequences in how the public views such behavior.

That Donald Trump is an uber-nationalist, bigotry-exploiting demagogue and unstable extremist does not remotely entitle Hillary Clinton to waltz into the Oval Office free of aggressive journalistic scrutiny. Nor does Trump’s extremism constitute a defense to anything that she’s done. It is absolutely true that Trump has at least as many troublesome financial transactions and entangling relationships as the Clintons do: These donations to the Florida attorney general are among the most corrupt-appearing transactions yet documented. Even worse, Trump has shielded himself from much needed scrutiny by inexcusably refusing to release his tax returns, while much of the reporting about the Clintons is possible only because they have released theirs. All of that is important and should be highlighted.

But none of it suggests that anything other than a bright journalistic light is appropriate for examining the Clintons’ conduct. . .

. . . The reality is that large, pro-Clinton liberal media platforms — such as Vox, and the Huffington Post, and prime-time MSNBC programs, and the columnists and editorialists of the New York Times and the Washington Post, and most major New York-based weekly magazines — have been openly campaigning for Hillary Clinton. I don’t personally see anything wrong with that — I’m glad when journalists shed their faux objectivity; I believe the danger of Trump’s candidacy warrants that; and I hope this candor continues past the November election — but the everyone-is-against-us self-pity from Clinton partisans is just a joke. They are the dominant voices in elite media discourse, and it’s a big reason why Clinton is highly likely to win.

That’s all the more reason why journalists should be subjecting Clinton’s financial relationships, associations, and secret communications to as much scrutiny as Donald Trump’s. That certainly does not mean that journalists should treat their various sins and transgressions as equivalent: Nothing in the campaign compares to Trump’s deport-11-million-people or ban-all-Muslim policies, or his attacks on a judge for his Mexican ethnicity, etc. But this emerging narrative that Clinton should not only enjoy the support of a virtually united elite class but also a scrutiny-free march into the White House is itself quite dangerous. Clinton partisans in the media — including those who regard themselves as journalists — will continue to reflexively attack all reporting that reflects negatively on her, but that reporting should nonetheless continue with unrestrained aggression.

Even on this site, I’ve had liberal readers tell me that I shouldn’t question the Clinton Foundation’s questionable contributors because “you can’t prove anything.” But as Greenwald says, “the fact that quid pro quos cannot be definitively proven does not remotely negate the urgency of this journalism.” And that’s precisely why ethical politicians avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

At any rate, if you read the piece you’ll see that by no means is Greenwald a flack for Trump. He despises the man. But I don’t think it’s kosher to withhold criticism from Clinton at this point because it might lead to Trump’s election. In fact, given what’s happening in the polls, I can’t see anything that could help Trump. The idea that now is not a good time to criticize Clinton, and that we should wait until after the election, strikes me as a way to permanently maim one’s moral antennae. After all, she’ll be the next President of the U.S.

But read Greenwald’s article and let me know what you think.


Glass gem corn

Speaking of hybridization, my friend Nicole sent me some ears she grew of what’s called “glass gem corn,” which are gorgeous. I had no idea this stuff existed, though of course I’d seen less variegated “Indian corn” that appears around Halloween. Here are 12 ears: all of them are small: up to about six inches long. Some are highly variegated like a pack of Jelly Belly jelly beans, while others have a dominant color scheme (bottom of the second picture and the third picture).

Nicole gem corn



As the corn dries out, it becomes translucent, making it even more gemlike. The photos below show what my ears will eventually look like (photos are taken from various places, including the Glass Gem Corn Facebook page):





Go here for a gazillion more photos.

Now how are these produced? It’s hard to find much information about Glass Gem corn. It was clearly developed by breeding varieties of corn having different-colored kernels, but beyond that there’s little information about the breeding scheme. There’s a piece at Business Insiderand this from My Modern Met:

Nature often surprises us with the amazing things it produces, and Glass Gem corn is a fantastic instance of when the line between what’s real and fake is blurred. The rainbow-colored kernels resemble brilliantly-hued strands of jewels rather than something you’d find on your plate. They’re all natural, however, and are the result of heirloom-style farming as well as selective planting.

The story behind these special corn cobs started with an Oklahoma-based farmer named Carl Barnes. As an adult, the half-Cherokee Native American began growing older varieties of the crop as a way to reconnect to his roots. In doing this, he isolated heirloom corn seeds that were lost to Native American tribes when, in the 1800s, they were relocated to present-day Oklahoma.

Barnes shared and exchanged the ancient corn seeds with people he had met around the country, while he also selected and planted grains from the more colorful varieties. This is how the dazzling rainbow corn was born, but these weren’t crops that he kept to himself. Thanks to Barnes, fellow farmer Greg Schoen became acquainted with the vegetable in 1994 at a native-plant gathering in Oklahoma. Mesmerized by the colors, Barnes gave Schoen some of the seeds, who then planted the rainbow corn next to traditional yellow varieties. This mixture led to new and exciting hybrids.

Like Barnes, Schoen passed the seeds along to others, one being Bill McDorman. He owned an Arizona company called Seed Trust, and he’s now the Executive Director of Native Seeds/SEARCH. The non-profit conservation organization now sells the seeds online. [JAC: you can buy the seeds online for only $4.95 a packet.]

But beyond that, I see little information, though I’ve done only a cursory survey.  I’m hoping a reader with botanical expertise can explain these, but here’s what I know about corn (I hope this is right!):

  • Each “kernel” is the result of a separate pollination event, which clearly accounts for the different colors (they come from genetically different pollen and ovules). Corn is wind-pollinated, but is effectively self-incompatible as the tassels (male parts) are physically separated from the ears (female parts). The many different colors surely reflect many different kinds of pollen impinging on each ear. Each “silk” on an ear is a style: the tube through which the pollen will grow to produce a single kernel. Each “cob” involves several hundred fertilization events. I could plant each kernel and, if I plant more than one together, get more ears like these.
  • I have no information about the color diversity among ears from the same plant. By all rules of genetics, they should resemble each other more than ears from different plants, since ears of a single plant have a single female genotype.
  • Many ears have a dominant “theme” color, like the purple and reddish ears depicted above. That may reflect a female genotype carrying “red” or “purple” genes, or perhaps limited pollination (Nicole grew about a dozen plants), the dominance relationships of some color alleles, or all of the above.
  • I know squat about corn genetics, and even less about corn color genetics. To work out how ears like the above are possible, one needs to be able to show that each of the kernels on a given ear reflects the female’s genotype in the ovule (limited to two alleles at each color locus) combined with a substantially larger variety of alleles in the pollen that fertilizes the female. And you’d have to know the dominance relationships as well as the number of genes producing each color.

And that’s where my knowledge stops. Readers who know about corn varieties or corn genetics are invited to weigh in.

Oh, and about its edibility. Apparently it’s not edible like regular corn on the cob, but you can cut the dried kernels off the cob to make popcorn. Then, however, the color disappears. Or I could plant the kernels, though growing space is sparse in my neck of the woods.  I’d prefer to let my ears dry out, become gemlike, and then show off the ears as a lovely novelty.


Hybrid speciation might be rare

Data show that the “normal” mode of speciation—the process in which one lineage divides into two or more species—involves the geographic isolation of populations of a single species. Over time, natural selection (and genetic drift) causes those populations to become more and more genetically different. When the genetic differentiation has gone to the extent that the separate populations evolved features that make them unable to produce fertile hybrids when they come back together in the same area (i.e. regain “sympatry”), then these populations have become separate species. They are now groups on distinct evolutionary trajectories, and their inability to exchange genes because of the evolved “reproductive isolating barriers” between them (e.g., behavioral differences in mating, preferences for different host plants or microhabitats, different times of mating, different pheromones, or the sterility or inviability of hybrids), is what makes nature “lumpy” rather than a continuum. The lumpiness of nature—the fact that, in a single geographic locality, in most groups you readily see distinct clusters of plants or animals (look at the birds outside your window, or look at a field guide)—is an important fact that can only be explained by connecting the formation of those “lumps” with the reproductive barriers that keep them from forming a continuum.

Geographic isolation is thought to be important because gene flow between diverging species tends to keep them from diverging. In our own species, humans in different places began the process of genetic divergence, as witnessed by the traits that distinguish human populations (these are correlated with geographic isolation, as the theory predicts), but this process was nipped in the bud by both population growth and the invention of forms of transportation that allow people to move much farther than they used to. There is now gene flow between many populations, and Homo sapiens is an example of a “polytypic” (variable) species that, if the populations had remained isolated for a million years or so, might have become more than one species of Homo.

One thing that biologists have discovered since the advent of DNA sequencing, though, is that gene flow between species is more common than previously thought. Reproductive barriers aren’t always complete (although they are now between our species and all other living species), and so sometimes hybrids are formed and genes can sneak between different species. In the group I used to work on, the closely related species Drosophila santomea and Drosophila yakuba, we and others discovered that the entire mitochondrion, with all of its own DNA, invaded D. santomea from D. yakuba, and there’s been a bit of other gene flow as well. (In most of the genome, however, the species remain distinct.) This could only have been due to hybridization, and it happened because although the species tend to live at different altitudes, there are areas of overlap where they can meet and hybridize, and the female hybrids (but not the males) are fertile.

So we know that genes sneak between species more often than we used to think.

Some biologists, however, have gone farther, and postulated that hybridization between two species can itself cause the formation of a third species, a process called “hybrid speciation.” This is somewhat common in plants, occurring through a special genetic mechanism called polyploidy. There are two forms. Allopolyploidy involves the hybridization of two species having different chromosome numbers, and since the different chromosomes can’t pair in the hybrids, those hybrids are sterile. However, if the chromosome number doubles in the hybrids, so that a new individual is formed with a chromosome number equal to the sum of the numbers in both parental species, one can get an “allotetraploid” populations whose members are fertile among itself but sterile when they mate with either parental species. (See any evolution textbook for an explanation.). This would, then, be a new biological species.  A similar process can occur if chromosome number doubles within a single species, producing an autotetraploid. Further hybridization and chromosome doubling can lead to entire polyploid series of plants with hundreds of chromosomes, as in ferns.

As I said, polyploidy, both auto- and allo-, is a fairly common mode of speciation in plants. As Allen Orr and I noted in our book Speciation (read chapter 9), roughly 2-4% of speciation events in flowering plants involved polyploidy of one sort or another, and maybe as many as 7% of speciation events in ferns. This is a rough estimate, and the real frequency could be higher. But polyploid speciation in animals is much rarer, and I won’t go into the suggested reasons for it (see pp. 333-337).

There’s another form of hybrid speciation called “homoploid hybrid speciation” or “recombinational speciation.” In that process, a hybrid is formed between two species, and then, if it is at least partly fertile, the genes from the different parental species can sort themselves out into new combinations of genes or chromosome arrangements from the parental species. If the new sorted-out population is reproductively isolated from the two parental species that produced it, we have a new homoploid hybrid species.

Many biologists (I won’t name them) have posited that this kind of speciation is rampant in nature, so that it’s not just the occasional sneaking of genes between species that’s important, but also the wholesale formation of new species after hybrid formation. Lots of suggested examples of such species have been given.

However, it appears that most of the evidence for non-polyploid hybrid speciation is weak. That, at least, is the conclusion of Molly Schumer, Gil Rosenthal, and Peter Andolfatto in a 2014 paper in Evolution (link and free access below), a paper that I only learned about at CoyneFest. Schumer et al. argue that good evidence for a non-polyploid hybrid speciation event requires satisfying three conditions, and I quote:

To demonstrate that hybrid speciation has occurred given this definition, three criteria must be satisfied: (1) reproductive isolation of hybrid lineages from the parental species, (2) evidence of hybridization in the genome, and (3) evidence that this reproductive isolation is a consequence of hybridization. By contrast, a large number of empirical studies have simply used genetic evidence of hybridization (Criterion 2) as support for hybrid speciation. . .

The authors argue that there are many ways that a species can look as if it’s a hybrid without actually being the result of full-scale hybridization (or any hybridization); that in some cases a hybrid lineage hasn’t been tested to show that it’s interfertile with other members of that lineage and reproductively isolated from the parental species, and, especially, there are almost no demonstrations that the genes or chromosome arrangements of parental species have sorted themselves out in a way that has created a reproductively isolated homoploid hybrid. That is, few people have shown that the reproductive isolation of a putative hybrid species involves genes that came from the parental species rather than, say, genes that evolved via natural selection after hybridization.

You can read the paper for details, but Schumer et al. conclude that despite the big noise from some biologists, there are only four cases of homoploid hybrid speciation that meet their criteria. Three of them are in one genus: the wild sunflower Helianthus, which has formed three diploid species—all adapted to novel environments—by hybridization of pre-existing species and the sorting out of chromosome arrangements that, with their divergent genes, reproductively isolate the hybrid population from the parents. That superb work was done by Loren Rieseberg and his colleagues.

The other case is the butterfly Heliconius heurippa, which genetic evidence shows almost certainly resulted from hybridization between the species Heliconius cydno and Heliconius melpomene, H. heurippa has a hybrid wing pattern, which you can see below, and it’s been shown that each species, as well the “hybrid”, are reproductively isolated from the others because males mate almost entirely with females who have their own wing patterns. Thus H. heurippa (shown below with its parents) satisfies all three of the authors’ criteria, for the genes causing reproductive isolation are precisely the color-pattern genes derived from the two parental species.


H. heurippa (the hybrid species)


H. melpomene


H. cydno

The upshot is that while the movement of individual genes between both plant and animal species is more common than evolutionists assumed before the gene-sequencing era, there is still scant evidence that entire new species of animals form via hybridization. Hybrid speciation is more common in plants, but only through the unusual mechanism of polyploidy, and homopoloid hybrid speciation (without an increase in chromosome number) doesn’t appear common in either plants or animals.


Schumer, M., G. G. Rosenthal, and P. Andolfatto. 2014. How common is homoploid hybrid speciation? Evolution 68:1553-1560.

Photomicrography winners

Today we’ll dispense with readers’ wildlife photographs, as I want to save some until I return from Asia in about 3 weeks. Instead, reader John O’Neall called my attention to Nikon’s Small World Photomicrography Champions, and I’ll like to present a few of the winners. They give us an idea of the marvels of nature that we don’t normally see.

First, the grand prize. Four-day-old zebrafish embryo (10x). Technique: Confocal. Photo by Dr. Oscar Ruiz, M. D. Anderson Cancer Center, Houston, Texas:


The second prize went to Douglas L. Moore at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. It’s called “Polished slab of Teepee Canyon agate” (90x). Technique: steromicroscopy.


Fifth place went to Dr. Igor Siwanowicz from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Ashburn Virginia. It’s the front foot (tarsus) of a male diving beetle (100x), taken using confocal microscopy:


This photo of  wildflower stamens won Samuel Silberman of Israel 8th place. It’s a 40x picture taken using fiber optic illumination:

This photo, by Geir Drange of Asker, Norway, took 15th place. It’s a head section of an orange ladybird (Halyzia sedecimguttata(10x), taken using reflected Light and focus stacking.


This photo, by Charles Krebs of Issaquah, Washington, got an honorable mention. It shows the tail of a a small shrimp. 40x, reflected light:


There are many more photos at the site; go have a look.