Spot the spotted woodpecker

“But it’s already spotted!”, you’ll say. Well, I just forestalled that smart-ass answer. Reader Robert Seidel sent this photo that contains a spotted woodpecker (Dryobates minor).  Can you spot it—at least further than it’s already been spotted?

The answer will be up at 1 p.m. Chicago time.

Click photo to enlarge:


And, as an extra quiz, guess who this is holding the cat:

Cat Holder

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Today’s bird photos come from reader Karen Bartelt, with her caption:

Reflecting on that age-old bromide, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo), Washington, IL:


Galapagos finches, mixed flock, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador.  Home of Gil de Roi, whose mother began to feed them years ago:


Black-headed parrots (Pionites melanocephalus), Rio Ucayali, Peruvian Amazon:


Cedar waxings (Bombycilla cedrorum), High Cliff State Park, Wisconsin:


Mostly northern cardinals (Cardinalis cardinalis), Washington, IL:


Tricolored munias (Lonchura malacca), Hanalei National Wildlife Refuge.  Escaped cage bird first seen on Kauai in 1975:


Nene (Branta sandvicensis), Hanalei NWR. [JAC: these are flightless geese endemic to Hawaii, and the state bird. Remember that flightless birds are found largely on oceanic islands like Hawaii. Do you remember why? You’ll know if you read WEIT.]


 ‘Apapane (Himatione sanguinea sanguinea), Alakai Swamp.  I was roughly 2 football fields away from these birds and did not have a big lens.  The only really neat thing is that there are five of them.  This is by far the most common honeycreeper, and I’ve seen them lots closer around Hawai’i Volcanoes NP, but I’ve never had a shot at five at once.


JAC: Here’s a closer picture of the bird from Wikipedia:



Friday: Hili Dialogue (and lagniappe)

It’s Friday, and tomorrow I’m off to Old Blighty. Just for one week, though, an unpleasantly short trip, as I’d prefer to stay longer. But shortly after I return I’ll be off to Halifax, Ottawa, and Montreal, where I will eat poutine, bagels, and smoked meat. On February 5, 1909, the invention of the first plastic (Bakelite) was announced; it was very brittle and is no longer used, but the clarinet I had as a teenager was made from it.  On this day in 1939, Franco became the head of Spain; he remains dead. And on this day William Burroughs was born in 1914, Hank Aaron in 1934, and, in 1956, Betty Ong—a flight attendant on AA flight 11, who reported from the plane via cellphone before it was flown into the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is dissing poor Cyrus again. Malgorzata is not sure what Andrzej (who writes the dialogues) was on about, she guesses that “Ants can be satanists – they can bite and it is painful as hell. Ants, with their totalitarian organization in the nest, cannot be sceptical.”

Cyrus: Shall I tell you a story how a satanist ant met a skeptical ant?
Hili: You are lying. There are no sceptical ants.


In Polish:
Cyrus: Opowiedzieć ci jak się mrówka satanistka spotkała z mrówką sceptyczką?
Hili: Kłamiesz, nie ma mrówek sceptyczek.

Reader Bruce sent this photo from the Millie LaRue Fan Club (note: Millie is a d*g, so you don’t have to “like: the page), and they’re asking for a caption. It smells like a setup photo to me. For one thing, the cup has clearly been moved.


Here’s Gus:


And here’s Leon, back in Wroclawek:

Leon: One has to rest before the weekend.


Squirrel bonds with rescuer

This goes up as today’s last post, celebrating National Squirrel Month (yes, I made that up).

I’m not sure what species of squirrel this is (readers?), but this video from the NowThis Facebook page (click on screenshot to see) is heartwarming. The text explains the situation, but note that the tame squirrel treats the man exactly as if he were a tree!

Squirrels don’t make good pets, but this sciurid/primate relationship is still lovely.

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h/t: Keith

Sarah Palin’s ungrammatical grammar

If you want to see a tongue-in-cheek but also serious analysis of Sarah Palin’s public speeches mind dumps, have a look at Tuesday’s New York Times article “Sarah Palin’s English” by Anna North.  We’ve all heard Palin babble on many times, but when her words are put into print, they look even dumber. But North, a staff editor for Op-Talk, takes the grammar seriously, explaining what Palin is trying to do, although in the last line of the piece (not reproduced here) she gives away the game.

A few excerpts:

Mrs. Palin is also a big fan of the participial phrase. “And that blank check too,” she said on Monday, “making no sense because it’s led us to things, oh gosh, to pay the bills then, we have had to uh, print money out of thin air.”

In this case “making no sense” and everything that follows appear to modify “blank check”; though it can be a little hard to tell with Mrs. Palin, the participial phrase seems to function as an adjective. Elsewhere in her speech Mrs. Palin got more sophisticated.

“Politics being kind of brutal business,” she said, “you find out who your friends are, that’s for sure.”

Here, “politics being kind of brutal business” defines the circumstances under which the action occurs. It looks like a construction that will be familiar to anybody who took Latin in school: the ablative absolute.

An ablative absolute in Latin is a particular kind of clause that, according to one definition, “modifies the whole sentence as an adverb modifies the action of a verb.” An example, courtesy of The Latin Library: “His verbis dictis, Caesar discedit.” Translation: “With these words having been said, Caesar departs.”

In fact, a lot of what Sarah Palin says sounds like it’s been poorly translated from the Latin. With her “he who” and “one who,” she’d sound almost Ciceronian if it weren’t for the holes in her logic and the way those complicated sentences sometimes dribble off into vaguely sinister, possibly offensive nonsense.

One more bit:

. . . Here’s Mrs. Palin using both a dependent clause and a participial phrase to attack President Obama on Jan. 19:

And he, who would negotiate deals, kind of with the skills of a community organizer maybe organizing a neighborhood tea, well, he deciding that, “No, America would apologize as part of the deal,” as the enemy sends a message to the rest of the world that they capture and we kowtow, and we apologize, and then, we bend over and say, “Thank you, enemy.”

I honestly am not sure what’s going on in this sentence.

You’ll have to go to the piece to see North’s peroration.

Matthew Cobb battles with the faithful over my book

Denis Alexander wrote a review of Faith versus Fact in the January 22nd Times Literary Supplement (TLS), and, to say the least, it wasn’t kind. But given his position as an evangelical Christian and the emeritus head of the Templeton-founded-and-funded Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, given his criticism of evolution as an “atheistic theory,” and given my repeated criticisms of his religious views on this site, to which he’s responded, I didn’t expect anything else. (Given his position and our history, though, I am surprised that the TLS religion editor chose him.)

I can’t link to his review as the TLS doesn’t have a free website, and I won’t really reply to it, as I adhere to Nick Cohen and Stephen Fry’s advice to never answer critics. But I’ll let someone respond: our own Matthew Cobb.

After reading Alexander’s piece claiming that my book was the most “consistently scientistic” book he’s read in a long time, and that there is indeed falsifiable evidence for religious claims (Alexander uses the Resurrection as an example), so that there are indeed religious “ways of knowing”, Matthew (unknown to me) wrote a letter to the TLS:


In Denis Alexander’s review of “Faith vs Fact” (22 January 2016), my friend Jerry Coyne’s claim that theology provides no ‘real knowledge’ is dismissed as a ‘scientistic raid’. I wonder if Dr Alexander, or indeed any reader, could provide an example of knowledge gained through theology, and above all tell us how they know that knowledge is true?

Matthew Cobb
Faculty of Life Sciences
Michael Smith Building
University of Manchester

In the next issue, Alexander responded, as well as another believer, and Matthew kindly transcribed the letters for me. First, Alexander’s (why are all the letters titled “Sir”? Are there no women at the TLS?):


Prof. Matthew Cobb enquires as to how knowledge is gained through theology. I am, like Prof. Cobb, a scientist, but I am happy to pass on what I infer through observation of theologians in their academic discipline here in Cambridge.

There are three types of theological enquiry. The first relates to reflection on the properties of the universe, a procedure known as ‘natural theology’. Inference to the best explanation points to a creative Mind underlying features of the universe such as its anthropic fine-tuning, its intelligibility (without which science cannot even get going), the mathematical elegance displayed in the properties of matter and energy, and the emergence of human minds by an evolutionary process that can gain some understanding of these properties. Theological knowledge here refers to interpretation not to description, but the scientific enterprise likewise involves much interpretation of data, so there are some interesting parallels, remembering of course that there are many ways of ‘knowing’.

Second, theological enquiry, at least within the Abrahamic faiths, involves historical enquiry and interpretation of their Scriptures. Christian theology includes textual analysis and study of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. For example, the belief of the early church in the resurrection of Christ, had it not occurred, could readily have been refuted by the discovery of the embalmed body of Christ in a Jerusalem tomb, easily recognisable by his family and disciples. The Apostle Paul clearly stated that his faith (and that of other Christians) was a waste of time if the resurrection had not occurred. Clearly we do not now have access to the data in the same way as the first century Christians, but again there are some interesting parallels here with scientific enquiry. The principle of refutation can apply (in some cases) to history as well as to science.

Third, theology (which means ‘knowledge of God’) also investigates religious experience, a widespread human trait. In the Christian tradition, knowledge of God is practiced through prayer, meditation, reflection, communal worship and, in some cases, ecstatic experience. There is no particular reason why personal knowledge of God should not be included as an important ‘way of knowing’.

Some scientists (I suspect a small minority) believe that the natural sciences provide the only reliable form of human knowledge. I suggest that this leads to an impoverishment of the human spirit.

Yours sincerely,
Denis R. Alexander
Emeritus Director,
The Faraday Institute,
St. Edmund’s College,

I will say one thing: I’m greatly amused by the scientific-ish evidence Alexander adduces for the Resurrection. Since we don’t have the embalmed body of Christ, Jesus must have risen! Think about that: Alexander’s “principle of refutation.”

UPDATE: Reader Pliny the in Between responded to Alexander’s new scientific principle with this cartoon on his/her website Evolving Perspectives:


My spirit must be impoverished. . .

There’s one other letter, too—from a pastor:


In response to Matthew Cobb (Letters 29th Jan): Medical skill and science brought me through cardiac arrest and major surgery, yet in themselves offer nothing to live for. Theological language – passion, faith, hope, love, grace, glory – addresses why it is worth being alive. The truth of value-knowledge is lived, not “known”. It enables one to be deeply grateful and to appreciate the wonder of factual knowledge.

James Ramsay
St. Barnabas Vicarage
Browning Road
London E12 6PB

Clearly religion offers us the only way to see why life’s worth living!

My formal response to these two letters is thus this:  “Oy! And double oy!”

PuffHo tries accommodationism, but can’t quite get it right

PuffHo has a “Religion and Science” section, but virtually every post therein is accommodationist; there’s never anyone claimingthat science and religion are at odds or incompatible. (When he was alive, Victor Stenger used to write such posts.) Here’s a sampling of what’s on that page now (posts are fairly infrequent):

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Yep, and here’s Professional Accommodationist Elaine Ecklund:Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 9.04.30 AM

Now there’s a new accommodationist article, “12 famous scientists on the possibility of God” by Carol Kuruvilla, an associate editor of the PuffHo Religion section, which, curiously, appears in the “Religion” section but not in the “Religion and Science” section. She gives a list of 12 famous scientists, and, sure enough, most turn out to be atheists or agnostics. And Kuruvilla’s gloss on each scientist is honest about their beliefs. As we know, scientists are far more atheistic than nonscientists, both in America and the UK, so this isn’t a surprise. What is distressing, though, is the way Kuruvilla introduces her list of scientists, for she makes gaffe after gaffe in characterizing the “conflict”. Here’s her entire introduction (indented) with my gloss (flush left):

When President Barack Obama nominated the Christian geneticist Francis Collins to head the National Institutes of Health in 2009, some American scientists questioned whether someone who professed a strong belief in God was qualified to lead the largest biomedical research agency in the world.

The first link goes to the Pew Poll that shows the figure below, the tenfold higher proportion of atheists among scientists than among the general public. There is no link to any specific scientist who questioned Collins’s qualification to head the NIH, as the Pew page just notes that scientists objected to Collins’s nomination (“a number of scientists and pundits publicly questioned whether the nominee’s devout religious faith should disqualify him from the position”). While there may have been such scientists, neither I nor any other nonbelieving scientist I know objected to Collins’s nomination.


Kuruvilla continues:

This argument — that scientific inquiry is essentially incompatible with religious belief — has been gaining traction in some circles in recent years. In fact, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center survey, American scientists are about half as likely as the general public to believe in God or a higher, universal power. Still, the survey found that the percentage of scientists that believe in some form of a deity or power was higher than you may think — 51 percent.

Well, thanks, Ms. Kuruvilla, for the shout-out at the “gaining traction” link, but shouldn’t you also note that the number of scientists who reject the idea of a deity or higher power is at least 41%, ten times higher than for the public as a whole? Why do accommodationists always find solace in the number of scientists who are believers, rather than find distress in the huge proportion of scientists who are nonbelievers (Ecklund does this, too)? And why don’t they ever wonder why scientists are more atheistic than nonscientists? Whether it be due to nonbelievers being drawn to science or to science turning people into nonbelievers (I think both explanations hold, but the latter may be more powerful), this disparity shows some kind of incompatibility between science and religious belief.


Scientists throughout history have relied on data and observations to make sense of the world. But there are still some really big questions about the universe that science can’t easily explain: Where did matter come from? What is consciousness? And what makes us human?

Here we get the Templetonian “Big Questions” argument, a gussied-up form of the “God of the gaps argument”. To wit: science hasn’t explained some phenomena, therefore the explanation must be God. There’s no need to discuss that rotten old chestnut.

As for “what makes us human?”, that question needs to be framed far more carefully before it can even begin to be answered, and science already has answers for some ways to construe it (e.g., natural selection, bigger brains, and so on).


In the past, this quest for understanding has given scientists both past and present plenty of opportunities for experiencing wonder and awe. That’s because at their core, both science and religion require some kind of leap of faith — whether it’s belief in multiverses or belief in a personal God.

Here Kuruvilla shows her complete misunderstanding of the notion of religious versus scientific “faith”. It is not “faith” to “believe in multiverses”, and no physicist would accept the multiverse hypothesis with the same tenacity that, say, John Haught accepts the hypothesis of a divine being or a resurrected Jesus. What Kuruvilla calls a “leap of faith” in science is really either a “hypothesis supported by evidence” or “confidence based on experience.” Religious faith is neither of those. I wrote an article in Slate expressly to show the difference between how the term “faith” is used in science and religion, but it doesn’t seem to have made much of a dent in this perennial and seemingly deliberate conflation by accommodationists.

Kuruvilla then lists her 12 scientists; I’ve characterized how she describes them:

  • Galileo: religious but claiming that God gave us the ability to understand the natural world
  • Sir Francis Bacon: scientifically minded but religious.
  • Charles Darwin: an agnostic at best
  • Maria Mitchell (America’s first woman astronomer): a “religious seeker” (probably would be described today as a “none”)
  • Marie Curie: atheist or agnostic (no difference, really!)
  • Albert Einstein: not characterized as religious, but said to “separate himself from the ‘fanatical atheists'”
  • Rosalind Franklin: atheist
  • Carl Sagan: an atheist, but Kuruvilla emphasizes his “spirituality”, which of course, as we know, was simply awe at the universe. Frankly, I’m sick of people coopting this form of spirituality as evidence for someone’s “religious nature.”
  • Stephen Hawking: atheist
  • Venkatraman Ramakrishnan (Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, 2009): apparently a nonbeliever, but it’s not clear
  • Neil deGrasse Tyson: Kuruvilla says that he’s more of an agnostic than an atheist, but we know better, don’t we?
  • Francis Collins.  Kuruvilla chose to end with him, perhaps because he’s an evangelical Christian who finds evolution absolutely compatible with his faith.

So, people should read about the scientists and ignore Kuruvilla’s introduction. And then they should look at the Pew data and ask themselves, “Why are scientists so atheistic compared to nonscientists?” I’m not sure that I’ve heard many believers explicitly discuss this interesting statistic. (Remember, too, that the more accomplished the scientist, the less likely they are to be religious, and that holds in both the U.S. and UK. Further, the older the scientist in America, the more likely he/she is to be atheistic, exactly the opposite trend for nonscientist Americans.)


A new paper showing the usefulness of the kin-selection model

There’s a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA by David A. Galbraith et al. (free link and reference at bottom) that has a very cool result: one predicted by kin-selection theory. Kin selection, as you may know, is the idea that the adaptive value of a gene (and hence its evolutionary fate) must include information about how that gene affects its copies in relatives (e.g., a gene in parents for taking care of offspring can promote the replication of the copies that also occur in those offspring). Wikipedia describes this idea pretty succinctly.

Kin selection has been a very useful concept in understanding things like behaviors directed at offspring and relatives, and particularly in understanding the evolution of altruism and of one of its forms: eusociality—the behavior in which a colony of individuals is divided up into castes, some of which reproduce and some of which are nonreproductive but tend the “queen’s” brood (honeybees and naked mole rats are examples).

There are a few people, though, most notably Martin Nowak and E. O. Wilson at Harvard, who have questioned the usefulness of kin selection, arguing that group selection theory (or “multilevel” selection theory) is the only way to study the evolution of eusociality. I’ve written a lot on this site questioning their ideas (see some links below) as well as their claim that kin selection is not a useful way to study evolution in nature. The paper below, I think, shows the usefulness of the kin-selection paradigm, which seems to make predictions—ones that are verified—that don’t flow in any obvious way from a perspective of group or multilevel selection.

Because the paper is complex, I’ve asked my friend Phil Ward, a professor of entomology at the University of California at Davis (and a student of insect evolution) to explain its predictions and results. His explanation may be a bit difficult for non-biologists, but there is no simpler way to explain the study. Give it a go!


by Phil Ward

There has been a vociferous debate over the relative merits of group selection theory and inclusive fitness theory (or kin selection theory) as explanations for the evolution of altruistic behavior, especially following a contentious paper by Nowak et al. (2010) which claimed the superiority of the group selection approach. This was met with a resounding rebuff by a large group of evolutionary biologists who argued for the much greater explanatory power and heuristic value of inclusive-fitness thinking (e.g., Abbot et al. 2011). Some previous postings on WEIT about this topic have appeared here, here, here and here.

One fruitful area of inquiry in which kin selection theory makes explicit and testable predictions is in the study of genomic imprinting, a form of intragenomic conflict in which there is differential expression of genes inherited from the mother versus the father. In a theory paper published more than a decade ago, David Queller pointed out that this form of intragenomic conflict can be expected to be particularly widespread in colonies of social insects, and he employed kinship theory to predict the outcome of such conflict under different social contexts.

Now a recent empirical paper by Galbraith et al. (2016) provides convincing evidence that intragenomic conflict in honey bees indeed reveals itself in a way predicted by kin selection theory.

The authors first point out that genes inherited from mothers (matrigenes) and those inherited from fathers (patrigenes) are expected to be in conflict in honey bee workers that have an opportunity to reproduce. Why? Because a honey bee queen mates with multiple males, and the resulting workers are mostly half-siblings. These half-sibling individuals share half of their matrigenes but none of their patrigenes (see Figure 1 of the paper). So, consider a colony in which the queen has died, and half-sibling workers begin to compete over egg-laying (this behavior is inhibited by the queen while she is still alive). A worker’s matrigenes can be passed on when either she or her siblings reproduce, but her patrigenes are present only in her own offspring. Hence, as the authors put it, “compared with matrigenes, patrigenes will favor worker reproduction and exhibit enhanced activity on worker reproductive traits”.

This prediction was tested by quantifying the extent of genomic imprinting, i.e., the differential expression of genes of paternal origin.

The authors’ predictions were upheld. Using a series of genetic crosses that allowed them to distinguish matrigenes from patrigenes, they found that workers in queenless honey bee colonies showed greater expression of paternal than maternal genes, and this patrigene-biased expression was even higher in those workers that actually reproduced. In addition, when comparing parent-of-origin effects on reproductive traits such as ovary size and ovarian activity, patrigenes were shown to exert a much greater influence than matrigenes.

It should be emphasized that the worker reproduction occurring in queenless honey bee colonies produces only one sex: males.The workers lay unfertilized eggs and, as a consequence of the peculiar genetic system (haplodiploidy) found in bees, wasp and ants, these haploid eggs develop into males (which thus carry only one set of chromosomes). With no further production of workers, the colony will soon decline.

So, this last gasp of haploid reproductive effort that occurs when a queen dies (and is not replaced) will have selective significance only if the males that are produced have an opportunity to mate with queens from other colonies, something that takes place in population-wide mating swarms. Presumably this process of rearing and releasing drones (male bees) in a timely manner works best if some workers reproduce while the remainder continue to forage for food and feed the developing drone brood. Thus, colonies in which all reproductively capable workers give in to their patrigenic impulses might produce fewer reproductively successful drones than those in which there is some degree of reproductive restraint by the workers. One could argue that this is a kind of “colony-level” selection that weeds out disruptively high levels of patrigene expression, but inclusive fitness theory would explain this as a consequence of cost-benefit ratios that moderate the expression of both matrigenes and patrigenes.

Finally, for the small fraction of workers in a honey bee colony that are full siblings, the genetic interests of matrigenes and patrigenes are quite different: patrigenes can be equally well propagated through a worker’s own reproduction or that of a full sibling. Most competition for reproduction in honey bees is among half-siblings, however, so this should have little effect in honey bee colonies. Nevertheless, among other social insects in which the queen mates only once (such as bumble bees and many species of ants) all workers are full siblings and, as the authors note, the prediction is reversed: matrigenes should favor worker reproduction and show enhanced gene expression relative to patrigenes. Apparently this has not yet been studied, but it would constitute an elegant complementary test to the ground-breaking results of Galbraith et al.


Honeybee workers surrounding their queen, who’s been marked with a dot


Galbraith, D. A., S. D. Kocher, T. Glenn, I. Albert, G. J. Hunt, J. E. Strassmann, D. C. Queller, and C. M. Grozinger. 2016. Testing the kinship theory of intragenomic conflict in honey bees (Apis mellifera). Proc Nat. Acad Sci. USA 113:1020-1025. doi:10.1073/pnas.1516636113




Rare footage of only jaguar living in the U.S.

I had no idea that any jaguars lived in the U.S., but there appears to be at least one.

The species, Panthera onca, is the largest cat in the New World, and the third largest in the world after lions and tigers. Its former range extended from the southern U.S. through Central America to southeastern South America, but has been severely reduced by habitat loss (it prefers dense forest) and slaughter by ranchers and farmers. Wikipedia reports that there may be a few individuals left in the U.S., but its present range map shows no dark orange in that country:

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The last jaguar spotted in the U.S. was in 2006, and the construction of a barrier fence between Mexico and the U.S. will further reduce what small population there is in our country, for the cats must ultimately come in from the south.

But, now a jaguar has been videotaped in Arizona. From the Guardian via Matthew Cobb, we have this information, and if you clock on the screenshot below, you’ll go to a rare 40-second clip of El Jefe, the American Jaguar!

Footage of the only known jaguar living wild in the US is captured on remote sensor cameras. The video, filmed by Conservation CATalyst and the Center for Biological Diversity in the Santa Rita Mountains, Arizona, provides a glimpse into the secretive life of the big cat, who has recently been named ‘El Jefe’ [“The Boss”] by local students.

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Here’s what the cat looks like (there are several subspecies); this photo, with cubs, was taken in the wild—in Colombia:


Lagniappe: A cat stealing a neighbor’s plush tiger to play with it. Click on screenshot to go to video:

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h/t: Timothy

Note to readers

I ask again that readers send me at most one email per person per day. Lately I’ve not been able to keep up with emails, and it’s harder when individuals send me three or four emails each day. These are well-meant, and usually contain links or things that I might be interested in, but I’d appreciate it if you could combine such items into one email. Otherwise you risk being inadvertently overlooked.

One exception: if I make a typo or other error in a post, please call it to my attention ASAP.



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