Readers’ Ask Me Anything

Okay, I’m dead tired and can’t brain, as I’ve had a bit of insomnia since coming back from Poland, so don’t expect gravitas and substance today. What I can do, which someone suggested earlier, is have the equivalent of a reddit “AMA”, or “ask me anything”. So, instead of writing a post or two this afternoon, I’ll have a look at questions that readers ask.

  1. Ask me anything
  2. Except very personal questions, of course. . . .
  3. I can’t guarantee that I can answer every question; I might pick the ones that look intriguing, just like when I did the reddit AMA
  4. You have to have a question, not just a comment
  5. You get one shot, which means one comment, though you can have two or three questions in your comment.

So, I am at your disposal (from time to time between other tasks).  I’ll try to answer questions today until I go home and then clean up stuff until about noon Sunday.

535 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a question…

    Are you interested in having a drink with those WEITers who will be at the FFRF convention in October?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      Sure, as long as I’m not the center of attention in such a gathering, which I absolutely can’t stand.

      • GBJames
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

        We promise not to fawn!

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted August 27, 2016 at 10:06 am | Permalink

          I notice that you don’t promise to not purr, or twine around PCC(E)’s feet.

      • Draken
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

        After all the free drinks you get, you won’t be able to stand.

  2. Posted August 26, 2016 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    1. If you could recommend graduate training in philosophy would you?

    2. If you could recommend graduate training in either genetics or philosophy which would you suggest and why?

    3. About what are you the most proud?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

      One last one, if you read this, do you have any thoughts on this cool fly paper?

      Natural courtship song variation caused by an intronic retroelement in an ion channel gene

      Animal species display enormous variation for innate behaviours, but little is known about how this diversity arose. Here, using an unbiased genetic approach, we map a courtship song difference between wild isolates of Drosophila simulans and Drosophila mauritiana to a 966 base pair region within the slowpoke (slo) locus, which encodes a calcium-activated potassium channel1. Using the reciprocal hemizygosity test2, we confirm that slo is the causal locus and resolve the causal mutation to the evolutionarily recent insertion of a retroelement in a slo intron within D. simulans. Targeted deletion of this retroelement reverts the song phenotype and alters slo splicing. Like many ion channel genes, slo is expressed widely in the nervous system and influences a variety of behaviours3, 4; slo-null males sing little song with severely disrupted features. By contrast, the natural variant of slo alters a specific component of courtship song, illustrating that regulatory evolution of a highly pleiotropic ion channel gene can cause modular changes in behaviour.

      http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature19093.html?WT.ec_id=NATURE-20160811&spMailingID=52032459&spUserID=MjEzOTM3NDI2MDMxS0&spJobID=981769299&spReportId=OTgxNzY5Mjk5S0

      Press write-up:
      http://arstechnica.co.uk/science/2016/08/single-mutation-changes-a-species-mating/

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

      I’ll answer this, but I haven’t read the paper below yet, though I have it.

      1. I would recommend undergraduate courses in philosophy, especially ethical philosophy. For someone who isn’t a professional philosopher, I don’t see the need of graduate courses.

      2. That depends on what your career plans are!

      3. I put stuff about my scientific career that I was proudest about in my post “I retire today,” written on the day I retired. Here’s the URL:
      https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/i-retire-today/

      Outside of science, but also re avocations, I’m VERY proud of having received both the FFRF’s “Emperor has no clothes” award and the Richard Dawkins Award.

      On the personal level, and I don’t know if this is a “pride” thing, but I’m very grateful for having a fair number of good friends that I’m close to.

      • George
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

        How important is a regular supply of cherry pies to becoming a good friend?

      • ladyatheist
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

        You’re not proud of your Censor of the Year award?

  3. Posted August 26, 2016 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    For insomnia, not sure what you are trying for that, but what works for me is:
    Exercise
    Benadryl (generic, e.g. Waldryl from Walgreens pharmacy)

    No question for you for the moment.

    • Alexander
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      Why these chemicals? A glass of red wine next to your bed and a book does the job.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

        Not for me. Getting to sleep is no problem for me. It’s staying asleep that I have trouble with. The benadryl (diphenhydramine) keeps me drowsy enough that I don;t wake up during the night (enough to cause trouble sleeping) — I fall right back to sleep.

        Pretty much every middle-aged or older adult has trouble sleeping enough (either falling asleep or staying asleep).

        Alcohol is one of my favorite chemicals! 🙂

        However, while it does sometimes help me drop off to sleep faster, it often disturbs my sleep. 😦

        • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

          I should have said:

          Pretty much every middle-aged or older adult that I know well has trouble sleeping enough (either falling asleep or staying asleep).

          • GBJames
            Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

            I find it disturbs my sleep less than college student parties.

            The season is starting. I made my first noise nuisance call last night. 😦

            • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

              Oh crap! That would be very hard for me.

              • jeffery
                Posted August 26, 2016 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

                I’ve used one 5 mg. Melatonin tablet for years, taken about an hour before I intend to retire. In my case, it seems to alter my mode of thought from that of a directed “voice” which is busy trying to solve problems to more of a scenario where I am simply an observer of “scattershot” thoughts that arise from nowhere which, of course, is the type of thinking we experience before dropping into sleep. Another thing I like about it is that if I’ve drank too much caffeine, once the caffeine drops to a certain level the Melatonin “kicks in” with no residual jitters. It’s natural!

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

            “Pretty much every middle-aged or older adult that I know well has trouble sleeping enough (either falling asleep or staying asleep).”

            And IME, a corollary is that we find ourselves nodding off at odd times during the day, annoyingly enough.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted August 26, 2016 at 10:06 pm | Permalink

              Yeah, I found that. I really did try not to go to sleep after lunch at work. My boss asked me (quite nicely, he was a nice guy) if I could avoid being seen to be asleep by either younger co-workers or senior managers. Since I didn’t want to embarrass him I felt it incumbent on me to at least make an effort.

              cr

              • Alexander
                Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:12 am | Permalink

                When I was an editor in New York I shared my office with an older colleague. He used to walk to work (50 blocks), arrived at 8AM, worked as a maniac until 1pm, and then went downstairs with a colleague to a bar. When he came back he immediately fell asleep, but he slept with a pencil in his hand and copy under it. As soon the boss came in, the pencil immediately started moving, and he was wide awake. When the boss left, the pencil stopped moving again.

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 29, 2016 at 1:13 am | Permalink

                Quite the tolerant boss there, infinite!

                Alexander, that’s funny!

              • Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:46 am | Permalink

                A colleague (of a certain age) of long ago, when I was designing airplanes, used to prop himself just so between his desk and filing cabinet (yes, paper!) after lunch, hold a book of mechanical analysis, and proceed to nod off for about an hour.

                I’m pretty sure it was the same book of analysis every day.

                It was tolerated because he was a good engineer and a man of great experience, which he was happy to share with us newbys. Everyone knew he did it.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:01 am | Permalink

                @blilie

                I think my boss tolerated me because he knew that – when I was awake – I was reasonably conscientious about my job. I wasn’t just going to sleep through laziness.

                cr

        • Alexander
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

          Some herbal teas, like green tea, nettle tea and others do make you sleep longer, without waking up at 3 AM.

          • GBJames
            Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

            I’m of an age where drinking anything right before bed results in waking up at 3 AM. To say nothing of 1 AM.

            • BobTerrace
              Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

              Sometimes 3 a.m., 4 a.m., 5 a.m. and 6 a.m.

              And since I take diuretics upon waking – every 20 minutes between 8 a.m. And noon.

              פּישן

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted August 27, 2016 at 7:45 am | Permalink

              I’ve always been if that age. 🤓

        • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

          Beware of sleep apnea. If you snore, it might well be hypoxia waking you, and you wouldn’t want to override that stimulus with Benadryl or any other sedative-like agent.

          • Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:54 am | Permalink

            I do occasionally snore; but I do not have sleep apnea (based on monitor data).

            The diphenhydramine does not keep me asleep. I still wake to noises (wife’s snoring! 🙂 ) but I’m drowsy enough to quickly fall back asleep.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

        Oh and reading a book emphatically does not put me to sleep.

        I have to make myself put my book away and go to bed at a reasonable time. I could read all night long. I generally read in the evening every day (I don’t watch television).

        • BobTerrace
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

          I also was able to read all night when younger. Some times I would read an entire book at night. Being older now means I read as little as three pages before realizing I read the same paragraph over and over without comprehension.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

          Me too, re the reading. Since I’m retired now I generally log off the Intertoobz at 1 or 2 a.m. and read in bed for an hour or so. Then I sometimes listen to music on my MP3 player for a while.

          I’ve noticed an odd effect – I often listen to favourite tracks – Pink Floyd (Comfortably Numb or On the Turning Away) or Dire Straits Brothers in Arms and – though I wish to hear those tracks right through – they often send me to sleep within a couple of minutes, like a post-hypnotic suggestion. I wake up again a couple of tracks later. On one occasion, absolutely determined to listen right through, it took me five attempts to get to the end of Comfortably Numb without falling asleep.

          cr

      • bluemaas
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

        Sadly (yet very strictly) I follow the (current) recommendation for women of one drink or less per night (or day) !

        The Argentine red wine one is a Malbec (cuz, incredibly, it induces NO red wine – headache. Ever.)

        OR, the whiskey, 3 or < ounces only is a Templeton Rye (of absolutely NO relationship to that other "T'n" cuz, well, it just is so NOT !) or a Basil Hayden. Both commonly available and both UNcommonly t a s t y !

        O yeah, then s l e e e e pin' d e e e e ply !

        Planning in retirement (UNfortunately for moi that be months in to the future yet) for a narco gene – transplant !

        Or at least a daily afternoon nap.
        And by nap I mean: a small coma.

        Blue

        as of thus: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/506655026806694761

    • ladyatheist
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      I put on C-Span

    • Kevin
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

      Exercise. If you excise you sleep. It’s that simple.

      Also, never use alarms. If you want to wake up early, go to bed early.

      • Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:50 am | Permalink

        Ah, but it’s not that simple.

        I exercise every day. If I’m not riding my bike or walking or snow-shoeing, I have a treadmill in my basement (weather is always good!) and I walk up hill at 10% at 2.6 mph (just keeps me within the upper bound of the aerobic range) for at least 30 minutes, in addition to some light weight training.

        Every day.

        I still need help staying asleep.

  4. Posted August 26, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    sub

    • rickflick
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

      sub-basement

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        CIA Reception.

  5. Posted August 26, 2016 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    What are:

    Your favorite movie?
    Your favorite book?
    Favorite music album?
    Mac or PC?

    🙂

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

      LOL

      1. Foreign: Ikiru, Domestic: The Last Picture Show
      2. The Dead (a novella within the Dublners collection by Joyce); for a full novel, Anna Karenina
      3. Music album: a very hard one. Non-American: Beatles, either Revolver or Rubber Soul. American: First Crosby Stills and Nash album. That’s for rock. I’d have different choices for jazz (probably Duke Ellington: The Blanton-Webster Band).
      4. Mac, all the way. I wouldn’t go near a PC.

      • Alexander
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

        Ah, Anna Karenina. I picked up a used copy, and started reading it–it sounded very modern in the beginning, telegraph or telephone– but I forgot about it! Now tonight I know what I will do!

        • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

          I believe I read the Constance Garnett translation (as I did of all classic Russian novels), but I believe there’s a pair of married translators, perhaps French, whose translations are supposed to be even better than Garnett’s.

          • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

            I did some research before picking up Tolstoy on my Kindle. The general consensus seemed to be (from what I saw) that Garnett’s was still the best English translation for holding true to the feeling of the original.

            So I paid for a Garnett translation rather than picking up a free one (ebook).

            I have found the a good translation is very important.

            • Alexander
              Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

              I’m reading a German translation, somehow the German seems to agree with the Russian. Now I’m looking for this damned book, it’s hiding under my piles of paper.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

        I got both of those books on my Kindle, based on your recommendation! 🙂

      • George
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        Jerry has extolled the virtues of Ikiru many times. I just have to second that. Kurosawa made many great films but Ikiru has always stuck with me. Amazing that the story of a Japanese bureaucrat can be so profound but it is. A phenomenal film.

        Jerry extolled UofC yesterday. One of the best things at the school is Doc Films where I first saw Ikiru and my favorite American movie, Some Like It Hot. If you are in Chicago, check it out –
        http://docfilms.uchicago.edu/dev/

        The entire collection The Dubliners is only around 150 pages. Read the whole book – not just The Dead. The most profound book in my life was Portnoy’s Complaint. I was a horny kid at an all boys Catholic high school. What do you expect. It did make me want to go to the University of Chicago. I thought I could be the next Philip Roth.

        • rickflick
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

          Those interested in Japanese films, be sure to check out Ozu. Perhaps best known is his “Tokyo Story”, but I love most of his later work.

          • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

            Yes, I had a hard time deciding between “Ikiru” and “Tokyo Story.” Everyone should see both, as well as the other films in the Ozu “seasons” series.

        • revelator60
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

          I would recommend Kurosawa’s “Red Beard” as a lesser known classic. It’s long and episodic (and the episodes are not equally good) but it’s deeply felt, profoundly humanist, and stars Toshiro Mifune as a gruff doctor in the 19th century Tokyo who trains a younger colleague, making him into a better doctor and human being. The best episode involves the duo rescuing an under-aged prostitute. A horde of pimps threaten to beat up Mifune, who warns them that he is a doctor and knows how to break bones as well as set them. Guess what happens next…

  6. Posted August 26, 2016 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

    When you were a boy, were you ever in Boy Scouts? (Just wondering.)

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Yes, but I dropped out before making Eagle Scout. I was a Cub Scout for a long time. I still have my blue hat and a few merit badges.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

        I was a cub and boy scout.

        I dropped out after making Second Class (just one step above Tenderfoot). But I was a Second Class for a long time! I mostly was in to go camping which I loved. And I still would love if the ground hadn’t gotten SO MUCH harder and colder in the last 20 years! 🙂

        • Christopher
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

          I hated boyscouts and dropped out after two years of scout camp, never making it past tenderfoot as I was seriously bored with being surrounded by nature but made to sit inside or at picnic tables essentially doing school work. My solution was to pretend to go to the merit badge things but run off into the woods and catch snakes, turtles, insects, scorpions (I taught the whole troop how to catch them using two twigs like chopsticks) and even a tarantula. My troop also sucked at doing anything ever: two years, one friggin’ camp out! And my WEBELOS leader was arrested at one of our meetings. Turns out he was molesting his step daughter.

          It was, to put it mildly, nothing like what I had been told. Hell, I never learned a single knot nor did I ever learn to start a fire…had to learn it on my own long after the fact.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted August 27, 2016 at 10:27 am | Permalink

          f the ground hadn’t gotten SO MUCH harder and colder in the last 20 years!

          This is what karrimats are for (originally a &tm; , but in Britain at least it has genericised to cover any “foam sleeping mat”), though I will admit to having graduated from a 6mm thick mat to a 20mm (zig-zag ridged) one.
          Some people carry a short mat or sitting on. I just sit on my rucksack – though the rocks in it don’t necessarily make it too comfortable.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted August 27, 2016 at 10:30 am | Permalink

            Oh damn, it’s ™ (“& trade ;” without the spaces, not “& tm ;”).

          • Posted August 29, 2016 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

            Yeah, I use my old pads, plus 2-3 more! but even scrunching up to get into and out of the tent is a pain — literally!

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted August 29, 2016 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

              “The day that I wake up and nothing hurts, I know I’ve died in my sleep.”
              Don’t know who, but Grandad would roll it out on occasions as he rolled out of his tent in his 80s.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        I thought that the Cubs, Scouts, Guides etc all required godly protestations of faith? Or was this before you grew up enough to make up your own mind on these things?
        What very little contact I had with those groups – at second hand, through my older sisters – was that they also required protestations of allegiance to the monarch, which was enough to rule them out from consideration for me.

        • Posted August 27, 2016 at 10:32 am | Permalink

          I don’t remember, but I probably did swear fealty to God at some point. But I was out of the Scouts well before I gave up belief in God, which was when I was about seventeen.

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted August 27, 2016 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

            Having been wondering about monarchy since discovering the idea (“Why are they in charge? What did they do?”), I’d already discovered that even asking questions about this sort of thing was very unpopular-making by the time that my sisters were in the … whatever the junior branch of the Guides were called.

        • Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:00 am | Permalink

          Yes, they did, and only one kind when I was in: Xianity!

          One of the items in the Boy Scout’s Law (listed last at least): Reverent.

          God comes in all over the place in the official motto, pledge, etc.

          Luckily, in the troop I was with, most of the adult leaders smoked and drank at camp (smuggled in their booze).

          We followed their examples, imcluding bringin home made “boom boxes” of a certain fashion (speakers and battery-powered amplifiers connected to tape players) and stuck booze into the speaker cabinets. (How the heck did they let us get away with that?!)

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted August 29, 2016 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

            stuck booze into the speaker cabinets. (How the heck did they let us get away with that?!)

            A certain Real World™ Sergeant Major of my former acquaintance informed me that a particular size of field gun (7lb, 12lb? I forget) could take a good dozen “40oz” bottles of (duty free) spirits in the barrel, and that this has been known by generations of squaddies and customs ossifers. And remarkably, no customs ossifer ever checks for contraband down the barrel of a gun being shipped into the UK as part of a convoy of several hundred vehicles and several thousand squaddies ready for a punch-up.
            I bet that the Cubs weren’t allowed to check the speakers of the staff. quid pro quo
            Nelson probably knew what he was starting and wasn’t interested.

  7. Michael Day
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    You certainly post pictures of really good food on your site, most of which I would love to eat myself. You appear to have good taste when it comes to food and drink: so, are you also a good cook (or do you at least enjoy cooking)?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

      I’m a reasonable cook compared to most males, but I’m a VERY GOOD Chinese cook, especially Szechuan. I took a course in Szechuan cooking in graduate school and have been doing it ever since.

      • George
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        Do you consider yourself to be a cook (chef even?) or a food mechanic? I put myself in the mechanic category – I can assemble a meal, adhering closely to a recipe. But no flair or great understanding of what really works. I still have a problem with under-seasoning. What does it take to advance from mechanic to cook?

        • Thud
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

          Start with basic peasant, time-tested recipe ideas. Get good, fresh ingredients. Get some herbs. Smell them. Take the aromas into your imagination, informed by your experience. Pay attention to how things smell, sound, look, feel, while you’re cooking. Control the heat. Taste your cookup before adding anything else.
          Secret ingredient: garlic.

      • Dire Lobo
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 11:45 am | Permalink

        I learned to cook Szechuanese food in college after taking a Chinese history class – my professor and his wife co-wrote a Szechuan cookbook which is my bible to this day – I strongly recommend Mrs. Chiangs Szechuan Cookbook! (hope you don’t mind if I post a link – it’s really a great cookbook). https://www.amazon.com/Mrs-Chiangs-Szechwan-Cookbook-Jung-Feng/dp/B011W9O49U/ref=sr_1_3

        • Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

          That’s the very cookbook that I learned Chinese cooking from! Did you have Ellen Schreker as a professor? And it’s still the best Szechuan cookbook around. My own copy is tattered and smeared with soy sauce and hoisin sauce, and covered with my own notes. I’m glad you can buy this book. I recommend it VERY HIGHLY. 7 bucks for the hardcover is a bargain.

          I have dozens of Chinese cookbooks, but I still think that one is the best.

  8. Diana
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    This is a sincere question, I am not trying to attack you.

    You clearly care about and condemn animal cruelty, yet you have this strong fascination with crocodile and snake leather boots. Is it faux leather, or did you work out some interesting moral calculation to justify this?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

      Your last phrase about “working out some moral calculation” clearly belies your first sentence. “Interesting moral calculation,” indeed. . .

    • Helen Hollis
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:54 am | Permalink

      I do not see the cruelty involved. This may make me a horrible heartless person.

    • Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:03 am | Permalink

      Using leather is not equal to animal cruelty.

      You have a lot of work to do there that you simply glossed over.

  9. Mark Reaume
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    What are some of the more interesting open questions in evolutionary biology?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

      1. How often does speciation occur when the speciating populations continue to exchange genes?

      2. What’s the evolutionary explanation for the origin of sexual reproduction?

      3. If consciousness is an adaptation, what’s the adaptive value? Same for our feeling of agency.

      4. Where did rabbits come from?

      5. The biggest one (if you consider this evolution): how did “life” originate?

      • Mark Reaume
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

        I googled #4 🙂
        Quick Answer.
        Lagomorpha, the mammalian order including hares, rabbits and pikas, evolved in Asia more than 40 million years ago. The break-up of continents may be responsible for the distribution of rabbit species. European rabbits, Oryctolagus cuniculus, originated in modern-day Spain 4,000 years ago.

        • Armando
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

          Well, the European rabbit surely originated a lot earlier than 4000 years ago. The only event I can think of in the evolutionary history of the species around 4000 years ago would possibly be the beginning of their domestication. Selection for “fancy” domestic traits likely started in monasteries in southern France around 1400 years ago, but it is known that the Romans, and likely others before that in Iberia, kept rabbits in enclosures for food. Maybe that started 4000 years ago?

          Two great recent papers for rabbit evolutionary history and domestication are:

          -Carneiro M, Rubin CJ, Di Palma F, et al (2014) Rabbit genome analysis reveals a polygenic basis for phenotypic change during domestication. Science 345:1074–1079. doi: 10.1126/science.1253714

          -Carneiro M, Afonso S, Geraldes A, et al (2011) The genetic structure of domestic rabbits. Mol Biol Evol 28:1801–1816. doi: 10.1093/molbev/msr003

          But most importantly: Yes, why is Jerry so curious about rabbits? That makes me curious.

          • Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

            As far as I know, rabbits appear in the fossil record without any intermediates. We know what they’re related to, but what did early ancestors of rabbits look like? We used to have the same question for turtles, but in the past 10 years we’ve found some “transitional turtles”.

            • jeffery
              Posted August 26, 2016 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

              “Show us the transitional rabbit fossils!!!”

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted August 26, 2016 at 9:21 pm | Permalink

                View ’em from the right angle, they probably look like a duck.

              • Mark Joseph
                Posted August 26, 2016 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

                You’re just looking in the wrong places. Try the Cambrian.

            • Kopper
              Posted August 26, 2016 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

              People are desperately trying to find a rabbit in Cambrian strata.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        What’s going on with rabbits?

        Is there controversy about their lineage?

      • geckzilla
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

        I, too, am curious about this lagomorphic inquiry.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        Rabbits come from the frozen meat section of the supermarket, hence the phrase “you’ve got more rabbit than Sainsburys”……

      • Draken
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

        #4: why, other rabbits of course, as any Australian can tell you. It’s rabbits all the way down.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 12:31 pm | Permalink

        4. Where did rabbits come from?

        A mummy rabbit and a daddy rabbit love each other …
        Then, depending on how much you want to sugar realitiy, “very much” or “several times, in her fertile period”.
        More seriously … while I look for rabbit palaeontology research, most Britons don’t realise that buny was brought to the UK by tne Normans (1066 et al) , and only escaped into the wild in the 15th or 16th century. See also the “occupation” surname of “Warren”.
        OK, palaeontology : the most recent that I can find points at a K-Pg origin for the rabbit’s relatives (http://science.sciencemag.org/content/339/6120/662.full if you have a site license, otherwise http://science.sciencemag.org.sci-hub.cc/content/339/6120/662.full)
        with a not-quite-direct ancestor in the Early Eocene (open access paper at http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/275/1639/1203). But on the other hand, there’s a bit of a gap until much more recent radiation into the modern varieties.

        5. The biggest one (if you consider this evolution): how did “life” originate?

        That breaks down into two similarly important questions (IMO) : how did our ancestors “tree of life” (going back at least to the Archaea, the origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts, some very peculiar extremophiles, and hopefully our complement of viruses) originate ; and were there any other possible chemistries that could have worked at the time (within geological spitting distance of 4 gigayears ago)? The latter question is at least approachable through proposed missions to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn, though whether they’ll survive King Trump 1 is a matter of concern. Maybe we’ll see the first results in Chinese ideograms instead.

  10. Jiten
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    1) What don’t you understand now that you’d love to understand?

    2)What’s the best book you’ve read?

    • Jiten
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      For me it’s : 1)Quantum Mechanics. Since the universe is quantum mechanical, I’d love to understand this. 2) A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      For your second question, see 5 above.

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      I would have said the same thing as you; I’d like to know more about quantum mechanics, although it’s commonly said that nobody really “understands” it, by which I think they mean they can’t comport its features with the features of everyday human life

      I put favorite books above: my two favorites are fiction. For nonfiction it would be a tough one; perhaps Manchester’s biography of Churchill.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

        Interesting question: Favorite NF book.

        I know this is the Ask Jerry Anything thread, but I’ll weigh in. An extremely tough question. To choose just one, yikes! If you pressed me, if I were forced to choose just one.

        Using the criterion: Which NF book have I read the most times?

        The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer (read three times)

        But I note that I’ve read two other NF books three times:

        The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan
        The Gallic War by Julius Caesar

        (I’ve read WEIT twice!)

        • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

          I just found Shirer’s hardcover book in a free discard box outside Powell’s bookstore here, and snapped it up. It’s going to be a book I’ll read soon. I loved the Sagan book, which deserves to be more widely known, but I haven’t read any Caesar.

          • Posted August 29, 2016 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

            If you get The Gallic War (obviously I would recommend it), I would also recommend getting the Penguin Classics version. Best (most fun to read) translation that I have read.

            However, I also had fun with the Loeb Edition and had fun comparing the Latin to the English (rough exchange rate: Latin about 60-70% of the length of the English — very concise language, that Latin!).

            The Loeb Edition also has some lovely illustrations, even including fold-outs, IIRC.

        • George
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

          I went to a Catholic high school which had many elderly priests who of course taught Latin. So I well remember – Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 27, 2016 at 7:51 am | Permalink

            Did you learn Classical Latin or that odious Church Latin (with soft c’s)?

            • George
              Posted August 27, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink

              Hard c. Two standard jokes every priest tells to the first Latin class. No K, W or Y in the Latin alphabet because big boys don’t KWY. So you need the C for the K sound.

              Second dumb joke is “semper ubi sub ubi” – always where under where. In college, at least four friends from around the US who went to a Catholic HS and took Latin heard these same two jokes.

      • George
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

        When you say Manchester’s biography of Churchill, do you include the third volume, Defender of the Realm, which came out after his death and was largely written by Paul Reid? It does not come close to the first two volumes, Visions of Glory and Alone.

        Two of my favorite Manchester books are Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War and A World Lit Only by Fire.Historians hated the latter but I think it was a great story.

        • Kiwi Dave
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

          Goodbye, Darkness is a great read. From time to time, I taught one of its chapters, Blood That Never Dried, as a standalone short story and a masterpiece of irony.

        • Posted August 27, 2016 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

          I haven’t read the third volume; in fact, until I wrote answers here, I didn’t know that it had appeared. I don’t know if I’ll read it since most of it appears to be written by another person.

          It’s so sad that Manchester died before he finished it–that last volume would have been the best one!

        • Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:06 am | Permalink

          A World Lit Only by Fire is one of my favorites.

          It seems that academic historians almost always hate histories written as stories for the general public.

          I have liked every William Manchester book I’ve ever read.

  11. Stephen Barnard
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    Are we powerless to do anything other than what we actually do?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

      Yes. That’s an easy one!

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        Then you’re a fatalist, in the philosophical sense, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

        • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

          That’s not a question! I call myself a hard determinist.

          • Stephen Barnard
            Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

            OK, I’ll rephrase it. Do you consider yourself a fatalist, in the philosophical sense, as defined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy?

            http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/fatalism/

            • Posted August 26, 2016 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

              Not in the sense that I feel resignation about life or the future. If fatalism is a species of determinism involving pessimism and resignation, then no, I wouldn’t call myself a fatalist. In fact, I think I’m one of only a few readers of this site that would want to be immortal. I always want to know what’s going to happen next. Well, immortal on Earth, and without further aging, and at least until the Heat Death of Earth starts.

              • Posted August 26, 2016 at 7:38 pm | Permalink

                +1

                Important distinction.

                I suspect much of the resistance to determinism is resistance to fatalism.

              • Stephen Barnard
                Posted August 26, 2016 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

                The philosophical definition of fatalism (if you accept the reference) has nothing to do with pessimism or resignation. It only depends on the question: Are we powerless to do anything other than what we actually do.

                The reason I pursue this is because I read here frequently in the comments about free will statements like: Oh, that’s fatalism, not determinism, which is completely different.

                Well, when it comes to philosophical fatalism they’re not very different. They’re very close to the same thing.

                You can be a nondeterminist and be a fatalist (the gods did it), but I can’t see how you can be a determinist and not be a fatalist in the philosophical sense.

  12. BobTerrace
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    You seem to be living out your bucket list with your travels and accomplishments. What else is on the list?

    • Dominic
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

      We know petting lion/tiger/big cat cubs is one… 😉

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      Yes, petting baby “big cats.” I’d also like to see the kakapos in New Zealand. Travel is big on the bucket list, with these being the top destinations:

      1. New Zealand/Australia
      2. Antarctica
      3. Southeast Asia
      4. South Africa and “big game” in Africa

      But that’s travel. There are TONS of books I want to read (Proust’s big book, for instance).

      And I want to get a Bengal cat, but only if I’m able to give it a good home (i.e., not traveling too much, which conflicts with other bits of the bucket list).

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

        All superb travel destinations! 🙂

      • Kiwi Dave
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        If you come to NZ, Auckland zoo has a somewhat expensive Walking with Cheetahs experience where you can pet, all too briefly, a cheetah – their fur is much coarser than a domestic cat’s.

      • charitablemafioso
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

        I can heartily recommend Australia (well, Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef) and Southern Africa.

      • Bob Lundgren
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

        In Africa I would highly recommend the national parks in Tanzania. Particularly Tarangiri for its couple thousand elephants, the Serengheti for the wildebeest migration as well as lions, giraffes, leopards antelope, birds… and Ngorogoro Conservation Area for its vast caldera sheltering a large selection of species. These are more or less contiguous (or at least close to each other) and the area is vast with few if any fences.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

        (Proust’s big book, for instance)

        Which one would that be —Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time? 🙂 (And where do they get off changing the name while I’m still making my way through all seven volumes?)

        • Posted August 28, 2016 at 9:31 am | Permalink

          I mean ALL the volumes. I started it once when I was in Paris, but the book was very dense and I didn’t get very far in before giving up and devoting my attention to what was outside my apartment!

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

            Back when guys like us were in college the whole seven-volume shebang was called “Remembrance of Things Past.” Then, at some point I’m not even sure of, Proust’s original French title — “Recherché du Temps Perdu” — was re-translated as “In Search of Lost Time” (which is literally more accurate, obviously, but seems a bit drastic for such a late date, no?)

            I’ve read around in Remembrance/Lost Time some, but never tried to plow through the behemoth straight away. Maybe someday, t’sais?

  13. Bernhard
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Here’s my question:

    Having no free will, we could not have acted otherwise. But why is it necessary that a thought enter our consciousness before we act on it?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      It doesn’t have to. We act on a lot of “thoughts” that we’re never conscious of. Driving a familiar route is one of them, and of course there’s evidence that our brain “decides” what to do before we’re ever conscious of that.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

        One of my colleagues, a very intense guy, describes how he often is driving home or to work (or other familiar trip) and he arrives with no memory whatsoever of the trip. He had been thinking over some problem.

        I’m sure most people have experienced this. I certainly have.

        My wife experienced an episode of TGA (transient global amnesia) in the recent past. She was almost completely herself during this event; but she had no short term memory, none whatsoever, for about 6-8 hours one afternoon/evening. She acted just like herself, but obviously was not remembering anything. (I had good training for this from dealing with my father as dementia erased his short-term memory.)

        Scared the bejesus out of me. I did the basic stroke tests and rushed her to the emergency room, where she had an MRI and other tests. The neurologist said she likely will never experience another episode.

        Anyway, it shows how we can act without consciously choosing. Act completely normally (almost) without memory. And memory is much of the fabric of human consciousness (seems to me).

        • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

          BTW, she has no memory of that 6-8 hour period. None. The neurologist says she never will. He says she literally made no memories during that time.

          • Torbjörn Larsson
            Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

            I remember having to go to sleep, loosing consciousness, scared me when I was old enough to realize it happened, at 4-5 I think.

            The next time I was scared was when I first lost my thread of thoughts – like a blink – when it first happened at 9. I was skip running for fun, and that was the only reason I thought I didn’t have an “small epileptic seizure” which I was dimly aware of was a mental dysfunction.

            So eventually I learned to day dream and do the concentrated-too-much-on-other-stuff-to-remember-how-I-drove thing. Now I have even hit my head in a traffic accident and being knocked out with a few minutes retrograde amnesia. (Concomitant with a slight hemorrhaging.) Memory is indeed fleeting, even if I didn’t experience it that way for a long time.

        • Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

          That’s a good point. Consciousness must be mostly populated with memories. By the time you’re “experiencing” the present, it’s in the past!

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

          I’ve frequently had that experience when driving while listening to a book on tape — all while driving safely within the bounds of the traffic laws (so I’ve been told by passengers afterward, which comports with my own fragmentary recollection).

          • Posted August 26, 2016 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

            Decades ago, I named this phenomenon The Homing Pidgeon Effect. After some 40 hours on call, working through the entire shift, I kept eyes open enough to see the road, traffic, and traffic lights, but there wasn’t enough brain left to consciously consider directions — yet, I made it home, where the bed and much needed sleep were waiting. It felt trained into my brain.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 26, 2016 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

            When I was about 20, driving very late one night, I ‘woke up’ stopped at a STOP sign. The last memory I had was negotiating an intersection a mile before. There were several bends in the road which I had evidently negotiated successfully. I concluded I had been driving absolutely automatically and the car coming to a halt was what had ‘woken’ me up.

            After that I was almost paranoid about driving while tired – far more so than driving after drinking.

            cr

            • Dale Franzwa
              Posted August 27, 2016 at 12:53 am | Permalink

              To all those above who have experienced doing something but having no memory of it. Don’t worry. This is perfectly normal. David Eagleman, a neurologist (I believe) hosted a PBS series, The Brain, a few months back. People often carry out routine tasks and have no memory of having done so. Ever misplace something and can’t remember where? Eagleman described a mountain climber (a free climber who used no equipment) who made amazingly difficult climbs and later could not remember the details of how he got to the top. (Unfortunately, the climber is now dead, apparently, having made a mistake on one of his climbs.) Eagleman raised the question: If we can do so much unconsciously, why did consciousness evolve in the first place? He suggested: perhaps, to debate the choices we make unconsciously. If he is right, I think this raises serious questions about determinism. Why debate your decisions if not to change them in the future? Does thought actually trigger future actions?

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:14 am | Permalink

                My worry was not so much the loss of memory, as the suspicion I was on the edge of really falling asleep at the wheel – since I hadn’t been distracted by some other activity, I had no thoughts at all.

                Apropos of memory, I believe I’ve read somewhere that it’s situation-dependent. Divers, on resurfacing, can’t remember what they saw ‘down there’ but it comes back when they dive again. I often find that I go downstairs to fetch something, get distracted and can’t remember what I went to fetch – I trot back upstairs to the spot where I thought of it and it instantly comes back to me.

                cr

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted August 27, 2016 at 10:42 am | Permalink

                If he is right, I think this raises serious questions about determinism.

                Not as long as the thoughts themselves are the product of deterministic processes.

      • Rick
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        I recently watched a 5-minute clip of a q-&-a session with Chomsky in which he comments on free will. The comments on free will start at about the 4-minute mark. Here’s a link:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5YXXGHwmogU

        Does Chomsky’s point undermine determinism? Do all the old problems remain?

        • Posted August 27, 2016 at 5:10 pm | Permalink

          I don’t really get what Chomsky’s point here IS. He simply says that stuff going on that is unaccesible to consciousness doesn’t undermine free will at all. But that’s simply bogus. If we can see our “brain” fairly reliably decide which button to press, or whether to add or subtract, before we’re conscious of having made that decision, then it means that we don’t decide CONSCIOUSLY. And if libertarian free will means anything, it means that we decide things consciously.

          I wonder if Chomsky is a libertarian free willer. I’d find that hard to believe.

          • Posted August 29, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

            Actually, it wouldn’t surprise me if he were to hedge on this. He used to be an immaterialist (though eventually changed his mind) and deny the evolution of language (though has changed his mind; he is now simply skeptical that could ever learn anything about it) and his view of what happened to the concepts of matter and mass and such in 17th century physics (which is also relevant) is very idiosyncratic.

            I’ve always mentioned these as steps in the right direction (well the first two) by a profound and important thinker who was nevertheless terribly wrong on something that he IMO should know better about.

        • Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

          Chomsky’s just pointing out that “your conscious decisions” is a narrower class than “your decisions”. Libet’s research showed that some of what’s going on in certain decision tasks is unconscious. Libet or some commentators (mis)defined “free will” as “conscious will”, so on their view, even if the neural spikes in question were highly indeterministic, the Libet experiment would still be evidence against free will. Determinism is not really at stake, but rather the definition of “you” and “yours”.

          • Rick
            Posted August 28, 2016 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

            Is it a mistake to equate free will with conscious will? It seems that many people do think that free will is conscious by definition. It seems clear that people mean that free will is conscious whenever they speak about it even if they don’t say that. (Chomsky does comment on biases or dogmas of consciousness in philosophy and psychology in the video clip, and maybe that’s part of his point in bringing up free will.)

            That aside, I wasn’t clear from Chomsky’s brief comment why an unconscious decision isn’t a point against free will. (Are you saying that the experiment itself is flawed in denying free will in the first place? Is that what Chomsky’s saying, too?) It does seem reasonable to say that an unconscious decision is not really a willed act but rather is a reaction of some kind. I don’t see clearly why this doesn’t suggest something grave about free will (e.g., not that it’s partly unconscious but that it’s an illusion). That said, I’m not sure why there would be an accompanying conscious illusion of making or of having made a decision.

            • Posted August 29, 2016 at 11:54 am | Permalink

              In my view “free choice” relates to “conscious choice” this way: if the decision process is *playing on the same team* as your consciousness, it’s your decision. If an unconscious process has “gone rogue”, then no.

              In the Libet experiment the subject is asked to press the button “when they feel like it” (I don’t remember the exact wording, but close to this). This basically requires the subject not to plan button pressing occasions, but to wait for urges. The neural spikes (“readiness potentials”) Libet measured might *be* these urges – some of which are endorsed by the subject. Thus Libet got a strong but imperfect correlation between readiness potentials and actions.

  14. Qadeer Qureshi
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    What causes mutation hotspots in DNA? Is it simply because in certain locations mutations are not harmful so they tend to accumulate or is it something more subtle/complex than that?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      I’m sure there’s an answer somewhere, but this one’s above my pay grade.

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

      Hah, I know you asked Jerry, but I’ve got two cents to give about this.

      This is a question for Evan Eichler at the University of Washington.

      To my knowledge, the repeat architecture of the human genome appears to predispose certain regions to non allelic homologous recombination, which results in copy number variants (CNV). The rare CNVs situated between segmental duplications, if I understand correctly, are termed genomic hotspots.

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3567267/

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

      Two examples based on the tendency of repeated sequences to slip when pairing:

      When you have inside a gene several copies of the same nucleotide in a cluster, there is sometimes a slip during DNA synthesis (replication). This makes the newly synthesized strand 1 nucleotide shorter or longer, depending on the direction of the slipping. The effect on the encoded protein is disastrous.

      Some genes have a string of trinucleotide repeats. During meiotic recombination, there is sometimes a slip between the participating molecules (much larger than in the previous case). If recombination happens exactly in this region, one of resulting DNA molecules will have a shortening and the other one expansion of the repeat. Expansion of such a repeated sequence is the cause for Huntington’s disease (explained well in the Genome by Matt Ridley).

      A third example are cytosine-guanine pairs because they are often methylated, and methylated cytosine can undergo chemical change to thymine. Unmethylated cytosine by the same reaction produces uracyl, which is however a base unusual for DNA and so is easily caught and repaired.

  15. µ
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Easy question: boxers or shorts?

    Difficult: Which areas of evolutionary biology have a future? What current publications in evolutionary biology will still be read, say, 50 years from now?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

      I can’t answer the first question because I know it will lead readers to envision me in my underwear if they see me! The second one: the origin of new species is always going to be an area of promise for evolutionary biology, simply because it’s hard and there may be many ways it occurs. Also the origin of sex.

      I’m not good at predicting what will be read 50 years from now, but it will be books rather than papers. If you look at what’s still read that’s 50 years old in evolutionary biology, it’s books by people like Mayr and Dobzhansky and Fisher. As far as books published in the last ten or fifteen years, I wouldn’t even hazard a guess.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

        (Or maybe, re Q1, you just don’t want to fess up to going commando …)

  16. steve oberski
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Some previously held strong personal (not science related) belief that you have changed your position on based on new evidence ?

    For example, as a former catholic, my position on equal treatment under the law for women and homosexuals has changed radically.

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      I used to believe in God but changed my mind completely. I’m now an atheist at about 6.9 out of 7 on the Dawkins scale. When I first started learning about politics as a young teenager, I leaned toward Republicans (my dad was one), but I jettisoned that ideology pretty quickly.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

        I would agree with everything you said here about myself, in detail.

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

        Same here, but Missouri Synod Lutheran. (Not your average Lutherans.)

        • GBJames
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

          They tried to make me into a Wisconsin Synod Lutheran. It didn’t work.

          • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

            And, from my experience, the WSLC is even worse than the MSLC. Lucky you getting away from that crap! 🙂

            • GBJames
              Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

              I guess. I never really believed any of it in a serious way. I just tried to memorize the stuff they make you memorize so as to get it over with. For me the “escape” was pretty painless.

              • bluemaas
                Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

                Ditto here, Mr GBJames, on the believing – part. NOOOT really !

                And speaking of that memorization deal ?

                ‘Member this particular piece of sh__storming AND (very much so – ) brainwashing muck: http://www.oslcmankato.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/smallcatechism_0.pdf wherein after Every Single One of that man’s (Martin Luther of “Let Woman bear children for the Man TILL SHE DIES OF IT. THAT is all she exists therefor,” – Dude) commands, there is from him thus: “This is most certainly TRUE.”

                Screw THAT.
                Blue

              • GBJames
                Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

                I got especially lucky in that I spent my early grade school years in rural, northern Indiana, in what is now the Indiana Dunes. We moved back to Wisconsin when I was almost 13. As it happens, in Indiana they start the 3 year confirmation training when you turned 13. Here in Wisconsin they end the 3 year indoctrination while you are 13. So I only had to endure it for a single year. Somehow this didn’t bother the preachers involved.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 10:03 pm | Permalink

        … as a young teenager, I leaned toward Republicans (my dad was one), but I jettisoned that ideology pretty quickly.

        That have anything to do with Barry Goldwater?

  17. Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    What are your feelings like during Passover, Roshashona and Yom Kipur? What do you do? Do you totally ignore the dates?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

      I really don’t have any special affinity for Jewish holidays. By and large I ignore them, and in fact I couldn’t even really tell you when they were in a given year.

  18. Dominic
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    Have you seen this new paper?
    Disruptive selection as a driver of evolutionary branching and caste evolution in social insects
    DOI: 10.1111/jeb.12952
    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jeb.12952/full

    but I will not know – off to Norfolk (England) for a week on Sunday!

    Hope you feel better soon! 🙂

    • W.Benson
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      Interesting, especially the part about ecological resource specialization. It seems similar to Darwin’s principle of divergence and Brown & Wilson’s ecological character displacement, only within a species. If workers with specialized functions also specialize on separate resources (or feeding sites, which in this case amounts to the same thing), two castes could divide up resources and coexist more easily. Cephalotes is a neat ant. To bad the article is behind a paywall.

  19. Jonathan Smith
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    What evidence would you require to convince you that a God/Gods are real

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

      You can see a discussion of the necessary evidence in Faith versus Fact, pages 117-119. I won’t reiterate that here as it’s too long.

  20. Kevin Lee
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Professor Coyne,

    I’ve been wanting to ask Sam Harris this question, but I imagine you may have equally interesting ideas regarding this:

    Have you any opinions on how the mechanisms of memory impact the nature of ‘free will’? After all, instructing future behavior depends on active neural systems that refer to past experiences to make decisions. A rock will be a rock, but an ant can use path integration to find its way back to a food source.

    Thanks in advance – tackle this when you can brain again!

    Kevin

    >

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      Let me weigh in. It doesn’t change anything. Imagine water cutting through rock, which makes more water flow along that groove. The groove is analogous to memory, and its presence doesn’t alter the Laws of Nature.

      • Kevin
        Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

        Great point – that clarifies things, and further refines my questioning…I guess I’m intrigued by how different systems of neural information/memory storage will lead to different outcomes in behavior.
        Water will carve through rock, but it will change the rock differently depending on whether it’s sedimentary or, say, igneous rock. So it seems with brains: A given event will obviously impact a cat different from a human, but the same seems to apply between human individuals.

  21. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    When you were an army/military brat, name the posts you lived by or on. In other words, your father’s PCS assignments?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

      Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis

      Fort Monroe, though we lived off base, in northern virginia

      Athens, Greece (we lived in a big civilian house in the suburb of Kafisia–a mansion!

      Patrick Henry Village, part of the USAREUR complex in Heidelberg, Germany. The only time we actually lived on base in military housing

      My dad was also stationed in St. Louis, where I was born, but we moved shortly after that, so I can’t name the base.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 10:29 pm | Permalink

        Very interesting. Unfortunately most of these locations no longer exist due to closings. Due to BRAC or Base Realignment & Closure Commissions that took place in the 90s and later. I believe Heidelberg and Patrick Henry Village is still going. Ft. Monroe closed in 2011 and Benjamin Harrison in 1991.

  22. Lee Beringsmith
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    What is the story behind your pseudonym, Professor Celing Cat.

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      I can’t remember how it got started, but I was much enamored with the LOLCat Bible, which I still consider one of the greatest parodies of religion ever constructed. In that document, “God” is called “Ceiling Cat” (Jesus is “Happycat” and the Holy Ghost is “Seethru Kitty”). Somehow my title got appended to Ceiling Cat, and I think someone else did it, but I like it and have taken it as my nickname.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        And let’s not forget Satan, a.k.a. “Basement Cat” (and his many little black minions)!

        • Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

          Two of whom are curled up next to me, right now, a long-haired black cat on my left and a short-haired black cat on my right. Basement cat be praised!

  23. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Jak sie masz?

    Oh, and how come, when you go to the park, you never see any baby pigeons, only grown up ones?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

      The babies are up in nests where nobody sees them. By the time they fledge they already look “adult”.

      Nobody ever sees baby squirrels in the park, but, thanks to my nurturing activities, I get to–up on my windowsill.

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

      Oh, by the way, baby pigeons are called “squeakers”, and are, i think, the ugliest of all baby birds (in a good way).

      Mu 20 year old daughter is a an endless source of random bird facts, and could probably tell you two dozen more pigeon facts, but alas, this is the only one I recall. B^)

      • W.Benson
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

        Another interesting fact: Darwin found that baby pigeons of almost all fancy varieties are very similar as hatchlings (he measured them) and afterwards diverge in appearance according to the particular race they belong to. This was Darwin’s test confirming ‘terminal addition’, that selection mainly acts on varietal or specific traits that first appear only at the very end of development. Even if you breed for fancy ornamented adult pigeons, squeakers will remain squeakers.

  24. Alan GE
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    What do you think about the current state of speciation genetics as studied using genomic ‘bottom-up approaches’?

    What do you think about the mounting evidence showing many species boundaries are fuzzy and genomes porous?

    Does the BSC need re-thinking given some species with pops having genomewide Fst of > 0.4 can hybridize across much of their genome during secondary contact?

    • Alan GE
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      *introgress

    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 9:37 am | Permalink

      Well, genomic “bottom up” approaches aren’t the only ones, but they’re very useful in answering questions about general genetic similarity, which regions of the genome are different, and so on. But there’s still plenty of room for “top down” approaches starting with the phenotype, or a combination such as association mapping of genes for species-specific traits.

      I think the BSC is still the most useful species concept for reasons Allen Orr and I laid out in Chapter 1 of speciation. In fact, the concept of reproductive isolation is still essential to understanding why animals form morphologically distinguishable entities even when there’s substantial gene exchange, as I also discuss. (Reproductive isolation of some bits of the genome are necessary to explain distinctness.)

      If every organism hybridized pervasively with F statistics that large then we’d have to re-evaluate the BSC, but those organisms are the rare exceptions,not the rule. For some reason biologists like to single out these outliers and then say they completely invalidate the use of the Biological Species Concept. I don’t agree.

  25. Alan GE
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Will there be a second edition of speciation in light of new data? I’ve seen the talk on youtube from a few years back.

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      Probably not, though I’ve compiled hundreds of pages of notes and references since the book came out in 2004, just in case. But Allen isn’t interested in revisiting it, and I’m not that keen, either. After all, it took Mayr over 20 years before he did a new edition of Systematics and the Origin of Species.

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

        May you live & work as long as Mayr!

  26. Paul Davies
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    Why do scientists wonder what sleep is for? Why not accept sleep as the default state and ask what being awake is for? It’s a much easier question to answer.

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      Some animals don’t appear to need sleep, but every animal needs to be awake. It’s easy to explain wakefulness: you can’t copulate, get necessary food, or have offspring if you sleep all the time. It’s the sleeping that needs an explanation, and, as far as I know, we don’t have one yet.

      • Markham Thomas
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        Sleep is the freedom from having to do the things that are required when you are awake…

        • jeffery
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:04 pm | Permalink

          It seems to me that the “driver” behind the evolution of sleep, at least in humans, may lie in the fact that many big cats. etc., who preyed on hominids were nocturnal- hominids who remained still and “dormant” during darkness may have had a reproductive advantage.

          I’ve always thought that the adoption of the use of fire was one of, if not THE most important factors in making us “human”, for three reasons:
          (1) Protection from predators.
          (2) Protection of the older, more knowledgeable members of the group.
          (3) The creation of a scenario where the members of a group are “forced” to be gathered together in a social setting and information can be transmitted by the older members to the young.

          • slandermonkey
            Posted August 27, 2016 at 9:21 am | Permalink

            Sleep deprivation causes serious and real harm to a person so we need sleep to be healthy – it wasn’t just to avoid predators which can done much more effectively when awake.

            We don’t know for sure yet, but sleep seems to be related to brain health, giving it a chance organize new memories, for example, and physically regenerate.

            • Diane G.
              Posted August 29, 2016 at 2:00 am | Permalink

              That (“brain health”) was going to be my suggestion as well. Ties in well with the fact that babies, which in the first 2 or 3 years develop two to three times the number of synapses they will have as adults, also sleep so much. (Despite what it seems like to new parents!)

          • Dire Lobo
            Posted August 27, 2016 at 5:25 pm | Permalink

            Based on non-scientific articles I have read, Humans only began to sleep thought the night in the last few centuries (perhaps a millennia?). Before that, humans would sleep 3 or 4 hours at a time and be awake for 3 or 4 hours at a time throughout the night. I would be curious to learn if this article has any basis in fact, or if it was another good example of popular scientific writing which is actually BS? Anybody?

            • Diane G.
              Posted August 29, 2016 at 2:02 am | Permalink

              Hard to think of anything productive or survival related that could be accomplished by being awake for 3 to 4 hours in the middle of the night.

            • Posted August 29, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

              I don’t know how historically accurate that is, but what does seem to be the case is that we don’t normally sleep through our 4-10 hours or whatever. We wake up and fall asleep again quickly with no memories formed, apparently, or so I am told. What changes when people say they can’t sleep through (as they age, say) is rather that they cannot sleep with the same background inputs as they used to. (For example, a urologist told me that bladder sensitivity is a concern.)

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

      Whatever the answer, it’s annoying as hell.

  27. S Krishna
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    Since Subramanyam Chandrasekhar was also in Chicago University, did you ever meet him? What kind of a person was he?Do you know any anecdotes about him?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Sadly, I never met “Chandra,” as they called him. I got here in 1986; he died in 1995. I’ve been pretty balkanized at the U of C and would have liked to have met some of our distinguished profs. I have met Geoff Stone and Martha Nussbaum.

  28. dabertini
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Does PCC (e) have any siblings?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      One sister, 2.5 years younger than I.

      • Jiten
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

        Are you terrified of using “me”?

        • Posted August 26, 2016 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

          Perhaps you weren’t aware that Prof. Coyne was using proper grammer.
          To complete the implications in the sentence:
          “I have one sister who is 2.5 years younger than I am.”
          As you can see, “me” in plase of that second “I” would be most awkward, to say the least.

          • Jiten
            Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:44 am | Permalink

            I think you’re wrong. “My brother is older than me” is correct. “My brother is older than I” is incorrect. “My brother” is subject and “I” is a subject(pronoun). So you can’t have that unless one writes ” My brother is older than I am” as “I” needs a verb to be attached to.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted August 27, 2016 at 4:44 am | Permalink

              I think Jiten is right. ‘younger than me’ sounds right to me unless the verb is made explicit as in ‘younger than I am’.

              I found an informative page on it – http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/than-i-versus-than-me

              It seems it could go either way. I definitely think I am the implied object of ‘younger than’ so it’s ‘younger than *me*’.

              But ymmv.

              cr

              • Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:32 pm | Permalink

                As a tutor of PSAT, SAT, and ACT exams for students applying to American colleges and universities, I know that recognizing “to be” as a reflexive verb matters.

                Incidently, I love old Marilyn Monroe movies in which she plays a ditsy blond knocking on a door. When someone on the other side calls through, “Who is it?” and she answers, “It is I”, I’m tickled pink! She provides other such examples in other scenes, too, and I love it.

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted August 27, 2016 at 8:01 am | Permalink

              The verb “to be” which is implied is an intransitive verb so it takes no object. Jerry’s grammar is correct.

              • Ken Kukec
                Posted August 27, 2016 at 11:00 am | Permalink

                Exactly. Plus, by the conventions of standard English, pronouns following verbs derived from the infinitive “to be,” should be in the subjective (aka “nominative”) case — which is why they’re called “predicate nominatives.”

                This is why sentences like “It is I” or “This is she,” while perhaps sounding a bit stilted, are nonetheless considered grammatically correct.

              • Jiten
                Posted August 27, 2016 at 4:08 pm | Permalink

                No. Intransitive verbs don’t take a direct object but can take an indirect one. “That pizza is for me”. Would you say “that pizza is for I”? You’d sound silly! “Sit” is another intransitive verb. Would you say “sit there for I” or “sit there for me”?

              • Posted October 12, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

                “That pizza is for me” implies the complete sentence: “That pizza is the pizza for me.” Leave out “for me” and you get “That pizza is the pizza”, in which both uses of “pizza” are subjects, because “is” is reflexive.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 27, 2016 at 7:23 pm | Permalink

                I would suggest that, first, ‘me’ is okay if ‘than’ is regarded as a preposition rather than a conjunction. And second, that srict grammar often yields to ease of usage or what ‘sounds’ right. For example, it has long been considered okay to casually split infinitives. Or to say “Will everybody please raise their glasses”.

                Consider this one:
                ‘People far older and wiser than me are satisfied this is acceptable.’
                – try substituting ‘I’ in that – sounds horrible doesn’t it?
                (Admittedly the reason it sounds horrible is because the “I” then appears to be part of the subject and clashes with the verb beside it. Whereas ‘me’ sounds like the object of the ‘than’ comparison so doesn’t clash with the adjacent verb).

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted August 27, 2016 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

                Oh I agree. I play loose and fast with grammar rules but I just wanted to point out that Jerry’s usage is technically correct.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 27, 2016 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

                Okay I agree. Jerry isn’t wrong, from what I’ve read either is acceptable.

                cr

            • Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:25 pm | Permalink

              Apologies for taking so long to read and respond to your response. The subject-verb-object system to which you refer works well with other verbs, but the verb “to be” is uniquely reflexive, resulting in subject-verb-subject sentence construction.

        • Posted August 26, 2016 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

          I hope you were joking with that question. It seems a bit uncivil.

          • Ken Kukec
            Posted August 26, 2016 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

            Maybe Jiten was trying to play off Red Smith’s apothegm that “‘myself’ is the foxhole of ignorance, where cowards take refuge, because they were taught that ‘me’ is vulgar and ‘I’ is egotistical” — though it doesn’t really fit, does it?

          • Jiten
            Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:37 am | Permalink

            Sorry. No intention of being uncivil. Right after I pressed “post comment” I realised I forgot to put in a smiley face.

        • Posted August 27, 2016 at 7:38 am | Permalink

          ‘I’ is ‘more’ correct.
          https://www.quora.com/Is-You-are-older-than-I-grammatically-correct
          ” A more involved explanation would be that we are comparing two things that are grammatical subjects, and “I” is the form used for the subject.

          If we were comparing two grammatical objects, then we would use “me” (which is the form used for grammatical objects). “

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 27, 2016 at 7:44 am | Permalink

            Not necessarily so. It depends whether ‘than’ is being used as a conjunction or a preposition. As explained by the link (in the comments to that page you quoted)
            http://www.grammar-monster.com/lessons/than_I_me_than_he_him.htm

            or the link I quoted previously
            http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/than-i-versus-than-me

            or doubtless hundreds of other pages on the Net.

            cr

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted August 27, 2016 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

              I should add that I’m relaxed about that me/I usage.

              What really gets me raving is the habit, to which newscreatures are addicted, of talking only in gerundial phrases. “Police searching for a man driving a red car” or “Police warning residents to approach with caution” – I scream sarcastically “Where the fucking verb in that sentence??” at the TV.

              cr

            • Posted August 31, 2016 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

              I do understand that, but I was specifically referring to Jerry’s usage which is correct. I like this quick and dirty illustration in the link:
              ‘The quick and dirty tip to determining which pronoun is appropriate after the conjunction than is to figure out the pronoun’s role in the implied sentence by mentally filling in the missing words. Are you trying to say Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I [like Squiggly] or Aardvark likes Squiggly more than [Aardvark likes] me? Sometimes, even if you use the correct pronoun, you may find sentences like I’m taller than he sound too formal in casual setting. If so, you can use a verb to complete the implied sentence, saying instead, I’m taller than he is. With a verb present, the choice is obvious: subject pronouns are the only option. After all, both sides of the than he/than him debate agree that No bunny knows Easter better than he does.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 31, 2016 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

                I liked that ‘aardvark likes Squiggly’ example too, I was going to quote it but on reflection I decided it wasn’t exactly the same case as the one we’re debating.

                While I remain firmly in the ‘me’ camp I do agree that ‘I’ is technically more correct – but as I said somewhere, often correctness is overridden by what ‘sounds right’.

                Interesting discussion anyway, which I’m pleased to have had, and I have to say the Internet / Google is a marvellous source of information on such topics.

                cr

          • Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:38 pm | Permalink

            1+

  29. John Hamill
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Hi Jerry,

    Why am I the only atheist in the world who dislikes cats? Or rather, what the hell is with the rest of you? Why the worldwide atheist cat obsession? 🙂

    John.

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

      Whoa, cats rock, my man!

      • John Hamill
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

        So I’m told, by precisely 100% of atheists I’ve met (which is quite a lot at this stage). I’m not feeling it. I must be some kind of mutant atheist. 😦

        • BobTerrace
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

          Not everyone. I had 2 cats 40 years ago. One was a sweetheart, the other was awful. I am now ambivalent about them as I am about dogs, which I also had as pets. I have had no pets since the last one died in 2007. If I need to see a pet, my kids/grandkids all have.

          • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

            We have gone live-stock free as well and we have not regretted it at all.

            • John Hamill
              Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

              Maybe we should start a group for not cat-loving atheists? 🙂

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted August 27, 2016 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

                [Tumbleweed]
                (No pets either, but very definitely a cat person.)

              • Posted August 29, 2016 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

                Like both cats and d*gs, a lot actually. But I just don’t want to be owned by either anymore. After a few decades, which included nursing a (wonderful) old neutered male cat with diabetes*, I am done with it. Having kids (pretty late in life) was a bit factor too.

                (* Kept him going and happy for many years with insulin shots — finding cat sitting while I traveled was a challenge!)

          • John Hamill
            Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

            I am not alone!! 🙂

    • Alexander
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      Don’t dogs think their “owner” is god? Cats don’t.

      • John Hamill
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

        That’s the best explanation I’ve heard yet!!

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

        Good one!

      • charitablemafioso
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

        Cats think they are gods.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted August 27, 2016 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

          Cats KNOW they are gods.

      • Leanne
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 8:57 am | Permalink

        Dogs have owners, cats have staff.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

        That would have been the gist of my response too, and only about 30% in jest.
        “Gist” and “jest” in the same sentence. I’ll have to remember that one, and work it a bit.

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Why are you the only atheist who dislikes cats? The laws of physics? But there’s still hope: I would seek professional counsel and help here.

      Atheists like cats because cats are themselves atheists, seeing no person as their master. They think for themselves and are solitary and not obsequious.

      • John Hamill
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:19 pm | Permalink

        I can certainly see the logic in that, Jerry!

        I’m still convinced that the proportion of cat-lovers within the atheist community is very much higher than in the general population. Somebody should do a study!

      • Anthony
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

        When I had a d*g (not my idea, part of a previous relationship) — I struggled with the hierarchal relationship required with training the d*g i.e. being a “master” did not feel right to me. Some people, (and all dogs) see this as normal, but I prefer to take my connection to other sentient beings on a more even field. In order to get along with cats, you have to let them be, and they will figure you out and come to you on their terms. This is a far more satisfying form of relationship to other beings, in my opinion.

        • Alexander
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

          “In order to get along with cats, you have to let them be, and they will figure you out and come to you on their terms. This is a far more satisfying form of relationship to other beings, in my opinion.”

          This is exactly what we did with the two dogs that share our life. One of them was an Italian wolf, a wolf somewhat hybridized with dogs, common in Italy. The only problem we had is that if we would sit down on a bench in a park, and somebody would walk by, she would raise hell, just to protect us.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 11:18 pm | Permalink

        “Atheists like cats because cats are themselves atheists”

        But this implies that atheists automatically like other atheists, which is manifestly not so.

        Getting a group of atheists to agree on anything is like, err, herding cats.

        😉

        cr

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

        They think for themselves and are solitary and not obsequious.

        I wonder …
        Hypothesis – atheists in America (the most religious country in the “western world”) probably get a lot of subtle and not so subtle pressure to suck the dry nipple of Faith. This selects for the more self-sufficient and less obsequious people to be the ones who manage to stick with being atheists while the more approval-craving and submissive people get socially pressured back to the brain abuse of religion. Contrariwise, in less religious societies (N.Europe, Canada, Au-NZ), the cat-atheist correlation would be less strong.
        This should be fairly testable – the personality traits should be fairly easy to measure, and the cat-person trait is also easy to measure (variant on the cat-buttered toast-carpet levitation machine, or just ask them).

    • nurnord
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      So, you have just assumed that as a fact ?! I can’t stand the damn things…and yes, I’m an atheist, the point of responding…

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

        There must be a magical cure for that somewhere. Let me see…. “Potions and Spells to Cure Cat Haters”…. I know it’s around here somewhere…. And, good atheist text that it is, it doesn’t mention any god anywhere…

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

          “Potions and Spells to Cure Cat Haters”

          Toxoplasma gondii, isn’t it?

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

            Doh!

          • Posted October 12, 2016 at 12:09 am | Permalink

            Yes, of course! That’s it, exactly!

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

      Rest assured, in a audience as large as Jerry’s there’s a significant number of dog people as well. (And some of us are bi.) We’ve just learned when to keep our muzzles shut.

  30. Lauri
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    What are your advice for a young scientist?

  31. Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Similar to a question above, but it continues to bug me. What is the best way to talk about groups of species that regularly hybridize and produce viable offspring? Is the idea of a species (or superspecies) complex useful?

    Specifically, I’m interested in gulls. That family contains many species that interbreed where their ranges overlap. In my own work, I often refer to, say, the Larus glaucescens – occidentalis complex, rather than separating the two species. This really only works though when talking about those populations living in BC through California, as the more northerly populations are more appropriately part of a four species complex in which all interbreed with at least one other species within the complex. You could then talk about the whole “superspecies complex” that captures these two mostly reproductively isolated species complexes in one.

    I heuristically think about things hierarchically: (sub)species, species complex, superspecies complex. But do you think this is useful from a biologically rigorous perspective?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

      I’ll get to these questions about species this weekend, but be aware that I haven’t kept up with the new data on hybridization.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

        Awesome, thanks! I’d appreciate any expertise you can lend!

    • ladyatheist
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

      I have been wondering the same thing regarding recent hominid discoveries in Africa & recent DNA research. Are they really different species or different eh… varieties? (don’t want to say “races”) It seems they all either mated or could have. The human family tree just seems very messy and not at all tree-like anymore.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

        Well, if you use the biological species concept, based on interbreeding, we were certainly the same species as Nanderthals and Denisovans, and we (H. sapiens) hybridized with them, and the hybrids were obviously fertile (we carry their genes).

        Other “species” like A. afarensis weren’t contemporaneous with H. sapiens so it’s a non-question, but there were probably truly distinct biological species when the robust autralopithecines lived at the same time as our own ancestors. It’s hard to tell without the genetic data that we can have only for more recent forms.

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

      “What is the best way to talk about groups of [western larids] that regularly hybridize and produce viable offspring?”

      “Olympic Gulls,” problem solved. (The northern complex could be a “Cluster****.”) Now, on to Thayer’s/Iceland.

      🙂

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

        Ah yes, the “Olympic Gull”! That’s our resident Vancouver gull. The problem with the classification is it implies that it is simultaneously a subspecies of L. glaucescens and L. occidentalis. So it doesn’t really solve the issue of how to properly think about these species as “distinct” genetic bodies. What about “Olympic Gulls” that end up hybridizing with L. smithsonianus in central BC? Things quickly spiral out of control.

        The Thayer’s-Iceland-Kumlien’s complex is another interesting case. Then there is the whole “nearly a ring” complex that follows the Arctic Circle. It is a mess!

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

          Indeed. Plus, you can’t “list” an “Olympic.” Why I have a love/hate relationship with larids.

          Seriously, though, isn’t this what separates the adults from the children? Those who can’t do messiness become physicists, I hear…

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 27, 2016 at 10:41 pm | Permalink

            “Those who can’t do messiness become physicists, I hear…”

            Hardly. *Everything* gets messy round the edges if you look closely enough.

            God said, ‘Let Newton be’ and all was light
            It could not last; the Devil, shouting ‘Ho
            Let Einstein be’ restored the status quo.

            cr

            • Diane G.
              Posted August 31, 2016 at 12:49 am | Permalink

              Pffft!

              If that’s an example of “messiness” in physics, you have just proved my point.

              😀

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      The short answer is “I don’t know”. Dandelions are sort of a group like that, but are complicated by their asexuality, and it’s just a mess. Taxonomists recognize between a few and hundreds of “species” in such groups.

      I’m not really familiar with the latest gull work, but it sounds similar to the Ensatina salamander stuff, in which the salamander was probably anciently divided into populations that were isolation, and then differentiated. They then joined, perhaps due to climate change, before full reproductive isolation had evolved. They’re no longer a “ring species” in the classic sense, but an example of “incomplete speciation.” What you call them is pretty much subjective. We discuss this in Chapter 1 of Speciation, and say that unless there is complete reproductive isolation (no gene flow), you’re going to be faced with a subjective decision.

      In many groups it’s not a problem: primates, for instance. In Drosophila, very, very few species are known to hybridize in nature (we have a lot of genetic analysis behind that conclusion), and most of those form sterile or inviable hybrids, so the concept of biological species is pretty sound there. In general, I think it’s better to accurately understand the biological situation, including gene flow, than worry about semantics.

      That said, there is still a fundamental problem in nature: WHY IS IT DISCONTINUOUS? Why are there separate entities–“species”–rather than a continuum? That is a very serious question unless you’re one of those “postmodern scientists” who argue that nature IS a continuum, with groups like the American robin or Stellar’s jays being just human “social constructs.” Allen and I discuss this in Speciation and argue that the data suggest strongly that the clusters we see in nature are indeed real and not just artifacts of the way our brains work.

      The evolution of reproductive isolation, I think, has to be part of answering that very important question.

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        Sometimes it’s hard to get through WalMart without the feeling that there’s a continuum after all…

        • BobTerrace
          Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

          Walmart is a black hole. The closer you get to it, the more IQ it sucks out of you. If you get all the way to the singularity, it spits you out on the Louisiana/Alabama state line.

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 27, 2016 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

            😀

      • Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        Thank you! That’s a very helpful answer!

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

      Related to this, I recently heard (though I may have mis-heard – it was a podcast, not print) that there were two distinct haplotypes of European Redstart (Hogner et al, Ecol. Evol. vol2 (2012) 2974-88,) a couple of millions years ago, but the two populations homogenised after the retreat of the ice sheets abut 10,000 years ago.
      Given the difficulty of correlating morphological species (what we have been working on for centuries in the palaeontological record) and biological species (which we can work in in the present day by controlled breeding, and more recently with molecular phylogenetics), it gets very dodgy to try to use strict hierarchies unless you’ve got a lot of data.
      TLDR version : it’s not as simple as they said in school.

  32. Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    What will your next book be about?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

      It’s a children’s book about Mr. Das and his cats. After that, probably a short popular book for Oxford University Press on speciation.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

        Great! Looking forward to both!

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

        Thanks! I was going to ask that question as I had not seen what it was about.

      • Benjamin
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        >a short popular book for Oxford University Press on speciation

        Are you writing one of their ‘Very Short Introduction’ books?

        • Posted August 26, 2016 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

          I’ve been ASKED to submit a VSI proposal, but I haven’t yet put that together. I don’t have much doubt that they’ll go for it since they asked for it. So there’s no certainty yet; they have to accept a proposal that I’ve only outlined and not formally submitted.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

        After that, probably a short popular book for Oxford University Press on speciation.

        Will that contain any updates to your & Allen’s book on speciation? You said you’d got a stack of notes for that. Or are the two at too different levels?

  33. Luke Hatton
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    Have you read The Vital Question by Nick Lane? If so, what did you think of it? I personally loved it, but I’d be interested in your take. Also, what are you reading right now? Any recommendations?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      No, I haven’t read it. I’m halfway through Life Ascending, which was quite popular, but I found it a bit slow going and especially objected to the tendency to present speculations (like about the origin of life) as fairly well-established conclusions. That said, it was an okay book, and he writes very well.

      I don’t know if I’ll get to The Vital Question, though it got great reviews.

      • Mark Sturtevant
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

        I agree with your point about Life Ascending. The Vital Question goes into the origin of life in much more detail, but I think you would also see it has the same problem. I still found it very interesting.

      • Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:36 am | Permalink

        I have found Mr. Lane to be, in my opinion, “trying too hard”. He is just a bit too glib and stylish for me.

        I much prefer your writing, Jerry!

  34. Mark R.
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    How did you meet Malgorzata, Andrezej, and Hili Koraszewscy?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

      They contacted me asking to translate some of my posts on this website into Polish. After a while exchanging emails we became e-friends, and they invited me to visit them in Poland. The rest is history.

  35. rom
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I became a second hand ‘ownee’ of a cat today.
    Any advice?

    • rom
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

      We intend the cat to be an outdoor cat … any advice there.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

        I may be in violation of Da Roolz here; but my advice is: Indoor cat.

        The US statistics are pretty sobering. I don’t know the exact numbers; but last time I checked, life expectancy for outside cats was about 2 years, and for inside-only cats about 14 years.

        Most places I have lived have coyotes. Enough said!

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

          Excellent advice. And make sure the cat has been fixed as they say.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

          I don’t know the exact numbers; but last time I checked, life expectancy for outside cats was about 2 years, and for inside-only cats about 14 years.

          That’s … astounding. Appalling. And frankly, dubious.
          We had no shortage of traffic when my family last had a cat, but she made it to 18.5 living as a mainly outdoor cat. She only even learned to use a litter tray when she was 16 or so.
          We have foxes too – which are quite capable of chowing down on a cat if they feel the need, but are more likely to go for a mouse or rabbit. Not as common in towns then as when we had a cat, but then again, we lived some 200m from the edge of town for most of the cat’s life, so I doubt they were completely absent. As I recall, the worst injuries the cat came back with were from fights over about 3 weeks with a bloody big rat that took up residence under the compost heap. (She got it, eventually. Fresh liver and lights from the butchers that night!) Oh, and there was the time that she crawled from the road out front to the back garden, including making her way over a 6ft brick wall with a broken leg, dislocated hip, and increased aversion to traffic. She was about 14 then.
          So, no shortage of risks as an “outdoor” cat, but making it to 9x your figure for expectation(life) could only work if the variance(life) were &gte; 5 years.

          • Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:38 am | Permalink

            Well, of course, your mileage will vary.

            And of course life expectancy is just a probability.

            I’ve known MANY outside cats to live less than 2 years, including one we once had (when I was a child), much to my dismay.

            • Diane G.
              Posted August 31, 2016 at 1:09 am | Permalink

              Sorta being the Devil’s Advocate here, since I’m convinced of the argument for inside-only cats, but–I do think there’s something to be considered regarding depriving cats of the outdoor experience. I can’t believe that even the most attentive owners, the biggest toy pile, a house full of cat furniture, etc., can begin to substitute for the sensory enrichment, mental engagement, entertainment, thrills, you name it, that an indoor/outdoor cat experiences.

              One of my cats is mostly blind and appears to be perfectly satisfied with indoor life, where he has a mental map of the territory. I took him out once on a leash and we got about 5 feet from the back door before the freak-out.* Our other cat is a volunteer from a neighbor’s barn cat colony; she’s decided she loves the decadence of a warm place to sleep, staff to cuddle with, and the kitty equivalent of three squares a day, but she will dash outside at the first opportunity. I feel really bad about disallowing her access to the wide world she craves.

              *This is where Ben would chime in about carefully training and acclimating the cat–Winston–to the delights that learning to love the leash involves. He’s probably right. Meanwhile, I’ll lazily enjoy watching Winston navigate his indoor kingdom.

        • geckzilla
          Posted September 2, 2016 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

          I was reminded of this thread because just earlier we found a small, probably young dead cat in the driveway after my husband had left. Half its head was missing and our driveway is a slope, so presumably the cat was under and the car must have hit it as it was leaving. So sad. 😦

      • geckzilla
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        My dad has had a lot of outdoor cats, all male. They do usually live short lives. Two years and then mysteriously disappearing is typical. Five years is “good” … one came back badly hurt after being hit by a car and despite veterinary attention died of a massive bladder infection anyway.

        He’s got cat doors for them to use. After losing so many cats that he’s been very attached to, though, he’s learned to lock the cat doors (set them to IN only) at night so that they get locked in for that time.

        They take out a lot of wildlife, including bird species we’ve never seen alive and didn’t know were around. It’s very sad.

        My mom’s cat, Precious, was an exception—a very small and shy female who outlived mom.

        That said, given the choice, every single cat chooses to use the cat flap and go outside, even during inclement weather. It is their nature, for better or worse. They do what they want, they never get fat, but they die young.

        • geckzilla
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

          (Precious lived around 16 years, I think. Mom died and my dad refused to take her cat, so he gave her to the humane society, who surely euthanized her. Such an elderly cat… it haunts me that I could not take them both to live with myself… I miss both dearly.)

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 27, 2016 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

            Oh, my, that’s sad!

        • Mark Sturtevant
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

          All good advice. Indoors for cats, most of the time.

          • Claudia Baker
            Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

            My male cat, who is 11 years old (I’ve had him since my female gave birth to him in my clothes closer – surprise!) is an outdoor cat. He sleeps all day and likes to go out around 11 p.m. for most of the night. At least in the nice weather. Not so much during the Canadian winter.

            He sometimes kills a mouse and brings it home to show me. I’ll find it on the deck in the morning. I live surrounded by woods on one side and a lake on the other. There are lots of wild animals around, but so far, nothing has happened to him.

            I make sure he gets his rabies shots every year. I know there are perils out there, but cats are nocturnal and love roaming around at night. I can’t bear to keep him in. He is well loved and taken care of, and if something did happen to him, I would feel okay, knowing he had the best cat’s life a kitteh could have.

            He pays absolutely no attention to my bird feeder during the day as he is mostly sleeping. He might gaze out the window at the birds eating, but shows no inclination to go out and go after them. And I don’t mind the demise of a mouse now and then. Keeps the rodent population down in a natural way.

            • Mark Sturtevant
              Posted August 26, 2016 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

              Given its durability of your cat, it is time to suspect that it is a cybernetic organism; living tissue over a metal endoskeleton.

              • Claudia Baker
                Posted August 27, 2016 at 8:53 am | Permalink

                Haha Mark. I will check into that possibility. Good explanation as any as to why he has survived this long, doing what he does. I just call him “alpha kitteh”, because he has all dogs in the area afraid of him.

      • Grania Devine
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:42 pm | Permalink

        Also, outdoor cats are responsible for a huge number of songbird deaths. We had an indoor cat for over sixteen years – so sad she’s gone. Both you and the cat will benefit if s/he’s kept indoors.

        • ladyatheist
          Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

          Also, frogs & toads

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

        Congrats on being acquired by a cat!

        Others have stated the case for indoor cats; I made the change myself a while back after much consideration, but it’s probably a journey one has to take for oneself after considering the pros and cons. Meanwhile, it sounds as if you’ll have an outdoor cat on your hands for a while at least, so–

        Make sure to get it established at a veterinary practice, that it’s up to date on all the recommended vaccines, and take in a fecal sample if you can to check the parasite load and get treatment for that. Be sure that it’s spayed/neutered. Remember that even outdoor cats like a snug, protected place to sleep/hang out in; our “volunteer” cats liked the stacks of hay bales in the barn, but if you don’t have obvious shelter do create some. (Some outdoor cat owners create cat-door access to their garages, where they can put snug cat beds, feeding stations, etc. Or the same for enclosed porches.) It’s a very good idea to have some place where you know you can confine the cat in emergencies, and for its own safety.

        Do provide a good diet at predictable times; if you try to leave food out continuously, you’ll have a lot more than just a cat on your hands in short order. 😉

        Just because it’s an outdoor cat doesn’t mean it won’t like toys, or playing with a wand, etc.–try whatever strikes your fancy and it might strike his/hers as well. Lots of first-time cat owners are surprised to find out just how social and affectionate most cats can be.

        Try to find out when most birds in your area nest; in the mid- to northern part of the States, for instance, it’s largely over a few months of the late spring/early summer. Do your best to only let your cat out at night during those months; birds are at their most vulnerable at that time–I call fledglings living appetizers–and you can reduce your cat’s toll quite a bit that way, as most songbirds are quiet and inactive overnight. It is true (depending on your area–true for me!) that coyotes will be a significant threat to your cat at night (and in some areas, during the day, too!) but that’s a part of being a nocturnal predator, which your outdoor cat will by nature be.

        Enjoy this to the hilt! S/he will probably change your life. 🙂

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

        I object to outdoor cats, except in functional contexts, like a mouser in a barn. Outdoor cats are lethal to birds and small mammals.

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/outdoor-cats-kill-between-14-billion-and-37-billion-birds-a-year-study-says/2013/01/31/2504f744-6bbe-11e2-ada0-5ca5fa7ebe79_story.html

        When I moved to this ranch four years ago the caretaker’s house had over a dozen outdoor, virtually feral cats. We neutered and placed them if they were healthy enough. My daughter kept four. A few had to be killed. The birds have come back strong. I’m seeing rabbits now.

        Finally, cats are preyed on by owls, hawks, eagles, coyotes, feral dogs, etc.

        • ladyatheist
          Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:05 pm | Permalink

          I completely agree. Too many bad things happen to outdoor cats, and they are the perpetrators of too many bad things.

          Also, they poop in my yard.

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      I think other readers will give you better advice here, especially about the “outdoor cat” bit.

  36. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    3 questions

    First : How’s this idea – this is for anyone else too – a control experiment for religion. Yes I know it will never work:

    Religion has a lot to do with living your life according to the values, feelings, customs, etc. found in a single piece of writing. So a control experiment for a believer would be to spend a year using another book as the holy book – for example, swap the bible with the lord of the rings. If you get the same results, it isn’t the book.

    Second question: how would you explain [any Muslim dress] to children? For example, the one that covers everything but the face – that can be found in Anytown USA it seems nowadays. And Just today I saw five young children sitting in a row – three with that dress, and you can guess the other two had Y-chromosomes.

    3. Should any article on WEIT get comments at any time? I tried an old one once and it didn’t work.

  37. RichardS
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    How do you distinguish hard determinism from fatalism?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

      Re Stephen’s question below: Fatalism seems to be connected with a psychological attitude of resignation (at least that’s what I gleaned from a brief scan of the Stanford entry). You can, I think, be a determinist without being gloomy; and, at any rate, I’d prefer to just call myself a naturalist and a determinist.

      • Posted August 26, 2016 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

        Clarifying the fatalism/determinism distinction may be enough to swing rational free-willers into the determinism camp. Clinching onto free will isn’t necessary if we live in a world that is determined but which can be modified, harms mitigated.

        Fatalism casts a pale of ennui over everything. And people think that’s what determinism is.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

        The determinist is the guy who, when the alarm goes off, gets up and while shaving, hopes for the serenity to accept the things he cannot change.

        The fatalist is the guy who shuts off the alarm, climbs back under the covers, and thinks “if they’re gonna fire me, they’re gonna fire me.”

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

        “Fatalism” is used as a code word to discredit arguments. In philosophical discussions, which these fascinating ramblings about free will are, we should use crisp, philosophical definitions, not value-laden folklore about the Fates.

        Pessimism, despair, laziness, and resignation have no role is this definition. They aren’t to the point. The point is the question: Are we powerless to do anything other than what we actually do?

        You’re entitled to call yourself whatever you like, Jerry.

  38. karaktur
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

    Does hard determinism mean that the guitar solo in “Comfortably Numb” was determined in the first few seconds of the universe?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

      No, because (at least as Sean Carroll tells me), quantum effects could have played a role in the early universe, so we might not get Earth if the Big Bang happened again. And, of course, as I argue in Faith versus Fact, if mutations are quantum phenomena, then on a replay of evolution you might get completely different creatures. If you didn’t get humans, you don’t get guitar solos.

      • karaktur
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

        I was hoping for that answer. Even though it means I have much more work to do to get my head wrapped around these concepts. Thanks for the answer.

      • Dimitris Klaras
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

        It surprise me! I will remember this answer for future reference. Is very important. Looks like… progress!!! Thank you!!!

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

        Sorry, but that doesn’t sound like determinism to me.

        Determinism means that things are determined. You don’t get any wiggle-room by appealing to quantum mechanics (which is deterministic, but indeterminate).

        • Posted August 27, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

          Well, under some interpretations of quantum mechanics, if you go back to the same initial situation in nature, with every particle in the same position, you’ll still get different outcomes in a replay. That doesn’t work on the macro scale, which, as Sean says, is deterministic, but unless you accept the “many worlds” interpretation, then yes, things could have happened differently insofar as quantum phenomena can have an effect on the macro scale.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

      No. But it does mean that Gilmour’s solo on Money was determined at the time of supersymmetry breaking.

  39. John Taylor
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

    You have a lot of food related posts but I don’t recall seeing anything on Italian food. What are your feelings on Italian food?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know much about Italian food, though what I’ve had I love. I just haven’t been to Italy and, truth be told, I’m afraid of going to Italian restaurants because I don’t know how to order! There’s primeri, segundi, antipasto, pasta, etc.. Which do you order? I’m absolutely comfortable with French food because I spent years eating in France, but I’ve been to Italy only once, and we had no choice since I was at the Villa Serbelloni in Bellagio on a Rockefeller fellowship. The food was good but not great there.

      • revelator60
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

        I took a trip to Naples and Pompeii last year and heartily recommend it. The major guide books (like Lonely Planet or Rough Guide) explain the courses (primeri, segundi etc) and also list common dishes and their ingredients.

        Naples is a bit grimy but less touristy than Italy’s other big cities. It’s also close to Capri, Herculaneum, Paestum, and Pompeii and has an archaeological museum filled with incredible artwork from the ruins. Mary Beard’s book on Pompeii is a introduction.

        • stephen
          Posted August 26, 2016 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

          I’m a former professional cook and restaurateur who has spent time in Italy and worked for two years as the chef (capo cuoco) of a Tuscan restaurant in Germany-all the rest of the team were Italians. Antipasto is approximately the same as a starter,but may also, especially in the plural – antipasti, be copious and sometimes elaborate hors d’oeuvres which could serve as a lighter meal on their own. Primo is technically the first course,but rarely omitted and often the most important course: typically pasta, rice (usually a risotto) or a substantial soup. Secondo corresponds to the main course but is often omitted from simpler meals and may or may not be accompanied by one or more Contorni: side-dishes.There may follow Formaggi (cheeses) and Frutta (self-evident,I hope) which is frequently served with the cheese, and possibly, on special occasions, Dolce – dessert or pudding as my own tribe refer to it. A meal will usually consist of two to four courses e.g. primo and secondo or antipasto and primo; primo,secondo,formaggio or antipasto,primo,formaggio… I’m sure you have the idea by now, hope it helps.

          • Posted August 27, 2016 at 11:44 am | Permalink

            Thanks. I know that in France, you will be seen as a n00b if you try to order just an appetizer and dessert, as I saw a pair of hapless American try to do in my favorite midtown bistro!

            • Diana MacPherson
              Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

              We’re all n00bs are something!

            • Posted August 29, 2016 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

              It was my brief experience Americans in France are almost invariably regarded as n00bs, because so few of them speak French. Even Canadians (like us) threw people through a loop:

              They really didn’t know what to make of my family – my sister and mother are comfortable but speak like Quebecois; my father and I are less so but speak Parisien. (I do the Parisien on purpose to use a “standard accent” everywhere French is spoken. Elitist, sure … :))

              (And then there’s when we met an elderly and perhaps hard of hearing German who took us for locals …)

              • Posted August 29, 2016 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

                I speak French reasonably (I understand less well). Enough to hold typical conversations. I was taught by French expats (in the USA) to speak “metropolitan French” and I am glad of it. I have little trouble in France.

                Except in Provence, one of my favorite destinations. A thick Provençale accent will often defeat my comprehension, especially on the telephone.

                I used to live in Seattle and frequently visited Vancouver BC. When I did I, almost invariably listened to the CBC French service, for the practice. I had little trouble understanding the staff. But when they spoke to a real Qebecois? Forget about it. It was like trying to understand Bavarian dialect.

                I was often approached in younger days in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway and addressed in the local language. (I’m tall, of almost 100% nordic stock, and I used to have a red beard and reddish hair). I don’t speak a word of those languages, beyond basic politeness.

                On the other hand, many times in Belgium, I would be proudly using French with someone and they’d instantly switch to English. Pretty obvious, I guess!

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

        I grew up in an Italian neighborhood. Find a place with checkered tablecloths, with breadsticks, with chianti in straw baskets. Order the baked ziti. Drink the House Red (which, if the House is worth a damn, ought to be pretty damn good).

        Ya can’t go wrong. Mangia paisan!

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted August 27, 2016 at 12:22 am | Permalink

          And whatever you do, eschew those chi-chi Northern Italian joints (small portions, for which you’ll pay through il naso).

          (Just kidding … sort of; I love NI cuisine, too.)

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        I’m afraid of going to Italian restaurants because I don’t know how to order!

        Probably file that one under “notes for FFRF convention”?

        • BobTerrace
          Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

          I went to an Italian restaurant last night. It’s simple; I order what I want. Caesar salad, mussels in garlic, pork saltimbocca with angel hair pasta.

          • Alexander
            Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

            That is what we did when we lived in Italy, you just order different items, like one or two vegetables, meat or fish, rice or potatoes, and you don’t eat it all at the same time–better for the digestion. And of course the wine.

          • Merilee
            Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

            Spaghetti carbonara😍
            Prosciutto con melon…

            Tortellini alfredo…

  40. Curt Nelson
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    What I’d like to know is why you frequently visit Poland and stay at Hili’s place? Is it simply a nice get-away, with friends and pie, or are you doing something in particular?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:41 pm | Permalink

      It feels like home to me, with wonderful people who seem like second parents to me (now that my own are gone), and of course there’s a cat. I go there to visit my friends, relax, eat pie, and commune with Hili, but it’s also a great place to work because Malgorzata and Andrzej work on their website about 14 hours a day, so it’s quiet. I wrote most of my new children’s book there, and a lot of Faith Versus Fact. Even if I had no “real” work to do, I’d still visit because of my wonderful friends; I could always find something to occupy myself with.

      • Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:46 am | Permalink

        Sounds just like the heaven that it looks like from all the photos!

        I traveled around the world for 2+ years with one friend. We were often taken in by older couples and treated like long-lost sons. Those were wonderful experiences.

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 31, 2016 at 2:04 am | Permalink

        “…who seem like second parents to me…”

        This surprised me, as a fellow no-longer-a-spring-chicken child of the first half of the last century. (Note–Jerry’s about a month younger than I am.) I’d envision second parents to me as folks significantly older than A & M appear! 😉

        But then I guess there are no age restrictions on those who just have a knack for making others of us feel appreciated and understood and also nourish (the atheist equivalent of) our souls…

  41. Kevin
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    What is your favorite candy?

    What is your favorite hard alcoholic drink?

    What is your favorite tea?

    Do you prefer sunrises or sunsets?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      1. Mr. Das’s sonpapri, although that Indian sweet might not be considered “candy”. I also love maple sugar, Stilwell’s Humbugs (from Canada), and liquorice-blackcurrant “boiled sweets” from England.

      2. Hard liquor. I don’t drink much of that. For real hard stuff, Woodford Reserve bourbon, for liqueurs, green Chartreuse.

      3. Tea. I love good Pu-Erh tea but lately have been drinking matcha. I also love Lapsang Souchang. Tea must be very strong!

      4. Probably sunsets, as they tend to be more dramatic and you’re also in a more wakeful state to enjoy them. But I’ve seen few sights more beautiful than sunrise over Death Valley when I’m camping on the west side of the Valley on the slope of the Panamints. The best sunsets I’ve ever seen were in the Himalaya, for the peaks remain illuminated far after the valleys have been plunged into purple darkness. It’s something to see an 8,000-meter peak glowing orange above the clouds.

      • Claudia Baker
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

        Stilwell’s humbugs were my Mom’s favourite candy too. And their chocolate Easter eggs (dark or milk) are the best chocolate I have tasted! You are the first person I have ever heard talk of Stilwell’s, outside of Montrealers. You do get around JC! You might need a maple sugar/humbug care package from Canada!

        • Posted August 27, 2016 at 11:47 am | Permalink

          I didn’t know that Stillwell made anything other than humbugs! But humbugs are truly one of the world’s great candies, made only with the finest ingredients.

          I just went to the Stillwell’s site and didnt’ see chocolate eggs, but note that they’re making several different flavors of hard candy now.

          • Claudia Baker
            Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:01 am | Permalink

            Stilwell’s store was in the Verdun area of Montreal, where my grandparents and Dad lived. They made chocolate as well as their famous humbugs. They only had the eggs at Easter. The store moved sometimes in the 90’s to another part of Montreal. It is now closed, but as you saw on their site, they still make and ship humbugs.

            Their products were (and are) handmade with superior ingredients. You know how good the humbugs are. Well, the chocolate was SO delicious (at least to a chocolate lover like me). To my knowledge, they don’t make it anymore, which is a pity.

            It’s just, when you mentioned Stilwell’s, it was such a big part of my childhood in Montreal, that it took me aback!

            So the fact that you 💝 Amy and Stilwell’s is enough for me to have mad respect!

            • Claudia Baker
              Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:05 am | Permalink

              Oops, the little pink heart before “Amy” didn’t show up. So, insert “love” there.

              • Claudia Baker
                Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:07 am | Permalink

                So now it shows up. Oy!

  42. Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    So late to the party…I’ll subscribe later, after I’ve had a chance to catch up!

    Apologies if some variation on this theme has already cropped up; feel free to point me in its direction if so.

    You’ve got more than enough achievements to your merit for a lifetime of work for anybody — especially including all those doctors and Speciation. And you’re still in great health, with a good chance of being in good health for at least another decade, maybe three or more.

    A quarter century from now, what do you hope to add to your list of accomplishments that you reasonably think might come to pass? Personal, professional, whatever…what big things do you want to do with your life now that you’re all growed up?

    Cheers,

    b&

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      Right now I think I’ve accomplished enough, careerwise, and now I want to catch up on the fun I missed working 7 days a week for most of my life. I’ll still do sciencey stuff, of course, and writing, but now I want to meet some travel goals to the bucket list. It’s a huge and diverse world, and I don’t want to die without having see a fair bit of it.

      • ladyatheist
        Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

        Too late to ask questions, but do follow-ups count? Just in this thread you’ve mentioned the Himalayas, Paris, Death Valley, Italy, and Poland. Where *haven’t* you been?

      • Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:49 am | Permalink

        + a large number.

        This is no rehearsal!

  43. Richard Dahl
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 2:48 pm | Permalink

    Any future book plans beyond you children’s book?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

      The Oxford VSI on speciation I’ve described elsewhere in this thread.

  44. Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Once life has started, is evolution inevitable? (Say with earth-like conditions & biochemistry.)

    In other words, is the claim by creationists that evolution never happened not just wrong, but hypothetically impossible?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:08 pm | Permalink

      If that “life” is replicating, and if the replication isn’t perfect, then yes, evolution is inevitable. That is, there has to be some kind of mutation that makes organisms differ from one another and can be inherited. It’s hard to conceive of any kind of “life” that isn’t like that. In fact, Dawkins once defined life as something like “that entity that undergoes evolution”.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        If that “life” is replicating, and if the replication isn’t perfect,

        Just to extend this somewhat – the intellectual spiders that are computational information theory and thermodynamics talk to this. There are energetic costs to transmitting information, and replication of a genome (regardless of it’s chemistry) is a transmission of information. Those energetic costs increase as the error rate of the transmission decreases (equivalent, IIRC, to increasing the bandwidth of the transmission channel). Which adds up to the cost of transmission with zero error rate is infinite. Thermodynamics doesn’t like things which cost infinite energy.
        Even if you add things like fault-tolerant codecs (footnote 1), and error-correcting modulators/ demodulators (built into ribosymes ; a second layer in the “double” part of “double helix”), and the fact that it’s a digital transmission system, all this does is reduce the error rate.
        Modern digital systems – e.g. hard drives, or flash memory – have error rates of the order of one bit in 10^12. Biological error rates are variable but higher at around one bit in 10^7 to 10^8 ; to absolutely no-one’s surprise (apart from a Creationist’s), the lower error rates are found in genes for the more fundamental parts of biochemistry and metabolism.
        In theory a Mad Scientist™ could redesign the genetic code and genetic equipment to have, say, an error rate of 1 part in 10^10, which would considerably slow evolution but would not stop it. However the more complex mechanisms (e.g. using 4-bit words for every amino acid) would require more material, more operations, or simply more energy. That energy would not be available for growth or reproduction, and I’d hope that everyone here recognises that as the core of differential reproduction and hence evolution.

        (Footnote 1) 4-state (A, C, G & T) tuples (three-character words) have a potential to encode 64 different data words. But they are used to encode 20 amino acids ; there is considerable redundancy in the encoding. Work has certainly been done on how “like chance” that arrangement of tuples is ; it is very unlikely to be a chance arrangement. It is strongly suspected to be the result of a two-character system (with 16 possible data words) which added a third character. This was probably to reduce the error rate (“Play it again, Sam!”), but also with the consequence of increasing the potential palette of amino acids.

      • Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:53 am | Permalink

        “It’s hard to conceive of any kind of ‘life’ that isn’t like that.”

        That was the point I was going to make.

        I think those key features (replication for sure) are part of the definition of “life”.

        And, nothing is perfect in real life. Doesn’t exist. So imperfect copying seems a given to me.

        So, as far as I can see, any life that gets going will evolve by evolution by natural selection. Seems like a law of nature to me.

  45. Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    I finally got around to reading “Why Evolution is True” and I TORE through it. I didn’t need to be convinced or anything, but I find the evidence extremely elegant and exciting. My favorite evolution read since The Ancestor’s Tale.

    My question is this:

    You warn against applying the core tenants of evolution to other disciplines, such as social science (I believe that was an example you used, my copy is not with me). But do you think that evolution has something to teach other disciplines? Which ones specifically, if so?

    Thanks and keep up the great work.

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

      Yes, of course, as we are evolved creatures. It surely has implications for ethical philosophy (where did we get our “morals” from? do other creatures show a form of morality?); for sociology and economics, for medicine (“evolutionary medicine” is a fascinating area), and of course for human behavior–the “evolutionary psychology” that is so often vilified. The difficulty is to apply evolutionary theories rigorously so you’re not just telling a Darwinian story and leaving it there. The applications should if possible involve testable hypotheses. But it’s often hard to test evolutionary hypotheses, even in evolutionary biology.

  46. Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    I was born and raised atheist, so have no history of belief; so this is a question I ask myself purely for fun:

    If you had to select a religion to follow (presuming one could choose to believe in such nonsense at will), which would you select and why?

    Personally, I select norse or celtic purely because of the aesthetic values (both art and mythos appeal) but, I have no cultural attachment.

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 6:23 pm | Permalink

      Quakers, because you don’t really have to do anything, including believing in God, and they have a long history of antiwar work. In fact, I was an volunteer for the Quakers in D.C. during the Vietnam war. I’ve been to one Quaker meeting in my life and they didn’t say anything about god: just people standing up and saying what was on their mind. That said, I’d prefer not being formally affiliated with any faith, because I don’t get much even out of Quaker meetings.

      • Christopher
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

        I only recently found out that my Jewish ancestors who had moved from Germany to England some time perhaps in the early 1700’s converted to Quakers before leaving England for the US in the mid to late 1700’s (I’ve forgotten the exact dates). I wish I knew more, I wish I knew why the converted, why the immigrated each time. Almost makes up for the strain of Baptist/Southern Baptists running amok through my family tree. Almost.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

      If you had to select a religion to follow (presuming one could choose to believe in such nonsense at will), which would you select and why?

      [SELF : pushes tempting plate of spaghetti and meatballs towards Prof Ceiling Cat.]

  47. tubby
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    You proposed a friendly bet about the election earlier this year, but betting cash never strikes me as friendly. Would you bet coffee? Like 6-12 ounces of beans from a coop or local roaster?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      I don’t see why cash isn’t friendly; I’ve remained friends with every friend I’ve ever bet money with. I would also bet coffee, but it would have to be a pound, and it’s a bit more cumbersome.

      • tubby
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

        There’s also the thing that if I bet cash with you I’d just go buy a cup of coffee with it if I won, so by betting beans I skip a step. It also feels more like an exchange of things enjoyed rather than betting money on something I don’t want to happen but am afraid will come to pass.

        • Diane G.
          Posted August 29, 2016 at 3:28 am | Permalink

          Reminds me of my common gift dilemma…I intuited while growing up that just giving cash was too easy and crass, that a real gift should show that one actually put some thought into finding something that would suit and please an acquaintance. This inevitably leads to fruitless and increasingly desperate shopping attempts to find that perfect item, climaxing with the recipient having to feign delight over something s/he’s actually pretty meh about. Or worse.

          The other side of the coin (heh) is that giving money in some mutual exchange seems totally pointless. Why bother just essentially just trading money?

          • RichardS
            Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:29 am | Permalink

            Well put, Diane G, on gifts.

            Also liked your comments on moving out of the U.S. if the draft was re-instituted. I spent three years in the U.S. Army but was determined none of my sons would become cannon fodder so moved to Canada over 40 years ago at a time when the draft was still in effect.

            • Diane G.
              Posted August 31, 2016 at 12:37 am | Permalink

              Thanks, RichardS. And I’m very impressed with your story.

              I strongly doubt we’d still be in Iran if a draft were in force. Think of the lives that would have saved.

              Speaking of both vets who subsequently deplore wars and Canada–have you ever read Farley Mowat’s And No Birds Sang?

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 31, 2016 at 12:38 am | Permalink

                Iraq, dammit.

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 31, 2016 at 1:15 am | Permalink

                Also, “would have been saved.”

                I can proofread anything but my own writing.

          • Diana MacPherson
            Posted August 29, 2016 at 11:32 am | Permalink

            Money also seems to have a strange stigma in our society. We want money, we like money but there is a thing as “dirty money” and giving money is seen as crass. In other cultures, giving money is not so much of big deal and is encouraged.

            • infiniteimprobabilit
              Posted August 30, 2016 at 1:39 am | Permalink

              Polynesians often give money as a present. On the plus side, it saves the giver from spending hours agonising about whether their present is appropriate or useful, and is arguably worth much more to the recipient, who can spend the money on, by definition, exactly what they want / need rather than have a gift that may not align with their needs.

              Sometimes (European) people give e.g. book vouchers, but all that does is devalue the gift since the recipient is then compelled to buy from the limited range at the issuing store, at that store’s prices. Money is much better value.

              cr

              • Diane G.
                Posted August 31, 2016 at 12:44 am | Permalink

                Here our most common substitute is gift cards associated with specific retail/restaurant establishments. So instead of just giving money, we give money that has to be spent at one particular business only. And research shows a significant portion of such cards are never even redeemed.

                Somehow, a box of homemade (or bakery bought) cookies doesn’t seem like a “real” Xmas (say) gift–but I’d sure be a lot more delighted with that than Big Mouth Billy Bass or a Chia Pet!

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 31, 2016 at 1:01 am | Permalink

                “…Big Mouth Billy Bass or a Chia Pet!”

                I had to Google those, errm, cultural references. Cringeworthy.

                I’m sure the people who like Billy Bass also own one of those caps with a pair of string-activated clappy hands.

                cr

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

      Things must get a mite cumbersome at your crib on poker night. (“I’ll call your Java Arabica and raise you a pound of Hawaiian Kona.”)

  48. barn owl
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    For those of us in developed countries, what do you think our individual responsibilities are for mitigating climate change, or for reducing habitat loss/destruction of nature (whichever of those is more interesting or answerable for you)? Or do we even have any such responsibilities?

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

      I think the first thing ALL of us need to do is educate ourselves about the evidence for it, and what scientists say about the consequences. Then we should fight against denialism where we can: same strategy as with creationists. And yes, we should try to minimize our carbon footprint (but please don’t tell me not to fly).

      • barn owl
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

        Thanks for your answers, PCC(E)! I agree, telling people what they should not do is usually ineffective (not to mention rude), and I think a lot of the pushback on carbon footprint reduction arises from a general human dislike of being told what we can’t/shouldn’t do. I’ve definitely mellowed on this issue in my middle age, and I’m frequently reminded of the more idealistic and strident (i.e. obnoxious) approaches of my youth, now that I’m faculty mentor to an environmental student interest group.

        With people who are not necessarily interested in or open to the science or politics of climate change and habitat loss (and who might also be prone to denialism), I’ve found they can often be engaged in discussions of phenology and the impact of climate change on their own local environment and backyard. I think your Reader’s Wildlife Photos feature is a great educational resource in this regard, especially with some of the regular contributors providing photos throughout the seasons in one location, and with the geographical diversity of the contributions overall.

      • Posted August 29, 2016 at 9:02 am | Permalink

        I have always bought efficient cars.

        I have always striven hard to have a short commute.

        I have frequently commuted by bicycle

        I have upgraded the energy efficiency of our house: Appliances, furnace, AC, water heater, windows (including low-e glass), doors, etc.

        I have replaced all commonly used lights in our home with LEDs.

        I pay attention to our power bills.

        The first slice of our power bill is from renewable sources (mainly wind generation around here) at a voluntarily accepted premium price — to support the practice.

        We do our best to follow the three Rs, in order: Reduce, reuse, recycle (We give away many things for reuse.)

        I nag my family about power use! 🙂

        Reducing your impact: That’s true conservatism! 🙂

  49. Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    I think that you and Sam Harris are on the same page on the topic of free will but not so on the worth of the word spiritual.

    What do you think of Sam’s claim that meditation can reveal some states of mind that are qualitatively different from more accessible states such as wonder or curiosity and that they can potentially help subjectively observe a lack of free will?

    • Posted August 29, 2016 at 9:17 am | Permalink

      I think Sam’s assertion is that meditation can help one see the state of consciousness as it really is, not as we normally conceive of it.

  50. Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, and all your readers, for sharing.
    The quality of topics and thoughts expressed here are stellar. I’m sure I learn much I didn’t know, and following new thoughts in new directions is exciting. Thanks to Malgorzata for the Cherry Pie recipe (think she’d share more recipes?)

    You are fortunate to be the kind of person who attracts such wonderful friends (It was determined. Couldn’t be otherwise. Right?!)If so, I wish such friendships were determined for all of us.

    Dumb question: Why does the unconscious brain construct impossible visions and stories to share with consciousness? This morning, as I was waking up, I distinctly saw a rotisserie chicken turning in a rotisserie in my bedroom. This kind of oddity is not unusual for me.

    • Alexander
      Posted August 26, 2016 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

      You were still dreaming. You can dream that you are waking up!

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 7:09 am | Permalink

      Could it be that something biochemical is going on inside your body that might emit stuff that sort of smell like roasting chicken?

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      Sometimes, I think, the brain just fires wildly, although your programs force it into making a kind of sense based on your life. That, I think, is what dreams are about. The chicken, as someone pointed out, is a dream-work!

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

      Thanks to Malgorzata for the Cherry Pie recipe (think she’d share more recipes?)

      Cue the “Hili Cherry Cookbook”?

  51. Heather Hastie
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Do you like being in the water, and if so do you prefer sea, lake, river, or pool?

    What are your favourite fruits and vegetables? Do you have a meal you’d choose as your last?

    If you could have a dinner party with any five people from throughout history, who would they be?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:14 pm | Permalink

      I like open water: sea. But I am very sensitive to cold, so I can’t tolerate water that’s much colder than a tepid bath. It’s a pity, because the water in Lake Michigan doesn’t get like that until the very end of summer, before it starts getting cold again.

      Fruits: favorite is the mango. Vegetables: I love corn, but it’s not as good for you as other vegetables. I also like radishes and green peppers. My last meal would probably be like my 40th birthday dinner, which I cooked with a friend. It had about 12 courses, started at 6 pm and lasted till 2 am. I had great wines with each course. Smoked salmon, foie gras with Sauternes, filets with Roquefort and reduced wine sauce, grapefruit sorbet with Campari, chicken with 40 cloves of garlic, (I’m forgetting a few courses), chocolate cake, and finishing up with vintage port and nuts.

      Dinner party: good question. I’ll just throw out names off the top of my head: Charles Darwin (of course), Winston Churchill (for the wit), Isaac Newton, James Joyce, and Sarah Silverman, who would also be my date. I can immediately think of many other names, but I’ll stop here.

      • Christopher
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

        and I assume Philomena Cunk for deep philosophical and intellectual discourses well into the wee hours, of course.

        • Posted August 27, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink

          Yes, I had to dither between Sarah and Philomena. I am of course deeply smitten by both of them. Also by Shappi Khorsandi, now President of the British Humanists. It’s curious that all of them are comedians. Maybe I just have a thing for funny women, women who, according to Hitchens, don’t exist!

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

        Dinner party: good question. I’ll just throw out names off the top of my head: Charles Darwin (of course),

        I believe the famous Iguanodon dining hall is still in existence, though it might be a bit awkward to get permission to use a listed building for a dinner party.
        (Of course Darwin was relatively little known at the time of the banquet; but he lived quite near to Gideon “is this an Iguanodon I see before me?” Mantell and had been Secretary to the Geological Society for some time, so it’s unlikely he didn’t know of the event. Given his precarious health though, he probably wouldn’t have attended, even if invited.
        Although the invite survives, it’s not given in detail.)

  52. michieux
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Where can I find biographical information about you; do I need yo read your books for that?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

      Wikipedia has a decent entry, I think.

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

      God forbid you should have to read his books…

  53. Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

    Did you know that there are at least 77 other professors and teachers named “Coyne” in the United States alone? I found them here:
    http://www.ratemyprofessors.com/search.jsp?query=coyne&queryoption=HEADER&stateselect=&country=&dept=&queryBy=&facetSearch=&schoolName=&offset=0&max=20.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a “Professor Coyne et al” gathering, someday? The “et al” is for those who are not yet professors.

  54. Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    PCC:

    Do you, or did you at any time, play a sport? Or perhaps did you compete in other games such as chess, Go, or similar ones?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      I was a varsity wrestler in high school, and not a bad one: I lettered in the sport. I wrestled in the 103 and 113 pound classes. Oh, for those days of low avoirdupois!

  55. Sameer
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Of all the places that you have lived, which one is your favorite and why? Where would you like to live if you were to relocate from Chicago?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      Paris, but it would be too expensive to live there. Of places I’ve lived more than a year, Boston and Manhattan are my favorites (I’m a city boy), but I wouldn’t mind living in San Francisco, either.

  56. Caroline
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

    My question, have you read any books by Noam Chomsky, and if so which ones?

    Thank you for your awesome blog! I enjoy it regularly.

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      I’ve read one of his books on the neurology of language (can’t remember the title) and, back in the sixties, a fair number of his essays, as well as some of pieces in the New York Review of Books. Not a lot given his output!

  57. Merilee
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    Sub

  58. Posted August 26, 2016 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, I’m wondering what you say about the “atheist movement”.

    a. Do you regard the “out campaign” (popularizing the term atheist) as successful? What (else) do you consider a sucess of the atheist movement? All related to that, do you e.g. think “atheist” is now a better understood and more positively viewed term than years ago, and how much credit do you give the blogging, video-making, tweeting and conference-going of nonfamous “out” atheists?

    b. When New Atheism was 2nd Wave, then “Intersectional Atheism” (or Social Justice Atheism) might be the new hip 3rd Wave. It has largely superceded the former wave, and in many ways broke with its tradition (e.g. postmodernism replaced Enlightenment values). Do you agree? What are the implications if so?

    c. It appears to be that the atheist work is largely done. There is now a high saturation of quality material debunking religious claims, including creationism. Where do you see work still to do?

    Cheers.

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 7:23 am | Permalink

      a. Yes, I think the “out” campaign has been pretty successful, or at least people speaking out publicly about nonbelief. I’ve been told many times, especially in the South, that people got the courage to “come out” by hearing others do the same. And since the number of people willing to say they’re atheists is growing in both the US and UK, I think the term “atheist” gets less opprobrium than it used to. I don’t think conferences are a major force here, as the attendees tend not to be “in the atheist closet” but surely books and websites have been important, for people have said that. I still go to some conferences, but I like to hear the science-y talks best.

      b. It’s clear from this website that I think atheism is a different “movement” from various forms of social justice. As a liberal, though, I favor both. But connecting them has proved problematic, as the incorporation of various forms of social justice into atheism has sometimes led to “purity tests” and acrimony. If one INSISTS that atheism be accompanied by specific beliefs about social change, oppression, and the like, then this rancor has damaged the “atheist” movement–that’s pretty clear. But, as I said in my American Humanist speech, one can draw a logical connection between atheism and social justice, if for no other reason than the best way to loosen religion’s grip on the planet is to improve people’s living conditions. My biggest objection is the form of ideological purity tests afflicting atheism, which leads to us eating our own.

      c. I think you’re right: there’s not much more need, at present, to reiterate the arguments of Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and the like. But I still think we need to push back against religion, because, at least in the U.S., it’s very strong and is insinuating itself into government. If we just relax, people will begin abusing the First Amendment and we’ll start creeping toward theocracy. That’s why organizations like the FFRF are so important. Eternal vigilance is the price of secularism. But I think we can now afford to be largely reactive (when religious people either say influential but stupid things, or try to force their values into government), rather than proactive.

    • bluemaas
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 9:49 am | Permalink

      If I may interpose here, Aneris, one aspect of the outting – campaign which I see needing still more vigilance and then the skilled and attentive work of its debunking is accommodationism. Just today on npr, Mr Simon got all gushy and ‘spiritual’ly wooish during, and particularly with his ending of, this one of his program’s pieces: http://www.npr.org/2016/08/27/491538570/sir-the-baptist-a-preachers-kid-finds-his-own-sanctuary-in-music

      The musician / preacher is, in his life, doing ‘nice’ things which need doing, to be sure. Like helping out from domestic violence his own sister. Just like nearly all accommodationists believe about themselves and about their ‘functioning’ / their tiptoeing around others deep in the throe of woo, of any kind of it.

      But that is so wrong. Accommodationism is a very huge reason as to why, after two decades of my being a formally recognized member of the Religious Society of Friends in order to succeed at my building for them a “religiously identifying” history to protect my kiddos from militarism, I left Quakerism.

      Friends strive for many things — if true to Quakerism; and one of those things is neutrality. “Do not take sides. As pacifists, we hafta listen to All’s beliefs and thinkings on this (or that) matter. All. Including obviously violent and / or (say, scientifically and, thus, evident – ially !) wrong beliefs and thinkings. And then ACT neutrally.”

      Wull … … excuuuuse me. Pacifist that I and all three sons still physically are and intend to remain, I believe as did the late Mr Elie Wiesel: we must take sides in all violent and wrong matters. Else, if a person remains neutral, s(h)e has just taken the side of the oppressor.

      By their neutrality, accommodationists Quakers then are re all matters of wooish wrongness; the woo is the side that is helped. And thus, … … perpetuated.

      None of my Boys are still Quakers, however; two are out – atheists (one of them with three kiddos of his own) and one, married to a fundamentalist raised up in Mexico, joined, with her, at the Border some evangelical Methodist deal. His one child (the children so wooishly inculcated as Mr Hitchens righteously pointed out its being child abuse — is why I believe as I do), now 16, recently to my face when the two of us were alone together asked me, Grandma Blue, what I thought of all of the woo. To say the least (& I by Daughter – in – law Alejandra am a bit trepid about my becoming word – whipped later re my response), my reply to Jacobo was .not. one of accommodationism ! Not at all !

      Blue

      • Diane G.
        Posted August 29, 2016 at 2:31 am | Permalink

        …two decades of my being a formally recognized member of the Religious Society of Friends in order to succeed at my building for them a “religiously identifying” history to protect my kiddos from militarism…

        I so identify with that. I’m sure vast numbers of Moms who experienced the Viet Nam era and the draft had that horrible choice to make–profess some religion (and be able to prove that your family was really and truly involved in it, as the Selective Service demanded in those days to get a CO exemption), or gamble that there’d be no war when your kids would be of draft age…

        I finally decided that if we ever faced a war-time draft I’d take my son and find a new country.

        • bluemaas
          Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:48 am | Permalink

          That so is the way it was, Ms Diane G, for us mamas determined not to raise up babes to maim and to kill other mamas’ babes. And, of course, for themselves to be destroyed.

          And I did consider fleeing to Canada with the three of them as I, then a trained member of this group too now mostly disbanded, Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors of https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Committee_for_Conscientious_Objectors, had helped other men to do so.

          My parents were silent atheists but, with their farming in a remote and heavily religious rural area, felt they had had to send us four kiddos to the crud in which they had been raised as well — in order, my Daddy decades into my adulthood confessed — — and for which he apologized, … … “to live in this community.” They could not strike a good seeds’ deal down to the Coop or a tractor fuel – one up to the Farm Service — — ‘cept unless and until George Parker or Harold Schmidt, those managers, had first seen them and theirs inside the Missouri Synod Lutheran pews the Sunday afore.

          Similarly and by then into my mid – 30s as a mama of three Boys, I already knew what had happened to darling Donald Black, dead already tben inside Viet Nam, and to two other of my inamoratos, Larry Watts and Brock Ahrens. Nothing at all about their (along with my) near – weekly attendance inside the Sunday School of the basement of Saint Paul’s had saved them from militarism or before draft boards.

          I had had to try something else. With, as you stated, its proof.

          Blue

          • Diane G.
            Posted August 31, 2016 at 1:49 am | Permalink

            Ah, yes, my undergraduate mentor (a mycologist at Oregon State) was quite involved with CCCO!

            Most interesting about your parents’ choices…I, too, live in a rural area. Every election I stand in line at the polls and catch up with my neighbors who are there cancelling my vote…And yet–they’re the salt-of-the-earth kinda neighbors–there when you need ’em and far beyond. I remember having a very hard time trying to raise critical thinkers while simultaneously imbuing a sense of tolerance with those ideologically orthogonal to what my husband and I believed. I also remember being afraid to say anything about being a non-believer when my kids were in elementary and secondary education lest I poison a teacher against them. I guess the bright spot is that we misfits are forced to address topics with our children that other families might not have to…or might be able to leave to the church…

            I witnessed and shared the angst of more than one boyfriend Catch-22-ed by the draft, but one of the things that–surprisingly–hit me the hardest was reading in the newspaper of the war death of one of my grade-school classmates…someone I hadn’t thought of in years. But then, suddenly, the image of we innocent second-graders doing our second-grade stuff contrasted with learning that Brian had died so prematurely and unnecessarily just shook my world to the core. Such an unspeakable waste…

            You know, it really hurts to relive some of this…

  59. Christopher
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    As usual, late to the party…

    Is there another area of biology (or perhaps in anything else at all) that you were also tempted to go into instead of speciation, ecological and evolutionary genetics? If so, what?

    and, do you think you, like Darwin, Dawkins, Wilson, Feynman, Hawking (come on, all the cool kids are doing it!), will ever write an autobiography, perhaps on your life as a scientist and how/why you became one?

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 11:11 am | Permalink

      I started off wanting to be a marine biologist in college, but that was instantly dispelled when I first learned about evolution. Since then I’ve never been tempted to go into other areas, as evolution is just so multifarious and fascinating.

      No, my life hasn’t been interesting enough to merit an autobiography, and I’m not that fond of the genre anyway. Most scientific autobiographies seem boring to me, and Feynman didn’t really write one anyway. I note that Carl Sagan didn’t, either!

      • Alexander
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

        Unfortunately they both died young. Feynman’s books, although distilled out of tape recordings, are quite interesting and funny.

      • Posted August 29, 2016 at 9:24 am | Permalink

        Agreed on the auotbios; but I own and enjoyed Richard Dawkins’ two-volumes of autobiography. I will reread them at some point.

  60. Magrathean Economist
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    I share your love of animals, especially cats, and always look forward to your curated cat videos. My question is how do you reconcile such love with eating factory-farmed animals, given the unspeakable suffering they endure? This is not an attack but rather a genuine question, and one on which Sam Harris has dwelled at various points (including a podcast with Paul Bloom.)

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 6:46 am | Permalink

      I’ve addressed this before. The answer is that it’s a moral failing on my part, although I try to avoid factory farmed meat when I can get humane stuff, and I’ve cut down considerably on my meat consumption. I’m not sure how Sam answered that. I’ve also made provisions in my will to donate a third of my savings to animal rescue and wildlife organizations (I wouldn’t give it to PETA), with the other two-thirds going equally to medical rescue and disaster relief of humans (orgs like MSF, though they are no longer the Official Website Charity) and money to feed children and bring fresh water to impoverished people. I think that’s a bit of recompense for my moral failings in this life.

      • Posted August 27, 2016 at 7:42 am | Permalink

        Perhaps a somewhat different perspective…..
        About 15 years ago we had a large property in the Cotswolds – 20 acres. I took up hobby farming as an enjoyable side interest, and kept a small herd of about 20 head of cattle. We raised them for their first 2 years, UK requirements at the time being that they had to go for slaughter then (BSE considerations). I felt horrible each time the cattle went off to market for subsequent slaughter. Yet I always thought, from the cattle’s perspective which is better – never to have any existed at all, or to have two enjoyable years at grass and then one awful day when it was over. I always felt the latter was better – guess it’s an interesting philosophical question to be debated.
        Compassionate farming and consideration for animal welfare do in my view mitigate to a reasonable degree the evil of accepting our innate nature of being carnivores.

        • Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

          Well put I agree. And, I would add that none of us gets out of this life alive, so I only wish we could each come to a humane end.

      • Posted August 29, 2016 at 10:21 am | Permalink

        Sam has, in the end, returned to not eating meat. I’m not sure if calls himself a vegearian, vegan, or what.

      • Posted August 29, 2016 at 10:38 am | Permalink

        Here’s the podcast (4-Jan-2016) where he states that he has returned to vegetarianism:

        Ask Me Anything 2

  61. Larry Smith
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    Great topic – please make it a yearly event, at least.

    I enjoy your posts about music, and share many of your likes.

    Q: As you seem to have an affinity for female singer-songwriters (e.g., Laura Nyro & Joni Mitchell – two of the best), have you ever “gotten into” Rickie Lee Jones?

    Thanks!

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

      Not really, but I’ve discovered that I missed many good singers because of prejudice and ignorance. For example, I discovered Amy Winehouse only this year, as most readers know. I wrote her off because I mistakenly thought of her as a punk rocker.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      Funny you should mention Rickie Lee; I was just listening to the duet she did with Dr. John on “Makin’ Whoopee.” It’s my favorite version of the tune — even more so than the one Michelle Pfeiffer rendered while squirming atop Jeff Bridge’s baby grand in The Fabulous Baker Boys (and that’s really sayin’ something).

  62. Taylor M. Brown
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 7:32 pm | Permalink

    I asked you last time about your writing methodology–how you form drafts, if you use outlines, etc.

    But there was a little left unanswered.

    Do you ever feel you’re investing too much time in a piece? And if so, how do you deal with that?

    Also, how do you determine what can be excluded? A lot of science writing appears to have many working parts. If you take out one part, the credibility of the piece seems to diminish: “Oh, well this guy didn’t included this, this, and this. His thesis must therefore be garbage.”

    And just for kicks: how much time do you spend per day reading/writing?

    I wish more writers would expose their practice, for it would give aspiring authors like me a less ambiguous formula (other than throwing yourself at it) for development.

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 11:15 am | Permalink

      No, I never felt I invested too much time in a piece; I tweak right up to the deadline. As someone once said, deadlines are wonderful things for concentrating the mind. Going over each draft I can always find something that could be improved.

      Excluding is very hard for me, as it is for a lot of writers. I count on friends who can proofread my pieces for me, esp. when I tell them “can you cut anything out of this?” Again, word limits are wonderful for this, and there are ways to protect credibility for stuff that can’t be included in extenso.

      It is very hard to write, and I can’t spend more than two or three hours at a stretch (or in a day) doing it. It leaves me exhausted. That’s why I admire and am astonished at people like Steve Pinker who can spend an entire day writing.

  63. leonkrier
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 7:54 pm | Permalink

    When you meet someone for the first time, what are the top one or two things you hope to learn about that person?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

      What they’re passionate about, so I can learn from their passions. I tend to be a questioner and listener when I meet someone, as nearly everybody has a story or a passion that is fascinating and instructive.

  64. Roger
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    Cheese or not cheese on the BLT!?

    • Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:18 pm | Permalink

      I’ve never had cheese with a BLT, but it doesn’t sound like a bad idea. I’d surely try it; I guess it would have to be grilled.

      • Roger
        Posted August 26, 2016 at 8:50 pm | Permalink

        Never thought of grilling it! Not a bad idea! Something new to try. Glad I asked the question haha.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      With 200-odd types of cheese to choose from before leaving the borders of France … which cheese? Or just a top 20.

      • Roger
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

        I’m not all that picky with cheese. I’m perfectly happy with Food Club American slices. So maybe the question is, which cheese would not go with bacon haha.

      • Posted August 28, 2016 at 9:45 am | Permalink

        In my view, the world’s best cheese is a 3-year-old aged Comté, a hard cheese from eastern France. After a year of aging (and you should buy it aged at least two years), it begins to get a wonderful crumbly texture and a luscious nutty taste. I tried dozens and dozens of different cheeses while living in France, and that was, hands down, the best. Other foodie friends that tried it when visiting me in France agreed. If you can ever find the three-year Comté (I used to buy it in Dijon), get it!

        A well aged and runny St. Marcellin is nothing to be sniffed at, as well as a good Camembert.

        The goat’s cheeses, some of my favorites, are so variable, even within a type, that I can’t recommend a variety. Find a good cheese shop in France that ages them properly and ask for recommendations.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted August 28, 2016 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

          To be honest, my memory for flavours – and even more for tieing sound sequences to flavours – is so poor that it would be far simpler to find a cheese shop by the size of it’s display and ask for recommendations.
          I first encountered Halloumi on a cheeseboard in an Abu Dhabi hotel, but nobody in the catering staff knew what it was called ; it took over a decade of trying to describe the form and mechanical texture (I simply don’t have the vocabulary for tastes) at any large cheese display before I met the coincidence of me and a slab of Halloumi being in the same place at the same time. Problem solved.
          Which reminds me – I have a friend to visit on Wednesday who is revolted by the concept of blue cheese, and there’s a particularly nice one on the shelves of Lidl this season. I’ll have to put together an educational package.

          • rickflick
            Posted August 28, 2016 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

            Mmmmmmm…Blooooo Cheeeeese…. *drool*

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted August 28, 2016 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

              Quoth – well, actually a Larry Niven character, though it probably goes back before the 1960s – “One man’s cheese is another man’s rotten milk.”

              • rickflick
                Posted August 28, 2016 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

                I agree with the quote. There is a lot of rotten milk out there.

        • Posted August 29, 2016 at 10:25 am | Permalink

          France, cheese heaven! 🙂

    • Diane G.
      Posted August 29, 2016 at 2:56 am | Permalink

      “Cheese…on the BLT!?

      Blasphemy!

  65. Estragon
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    I’ve often wondered if death from old age is a necessary component to make evolution work. Obviously, death from a predator because you were born with some physical limitation is necessary to weed out the weak members of the population, but what about death from old age? What would happen to a population if there was no such thing as death from old age?

    • nicky
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      I think George Williams answered that question a few decades ago.
      Since death eventually will occur, there is no strong selection against mutations that do cause ‘old age’, particularly (but not exclusively) if they give reproductive advantage earlier in life.
      So the answer would be: the would evolve to have ‘old age’.

      • Estragon
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

        Nicky: I’ve not read George Williams. I’ll definitely have to remedy that.

        Mutations occur randomly and if an offspring were to have a mutation where the aging process is slowed appreciably or canceled… and if that animal grows to adulthood then it could pass on that mutated gene to its own offspring. Conceivably you could have a segment of that animal’s population which increases as they procreate. The older we get the wiser we get and we learn how better to cope with our environment (avoiding predators, finding food, etc.) thus increasing our chances for survival even more.

        One factor that limits a population’s size is habitat. A population cannot grow larger than the size of the habitat which will support it. In my scenario above the non-aging segment would eventually become 100 percent of the population. They wouldn’t continue to procreate. The habitat wouldn’t support new individuals. Then what? Has evolution hit a brick wall?

        Has there ever been a science fiction book written or movie made based on this scenario?

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted August 27, 2016 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

          The older we get the wiser we get and we learn how better to cope with our environment

          If and ONLY if an individual can effectively remember this alleged wisdom, and do it without being kiled in the process. There are several dubious points in this suggestion.

          Has there ever been a science fiction book written or movie made based on this scenario?

          Niven’s “Known Space” series certainly paddles around this idea, with the introduction of “boosterspice” (the “hacked up genome of a ragwort”, IIRC). Typical life spans rapidly increase into the upper 100s (one protagonist, Louis Wu, is introduced on the eve of his 200th birthday, which is unusual but not unprecedented. Disease is conquered and mishap is steadily designed out – see “Safe at Any Speed”, where the protagonists autopilot flying car is swallowed by an elephant bird and the manufacturer is embarrassed at not having included enough Solitaire versions in the life support to avoid boredom during the months until the carcass rotted enough for the distress beacon to be picked up.
          As SaAS might suggest, immortality leads to dull extremely risk-averse characters. Niven isn’t the only writer to have met this problem. The Good Doctor had the same problem in the Lije Bailey books, and had to indulge in some late-career retconning to fit this story arc together with his “Foundation” universe.
          I’m sure there are other writers who have ploughed this furrow.

          • Estragon
            Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:02 am | Permalink

            Thanks gravelinspector-Aidan. Wikipedia has an article on “Known Space”. It looks interesting. I’ll read up on it.

            Stopping the aging process so that we could live forever may not be anything more than pure science fiction. There may not be a gene that controls the process or any method at all that would accomplish this. My interest in the idea is more or less a thought experiment that I indulge in from time to time (usually at night when I’m trying to get to sleep and I want to clear my brain of other junk that’s keeping me awake) where I try to visualize how the scenario might play out. I thought I would toss the idea to Mr. Coyne and his loyal followers and see what other people think.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted August 28, 2016 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

              There are good reasons for thinking that evolution wouldn’t develop or maintain the complex of genes that would be necessary for extreme long life. I think it’s been discussed here several times and I’m sure it’ll come up again.
              Larry Niven reading tips : start off with the short stories that he did “learning the craft” in the 1960s – various anthologies. Tis will lead you into Known Space. If you find a collection that includes “Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex”, install spray-proof covers over adjacent computers.
              Then ‘Ringworld’ – a strong contender for the best hard-sf novel of all time.
              After that, there are Ringworld sequel novels of varying quality, some very good collaborations with Pournelle (‘Mote’, 2 books) ; some patchy collaborations with others in the “Worlds” part of not-Known Space.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

        The corollary is that, as far as evolution is concerned, we have a ‘design reliable life’ of about 30 years. That is to say, after we’ve reproduced and the kids have grown up and left home, nothing that happens to us after that can affect natural selection.
        So from 30 on, we’re living on the safety margins, like a very old machine. (Even, these days, to the extent of sometimes having worn-out parts replaced).

        cr

        • Stephen Barnard
          Posted August 28, 2016 at 8:09 am | Permalink

          I think you’re overlooking something. There is survival value in having experienced elders hanging around well past reproductive age. While humans may not be unique in this regard, we’re certainly exceptional.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 28, 2016 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

            The counterargument to that is, so far as our ancient ancestors are concerned: First, they’d arguably probably learned everything useful in their primitive world by the time they were, say, twenty, so ancient (30+) members would not confer a great advantage; second, they probably didn’t live far past thirty anyway; and third, the negatives of the group having to cart around decrepit geriatrics probably cancelled out any advantages conferred by their experience.
            I’m hypothesising there.

            I think this is a group-selection argument, by the way – I’m not sure if that’s respectable these days? (I really don’t know, I’m not ‘up’ with these things).

            cr

            • rickflick
              Posted August 28, 2016 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

              Wait. Old age doesn’t have to be adaptive. It can be an exaptation.

              • Estragon
                Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

                Let me clarify what I mean by death from old age. Let’s just talk about humans.

                Old age isn’t the direct cause of an old person dying. After we reach maturity, around 25 or 35, our body starts deteriorating little by little. As we get older our kidneys, liver, eyesight hearing, etc just don’t work as well as they used to. Our immune system doesn’t work as well either. So, an old man of 80 might get the flu and die, whereas if he were 20 his body probably would have fought off the disease.

                When I posed the question, “What would happen to a population if there was no such thing as death from old age?” what I meant to say (and should have said in the first place) is: What would happen to a population if there was no such thing as death from old age? Meaning that once an individual reaches maturity his body ceases to age. His immune system remains robust. His eyesight remains sharp. His hearing remains acute. And so forth. In short, he is just as able to run as fast as he could at maturity and just as strong as he was at maturity so he can defend himself against a predator.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 29, 2016 at 1:00 am | Permalink

                (I had to look up ‘exaptation’)

                I’d probably go along with that.

                Let me put it in engineering terms. In designing something, we have to build in ‘overstrength’ to allow for manufacturing tolerances, accidental overloads etc. In theory, a car designed to last 100,000 miles should fall to pieces, worn out, at 100,001. In reality, to ensure reliable operation up to that mileage, most of them will continue running for tens of thousands of miles more.

                The parallel is that evolution, having ‘designed’ us for reliable operation up to (say) 30 years which is as far as evolution via natural selection can ‘see’, our extra longevity is a side benefit. We’re living on the safety margins.

                (This has no bearing on Estragon’s ‘society’ question)

                cr

              • rickflick
                Posted August 29, 2016 at 6:40 am | Permalink

                infinite – yes, I’d say old age is like running on the margin. Sorry if I missunderstood Estragon.

  66. elsburymk14
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Do you truly not like dogs? 😦

    If you could have a super power what would it be and why?

    Can you and Sam please do a pod cast for fun?

    If you had no attachment to home, where in the world would you choose to live and why?

    If you were stranded on an island, would you choose to bring a book, album, or film, if given only one choice and why? Bonus points for what particular book, album or film.

    Mabry too many questions – sorry! Fun ones though, eh!?

    Best,
    Mike

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

      I’ll answer a few of these! I much favor cats over dogs, and I would never own a dog. That said, I do like SOME dogs, but I’m very picky.

      Sam and I did do a podcast that ranged over diverse topics.

      If I had a choice of where to live, and infinite money, I’d buy a flat in Paris. But I’d probably buy several places and spend a few months a year in each one. And in between I’d travel.

  67. Stephen Barnard
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    Can a microscopic description of the universe, in terms of particle trajectories, collisions, and so on, ever explain human thoughts, desires, sensations, motivations, etc.?

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

      It depends on what you mean by “explain.” Thoughts, desires, etc. surely not only depend on things at the molecular level, but must always be consistent with what happens at the molecular level. But it will be hard to connect what’s going on even at the neuron-physiology level with the macro phenomena of consciousness and qualia. I’ve been around long enough to avoid saying that we’ll NEVER understand something, though!

      • Stephen Barnard
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:37 pm | Permalink

        The question gets to the category error of applying determinism to free will and other psychological and sociological concepts.

        The a microscopic description of the universe would have all the information about thoughts, desires, motivations, etc., but none of the meaning.

        • Stephen Barnard
          Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

          Damn typo. Proofread!

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      The question seems to implicate issues of “entailment” and “supervenience” — topics on which it probably has some actual utility to have formal philosophical training.

      • Posted August 29, 2016 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

        Or “emergence”, sense Bunge (which IMO is close to the biological use).

  68. Posted August 26, 2016 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

    What about that Bengal kitten that was offered to you?! Will you eventually let one adopt you?

    Do you hope to marry some day? (Sorry about such a personal question. I had to ask.)

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 11:16 am | Permalink

      I’ll answer the nonpersonal question: yes, I badly want that Bengal kitten offered to me, but I have to be sure I can give it a good home. Right now I travel a lot, and I know that Bengals need a lot of attention and affection. I don’t want to leave a cat alone, or in someone else’s hands, if I travel for a month. This is a big dilemma for me!

      • Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

        Jerry, there’s a young married couple on YouTube who first traveled the USA (including Alaska) via motorhome and now are traveling more of the world via sailboat. They have a Bengal and took in a second cat, too. You’ll see their cats in their videos. Just look up “Gone with the Wynns.” I also personally knew a couple who traveled with the Bengal who found and adopted then, somehow right out of the blue. Apparently, Bengals are great travel companions.

  69. Rick
    Posted August 26, 2016 at 10:11 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps, these questions come at too late an hour, but I’ll ask them anyway. You’ve answered some questions about things literary, but here are some more.

    1. Do you have a favourite poem or poet? If yes, what and who are they?

    2. You’ve commented on your favourite novel, but what’s the most recent novel that you’ve read that was good enough that you’d actually recommend it to others to read?

    3. You write a lot of essays. Do you have a favourite essayist? Did you ever consciously model your own essays after someone else’s? And have you ever been surprised to see that your own writing is similar to someone’s writing that you had read but forgotten about (that is, have you been surprised to see that you were “influenced” by someone that you’d forgotten about)?

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 11:27 am | Permalink

      1. Favorite POETS include (I’m excluding Shakespeare) Yeats, Dylan Thomas, T. S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, but I also have individual favorite poems like Shelley’s “Ozymandias” or Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”.

      2. I can’t even remember the latest novel I read, but next in line is Donna Tartt’s “The goldfinch.” Most of my reading over the last three years has been nonfiction, and largely (ugh) theology–for my book.

      3. Orwell and Hitchens are my favorite modern essayists, and of course they share a lot of views. I don’t in fact really write essays for publication: just book reviews, pieces on this website, and occasional op-eds. I can’t say I’ve had an experience of seeing similarity between my writing and other people’s, but I’ve consciously copied vocabulary words from people like Hitchens. In general I’ve tried, when writing about popular science, to adopt the “classic style” described by Steve Pinker in his Sense of Style book: taking the reader on with you, anticipating questions, giving the reader a sense of you as a person. Of all popular science writers of our era, I’d say that Richard Dawkins is the best, as he has the most appealing and lyrical style. Some–many–of his passages are pure poetry. I don’t want to ape him, but I aspire to write in a way that the prose is beautiful. One example is a bit he wrote (that I can’t find now) about a ball of army ants protecting a queen, as an example of kin selection. It was pure poetry!

      • Rick
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

        Interesting answers. Thanks for sharing them.

        Plath’s an interesting choice. I like her poem “The Ghost’s Leavetaking”. I wonder what you think of a poet like John Milton, obviously a first-rate poet but always, it seems, in the service of God. (Then again, Blake asserted that Milton was of the Devil’s party without knowing it.)

        I guess that I consider your posts to be essays of various shapes, sizes, and styles even if they aren’t for publication in the usual sense.

      • Posted August 29, 2016 at 10:31 am | Permalink

        From Dr. Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker:

        As an adult in Panama I have stepped aside and contemplated the New World equivalent of the driver ants that I had feared as a child in Africa, flowing by me like a crackling river, and I can testify to the strangeness and wonder. Hour after hour the legions marched past, walking as much over each others’ bodies as over the ground, while I waited for the queen. Finally she came, and hers was an awesome presence. It was impossible to see her body. She appeared only as a moving wave of worker frenzy, a boiling peristaltic ball of ants with linked arms. She was somewhere in the seething ball of workers, while all around it the massed ranks of soldiers faced threateningly outwards with jaws agape, every one prepared to kill and to die in defence of the queen. Forgive my curiosity to see her : I prodded the ball of workers with a long stick, in a vain attempt to flush out the queen. Instantly 20 soldiers buried their massively muscled pincers in my stick, possibly never to let go, while dozens more swarmed up the stick causing me to let go with alacrity.

        I never did glimpse the queen, but somewhere inside that boiling ball she was, the central data bank, the repository of the master DNA of the whole colony. Those gaping soldiers were prepared to die for the queen, not because they loved their mother, not because they had been drilled in the ideals of patriotism, but simply because their brains and their jaws were built by the genes stamped from the master die carried in the queen herself. They behaved like brave soldiers because they had inherited the genes of a long line of ancestral queens whose lives, and whose genes, had been saved by soldiers as brave as themselves. My soldiers had inherited the same genes from the present queen as those old soldiers had inherited from the ancestral queens. My soldiers were guarding the master copies of the very instructions that made them do the guarding. They were guarding the wisdom of their ancestors, the Ark of the Convent.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted August 30, 2016 at 1:24 am | Permalink

          Errm, ‘Covenant’? 😉

          But I do agree that Richard Dawkins has the best, most compelling writing style of any science populariser. Blind Watchmaker was the first book of his that I read, and is still a favourite of mine.

          My favourite quote from him is the one that starts “It is raining DNA outside”.

          Runner-up would be David Attenborough’s ‘Life on Earth’ (the book of the groundbreaking TV series). He had me from the first sentence – “It is not difficult to discover an unknown animal”.

          cr

          • Posted August 30, 2016 at 9:46 am | Permalink

            Yes, covenant! That was a straight copy/paste from someone else’s transcription! 😦

  70. Posted August 27, 2016 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    Now that you are retired and can live anywhere, will Chicago remain your home?

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 12:02 am | Permalink

      I see you have answered that, sort of.

  71. Shwell Thanksh
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    What recent scientific discovery makes you most excited about what we are about to understand soon as a consequence?

    What recent technological innovation makes you most excited about what it will let us learn (or discover) that we have never been able to learn (or discover) before?

  72. Posted August 27, 2016 at 12:51 am | Permalink

    I have been reading about phylogenetic trees lately and Carl Woese, whose tree is based, says Nick Lane (and Wikipedia) on one gene, the gene for the ribosomal subunit. How can you make a tree by looking at a single gene? Either it stays constant, meaning no tree, or it varies, in which case, how do you know it’s the same gene?

    Thanks in advance.

    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      The answer is that is has to vary to make a tree, but not wildly, or you have a tree only good for closely related species and can’t identify the gene in other species. The ribosomal RNA genes tend to change very slowly, and so are good for deep phylogenies.

      Genes in mitochondrial DNA, on the other hand, change quickly, and are more useful for the closely related species (but there’s the possibility of mtDNA introgression, which screws up phylogenies).

  73. Rexsalad
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:12 am | Permalink

    Your Sgt. Pepper’s atheism conversion story. I realize you’ve posted about it previously, but do you have a theory about what specific elements in the work triggerred your epiphany? I’m curious because my first listen was one of those “Oh” moments for me, also. Their output was uncannily brilliant in the latter years.

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

      No, actually, I don’t. I wasn’t thinking about religion, and none of the songs on that album are especially atheistic. Somehow it got my mind on a track where it started pondering religion, and that’s all I can say. Sometimes music will just get my mind wandering, but who knows why and where?

  74. David Duncan
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:33 am | Permalink

    Do you think there any way that libertarian free will could be validated? Would you like to be the author of your own decisions?

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      I don’t know what it would mean to be the author of my own decisions, and for the same reason that libertarian free will is unlikely to be validated: because there’s simply no way to envision, given the law of physics, how there could be a non-physical part of the brain that controls the physical part. You can almost rule out libertarian free will on first principles: the laws of physics are known to apply everwhere. At any rate, I’m happy with the illusion that I have free will.

  75. Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    How do you get so much (interesting, illuminating) writing done every day? How much time do you typically spend writing each day? How much time do you typically spend reading each day?

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:42 am | Permalink

      Please excuse me if my questions are too personal.

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      I work on the website for a few hours each morning, scheduling posts throughout the day. My goal is usually to be done with that by 8 a.m. (I start about 5:30), so I can do other stuff for the rest of the day.

      I’ll often throw in another post at lunchtime, which I consider “free time”. (I’ve always taken an hour off for lunch during my career; it’s essential for mental health.)

  76. Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:11 am | Permalink

    I’m very curious Jerry about your own views on Sam Harris position on spirituality and atheism – in particular his view that the atheists usual form of spirituality, “Einsteinan wonder” at the universe, is a fairly weak sort of spirituality and that we atheists ought to actively practice meditation and mindfulness to develop our spiritual life?

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Well, if it worked for Sam, I’m not going to diss it, but I’ve tried meditation and it didn’t do much for me. Granted, I never did it over years, like Sam did. I do, however, recommend drugs, especially psychedelic ones, just to show us what are brains are capable of perceiving. It’s much easier than taking years to learn meditation, although of course with drugs you come down.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I consider psychedelics to be a “quasi-religious” (heavy emphasis on the “quasi” part) experience — certainly not any kind of party drug.

        Thank you, Drs. Alpert & Leary … you, too, Mr. Huxley.

  77. Diki
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 4:21 am | Permalink

    You did an article on the nefarious cuckoo some time ago which inspired me to read Nick Davies book The Cuckoo. What I still want to know is why the host species are so sophisticated with egg detection, mobbing of cuckoos and other defensive strategies but simply can’t recognise a cuckoo chick as a cuckoo and throw the little bastard outta the nest? I mean field studies have shown that the host’s are pretty damned good a spotting mimetic eggs but seem incapable of discriminating a chick that even in the earliest stages after hatching is palpably not one of their own. Appreciated.

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 5:30 am | Permalink

      Hope you excuse my getting my two-cents in on this question Diki, but I’ve read up a bit on this very topic by Dawkins and Krebs. Their view on how this deficient host behaviour arises relates to the nature of all arms races in parasite/host relationships. Two effects are involved here:
      1) The Life/Dinner Principle – the success of the cuckoo chick as a parasite is a matter of life and death to it, while to the parent-host it is only one lost reproductive opportunity
      2)The Rare Enemy Principle – where cuckoos each-and-every-time need to exercise the use of their ploy to reproduce, but the host is only exposed to the ploy on rare occasions.

      These two effects bias the arms race so that the cuckoo manages to “stay ahead of the game”. Dawkins considers the genes which trigger this parasitic behaviour in the cuckoo makes part of its “extended phenotype”

  78. Kjf
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 8:09 am | Permalink

    1. What’s your favourite academic subject outside of the sciences (i.e Humanities)?

    2. What’s the most important lesson scientists can learn from the Humanities?

    3. What’s the most important lesson Humanities scholars can learn from scientists?

  79. slandermonkey
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    As an embryo develops into a fully formed animal, how does each cell ‘know’ what kind of cell to be, and how do cells know where to grow next?

    DNA is the blueprint, but what are the mechanisms for carrying out the plan?

    What subject would I google to learn more about this?

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 10:56 am | Permalink

      The genome is itself programmed to turn on specific genes at specific times and places, with the initial differentiation in a fertilized egg and several-cell embryo being due to inhomogeneities in the egg. That can trigger different genes in different places, and from then on the system can just differentiate based on the previous differentiation (i.e. once you’re in the brain, your environment will turn on “brain genes” and repress others).

      I’m not sure if there are popular books about this issue (Siddhartha Mukherjee’s new book has a section about this, but it’s not veruy good); maybe some readers can suggest some.

      • Posted October 11, 2016 at 11:52 pm | Permalink

        In medical school and pre-med before it, I used Moore’s textbook on embryology. It was a good read. In fact, I still have it, it was so good.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      What subject would I google to learn more about this?

      The closest Iterm I can think of would be “evo-devo” (for the interplay of EVOlutionary science and DEVelOpmental biology. IIRC, amongst others, Neil Shubin has written a fair bit about this, associated with his studies of Tiktaalik and the evolution of fish into land-living tetrapods. So following up from there is likely ot lead you in fruitful directions.

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

      This is developmental biology. Depending on what level you want to look at there is plenty on the web. HHMI might be a good place to start, really depends what level of knowledge you are coming in with but there is plenty available at undergrad bio level – a lot more that is more advanced

      http://www.hhmi.org/biointeractive/human-embryonic-development

    • Posted August 29, 2016 at 2:35 am | Permalink

      Richard Dawkins gives a brief but lucid overview of this topic in The Greatest Show On Earth, iirc.

      /@

  80. Norman Chab
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Dear WEIT:

    Why did evolution settle on 5 digits rather than 4 or 6?

    I have been reading your posts for 5-6 years, keep up the good work.

    Thanks
    NGC

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 10:31 am | Permalink

      The answer is, as it so often is in evolution: I don’t KNOW! I doubt there’s anything especially better about five digits as compared to six or seven, and in fact some animals did have more digits, and many more have lost digits, having fewer than five. It is, I suspect, a case of “phylogenetic inertia,” that is, in many five-digit lineages there simply was no selective advantage toward the substantial anatomical and physiological changes required to increase or reduce digits. That, in fact, is the conclusion arrived at by Michael Coates at my own University, in an article I just found at Sci. Am.: http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-do-most-species-have/

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 27, 2016 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

      Why did evolution settle on 5 digits rather than 4 or 6?

      The earliest land-dwelling (or at least, swamp-traversing) tetrapod animals didn’t have a pentadactyl (5-digit) hand/ foot. In fact, they didn’t even have the same number of digits on hands and feet. Acanthostega had eight digits on the manus (hand) and an uncertain number (previously given as 6 or 7 in different interpretations) on the pes (foot).
      Today, polydactyly (extra digits) remains a common developmental abnormality, with few significant consequences.
      Given that, I strongly suspect that a variety of different digit layouts were tried in the process of learning to walk (or of coming onto land – probably two distinct events), and more or less by happenstance the 5-front, 5-rear arrangement is the one that out-reproduced it’s competitors.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 27, 2016 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

        For whatever reason, it was bad luck, so far as arithmetic is concerned. Six would have been far better, since twelve factorises neatly into four or three – numbers which occur naturally far more often than five.
        (For example, why are things packed in dozens? – because a 4×3 crate is a handy shape. And half of it is 2×3. A 10-crate can only come in 5×2 – an awkward shape, and you can’t halve it easily.

        Even four would have better than five. The only thing worse would have been seven.

        cr

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted August 28, 2016 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

          The only thing worse would have been seven.

          … which was one of the options that Acanthostega (or was it Ichthyostega?) tried on it’s hind feet.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted August 29, 2016 at 1:17 am | Permalink

            On its hind feet? Presumably its front feet were different?

            I was going to ask if there were any examples of different numbers of fingers/toes front and rear, I think you’ve just answered it. I can’t think of any functional reason why front and rear should always be the same.

            cr

    • Posted August 29, 2016 at 2:37 am | Permalink

      Neil Shubin discusses this topic in Your Inner Fish, iirc.

      /@

  81. Posted August 27, 2016 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    Do you believe it is ethical to procreate?

    • Posted August 27, 2016 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

      I believe it’s unethical to prevent people from procreating, though perhaps there can be disincentives for having more than two kids given the overpopulation problem.

  82. leonkrier
    Posted August 27, 2016 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    “No, because (at least as Sean Carroll tells me), quantum effects could have played a role in the early universe, so we might not get Earth if the Big Bang happened again. And, of course, as I argue in Faith versus Fact, if mutations are quantum phenomena, then on a replay of evolution you might get completely different creatures. If you didn’t get humans, you don’t get guitar solos.”

    Per this Sean Carroll reference, if the universe could be rewound and restarted, it might be completely different. Why then cannot the “universe” of a single individual be rewound (to any point) and also be completely different?

    Thanks!!!

    • Posted August 28, 2016 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      Because the experience and development of a single human isn’t nearly as likely to involve quantum effects as the physical conditions of the Big Bang.

  83. Posted August 27, 2016 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Do you think that in a, certainly remote but foreseeable future, an end to poverty is possible? – Or that it could be reduced to an “acceptable” – what is acceptable? – minimum?

    • Alexander
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

      Well, there is this idea of “basic income.” However, people will have to get used to the idea that some forms of Socialism are quite acceptable.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted August 29, 2016 at 12:04 am | Permalink

        Errm, for ‘people’ substitute ‘Americans’. Most of the rest of the world has no problem with some degree of socialism.

        (Nor do Americans, as long as you don’t point out that all government services paid for out of taxation – e.g. police, fire, air traffic control, highways, the armed forces – are inherently socialist)

        😉

        cr

        • Alexander
          Posted August 29, 2016 at 1:13 am | Permalink

          “(Nor do Americans, as long as you don’t point out that all government services paid for out of taxation – e.g. police, fire, air traffic control, highways, the armed forces – are inherently socialist)”

          You can get around this with the idea that the basic income would be paid out of the taxation of robots (expected to be 40% of the work force) and they aren’t (not yet) socialist.

  84. Radoslaw Bakowski
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Hi, recently I visited an aquarium and a sight of an archerfish arose my curiosity: how its skill could have possibly been achieved as it seemingly should be fully developed to show any level of efficiency. Before sending this message to you I’ve made a brief google research and the case proved to be quite a big deal. While I didn’t find any developed theories on the subject, the amount of creationist claims was rather substantial. What are your views on the mystery of an archerfish?

    • Posted August 29, 2016 at 11:04 am | Permalink

      I’d refrain from calling it a mystery.

      That (calling it so) tends to support wooish nonsense about the universe.

      “A difficult scientific question” is a much more appropriate appellation.

      Cheers.

  85. Marc-Olivier Blondin
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

    In your book (faith vs fact), you said :

    (1) “There is, of course, no empirical evidence for either a soul or its unique presence in humans”. (p.133)

    “Evidence”, which means “any logical or empirical evidence that is supporting a proposal”. The majority of religious people believe on the basis of their own personal experience. For example, a believer can feel a presence when praying, which is an evidence. It is therefore unfair to accuse them of having no empirical support for their religious beliefs. Worse, this accusation suggests that non-religious people deny the reality of these experiences (feeling a presence) while it is rather the value of their interpretation that they are questioning.

    You can say it’s anecdotal evidence, but it’s evidence nonetheless. I’m an atheist, but I do not support saying religious people have no evidence. All our beliefs are supported by evidence, because our brain construct belief with something. If the brain construct belief without evidence, then with what?

    • Alexander
      Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      “You can say it’s anecdotal evidence, but it’s evidence nonetheless. I’m an atheist, but I do not support saying religious people have no evidence. All our beliefs are supported by evidence, because our brain construct belief with something. If the brain construct belief without evidence, then with what?”

      There is a contradiction here. If you say that you are an atheist, you also have to say that what others view as evidence is wrong, they are delusions. You can’t call delusions “evidence.”

      • Marc-Olivier Blondin
        Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

        Evidence is synonymous of “clue”.

        If I lose grip on an apple, my brain will construct theoretical models to make predictions about its future travels, but I can never prove that the theoretical model is true. It is impossible to prove such proposals. That’s why the vast majority of scientific hypotheses cannot be proven by empirical data. I can only say that some hypotheses are more useful than others, bassed on limited evidences (clues).

        Everyone is of course free to believe that the statement “my partner is faithful” is true, but this sure does not remove the real and undeniable possibility of it being wrong, even if you have evidence (evidence is nearly always incomplete) that she is faithful.

        «If you say that you are an atheist, you also have to say that what others view as evidence is wrong, they are delusions. You can’t call delusions “evidence.”»

        Some evidence can be wrong, be some cannot be, because some evidence are facts. Is it true that religious person are feeling that there is someone present when they pray? Yes. That’s a fact, that’s a clue about a religous hypothesis. That’s not wrong.

        But the interpretation they do over that fact (the religious hypothesis) IS wrong. They need more evidence to support this hypothesis (like miracles).

        All religious beliefs are wrong, because

        1) there is a strong discrepancy between the different religious discourse;

        (2) evidence (clue) in favor of miracles are not be valid enough.

        • GBJames
          Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

          “Is it true that religious person are feeling that there is someone present when they pray? Yes. That’s a fact…”

          How do you know that?

          The only fact here is that a claim was made.

          • Marc-Olivier Blondin
            Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

            |||“Is it true that religious person are feeling that there is someone present when they pray? Yes. That’s a fact…”

            How do you know that?

            The only fact here is that a claim was made. |||

            I do not *KNOW* it, I believe it is valid.

            My friend told me yesterday he liked the movie x, I told him “I cannot know that, the only fact here is that a claim was made”.

            You do not believe my friend?

            Also, I believe my hand will be there in 5 minutes. I cannot know it.

            I do not understand why someone would doubt that they feel someone is present. That’s psychology 101, we often feel someone is there. Just put two eyes on a ball and you will give intentionality to it, and if you talk to it and really believe there is someone, you may even feel that there is someone.

            Did you watch the movie “cast away”?

          • GBJames
            Posted August 28, 2016 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

            If you think that the fellow on the corner who thinks he is Napoleon is evidence that he is Napoleon, then you have a distorted understanding of what evidence is. The evidence points to the fellow being delusional. Similarly, your religious friends who claim to be in a personal relation ship with a deity. Their claims are not evidence for the existence of the deity. They are evidence for your friend being under a delusion.

            • Marc-Olivier Blondin
              Posted August 28, 2016 at 9:42 pm | Permalink

              I’ll ask a very simple question.

              Why a man who pray will say that he feels a presence?

              My response : because he feels one. What else?

              Are you saying there is another reason for why he’s saying that? Are you saying he does not feel a presence when praying?

              Does it means the presence is real? No. I never said that. I pointed to “cast away”. Clearly “Wilson” (the ball) does not have a real mental life, but the guy is really feeling a presence.

              How does the guy justify the belief in Wilson? Because he feels it.

              When you have evidence for something, it doesn’t mean that this evidence is absolutely valid for your conclusion. Many scientific conclusion we have at this moment is based on evidence we think are solid, but aren’t.

              So the claim IS evidence for the existence of the deity, but a really bad one nonetheless.

              • Alexander
                Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

                Yes, bad evidence, and not *scientific* evidence. Astrophysicists study pulsars holes because they have observed their signatures a number of times. Jocelyn Bell and her colleagues waited until they had made repeated observations before publishing their first paper about pulsars. Their existence became accepted when subsequently more pulsars were discovered.

              • Alexander
                Posted August 28, 2016 at 10:10 pm | Permalink

                sorry, “pulsars” and not “pulsar holes”

              • GBJames
                Posted August 29, 2016 at 6:53 am | Permalink

                You confuse hallucination with evidence for the hallucinated thing(s). Not the same.

                I’d say that praying dude you mention is praying because he thinks it is how he is supposed to behave. He’s following a rulebook he received in childhood.

              • Marc-Olivier Blondin
                Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:17 am | Permalink

                GBJames, how do you think the brain construct belief if it’s not with evidence?

                You have an absolute way of seeing “evidence”.

                A premise is an evidence.

                “I’d say that praying dude you mention is praying because he thinks it is how he is supposed to behave. He’s following a rulebook he received in childhood.”

                Okay, so what? He’s still really feeling a presence.

                “You confuse hallucination with evidence for the hallucinated thing(s). Not the same.”

                We know it’s an hallucination, but he doesn’t. In his mind, the presence he is feeling is solid evidence for the reality of his God. He’s wrong, but it’s an evidence nonetheless. It’s a premise for his conclusion.

              • GBJames
                Posted August 29, 2016 at 9:33 am | Permalink

                “He’s still really feeling a presence”

                I don’t think so. At best he is imagining something. An imagined something is not “a presence” (which requires being present).

              • Marc-Olivier Blondin
                Posted August 29, 2016 at 10:02 am | Permalink

                “I don’t think so. At best he is imagining something. An imagined something is not “a presence” (which requires being present).”

                If he is imagining something, then by definition he feels something, like a presence. It doesn’t mean that this presence is real, but the “feeling” part is real.

                So we agree. Thanks.

              • GBJames
                Posted August 29, 2016 at 10:20 am | Permalink

                Clearly we’re not getting anywhere. No, we don’t agree. But you’re entitled to call this fellow’s claim “evidence” if you like. Just as you can call it “purple” if you choose. But it contributes nothing to communication with others who don’t consider any and all claims to be “evidence”. That simply eviscerates the term of all useful meaning.

              • Posted August 29, 2016 at 11:17 am | Permalink

                You only have real evidence for the fact that the person made the claim.

                Other evidence about the person will affect whether one should consider that claim a reliable report.

                Now, for the nature of the claim, that they felt a “presence”, that is highly speculative. all these kinds of feelings can be reliably produced using drugs or electrical stimulation of the brain.

                If you can rely on what the person said, then you have only this: The person felt something that they interpreted as “a presence”. That really says nothing about there being any presence. Human feelings are notably unreliable and variable; and these feelings have been shown to be reliably produced by other, entirely natural, means.

                I would reject the claim as true based on Hume’s critique of miracles.

                And: How would the person making the claim be certain they were not hallucinating or were simply mistaken about the cause of the feeling they experienced? And, even worse, at second had, how could you be certain?

              • Marc-Olivier Blondin
                Posted August 29, 2016 at 11:43 am | Permalink

                “But it contributes nothing to communication with others who don’t consider any and all claims to be “evidence”. That simply eviscerates the term of all useful meaning.”

                How do you define “evidence”, then?

                “I would reject the claim as true based on Hume’s critique of miracles.

                And: How would the person making the claim be certain they were not hallucinating or were simply mistaken about the cause of the feeling they experienced? ”

                How can all of you be so out of touch? If you are saying he is hallucinating, then it is a feeling he have, about a presence.

                How can you doubt that? It’s psycho 101. It’s really ez for us to feel a presence. Go walk in the dark in a forest and you will feel a presence. Do you doubt that? No.

                But when it’s religion, then everything is shit. They do not feel it.

                What the heck, can we be mature, responsible and coherent, pleaze?

                I know all this about Hume and miracles.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 30, 2016 at 12:19 am | Permalink

                “Go walk in the dark in a forest and you will feel a presence. Do you doubt that? No.”

                I don’t doubt that. I’ve felt a ‘presence’ in the forest. Sometimes it’s almost a ‘magic’ feeling. Sometimes quite spooky.

                What I *don’t* believe is that it’s evidence the forest is watching me. Or that the feeling is anything more than my subconscious reacting to the surroundings.

                “can we be mature, responsible and coherent, pleaze?”

                I think your respondents have been exactly that. Your insistence that feelz is evidence of something (other than the state of mind of the subject) is nonsense. Quoting numerous philosophers to bolster your argument just denigrates philosophy, rightly or wrongly. It certainly bolsters my cynical impression that philosophy is mostly pretentious nonsense.

                cr

              • Marc-Olivier Blondin
                Posted August 30, 2016 at 6:43 am | Permalink

                “I don’t doubt that. I’ve felt a ‘presence’ in the forest. Sometimes it’s almost a ‘magic’ feeling. Sometimes quite spooky.

                What I *don’t* believe is that it’s evidence the forest is watching me. ”

                Sure, I know you don’t accept that as evidence (I don’t too), but can you accept that others (religious ppl who feel a presence when praying) accept that as evidence?

                Define “evidence” please.

                Evidence is not synonymus with “proof”, it is synonymous with “clue”.

                Everyone is of course free to believe that the statement “my partner is faithful” is true, but this sure does not remove the real and undeniable possibility of it being wrong.

                When you think your partner is faithful, you are using evidence : she smiles at you, she says she loves you, shes says that she is faithful, etc. These are clues, evidence.

                If you are saying these are not evidence, then you are saying that a lot of scientific domain (psychology, history, etc.) are not really scientific. The vast majority of scientific hypotheses cannot be proven by empirical data. I can only say that some hypotheses are more useful than others in regard to the evidence we have.

                It’s not because some scientists used a bad reasoning with some evidence that these are not evidence.

                Your insistence that feeling is not evidence of something is just weird and nonjustified. After all, I may feel someone is watching me (in my angle of vision) without seeing who exactly and where, and then my eyes go on a face that is watching me. The feeling was an evidence, no? The brain is a wonderful and unconscious organ.

                And when I hear a sound (another kind of feeling), can I say that a sound exist in the world? Or can I only say it is a “state of mind of me” (like you said)?

                Your idea of absolute philosophy doesn’t exist. Everything is relative to our subjective mental life, and from there, all we have is evidence.

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 30, 2016 at 7:02 am | Permalink

                “Your insistence that feeling is not evidence of something is just weird and nonjustified.”

                On the contrary. A ‘feeling’ is not evidence of anything. It would not be accepted as evidence in a court of law. Thinking you see something out of the corner of your eye is NOT evidence unless or until you look and see it clearly.

                What I do think is that you are blurring things, producing a smokescreen of verbiage to confuse the issue, to the point where everything looks like everything else and no clear distinctions can be made or clear conclusions drawn about anything.

                cr

              • Merilee
                Posted August 31, 2016 at 8:07 am | Permalink

                Like the former underwear model (male) who spoke at the Repug convention and said he just had a feeling that Obama was a Muslim.

              • Marc-Olivier Blondin
                Posted August 30, 2016 at 7:09 am | Permalink

                It would help if you could define “evidence”.

                Evidence is what is accepted as an element for a conclusion in a specific court of law (american one)?

                Is it?

                And can you be more specific?

              • GBJames
                Posted August 30, 2016 at 7:26 am | Permalink

                “…to the point where everything looks like everything else and no clear distinctions can be made or clear conclusions drawn about anything…”

                Infiniteimprobability always agrees with me, and here’s the evidence!

              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted August 30, 2016 at 7:30 am | Permalink

                🙂

              • Marc-Olivier Blondin
                Posted August 30, 2016 at 7:38 am | Permalink

                “…to the point where everything looks like everything else and no clear distinctions can be made or clear conclusions drawn about anything…”

                To say that the value of evidence is always relative to our understanding of it does not mean that objectivity does not exist to any extent. The value of evidence changes if our understanding of it changes. Some ways to understand evidence are much more useful than others.

                For example, to show you that I have a horse, several photos with testimonies of my neighbors are worth more than my word. The logical consequence is that it will always be necessary to measure the value of the clues you have to justify whether it is reasonable to believe a proposal with a certain level of confidence.

                If you say you have a horse in your garage, then your word is an evidence for it, but if you live in a city, in an appartment, then I need more, because then your word is not sufficent to establish the validity of the conclusion. But, still, your word is still an evidence for the presence of a horse in your garage.

                I’m still waiting for your definition.

        • Alexander
          Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

          Well, you seem to represent the postmodern views on science expressed by people like Latour, etc. Someone wrote a whole book saying that elementary particles, as discovered at CERN, are “social constructs.”
          You are probably aware of this paper by Sokal:
          http://www.physics.nyu.edu/sokal/transgress_v2/transgress_v2_singlefile.html

          • Marc-Olivier Blondin
            Posted August 28, 2016 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

            “you seem to represent the postmodern views on science”

            I’m a big fan of Sam Harris, so I’m very far from being a postmodern. Very, very far. 😛

            Science (the definition of sam harris) is the only way to attain relative knowledge.

            It’s not postmodern to be an evidentialist :

            • Alexander
              Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

              What is “relative knowledge?”

              • Marc-Olivier Blondin
                Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

                Yeah, I’m sorry, I should have made a justification for that, my bad.

                What is absolue knowledge?

                Is math absolute knowledge? In its abstract form, yeah, 1+1=2, that’s absolute.

                But everything else is relative to our experience. In the 18th century, David Hume pointed out that causality is only a construction of the brain. The one thing that can be observed is that two events consistently follow one another. We all presuppose that nature is uniform, but no one can prove that our future experiences will be similar to our past experiences.

                To paraphrase David Hume, we can say that a wise man measures and tempers the strength of his faith (not the religious definition, which makes no sense) in relation to the available evidence (clues). Science, in this sense, is an attempt to weave webs of resilient knowledge from the wire of each individual’s experience. This web is always relative to its socio-cultural context: to be accepted as knowledge – in the broad sense of reasonable certainty – a belief must be supported and tested by others.

                So even if most of our knowledge cannot be absolute, it is relative. And even if our knowledge is relative to our experience, there are objectively good answer in that relative space.

                In my last comment above on the subject of objective morality, I gave this citation :

                “I have a sharp pain in my head” is an epistemically objective sentence picking out the pain I’m experiencing, which is ontologically subjective (it’s mode of existence). It is a fact of the world that I am experiencing a headache (it is a state of the universe). It is also a fact that there are better and worse ways to relieve that pain—and that these are objective and completely independent of one’s opinions.”

                I hope my clarification was good.

              • Alexander
                Posted August 28, 2016 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

                I think this is one of the problems of the public image of science. Most scientists don’t like the concept of “absolute truth,” and are very aware that what we know of reality is based om mathematical models that work well or so so. An example is the Standard Model of Particle Physics. It is a mathematical framework that up to now has survived any attacks (more or less). The discovery of the fact that neutrinos have mass, however, does not agree with the Standard Model. Physicist are continuously aware that any new discovery or theory can upturn existing theories. They don’t believe in absolute truths, they “believe” nothing. They look for explanations that work, such as the explanation of low-temperature superconduction. However, there is no explanation available yet for high-temperature superconduction.
                However, there is a problem in the interpretation of science originating from social scientists and some philosophers, who say that social factors influence scientific truths. We see the consequence of this with the acceptance of global warming and of evolution. Of course, the existence of these social influences on views of the validity of science causes a misinterpretation of the nature of science, exploited by groups with specific interests (oil industry and religious fundamentalists).

  86. Marc-Olivier Blondin
    Posted August 28, 2016 at 11:18 am | Permalink

    In your book (faith vs fact), you also said (2) : “Most philosophers, however, agree that “ought” can’t be derived from “is”. I take their side”. (p.190).

    Then, from what can we derived an ought? If there is no fact from where we can derived “ought”, then the only thing left is magic / supernatural.

    Hume was denouncing those who had such moral reasoning : “men are more strong than women (a fact), so women should obey their husband (A value).” As noted by Hume , nothing in the fact dictate the value. In this sense, Hume was right to say that we cannot deduce a value from a fact.

    That’s why Charles Pidgen, professor in philosophy at University of Otago (New-Zeland) add the point that, if a value appears in the conclusion when there is none in the premises, inference cannot be logically valid.

    (1) You want to stay healthy (value)
    (2) Cigarette is bad for your health (fact).
    (3) You ought not smoke (value).

    That’s a true objective fact : you ought not smoke if you want to stay healthy.

    You also ought not physically hit a friend (for no reason) if you want him to stay your friend.

    Like Richard Carrier said : “You ought to regularly change the oil in your car”, they may believe they are issuing a normative statement – that it is true everyone ought to do this – but in fact it is only hypothetically or “conditionally” true”.

    I don’t remember who (I’m really sorry for this person), but I read this somewhere from a professor of psychology : “It is meaningless to make the absolute, universal, non-contingent moral claim “one ought to be honest”. It is only meaningful to make the contingent claim that “one ought to be honest IF…”. And the if conditions reduce, in the end, to determinants dictated by the structure of brains.

    Saying “I have a sharp pain in my head” is an epistemically objective sentence picking out the pain I’m experiencing, which is ontologically subjective (it’s mode of existence). It is a fact of the world that I am experiencing a headache (it is a state of the universe). It is also a fact that there are better and worse ways to relieve that pain—and that these are objective and completely independent of one’s opinions.”

    Like Sam Harris said : value are facts about the world, about us.

    So from what can we derived value (You ought not smoke)if it’s not from facts (smoking is bad, you value being healthy)?


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