It’s snowing again!

And before some wiseass says, “It’s always snowing somewhere in the world” (the same wiseass who, wanting a drink before 5 p.m., says, “It’s 5 p.m. somewhere in the world), I mean here, in Chicago. Here are the flurries on my way to work, with the Robie House again pictured for lagnaippe.  (The snowflakes make eerie patterns, which one might well mistake for spirits—if one were a complete bloody fool):


Friday: Hili dialogue

It’s Friday——which seat can you take? I hope mine will be in the CeilingCatMobile, which should be repaired today, and I am tired of going carless. Plus, I woke up at 5:30 a.m.: an inexcusable act of oversleeping, and now I must rush.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is cryptic in both body and word:

Hili: It’s easy to say “Fear not” but what if it attacks me?
A: But what is it?|
Hili: And that is the question!

P1020434 (1)

In Polish:
Hili: Łatwo powiedzieć, nie lękajcie się, a jeśli to na mnie napadnie?
Ja: A co to jest?
Hili: I to jest właśnie pytanie!

HuffPo UK celebrates Dawkins’s birthday

Today is Richard Dawkins’s birthday, and he is, I guess, as “strident” as ever, or so PuffHo UK says:

Richard Dawkins turned 74 today — and still no thunderbolt from the Heavens. The renowned scientist and strident atheist has been ruffling the religious for decades, introducing millions around the world to the beauty of non-belief. To celebrate the atheist-in-chief’s special day, here are 10 times God got chinned…

And they append ten videos in which “God got chinned”, including appearances by Hitchens, Dawkins, Kate Smurthwaite, Sam Harris, and others. They’re worth watching, though you may have seen some of them before.  The one with Hitchens on Fox News is new to me, and he was at his eloquent best.


Slo-mo tongues

Here are three different tongues, each with a different anatomy and each operating in a different way to bring in food.

First, one of the fastest bits of animal anatomy I know of: the chameleon’s tongue (from Amy Carparelli via Heather Hastie): 0.07 seconds from mouth to prey! This is in fact the colorful Panther Chamelon (Furcifer pardalis) from Madagascar, whose males (there’s sexual dimorphism) can be incredibly colorful.

And, for grins, the tongue of one of the world’s most beautiful birds, the rainbow lorikeet of Australia (Trichoglossus moluccanus). Note also the slow-motion poop, clearly a source of great amusement for the filmmakers.

Lapping cats do it differently, pulling up a column of liquid with its tongue (also using the protuberances for adhesion), and then snapping off part of the column with its mouth. Note the scientists’ experiment and then their prediction: larger cats should lap more slowly:

Leon sends birthday greetings to Andrzej

As I mentioned in this morning’s Hili dialogue (which you might have missed), my dear friend Andrzej, who constitutes half of Hili’s staff, turns 75 today—exactly one year older than Richard Dawkins (happy birthday, too, Richard!).  And Leon the Hiking Cat (via his staff Elzbieta) has deposited good wishes and a monologue on Andrzej’s Facebook page:

Leon: Is it your birthday today? There will be a cake, there will be good wishes.


I hope there will be a cake! Happy birthday, Andrzej!

Andrzej hears His Master’s Voice:


George Zimmerman says his shooting of Trayvon Martin was “God’s plan”; theologians disagree

If you’re American, you’ll surely remember the killing of the black teenager Trayvon Martin Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida three years ago, with Zimmerman claiming that, as part of a neighborhood patrol, he was justified in shooting Martin because he was defending himself against a suspected trespasser. The murky details of the case, combined with the fact that Martin was black and Zimmerman white, ignited a racial conflict that has continued, promoted by similar cases, over the past three years.

Leaving aside the question of guilt or innocence, I want to point out that Zimmerman is now, according to PuffHo, claiming that his killing of Martin was “God’s will”. This brings the issue of theodicy—the apologetics of evil in a God-run universe—right down to earth:

In a video [JAC: below] released on Monday by the law firm Ayo and Iken, which represents Zimmerman, the 31-year-old said he has a clear conscience and does not believe things could have turned out differently that day in Sanford, Florida.

“I believe God has his plans, and for me to second-guess them would be hypocritical, almost blasphemous,” he said in the video.

Well, you know, you could make a case for that, for God is supposedly omnipotent and omniscient and benevolent. So He not only knew that Martin was going to die, but could have prevented it. But He didn’t? Why?

That’s the question that has plagued theologians for centuries, and there is no satisfactory answer. The only conclusion is that it was part of God’s plan for Martin to die, even if you think that that death was necessary to preserve “free will” in our species.

But of course theologians can’t tolerate that, so they do their usual dance of confused apologetics:

Though steeped in religious rhetoric, Zimmerman’s analysis does not sit well with many Christians who reject the notion that God wanted Martin to die.

“It’s a theology that’s different than mine,” Rev. John Vaughn, the executive vice president of Auburn Theological Seminary, told The Huffington Post over the phone. “My theology is one of much more that’s rooted in God’s love and that we have free choice and will.”

Pastor Victor Montalvo, who leads a congregation in Sanford just blocks away from where the teenager was shot, told HuffPost he believes Zimmerman should assume responsibility for his actions and repent.

“The idea that God willed for him to shoot Trayvon is absolutely ludicrous,” Montalvo said. “It’s not God’s fault that Trayvon is dead.”

Of course it is? God could have stopped it—if He existed! But here we see the waffling of theologians who out of one side of their mouth suggest that it might have been God’s plan, because some good came out of it, but out of the other assert that it couldn’t have been God’s plan. Those are the noises Monsalvo made:

Montalvo said the shooting brought to the forefront “seething” racial tensions that have existed in Sanford for generations. But, he added, it also has provided Christians with an opportunity to “stand in humility” and work to restore their communities. And this is where Zimmerman’s statement on Monday breaks down for the pastor.

“God can use even the worst situations,” he said. “But when you talk about the will of God, you talk about the desire of God,” and it’s not right to say that God would want this death.

“That God somehow wanted Trayvon to be shot and killed … We don’t see that in Jesus,” Montalvo said.

The fact that Montalvo “doesn’t see that in Jesus” is a meaningless statement. If he believes in an all-powerful and all-loving God, then somehow God did want Martin to be killed, even if it was a foreseeable byproduct of some greater good (like the nonexistent “free will” accepted by both believers and the average person, or even to give Christians a chance to be “humble”). If God allows murders like Martin’s to preserve “free will,” then of course God knew that Martin would die in that cause. But couldn’t He intervene from time to time to stop murders but still allow tax cheating and ATM thefts? Nobody would be the wiser.

Zimmerman is a nasty and odious piece of work, but he’s only carrying the Christianity of his region to its logical conclusion. He’s deposited a steaming mess in the laps of the clergy, and they don’t know what to do with it.

Teaching evolution in Kentucky—with accommodationism

When I first gave a talk at the University of Kentucky in 2010 (could it really have been five years ago?), I had the pleasure of meeting Jim Krupa, a biologist and natural historian with wide interests, and with a reputation as an excellent teacher (see here for my visit to his lab).

Krupa has now written an article in Orion called “Defending Darwin“, which has also been abridged in Slate. It sums up his experiences of teaching introductory biology for 20 years in a state where resistance to evolution runs high. (I learned that when a group of religious students removed all the posters advertising my talk about the evidence for evolution, and the biology students had to put the posters back up—twice!)

Krupa decided early on to heavily infuse his introductory bio course with evolution—just as E. O. Wilson did when he taught a similar class at Harvard (I was a t.a. for that course for two years). And it works, for it’s exactly what Jack Brooks did in Introductory Zoology at William and Mary—the course that set my feet on the path of evolutionary biology. After beginning with a lesson on what a “theory” really means in science, Krupa bravely waded into the waters of evolution. And he faced strong resistance from some students, especially when he talked about human evolution. (As most of us know, lots of religious people don’t mind evolution so much—until it tells us that our own species evolved, too!):

Soon, every topic and lecture in my class was built on an evolutionary foundation and explained from an evolutionary perspective. My basic biology for non-majors became evolution for non-majors. It didn’t take long before I started to hear from a vocal minority of students who strongly objected: “I am very offended by your lectures on evolution! Those who believe in creation are not ignorant of science! You had no right to try and force evolution on us. Your job was to teach it as a theory and not as a fact that all smart people believe in!!” And: “Evolution is not a proven fact. It should not be taught as if it is. It cannot be observed in any quantitative form and, therefore, isn’t really science.”

. . . The story of [human] evolutionary history captivates many of my students, while infuriating some. During one lecture, a student stood up in the back row and shouted the length of the auditorium that Darwin denounced evolution on his deathbed—a myth intentionally spread by creationists. The student then made it known that everything I was teaching was a lie, and stomped out of the auditorium, slamming the door behind him. A few years later during the same lecture, another student also shouted out from the back row that I was lying. She said that no transitional fossil forms had ever been found—despite my having shared images of many transitional forms during the semester. Many of her fellow students were shocked by her combativeness, particularly when she stormed out, also slamming the door behind her. Most semesters, a significant number of students abruptly leave as soon as they realize the topic is human evolution.

Ceiling Cat bless those who teach evolutionary biology in the South! Well, I never faced that kind of resistance, but I’ve taught most of my life in Chicago, not the South. But what this clearly shows is that many people’s opposition to evolution rests largely on the claim that humans evolved by the same processes as ferns, squirrels, and squid. I think it was Michael Ruse who said that what keeps people awake at night is not worrying about the fossil record of other species, but the idea that if humans evolved, where can we find morality?

Krupa’s lesson plan, as outlined in his piece, is very good, and I’m sure his course is terrific. I have just one beef, and it’s based on this:

AFTER A SEMESTER filled with evidence of evolution, capped off with a dose of evolutionary medicine, one might expect that every last student would understand it and accept it as fact. Sadly, this is not the case. There are those who remain convinced that evolution is a threat to their religious beliefs. Knowing this, I feel an obligation to give my “social resistance to evolution” lecture as the final topic.

This lecture lays down the history of the antiscience and anti-evolution movements, the arguments made by those opposing evolution, and why these arguments are wrong. I make it clear that one can accept evolution and maintain their religious beliefs. They are not mutually exclusive. Among the religious groups and organizations that support the teaching of evolution are the Episcopal Church, Lutheran World Federation, United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church, United Unitarian Universalists [JAC: those are largely atheists!], Roman Catholic Church, and the American Jewish Congress. In fact, 77 percent of all American Christians belong to a denomination that supports the teaching of evolution, and several high-profile evangelical Christians are ardent defenders of it, including former President Jimmy Carter and Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institute of Health. Even Pope John Paul II acknowledged the existence of evolution in an article he published in The Quarterly Review of Biology, in which he argued that the body evolved, but the soul was created. Pope Francis has made it clear that he accepts evolution as well.

This lecture should put students at ease knowing that religion and science need not be at odds. Of all the lectures I give, this one provokes the most discussion after class. And yet it often results in students expressing concern that I might not be saved. I never say anything about my personal religious beliefs, yet it is assumed I am an atheist. One student told me she hoped I could find God soon. When I again pointed out that John Paul accepted evolution—and he certainly wasn’t an atheist—the student countered that Catholics aren’t Christians. Several simply let me know they will be praying for me and praying hard. One student explained that as a devout Catholic he had no choice but to reject evolution. He accused me of fabricating the pope’s statements. When I explained that he could go to the Vatican website for verification or call the Vatican to talk to a scientist, he insisted that there was no such information available from the Vatican. He then pointed his finger at me and said the only way he would believe me is if Pope John Paul II came to my class to confirm these quotes face-to-face. The student then stomped out, again slamming the auditorium door behind him.

I can well understand Jim’s motivation here. After all, if most of the resistance to evolution comes from religion (and that’s something the students should be told), why not try to defuse it by telling them that it doesn’t have to be that way? In other words, at the end of his course Krupa becomes an accommodationist, telling students all the ways that religion isn’t in opposition to science. And that’s where he goes off the rails.

Yes, lots of religions publicly accept evolution, but many don’t. Does Krupa mention the Southern Baptists? And even those faiths whose doctrinal statements do accept evolution harbor many parishioners who don’t. Take Catholics, for example. As I say in Faith versus Fact, “Nevertheless, 27 percent of American Catholics cling to biblical creationism, believing that humans were created instantaneously by God and have remained unchanged ever since.” Does Krupa mention that? If 77% of American religions embrace evolution, how come 42% of all Americans are young-earth creationists when it comes to human evolution? (That figure rises to 73% if you take all Americans who think that God had a role in evolution.) Do they reject the dictates of their faith? Apparently so.

So what Krupa is telling his students is only a partial truth. Francis Collins, for example, has argued publicly that innate morality could not have evolved, but must have been vouchsafed us by God. Does Krupa mention that? No, because he’s on a mission to harmonize evolution and faith.

And as for Catholicism, well, I mentioned that many Catholics are young-Earth creationists. But even the Vatican itself isn’t totally down with evolution. It maintains, for instance, that humans, unlike every other creature, were endowed by God with a soul somewhere in the course of evolution. Krupa admits that, but does he explore the scientific problems with such an assertion? And does he tell them that the official stance of the Vatican is that Adam and Eve were historic figures, the progenitors of all humans—and that this flatly contravenes the findings of modern science? I could refer the Catholic student who confronted Krupa to Catholic websites affirming this. The fact is that many religions, including Catholicism, can be comported with human evolution only by either watering down our naturalistic view of evolution (and saying, “Yes, yes, God could have made some mutations”), or turning those religions into pure exercises in metaphor.

Finally, telling students that religion is compatible with evolution is a theological view, not a scientific one. Yes, Krupa’s motivations are good here, but he’s still skirting the First Amendment by telling the students what religion says, and—in my view—doing so in a distorted way. My opinion is that while it would be okay for Krupa to tell the students that almost all resistance to evolution in the U.S. comes from religion—for that’s simply a fact—it’s not okay for him to twist the data on religion to suggest that there’s no inherent conflict between faith and fact. Remember that 64% of Americans have said that if science comes up with a fact that contradicts one of the tenets of their faith, they’ll reject the science in favor of their faith.

Lest you think that I’m being too hard on Krupa here, let me add that I have exactly the same objection to professors who tell their students that evolution is incompatible with religion. That, too, is a theological (or philosophical, depending on your take) add-on that shouldn’t be taught to students in a science class. When David Barash taught that incompatibilism to his evolution students at the University of Washington, I objected as well. Regardless of your desire to make students accept evolution by comporting it with religion, that is an exercise not in science, but something else. It may work (Barash does recount one student who was “converted” this way—the first case I know of), but it’s straying far away from science. I wrote a book asserting that science and religion are incompatible, but I don’t mention those views that in my evolution course.

Let me finish by saying that I have a lot of respect for Krupa’s drive to teach evolution to students who largely resist it, and for the enormous work he puts into his classes. I’m dead certain he’s a far better teacher than I am. But I think that Krupa should keep theology out of the science classroom. If students can’t be convinced that evolution is true from a simple presentation of the facts, let them go to their ministers and priests to find out whether and how it fits with their faith.

h/t: Joyce


Readers’ wildlife photographs

We have a new contributor today, so say hi to Alex MacMillan, who has provided us with a bunch of photos of animals from several taxa, as well as two videos.

I attach 10 of my favourite pics.

Green frog, Lithobates clamitans. Picture taken in Kilally Meadows, London, Ontario. This is a female: the tympanum that covers the ear is about the same diameter as the eye, while in males it is around twice the diameter of the eye.


Rose-Breasted GrosbeakPheucticus ludovicianus. Picture taken in Kilally Meadows, London Ontario. This is a male.


Common GoldeneyeBucephala clangula. Picture taken on the Thames river in Springbank Park, London Ont. Male bird is caught mid call.


Grey JayPerisoreus canadensis. Picture taken Cypress Mountain, British Columbia. The Grey Jay or whiskey jack is a not uncommon bird of the northern and mountain forests. It is very curious and will approach people and readily feed from the hand.

greyjay 008

Five-Lined SkinkPlestiodon  fasciatus. Picture taked at Rondeau Provincial Park, Ontario. This is a female five-lined skink with her clutch of eggs. It is believed that the females may guard the nest from predators but also help keep them warm by basking in the sun and then going back to the eggs warmed up and transferring some of the heat to the eggs.


Eastern Garter Snake, Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis. Picture was taken on Pelee Island, Ontario. Many populations of Garter Snakes around the great lakes have a high percentage (sometimes ~50%) of melanistic individuals. This may be because the lake water takes longer to warm up than pond water inland and the dark pigment could help them warm up quicker, though there are other hypotheses including camouflage.


Blue-Winged Warbler, Vermivora cyanoptera. Picture taken at Rondeau P.P., Ont. This is a male Blue-Winged Warbler singing.


Eastern Milk SnakeLampropeltis triangulum triangulum. Picture taken at Fanshawe Conservation area, London Ont. This is a young milk snake. Apparently people used to think they stole milk from the dairy cows—thus the name.


Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina. Picture taken at Big Creek Marsh near Long Point Ont. This snapping turtle was trying to cross the path while I was hiking Big Creek Marsh.


Spring PeeperPseudacris crucifer. Picture taken at Rondeau marsh, Ont. The spring peeper is a commonly heard but rarely seen frog in wetlands of eastern north america.


 Here are two videos:

I had just watched this mink attack and kill a squirrel, ran to get my camera and recorded this. You can hear other squirrels scolding it in the background.

Here’s a video that is more audio than visual; it is a night walk in Rondeau Marsh. You can hear woodcock, whip-poor-will, toads, spring peepers and grey tree frogs.

Suicide by plane?

I’ve been hearing for two days about how the crash in France of the Germanwings flight from Barcelona to Düsseldorf was a complete mystery, as there was no sign of a mishap on the cockpit voice recorder nor any recorded response to concerned air traffic controllers. On the news last night there was a report that the pilot had been locked out of the cockpit. Today’s New York Times reports how we know that:

. . . evidence from a cockpit voice recorder indicated one pilot left the cockpit before the plane’s descent and was unable to get back in.

A senior French military official involved in the investigation described a “very smooth, very cool” conversation between the pilots during the early part of the flight from Barcelona, Spain, to Düsseldorf, Germany. Then the audio indicated that one of the pilots left the cockpit and could not re-enter.

“The guy outside is knocking lightly on the door, and there is no answer,” the investigator said. “And then he hits the door stronger, and no answer. There is never an answer.”

He said, “You can hear he is trying to smash the door down.”

And then this just came on my CNN newsfeed:

There was a “deliberate attempt to destroy the aircraft,” Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin says about the Germanwings crash.

The most plausible explanation of the crash is that the co-pilot, “through deliberate abstention, refused to open the cabin door … to the chief pilot, and used the button” to cause the plane to lose altitude, Robin said. He emphasized that his conclusions were preliminary.

If the copilot wanted to kill himself, did he have to take 149 other people with him? One solution: put an outside lock on the cockpit door, and then give the keys only to the pilots.


Here’s another great song from Gordon Lightfoot’s 1966 album, “Lightfoot!” It’s one of three (out of 14 total) on the album not written by Lightfoot himself: it was composed by Phil Ochs (1940-1976). (Does anybody remember Ochs and his involvement in the protests of the 60s? Remember “I ain’t marching anymore“—an anthem for those opposed to the Vietnam War?) Somewhere along the line, Ochs produced this gorgeous ballad (you can hear his version here). There are several covers, including one by Neil Young (it starts at 2:10 on the video), but Lightfoot’s is by far the best. (He’s left out some of Ochs’s verses.)

And somehow this song encapsulates all the romance that pervaded the ferment of that time—at least for me.


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