Kin selection in waterfowl

This is from the pond right outside my office. I can’t count the ducklings, but people tell me that there were once nine of them. There’s a slow attrition over the summer as feral cats, raptors, and male ducks kill them. I’m hoping we’ll fledge at least six.

(Poor quality attributable to my using my iPhone.)


And a bonus Leon monologue!

Leon: I became infected with the Sunday laziness.



The correlation between rejection of evolution and rejection of environmental regulation: what does it mean?

I was sent the following Washington Post tw**t, which refers to an article by Chris Mooney, an accommodationist who now works for that paper. Of course I was intrigued, so I went to both Mooney’s article and the source of that graph, an analysis of Pew-poll data and a post by Josh Rosenau, another accommodationist who works for the National Center for Science education.

But first, the tw**t and graph.

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Let’s look at that graph first. Rosenau analyzed data from a 2007 Pew survey that asked Americans various questions (there’s a newer survey from 2014, but Rosenau didn’t analyze that one). The plot above comes from the answers of various religionists and nonbelievers to two questions. As Rosenau recounts:

I examined two questions. One asked people which of these statements they most agreed with:

Stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy; or Stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost

The other question asked people to agree or disagree with the statement:

Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth

And a bit more about the size and color of the circles, also from Rosenau:

To get the axes, I standardized the same way Grant did, except I didn’t rescale to the 0-100 scale, since I didn’t want this to seem like a percentage when it isn’t. [He’s referring to Tobin Grant, who made a similar plot on the political views of adherents to various faiths.]

The circle sizes are scaled so that their areas are in proportion to the relative population sizes in Pew’s massive sample (nearly 36,000 people!). The circle colors match the groupings in Grant’s graphic, though I used different colors just to be difficult.

So, just looking at that figure, you see several things.

First, there’s a strong positive correlation between acceptance of human evolution and support for environmental regulation. That’s not surprising, especially if you see that the denominations at the lower left are the more literalist and fundamentalist sects, who both reject evolution and think that Earth’s fate is in God’s hands, while the denominations at upper right are largely nontheists or very liberal religionists, who both accept evolution and are concerned with the environment. Also, political conservatives tend to be of the more evangelical Christian stripe, which has adopted both anti-environmentalism and anti-evolutionism as “in-group identifiers.” Accounting for this correlation isn’t much of a problem.

Note too, as I mentioned above, that the Rightest Thinkers are the small circles at upper right, namely reform Jews (face it, they’re atheists), those of “liberal tradition” (not sure who these are), Buddhists, Quakers, atheists, agnostics, and “New Age” believers (whatever that means). In other words, those who show the least opposition to evolution and the most concern about the environment are those who either don’t believe in gods, possess a nebulous “spirituality”, or barely believe in God. In contrast, the strongest and most dogmatic believers are the biggest science denialists.

How then, can this possibly be construed as showing that faith and science are not in conflict? But never underestimate the ability of diehard accommodationists to twist any data, no matter what they be, to that end. (We see this too in the endless Templeton-funded accommodationist books and articles of Elaine Ecklund, a master at forcing all survey results into the Procrustean bed of accommodationism.)

Well, here’s what Rosenau says:

First, look at all those groups whose members support evolution. There are way more of them than there are of the creationist groups, and those circles are bigger. We need to get more of the pro-evolution religious out of the closet.

Second, look at all those religious groups whose members support climate change action. Catholics fall a bit below the zero line on average, but I have to suspect that the forthcoming papal encyclical on the environment will shake that up.

Well, that shows that some religions don’t have to be in conflict with science when it comes to evolution and climate change, but what it doesn’t show is that religion and science aren’t in conflict when it comes to Jesus’s resurrection, the existence of Heaven, or the existence of an omniscient, omnipotent, and all-loving god. And when it comes to Islam, well, the denial of human evolution by Muslims of all stripes is nearly universal.

What the plot shows to me is that the more tenaciously people hold onto their faith, the more opposed to science they are. One can tentatively conclude from the figure is that the way to get everyone to move to the upper right is to dispel their faith! Of course that’s anathema to Mooney and Rosenau, both firm believers in belief! In fact, when interviewed by Mooney for the WaPo, Rosenau basically says that he doesn’t know what these data mean:

Reached by phone Tuesday, Rosenau (whom I’ve known for a long time from the community of bloggers about science and the environment) seemed to be still trying to fully understand the implications of the figure he’d created. “People seemed to like it,” he said. “I think some people are finding hope in it” — hope, specifically, that there is a way out of seemingly unending science versus religion spats.

. . . Rosenau told me he was still trying to work that [the correlation between the two variables] out — still playing with the data and new analyses to try to understand it.

Finally, note that the black Pentecostals and black “Holiness” adherents are way down in the lower left, along with the Mormons and members of the Assembly of God.  Why is that? It’s no surprise to me: American blacks have traditionally been very religious, as they are one of the most oppressed and reviled minorities in America (down there with atheists), but, unlike atheists, they also are, in general, socioeconomically deprived.  The social dysfunction of many black communities has led them to cling tightly to traditional religion, for, as we know, there’s a strong negative correlation between “successful societies” and religiosity. And that belief is “traditional,” both because many blacks took their religion from the South, where they were enslaved, and because that form of belief offers the most tangible rewards in the hereafter to those who suffer in the present.

But in a remarkable display of social-justice breast-beating, Rosenau manages to blame the black religionists’ rejection of evolution on the racism of scientists!

 Finally, creationism has a solid hold in African American churches. There’s important outreach to be done on that front, and it’ll have to be accompanied by an acknowledgment of racism in science, both historically and in its current practice. While science is not itself racist, and neither is evolution, both have been tainted by and abused for the benefit of racism, and the African American community has cause for its ambivalence. Those of us who love evolution, love science, and want to share that love with our brothers and sisters of all races and religions need to find better ways to bridge these gaps.

It’s just disingenuous to claim that blacks reject evolution and environmental controls because they think that science has been tainted by racism. Surely Rosenau knows better, and if he doesn’t, well, I feel sorry for him. Yes, indeed, some scientists have been racist; and eugenics as well as the Tuskegee Study were shameful episodes in the history of genetics and medicine. But if Rosenau thinks that if we scientists admit and decry that earlier racism (which we’ve done—repeatedly), then blacks will suddenly embrace evolution and become environmentalists, I’ve got a bridge in Riyadh to sell him. The way to get any hyper-religious group, black or white, to embrace these things is to get them to either give up their faith or convert to the liberal faiths (if you can call them that) at the upper right. Don’t forget Brother Tayler’s documented statement of this morning:  “[Religion] even has 49 percent of Americans believing that climate change is just another inevitable sign of the End of Days.”

As for Mooney, he’s not much better. While he admits that religion has something to do with evolution denial—which is like admitting that your stomach has something to do with digestion—Mooney readily interprets this graph to show that there’s no conflict between religion and science:

In any case, while the pattern above may require more analysis, one clear punchline of the figure is that it really doesn’t make sense to say that religion is at war with science. You can say that for some people, religion is clearly linked to less science acceptance — especially on evolution. But for others, clearly, religion presents no hurdle at all.

His message here is that religion and science are not in conflict because many believers accept evolution and anthropogenic climate change. But many religions also have tenets at odds with evolution and environmentalism. Even 23% of those liberal Catholics are young-earth creationists. Just because some believers can accept science doesn’t mean that religion isn’t an obstacle to accepting environmentalism and creationism, for it clearly is. And, I guess, Mooney and Rosenau are much more concerned with these two issues than with the other byproducts of faith, including oppression of women and gays, restrictions on abortion and people’s sex lives, and so on.

Here’s a hypothetical situation. You are Gandalf, and can wave your wand to do one of two things to increase evolution acceptance and environmentalism in America:

1. Immediately acquaint all Americans with the copious evidence for evolution (say, have them read WEIT) and for human-caused climate and environment change.


2. Immediately make all religious belief in America vanish.

Which do you think would be more effective in promoting science acceptance?

Jeffrey Tayler’s Sunday Salon secular sermon

Brother Tayler has once again gone after religion in the Sunday Salon. This time his piece, which discusses—nay, eviscerates—Jeb Bush’s commencement address at the fundamentalist Liberty “University,” is called “Jeb Bush cozies up to haters: Jerry Falwell, Liberty University, and the real story of religious right evil.

I’ll leave you to luxuriate in Tayler’s anti-theism, but here’s Bush’s 18-minute talk, if you can stand it. Watch it quickly, for it’s already been taken down once from YouTube:

And a brief excerpt from Tayler’s piece:

And what an outrage that in 21st century America, institutions such as Liberty can train classes of otherwise normal men and women in the art of toadying to a tyrant, and one who doesn’t even exist.  They have passed four years mastering the intricacies of a colossal sham, and they can’t get those years back.  What a waste.

For those who read the above words and wish to accuse me of being a “hater,” let me say this: you’re right.  I hate that religion steals our funds – some $82.5 billion through tax exemptions in 2013 alone, for example – that we could have spent on our great needs, including rebuilding our infrastructure and bettering public education.  I hate how its ignorant teachings about sex and reproduction cause unnecessary hardship, fostering underage pregnancies and the prevalence of STDs – all most problematic in the God-fearing red states.  I loathe how it yearns for the world’s demise, and even has 49 percent of Americans believing that climate change is just another inevitable sign of the End of Days.

That 49% figure at the end shocked me a bit, but if you click on Tayler’s link, that’s what it says. Finally, Tayler’s strident ending:

I peered into the young faces of the audience, to which the cameras periodically panned for variety’s sake, and felt a pang of despair.  Falwell is dead, yet from the halls of Liberty surely such a one as he will arise, and continue his work.

In a much more enlightened time than our own, the revolutionary Thomas Paine remarked, “The whole religious complexion of the modern world is due to the absence from Jerusalem of a lunatic asylum.”

The lunacy goes on, once propagated by barefoot prophets, but now, by the duly capped and gowned. 

I had a peek at some of the comments, expecting the worst (this is, after all, Salon, The Official Richard Dawkins Hate site), but was impressed by the number of people supporting Tayler’s views.

Irish parents with a gay son urged a “yes” vote on the gay marriage referendum

Although some folks who favor gay marriage are still grousing about yesterday’s great victory in Ireland, calling out the Irish for not legalizing abortion at the same time, those are curmudgeons who can’t appreciate that big step forward, or realize that legalization of abortion will follow in time. What happened this weekend was a slap in the face of retrograde Catholicism, and so let us celebrate that for at least a short while.

Meanwhile, reader Gunnar sent me a link to an article in Friday’s New York Times about a video made by two Irish parents in their late 70s, Brighid and Paddy White (you can’t get names more Irish than that!), whose son came out to them as gay 13 years ago. The son, Padraic, is a professor of English at Trinity College Dublin. To support him, and the cause, Brighid and Paddy made a short video in March supporting the referendum, which they put on YouTube. Here it is:

Doesn’t that bring tears to your eyes? Sure, they’re reading their lines, but so what? The sentiment is genuine, and shows that no matter how old you are, you can still change your mind and do the right thing.

As the Times reports, the Whites are Catholics:

The couple continue to practice Catholicism, and they said they made the video not in spite of their religion but because of it.

“We are Catholics, and we are taught to believe in compassion and love and fairness and inclusion,” the elder Mr. Whyte said. “Equality, that’s all we’re voting for.”

Ms. Whyte added that her gay son and religious beliefs weren’t her only reasons for making the video.

“I must tell you,” she said. “I have 11 beautiful grandchildren. So that’s another reason, I want to make a better place for them.”

It’s a pity that, unlike the Whites, the Vatican wants the world to remain a mean-spirited place of inequality.

John and Alicia Nash die in taxi crash

The news of the death of this well-known couple just came from my CNN news feed:

The man whose life story was the inspiration for the film “A Beautiful Mind” died in a car accident Saturday in New Jersey, according to the New Jersey State Police.

Famed mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr., 86, and his wife Alicia Nash, 82, both were killed when a taxi in which they were riding went out of control and crashed into a highway guard rail, according to Sgt. 1st Class Gregory Williams of the New Jersey State Police. The taxi driver was hospitalized.

A tw**t from Russell Crowe, who of course played Nash in the movie:

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John and Alicia Nash



Some reviews of FvF

So far Faith versus Fact hasn’t been widely reviewed, which I find a bit puzzling (and hope it will be remedied); but here are three reviews that appeared recently.

1. The Chronicle of Higher Education: The review, by the religious scholar Timothy Beal, is called “Fundamentally atheist,” so you know what it’s going to say. It is, of course, that I don’t understand the nuances of religion and conflate all faiths as some form of fundamentalism.

Unfortunately, Coyne’s impressive ability to explain evolutionary biology and other scientific research and theory contrasts dramatically with his unacceptably simplistic understandings of religion generally and theology specifically, especially as it relates to what really is at the heart of the religion-science debate, namely the Bible and biblical authority.

I love Beal’s ending, which accuses me of not only preaching to the choir (seriously? Aren’t there people on the fence out there; and aren’t religious books even more susceptible to such an accusation? And where, exactly, did the metaphor “preaching to the choir” come from?), but also of trying to ruin his academic field! My emphasis on the butthurt below:

That said, I suspect understanding is not the goal of Faith Versus Fact. Its aim appears to be more polarizing, and that makes good market sense. Righteous refutations from the religious right will create buzz, and the growing choir to whom Coyne is preaching will rush to buy the book. After all, it’s been a while since Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great (Twelve, 2007).

If Coyne’s book succeeds, and I believe it will, it will prove that not only academic biblical studies but also the academic study of religion generally can safely be ignored. Those of us in those fields are used to being dismissed as irrelevant by mainstream popular culture, as well as by fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. But by a highly acclaimed university scholar and public intellectual? That’s depressing.

Poor Dr. Beal: under assault by a scientist! But he’s wrong about my views. Of course I have no objection to the academic study of religion—as an human-produced phenomenon that’s been of immense importance in history. In fact, I just recommended Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, a popular but academic study of religion, as a good introduction to understanding where religion comes from. (I also recommend Pascal Boyer’s Religion Explained, though neither of these books really explains the origin of religion in an airtight way.) And I’ve read a fair amount of stuff about how the Bible was put together: historical reconstruction of the scriptures—a field that’s often fascinating. What I object to are academic studies of theology that are anything more than historical accounts of human thought, and to studies which have any aim of understanding the divine. As Dan Barker says, “Theology is a subject without an object.” Thomas Jefferson was right when, as chairman of the commission for laying out the University of Virginia, he wrote this:

“In conformity with the principles of our Constitution, which places all sects of religion on an equal footing… we have proposed no professor of divinity … Proceeding thus far without offence to the Constitution, we have thought it proper at this point to leave every sect to provide, as they think fittest, the means of further instruction in their own peculiar tenets.”

In other words, teach your doctrine in your churches, not in the public schools and universities.

2. The Humanist, review by M. Dolon Hickman. This is a positive review, for which I’m grateful:

I loved this book. I loved Coyne’s premise, I loved his conclusions, and I loved the way he presented his case. Though I have previously encountered certain items of Coyne’s evidence, he makes even the familiar seem new, by arranging facts in unexpected ways, by teasing out unseen trends in the data, and by placing known answers against new sets of questions. He demonstrates a rare talent for presenting complex thoughts in a style that is fresh, approachable and entertaining. And while the book walks readers through a very thorough and well-researched series of arguments, the tone is consistently friendly and non-combative. Finally, Faith vs. Fact is chockfull of memorable zingers that should help amateur debaters keep Coyne’s arguments against religious accommodationism on tap.

I would recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in science, atheism, or humanism. It is also certain to be of value to activists, social workers, health care workers, teachers, lawyers, and, indeed, anyone who regularly encounters the undue influence of quasi-scientific religious thought.

3. The Independent gave the book a positive review, which surprised me. Written by Brandon Robshaw (a writer and Ph.D. candidate at The Open University), it’s gratifyingly called “Faith vs. Fact by Jerry A. Coyne: A perfect candidate to replace the late Christopher Hitchens.” Several readers sent me the penultimate paragraphs:

No doubt this book will attract the spiteful ire that defenders of faith have already directed at atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris. But the ad hominem nature of that ire suggests a certain insecurity.

Jerry Coyne is the perfect candidate to replace the late Christopher Hitchens as the fourth Horseman of the New Atheist Apocalypse.

This is all very flattering, but of course nobody, much less me, can replace Hitch (please don’t contradict this in the comments!), and I have no pretensions to do that. If anyone is a candidate for the Fourth Horseperson, it’s Ayaan Hirsi Ali. But the next-to-last paragraph is right on: negative reviews of books by the New Atheists often reflect not only insecurity, but jealousy.

By the way, if you’re reading the book and find errors or typos, please email them to me. I’ve already accumulated a dozen, which will be corrected in the next printing and in the paperback.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Perhaps many Americans won’t be on the Internet today, it being a long holiday weekend and all; but I can’t withhold our usual nature snaps from those who online, or from foreign readers. Here’s today’s installment from reader Tony Eales in Australia. And keep those pictures coming in—the tank is a bit low! Tony’s notes, sent on May 15:

Just got back from a marvellous fieldtrip out to Innamincka in South Australia. This was my first time in the desert regions of Australia and the built heritage, the archaeology and the wildlife were amazing. I picked up 14 new species on my life list on the trip. Mammals were very light on the ground and native mammals even more so, a fact you could immediately tell by the complete lack of road kill. The semi-arid region before the desert proper was a charnel house with dead emus, kangaroos, echidnas, foxes etc every few hundred metres, but in the desert—nothing. One of the most impressive of the feral animals were the herds of wild horses known as ‘brumbies’. The other occasional mammal apart from cattle were red kangaroos (Macropus rufus), the classic large Australian kangaroo which doesn’t occur where I live on the east coast.

IMG_5743 big red


There were plenty of parrots, especially galahs (Eolophus roseicapilla) which were common even in the driest parts I visited and there were always one or two nearby where ever I stopped and huge flocks of little corellas (Cacatua sanguinea). Large wedge-tailed eagles (Aquila audax) were common especially in the areas where road kill was common.

IMG_5564 corella

IMG_5603 gallah


IMG_5539Wedge tail

Back in the semi-arid region I visited an ex cattle station now run as a sanctuary by Australian Wildlife Conservancy and Birds Queensland. It was everything I’d heard and more. Intact ecosytems out there are rare as most properties have been over-grazed but Bowra was run very responsibly through five generations before it was sold. I saw way more species than I successfully photographed.

A few of the better shots were of a Dwarf Bearded Dragon (Pogona henrylawsoni) peering out of a cattle grid at the entrance to the station.

IMG_5942 beared dragon

A young echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus) as you can tell by the dark juvenile colouration. Note the huge digging claw on the hind feet which gives them a distinctive but confusing trackway in the sand:

IMG_5999 echidna

Some emu chicks following dad around:

IMG_5951 emu

An Inland Carpet Python (Morelia spilota metcalfei), it was basking in the last rays of sun on a track, so immobile one could have imagined it was dead, the caretaker at Bowra set up a caution sign so that no one would run over it. As the sun disappeared it moved off slowly and it was at this point the birds noticed it. I was amazed at how damn close the birds would get to its head and just bounce around and chirp as if to say “Eat me!” but it just crawled off into an old shed, presumably to look for mice. The birds in the picture are Brown Australian Treecreepers (Climacteris picumnus).

IMG_6002 carpet python

Sunday: Hili dialogue

Yesterday was a gorgeous day in Chicago: sunny, cloudless, and in the mid-70s. Everyone was outside, and even strangers remarked on the weather. (That’s not normal, but we haven’t had many nice days this year.) Unfortunately, sporadic rain is predicted for the rest of the weekend. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Malgorzata, Andrzej, and Hili are all concerned about today’s Polish Presidential election (a runoff), as there’s a chance that the relatively benign incumbent will be replaced by a pro-religion conservative who is supported by the Catholic Church:

A: What are you watching?
Hili: I’m checking whether everybody flew off to cast their votes.
In Polish:
Ja: Czemu się tak przyglądasz?
Hili: Sprawdzam, czy wszyscy polecieli oddać głos.

A nifty bit of engineering on the ISS

Destin from SmarterEveryDay analyzes a cool bit of engineering on the International Space Station: the system whereby the cupola windows, through which everything is photographed and filmed, are opened and closed. It turns out that the shutters are actually activated through two holes in the shuttle skin itself, sealed only with two small rubber-O rings! What would happen if one of them failed? The question is answered in the following video. Note that 6 minutes in, our Official Website Astronaut™, Samantha Cristoforetti, demonstrates the windows on the Station, and gives Destin’s site a plug.

I’m sure we’ll all miss AstroSam when she returns to Earth in early June (she was supposed to be back May 13, but a transport vehicle crash delayed her return).

h/t: David

Youngstown State University joins the no-free-speech Hall of Shame

Once again an American university (Youngstown State University in Pennsylvania Ohio) appears to have suppressed free speech on its campus because the speech constituted unpopular “hate speech”. And this time it’s the college administration, not the students, who are responsible, though the students participated in the “banning,” which involved removing posters deemed offensive.

What happened is that a group of students (apparently not a homophobic organization; read the fine print), put up these posters around the campus:


This is, of course, a no-no: a violation of p.c. values. While I’m a supporter of LGBT causes (see previous post), there is no justification for banning, much less removing, posters like this. However, the university enlisted the help of students to take them down. Here, as published in the Washington Post, are two letters from University administrators vouching for this:

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A student government representative said this, quoted in another Post piece:

It has been brought to the attention of several SGA Executive Board members that “Straight Pride” posters have been hung across campus, seemingly in response to LGBTQIA efforts to promote diversity and foster a culture of acceptance on campus. Though SGA respects the free speech of all YSU students, these postings were not authorized, contained vulgar language, and, unfortunately, miss the point of minority activism.

Now if these posters were posted in places where such speech isn’t permitted, or were “unauthorized” (and all posters must be), then it would be kosher to remove them. See constitutional law professor Eugene Volokh’s analysis here, which includes this:

Where the posters were placed, then, turns out to be a pretty important question. If they were just taken down from places that weren’t open for general posting, then that would be constitutionally permissible; again, the government doesn’t have to open up its building walls for public speech.

But if the posters were taken down even from generally open bulletin boards, without any viewpoint-neutral policy justifying the removal, then that would violate the First Amendment. And if students are disciplined because of the message on the sign (as opposed to because of some posting policy violation, where the policy is enforced in a viewpoint-neutral way), that too would violate the First Amendment.

But the two emails from administrators don’t say anything about authorization or illegal placement, and do you really think that if “unauthorized” posters promoting gay rights were put up, the university would order them taken down? I doubt it. Behind the removal are the sentiments given by the administators, and also espoused by the student government statement:

When individuals belong to dominant societal cohorts (Caucasian, male, heterosexual, etc.) it is very easy to state “We have nothing against your sexual orientation” and to claim that efforts to raise awareness are “annoying.” For minorities who every day face discrimination and marginalization, such efforts are necessary – without zeal and persistence, sociology teaches that minority concerns very easily go by the wayside. Thus, dismissing the efforts of LGBTQIA students to push for equitable treatment as unnecessary is dangerous because it catalyzes discrimination, whether meant to do so or not.

In other words, this kind of speech is dangerous. It cannot stand, for it abrogates Youngstown State’s policy of providing a “caring, inclusive, supportive community.”  That puts that University on a road that leads to the banning of any statement perceived to be “non-inclusive”.

So, unless those posters were treated differently from how pro-gay-rights posters would be handled in the same situation, their removal is simply censorship. I wouldn’t put my money on the “equal treatment” option.

h/t: Ken


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