The Infinite Monkey Cage, Chicago

Our live performance of the Infinite Monkey Cage last night was, I judge, a big success, and I am always on the pessimistic side. I confess that I was nervous beforehand, as I didn’t know if I’d have much to contribute to a stellar panel that included the hosts, Brian Cox and Robin Ince, the polymath Peter Sagal (best known for his NPR Show “Wait wait. . .don’t tell me”), Julia Sweeney, the writer, comedian and vociferous atheist, and my Chicago colleague Paul Sereno, an eloquent paleontologist specializing in the evolution of dinosaurs (and who, because of his many field expeditions to remote places, was introduced as “The Indiana Jones of Paleontology [I later beefed that I wasn’t introduced as “The Indiana Jones of fruit fly genetics”]).

But it all turned out well.  Everyone was affable and nice as pie, we all got along, and the conversation, which seemed to take an hour (it was supposed to be half of that) flowed smoothly and, most important, contained some solid biology along with the comedy. Julia and Peter were well up on science, and not only helped Robin and Brian with the humor, but asked their own provocative questions and made thoughtful points.

The showed began with a short movie, most of it taken from Cox’s BBC series, and then there was some onstage give and take between Brian and Robin. This was followed by an vigorous monologue by Robin about evolution, which was hilarious. He ended up reading from Darwin’s last book on earthworms (read it if you haven’t): the part where Darwin plays bassoon and other instruments to worms, seeing if it would affect them (it didn’t). But his side comments on Darwin, and his acting out Darwin’s playing music to earthworms, had us all in stitches. Then Cox gave a mini-lecture on the origin of the universe, lavishly illustrated with slides, and wound up reading Carl Sagan’s famous “pale blue dot” passage.

After that we convened as a panel, talked for about 45 minutes, and answered audience questions (both verbal and tw**ted) for another 15 minutes. Among the topics covered were “Why did Tyrannosaurus rex have such tiny hands, and could it use them?”, “What exactly is the theory of evolution?”, “Why didn’t dinosaurs get brainier?”, “Why do animals have sex?”, “Why is there so much resistance to evolution in the U.S.?”, “Why is there even religion in the first place?”, “How are humans unique in evolution?”, “What do we know about the origin of life?”, “What is the evolutionary significance of male pattern baldness?” (Sagal’s question!), and so on. It was great fun, and since we couldn’t really see the audience (we were brightly lit, they in darkness), it was just like having a chat with a group of smart friends. The conversation could easily have lasted another hour without winding down.

Afterwards there were audience questions. One person tw**ted “Will we see the resurrection of the woolly mammoth in our lifetime?” to me. My answer was simply “no.”  Asked to elaborate, I said that first, my remaining lifetime isn’t going to last more than two decades, and second, that there are formidable problems with re-creating a creature from DNA that is badly degraded. I suggested that it might simply be easier to simply select modern elephants to have more hair and longer tusks.

The whole show ran about 2.5 hours—an hour longer than we were told it would last, and that was because we were having so much fun talking about science. Judging by the applause, the audience liked it too. Kudos to Brian and Robin for their expert shepherding of the experts, and for keeping up a good mix of science and entertainment. Thanks also to Alexandra (Sasha) Feacham, the show’s producer, and Natalie Portelli of WestBeth entertainment for making the complicated arrangements and coddling the guests.

Sadly, the San Francisco and L.A. shows this week are both sold out, because otherwise I’d tell you to get your tuchus to those shows. I’m told that Neil deGrasse Tyson missed being live in New York City (Janna Levin was the other scientist), but he Skyped in from JFK airport, where his plane landed during the show (he was delayed by snow in Montana). Bill Nye picked up the slack.

Here are a few photos, and you can find others at the #chimc site on Twi**er, as well as some audience questions that were tw**ted.

Robin Ince and Peter Sagal in the Green Room before the show. Many of the things we chatted about beforehand found their way into the live discussion, including a mention of Ann Coulter:


Brian Cox. Julia and her significant other are reflected in the mirror:


Julia and Robert just before we went on:


Paul and I had our own dressing room; I didn’t use it because all the people, noms, and drinks were in the Green Room. But I had a photo taken because this will surely be the only time in my life I have a dressing room:


Two tw**ts showing the venue:Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 10.19.23 AM

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 10.18.35 AM

My own bon mot (see tw**t below): we were discussing what evidence could disprove evolution, and I mentioned that if an animal had a feature that helped only members of another species (and not itself), such as a lion with teats that could be used only to suckle warthogs, that would count as evidence against natural selection, since selection (as Darwin noted) can’t build features useful only for members of another species. Julia then floated a theory (which was hers) that perhaps a virus could infect lions giving them such teats, and I responded that it would be maladaptive, and that animals susceptible to that virus would be eliminated by selection. She then asked, “But why couldn’t a lion suckle both its cubs and warthogs?” My reply is in the tw**t below, which Robin said should be put on an Infinite Monkey Cage teeshirt:

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 10.19.47 AM

Peter Sagal decried the selling of certainty to Americans who can’t live with doubt, and that there are industries based on denialism, including creationism, that make a lot of money for their proponents. He suggested this is one reason for anti-science attitudes in America. His other reason was that Americans are independent people who founded this country as contrarians, and we don’t like to accept authority, scientific or otherwise. (Ken Miller has also suggested the “rugged individualism” theory for American creationism.) While these may contribute a bit to antievolutionism, I think that the main reason is Americans’ extreme religiosity. The individualism and capitalism explanations can’t, for example, explain why all of American creationism is promoted by religious people.

But the first tw**t below shows what Sagal said when talking about the “cow mutilation phenomenon” that, in the 1970s and 1980s, had a number of spooky explanations, including attacks by aliens in UFOs:
Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 10.20.08 AM

A good time was had by all (I hope).



  1. francis
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 10:59 am | Permalink


  2. Jan
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    “His other reason was that Americans are independent people who founded this country as contrarians, and we don’t like to accept authority, scientific or otherwise”

    Then why do Americans accept religious authorities who tell them that evolution is false and creationism is the truth?

    I’ve always been baffled by the high level of religiosity in the U.S. It makes little sense given the rugged indiviudalism.

  3. Mary Sheumaker
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Can’t wait for the podcast!!

  4. Scote
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    I’m very much looking forward to this…things I like, PCC and Infinite Monkey Cage, together!

    Disappointed I didn’t think to look up the IMC tour schedule, though. I should have known it was coming near me, but, alas, too late.

  5. tinaricky
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    The show last night was great. I’m a long time reader of this website, a listener of The infinite monkey cage and Wait, wait. Everyone in the panel seemed to be very comfortable and they were all very eloquent. Jerry had some funny moments (including the Indiana Jones of fruit fly genetics he mentioned) and his science answers were clear and concise. Congrats Jerry!

  6. Peter B
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Regarding: Religiosity & Opposition to Darwinian evolution

    Coyne, J. A. 2012. Science, religion, and society: the problem of evolution in America. Evolution, 2012, 66(8), 2654-2663

    See Figure 1 in this paper:
    The correlation coefficient between, per country (34 of them), belief in human evolution (y) and belief in god (x) is -0.61.
    “The equation of the least-squares (cross-sectional) regression line is y = 81.47 − 0.33x”.

    I am looking forward to watch (or listen to) this edition of Infinite Monkey Cage.

  7. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    I am looking forward to hearing it. I still am not sure why they call it the ‘green room’. I thought it was supposed to be green…

  8. ladyatheist
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Awesome! (Yes, I have some awe)

  9. Randy Schenck
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    Don’t see the “American Individualism” as having much to do with non belief in evolution? What it probably does have a lot to do with is our inability to study or look at what other countries do and learn from them. We are very good at that, maybe number one.

    Non belief in evolution is almost exclusively religious…

  10. merilee
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 11:24 am | Permalink


    Of course nomming and chatting with cool people is much more fun than getting dressed.

    Any more pics of Brian??

    • Posted March 8, 2015 at 11:29 am | Permalink

      Ha! You’re smitten! The two women guests I brought were also smitten, so you’re not alone. Sadly, I have no more photos, as I was too busy (and stimulated by ideas) to do my usual copious photography.

      • rickflick
        Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        If you get famous enough you’re going to need your own Boswell (with cell phone camera).

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted March 8, 2015 at 11:48 am | Permalink

      LOL! There was one Christmas Monkey Cage where they asked the audience to submit what they wanted for Xmas and someone wrote “A naked Brian Cox” or something close to that.

      I think it’s funny when Robin Ince complains that he looks so much older when he and Brian are the same age (they are both my age).

    • quiscalus
      Posted March 8, 2015 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      If you want pics of Brian Cox, here’s a great one from the glorious 1980’s:

      • quiscalus
        Posted March 8, 2015 at 11:58 am | Permalink

        oops, sorry! didn’t mean to embed the pic, just the link!

        • Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

          No, that’s great. And what a hilarious photo. Every time he gives a seminar someone should show that photo in the introduction.

          • Posted March 8, 2015 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

            Does he have on big white earrings, or is that just reflection?

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted March 8, 2015 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

              I want the hair! 🙂

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted March 8, 2015 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

                A used to fret that my hair wasn’t big enough in the 80s, but then I saw pictures of myself from the 80s & my hair was pretty big. I think Brian’s was nicer than mine though!

              • Posted March 8, 2015 at 7:42 pm | Permalink

                Never had nor wanted big hair:-)

              • Diane G.
                Posted March 8, 2015 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

                Still have big hair. Well, long & thick, anyway.

                Cox’s biggest problem as a rocker must have been repressing that smile, to look cool.

              • merilee
                Posted March 8, 2015 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

                You’re right about the smile;-) Too sweet to be cool.

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

        He definitely looks like he could be a singer of an ’80s rock band with videos on MTV.

        • quiscalus
          Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

          but alas, he was the keyboardist! but a very pretty one. His personal history is quite fantastic really, living down the street from Darren Wharton, a member of Thin Lizzy, and joining his new band, Dare, then later giving up the musician’s life for physics! He was on Desert Island Discs back in 2011 and gave a brief overview.

        • Chris
          Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

          He was in bands in the 80s & 90s, with at least one major hit to his name. He started university afterwards!

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

        Ha ha! You know he was going for the Duran Duran look.

        • Posted March 8, 2015 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

          For realz??? He musta got a perm.

  11. Posted March 8, 2015 at 11:32 am | Permalink

    Congratulations on having so much fun and teaching evolution at the same time! I look forward to seeing or hearing it….

  12. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    I still feel, in my gut, that American individualism is at least a portion of the problem. But I freely admit that it cannot be all of it.
    It is hard to capture this especially since I do not personally feel it, but I suggest that the sense of independence and individualism does not always mean ‘one independent person’. It also means ‘one independent community. These are, I think, like-minded people who are conservative and who do not want an intrusion by an outsider authority who threatens that community fabric. They go to the same church and work together. They socialize together, and are very committed to holding the same values. So when told by outsider scientists who probably do not even go to church that they should change their mind about evolution, well, that will not get very far b/c it is seen as a threat to their religion which is an important part of the their independent community.
    I happen to agree with that view b/c acceptance of evolution is a very real threat to religious commitment. If a person changes their mind about evolution (and so about critical parts of their religion), they have just given up an important part of the bond to their family and to their neighbors.

    • winewithcats
      Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      At root, isn’t this simply tribalism?

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

        I can see that. So if there is (still) such a thing as American Individualism then it is certainly not unique in the world.

    • Posted March 8, 2015 at 2:36 pm | Permalink

      We saw this play out with the case in Lebanon, Missouri with Principal Lowery. A lot of the comments I saw on their local message boards that I browsed involved being angry with the “big city college professor” intruding on their small town happiness.

  13. quiscalus
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Almost every Monkey Cage episode is wonderful, excepting perhaps the Glastonbury special, episode 5, series 4 “Is there room for mysticism in a rational world” featuring the unbearable “comedian” Shappi Khorsandi and musician Billy Bragg. Considering the venue and the guests, it’s no surprise that so much time is spent banging on about non-scientific artsy-fartsy mysticism crap and how important it all is and that science can’t have all the answers, and Khorsandi of course had to make the claim that scientists are just like religious fanatics. Cox was far too polite in this case.

  14. Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

    meanwhile, back in the world of sophisticated sophistry, nytime’s ross douthat’s answer to humanity’s inevitable thralldom to our coming robot overlords. you guessed it, ye olde tyme religion:

    “the case for old ideas”

  15. Jeff Rankin
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    Wow sounds like a great show! I probably missed it, so sorry, but will this show be broadcast in some way or made available on the web?

    • quiscalus
      Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

      Monkey Cage podcasts, past and present, available from BBC radio 4, just search your iphone if you have one, or google search it and listen over the interwebs from BBC radio 4 site, but it’ll take a bit before this episode is available, post-production and all that.

      • quiscalus
        Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

        btw, an amusing running gag/meme from earlier shows is the living/dead strawberry. that is, if we agree that a strawberry on the plant is alive, but then we pick it, when is it dead? when it is picked? when it starts to rot? I don’t remember in which episode it originated but it is worth finding, listening, and pondering. Schrodinger’s Strawberry!

        • Mark Sturtevant
          Posted March 8, 2015 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

          Interesting. I will say ‘yes’ because it is still carrying out metabolic activities. The amputated strawberry is still doing respiration, making ATP, and it is still using that ATP to make other things. So the freshly picked and yummy strawberry is still alive, and maybe screaming in pain for several days while it very slowly dies.

          • reasonshark
            Posted March 8, 2015 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

            So the freshly picked and yummy strawberry is still alive, and maybe screaming in pain for several days while it very slowly dies.

            Plants screaming? Don’t be silly. Strawberries don’t have mouths. Only venus flytraps have those, and the only screams you’ll hear from them are the ones made by luckless flies trying to buzz their way out.

            • Mark Sturtevant
              Posted March 8, 2015 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

              “Help meeee! Heeelllpp meeeeeeeeeee…..!”

    • George
      Posted March 8, 2015 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      I am not sure when the US shows will be broadcast in the UK – and available for podcast in the US. Best is to subscribe which you can do here:

      The homepages for the series are:

      There have been 11 series of the show since Nov of 2009. The first three series had four shows. The next eight have had six. The last series concluded on Feb 23. There seems to be two series a year and based on the past, I don’t think these shows will appear before June. Wikipedia has the past schedule which can provide some insight:

      The past episodes have varied in length from 25 to 50 minutes. Depending on how they are edited, the US shows may be good for 4 to 12 episodes. I think they will have a lot of tape to cut once they return to the UK.

    • Posted March 9, 2015 at 8:13 am | Permalink

      Also … the podcast contains alot more of each show then the stipulated 30 mins for the radio broadcast.

  16. Tom K
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    Why “tw**t” instead of tweet? Surely animal vocabulary words like “tweet,” “woof,” “purr” and “meow” can’t be copyrighted.

    • Mark R.
      Posted March 8, 2015 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      It’s one of PCC’s “forbidden words” like d*g.

  17. Posted March 8, 2015 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    You can be as independent as you like and still accept scientific reasoning because science doesn’t rest on authority. It’s not because of their independent mindset that Americans reject science but because of their religiosity.

    • Sastra
      Posted March 8, 2015 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

      Yes, particularly because the religious mindset seems to have problems separating the authority of the scientific process from scientists having authority of the “Believe Me” variety. I keep hearing and reading variations of “it’s who you choose to trust” — as if we’re always dealing with personal stories and assessing the credibility of the story by considering the storyteller’s unique character.

      They also slip far too quickly over the critical distinction between someone relating what they think God said … and God Itself. “God is reliable; people aren’t.” As if that painful example of question-begging was useful.

      • reasonshark
        Posted March 8, 2015 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

        Invoking authority figures rather than actual arguments and evidence isn’t unique to religion, either. It’s a common element in quackery and anti-science arguments in general. Mainstream journalism does it every time it writes something like “Science says…” and “Research has shown…”

        • steve
          Posted March 9, 2015 at 4:56 am | Permalink

          Or “There is no scientific evidence”, instead of just saying “there is no evidence”, …. since they are the same statement.

  18. Mark R.
    Posted March 8, 2015 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    I think education has something to do with American’s lack of interest in evolution as well. I only have anecdotal evidence, but I graduated high school in 1987. When I was a sophomore (’85) I took an honors biology course, and evolution wasn’t taught. The teacher set up a debate where the students participated either on the evolution side or creation side and debated it for a few days. So though I did learn a little about evolution, it wasn’t structured or even regarded as true. As a senior, I took advanced biology, and again, we weren’t taught anything about evolution. I don’t know what other people’s experience with learning or not learning evolution in high school is, but mine was sub par for sure. Perhaps it has gotten better since then.

    Anyway, looking forward to watching this MC when it appears.

    • Posted March 8, 2015 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      My experience was similar in the 1990s. I took AP Biology in High School and did well enough on the test to avoid having to take it in college, and nary a word was mentioned about Evolution other than “we don’t have time to get to it.”

      Debating it in a science class is bizarre, but not really surprising in America. Science doesn’t rest on who debates better. Nor does God’s existence. Theologians and everyday theists seem to think that a solid debate appearance can somehow argue something into being true (or false).

    • steve
      Posted March 9, 2015 at 5:03 am | Permalink

      It has gotten better in Ontario Canada. It is now a full strand (unit) in grade 11 biology, taught just like any other of the strands.

  19. Posted March 8, 2015 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

    “Why didn’t dinosaurs get brainier?”

    I will never understand that question. Has the person who sent it in never heard of corvids?

    (The worst thing is that Gould of all people apparently made the same mistake, although I admit that I haven’t read it with my own eyes.)

  20. Posted March 9, 2015 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    So, is that (infinite monkey) cage, or infinite (monkey cage)?

  21. Marc Epard
    Posted March 9, 2015 at 9:24 pm | Permalink

    I’m back at home after a fine Chicago weekend of science, food, and libations.

    The Adler Planetarium and TIMC supplied the science. Two PCC suggestions, XOCO and Edwardo’s, along with DryHop Brewers provided excellent food and libations.

    The climax, of course, was TIMC. Our website host helped make it as good a panel as any I’ve listened to. If there were an index based on laughs per minute combined with science explained, Saturday evening at the Athenaeum Theatre would score very high indeed.

  22. neman
    Posted March 10, 2015 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    It seems to me that interspecies generosity could happen in the right circumstances. The alliance between men, dogs and horses profited all three greatly. Plants offer fruit or nectar in trade for pollination. Perhaps the lions have some use for warthogs, some reason to want them around, so much so that they’re prepared to feed them directly? Does the scent of warthogs attract the lions’ favourite prey?

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