Language policing goes crazy (excuse the last word)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The first one I find ridiculous:


And this one is equally risible:

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the Forward:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Readers’ wildlife photos

We have some photos and a story from reader Olen Rambow. His text is indented:

Attached are some wildlife photos taken in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. I believe the butterfly is a female Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papilio glaucus), and the moth is a Royal Walnut Moth (Citheronia regalis). I was not able to identify the millipede. (I think it’s a millipede, rather than a centipede, as it appears to have about twice as many legs as body segments.)
I discovered that the millipedes above are not only aposematically colored, as they contain cyanide that makes then poisonous, but are also part of a Müllerian mimicry complex in which different species mimic each other’s color and pattern.
There’s a funny story behind the moth: We found it on our cabin doorstep in the morning and later saw that it was still there when we returned from a hike in the afternoon. I touched it with my finger, and it fell over onto its side, its legs twitching feebly. I assumed it was dying, and I took it inside, not wanting such a beautiful specimen to get stepped on or eaten by ants. My five-year-old son and I named it Charlie. For the rest of the day, Charlie lay on top of the chest of drawers, presumably dying in peace. Then at about 10 p.m., as we were drifting off to sleep, we heard a rather dramatic fluttering and thumping from Charlie’s side of the room. I turned on the light over the bed, and Charlie promptly flew straight into it, apparently in good health. My wife screamed, while my son jumped up and down yelling, “Charlie’s alive! Charlie’s alive!” I put him outside, and he flew off into the night. The next morning, he had returned to roost on our doorframe again. I guess the lesson I learned is that moths can sleep surprisingly soundly during the day.
I think the moth should have been named “Lazarus” rather than Charlie. Do you recognize the species? We saw this the other day:

Thursday: Hili dialogue

It’s Thursday, July 18, 2019, and National Caviar Day. I’ve had beluga only once, and it was excellent, but I don’t want to ever try it again because of the scarcity of sturgeon. It’s also Nelson Mandela International Day, held each year on the great man’s birthday (he was born in 1918 and died in 2013).

Stuff that happened on this day in history includes:

  • 1290 – King Edward I of England issues the Edict of Expulsion, banishing all Jews (numbering about 16,000) from England; this was Tisha B’Av on the Hebrew calendar, a day that commemorates many Jewish calamities.
  • 1862 – First ascent of Dent Blanche, one of the highest summits in the Alps.

Here’s the Dent Blanche, rising to 4357 meters (summit on the right):

  • 1870 – The First Vatican Council decrees the dogma of papal infallibility.

Note that papal infallibility was a dogma decided by humans; it’s not even in scripture! Archie Bunker had another word for the dogma:

  • 1925 – Adolf Hitler publishes Mein Kampf.
  • 1969 – U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy crashes his car into a tidal basin at Chappaquiddick Island, Massachusetts, killing his passenger, Boiler Room Girl Mary Jo Kopechne.
  • 1976 – Nadia Comăneci becomes the first person in Olympic Games history to score a perfect 10 in gymnastics at the 1976 Summer Olympics.
  • 1992 – A picture of Les Horribles Cernettes was taken, which became the first ever photo posted to the World Wide Web.

Les Horribles Cernettes: “The Horrible CERN Girls”) was an all-female parody pop group, self-labelled “the one and only High Energy Rock Band”, which was founded by employees of CERN and performed at CERN and other HEP-related events. Their musical style is often described as doo-wop. The initials of their name, LHC, are the same as those of the Large Hadron Collider, which was later built at CERN. Their humorous songs are freely available on their website. [JAC: I’ve found a website here, but with no songs.]

(From Wikipedia): This picture of Les Horribles Cernettes was the first photographic image of a band published on the World Wide Web in 1992. From left to right: Angela Higney, Michele de Gennaro, Colette Marx-Neilsen, Lynn Veronneau.

Notables born on this day include:

  • 1720 – Gilbert White, English ornithologist and ecologist (d. 1793)
  • 1811 – William Makepeace Thackeray, English author and poet (d. 1863)
  • 1853 – Hendrik Lorentz, Dutch physicist and academic, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1928)
  • 1895 – Machine Gun Kelly, American gangster (d. 1954)
  • 1913 – Red Skelton, American actor and comedian (d. 1997)
  • 1918 – Nelson Mandela, South African lawyer and politician, 1st President of South Africa, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 2013)
  • 1921 – John Glenn, American colonel, astronaut, and politician (d. 2016)
  • 1937 – Hunter S. Thompson, American journalist and author (d. 2005)
  • 1941 – Martha Reeves, American singer and politician
  • 1967 – Vin Diesel, American actor, director, producer, and screenwriter
  • 1975 – M.I.A., English rapper and producer
  • 1982 – Priyanka Chopra, Indian actress, singer, and film producer

Those who snuffed it on July 18 include:

I regard Caravaggio as one of the ten greatest painters of all time (I like making lists). Here’s his famous “The calling of Saint Matthew” (1599-1600):

  • 1792 – John Paul Jones, Scottish-American admiral and diplomat (b. 1747)
  • 1817 – Jane Austen, English novelist (b. 1775)
  • 1887 – Dorothea Dix, American social reformer and activist (b. 1802)
  • 1969 – Mary Jo Kopechne, American educator and secretary (b. 1940)
  • 1988 – Nico, German singer-songwriter, keyboard player, and actress (b. 1938)

If you had the fantastic Velvet Underground “banana album,” you’ll be familiar with Nico; on this song, “Sunday morning“, she sings backup to Lou Reed.

Nico is buried in Berlin, where she died. Here’s her gravesite, which gives her real name.


Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili ponders the mystery of animal consciousness:

Hili: What all these little worms feel and think?
A: We are left with behavioral observations.
In Polish:

Here’s the world’s best duck picture—from Facebook:

Two cat cartoons from Facebook. First, a remarkable case of feline camouflage:

True for many cats, especially if you rub their bellies:

The Washington Post goes woke. This is almost unbelievable. Yes, there was sexism in earlier days, but what’s the point of going after the Moon landing? I think the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are a juicier target: entirely composed by white males, some of whom owned slaves. (Thomas Jefferson is already in the process of becoming an Unperson.)

One of Grania’s lost tweets from October of last year (from the fake DPRK account):

Two tweets from Nilou. This woman won a designing prize for these chairs! I don’t get why manspreading is a problem with individual chairs, though. Subways, yes.

I’ve posted something on this before, but it’s surely worth seeing again. But why are echidnas like this?

Tweets from Heather Hastie The pistol shrimp below is lovely, but its behavior, shown below that, is even more stunning:

Pistol shrimps, from BBC Earth:

Earth from space—one of the loveliest sites in space:

Two tweets from Matthew. First, huge swarms of flying ants (“alates”) show up on the weather radar:

Live and learn!


Now Inside Higher Education has a hit piece on Pinker

I used to think that Inside Higher Ed (IHE) was a pretty objective forum for reporting news from academia. But now, it seems, they’re going the way of BuzzFeed, publishing what is essentially a hit piece on Steve Pinker that, starting with his trivial assistance to Alan Dershowitz in the first prosecution of Jeffrey Epstein for sex crimes (Pinker interpreted the language of a statute, for chrissake), goes on to dredge up all the other accusations of Pinker from the last several years: he’s white, male, old, a sexist, and his scholarship is deficient. In other words, it goes beyond the ambit of the news to once again thrust a sword into Pinker. You can read the piece by clicking on the screenshot below.  Yes, I know where the title of the piece comes from, but it makes absolutely no sense to me in this context.

Note the prominent use of the incriminating picture, whose circumstances Pinker has explained.

What bothers me about the piece is that everybody who comments on Pinker is a critic, save one tweet from Claire Lehmann defending him and a quote from my defense of Pinker when Steve explained his dealings with Epstein.  What are you supposed to think when you read the following quotes? (I’ve added links to some of those quoted to help identify them.)

That convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein had help in avoiding federal or state prison is unsurprising: money and power often buy what they shouldn’t. But the recent revelation that Epstein found aid from star psychologist Steven Pinker in the form of a 2007 legal document surprised both Pinker’s fans and critics.

. . .As Pinker wrote in 2018’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, “People seem to bitch, moan, whine, carp and kvetch as much as ever,” despite reams of data on how humans’ quality of life continues to improve.

Pinker’s detractors, meanwhile, take the revelation that he knew Epstein and contributed to his legal defense as proof that the professor is a fraud, has lost his way, or both. Just as critics have accused Pinker of glossing over inequality and the continued suffering of individuals in praising progress, they’ve asked how he could have patinated a predator’s defense.

“At a certain point, if you’re playing Dr. Pangloss to people who administer a monstrous social order, then at some point you’re going to rub shoulders with and do favors for actual monsters,” said Patrick Blanchfield, a scholar of politics and violence and an affiliate faculty member at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.

As I said before, I must be even guiltier than Steve because I was on the defense team of O.J. Simpson, who was accused of a horrible double murder and got off.  And look at Blanchfield’s quote! Rubbing shoulders and doing favor for actual monsters? I guess every criminal defense lawyer and expert witness is “doing favors for monsters.” Blanchfield isn’t even savvy enough to know that a vigorous defense is the only guarantee we have that the law doesn’t start railroading everybody. There are standards of guilt, and they include proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

And here’s Pinker’s help with Epstein (and being at meetings with him) used to confirm the supposedly shoddy nature of Steve’s scholarship:

Joel Christensen, chair of classical studies at Brandeis University, said that “however forced, or tepid or merely transactive” Pinker’s interaction with Epstein was, it “confirms for many what has been clear for years.” Pinker, he said, “is a reactionary who is moving from the center to the right because he refuses to engage critically with new voices or to entertain honestly the criticisms his work has produced.”

I guess my working for O. J. Simpson’s team confirms that I too am a reactionary. What does Pinker’s assistance for Dershowitz have to do with his political affiliation or openness to criticism? What are people like Christensen thinking?  I can only guess that they’re using this trivial assistance by Pinker to flaunt their own virtue.

And what was Pinker’s crime? The article details it:

But it’s the favor that Pinker did for Epstein that’s caused him the most trouble of late: in 2007, Epstein’s attorneys — including Harvard legal scholar Alan Dershowitz — submitted a letter to federal prosecutors arguing that their client hadn’t violated a law against using the internet to lure minors across state lines for sexual abuse.

“To confirm our view of the ‘plain meaning’ of the words, we asked” Pinker, “a noted linguist, to analyze the statute to determine the natural and linguistically logical reading or readings of the section,” the letter said. “We asked whether the statute contemplates necessarily that the means of communication must be the vehicle through which the persuading or enticing directly occurs. According to Dr. Pinker, that is the sole rational reading.”

It’s impossible to know how much that analysis helped Epstein land his deal, if at all. But it clearly didn’t hurt him.

First of all, the favor was done for Dershowitz, not Epstein, and that’s important. Steve was acting as an expert witness in a criminal-defense case, as I did many times when trying to ensure that the government didn’t misuse DNA evidence by misinterpreting the statistics to the detriment of the accused. Apparently Flaherty herself—the author—doesn’t understand that helping out with a criminal defense is not a crime: it’s what needs to be done to ensure that the government always has to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. Author Flaherty doesn’t even mention that!

And yes, rich people can buy better lawyers and better defenses than can poor people. That’s a big inequity in our system, and desperately needs fixing, but it doesn’t hurt the justice system—it helps it. The more robust the defense, the more thoroughly the prosecution must document its case. For Epstein now, it looks as if no lawyer, however good, will be able to get him off; and that’s the way it should be. To my mind, the evidence against him is overwhelming, and I don’t see much “reasonable doubt.”

The article then describes a bit of contretemps between Pinker and feminists in which he’s hung out to dry because he says that rape has at least something to do with sex. (He’s right: it’s about a combination of power and sex, an assertion that I agree with and that caused me to fall out with Susan Brownmiller when we were collaborating.)

Flaherty then quotes from my posting of Steve’s defense, but she can’t resist immediately opposing what Pinker and I said with the words of another critic. In this piece, the critics always get the last word.

Coyne wrote, “There you have it. If people are going to tar Pinker by flaunting his association with Epstein, then Pinker deserves a reply. This is his reply, and any further discussion should take it into account.”

Adia Benton, an assistant professor of anthropology at Northwestern University, said that beyond Pinker and Dershowitz, “I think there’s a tendency for men to overlook the foibles of their acquaintances and colleagues. The shunning of assholes and creeps is just not done. Especially when it comes to sexual misconduct and misogyny.”

Overlooking the foibles of their acquaintances and colleagues? Not shunning assholes and creeps? Did Dr. Benton or Ms. Flaherty note that I called out Lawrence Krauss for sexual predation, publicly disassociating myself from him? So did several other men, including, I believe, physicist Sean Carroll and the board of the Center for Inquiry. Dan Dennett and Pinker have both said they found Epstein’s crimes reprehensible. None of that is mentioned, of course: Benton gets the last word here.

My view of articles in general is that the last paragraph always gives a clue to the slant of the piece and the opinion of the writer. Here’s Flaherty’s:

Comparing Pinker to University of Toronto psychologist and quasi-guru Jordan Peterson, Christensen said Pinker “courts public attention and controversy after years of creating and publicizing work that is interdisciplinary and outward focused.” Over the past few years especially, he said, Pinker has joined “a cadre of older, mostly white male academics who espouse a purist view of free speech and debate” that “ignores significant scholarship from women and scholars of color about how free speech and academic freedom as traditionally construed overweight and privilege already privileged voices” — meaning mostly white, older men.

Yes, the ending criticizes free speech as well as trotting out the “old white male” canard to denigrate free speech. Never mind that the head of the ACLU, and author of a very good new book on free speech, is a woman: Nadine Strossen. Never mind that one of the most stirring and eloquent defenses of free speech I’ve heard in recent years was given by Van Jones, a liberal (and black) commentator for CNN (watch it here).  Never mind that minorities gained their rights largely through free speech—demonstrations and orations!

This is a one-sided, disappointing, and virtue flaunting article that serves as yet another hit piece on Pinker. I’m deeply disappointed with Inside Higher Ed, and with Flaherty’s reporting.

h/t: Michael

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ “free will”

Today’s Jesus and Mo strip, called “will2”, is recyled from 2006. But there’s also an update about last week’s strip:

Last week’s strip may have seriously underestimated the Church of England’s wealth. An alternative analysis puts it at nearer 23 billion.

The estimate last week was 8.3 billion.

At any rate, this strip is on a topic dear to my heart—free will. In this case, it raises the conundrum that if God knows everything we’re going to do, how could we ever have been able to do anything else? Theologians have answers, of course, but they’re tortuous and unconvincing:

A misguided philosopher claims that species don’t exist

I won’t say that philosophers in general have nothing to contribute to debates about the nature of biological species, but this philosopher certainly does: Henry Taylor, a fellow in philosophy at the University of Birmingham. His paper in The Conversation (click on screenshot below) not only says that the most used species concept in evolutionary biology—Ernst Mayr’s “biological species concept” (henceforth “BSC”)—is not only wrong, but that we should in fact have no species concept. Ignoring nature completely (has he been outdoors?), he concludes that nature is not divided into the discrete groups that gave rise to the notion of species. Rather, he thinks, nature—like some ideologue’s notion of biological sex—is a continuum. In fact, he concludes that “there is no such thing as ‘the human species’ at all.”

Well cut off my legs and call me Shorty! My whole life I’ve been interacting with (and mating with) what I thought were specimens of Homo sapiens. Now I find that I’m mistaken: we form a continuum with other species. Could I have mated with a chimpanzee or a badger by mistake?

Taylor’s list of publications gives exactly one (forthcoming in Synthese) related to the notion of species, and manages to make a big to-do about a geographically isolated population of brown bears that can hybridize with brown bears and polar bears. That is one of his beefs about the BSC, which I discuss below the screenshot:

The BSC is not really a definition, but, as I emphasize in my book Speciationwritten with Allen Orr—an attempt to encapsulate in words the palpable lumpiness in nature that we see before us.  And nature, at least in sexually-reproducing species, really is lumpy: it’s not the continuum, or “great interconnected web”, that Taylor sees. In Chapter 1 of Speciation, I give three lines of evidence for the reality of species: they aren’t just artificial constructs, or subjective human divisions of a continuum, but real entities in nature. Yes, there is some blurring in both sexual and asexual organisms, but by and large species exist as “lumps” in the pudding of Nature. If this were not so, biologists would be wasting their time studying species, and field guides would be of no use. There is no blurring, for instance, between our species, chimpanzees, and orangutans, nor between starlings, hawks, and robins on my campus. And so it goes for most of nature. Some hybrids may be formed between species, but they are often sterile or inviable, and so don’t blur the boundaries between groups.

What Mayr and others (e.g., Theodosius Dobzhansky) did was simply to describe what kept these lumps separate from one another where they coexist in the same location. And that factor was reproductive isolation: the existence of genetic barriers to hybridization that kept two species living in one place from forming fertile hybrids, and thus kept their gene pools separate. The BSC is this:

Members of different species are unable, when they live together in the same area, to hybridize and form fertile offspring: they are “reproductively isolated”.  Members of the same species are able to mate and produce fertile offspring with other members of the same species. 

Coexistence, or “sympatry”, is important in this determination because geographically isolated populations that show some differences can’t be fully tested under the BSC since they don’t encounter each other in a state of nature, and some species that hybridize in captivity don’t do so when they encounter each other in the wild (e.g., lions and tigers, which used to coexist in India).

There are of course intermediate cases—groups that are more or less “species-like”—depending on how much hybridization and gene flow they experience. But for sexually reproducing organisms, these cases are the exception (see Chapter 1 of Speciation). And of course, as we emphasize in the book, the BSC cannot be applied to species that lack sexual reproduction—like many species of bacteria. In those groups one may have to use other species concepts.

The advantage of the BSC is that it gives us an empirical program for studying how lumpiness arises in nature: it arises by the formation of genetic barriers, almost always between isolated populations that experience divergent evolution to the extent that, eventually, gene flow becomes impossible. (The barriers to gene flow aren’t directly selected for in most cases: they are simply byproducts of divergent evolution.) As I pointed out in my chapter, virtually everyone studying speciation in biology (as opposed to defining species), studies the origin of reproductive barriers. That’s a tacit admission that speciation does have something to do with reproductive isolation.

I won’t go on here: I recommend Chapter 1 of Speciation (it’s accessible to the layperson who knows a bit of biology), and, if you want to see the failures of other species concepts, read the Appendix.

Now, why does Taylor reject the BSC, and along with it all species concepts? He gives two reasons.

1.) Polar bears and grizzly bears, once living in different places (“allopatric”) are now meeting each other in nature due to the global-warming-induced disappearance of the cold habitat to which polar bears were once restricted. There is some hybridization between the two groups that now meet, and some of the hybrids are fertile.

Taylor says this shows that the two bears weren’t reproductively isolated, and thus weren’t species. But this is bogus: the two groups were biological species, isolated by what we call “ecological isolating barriers”: genetically based preferences for different habitats that kept two species from encountering each other. (The genetic basis of habitat segregation is important here: two groups isolated simply because they’re on different islands aren’t necessarily biological species because their spatial segregation is due to the contingencies of geography and not to evolution.) Thus the polar and grizzly bears were separate species, but their genetic barriers broke down due to climate change, making the differential habitat preference nonfunctional.

Species may not be permanently different: all of us recognize that groups that remain distinct in nature can, in the future, exchange genes because their genetic barriers have been circumvented by environmental change. Plants kept apart in nature because they are serviced by different pollinators (“pollinator isolation”) may, in the future, suddenly begin hybridizing if one of the pollinators goes extinct. Changes in habitat can efface genetically based ecological preferences, and so on. If you put lions and tigers together in zoos, this breaks down both the geographic and sexual preferences that kept them separate when they used to coexist in India. They can then hybridize and form fertile “ligers” or “tiglons”. Does this mean that lions and tigers are the same species? No, because the change in habitat (artificial confinement in this case) has broken down their genetically-based isolating barriers.

To say that the BSC is bogus because polar bears and grizzly bears now hybridize in some places is to throw out the baby with the ursine bathwater. And this isn’t even an intermediate case: it’s a case where a barrier has been effaced by climate change.

2.) Taylor then trots out the old canard (if ducks can trot) that organisms that don’t interbreed can’t be subject to the BSC. DUH! This is something I discuss at length in Speciation. Taylor:

The [BSC] definition makes use of the notion of interbreeding. This is all very well with horses and polar bears, but smaller organisms like bacteria do not interbreed at all. They reproduce entirely asexually, by simply splitting in two. So this definition of species can’t really apply to bacteria. Perhaps when we started thinking about species in terms of interbreeding, we were all just a bit too obsessed with sex.

Indeed, it’s hard (but not entirely impossible) to imply a reproductively-based species concept to bacteria. But different species do exchange genes, and there have been several attempts to discern bacterial species using reproductive criteria. The question hinges on whether there’s a problem to explain in bacteria: are they “lumpy,” like sexually-reproducing species, or do they form more of a continuum, and thus there’s not a biological observation that needs explaining? This question isn’t yet settled.

And that’s it: Taylor’s lame effort to topple the BSC—a concept that was not even meant to apply to asexual organisms.  He then throws into the mix Darwin’s own confusion about what species really were (this is well known) and on that basis wants us to deep-six all species concepts and all ideas that species even exist as discrete entities independent of human judgment. (Tell that to a robin who is courting other robins but not pigeons! Animals are themselves good taxonomists!)

Here you go:

Scrapping the idea of a species is an extreme idea: it implies that pretty much all of biology, from Aristotle right up to the modern age, has been thinking about life in completely the wrong way. The upshots of this new approach would be enormous, both for our scientific and philosophical view of life. It suggests that we should give up thinking about life as neatly segmented into discrete groups. Rather, we should think of life as one immense interconnected web. This shift in thinking would fundamentally reorient our approach to a great many questions concerning our relation to the natural world, from the current biodiversity crisis to conservation. [JAC: Yeah, what would we now conserve if all of nature is one interconnected web? Would we need to conserve everything?]

And, in a way, this kind of picture may be a natural progression in biological thought. One of the great discoveries of evolutionary biology is that the human species is not special or privileged in the grand scheme of things, and that humans have the same origins as all the other animals. This approach just takes the next step. It says that there is no such thing as “the human species” at all.

That last sentence is risible: there is no species Homo sapiens?! Does Taylor know that we cannot form fertile offspring with any other species (yes, it’s been tried with our closest relative: inseminating female chimps with human sperm produces bupkes). And it’s not the “next step” in dethroning humans as the pinnacle of evolution to then say that they don’t exist as a group.

The danger here is that those who don’t know much about biology and evolution will read Taylor’s piece and think he’s onto something. He isn’t: these criticisms of the BSC have been made many times before, and dispelled equally many times—I do it in my book, which is 15 years old. The palliative for Taylor’s nonsense—and here I have to be a bit self-aggrandizing—is to read Chapter 1 and the Appendix of Speciation.

h/t: coel

Readers’ wildlife video

Reader Rick Longworth sent a video of birds, challenging readers to identify them. It’s not too hard to get most of them, but I bet only birders get them all. I’ve put his ID’s, and a photo by Stephen Barnard, below the fold; Rick’s notes are indented. Try to guess! Rick says this:
This video presents a set of 6 bird species I filmed around my home near Caldwell, Idaho, during May and June.  If you’d like, you can accept the challenge of identifying them. The birds are numbered.  I think only one is found only in the West.
Be sure to turn the sound up.

Click on “Read more” below to see the IDs. If you got them all, you can brag in the comments.

Read More »

Wednesday: Hili dialogue

It’s Wednesday, July 17, and National Peach Ice-Cream Day (why the hyphen in “ice-cream”?) It’s also World Day for International Justice and World Emoji Day. Although I use emojis, I can’t decide whether they’re a good or bad thing, as they replace words with sometimes ambiguous symbols, and reduce the propensity to write accurately. That said, when I use them I favor the smiley- and frowny-face emojis as well as the smiling cat or cat-with-heart-eyes emojis. (And sometimes the duck, though the emoji group is sexist since they depict only a drake and not a hen.)

Stuff that happened on this day includes:

  • 1717 – King George I of Great Britain sails down the River Thames with a barge of 50 musicians, where George Frideric Handel’s Water Music is premiered.
  • 1867 – Harvard School of Dental Medicine is established in Boston, Massachusetts. It is the first dental school in the U.S. that is affiliated with a university.
  • 1902 – Willis Carrier creates the first air conditioner in Buffalo, New York.
  • 1918 – Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his immediate family and retainers are executed by Bolshevik Chekists at the Ipatiev House in Yekaterinburg, Russia.
  • 1938 – Douglas Corrigan takes off from Brooklyn to fly the “wrong way” to Ireland and becomes known as “Wrong Way” Corrigan.
  • 1945 – World War II: The main three leaders of the Allied nations, Winston Churchill, Harry S. Truman and Joseph Stalin, meet in the German city of Potsdam to decide the future of a defeated Germany.
  • 1975 – Apollo–Soyuz Test Project: An American Apollo and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft dock with each other in orbit marking the first such link-up between spacecraft from the two nations.
  • 1984 – The national drinking age in the United States was changed from 18 to 21.

The story of “Wrong Way Corrigan” was once a big deal: Wikipedia reproduces it:

Douglas Corrigan (January 22, 1907 – December 9, 1995) was an American aviator born in Galveston, Texas. He was nicknamed “Wrong Way” in 1938. After a transcontinental flight from Long Beach, California, to New York City, he flew from Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, to Ireland, though his flight plan was filed to return to Long Beach. He claimed his unauthorized flight was due to a navigational error, caused by heavy cloud cover that obscured landmarks and low-light conditions, causing him to misread his compass. However, he was a skilled aircraft mechanic (he was one of the builders of Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis) and had made several modifications to his own plane, preparing it for his transatlantic flight. He had been denied permission to make a nonstop flight from New York to Ireland, and his “navigational error” was seen as deliberate. Nevertheless, he never publicly admitted to having flown to Ireland intentionally.

Although Corrigan’s flight was 9 years after Lindbergh’s, his story caught the fancy of the public and he became somewhat famous. Here he is:

Here’s his “jerry-rigged” plane (sans wings) coming back to New York on the liner Manhattan (Corrigan got a ticker-tape parade down Broadway):

And here’s the headline of the New York Post on Friday, August 5, 1938, with a “wrong way” headline:

And there were four big airplane crashes and one train crash on this day between 1996 and 2014. Consult the “July 17” entry for Wikipedia for details.

Those who were born on this day include:

  • 1763 – John Jacob Astor, German-American businessman and philanthropist (d. 1848)
  • 1871 – Lyonel Feininger, German-American painter and illustrator (d. 1956)
  • 1889 – Erle Stanley Gardner, American lawyer and author (d. 1970)
  • 1899 – James Cagney, American actor and dancer (d. 1986)
  • 1910 – James Coyne, Canadian lawyer and banker, 2nd Governor of the Bank of Canada (d. 2012)
  • 1947 – Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall
  • 1954 – Angela Merkel, German chemist and politician, 8th Chancellor of Germany

I’ve often said that Feininger was one of my favorite painters. Here’s his “The Market Church at Halle” (1930):

Notables who “fell asleep” on this day include:

  • 1790 – Adam Smith, Scottish economist and philosopher (b. 1723)
  • 1793 – Charlotte Corday, French murderer (b. 1768)
  • 1887 – Dorothea Dix, American nurse and activist (b. 1802)
  • 1912 – Henri Poincaré, French mathematician, physicist, and engineer (b. 1854)
  • 1918 – Victims of the Shooting of the Romanov family
    • Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna of Russia (b. 1901)
    • Grand Duchess Maria Nikolaevna of Russia (b. 1899)
    • Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna of Russia (b. 1895)
    • Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna of Russia (b. 1897)
    • Alexandra Fyodorovna of Russia (b. 1872)
    • Aleksei Nikolaevich, Tsarevich of Russia (b. 1904)
    • Nikolai II of Russia (b. 1868)
    • Anna Demidova (b. 1878)
    • Ivan Kharitonov (b. 1872)
    • Alexei Trupp (b. 1858)
    • Yevgeny Botkin (b. 1865)
  • 1959 – Billie Holiday, American singer (b. 1915)
  • 1961 – Ty Cobb, American baseball player and manager (b. 1886)
  • 1974 – Dizzy Dean, American baseball player and sportscaster (b. 1910)
  • 2001 – Katharine Graham, American publisher (b. 1917)
  • 2006 – Mickey Spillane, American crime novelist (b. 1918)
  • 2009 – Walter Cronkite, American journalist and actor (b. 1916)

Here’s a photo I took of the tombs of the Romanovs in St. Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg (photo from July, 2011). The remains were identified and buried in the cathedral. The Czar and Czarina are in the middle:

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili mistakes biology for cosmology:

Hili: A black hole.
A: Don’t be afraid, it will not gobble you up.
Hili: But mightn’t there be a horrible spider inside?
In Polish:
Hili: Czarna dziura.
Ja: Nie bój się, ona cię nie wchłonie.
Hili: Ale czy nie kryje się w niej jakiś straszny pająk?

Two cartoons I found on Facebook:

And more cats:

Four tweets I found. The first involves two poor penguins in New Zealand: all they wanted was fish!

Nice slow-motion, video: a bullet goes through a block of gelatin:

Parkour, but I wouldn’t do this:

This seems a bit excessive: does it matter where Trump’s tweets were written, as they’re execrable no matter where they were composed? Is every President tainted by living in a slave-built house?

A tweet that Grania sent me on October 20 of last year: big noms for a big mammal:

A tweet from Heather Hastie. As they say, no cat ever suffered from insomnia:


Tweets from Matthew Cobb, who said to have a look at the thread. As he told me of this one, “Mainly they are very bad puns, but you might be amused, or have your own.”

I told you that cats always land on their feet!