Eiynah decries the glorification of hijabs in NOW magazine

As far as I know, Toronto’s “counterculture” NOW Magazine has been pretty much like PuffHo: celebrating the hijab and other Islamic coverings as signs of both diversity and courage (e.g., here). But of course they are mostly signs of religious oppression—of a modesty imposed on many women against their will. Even in Western countries, I tend to doubt many of those who say they wear the hijab “by choice”.

Canadian writer, artist, and ex-Muslim Eiynah, also known on her website as “Nice Mangos,” has bucked the NOW tide with a new piece in that magazine called “Liberal Muslims face an uphill battle.” Besides detailing the threats received by ex-Muslims like her and Ali Rizvi, she pushes back, properly, against the liberal trend to glorify the garments of Muslim oppression. An excerpt:

During last year’s federal election and the controversy surrounding Stephen Harper’s veil ban, Tabatha Southey of the Globe and Mail tweeted“By fighting a veil ban, Ms. Ishaq schools us on how to be Canadian” with very little regard for what the face veil represents to many other Muslim women – like those who are forced into veils and are fighting to be free of them. Around the same time, The Huffington Post Canada declared, “someone made a ‘Niqabs of Canada’ Tumblr and it’s Great, comparing them to hockey masks, helmets, scarves and hoods shielding from the cold – all of which have other purposes than to shame women into modesty.

The Guardian touts headlines like “My hijab has nothing to do with oppression, it’s a feminist statement” with seemingly no appreciation for what kinds of strict modesty guidelines lay behind the wearing of hijabs. Yes, some women in the west have the privilege of choice, but many, many of the women wearing face veils or headscarves in the Muslim world do not have such a choice, especially when it is mandated by the state. Even in the west, there lies the threat of being shunned by your family if you reject religious dress code. Articles glorifying this are doing women in vulnerable positions no favours at all. Yes, we must oppose anti-Muslim bigotry, but we must keep in mind that this doesn’t mean glorification of modesty codes that target women.

My social media feeds are inundated with well-meaning liberal friends sharing article upon article praisingcelebratingglorifying religious garments like the hijab/niqab. But it’s a garment used exclusively in its original form to ensure women cover up lest they provoke the lust of men. Ironically, even Playboy has jumped on this trend. The Muslim girls who want to be ballerinas, athletes or models and aren’t hijabis simply aren’t given very much coverage. All this achieves, is that it synonymizes Muslim with “conservative Muslim,” which is incredibly unhelpful to our community in this political climate.

As someone who immigrated to Canada from Saudi Arabia, who was forced by morality police to cover her hair, threatened with a cane, I cannot stomach the fetishization and praise surrounding these practices that are primarily used to control and hold women back.

Here’s one of Eiynah’s cartoons, “Naughty Niqabis”—a recurring feature on her website and Twi**er feed:


Samantha Bee on Catholic hospitals

Several readers sent me this clip from Samantha Bee’s comedy show “Full Frontal”, concentrating on the expanding Catholic healthcare system in America, and the invidious restrictions that places on women’s healthcare. It’s both funny and scary; get a load of how the Catholic men (viz., “Friar Suck”) justify Catholic healthcare policy. I’m lukewarm on Bee, but here she’s right on, showing a mixture of comedy and political passion not seen since Jon Stewart left The Daily Show.

Evolution rejection in the American South: It’s the religion, stupid!

Here’s a 9-minute video featuring science educator Amanda Glaze, who’s deeply concerned with the rejection of evolution by students and their parents in the American South. It was featured on NPR’s Science Friday, and imparts two important lessons:

  • How much students know about evolution doesn’t affect whether they accept it as true. I believe earlier studies have verified this, showing that the more you know about what scientists think about evolution, the less likely you are to accept it.
  • Religious background has a huge influence on whether students accept evolution: far more than knowing anything about evolution itself.

Well that’s no surprise, is it? People worry about the proper teaching of evolution, or how to present it so that students will buy it, but the real problem is religion. And until the grip of those faiths that reject evolution lessens in the South, evolution will continue to be taboo. What we need is not more or better evolution education, but less religion. Everyone who’s studied the issue realizes this, but nobody wants to say it.

Even Amanda Glaze, at 5:50 in this video, argues that the “perceived conflict between religiosity and science” is a “false dichotomy.” Well, in the case of evolution, the dichotomy is very real, for both the facts and implications of evolution directly contradict the students’ religious upbringing.  (For a very good discussion of why evolution makes people of faith bridle, read Steve Stewart-Williams’s 2010 book, Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew.  It’s highly recommended by Professor Ceiling Cat, Emeritus.)

Further at 8:25 Glaze says, “This is not a war of evolution versus religion; to me, this is a war for science literacy.” On that count she’s also wrong, and her own data show that! Until religion is gone, we’ll still face a formidable problem of getting evolution accepted despite its palpable truth. And when religion is gone, there will be almost no problem with acceptance. Every creationist I’ve met or know about (with the exception of David Berlinski, who says he’s a non-believer) has a religious background that influences their view.

For more information, see the Vox interview with Glaze by Sean Illing.

h/t: Barry

U. Mass. Amherst creates “scream meter” to measure levels of offensiveness of Halloween costumes

This is how far it’s gone. As Business Insider and Campus Reform report, the Halloween Costume Police have gotten out of hand, and of course it’s at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where they simply cannot let people be adults and make their own decisions. Both articles appear to be the same, so I’ll just reproduce some of the text and the S.C.R.E.A.M. meter:

The University of Massachusetts, Amherst is posting “cultural appropriation” posters in each of the residence halls on campus featuring a detailed “racism evaluation and assessment meter.”

The initiative is being spearheaded by the Center for Women and Community, the Center for Multicultural Advancement and Student Success, and the campus’ diversity office, the Stonewall Center.

“Don’t be an asshole,” one display urges students, providing several leaflets to help them understand the effects of cultural appropriation.

The board also includes a poster to help measure the “threat level” of a potential costume using what it calls the “Simple Costume Racism Evaluation and Assessment Meter” (S.C.R.E.A.M.) which poses several costume-related questions, the answers to which take one to various points on a “threat meter” that ranges from green (low) to red (severe).

If one intends to represent a person on Halloween, the only way to get a “green” threat rating is for the person to be of one’s own race. If one represents a person of another race, the “threat level” increases roughly in conjunction with the amount of makeup that one intends to use.

Even representing a “thing/idea” is dangerous, though, the flyer says, warning against costumes that can only be understood in the context of “controversial current events or historically accepted cliches,” particularly if “these events or cliches relate to a person or people not of your race.”

But if “race” is a social construct, what, exactly, do they mean by “people not of your race”? Are Hispanics of a different race from Native Americans, or Caucasians?  If “race” means “ethnic group”, is it now not okay (as it used to be) to “punch up”, so that a black can’t dress as Batman, or an Asian as the Wizard of Oz’s Scarecrow? But the “offense meter” below indicates that you can’t wear costumes representing anyone “less powerful” or “more socially marginalized” than yourself, so one would have to have some hierarchy of oppression laid out to decide if your costume was inappropriate. As we know, the hierarchy of oppression is constantly under revision.

Here’s the S.C.R.E.A.M. meter, which you can enlarge and read for yourself.


More from Business Insider:

Another display on a different bulletin board asserts that “cultural appropriation is an act of privilege, and leads to offensive, inaccurate, and stereotypical portrayals of other people’s culture.”

It then goes on to outline steps that students can take to inform their peers if a costume may be considered inappropriate or offensive, using Native American costumes as the prime example.

“No, it’s cool, it’s not like your ancestors killed them all or anything,” reads one flyer alongside a cartoon of two white women in headdresses. “Hypersexualized racism…is still racism,” states another flyer featuring pictures of women dressed in “sexy Indian” costumes.

Here are those:



To be fair, there is one poster—just one—that says this:

“It’s not fair to ask any culture to freeze itself in time and live as though they were a museum diorama,” one poster quotes author Susan Scafidi. “Cultural appropriation can sometimes be the savior of a cultural product that has faded away.”

Indeed, and that undercuts much of the other messages, for many of the cultural products that have largely faded away, like Native American costumes or kimonos, are being admired, not mocked, by many kids who wear them. Further, cultural appropriation can not only preserve disappearing cultural elements, but can express admiration for the admirable parts of other cultures. What is good about America is how the various people who immigrated here have cross-pollinated each other’s cultures, something that is of course not unique to our country but especially noticeable here. So when someone claims “offense” if you’ve culturally appropriated something you like—perhaps because you don’t have a detailed awareness of what that culture has suffered—my response would be “go away.”

Now I’m not saying that no costumes are offensive, for some surely are. Blackface, for example, has bad historical connections with racism. What I dislike about these campus-wide efforts is the policing involved: one group takes it upon itself to arbitrate or censor the costumes of everyone else. It’s simply leisure fascism, and students, who after all are adults living in this world, can learn these lessons on their own—the process is called “growing up”—rather than being subject to arrogant and hectoring propagandizing by student Pecksniffs who flaunt their moral purity.

So although some Asians claim that they are a marginalized and oppressed group in the U.S., I’d have no patience for someone calling out a little girl, or a student, wearing a Princess Mononoke costume. We don’t have to accept (as U. Mass. apparently has) the dicta of groups like the Amherst Leisure Police, who succeed only out of liberal’s desperate fear of being called racists.

h/t: G. B. James

Wildlife photographs

As I’m in a rush preparing to leave (and Wildlife Photo posts take a while to put up), so let me be lazy and post three tweets sent by the estimable Matthew Cobb, who follows Twi**er.  They are all animal-related, so they fit here.

Since I’m not taking readers’ wildlife photos with me, if you send some when I’m gone, they’ll likely be posted almost immediately. But be sure the photos are good!

First, this one. Now the resemblance to a jumping spider is conjectural, but it sure looks like one to me. The question is this: the predators who presumably avoid this butterfly because of the markings must have had some experience encountering jumping spiders (otherwise they wouldn’t learn to avoid them—or have evolved to avoid them). But the predators on butterflies are often birds, and these aren’t attacked by jumping spiders. Your quiz question: if this is indeed an evolved mimetic pattern, what would be the selective pressures that could produce it?

Here’s one jumping spider for comparison. The prediction, of course, is that there must be a jumping spider with nasty effects on some butterfly predator living in the same area as the gemmed satyr. According to Wikipedia, the butterfly, (Cyllopsis gemma) is a nymphalid found in the SE US and NE Mexico. 363e99009de0328c57d3b2e69ef5adb2

Now, for a certain case of mimicry, have a look at this photo. Nope, that’s not a bee but a MOTH (note the antennae).

This is a truly remarkable case of mimicry. As the Flickr page describes:

Clear-winged Moth (Sesiidae). YES! A moth!

I see my fair share of Lepidopteran wasp mimics, but this is the most convincing bee mimic I could imagine.

Pu-er, Yunnan, China

Here’s a screenshot I took from the Flickr picture so you can see the mimicry better:


And finally, some lovely mountain gorillas. What are they saying? (Be sure to put the sound on.)

Tuesday: Hili dialogue

NOTE:  I am taking off for Singapore, Hong Kong, and China for several weeks beginning tomorrow, so posting will be light, and probably limited to the Hili dialogues and a Caturday felid. I will do my best to post from these places, but I will be busy and also unsure of internet connection in some areas. Bear with us and stay tuned. With luck, I should have some awesome pictures of noms, as I’ve already conferred with my hosts in both Singapore and HK and jointly decided on an Eating Plan.  If you’re interested in my talks in all three places, put a note in the comments and I’ll post information.

So, today is October 25, 2016, and we’re coming up to the election on Tuesday, November 8. On that day Hillary wins the Presidency, and I collect about $400 from all the liberal Chicken Littles who were so afraid of a Trump victory that they’d gladly pay me if Clinton won. And those of you who have bet me, believe me: I’ll collect, for if you don’t pay, you’ll sleep with the fishes.

It is, according to the Foodimentary site, a day you won’t believe:


So, you have a license to have fried chicken (preferably not KFC), a cheese steak, a New York pizza dripping with oil, and so on. After all, it’s only one day a year! Not much happened on this day in history. Here’s a small example from Wikipedia:

  • 1861 – The Toronto Stock Exchange is created.
  • 1900 – The United Kingdom annexes the Transvaal.
  • 1920 – After 74 days on hunger strike in Brixton Prison, England, the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence MacSwiney dies.
  • 1924 – The Zinoviev letter, which Zinoviev himself denied writing, is published in the Daily Mail. The Labour party would later blame this letter for the Conservatives’ landslide election win.

Oy! Notables born on this day include Pablo Picasso (1881). Minnie Pearl (1912; “How-DEEEEE!), Helen Reddy (1941; she is woman), and James Carville (1944). Those who died on this day include a lot of people killed in the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, including  many nobles. It marked the first effective use of the English longbow in battle. Also on this day, Roger Miller died in 1992, and Bobby Riggs (remember his match with Billie Jean King?) in 1995, and Richard Harris in 2002. Harris, of course, sang one of the worst songs in the history of rock, and, looking it up, I found out this fun fact:

Composer Jimmy Webb wrote “MacArthur Park” about his breakup with Susan Ronstadt, a cousin of singer Linda Ronstadt. MacArthur Park was where the two occasionally met for lunch and spent their most enjoyable times together. [See here.]

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, autumn rains have begun in Poland, to Hili’s endless frustration. She’ll soon be looking for the Door to Summer:

Cyrus: When it stops raining we will go for a walk.
Hili: Do you think it will ever stop?
In Polish:
Cyrus: Jak przestanie padać to pójdziemy na spacer.
Hili: Myślisz, że kiedyś przestanie?
Finally, and I may have posted this before, here’s the sign that hangs over the break-room sink in W. Ford Doolittle’s lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax:

The politics of speciation

From reader Pliny the in Between’s newly renamed site, The Far Corner Cafe, we have a cartoon called “If you catch my genetic drift.” Click to enlarge.


I would never mate with a Republican!

Discovery Institute and Commentary laud Tom Wolfe’s evolution-bashing in “The Kingdom of Speech” (and diss Professor Ceiling Cat)

Think of the poor schmucks who work at the Discovery Institute (DI). Having completely failed to get Intelligent Design taught in schools, or ever moderately accepted in the scientific community—and they predicted such acceptance would have happened by now—they are reduced to carping about evolutionists like me, making ad hominem arguments, and touting those scholars—like Jerry Fodor and Tom Nagel—who have jumped the shark by claiming that evolutionary theory is fatally flawed.  The IDer’s main gambit, which has always been the strategy of Intelligent Design, is to point out that evolution can’t explain everything, and that therefore an Intelligent Designer (read “Jesus and God’) did it.

While they differ on how much real Darwinian evolution really occurred (Michael Behe, for instance, says he has no problem with “common ancestry”), and whether the Earth is old or young, the IDers are united in spending their time attacking evolutionists on nonscientific grounds as well as emphasizing the things that evolution hasn’t yet explained, all while ignoring the great sea of evidence for evolution around them.

And so, when Tom Wolfe’s book The Kingdom of Speech came out, the IDers were elated. For the premise of Wolfe’s book is twofold. First, evolution is a non-starter (as Wolfe said, ““Darwin offered nothing at all.”), although Wolfe was cagey about admitting whether he believed that any part of evolution was true. Second, Wolfe, like his hero Alfred Russel Wallace, promoted human exceptionalism: that human biology, and speech in particular, has no possible evolutionary explanation, and that therefore some other explanation must hold for both the origin of speech and the large human brain. Wolfe spent much of the book attacking Noam Chomsky for asserting that the structure of human speech (“universal grammar”) has anything to do with evolution.

I reviewed the book for the Washington Post, and showed that Wolfe was way out of his depth, completely ignorant of both linguistics and evolutionary biology, as well as of the evidence that natural selection is at partly involved in the origin and elaboration of human speech.

Now there’s a new review of Wolfe’s book, one on the Jewish-oriented site Commentary. The review, “We’re only human” is by Andrew Ferguson described by Commentary as “formerly our Press Man columnist, [Ferguson is] senior editor at the Weekly Standard and the author, most recently, of Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.” He’s also a senior editor at The Weekly Standard. The review is extremely laudatory, praising Wolfe’s book for its attack on materialism, its emphasis on human exceptionalism, and for breaking the stereotype (what stereotype?) that scientists have a monopoly on describing science in the popular press—a trend that Ferguson thinks is invidious and self-serving. Ferguson’s book also goes after yours truly, but let’s ignore that for the nonce. Let’s just say that the review, by tacitly promoting creationism, human evolutionary exceptionalism, and by dissing the canard “scientism”, should be an embarrassment to Commentary. It’s especially galling to me, as one of Jewish ancestry, that a Jewish site is so credulous.

Over at the ID creationist site Evolution News & Views (who will love this attention), an anonymous writer for the DI calls attention to Ferguson’s book and uses the excuse to criticize my negative view of it. Why? Because I like cats and cowboy boots!. And apparently wear Birkenstocks, a bogus accusation leveled by Ferguson.

EN&V’s quote of Ferguson:

The reviewer was Jerry Coyne, a biologist from the University of Chicago and a volunteer border cop who patrols the perimeter where science and popular culture meet, making sure that scientists are accorded the proper deference. The Kingdom of Speech is deeply transgressive in this way. Wolfe makes sport of scientific pretensions generally and neo-Darwinian pretensions specifically, and Coyne, a neo-Darwinist to the soles of his Birkenstocks, isn’t going to let a mere journalist, or even a Grand Old Man of Letters, get away with it.

And their own criticism:

Fact-check: Coyne wears specially custom-handmade cowboy boots, not Birkenstocks. He must own closets full. We know because he spends a great deal of space on his evolution blog detailing this with accompanying photos of the boots both under construction and on his feet. Only imagined dialogues between a cat and a dog receive more attention. Even Wolfe would have a hard time spoofing Coyne. Otherwise this is spot-on.

When the IDiots go after stuff like this, it’s clear that they have nothing. The resort to this kind of criticism (and, after all, don’t IDers have hobbies?) instead of substantive criticism of what I said, is telling. After all, I don’t go after Wolfe in my review in that way, except to mention briefly his famous white suits.

But on to Ferguson.  Here’s a precis of his main points, with quotes indented.

Scientists are wedded to fundamentalist materialism, and we do that because that gives us a good living. But it blinkers us from seeing “other ways of knowing”. 

You don’t hear much about Wallace anymore, and you hear even less about Muller, while their contemporary Darwin became, of course, one of the most famous men who ever lived. Human exceptionalism has a lot to do with their relative reputations. Wallace embraced it and so did Muller; indeed, they thought it was self-evident. Darwin didn’t. And most scientists, especially fundamentalists like Jerry Coyne, have inherited Darwin’s materialism as dogma. It’s a good deal for scientists. After all, if everything we consider uniquely human is a consequence of purely materialistic processes, then the guys who study materialistic processes for a living hold the key to every human question. It’s nice work if you can get it.

Right away this shows Ferguson’s ignorance of science. We don’t inherit materialism—I prefer the word “naturalism”—as dogma; rather, it is the only strategy that has worked. Here, for instance, are Sean Carroll’s three tenets of naturalism taken from his recent book The Big Picture:

  1. There is only one world: the natural world.
  2. The world evolves according to unbroken patterns, the laws of nature
  3. The only reliable way of learning about the world is by observing it.

These principles developed by a process of trial and error over centuries. As I’ve emphasized for years, there were times when naturalism wasn’t all-encompassing in science, and when supernatural process were invoked. Before Darwin, God’s hand was the only credible explanation for the “design-like” features of plants and animals. But that didn’t work, and was displaced by natural selection. Newton couldn’t explain why planetary orbits were stable, and thus invoked the hand of God interceding by pushing the planets around. Now we know that we needn’t do that; we have no need of the God hypothesis to explain stable orbits.  If there were any evidence of supernatural or preternatural influences in science, like the efficacy of intercessory prayer (tested and rejected), or the ability of humans to practice telekinesis or remote viewing, scientists would be studying those phenomena. But we aren’t because there’s no credible evidence. Once again, naturalism (“materialism”) is the only route that has ever given us reliable evidence about the world, and about human biology.

Evolutionary biology hasn’t explained speech, and therefore there must be Some Other Explanation. This, of course, is a God of the Gaps argument. (Ferguson doesn’t mention God, but it’s clear where he’s going.)

There’s a problem, though. Evolutionary theory is no closer than it was in Darwin’s day to explaining in materialist terms how traits like self-consciousness and language came to be. The scientists keep trying, of course, as scientists should.

But should we keep trying if the explanation be supernaturalistic? If materialism isn’t the solution, then why bother?

One thing that neither the DI nor Ferguson deals with is the pervasive evidence for human physical evolution as seen in the fossil record. You may say that part of human biology, like consciousness or speech, could not have arisen by natural selection, but you can’t deny that the evidence shows that the human body, including our big brain, evolved gradually over time. If God was doing that, he made it look remarkably like evolution! And we have evidence for the evolution of speech capacity as well, evidence that I give in my review.  A good refutation of Ferguson’s GOTG argument was in fact given by a commenter on my WaPo review:


Wolfe was attacked by scientists because he is an “outsider” who dares criticize our field. That is, we had to attack him because he wasn’t a scientist.  The first quote above, about the Birkenstocks (which I’ve never worn and dislike, as I find them ugly), shows this, as well as the following one:

Those earlier books [The Painted Word and From Bauhaus to Our House] provoked outrage from the specialists, and The Kingdom of Speech has inspired the same reaction from the same quarters. Coyne is not the only scientist who rushed to the blogs and manned the message boards to post dozens of objections to the book and its argument. Wolfe is simply in over his head, they say. A recurring charge is that he never takes care to define his terms—using, for example, the words “speech” and “language” interchangeably, which a specialist would never do.

. . . Clearing the popularizers from the field, as many specialists would like to do, would cede all scientific argument to scientists, who in many notable cases have not earned the deference they demand. The danger is doubled when scientists use science to draw metaphysical lessons—when, that is, they assert that human beings and primates are in essence the same kind of creature. A flurry of data and polysyllabic detail shouldn’t obscure the fact that such a thesis defies human experience and devalues the noblest human endeavors (including science, by the way).

I don’t know where to begin on this one. First of all, we don’t want to clear popularizers from the field. Who would want to dispose of Carl Zimmer’s great scientific reportage, or David Quammen’s wonderful books, or Jonathan Weiner, or David Attenborough, or James Gleick, or. . . . the list is long. Yes, some scientists have also been popularizers, like Jared Diamond, Steve Gould, and Richard Dawkins, but in fact many of them have been criticized by other scientists for popularizing instead of doing science!

On this issue Ferguson is just wrong. Why I and others criticized Wolfe was that he was simply wrong about many issues—issues in both linguistics and evolution. If you read the bit on evolution, and know anything about it, you’ll see that Wolfe simply didn’t do his homework, and it showed. It is the non-scientist reviewers who didn’t catch these errors, and that’s one reason why the press should get scientists who can write to review works of popular science.

Wolfe had to “skirt complicated niceties” as he was writing as a journalist and entertainer. 

As a journalist and entertainer, Wolfe has an obligation to avoid the tedium that makes scientific publications interesting to scientists and nobody else. That obligation doesn’t relieve him of the obligation to be accurate; the two demands live side by side. But it does require him to shun pedantry, to keep his readers away from thickets of technical arguments and counterarguments that will leave them half-dead. The trick for the popularizer is to write both generally and vividly, skirting complicating niceties here and there, while never failing to steer the reader toward the truth.

Sadly, Wolfe wasn’t accurate about nearly anything, as you can see from my review. In fact, the “complicating niceties” are crucial in evaluating his book.  Is there a naturalistic explanation for the increase in human brain size, giving us a capacity to do more than could ever have been subject to direct selection in our ancestors? Was Daniel Everett’s claim that the Pirahã language didn’t show recursion accurate? Is there really no evidence for an evolutionary component of human speech? In Wolfe’s book, the devil is in the complicating niceties, for they completely overturn his thesis.

If you doubt the worthlessness of Wolfe’s book, and know something about evolution or linguistics, by all means read it. That is, if you can do so without buying the book.

Nullius in verba, abuntantia imprimitus

by Greg Mayer

The title of this post is recycled from an earlier one (which you should go back to and read), with a linguistic upgrade from reader Shuggy. The Royal Society, the oldest scientific society in the English-speaking world, is marking International Open Access Week by making all of its 350+ years of publications open access from now until November 6. I am especially happy to report that this includes many publications by “Mr. Anthony van Leeuwenhoek”, (also known as “Leeuwenhoeck” and “Leewenhoeck”), including those papers mentioned earlier today in celebratory remarks by Matthew commemorating van Leeuwenhoek’s birthday.

The full set of publications, available as pdfs which may be downloaded and saved for perusal at leisure, can be accessed from the Society’s publications webpage. Go and sample the abuntantia for yourself!

Image result for nullius in verba tattoo

The motto of the Royal Society, meaning roughly “nothing upon another’s word”, was a radically empirical challenge to the prevailing reliance upon the acceptance of authority. (From Pinterest.)

Google celebrates Antonii van Leeuwenhoek

Today is the birthday of Antonii van Leeuwenhoek, and in honor of his achievement Google made an animated Doodle (click on it to go to Google). Since Matthew is an expert on the man and his science, which forms a part of his book The Egg and Sperm Race (also called Generation), I asked him to write a few words about the honoree (below).


by Matthew Cobb

Antonii Leeuwenhoek (he adopted the aristocratic ‘van’ as a pretension later in life) was one of the great figures of 17th century discovery. He was a draper, not a scholar, and yet he was able to make two of the most amazing discoveries in the history of science. Like many other people in the 17th century Dutch republic (including the great philosopher Spinoza), Leeuwenhoek (roughly pronounced Lay-wen-hoak) made microscopes out of a tiny bead of glass.

The lens was then put into a rectangular metal frame, and the object to be looked at (an insect, or a fluid in a capillary tube) was put on a rod on one side of the lens. The Google doodle shows this quite well. He then had to hold the apparatus into the sunlight (candlelight would not do) to see what he could see. Single lens microscopes were much more powerful than the compound microscopes of the time.

Leeuwenhoek’s two great discoveries were made early in his career (he was introduced to the Royal Society by one of his neighbours, the Delft-based Reinier de Graff, in 1672). In 1674, de Graaf was trying to find out why pepper is hot, so he ground up some pepper corns in water and allowed the solution to move up a capillary tube. His idea was to see the structure of whatever it was in pepper that made it spicy. Instead, he observed bazillions of tiny ‘animacules’ – bacteria and protists – zipping about in the water. For some years, it was assumed that the tiny things were released from the peppercorns, and it was called the ‘pepper water’ experiment. Until someone did the obvious thing of leaving out the pepper… Micro-organisms are still called ‘infusoria’ after this principle of making an ‘infusion’.

Leeuwenhoek’s second, and astounding discovery was made in 1677, when following the suggestion of a medical student, called Ham, Leeuwenhoek looked at his semen (this had previously been suggested to him by the Secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, but Leeuwenhoek declined to take the step). The description of how he did the experiment, which eventually appeared *in Latin* (not English) in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society is interesting:

He reassured “his Lordships” that he had not obtained the semen by any “sinful contrivance” but by “the excess which Nature provided me in my conjugal relations.” Think about that. He goes on to say that a mere “six heartbeats” after ejaculation, he found “a vast number of living animalcules” in his ejaculate (it is not recorded what his wife thought of this…). The Royal Society didn’t believe him, and in classic modern style sent him away to do more experiments. Eventually, they published his report in 1678.

Several points: firstly, Leeuwenhoek at first thought that the sperm he saw were simply parasites (and this is reflected in the name we still give them – spermatozoa, the animals that live in semen). Second, he thought the interesting bit of the ejaculate was some weird thready material that no one else has seen before or since. He eventually changed his mind on this. Finally, although it had been suggested 10 years earlier that women have eggs, and de Graaf had shown experimental support for this idea in 1672 in rabbits, the scientific world did not recognise that egg and sperm were complementary components of the future organism.

That did not happen until the 1840s, after a) it was realised that something was inherited (the word ‘heredity’ had no biological meaning before the 1820s) and b) it was realised that all organisms are composed of cells, and therefore that egg and sperm were both cells. Instead, for 140 years science was more or less divided into the ovists and the spermists. For the spermists, like Leeuwenhoek, the egg was either non-existent (as in mammals) or food for the sperm; for the ovists (most people) the sperm somehow ‘awoke’ the egg, like an electric shock, but played no equal role in producing offspring.

Leeuwenhoek was an extraordinary man who made remarkable contributions to our understanding of the world. If you want to know more about him, and the weird route ideas took to come to our current understanding, despite it looking so obvious in retrospect, you can pick up a good second-hand copy of my 2006 book Generation, for less than $4! (In the UK it was called The Egg and Sperm Race…)