Michio Kaku gets human evolution all wrong on The Big Thunk

UPDATE: I forgot that I had an earlier post showing Kaku embarrassing himself about his own field, also on The Big Thunk. Go here to see the fun.


When I saw this video on Larry Moran’s Sandwalk site, I remembered an old Jewish joke that goes something like this (“schnorrer,” by the way, is Yiddish for “beggar”):

A schnorrer knocked on the door of the rich man’s house at 6:30 in the morning.
The rich man cried “How dare you wake me up so early?”
“Listen,” said the schnorrer, “I don’t tell you how to run your business. Don’t tell me how to run mine.”

So I don’t make videos pontificating about the meaning of quantum mechanics, but Michio Kaku, a former physicist and now science popularizer, has the chutzpah to make videos about evolution, and to pronounce on whether evolution is happening in Homo sapiens right now. Here’s his mind-boggling take from The Big Thunk, in which he confidently proclaims that our species has stopped evolving.

How many misstatements can you find in this video? Besides the crazy idea that continents evolve,  and that the large brains of humans evolved to help them “live in the forest” (we got big brains long after we came down from the trees to live on the savannah), he says that evolution happens “every time two people mate” and “in our immune systems”—but doesn’t say what the hell he’s talking about. Our immune systems do respond to the incursion of antigens, but that’s not evolutionary change, i.e., not change that is inherited.

But of course we do have evidence that humans are indeed evolving “on the gross level”. As I’ve written before, we have evidence for humans evolving in “real time” (over two generations) for some traits, and for evolution in the last 10,000 years for many others (see here, herehere, here, and here.) And this is despite the fact that because of transportation, humans are mixing their genes among locations, slowing down any adaptation to local environments.  Further, there may be global evolution of our species that we simply can’t detect because the genes have effects too small to be seen in one or a few human lifetimes (a gene increasing the reproductive output by 0.01%, for example, would sweep through our species but be undetectable in real-time studies.)

Kaku always rubs me the wrong way. Like Bill Nye, he always seems to be communicating a faux excitement (and, like Nye, sometimes he doesn’t get his biology straight)—as if he’s trying to get famous instead of communicating. Neil deGrasse Tyson has a bit of that, too, but I think Tyson really is excited by his subjects as well. For me, Carl Sagan will always be the premier science communicator, because I always sensed true wonder rather than careerism when I heard him. (I get the same impression from David Attenborough.)

Who do you think are the best science communicators, and by that I mean people who know their onions, are engrossing, and are not flawed by visible ambition?

After listening to this travesty, Larry asked this question:

Is there something peculiar about physicists? Does anyone know of any biologists who make YouTube videos about quantum mechanics or black holes? If not, is that because biologists are too stupid … or too smart?

I think it’s the latter. And I won’t be making videos on cosmology for The Big Thunk.


  1. bonetired
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    The one who had the greatest impact upon me was Jacob Bronowski in his superb, seminal Ascent of Man. He is long gone now but that series with its wonderful, human, liberal view of science is an absolute masterpiece.

    • Merilee
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Loved Bronowski! Rewatched his series just recently.

      • Smith Powell
        Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        I, too, loved Bronowski. So much so, that I purchased the series and watch an episode from time to time.

        • Mike
          Posted February 27, 2017 at 8:31 am | Permalink

          Same here, I loved that series, he had a way of communicating that was very intimate, as though he was talking to you personally, Sir David Attenborough has the same gift as well as Carl Sagan, they haven’t lost their wonder and amazement at the world around them. there is another ,who is equally engaging in his approach, Richard Fortey the Palaeontologist.

          • Merilee
            Posted February 27, 2017 at 9:17 am | Permalink

            Yes, loved Fortey’s Trilobyte, and one other whose name escapes me at the moment…

            • Merilee
              Posted February 27, 2017 at 9:35 am | Permalink

              Horseshoe Crabs and Velvet Worms is the other Fortey book.

    • Posted February 26, 2017 at 6:47 pm | Permalink


  2. Mark Perew
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

    Richard Feynman’s joie de vivre always seemed quite organic.

  3. Posted February 26, 2017 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    The best science popularizers are those actually doing science, for instance Sean Carroll, Lawrence Krauss and Nick Lane. And the PCC in his heyday, which I hope isn’t yet over. Jim Baggott writes excellent books on physics. The books of these authors are serious reading though, not for beach reading.

    I do like deGrasse Tyson, despite the self promotion. I do not read Kaku.

    • Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

      And of course Dawkins. His Selfish Gene was seminal in my understanding of evolution.

    • dabertini
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

      Wow!! Damned right the PCC(e) belongs amongst the best popularizers of science, if not the best with this site alone.

  4. cherrybombsim
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    This video is from about five years ago. I’m not sure why it is being dredged back up now, one can always hope that he has learned mare about the subject since then.

  5. Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    when on the radio, Brian Cox is good

  6. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I’ve cringed before at what Michio Kaku has said about biology… & I’m a liberal arts grad!

    I’ve always liked Brian Cox because he just speaks his mind & doesn’t mince words when people say silly things. I think NDT is still good though – I think he really is that excited about science & he doesn’t come off as inauthentic….I bet if you ran into him in the street he’d be just like he is on his shows.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

      Oh how could I forget the official site physicist Sean Carroll!

    • Posted February 26, 2017 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

      Cox’s “apology” to astrologers who objected to his comments about astrology in one of the Wonders programmes was awesome.


  7. pck
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Larry Moran himself is pretty damn good, as well as a certain other professor, although he is an emeritus.

  8. nurnord
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Well Jerry, I’m quite sure you knew RD would come out of that question.
    I think Richard Dawkins fits well. Certainly among the best with his superb writing; prose, metaphor, attention to detail etc. Highly trained in the field, his books are utterly engrossing, and I think I can say confidently – his passion and awe for biology is genuine.
    Still remember him reading Darwin’s final words from the Origin – “There is grandeur in this view of life…from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved” – at the end of a lecture, choking up, tears tumbling. As were my own in that moment.

  9. Christopher Bonds
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    The writer who introduced me to the wonder of the natural world and of evolution was Loren Eiseley. The other greats in my pantheon of science writers have all been mentioned here. Top among them for me are of course Feynman and Sagan. Of those living today, I like Steven Weinberg, Sean M. Carroll, Brian Cox, Dawkins of course–and a certain J.C….

  10. Merilee
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    Thunk (no anvil emojis)

  11. Christopher Bonds
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    ONe more thought: Scientists who are expert in one field can certainly ask questions about how scientists in other fields know what they know. But they get on thin ice when they cast themselves as experts in those other fields.

  12. Art
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    David Attenborough is amazing. I could listen to him all day long. Some of his old video is scary, but he never gets flustered. I would love to sit down with him and have a pint or two.

  13. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    It’s kind of odd, most Scientist do not speak with such authority about their own field generally but there seems to be some who will crossover, so to speak, and seem to have unending confidence. I can understand why it would drive many in the profession a little crazy. Would be like me giving a talk on the home computer. No, not that bad.

  14. rickflick
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    What a fool.
    I recently watched as he extolled the huge efficiency of gasoline as a car fuel. He mentioned how current batteries were so massive and inefficient they could not compete with gas. Maybe some future battery using nano science would solve this fatal flaw in electrically powered cars, but that’s a long way off, he said. Never did he mention anthropocentric global warming and any part it might play in the desirability of electric vehicles. What a maroon (or on Exon’s payroll).

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

      I think I saw the same thing & cringed all through it. Lithium Ion batteries are making huge strides or rather the engineers who design them are. Good grief, you’d think this wouldn’t be so weird for him given battery technology is about chemistry & physics! I know all those from osmosis from just working with people & reading stuff & being around people who know.

      • jeremy pereira
        Posted February 27, 2017 at 8:12 am | Permalink

        Actually the energy density of lithium batteries doesn’t change much, after all it is a matter of physics.

        What makes lithium batteries smaller, lighter and longer lasting is reducing the power consumption of the things they power and better charging/discharging management.

        The Tesla Model S battery weighs half a ton (544kg) for a capacity of 85kWh. That power to weight ratio is unlikely to change in the near future. What will allow smaller and lighter batteries is more efficient power trains, better energy recovery (e.g. when slowing down) and more efficient aerodynamics.

        The Achilles heel(s) of battery powered cars are:

        – The low energy density – 85kWh from 500kg is pathetic in comparison to petrol.

        – Having several hundred kilograms of lithium in a lot of cars has got to be a huge environmental and safety hazard.

        – What happens when your 300 miles are up? You need to wait five hours to get another 300 miles, even with Tesla’s fastest charger.

        Of those, the first one can be lived with, Tesla owners already are. The third one can be mitigated by doing battery swaps instead of charging. The middle one is, however, going to be a bigger and bigger problem, unless battery powered electric cars turn out to be a dead end technology.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

      I had not seen that one, but at the moment I think he might be right. Gasoline yields enormous power in an instant, and because of the ginormously scaled up efforts to extract, refine, and distribute it, the cost of gasoline to the consumer is really pretty low and its convenience is very high. I can go out and get several gallons right now if I wanted from just a few blocks away.
      Dammit, gas is great, and I hate to say it.

      • Posted February 26, 2017 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

        + 1
        All my devices on battery have the nasty habit to drop low just when I need them most. I have no reason to think that car batteries will be magically different, and I would not want to have my battery dead in the middle between point A and point B (and I am living in a small country with short roads – what about USA or Canada?)
        Besides, batteries do not work on vitamins but on terribly toxic materials. Occasionally, they will leak, and also will be irresponsibly discarded.

        I am thinking of renewable fuels such as biodiesel and ethanol. Then need not be all “bio-“, they could be possibly produced by electrochemistry.

        • nicky
          Posted February 26, 2017 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

          Biofuels are a bad idea since they take a lot of space to produce. Using e.g.. old growth forest or peat bog areas to produce them is counterproductive, since it may take centuries to recover the carbon that is released when old growth is converted to agricultural land.
          Biofuels from agricultural waste is better,of course, but would not suffice.
          I also wonder if transport from the producer to consumer is not consuming a lot of energy too, defeating the goal.
          Tim Urban had a nice take: http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/06/the-deal-with-solar.html

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted February 27, 2017 at 12:55 am | Permalink

            @nicky The cost of transporting biofuels to the consumer is negligible because biofuels are very high energy density [i.e. to move a lot of biofuel only takes a very small amount of additional biofuel]

            I agree with your other points though

            My worry with solar dominance [or any single solution really] is it’s prone to disruption & it’s vital that a high proportion of it is not grid-based or centrally based. We are very vulnerable now to a failure of the central/’grid’ supply of power, water, food to urban areas. My city metro area has 3.7 million people & the JIT food supply to market/supermarket is… One week

        • Zach
          Posted February 26, 2017 at 9:01 pm | Permalink

          …I would not want to have my battery dead in the middle between point A and point B (and I am living in a small country with short roads – what about USA or Canada?)

          The newest Teslas have a range of over 300 miles (482 km). That’s more than enough to alleviate “range anxiety,” even in a country as spread out as the US.

          Besides, batteries do not work on vitamins but on terribly toxic materials. Occasionally, they will leak, and also will be irresponsibly discarded.

          Can we seriously compare the environmental impact of manufacturing and using lithium batteries versus burning fossil fuels? I don’t think so.

          Sorry if I come off as an Elon Musk fanboy, but I’ve been one ever since I read something in-depth about the purpose behind Tesla.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted February 27, 2017 at 12:30 am | Permalink

            @zach Don’t apologise for coming off as an Elon Musk fanboi – just admit it. You ARE exactly a Musk fanboi [correct spelling]. I’ve seen his laughable Mars colonisation plans LOL

            YOU SAY: “Can we seriously compare the environmental impact of manufacturing and using lithium batteries versus burning fossil fuels? I don’t think so” – yes we can compare them in various ways on various timescales. And the environmental impact of batteries is part of that assessment. What are your figures zach? Please compare say gasoline, hydrogen tech & electric please. If you would…

            What is the carbon cost of making a battery pack sufficient for that range of 300 miles? What will it cost to replace that pack EVERY 5 YEARS [including environmental cost]? What is the infrastructure cost to build the supercharging stations or the home charging installations? Do you know about vampire drain [good name for a band]? Cold weather increased running costs?

            Does this tech really roll out as easily to non-first world as Musk believes?

            I believe the future is non-fossil, but I do know that the electric car running costs figures bandied about are a con wherein the maintenance [battery replacement etc.] looks seriously underestimated.

            The future is non-personal transport, if we can persuade car users to have two passengers instead of zero passengers we can drop car CO2 emissions like a stone through the floor. Then it’s electric trams in every conurbation [trams don’t have to carry those batteries with them]. Then we have to talk to Dallas & cities like Dallas where you have a very hard time living day-to-day without wheels [keeping the poor south of Dallas poor & unemployed]. Then we have to make latex & bicycles sexy!

            Personal powered transport is a joke – go look at the Walmart scooter culture. We have the same lazy ass people in the UK getting electric scooters on the NHS because bad knee… Shameful

            • Posted February 27, 2017 at 2:37 am | Permalink

              “Then we have to make latex & bicycles sexy!”

              Did you mean “lycra”? Some would say that latex and/or lycra /are/ sexy … but not when worn by overweight middle-aged men.


              • Michael Fisher
                Posted February 27, 2017 at 5:16 am | Permalink

                Silly me – yes lycra.

            • Zach
              Posted February 27, 2017 at 10:59 am | Permalink

              The future is non-personal transport, if we can persuade car users to have two passengers instead of zero passengers we can drop car CO2 emissions like a stone through the floor.

              Yeah, good luck with that. Practical solutions to technical problems before idealistic changes to human behavior, my friend. Although I do admire your vision.

              As for Mars, well… When Musk said he wanted to halve the cost of spaceflight by founding a private space company, people laughed at that too. So far, the man has accomplished everything he set out to do. I would temper my skepticism.

              And re: the batteries, do I really need figures to claim that their carbon cost is less, in the long run, than burning gasoline? Is it possible they’re even close? Don’t forget that the latter accrues production costs as well, e.g. extraction, transport, refinement, long before it explodes into the atmosphere.

              • reasonshark
                Posted February 27, 2017 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

                Of course, fossil fuels look so good and cheap because the fossil fuel companies do everything in their power to hide the poisoning, atmospheric polluting, and future impracticality of the stuff they sell. If the price of petrol, for instance, fully reflected its impact on other humans beings in terms of poisoning, future climate change, and so on, no one would look twice at it.

          • Diane G.
            Posted February 27, 2017 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

            “The newest Teslas have a range of over 300 miles (482 km). That’s more than enough to alleviate “range anxiety,” even in a country as spread out as the US.”

            Are you kidding? That’s not even enough to get from down here in Kalamazoo County up to Sault Sainte Marie (both in Michigan).

      • rickflick
        Posted February 26, 2017 at 4:27 pm | Permalink

        On that point he’s absolutely correct. But he comes off as a unapologetic shill for the petroleum industry. What I fault him for is not seeing beyond that to the cosmically important issue of AGW. It’s almost criminal not to point out that although gasoline is very efficient, it’s also destroying the planet and we should be looking toward alternatives, even if they are not yet as powerful.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      That Kaku was the 2011 version Kaku, but his points are more-or-less correct IF taken in isolation [& he does mention pollution in the video, but not carbon footprint stuff]. In the video he is very much pro moving off fossil fuels. Here’s a partial link, so as not to embed [I hope]

      Disclaimer re the below: I know naff all about this stuff & the following are my uneducated thunks on the subject!

      The BIG QUESTION I *thunk* is what is the source [or chain of sources] of the electricity that charges the electric car battery cells? The ‘chain’ must be very ‘clean’ to make up for the fact that when you drive around in an electric car, even today, you are hauling a LOT of battery weight along with you & that is inherently inefficient.

      If we run a Tesla Model S it is a so-called zero-emissions vehicle, BUT as most of the UK’s domestic electricity is generated by fossil fuel-burning power stations (as of 2014, about 30 per cent gas and 29 per cent coal), every mile you drive still has a CO2 consequence.

      I love those electric cars, but I do wonder about the environmental impact of current [sorry] battery manufacture & of course those batteries need replacing eventually…

      Here are some interesting Specific Energy Densities just for fun [MJ/kg]

      Antimatter: 90,000,000,000
      Uranium Nuclear Fission: 86,000,000
      Compressed Hydrogen: 142
      LNG: 55
      Diesel, LPG, Kerosene, Gasoline: around 47
      Carbohydrate [inc sugar]: 17
      TNT: 5
      Lithium battery: < 2

      Her is Kaku on hydrogen fuel-cell cars
      I wonder if he got a free Toyota? 🙂

      • rickflick
        Posted February 26, 2017 at 4:37 pm | Permalink

        Good points. It’s hard to foresee the future, but I suspect at the current rate of research progress, which hopefully will accelerate, within 10 years the cream of the new energy sources, something in the list you present, will float to the top and gasoline will recede into disuse. Certainly, if our future is to be reasonably under our control, carbon will have to be reduced and probably sequestered as well to get back to normal levels.

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted February 26, 2017 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

          Let’s hope so. I would love a TNT-powered car! 🙂

          I very much agree with mayamarkov just above me – electric just doesn’t have the necessary resilience outside a Western urban setting with lots of infrastructure at ones beck & call. For that reason I’m sure that research on personal vehicle fuels will not make a blind bit of difference to total global CO2 emissions in so short a frame as 10 or 20 years. In the developed, urban West the Tesla makes sense if the electricity chain is ‘clean’ & it has kudos among the wealthy celebs to drive interest among the social ladder climbing plebs. I will watch with interest to see if battery replacement/recycling is a hidden cost to users & the environment.

          I think the answer [in the developed, urban/semi-urban West] is to encourage people to view personal vehicles as being as anti-social as spitting or smoking. That along with the cheapness of door-to-door computerised routing & booking of pooled robot cars will quickly kill personal transport in Western cities I hope. The cyclists & pedestrians will be in heaven!

          I have no answer for Africa, India etc. where the infrastructure to support cleaner transport doesn’t exist and yet there’s a great desire for zillions of cars & fridges. Big problem looming.

          I also think it’s crazy how inefficiently market forces operate on our goods & services [coals going to Newcastle type situations everywhere]

          • Merilee
            Posted February 26, 2017 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

            ACME must make a TNT-powered car.

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 27, 2017 at 8:14 pm | Permalink


          • rickflick
            Posted February 26, 2017 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

            A promising note. Some CEOs/republicans are now returning to the notion (from which they departed many years ago) of a carbon tax. A gradually increasing tax of carbon, everything from coal to gasoline. This approach is advocated by many environmentalists and stands a good chance of pushing the economy gently(painlessly) away from fossil fuel. If a gallon of gas moves up to $5-$10, a $40,000 car with a battery might seem much more tempting.
            I would also note, that sometimes, when the pressure is great, things can change very fast. Right now research on alternative energy is probably much lower than it should be, but given another 4 to 8 years, it may actually gain momentum. Not quite to the Manhattan Project level, but maybe at the man-to-the-moon level. This could speed things up dramatically.

  15. Brian Salkas
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    best promoters of Science? Im gonna go with Jerry Coyne, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennet (even though hes a philosophr)

    • ploubere
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:53 pm | Permalink


      • Kevin J Leslie
        Posted February 26, 2017 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

        Four of the best, no doubt!

  16. KD33
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    A quibble about Larry’s accounting:
    – Nye was trained as a mechanical engineer and was never a practicing physicist
    – Tyson is an astrophysicist
    – Sagan was a cosmologist (but of course knew a lot of physics)
    – Kaku is the model “popularizer,” sort of a physics version of Dr. Oz. Believe me, he makes plenty of physicists roll their eyes. (Disclosure: I am trained as one, but am long out of research.)

    This is all to point out that I don’t think there’s a tendency for actual practicing physicists to become popularizers of, shall we say, questionable rigor. Also, you should add to your sampling Sean Carroll and Lisa Randall. They’re cosmologists (and Randall has a particle physics emphasis, too) – and I can’t think of a single case where they’ve said something incorrect. Let me know if you have counterexamples. (I have not read Randall’s Dark Matter and Dinosaurs, but fact checking that would seem germane here. Anyone?)

    As for why biologists don’t expound on on quantum mechanics and black holes – well, my guess is that a greater percentage of physicists understand the basics of evolution than do biologists of quantum mechanics. And therein lies there danger: physicists are attracted to simple models that explain complex things. Evolution is of course a prime of example of that, and it’s easy to get the gist of it and then forget the huge number of nuances that accompany the main concepts (as this blog embodies). That in no way excuses the face palm-inducing beauties from Kaku!

    • Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      Sagan was a cosmologist

      Sagan’s main research was about the planets in our solar system, not cosmology.

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

        Sagan was a brilliant astrobiologist, for one.

        • loren russell
          Posted February 26, 2017 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

          astrobiologist — a field without subjects, yes?

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      Many examples.

      Randall has claimed several times that there is a periodicity in the extinction record (that she wants to explain by some astrophysics) [ https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/jan/12/dark-matter-physics-dinosaurs-extinction-lisa-randell ], despite that the best records and statistical methods have shown over and over that there is none [ http://www.pnas.org/content/105/Supplement_1/11536.full.pdf ; http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/0004-637X/768/2/152/meta , http://www.mpia.de/homes/calj/astroimpacts/response_to_MB.pdf ].

      Carroll can be very open minded about alternatives – he does not necessarily buys the old idea of a singularity defining big bang – but also close minded on his pet theories – like how one should define entropy of the universe which is as far as I know an open question [see eg Egan & Lineweaver on that]. And how about Sean’s penchant for philosophy? How can we measure the degree of which physics is “poetic”, and what is the evidence for “free will”? Are those errors in handling facts or fact free fancy?

      • Torbjörn Larsson
        Posted February 26, 2017 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        Many examples, but probably far less per person than I have, I should add.

      • KD33
        Posted February 27, 2017 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

        re Carroll, I’m not sure what your critique is. That he has a point of view, on forefront topics on which there is little settled science or opinion, that you (or others) may not agree with? I do see your opinions in the comment, re “fact free fancy.” Then you allude to “many examples” in your follow up comment. I still see no examples on established science on which Carroll has been incorrect.

        Not sure about Randall and periodic extinctions, but now I have to view your statement skeptically.

  17. Aidin
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    Great post, admittedly, as a non-science person (I study history and literature)
    I never question what Tyson, Nye, or Kaku say (Sagan was before my time), but neither do I don’t take their word to be the standard.

    As for science communicators, I always enjoyed Richard Dawkins. I find him respectful and genuine. He said once that his readers should always research rather take rely on his word.

    I do watch Youtubers who discuss science. For instance, Vsauce, Scishow (by the vlogbrothers), and minutephysics.

    I’m curious now what experts think of science communicators in the Youtube/internet world.

  18. Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    I do love anyone who can talk about science in layman’s terms, including Kaku and Nye. They’re better than nothing at all, or listening to politicians who still think the earth is flat, and dinosaurs lived alongside humans…..

    • Wunold
      Posted February 27, 2017 at 12:23 am | Permalink

      I read Kaku’s Book “Physics of the Impossible” and several Books of Lawrence Krauss, including “Physics of Star Trek” and “A Universe from Nothing”.

      As a layman myself, I feel that Krauss actually teaches me something in an entertaining way, whereas Kaku comes across as an Entertainer, not a scientist or teacher. He only scratches the surface of a topic which Laurence actually explains. It’s the same with their talks.

      Just my impression, but it’s the reason I don’t want to read any more of Kaku’s books.

  19. Frank Bath
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    I nominate Jim Al-Khalili here in the UK, a physicist, humanist, radio and BBC TV science interviewer and presenter. He has no pretensions, is wise and funny to boot. 100% bald too.

    • Frank Bath
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

      See Wikipedia for the full low down.

    • Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

      Yes. His book Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed is one of the best non-technical explanations of quantum theory that I have read.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

      Oh, I like him too!

      • Claudia Baker
        Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

        Me too! He’s great. His “Everything and Nothing” series on BBC TV was top notch. I have watched it several times on-line, especially the “Everything” part.

        • Merilee
          Posted February 26, 2017 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

          Me, three.

    • Posted February 26, 2017 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

      I have read a part of his book (“Life on the Edge”), it made little sense and was full of errors. The translator was consulting what to do in this situation. She was not a chemist or biologist and nevertheless had caught Al-Khalili’ errors in chemical formulas.

  20. Mike Anderson
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    “Who do you think are the best science communicators”

    Another vote for The Great One, Richard Feynman.

  21. Alan
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    I also get the feeling of seeking fame from Kaku, but not so much of Nye. Nye has been famous since the 90s. I think Nye just has silly humor and, given his history with stand-up, is a ‘natural’ performer.

  22. ploubere
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    I never thought Nye was a particularly good spokesperson for evolution, and I don’t think he did well in his debate with Ken Ham, which was a mistake to do in the first place. I give him credit for trying, but he has trouble making an overall coherent case, instead focusing on specifics (in the Ham debate, he talked a lot about the engineering problems of building a wooden boat the size of the ark, which is a minor point compared to the larger absurdities of the flood story.)

    Tyson does a better job, but I wouldn’t put him in the same class as Dawkins and Attenborough. Or Jerry, for that matter. But again, I admire him for taking a public position on and popularizing science.

  23. Marilee Lovit
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Jerry Coyne.

  24. M&S
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately, more knowledgeable people have also said that human evolution has stopped. Here’s Steve Jones:


    (he may have changed his position since I suppose)

    • Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

      Kaku (in this video) does not say that evolution has stopped — just that the changes now are the sort that won’t be obvious to the casual observer within a “few decades”. He’s responding to wild claims about humans radically changing form in the (near?) future.

      I’m OK with non-biologists talking about evolution. A popularizer like Kaku, who touches on all areas of science, pretty much has to do so.

  25. KD33
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Adding my voice to the Feynman brigade. You cannot discuss science popularization without including him. Thousands of people count him as a (or *the*) reason they became physicists (including me).

    I’d guess one reason we don’t think of him in this conversation is he’s thought to be pitched too high, or to people already interested in physics. But the BBC had two great segments with Feynman for the lay public: “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” and “Fun to Imagine” (each about 1 hr, easy to find on Youtube). Great for anyone – including kids. In Pleasure, you also get a great expression of his Skepticism. And I smile just thinking about him say “jiggling” when discussing atoms.

    For the more ambitious, you might try his earlier Messenger Lectures on The Character if Physical Law (Youtube; also a gem of a small book).

  26. Garry VanGelderen
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    Strangely, it was Robert Ardrey’s book ‘African Genesis’ that got me into reading science books. My current favourites: Dennett, Dawkins, Krauss (both Sean & Lawrence), De Waal and many more.

    • Garry VanGelderen
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

      Sorry I meant Sean Carroll and Sean E. carroll besides Lawrence Krauss.

  27. Smith Powell
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    This post brought to mind a gripe of mind: no matter the science topic, certain TV studios always trot out Kaku to explain and to make a pronouncement. Why have him comment on evolution? Why have him comment on global warming? Why have him comment on nuclear energy? Surely there are experts in each of these fields that can communicate the science and who knows the field. How can we suggest to the studios that they have a list of experts so they can call on an appropriate expert to comment? Among other things, perhaps we could draw up a list of such experts who know their field and who are accomplished at communicating.

  28. Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    “Besides the crazy idea that continents evolve”

    He stated it awkwardly, but he was clearly talking about the isolated Australian people (aboriginies) who were, for a time, evolving separately from the rest of Homo sapiens because of geographical isolation. I’m sure he does not think continents evolve, except in the general sense of change gradually.

    • Posted February 26, 2017 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      Slight correction: He was talking about the whole Australian biota and not just people. I misunderstood partly on the first listen. But, in my defense, he was fairly unclear. I guess we all had that trouble.

  29. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    I should mention that, though a controversial figure, I think David Suzuki has done a lot for science in Canada. He has the reputation of being a grump if you meet him in person but at least he’s not in it for the fame!

    • Claudia Baker
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      I second that.

  30. Ken Pidcock
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    Carl Zimmer, without a doubt. And I recently listened to an interview with David Quammen. I haven’t read any of his books, but he seems to have a good head on his shoulders.

    • Posted February 26, 2017 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

      I second David Quammen. The Song of the Dodo is absolutely fantastic – perhaps the best popular-science book I’ve ever read. Although The Beak of the Finch gives it a run for its money; Jonathan Weiner ought to be mentioned here for that (but I’m not aware of anything else he may have done). And Dawkins, as many others have said; reading The Selfish Gene when I was a teenager is what kindled my interest in biology.

  31. GBJames
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have a problem with scientists from one field explaining the science of some other field to the public. As long as they do their homework and don’t spout nonsense!

    What’s wrong with checking the facts before you pontificate, Michio?

  32. Eric Grobler
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    Prof Coyne I am not sure I agree with you.

    There is no reason why any intelligent person who takes the time and effort cannot acquire a fairly deep understanding of evolution.

    Kaku is clearly lazy and irresponsible.
    I do not like the principle that one can only critique your own field of expertise.

    The world desperately need polymaths because sound policies need a general understanding of many fields such as psychology, AI, nano technology, culture, biology, medicine, history etc.

    And finally, I just read Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” which was great fun where he explores the history of geology, physics, astronomy, chemistry etc.

    Perhaps Kaku was just to arrogant to admit too himself that he is an ignoramus on the subject.

  33. rgsherr
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Have to add Alex Rosenberg, a philosopher of Science, like Dennett, but I think even better.

  34. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:20 pm | Permalink

    I will give Neil DeGrasse Tyson pretty high marks overall for the super-prominent type of science popularizer that is around right now, although he has not been perfect all the time.
    Science documentaries on television often have factual flaws, and are frequently marred by trying to overhype stuff. But one series that really impressed me was Your Inner Fish by the paleontologist and author Neil Shubin. I would really like to see him do more of that sort of thing. I think he must have had a lot of control over that series b/c it was very accurate, unlike many science documentaries.

    • Merilee
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

      Yes, Neil Shubin’s books and Fish TV series are hard to beat!

  35. phoffman56
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

    “…the best science communicators…”

    I’m not so keen on contests for who’s “best”.
    But I’d really like to take the opportunity to advocate for a particular popularization book, by a person who certainly ‘..knows his onions..’ and needs no “..visible ambition.”

    The author is

    Frank Wilczek,

    and the 2015 book is entitled

    “A Beautiful Question”.

    He writes in an uncomplicated and attractive way. He seems to me, on just about every page, to have some new and good way to view aspects of (his own) physics, of mathematics, or of the history of science. Readers can easily find the several things he is famous for, the biggest related particularly to the so-called “Standard Model” (a term he dislikes) of particle physics.

    Perhaps as a mathematician I am somewhat prejudiced here. Probably reinforcing this, I’ll just write down one sentence, the 2nd line from page 280. It refers to a famous theorem of the mathematician Emmy Noether, answering a question from ‘minor’ figures by the names Einstein and Hilbert. She is known to mathematicians mainly for her very different fundamental work creating, along with Hilbert etc., modern algebra:

    “It is, I think, the single most profound result in all of physics”

  36. Doug Hawes
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:35 pm | Permalink

    Isaac Asimov’s writing drew me into science as a kid in the late 60s/early 70s. I think The Chemicals of Life was the first of his that I read. I wonder how he would fare as an advocate in today’s information soup amongst the clown salads.

  37. grasshopper
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I always enjoyed Isaac Asimov’s science writing, and his two tomes on the Bible showed me that it was not wholly holy, but basically a political document. Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene was indeed seminal, as another commenter has said. Stephen Jay Gould was a great expositor of science and how it is done but he was wont to use words of a sesquipedalian nature which slowed down the rate of my comprehension. Worth it though. I think Gould ought to have written the Shellfish Gene, given his speciality in marine snails. Richard Leakey, of Olduvai Gorge fame also wrote some good books. Gould wrote that when he visited the Leakeys he could not ‘see’ the many pieces of small fossil bone fragments that were pointed out to him, but he could see many fossil snail shells that Leakey (pere or fils – I am not sure- or perhaps even Mary) failed to notice. Their specialities had focused them towards certain shapes and blinded them to others.
    Too many to mention really.

    • rickflick
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

      “Gould ought to have written the Shellfish Gene”

      Curiously, I’m just now reading Dawkins autobiography and he has a few not so flattering things to say of his occasional run-ins with Gould. Dawkins points out how his style of delivery, somewhat fluent, literary, and complex, often disguised the fact that his content was less than coherent. His major life’s thesis, punctuated equilibrium, has, from all I’ve heard, mostly been discarded.
      I’ve enjoy reading Gould’s books and essays. His texts are educational and greatly entertaining. But, Gould could not have written the selfish gene, I don’t think. I feel he was constrained by Marxist ideology, as shown by his rabid opposition to E.O. Wilson’s sociobiology.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted February 26, 2017 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

        Too much baseball & oodles of self-regard ruined Gould for me

        • grasshopper
          Posted February 26, 2017 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

          Gould’s essay, “The Median Is The Message” was a great introduction to statistics for me. He was diagnosed with a cancer that gave sufferers a median lifespan of eight months after diagnosis, but his hope was that his own survival would on a far outlier of the bell curve, and his discussion of probabilities was educational. Quite possibly he illustrated his points with discussions of baseball statistics. I forget. But yes, he overdid the baseball.
          He lived a further 29 years.
          He is also the exemplar for Project Steve.

          “Project Steve” is a tongue-in-cheek parody of a long-standing creationist tradition of amassing lists of “scientists who doubt evolution” or “scientists who dissent from Darwinism.”

          • Charles Minus
            Posted February 27, 2017 at 11:41 am | Permalink

            Personally, I never tired of Gould’s writing about baseball. I wish he had written a book on the subject. Maybe you’re not a baseball fan.

            • Diane G.
              Posted February 27, 2017 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

              I agree. 🙂

  38. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:38 pm | Permalink

    I kinda liked Michio when he first arrived on popularization front — back when his hair was still sportin’ melanin and he was spoutin’ sense about physics. Once he started spreading accommodationist meshugaas, not so much.

  39. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Kaku always rubs me the wrong way.

    I am not going to see that video. Kaku is a joke. But he is not a funny one.

    Sagan was a premier general science communicator, but in recent generations I like another Carl, Zimmer. For more narrow interests the list becomes too long to be useful, but I note that some mentioned here like Richard Dawkins (of course – helped me grok genes once upon a time) and minutephysics is on my list too.

    • phoffman56
      Posted February 27, 2017 at 6:55 am | Permalink

      My list of the better authors would certainly have contained Richard Dawkins, and still does, but just slightly to a lesser extent. The latter is because of that unfortunate postscript he wrote in Krauss’s book from a few years back, the book which seemed to claim an answer to the non-question ‘..something rather than nothing’, the book famously but unfairly panned by David Albert (in NYTimes IIRC). That postscript was a biologist pontificating about non-biology!

      I’d also include Krauss on my list of best popularizers. That includes his (update from about 15 years ago) of “Quintessence”, on the search for what dark matter really is, why it’s thought definitely to consist of particles (not e.g. very-hard-to-see blobs like Earth), etc. This despite that book probably being pretty technical for a popularization.

  40. Michael Fisher
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink



    Dawkins – a steely, dry wit on the page [not twitter!]. Always, always picks the perfect word or phrase.


    Matt Ridley [the Northern Rock one] – very clear & well researched writings

    Sagan & Cox use superlatives too much for my taste – I like my science dry, full bodied & no fruity notes. I’m referring to the TV version of Cox – haven’t been able to watch a whole TV documentary because of the production, low information density, music etc. so maybe I should try his books? Has anyone read him? Any recommendations?

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

      His books have better structure and balance, a more complex bouquet, and no treacly aftertaste. 🙂

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted February 26, 2017 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

        I’ll see what Amazon has to see re our Cox’s Orange Pippin – tasty eaten raw, but makes a very poor cooked TV dinner

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted February 26, 2017 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

          Would that Robert Parker, Jr., wrote reviews of science books!

        • Michael Fisher
          Posted February 26, 2017 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

          Ah yes, the great wine democratiser. For a moment I thought you meant Robert B. Parker & his ‘Spencer’ series which I’m enjoying re-reading on the train/bus most days. Spencer is a greater foodie, but leans towards beer & the Irish whiskeys when possible.

          “The thing I like about Irish whiskey is that the more you drink the smoother it goes down. Of course that’s probably true of antifreeze as well, but illusion is nearly all we have”

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted February 26, 2017 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

            Spenser not Spencer. I have sinned with that error.

    • Merilee
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

      I think that we hetero females might have more patience with Brian Cox’s tempo and dazzling smile. Maybe a few too many Wooonderfuls…

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted February 26, 2017 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

        Merilee – I always enjoy your comments! Short, surgical & incisive palate cleansers all!

  41. Posted February 26, 2017 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    As far as science communicators goes, Vincent Racaniello (virologist at Columbia) has done an amazing job sharing his passion for virology and other areas of biology with the public through podcasts that speak to lay people and fellow scientists alike.

    • Ken Pidcock
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 8:51 pm | Permalink

      I love the twivers, too, but, oh man, they can take so long getting around to the science. I find myself wondering if I have that much time to listen to people talking about the weather. But, yeah, Vincent Racaniello deserves placement in the first rank of science communicators.

  42. Blue
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Dr Jeanine Carithers, veterinary histologist,
    and, as well, Professor Emerita.


  43. S Krishna
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

    I started reading about science with the excellent book Bertrand Russell’s “The ABC of Relativity”. Others I like are Brain Greene, Sean Carroll, Steven Weinberg, Lawrence Krauss in Physics, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, Ernst Mayr in Biology. I also like Daniel Dennett, John Searle, Steven Pinker, Sam Harris.
    Kaku is too smooth for my liking.

    • rickflick
      Posted February 26, 2017 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      I have fond memories of reading Russell’s ABC’s of Relativity in high school. Wasn’t it was written using only algebra?…and so I was able to work through all the math. It gave me a sense of mathematical competence I later had to abandon. Or am I remembering another book. Einstein himself may have been the author of the all algebra version. I can’t remember now.

  44. Posted February 26, 2017 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a professional scientist…just a science-favoring retired elementary teacher.

    I caught the bug from Asimov first. His essays were great teaching (although I don’t know how accurate they were).

    Sagan was next – also a great teacher. I loved Cosmos and followed him in his space quests.

    …now I listen to Tyson.

  45. ladyatheist
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

    Hasn’t the big brain = intelligence meme been debunked long ago? If he wants to appeal to everyday people he has to explain why toy poodles are as intelligent as standard poodles.

    • Wayne Tyson
      Posted February 27, 2017 at 12:15 am | Permalink

      What is your explanation? Or, what is your evidence that your hypothesis is true? Have you tested a sufficient sample to reach that conclusion? Is this or similar work published? Can you include links?

  46. Larry
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 11:47 pm | Permalink

    The ones I’ve learned most from, and whose authenticity and creativity I appreciate:

    Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, Brian Cox, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Brian Green, Alice Roberts, Donald Johanson, Tim White, Marvin Harris (the last four being anthropologists), the entire Leaky clan, and Lawrence Krauss.

    Broadening out, my chosen educators for secularism and atheism are Susan Jacoby and Prof. Coyne.

    In terms of bringing the empirical world to the masses: C. Darwin and David Attenborough. The latter is a man on a mission, who presents the world of biology and our planet with heart. No one does it better.

  47. Wayne Tyson
    Posted February 27, 2017 at 12:12 am | Permalink

    See: Item 8. nurnord
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:19 pm

    “This view of life . . .”

    In this, Dawkins apparently agreed with Gould.

  48. Wayne Tyson
    Posted February 27, 2017 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    Below is an excerpt from a discussion back in 2012. See the entire page at https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2012/01/29/david-attenborough-on-desert-island-discs/

    Wayne Tyson
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 1:53 pm | Permalink
    Agreed that Attenborough has done a lot of good stuff.
    But does he believe (as implied in one of his TV programs) that species ADVANCE through evolution over time? How many on this blog do?
    Richard Dawkins
    Posted January 29, 2012 at 2:31 pm | Permalink
    “But does he believe (as implied in one of his TV programs) that species ADVANCE through evolution over time? How many on this blog do?”
    I do, for one. How else do you think complex and efficient adaptations like eyes evolve from their simpler and cruder and less efficient beginnings? How else does subtle and delicate camouflage improve on the crude resemblance of the early stages in its evolution? The idea that evolution does not progress is one of the many misconceptions about evolution promoted by the lamentably influential S J Gould.
    Richard Dawkins

    On April 27, 2013 (I waited more than a year.), I posted (in relevant part) the following:

    “PS: I continue to be curious about Dawkin’s decision to let his declaration about advancement in evolution stand without clarification.”

    Perhaps it was not the real Dawkins who posted a response to my question.

    I was not and am not indulging in the unfortunate practice of “trolling,” nor was I nor am I speaking as if from authority; I was asking a question to which I got a clear answer from “Dawkins.” I am in a learning mode, not a teaching mode, but questions, in my view, are teaching moments, not dictating moments.

    I remain curious about the number of evolutionary biologists who believe that evolution involves the “advancement” of species from “lower” to “higher” forms. Put another way, as one participant did, do species “progress?”

    • rickflick
      Posted February 27, 2017 at 6:09 am | Permalink

      I think there is a confusion about the term ‘advancement’. Certainly changes over time can lead to a new form that we would call more ‘advanced’, or complex in terms of a particular function we identify. 4 billion yeas ago all life was ‘simple’ and unicellular. On the other hand it has nothing to do with teleology. It is just change under particular environmental forces. Sometimes changes are ‘setbacks’ from the point of view of some functionality we chose to focus on. A complex eye can be ‘lost’ in an organism that happens to assume life in dark caves. Evolution simply doesn’t ‘care’ if some organ gets larger or smaller, more or less complex, or only drifts sideways under changing environments. Advancement then is not a principle of evolution, it’s only a side effect under some conditions.

      • Wayne Tyson
        Posted February 27, 2017 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

        Sounds reasonable to me.

        It may well be that Attenborough and Dawkins mean something other than “progressing” or “improving” when they use such terms, but intellectual discipline and good communication skills are what these gentlemen make their living on. In other words, ” Evolution simply doesn’t ‘care’ if some organ gets larger or smaller, more or less complex, or only drifts sideways under changing environments.” (If I use this quote elsewhere, how do I cite the author? “Rickflick?”)

        My first concern is my initial question, which remains unanswered–“how many evolutionary biologists believe that species improve with time?”

        My second concern, not mentioned until now, is “How many natural scientists and those educated in the natural sciences believe that species advance, improve, or progress over time?

        My third concern is “What percentage of those not in some field of endeavor or interested in the subject believe that?”

        Yes, I don’t see how teleology is relevant here.

        Yes, “It is just change under particular environmental forces.” (rickflick)

        “Sometimes changes are ‘setbacks’ from the point of view of some functionality we chose to focus on.” In intellectual discipline, including “science,” we embrace “choosing” and “points-of-view” at our peril.

        I submit, as rickfick clearly implies, that genes and the organisms in which they exist are in a kind of “dance” with environments that define the “sweet spots” in space and time that are sufficient or ideas for their continued existence and reproduction, and the “sour spots” along the continuum of life that limit or degrade their existence and reproduction or, if they cannot alter their forms enough or quickly enough, to adapt, to change into a form that can survive, thrive, and reproduce in a given changed or changing environment. This is not “advancement,” and certainly not progress–it is a process that either is or isn’t, one that is indifferent to life or life forms.

        I wish Dr. Dawkins would actually engage on this question. Or Sir Attenborough.

        • Wayne Tyson
          Posted February 27, 2017 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

          Oops! I wrote “ideas” when I meant to write “ideal.” Too bad there’s no edit function.

        • rickflick
          Posted February 27, 2017 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

          I think you’ll find Dawkins deals with this issue in some of his books. I can’t remember which exactly. Try:

          The Blind Watchmaker
          Climbing Mount Improbable
          The Selfish Gene
          The Extended Phenotype

        • Diane G.
          Posted February 27, 2017 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

          “My first concern is my initial question, which remains unanswered–“how many evolutionary biologists believe that species improve with time?””

          Do you have a problem with the idea that the result of natural selection by definition is improved adaptation to a given environment? As Richard says, it’s hard not to call the progression from a few photoreceptive cells all the way to complex eyes an advancement. OTOH one has the extreme morphological simplification of some parasites; that too is a form of evolutionary advancement but certainly a loss of complexity.

          You seem to want to make a political point by putting words into the mouths of evolutionists. May I ask why you are so concerned about this?

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 27, 2017 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

      @Wayne, Wayne, Wayne!
      Five years you’ve had to find the info that could throw light on your question! You know – an actual quote from the TV documentary that you rabbit about, but can’t be ‘bovvered’ to quite pin down!

      Well I’ve done the work for you
      The bit that interests you is [4], but below is my edited transcript where all instances of the words “Primitive” & “Advanced”/”Advance” appear

      NOTE 1: I’ve marked the beginning of lines that use these naughty, naughty terms with “***” to the left of the line

      NOTE 2: Original transcript is courtesy the mReplay robot – I’ve removed loads of crap TV ads that the bot transcribed faithfully. Full transcript is here:

      P.S. Re. your comment further down – it’s not done to refer to our David as “Sir Attenborough” – bad form old chap 🙂

      FIRST LIFE WITH David Attenborough

      *** 00:02:44 For some 3 billion years, simple microscopic organisms were the most ADVANCED form of life on the planet.
      *** 00:02:57 And then suddenly, within the space of a few million years, a mere blink of the eye in evolutionary terms, ADVANCED organisms appeared.
      00:03:08 Why is a mystery.

      *** 00:50:12 550 Million years ago, animal life was on the verge of a major ADVANCE.
      00:50:21 In an environment where animals were becoming more mobile, they would have to adapt fast.
      00:50:28 Movement requires a lot of energy.
      00:50:32 Simply absorbing nutrients through the surface of the body, as dickinsonia did, was much too slow a process.
      00:50:41 Mobile animals would need to consume huge quantities of food, and they would do that by evolving the very first stomachs, mouths, and teeth.
      00:50:52 You can see how they might have done so in ..
      00:51:25 Professor philip donoghue is preparing the tiniest of fossils for the synchrotron.
      00:52:50 This fossil is the embryo of a tiny marine worm called markuia.
      00:52:57 It lived just 20 million years after the animals of ediacara.
      00:53:03 Using his 3D model, donoghue is able to see inside it, and there, he found evidence of something new.
      00:53:13 These fossils provide the first clear evidence for guts within animals.
      00:53:17 We can clearly see that there’s a mouth right at one end, surrounded by rings of teeth that extend inside the mouth.
      00:53:25 And then there’s a gut that extends all the way through to an anus at the other end.
      00:53:31 Internal digestion enabled markuelia to extract energy from its food in a very efficient way.
      00:53:42 And the fact that it had teeth suggests that it had a new diet — other animals.
      00:53:52 The fact that it’s got rings of teeth arranged around its mouth that it would have averted out, would have ejected out of its mouth, to grasp prey items, tells us that this thing was a predator.
      00:54:04 For the first time, there were hunters in the oceans.
      00:54:08 And that had enormous evolutionary implications.
      00:54:15 There was about to be an explosion of life that would lay the foundations for modern animals.
      00:57:31 The first predators on earth had a dramatic effect on the course of evolution.

      00:57:40 Here in canada’s rocky mountains, we can find evidence of the moment when animals evolved so rapidly, they produced what has been called an explosion of life.
      00:57:55 It happened during a period called the cambrian.
      00:58:02 And it began 542 million years ago.
      00:58:11 During the next 10 to 20 million years, animals increased in numbers, diversity, and size as never before.
      00:58:21 And as they got bigger, so they became more complex.
      00:58:26 And they’re preserved to an extraordinary degree of perfection in the rocks right below me.
      00:58:35 The burgess shales, where a rich seam of fossils documents this cambrian explosion in astonishing detail.
      00:58:53 All this area was once the floor of a shallow sea teeming with life.
      01:00:35 But many of these bizarre creatures seem like nothing we know of today.
      01:00:44 This is one of the more mysterious animals from the shales.
      01:00:49 Here on its head, it had five eyes, each of them like a kind of little mushroom.
      01:00:57 And beneath that, it had a long proboscis with which it grabbed things.
      *** 01:01:02 It’s a truly PRIMITIVE animal, and one that, still, we don’t fully understand.
      01:01:09 It’s been named opabinia, and it seems to have been a kind of evolutionary experiment.
      01:01:19 It’s almost as if an assortment of different body parts have been put together in something of a hurry.
      01:01:26 What other animal has five eyes?
      01:02:09 For many years, scientists excavated and scrutinized the shales, looking for the causes of the cambrian explosion.
      01:02:18 Their first task was to try and reconstruct what these strange animals must have looked like when they were alive.
      01:03:18 The projections at the bottom are, in fact, legs, and those along the top are tipped with sharp spines that were presumably defensive.
      01:03:32 Perhaps these animals evolved these strange shapes because they needed it to protect themselves.
      01:03:43 But if so, from what?
      01:03:53 Until they discovered an animal with large claws and teeth, the first big predator.
      01:06:52 I’m in the canadian rockies, trying to unravel the mystery of why, 542 million years ago, animals like hallucigenia began to evolve spines and other defensive structures.
      01:07:05 The answer may lie in two seemingly unconnected fossils.
      01:07:10 One of the strgest fossils found here is this.
      01:07:16 It’s also one of the commonest.
      01:07:18 But what is it?
      01:08:54 It had plates along its back and a tail at the rear end.
      01:09:00 It was a swimmer.
      01:09:00 And between those two spiked claws at the front, there was a mouth with teeth.
      01:09:09 This was the hunter they had been looking for.
      01:09:16 The scientist who had discovered the claws had called them anomalocaris, meaning “strange ” that name is now used for the whole animal.
      01:13:39 It’s become very fast, very powerful, and capable of great patience.
      01:13:45 And those are characteristics of predators everywhere.
      01:13:52 So, the fossilized remains of anomalocaris are evidence that hunting had begun in the cambrian.
      01:14:00 And as predators became bigger, faster, and stronger, so their prey had to develop increasingly elaborate defenses.

      [4] Attenborough & Fortey have a chat – & Sir Dave refers to the most “ADVANCED” forms of life on the planet [I don’t think Fortey would disagree if he’d been there for that bit of recording]
      01:16:53 And a whole range of creatures have skeletons like this.
      01:17:01 Arthropods alive today include shrimps, lobsters, and crabs, as well as land-living creatures such as millipedes, scorpions, and insects.
      01:17:10 But the ancestor of all of them first appeared in the cambrian seas.
      01:17:20 Here in the burgess shales, you can see how one particular family of arthropods became one of the most successful animals of all time.
      01:19:53 They’re called trilobites.
      01:19:54 Trilobites because their bodies were in three sections.
      01:19:58 Here on this slab, there are several of them.
      01:20:02 That’s the head.
      01:20:04 There’s the middle bit.
      01:20:06 And there’s the tail.
      01:20:08 One, two, three.
      01:20:10 Trilobites.
      01:20:12 Trilobites, at this particular time, right at the beginning of the cambrian, began to proliferate into all sorts of form.
      *** 01:20:20 These creatures, for the next 250 million years, were probably the most ADVANCED forms of life on this planet.
      *** 01:20:32 To see how ADVANCED trilobites eventually became, I’m going to north africa.
      01:20:38 In morocco, on the southern flanks of the atlas mountains, the hills contain an amazing variety of them.
      01:20:51 They were only discovered a few years ago, but now the demand for them is so great that digging them out has become a major industry.
      01:21:06 These rocks, which were laid down about 150 million years after the burgess shale also contain trilobites.
      01:21:15 The trouble is, the rock is very hard, and the trilobites are quite rare.
      01:21:20 But when these people find them, their specimens are absolutely extraordinary.
      01:22:06 The end results reveal that trilobites molded their external skeletons into an almost unbelievable variety of shapes.
      01:22:31 And that enabled them to colonize a great variety of habitats just as modern arthropods still do today.
      01:22:45 There are about 50,000 different trilobite species that we know of, and doubtless there are still many more to be discovered.
      01:22:56 There must have been many reasons why trilobites were so successful.
      01:23:00 But one of them, unquestionably, was their power of sight.
      01:23:05 They had eyes, not just eye spots that could tell the difference between light and dark, but complex eyes that could form detailed pictures of their surroundings for the first time in the history of life.
      01:23:18 Eyes like these.
      01:23:22 Most animals on earth today have eyes of one kind or another.
      01:23:27 Most are made from soft tissue, as ours are.
      01:23:31 But trilobite eyes are unique.
      01:23:34 Their lenses are derived from their mineralized external skeleton.
      01:23:39 They’re made of rock.
      01:23:43 Each one of these little dots is a lens, and each is made from calcite, a crystalline form of chalk.
      01:23:52 One of the world’s leading trilobite experts, richard fortey, is studying the way in which trilobites saw.
      01:24:01 Fortey: Trilobites were the only organisms ever really to use this stuffas their lens material.
      01:24:10 And in doing so, they evolved very sophisticatedvision indeed.
      01:24:14 For example, these sorts of trilobites had very large lenses.
      01:24:20 And each lens is readily visible with the naked eye.
      01:24:24 And each one is biconvex.
      01:24:26 And it’s been proven that individual lenses have little bowls inside them to help them focus more precisely.
      01:24:33 These creatures were among the first, certainly, to actually focus a picture, weren’t they?
      01:24:39 It wasn’t just a question of telling light from dark.
      01:24:42 They could do better than that.
      01:24:43 Oh, no. these had really sophisticated vision.
      01:24:47 The kind of trilobites that have these eyes were probably hunters.
      01:24:52 Some people have claimed that they could form stereoscopic images using both eyes, so they could really hone in on the prey.
      01:25:03 Many predators today, including ourselves, have 3-d, or stereoscopic vision.
      01:25:08 It makes it possible for a hunter to accurately judge the distance between itself and its prey.
      01:25:25 But not all trilobites were predators.
      01:25:29 Some were inoffensive creatures that lived by munching mud.
      01:25:33 But sight must have been valuable for them, too, enabling them to spot enemies in time to escape.
      01:25:39 There are trilobite eyes with more than 5,000 lenses.
      01:25:42 5,000? More than 5,000 lenses.
      01:25:44 Now, each of those — does it have an image?
      01:25:47 Each of those doesn’t have an image, but if they’ve got lots of tiny lenses, they’re particularly sensitive to movement — , something changing between one lens and the next.
      01:25:55 Which would come in handy if you were prey, not predator.
      01:26:04 Today, the trilobites are extinct, but the continued evolution of the exoskeleton equipped their arthropod cousins with the tools to dominate the oceans.

      01:32:22 So, arthropods of one kind or another were certainly dominant 420 million years ago.
      01:32:31 But how and when did they make their next move onto land?
      01:32:37 By now, the early plants had established themselves on land and were pumping out oxygen, just as they do today.
      01:32:46 Eventually, the level of oxygen in the atmosphere increased so that it was sufficient for air-breathing animals to sustain themselves.
      *** 01:32:55 The stage was now set for the next great evolutionary ADVANCE.
      01:33:04 For animals to survive on land, they had to evolve new abilities.
      01:33:09 They had to find a way to breathe air to support themselves without the aid of water and to prevent their bodies from drying out.
      01:33:21 The burgess shales, that astonishingly rich treasury of cambrian fossils, contained the remains of just one particularly rare species that may well have been the very first animal to make that move onto land.
      01:33:35 It was not, as you might think, an amphibian.
      01:33:38 It was not even a true arthropod, but one of their far-distant cousins.
      01:33:48 This little creature from the burgess shales seas is thought to be the ancestor of the very first creature that went onto land.
      01:34:00 It’s called aysheaia.

  49. Jim
    Posted February 27, 2017 at 1:31 am | Permalink

    you critcized david attenborough for no apparent reason? how donald trump of you to gratuitously insult an excellent scientist.


    • Posted February 27, 2017 at 2:39 am | Permalink

      Huh? Jerry actually complemented Attenborough. Bye!


    • Michiel
      Posted February 27, 2017 at 5:29 am | Permalink

      Read the post, and the sentence about Attenborough again. He is praising him for being authentic, just like Neil Degrasse Tyson, not criticizing him.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 27, 2017 at 9:16 pm | Permalink


  50. Posted February 27, 2017 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    “Who do you think are the best science communicators..?”

    Well, living, i’d say Neil deGrasse Tyson; especially when he sticks to cosmology and astronomy.
    Others from the past, and regrettably no longer with us, would be Richard Feynman and Isaac Asimov. Carl Sagan was perhaps the best, although he was also criticized in his time for a lack of understanding outside of his field.

    I have noticed a trend among science populists to seek celebrity status. It’s possible that they have become seduced by all of the attention and adoration. It’s also likely that they see the tendency in American society towards anti-intellectualism and ignorance and they wish to try to counter that.

  51. Doris Walker
    Posted February 27, 2017 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Alan Alda – his curiosity and every-man approach is refreshing

    David Pogue – like a kid in a science candy store

    • Wayne Tyson
      Posted February 27, 2017 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      Alda has not been anointed, but he sure shows up some who have.

  52. Lilith
    Posted February 27, 2017 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    It’s fine to remind us experts make errors, especially when speaking across disciplines, and we should look deeper than one person’s words. This piece goes beyond professionally reminding us of that. Have you considered communicating with Kaku and helping him get things more correct, one professional to another? Or perhaps it feels better to tear down someone who is furthering interest in science and technology instead of Hollywood and sports celebrities?

    • Posted February 27, 2017 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      I have no idea what you’re talking about when saying I’m “going beyond” pointing out errors. If you mean that virtually every statement is erroneous, well, that’s true, but so what? Is a book critic obliged to contact the author, or a movie reviewer the director, to help them get things more correct. Sorry, public criticism of bad science is valuable in itself, as it teaches the audience what is right and wrong about what a “science communicator” says.

      You are a rude person who is also ignorant of the purpose of criticism. I suggest–nay, impel–you to find some other website to tut-tut at the host.

  53. Wayne Tyson
    Posted February 27, 2017 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    Cockfighting, in the figurative sense, is, shall we say “Trumpian?”

  54. Posted February 27, 2017 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    I remember reading a physics reddit thread discussing whether Michio Kaku was a crank or not. Many thought he should be given a pass because he had the right credentials and did significant work in physics Others really didn’t like him because he spewed his speculative ideas, but talked about them as if they were widely accepted science. I looked up the old thread https://www.reddit.com/r/Physics/comments/1h8k8e/is_michio_kaku_a_hack_or_should_he_be_taken/

    In the thread, someone complained about this exact same video, calling it a monstrosity. Someone else linked to another Michio Kaku Big Think video where he says quantum mechanics gives us a form of free will.

    The thread also had a link to where other physics popularizer Matt Strassler and Sean Carroll complaining about Kaku spreading misinformation about the Higgs boson. https://profmattstrassler.com/2013/03/19/why-professor-kaku-why/
    (By the way, the articles menu at Matt Strassler’s website has some extremely good articles, explaining things about particle physics)

  55. Diane G.
    Posted February 27, 2017 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    Since this discussion has moved a bit beyond the restriction to “the best” science communicators, I’ll throw in a couple of other names that IMO belong in the broader discussion of recent notable science popularizers–Lewis Thomas & E.O. Wilson.

  56. Wayne Tyson
    Posted February 28, 2017 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    See: Item 8. nurnord
    Posted February 26, 2017 at 1:19 pm

    “This view of life . . .”

    In this, Dawkins apparently agreed with Gould.


  57. Sagan Worshipper
    Posted February 28, 2017 at 12:56 am | Permalink

    Bet you can’t guess who my favorite was 🙂
    Carl Sagan was the catalyst to my atheism. Tyson is a wannabe Sagan….He even tries to imitate Carl’s cadence when he speaks….annoying.

  58. Wayne Tyson
    Posted February 28, 2017 at 2:21 am | Permalink

    Re: “Michael Fisher
    Posted February 27, 2017 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    @Wayne, Wayne, Wayne!
    Five years you’ve had to find the info that could throw light on your question! You know – an actual quote from the TV documentary that you rabbit about, but can’t be ‘bovvered’ to quite pin down!

    Well I’ve done the work for you
    The bit that interests you is [4], but below is my edited transcript where all instances of the words “Primitive” & “Advanced”/”Advance” appear

    NOTE 1: I’ve marked the beginning of lines that use these naughty, naughty terms with “***” to the left of the line

    NOTE 2: Original transcript is courtesy the mReplay robot – I’ve removed loads of crap TV ads that the bot transcribed faithfully. Full transcript is here:

    P.S. Re. your comment further down – it’s not done to refer to our David as “Sir Attenborough” – bad form old chap 🙂

    [Material mercifully deleted.]


    I greatly appreciate Fisher’s generosity, but I still don’t have the answer to my original question. No matter; I presume that the question is either too “hot” or too “insignificant” to bother answering. I was looking for a “yes” or “no” followed by justification.

    Sorry, old man, about the breach of British custom, but I’m only an ignorant American.

    Speaking of “bad form . . .”

    I’ll take all that as a “yes.” That is, you do believe in the advancement theory of evolution. In other words, you believe the “March of Progress” cartoon is accurate, that the erect male, blonde, white human is superior to his antecedents. Please correct me if this is the wrong assumption.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted February 28, 2017 at 3:27 am | Permalink

      @Wayne. To quote yourself from 2012: “How much trophy-hunting [by you] is involved in these comments?”

      The material you “mercifully deleted” gave the context under which Attenborough used the terms “Advance”/”Advanced”/”Primitive” – I thought it would put your questions on a firmer footing given your tendency to *not quite* accurately report from memory words & context.

      I am not a proponent of any purpose-driven evolutionary model – I’m strictly a darwinist/neo-darwinist. Nobody who comments on this site is permitted by JAC to ‘advance’ [haha] a purposeful model without backing it up. AND YOU KNOW THAT! So please stop with the absurdist, trollish, nitpicky semantic nonsense.

      I take the term “advance” as used by Attenborough to be rather along the lines of something that Dawkins wrote: “The larger the leap through genetic space, the lower the probability that the resulting change will be viable, let alone an improvement. [Hence] evolution must in general be a crawl through genetic space, not a series of leaps.” Dawkins calls this process of baby steps in accumulating biological complexity as ‘Climbing Mount Improbable’ [as you are well aware of course]…

      To make what I mean clear – although it is true that change is gradual there are certain events in evolution that greatly expanded the vistas presented in the evolutionary Wrightian landscape in a very short time. So we have Attenborough considering such innovations as multicellularity, animal guts & teeth, hard carapaces & invasion of the land & air as ‘advances’ in the sense of a vast expansion in potential design space has just occurred and “OH LOOK AT THE FRUITS OF THAT EXPANSION – ISN’T THAT MARVELLOUS” [I imagine David might say]

      And before you start – yes I’m happy to use the term “design”

  59. Wayne Tyson
    Posted February 28, 2017 at 2:34 am | Permalink

    In response to rickflick and G., I don’t deal in implications. The question is simple enough. The answer should be simple enough–“yes” or “no.” Followed by some statement that supports the answer. “Yes and no,” I suppose, might be an answer too, in the same manner.

    Are y’all implying that all evolutionary biologists believe that the “March of Progress” cartoon is correct, and that, for example, “modern” humans are superior to their antecedents–that modern humans are the result of improvements over time? Or pick any species and their antecedents if you wish.

    PS: I’m not certain that the message “signed” by Dawkins was really the real Dawkins.

    • Diane G.
      Posted February 28, 2017 at 2:47 am | Permalink

      You aiming for Troll of the Year award?

      There’s no reason to grace your demands with a response, nor to point out the ridiculous leaps of association you make. But I’m really curious as to why this is your pet hissy fit. I don’t think anyone’s decried the classic march o’ progress cartoon you mention more than evolutionary biologists.

  60. Posted March 1, 2017 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    What I’d like to see is a transcript of Kaku, along with sidebar corrections.

    Maybe Kaku would consider it in the light as constructive criticism, and try again.

  61. Wayne Tyson
    Posted March 1, 2017 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    I have no intention of speaking for others, and certainly not for evolutionary biologists. So I can’t say whether or not those schooled in the field endorse or do not endorse things like the “March of Progress” cartoon. But that piece of art seems to have had a significant influence on how non-biologists view evolution. Can I safely presume that the authors of the Time-Life book on human evolution did not believe that modern humans were superior to their antecedents or that they believed that organisms simply adapt to changing environments, that genes take advantage of environmental change?

    Again, I am in learning mode. Again, my original question was a simple one. I don’t understand why some consider asking it is a sin. Nor do I understand why it can’t be simply answered.

    Semantics aside, the widely accepted definitions of words like advancement, progress, higher, better, improved, and the like seem to be clear and not beg any semantic question.

    I presume that those who are kind enough to take time from their busy schedules to reply or even respond to my questions are interested in correcting any errors I might make. However, in order to improve (no pun intended) I must know precisely what I wrote that was erroneous. Generalizations, however short or long or superior leave me confused.

    But I am satisfied that I have received all of the answers I’m going to get, and thank all of the respondents with gratitude.

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