Saturday: London

First, here’s Steve Jones introducing me last night. If you’ve heard him you’ll know that he’s quick with a quip and cracks audiences up, which he did yesterday. Steve and I worked together for a long while in the 1980s, studying the movement of fruit flies in Death Valley, California as well as in Maryland. The BHA now has a writeup of my talk that you can see here.


After my talk I finally got a good night’s sleep, and woke up today to a Big British Breakfast Buffet in the Hilton. It included all the usual suspects, including black pudding and baked beans, which I eschewed. (The British penchant for baked beans with breakfast mystifies me.) After a big tuck-in, a shower, and a little more rest, I wandered down to Bedford Square to meet Anthony Grayling for lunch. On the way, as one does in London, you pass buildings that would be considered architectural marvels in the U.S. but are quotidian in this historical town.

Here’s the University College Hospital, which I believe is still a teaching hospital associated with the University of London:


Waterstone’s bookstore on Gower Street, Europe’s largest academic bookshop (it was formerly Dillon’s). It was built in 1908.


The Art Deco entrance of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (built 1905):


The Bonham Carter House, bearing one of the blue oval plaques that denotes a historic site (see photo below). I have no idea whether this is an ancestor of Helena Bonham Carter, but the house is on a site where anesthesia was first used in Britain.



Almost next door on Gower Street is the house of Lady Ottoline Morrell (1873-1938), famous member of the Bloomsbury Group, hostess of a literary salon (Yeats, Eliot, Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf etc.), and well known for her many lovers, including Dora Carrington and Bertrand Russell.


Here’s Lady Morrell, who I think looks a lot like her friend Virginia Woolf. They both have that equine insouciance that I find irresistible in British ladies:

Ottoline Morrell



This is Senate House, the administration building of the University of London, which looks very neo-fascistic to me. It was apparently the model for the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984. I think of that book every time I see this scary building:


Here’s a Victorian building near Russell Square that’s lovely, but I don’t know what it is. Some reader will surely identify it:


My goal for the afternoon: 19 Bedford Square, home of New College of the Humanities, founded in 2012 and still headed by Anthony Grayling, the well known ethical philosopher and atheist. (The College is quite controversial because, in contrast to other British universities, it charges very high tuition.)  I was there to meet Anthony for lunch:


In the foyer as you enter is a big photo of Anthony’s hero, Bertrand Russell. Anthony admires him, as do I, because Russell was not just an academic philosopher, but believed in public engagement, and lived out his philosophy—including stints in jail for objecting to war.


Grayling took a selfie of the three of us, and of course the biologist’s hair is much more unkempt than that of the philosophers’! In the tonsorial department, Grayling is like the Werewolf of London.


We had a nice two-hour lunch and talked about many things, including free will, whether there is any objective morality, the problem of modern philosophy (postmodernism), and so on. I won’t characterize Anthony’s views, but I did ask him if he could meet one philosopher from history, who would it be? He demurred, saying that there were many, so I rephrased the question, asking him which philosopher he would choose to meet to ask questions clarifying that person’s views. He answered that one immediately: Kant.

After lunch I repaired to the British Museum, almost next door, for my usual wander round my favorite relics. More on that tomorrow if I have time.

Quilliam co-founder appears to be an evolution denialist

Stephen Knight, the Godless Spellchecker, has done another bit of sleuthing and found out, sadly, that Ed Husain, the co-founder of the anti-religious-extremism think tank Quilliam (the other founder was Maajid Nawaz) appears to be an evolution denialist—or at least a questioner.

Here’s the first tw**t from Husain,

It was followed by followed by some pushback by geneticist and science writer Adam Rutherford as well as journalist and t.v. presenter Nicky Campbell. Husain replies to the pushback with a definite indication that he doesn’t accept evolution (it’s other people’s “theory”, he notes but doesn’t seem to comport with “Husain’s own facts”).

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 11.38.06 AM

Husain then follows with a snarky remark about the evolution “cult”:

Husain doesn’t appear to be on staff at Qulliam any longer, so this is not on Maajid Nawaz’s watch. Still, according to Wikipedia, Husain is on several “moderate” faith organizations, and it doesn’t help his credibility if he denies one of the most well established facts of science.


Ed Husain (born 25 December 1974) is a writer, adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, and senior advisor at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Husain is the author of The Islamist, a book about political Islamism and an account of his five years as an Islamist activist. Husain cofounded, with Maajid Nawaz, the counter-extremism organization the Quilliam Foundation.

He has also worked for HSBC Private Bank and the British Council. In 2014, he was appointed to the Freedom of Religion or Belief Advisory Group of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is also a member of the Independent Review Panel for the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF).

In a way I’m glad Husain is no longer affiliated with Quilliam, as the organization would then be tainted by his antievolution views. Still, when has it become acceptable for someone in England to publicly deny evolution?

Husain is still a Muslim, and the majority of Muslims deny evolution, so perhaps it’s his faith still speaking. But the less closely “moderate” Islam is associated with creationism, the more credibility it will have.

RationalWiki guts a reader’s attempt to correct its article on female genital mutilation

JAC: I haven’t used RationalWiki very much, as its articles are not only not as thorough as those in Wikipedia (though some day Greg will produce his long-awaited post, “What’s the matter with Wikipedia?), but also appear slanted toward the Authoritarian Left. Although created to counter the odious Conservapedia site, it seems to have swung too far in the opposite direction—towards censorship of Incorrect Thought. Wikipedia says this about the site:

RationalWiki is a wiki written from a skeptical, secular, and progressivist perspective. It was created in 2007 as a counter to Conservapedia after an incident in which contributors attempting to edit Conservapedia were banned. Since then, it has developed into a wiki that criticizes “crank” ideas, pseudoscience, and fundamentalism. Ideologically, RationalWiki typically argues in favour of freedom of religion, atheism, feminism, and LGBT rights, and it criticises conservatism and right-libertarianism. RationalWiki frequently uses sarcasm and humor in its articles. Unlike many wikis, RationalWiki has no formal system for electing sysops, and most users who are thought to have good intentions are given the tools.

But the skepticism has been tainted by authoritarian leftism, something amply documented by reader Aneris, who attempted to fix RationalWiki‘s article on female genital mutilation (FGM). Its original article (the one that’s still there) did everything it can to dissociate the practice of FGM from Islam, even though, as reader Heather Hastie documents on her website, at least four schools of Islam either recommend the practice or deem its obligatory. There have also been fatwas saying that the practice is Islamic, and the vast majority of women mutilated in this way are Muslims whose families follow the practice. Only the blinkered, or those who excuse Islam of all malfeasance, could deny the close association of the practice with Muslim belief.

Below Aneris’s recounts his/her unsuccessful attempt to get RationalWiki to give the fact about FGM instead of an Islam-exculpating ideological take. He rewrote their article, only to discover that his additions were quickly and completely expunged. Why? Because they associated FGM with Islam. I doubt there would have been the same reaction had FGM been a habitual practice of evangelical Christianity.

by Aneris

Some wikis document fictional universes like that of Harry Potter, Star Wars or Creationism. The “RationalWiki” documents the beliefs of what is perhaps imperfectly called (authoritarian) “Regressive Left” or “Social Justice Warriors”. Jerry’s recent post about Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) motivated me to look into the matter and also see where those “Regressive Leftists” are coming from, and perhaps suggest improvements to their RationalWiki article. I wound up writing a section for them.

I try to make a difference, but typically find that what is deemed “true” is not determined by sources and evidence, but by a spontaneous majority that merely wins the “edit war”. Alas, FGM was just such a case. I sacrificed style for direct quotations in the belief that this would provide a solid evidential basis; however, I found everything I wrote was deleted quickly – including about a third of all sources of the article, down from 39 to 24 (this doesn’t mean much in itself, but gives a rough idea).

Before I touched it, the article already contained a small section on FGM and Islam, but that has now been purged as well. The reason given, and they’re serious, is this: “terribly written section with random unsourced statements […]”. But the icing on the icing on the cake is that such Regressive Leftists deny what they are doing. The RationalWiki is adamant that neither Social Justice Warriors nor Regressive Leftists really exist. The current article, one that would please even Reza Asla, can be viewed here.

Richard gives a public audio report on his condition

On his RDF site, Richard now has posted a 7-minute audio “postcard” reporting on the genesis of his stroke and his prognosis, which is very good. You can hear it by clicking on the screenshot below and then clicking on the arrow.

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 5.11.19 PM

You can hear that his voice isn’t completely back to normal, but only in terms of volume rather than lucidity. And given his quotation of Steve Pinker, it seems that his cognitive functions are as keen as ever. Notice that even in his ill state, he’s still musing about natural selection and, as many scientists do, is taking a curious and scientific view of his malady.

We all wish Richard well, and I’m confident he’ll be better soon.  Do go listen to his report; there are some interesting twists, including the fact that he was re-invited to the NESSC conference that had previously “no-platformed” him.

Caturday felid trifecta: Cat takes selfies, a backpack to carry your moggie, undercats

From Bored Panda we have the story and photos of Manny the Cat (is he Jewish?), a moggie who learned to take selfies after accidentally touching a GoPro camera. I’m wondering whether he’s really trained to do this regularly, or whether the photographer puts a treat up next to the shutter button. At any rate, Manny has produced masterpieces like these (more at the site):





U-Pet Products is producing a series of New Generation Cat (and small d*g) carriers. There are four lines, shown in the screenshot below (click to go to the page):

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The “Backpack A series” is $129, and is profiled at My Modern Met, probably because of its spacey, New Age design:

Your indoor cat will never be an astronaut (let’s face it), but with the right accessories, your furry friend can feel like one. New York-based company U-Pet has created a special backpack that affords a feline the opportunity to experience the world at large. The well-ventilated tote has the functions of an average pet carrier, except it features a prominent bubble window—reminiscent of a cosmonaut’s helmet—that provides the cat a clear view of the passing scenery. [JAC: you can also get flat windows and screens].

U-Pet has created two distinct style of catpacks. One is a soft, rectangular shape while the other is an oval with a shiny plastic coating. Both include a built-in security leash, mesh panels, washable pad, and are available in a variety of bold colors. They’ll undoubtedly make a statement as your tote your cat around town.




Here are the two types in action. I suppose this is a good way to take your cat to the vets, but not so sure about using it to travel with it:



Finally, the Torygraph has an extensive gallery of “Under-cats” photographed by Andreas Burba. He says he was inspired by a photograph on the Internet, and I suspect that one is the famous “Hovercat.” Here are four of his 29 photos:



All the photos were taken at a cat show in Vilnius, and are on Burba’s Facebook page.


Below is a short video showing how the photos were made. The cats don’t seem to like it, and it’s no wonder: they’re plucked from their cages and expected to stand still on a sheet of glass!

h/t: Su Gould, Pyers

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Jonathan Wallace sent some lovely photos of dragonflies and damselflies. (Do you know the difference? See here.)

 A pair of White-legged Damselflies, Platycnemis pennipes in tandem.  The male is clasping the female behind the head with his anal claspers.  This position is preliminary to the actual copulation when the female bends her abdomen round underneath to bring her genitalia into contact with the male’s secondary genitalia to be inseminated.  The pair then remain in tandem after copulation and during egg laying (an insurance on the male’s part against another male mating with the female before she has laid eggs) so I am not sure if this pair is pre or post copulation.


A male Southern Hawker Dragonfly, Aeshna cyanea:

Aeshna cyanea

A male Blue-tailed Damselfly, Ischnura elegans.  One of the commonest European damselflies.

Ischnura elegans

A male Orange White-legged Damselfly , Platycnemis acutipennis.  This species does not occur in the UK but is endemic to Portugal, Spain and France (this one was photographed in France).

orange white-legged damselfly (2)

A male Scarce Chaser Dragonfly, Libellula fulva.  When freshly emerged, males of this species have an orange abdomen with a longitudinal black stripe but – in common with a number of other dragonfly species, they develop a powdery blue pruinescence as they age.  The individual here shows black scraping marks on the abdomen that indicate that it has mated.  All Odonata show distinctive copulatory behaviour in which the pair form a wheel or heart shape as the female, with her head clasped by the male, brings her abdomen forward and beneath the male to reach his secondary genitalia.  Whilst doing this her legs clasp against his abdomen and rub off some of the powdery coating, thereby creating these scraping marks .

scarce chaser dragonfly

Saturday: Hili dialogue

It’s the weekend, and my talk is over. As Grania notes in the post below, it went very well, and so my job here is done and now I can relax. I hadn’t slept well since I’ve been here, but last night I crashed and dozed like a log. Now I’m about to tuck into a Big British Breakfast; afterwards I’ll go to the British Museum, have lunch with Anthony Grayling (whose New College is nearby) and quaff a pint or so at the Princess Louise, a fine Victorian pub whose centerpiece, besides the great assortment of real ales, is the men’s room, which preserves the original Victorian urinals (I promise photos).  I fly back to the U.S. tomorrow afternoon. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, the nefarious Hili is already looking forward to snacks of spring birds.

Hili: I think that somebody is building a nest.
Cyrus: Leave those poor birds alone. After all, we’re on our way to the kitchen to get something to eat.


In Polish:
Hili: Tam chyba ktoś wije gniazdko.
Cyrus: Zostaw te biedne ptaszki, idziemy do kuchni coś zjeść.
Here’s Gus in a new Ikea box. I understand the window is a natural feature of the box, so this make it the most awesome cat today of all time:


A quick glimpse of tonight’s talk at BHA Humanists

JAC: I have little to add to what Grania wrote. It was a great time. I came early and signed every copy of Faith versus Fact in Britain (no kidding; the Humanists bought every one in Old Blighty), as well as many copies of WEIT. They all sold out, too, which was gratifying. The audience was 1000, with 400 people put on the waiting list. I don’t attribute that to my drawing power; the Humanists’ Darwin Day lectures are always sold out, which shows you the interest in science among the rationalists here.  As Richard was under the weather, I was introduced by my old friend Steve Jones, who gave a hilarious spiel involving his own attempts to fuse evolution and atheism.

After my talk, Alice Roberts, a human anatomist, paleoanthropoloist, and well known television presenter, moderated about three or four questions to me from the audience, and we then repaired to the Green Room for a “drinks party” (always plural in England). But I was so knackered that I had only orange juice.

The audience seemed to like the presentation, and the talk will eventually be up on YouTube. There were a few technical glitches—for some reason the slides refused to advance a few times—but they were trivial.

Thanks to the British Humanists for inviting me here (special shout-out to Ian Scott for the logistics and Andrew Copson for the invitation) and for hosting me for the talk, which was called “Evolution and Atheism: Best Friends Forever?” (The answer was “yes”!)


by Grania

Jerry will fill us in tomorrow with the details, but for now here are some Twitter responses on his talk at the British Humanist Association‘s Darwin Day lecture. It was introduced by Steve Jones and the Q&A was moderated by Dr Alice Roberts.

You can read more excerpts from the lecture from the twitter feed of the BHA here.


Part of the lecture (with Alice Roberts).


From the book signing.

And a nice summations:

And there was a rousing cheer of good wishes to Richard Dawkins for a speedy recovery

Click on the little white arrow in the blue dot to play. You may need to click on the speaker icon to hear sound.

From left to right: Alice Roberts, Steve Jones, Andrew Copson, Jerry Coyne and the audience.

Happy Darwin Day!

My talk is over and I’m exhausted, but it went well, or so I was told (it’s hard to tell when you’re up at the podium). Tomorrow I have lunch with the Other Secularist with Famous Hair, and also a trip to the British Museum. If you know a good local in Bloomsbury, give me a shout.

In the meantime, Happy Darwin Day, and here’s an appropriate cartoon from reader Pliny the in Between. He/she told me, “I bet you are one of the few who can identify the 3 other figures in this image.” (Besides Darwin, that is.)

Can you? Click to enlarge.


End of the week cat

By the time you’re reading this, if you’re a Yank, I’ll be speaking about evolution and atheism.  The End of the Week felid comes from reader Michael, and it’s from The Adventures of Business Cat, who has found paradise in his office:


It’s a spandrel!


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