Duck beaks, Umwelt and Kantian a prioris

by Matthew Cobb

This article from the scientific journal Cell Reports, by Eve Schneider and colleagues from Yale, popped into my inbox this evening. I could see that it was about ducks and evolution, so I thought it would interest Jerry. It turns out to be pretty fascinating, and it tells us something important about how the sensory worlds of different species are shaped by evolution, as I’ll explain below. It’s open access, so anyone can read it. Click on the image below if you want to read the PDF.

One of the nice features about this article is that it has a “graphical abstract”. Several of the journals from the Cell stable use these abstracts, and I must admit this is the first one I have actually found useful. You can see why: it RHYMES:The study looked at seven different species of duck (including the mallard) which have different food preferences – some of them dive, some dabble (Pekin ducks [domesticated mallards], it appears, forage solely in darkness). Here they are, in a figure from the paper:

The hypothesis was that all these species, which rely particularly on the sense of touch, would have more cells capable of detecting touch (“mechanoreceptors”, in the jargon) in the trigeminal nerve that innervates the beak. Touch works through a particular gene called Piezo2, which codes for what is called an ion channel—these are the tiny pores in nerve cells that enable them to work.

They found that all these species have more of the Piezo2 neurons than do chickens, which do not seem to rely so much on tactile stimulation. There were also differences between the ducks: the Pekin duck, which forages solely in darkness, had the highest proportion of these neurons, while the wood duck, with its narrow bill, had the smallest number.

This expansion of touch neurons in ducks has not come free of charge, however: the ducks seem to have lost corresponding numbers of neurons that, in chickens, detect pain and temperature. In other words, there is an evolutionary trade-off. You don’t seem to be able to have lots of every kind of receptor. What the downsides are of not being able to feel pain or temperature so intensely if you are a duck is not clear. Whatever they are, they are presumably less significant than the advantage of being able to sense your prey more accurately as you dabble or dive.

This is not only a nice bit of evolutionary biology (and a cute graphical abstract), it is also a great example of how the sensory worlds of different animals provide completely different insights into the world. In the 1920s, the Estonian biologist Jakob von Uexküll described what in German was called the Umwelt or inner sensory world of each species, which was rooted in its ecology. This concept is now a fundamental starting point of modern sensory ecology and helps us understand how natural selection has shaped brains and nervous systems, and, when it comes to other animals, how we think of what it is like to be, say, a duck.

The significance of the idea goes far deeper, as Uexküll acknowledged. He saw a link with an idea developed by the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. In his Critique of Pure Reason, published in 1787, Kant argued that some features of how we perceive are given a priori, that is, without experience.

Although Kant was primarily interested in things such as space, time and moral judgements, and ended up placing a profound divide between perception and the material world, he put his finger on a key feature of what is happening when we —or ducks—interact with the world. Our senses are not open valves that simply allow all stimuli into our brain; instead we perceive only certain parts of our environment.

Many scientists have subsequently referred to what are called in the jargon ‘the Kantian synthetic a prioris’: nervous systems involve an innate cognitive and neurobiological framework that filters and processes raw sensory stimuli to turn them into a picture of the world. And that picture differs from species to species.

I’m not sure Kant would have been impressed that his idea had been validated in ducks, but that is what Eve Schneider and her colleagues have done.


Schneider, E. R. et al. 2019. A Cross-Species Analysis Reveals a General Role for Piezo2 in Mechanosensory Specialization of Trigeminal Ganglia from Tactile Specialist Birds. Cell Reports Volume 26: 1979-1987.,

Readers’ wildlife photos (and video)

Be sure to think of this site (and the readers!) when you have some good wildlife photos to send. I have a decent backlog, but, you know, posting once every day exhausts that pretty quickly.

We have mixed media today, starting with the photos of Stephen Barnard in Idaho. There are DUCKS! Everyone’s comments are indented:

Mink [Neovison vison] in a snowstorm this morning, just before sunrise.

I’ve been seeing this individual hunting along the creek in the early morning, while  I’m exercising on a stationary bike. It’s always a close call whether to interrupt my workout to grab a camera and chance a photo  in very marginal conditions.

Hooded merganser (Lophodytes cucullatus) in a light snow this morning [Feb. 17]. I watched him diving in the creek for several minutes. No idea what he was catching. I was trying to photograph some miserable looking snow-covered Canada geese when he swam by, very active, diving repeatedly.

Here are a couple of different poses. He’s very expressive with his crest.

Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens). Funny thing—I thought I was photographing a chickadee until I saw it in the viewfinder. 🙂

And an astronomy video sent by reader Rick Longworth at 12:30 a.m. on Tuesday:

Last night I saw the “Full Snow Supermoon” that is said to be the largest full moon of 2019.  I saw it through swaying branches and thin clouds but decided to film it anyway. Around 1:00 a.m. it will be the closest to Earth, the brightest, and the larges, it will get for all of 2019.  It will appear 14% larger than a typical full moon and 30% brighter.


Wednesday: Hili dialogue

It’s Wednesday, February 20, 2019, and National Muffin Day.  I haven’t had a muffin in a long time, and, truth be told, the ones I like best are unsweet corn muffins and blueberry muffins that aren’t the size of soccer balls and have real lowbush blueberries in them. Like bagels, muffins have been getting inordinately large while being gustatorially degraded for some years. It’s also World Day of Social Justice, so put that pink color in your hair and go punch a Nazi.

On February 20, 1792, the U.S Post Office was established by President George Washington, but some letters still haven’t made it to Chicago. On this day in 1816, Rossini’s opera buffa “The Barber of Seville” premiered at the Teatro Argentina in Rome. In 1872, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened in New York City, and in 1877 another work premiered, this time at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow: Tchaikovsky’s ballet “Swan Lake.”

On February 20, 1935, according to Wikipedia, “Caroline Mikkelsen [became] the first woman to set foot in Antarctica.” Checking into this, it now appears she actually landed not on the continent, but on an island a few miles offshore. The first accepted claim for a woman landing on the continent proper is held by Ingred Christensen, a Norwegian explorer who stepped on Antarctica on January 30, 1937.

On this day in 1942, Naval aviator Lieutenant Edward “Butch” O’Hare became America’s first flying ace in World War II (an “ace” is someone who shoots down at least five enemy planes).  He also became the first person in the Navy to win the Medal of Honor in that war: he attacked nine bombers without support. He was lost in combat in November of next year. Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is named in his honor, though, if you fly here, you’ll see that the abbreviation for O’Hare is ORD, which is its old name—Orchard Depot Field.

Here’s O’Hare in his Grumman F4F aircraft; note the Felix the Cat insignia of his squadron: Flying Squadron 3. The insignia is below the photograph. A cat with a bomb!


On this day in 1943, the first painting of Norman Rockwell’s Four Freedoms were published in the Saturday Evening Post; they depicted the freedoms outlined by President Franklin Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union address. This is that first painting, “Freedom of Speech,” photographed on October 25, 2012 while some of us were at to the “Moving Naturalism Forward” meeting in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. That’s where the Rockwell Museum is located, and where Rockwell lived. A free speaker poses next to Rockwell’s painting:

On this day in 1962, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, making three orbits in about five hours in the Friendship 7 capsule.

Notables born on this day include Ludwig Boltzmann (1844), René Dubos and Louis Kahn (both 1901), Ansel Adams (1902), Robert Altman (1925), Roy Cohn and Sidney Poitier (both 1927), Bobby Unser (1934), Roger Penske (1937), Mitch McConnell (1942), Walter Becker (1950), Patty Hearst (1954), Cindy Crawford (1966), Kurt Cobain (1967), Trevor Noah (1984), and Rihanna (1988).

Those who died on this February 20 include Frederick Douglass (1895), Robert Peary (1920), Percy Grainger (1961), Chester Nimitz (1966), Gene Siskel (1999), Hunter S. Thompson (2005), and Alexander Haig (2010).

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is pondering the heart of the matter, an inside joke between Malgorzata and Andrzej:

A: Did you ponder the heart of the matter?
Hili: I’m still doing it.
In Polish:
Ja: Czy zastanawiałaś się nad istotą rzeczy?
Hili: Nadal się nad nią zastanawiam.

Oy! This tweet, sent by reader Barry, has gained some traction. Still, I think the Divine Sarah could have used more nuanced and humorous language.

A tweet from Heather Hastie. I’m not so sure this bird is as smart as the caption implies. It fails several times!

From reader Barry. What kind of Umwelt do these cats have? (See post later today.)

Tweets from Grania. Would you know what this was if it wasn’t labeled? And why does it look like this?

I’m still not convinced that the “Scottish wildcat” is a real wild Felis silvestris rather than domestic tabbies that have gone feral (the tabby pattern is quickly selected for in the wild):

Maajid Nawaz, a victim of an assault apparently motivated by racism, thanks the people who helped him. Read all the bits:

Well her birthday was two days ago but who cares?

Tweets from Matthew. The more I learn about swans, the more I think they’re odious waterfowl, comparable to Canada geese.

This is TRUE! But I did look up the undergraduate senior honors thesis of my advisor Dick Lewontin, which still reposes in the MCZ library at Harvard. It was called “The Story of Butter”. I am not making this up.

If you think about this, or know the story of how the RAF used battle experience to reinforce planes, you’ll understand the test in the tweet:

This is almost too much information. But why can’t they put the hat on a dummy?

Horsemeat humor

So I got an email from reader Merilee (via one “Ron”) which said the following:

In the UK, some supermarkets have admitted that there is horse meat in their home cooked burgers. Even places like Burger King have had to admit that there are “small amounts” of horse meat in their burgers. Tesco is a big supermarket chain in the UK. Within hours of the news that Tesco’s ‘all beef hamburgers’ contained 30% horse meat, these quips hit the Internet:

I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse….. I  guess Tesco just listened!

Anyone want a burger from Tesco? Yay or neigh?

Not entirely sure how Tesco are going to get over this hurdle.

Had some burgers from Tesco for supper last night …I still have a bit between my teeth.

A woman has been taken into hospital after eating horse meat burgers from Tesco. Her condition is listed as stable.

Tesco are now testing all their vegetarian burgers for traces of unicorn.

I’ve just checked the Tesco burgers in my freezer … “AND THEY’RE OFF!”

Tesco is now forced to deny the presence of zebra in burgers, as shoppers confuse barcodes for serving suggestions.

I said to the missus, “These Tesco burgers give me the trots…”

“To beef or not to beef, that is equestrian”…..

I hear the smaller version of those Tesco burgers make great horse d’oeuvres.

Instead of choosing “rare, medium or well done, it’s now Win, Place or Show”.

These Tesco burger jokes are going on a bit…Talk about flogging a dead horse.

You have to admit that those statements are funny. But being skeptical, I was dubious about HorseGate. Checking the Internet, I found that there was indeed a “horsemeat scandal” in 2013: it’s even got its own Wikipedia page.  It involved duplicity on the part of the meat producers, not the retailers.

Re the UK:

Of 27 beef burger products tested, 37% were positive for horse DNA, and 85% were positive for pig DNA. Of 31 beef meal products tested, 21 were positive for pig DNA but all were negative for horse DNA. 19 salami products were tested but were negative for all foreign DNA. Of the 37% of beef products tested positive for horse DNA, Tesco’s inexpensive Everyday Value Beef Burgers tested at 29.1%. All other reported brands had less than 0.3% horse DNA. These products originated from Liffey Meats and Silvercrest Foods in Ireland and Dalepak Hambleton food processing plant in the United Kingdom. Trace amounts of horse DNA were also found in raw ingredients imported from Spain and the Netherlands.

Laboratory DNA investigations were requested by the authorities into possible donkey meat adulteration of minced meat products labelled as 100% beef.[15] British company Primerdesign Ltd provided many of the tests to laboratories and companies wishing to test for contamination.

Full disclosure: I once tried horsemeat. It was a specialty of the Harvard Faculty Club, and one day the Boss, Dick Lewontin, took all his students there. Naturally I ordered the steak cheval, just to try it. As I recall, it was rather tough and dry, not nearly as good as a finely marbled ribeye. I understand it’s no longer on the Harvard menu.


More criticisms of Behe’s new ID book

I won’t belabor these two new critiques, as you can read both pieces for yourself, and I’m just keeping you up to date as Behe’s new creationist Intelligent Design book, Darwin Devolves heads to press in a week.

Actually, although IDers frenetically argue that their theory is NOT creationism, it really is a species of creationism, for it posits that God The Intelligent Designer creates new mutations required for important adaptations to evolve, mutations that couldn’t accumulate by natural selection alone. The only difference between Behe and, say, Duane Gish is that whereas Gish thought that God made birds, squirrels, and trees, Behe thinks that God made the mutations required for natural selection to bring about birds, squirrels, and trees.

I wonder whether, at the Discovery Institute, the Christians and Orthodox Jews ever ponder how their God has Himself “devolved” from a majestic de novo creator to a Heavenly Mutagen—a Divine Alpha Particle.  Why did God want to make new forms by tweaking the DNA in undetectable ways rather than just poofing them into existence? Such are the mysteries of biological theology.

Speaking of devolving, Nathan Lents has yet another critique of Behe on The Human Evolution Blog, this time centering on the word “Devolves” in the book’s title. Click on the screenshot:

It’s a short critique involving Lents’s claim that the term “devolve” is a neologism coined by Behe and doesn’t make any sense. He thinks this on three grounds, and I agree with about 2.5 of them. I quote (indented); flush left text is mine:

Misunderstanding #1: Behe seems to think that evolution is the accumulation of  complexity. If so, it’s no wonder that he has such angst about it. The reality is that evolution is aimless, sloppy, and produces clunky solutions as often as it does elegant ones. Our own bodies are filled with glitches and goofs left over from the imprecision of natural selection. This may be deeply unsatisfying to some, but nature cares little about our satisfaction.

This fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of evolution is a serious error, especially for someone who has dedicated his career to critiquing modern evolutionary theory. But it not the only one.

Agreed, since to Behe “devolution” is the loss of a trait or a reduction of complexity, yet sometimes losing a trait or becoming simpler is adaptively useful (fleas, for instance, lost their wings).

Misunderstanding #2: Behe’s notion of “irreducible complexity” demands that natural selection can only work if every single step on an evolutionary path is advantageous. We know that’s not true. Populations of organisms harbor a great deal of genetic diversity generated by gene duplications, neutral mutations (and even slightly deleterious ones), recombination, and even rare but dramatic events like chromosomal duplications or rearrangements, and horizontal gene transfer (which may actually be not as rare as we thought). Evolutionary forces then act on all that diversity in unpredictable ways. In Darwin Devolves, you will not find discussions of any of this. Behe either ignores or quickly dismisses these phenomena, despite the key role they play in the generation of the very complexity that Behe doesn’t think that nature can build.

Agreed. Behe apparently does not discuss alternative pathways for building adaptations that look “irreducibly complex” but in reality involve either straight natural selection, neutral evolution as an intermediate, or even slightly deleterious mutations, as well as important processes like gene duplication.

Misunderstanding #3: Behe frequently speaks as though natural selection (which he often calls Darwinism) is the only evolutionary force. In reality, natural selection is joined by genetic drift, neutral theory, exaptation, gene flow, sexual selection, hybridization, punctuated equilibrium, frequency-dependent selection, and dozens of other forces. Behe constantly repeats his refrain that natural selection cannot account for everything we see in nature. Yeah, we know. And we’ve known that for a very long time.

Well, here I think Lents has made some semantic errors. For instance, neutral theory is really a theory of selectively neutral alleles that evolve largely through genetic drift, so it’s not something separate from drift, and it’s a theory, not an “evolutionary force.” Exaptation, frequency-dependent selection, and sexual selection ARE subsets of natural selection, not something entirely different. Punctuated equilibrium is not known to be responsible for the evolution of any adaptation, at least not in the convoluted form presented by Gould and Eldredge. And Lents leaves out a truly unique evolutionary force: meiotic drive—evolution occurring through differential segregation of alleles at meiosis. Finally, both exaptation and punctuated equilibrium are not “forces” but phenomena.

Behe does err if he indeed neglects genetic drift in the evolution of adaptations, as it’s undoubtedly been important, including in some pathways Behe sees as “irreducibly complex”. But if I were Lents I wouldn’t leave myself open to criticism by saying that “exaptation” and “frequency-dependent selection” are forces different from natural selection.

Now you might say that my criticism of this one small part of Lents’s piece is going to make Behe happy, as he’ll crow, “See, Coyne takes issue with Lents’s criticism of my book,” but that’s bullshit. As Steve Gould said in his essay “Evolution as fact and theory” (he’s referring to his colleagues’ attempts to make him stop criticizing traditional evolutionary theory because that would play into the hands of creationists)

But most of all I am saddened by a trend I am just beginning to discern among my colleagues. I sense that some now wish to mute the healthy debate about theory that has brought new life to evolutionary biology. It provides grist for creationist mills, they say, even if only by distortion. Perhaps we should lie low and rally around the flag of strict Darwinism, at least for the moment—a kind of old-time religion on our part.

But we should borrow another metaphor and recognize that we too have to tread a straight and narrow path, surrounded by roads to perdition. For if we ever begin to suppress our search to understand nature, to quench our own intellectual excitement in a misguided effort to present a united front where it does not and should not exist, then we are truly lost.

Make no mistake: I’m on Lents’s side here, but I do criticize the way he categorizes “evolutionary forces.” That, however, should give no succor to Behe. But he’ll take what he can get—he’s a creationist, for crying out loud.

Finally, Rich Lenski, whose work on E. coli was apparently criticized in Behe’s book, has published part two of a three-part critique of Darwin Devolves on his (Lenski’s) website Telliamed Revisited (click on screenshot):

Being a nice guy, Lenski is trying to handle the irascible Behe with kid gloves, claiming that he and Behe agree about at least two things. The first is that Behe “remains upbeat about [Lenski’s] research” Second, that both Lenski and Behe are both interested in and fascinated by evolution. But that tiny speck of agreement is where the comity ends, for then Lenski pulls out his cudgel:

Whether for secular or religious reasons, we humans are deeply interested in where we came from and how we came about. In my own small way, I take pleasure in knowing that my lab’s research helps people get a glimpse of how evolution works.

I’m concerned, though, when these scientific and religious perspectives get intertwined and confused, even when they concern those big, important questions that interest all of us. I get even more concerned when I see what I regard as non-scientific ideas (such as “intelligent agents” introducing “purposeful design” by unstated and untestable means) being used to undermine the admittedly imperfect (and always subject to revision) understanding of evolution that science provides to those who want to learn. And I am most disturbed when these confusions appear to be part of a deliberate “wedge” strategy with ulterior sociopolitical motives. People will undoubtedly have diverse views about whether scientific explanations are adequate and/or satisfying ways to understand the world, but I see danger in trying to undermine scientific methodology and reasoning to advance religious beliefs and political goals.

This is Lenski’s kindly way of saying, “Stop injecting your religion into science, you duplicitous git, because it doesn’t help us make progress.”

Website housekeeping

I’ve had a number of posts from people who post as “anonymous,” presumably because they haven’t filled in their names (and often not an email address, either, though that never appears to other commenters). This may be a WordPress problem, but I think that it’s simply because people post hastily or expect autofill to fill in their information when it doesn’t.

Sadly, the autofill feature seems to have gone kaput for many people, and I cannot get WordPress to fix it. I think you can fix it by registering for a WordPress account on (you don’t need to have a website to do that), but I’ve heard that some people don’t want to do that.

For the time being, I am going to stop posting comments that are “anonymous”, and ask you to fill in your name or whatever pseudonym you want. The reason, of course, is that an identity, real or not, should be attached to every comment so that readers and I can follow a single person’s comments. If you use “Anonymous” (which automatically appears if you don’t put in a name), readers and I can’t tell one Anonymous from another.

So please, even if it’s a bit onerous, fill in your name and an email address for every comment you make if it’s not autofilled. This really shouldn’t take much time.

If tech-savvy readers want to give hints or the like, be my guest.

Another big Templeton grant for philosophy (religious philosophy, of course), and a note on Templeton’s corruption of the field

A certain philosopher who could be mistaken for Santa Claus called my attention to this article in the Daily Nous, a website devoted to the profession of philosophy—and by “profession” I mean “job”. Below you can read yesterday’s announcement of a big new John Templeton Foundation (JTF) grant by clicking on the screenshot, but I’ve put the entire announcement below (it’s also announced on Leiter Reports):

Luis Oliveira, assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Houston, has received $1.3 million to lead an international project on the epistemology of religion.

The central question of the project is “What arguments are there for believing in God or for following a specific religious tradition?”, according to the University of Houston.

The project aims to “connect Latin American philosophers with colleagues from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom to stimulate academic interest and research in the epistemology of religion.”

The funding for the project is from the John Templeton Foundation. Funds will support summer seminars in Latin America, research scholarships, academic prizes, and a conference at  the University of Houston. You can learn more about the project here.

There’s a bit more from the University of Houston’s exultant announcement about the Big Questions, and about how Templeton’s dosh will be used.

Summer workshops planned over the next three years in Brazil, Argentina and Chile will connect Latin American philosophers with colleagues from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom to stimulate academic interest and research in the epistemology of religion. Fellowships will bring Latin American scholars to U.S. universities in order to further strengthen research ties between the two groups.

The project is religiously neutral. This means the work won’t be limited to one religious tradition and will include study of the reasons for atheism and agnosticism, Oliveira said. Scholars of every persuasion will be involved.

He said the timing is right. “In the last 15 years, discussions of religion in the public sphere have become very acrimonious and not very philosophical at all,” he said. “There has been too much one-sided conviction. The atheists think religious people are ignoring the scientific evidence. The religious people think atheists are ignoring obvious aspects of the human experience. Very few acknowledge the force of the points made from the other side.”

While the Daily Nous announcement doesn’t say anything about nonbelief, the UH announcement says the project is “religiously neutral”. And by that they mean “the work won’t be limited to one religious tradition and will include study of the reasons for atheism and agnosticism.”  Well, I’m not heartened by the note that other religious traditions will be involved (that’s only to be expected), and not much heartened by their claim that the work “will include the study of the reasons for atheism and agnosticism.” How about “NO EVIDENCE, PEOPLE!”?  Can I have some dollars now? Can I go to Argentina and talk about atheism?

As for the main question, “What arguments are there for believing in God or a specific religious tradition?”, don’t we know the answer now? There have been almost no new arguments for God’s existence since medieval times, with only gussied-up emendations proffered by the likes of Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig.  And as for “what arguments are there for believing in a specific religious tradition?”, the answer is “WHERE YOU WERE BORN AND WHO BRAINWASHED YOU”. Can I have some dollars now and maybe a trip to Chile?

And there’s this:

The atheists think religious people are ignoring the scientific evidence. The religious people think atheists are ignoring obvious aspects of the human experience. Very few acknowledge the force of the points made from the other side.

Well, the empirical (scientific) evidence for God is exactly as copious as the scientific evidence for Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. That is, no evidence. The “data”, as Vic Stenger used to say, consist of the absence of evidence for God when there should be evidence. 

The other scientific evidence consists of empirical refutation of religious claims, including the claim that prayer works and that there was an Exodus, Adam and Eve, the de novo creation of life, and so on. Liberal religion accepts these refutations while still clinging to claims that are harder to refute (or, as in the case of theologians like David Bentley Hart, lapsing into arcane and flabby theobabble), while conservative faith, like evangelical Christianity and Islam, won’t be swayed by scientific evidence.

And “obvious aspects of the human experience” as evidence for God? How does that work? As far as I can see, this isn’t evidence but revelation and wish-thinking: “I think there is a God because I feel/want to believe that there is one.”  I don’t acknowledge the “force of these points made from the other side” because that force is equivalent to the force of drag applied by a single barnacle affixed to a humpback whale.

In sum, I see absolutely nothing that this expensive study will add to the sum of human knowledge, though it will contribute to the sump of futile human endeavor.

It appears that philosophers are still divided on the issue of whether it’s okay to take Templeton money. When Googling philosophy and Templeton, I came upon a pair of articles by Dan Dannett and Alfred Mele from 2014. In a generally positive review in Prospect Magazine of Mele’s book Free: Why Science Hasn’t Disproved Free Will, Dennett brings up Templeton at the end (click on the screenshot below):


This review could similarly end on the mild, modest verdict that Mele has done his job and done it well. But there is a larger context worth considering. Suppose you were reviewing a scientific report that drew the conclusion that a diet without fat was in fact unhealthy, and that butter and cream and even bacon in moderation were good for you, and suppose further that the science was impeccable, carefully conducted and rigorously argued. Good news! Yes, but the author acknowledges in fine print that the research was financed by a million dollar grant from the Foundation for the Advancement of Bacon. We would be entitled—obliged—to keep that fact in the limelight. The science may be of the highest quality, honestly and sincerely reported, but do remember that the message delivered was the message hoped for by the funder. This is not reporting a finding contrary to the goals of the fact-seekers.

So it is important to note that Mele’s research, as he scrupulously announces, and not in fine print, is supported by the Templeton Foundation. In fact, Mele is the director of a $4.4m project, “Free Will: Empirical and Philosophical Investigations,” funded by the Templeton Foundation, almost certainly the most munificent funding of any philosopher in history. The Templeton Foundation has a stated aim of asking and answering the “Big Questions,” and its programmes include both science and theology. In fact, yoking its support of science with its support of theology (and “individual freedom and free markets”) is the very core of its strategy. The Templeton Foundation supports, with no strings attached, a great deal of excellent science that is otherwise hard to fund. The Foundation supports theological and ideological explorations as well, and it uses the prestige it garners from its even-handed and generous support of non-ideological science to bolster the prestige of its ideological forays. It could easily divide itself into two (or three) foundations, with different names, and fund the same research—I know, because I challenged a Templeton director on this score and was told that they could indeed, but would not, do this.

Alfred Mele is in an unenviable position, and there is really nothing he can do about it. Was his decision to stay strictly neutral on the compatibilism issue a wise philosophical tactic, permitting him to tackle a more modest project, demonstrating the weakness of the scientific argument to date, or was it a case of simply postponing the more difficult issue: if, as science seems to show, our decision-making is not accomplished with the help of any quantum magic, do we still have a variety of free will that can support morality and responsibility? The Templeton Foundation insists that it is not anti-science, and demonstrates this with the bulk of its largesse, but it also has an invested interest in keeping science from subverting some of its ideological aspirations, and it just happens that Mele’s work fits handsomely with that goal. And that, as I persist in telling my friends in science whenever they raise the issue, is why I advise them not to get too close to Templeton.

Mele responded briefly at the Daily Nous, saying that he’s never felt pressure from Templeton and was working on free will long before the JTF gave him money (he admits, though that he got about $9 million from Templeton!)

An excerpt from Mele:

As I’ve said in print, I enjoyed working with JTF on the Big Questions in Free Will (BQFW) project and I never felt pressured to do anything that seemed wrong to me. I have friends there now — good, hard-working people who love philosophy and want to showcase what philosophy can do. But, of course, Dan has a right to express his opinions about JTF.

. . . I don’t take Dan’s remarks personally. I know his views on JTF. We had a friendly discussion of them in London a couple of years ago while I was in the midst of directing the BQFW project. It’s safe to say that we disagree about what JTF is up to. His views about JTF come through clearly in his article, and writing about Free was an occasion for him to express them. Tying those views to me by way of the agnosticism about compatibilism in Free is ineffective, for the reason that I mentioned. If JTF likes neutrality about compatibilism, I’m their guy; I’ve pretty much had that market cornered for almost 20 years.

But the issue is not whether the JTF pressures its awardees to come up with a specific set of findings. The issue is whether the JTF distorts philosophy (and science) by funding projects in areas that are ideologically and philosophically compatible with Templeton’s mission, which is to show that science can help answer the “Big Questions” about God and spirituality. Projects defending free will and attacking its detractors fit nicely into that schema.  As Dan notes, the JTF funds projects that are more purely scientific to help buttress the religion side of its agenda, so the Scientific Horses are put in a stable with the Woo Horses, in hopes that they will breed and produce the kind of wooish hybrids that Templeton loves.

The $1.3 million grant above is in one of the religion stalls of the Templeton stable, which makes it pretty much a waste of money. Yes, philosophers like Mele may indeed take JTF money without feeling pressure, but they don’t realize (or want to ignore) how the JTF slants the philosophical playing field by funding ideologically agreeable projects. This is unlike the National Institutes of Health or the National Science Foundation, which have no ideological slant and fund science projects based on the assessment of whether they’re going to find out anything interesting and important.

Readers’ wildlife photos

This is the second set of photos taken by reader Joe Dickinson on a recent trip to the Merced National Wildlife Refuge in California’s Central Valley (his first set is here). Joe’s captions are indented. 

We’ll begin with another raptor, the diminutive and colorful American kestrel (Falco sparverius).

Several shots of snow geese (Chen caerulescens) and Ross’s geese (Chen rossii) both in flight and down on the water, often standing in shallow water.  They seem always to occur in mixed flocks, at least in winter in central California.  I think I finally have learned to distinguish them if they’re given a good look.  Like the cranes (previous post) they “commute” in and out of the refuge but on a reverse schedule (out in the evening in in the morning).

Tuesday: Hili dialogue

It’s Tuesday, February 19, 2019—the 50th day of the year—and National Chocolate Mint Day. Across the pond in Bulgaria, it’s the day of Commemoration of Vasil Levski.

Note that Maajid Nawaz was attacked last night—not by Muslims, who detest him for his liberalism, but by a white person, who apparentl detested him because of his “Pakistani-ness” (he was born in England to a Pakistani family).  I cannot stand all the hatred that emanates from many corners, and violence is never on (unless you’re Dan Arel).

Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld just died at 85. I wonder who will take care of his pampered cat Choupette, who had two maids. As Wikipedia notes:

She has two “beloved” maids, Françoise and Marjorie, who tend to Choupette (a task that includes taking care of her hair and other beauty jobs) and keep a diary of her activities and moods for the reference of Lagerfeld and an on-call vet. Of the two maids, Choupette is said to prefer Françoise

On this day in 1847, the first rescuers reached the Donner Party, stranded for four months by snow in the Sierra Nevada. Of the 87 pioneers who left for California, only 48 survived; the party is infamous because they ate the bodies of the dead, but I see nothing wrong with that.  On February 19, 1878, Thomas Edison patented the phonograph.  On this day in 1913,  Pedro Lascuráin became President of Mexico, but for only 45 minutes; this is the shortest duration of any head of state in history. The backstory from Wikipedia:

On 19 February 1913, General Victoriano Huerta overthrew Madero. Lascuráin was one of the people who convinced Madero to resign the presidency while he was being held prisoner in the National Palace and claimed that his life was in danger if he refused.

Under the 1857 Constitution of Mexico, the vice-president, the attorney general, the foreign secretary, and the interior secretary stood in line to the presidency. As well as Madero, Huerta had ousted Vice-President José María Pino Suárez and Attorney General Adolfo Valles Baca.  To give the coup d’état some appearance of legality, he had Lascuráin, as foreign secretary, assume the presidency, who would then appoint him as his interior secretary, making Huerta next in line to the presidency, and then resign.

The presidency thus passed to Huerta. As a consequence, Lascuráin was president for less than an hour; sources quote figures ranging from 15 to 56 minutes. To date, Lascuráin’s presidency is the shortest in history, even briefer than that of Venezuelan politician Diosdado Cabello in 2002.

On this day in 1942, 250 Japanese warplanes attacked the Australian city of Darwin, killing 243. I am not sure whether this was the only direct Japanese attack on Australia, but readers can fill us in.  On February 19, 1949, just ten months before Professor Ceiling Cat was born of a virgin, Ezra Pound was awarded the first Bollingen Prize in poetry. At the time he was confined in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., assumed to be mentally ill as well as a traitor. Both accusations are partly true, but he was also a great poet. Here’s his mug shot when captured by the U.S. Army:

On this day in 1963, Betty Friedan’s pathbreaking book, The Feminine Mystiquewas published, launching second-wave feminism in America. The book grew out of Friedan’s survey of her classmates at Smith College, finding that many of them were dissatisfied with their post-college lives. Finally, on February 19, 2002, the Mars Odyssey space probe began mapping the surface of the red planet. It’s still orbiting Mars and sending back data.

Notables born on this day include David Garrick (1717), Svante Arrhenius (1859), Carson McCullers (1917), Lee Marvin (1924), Smokey Robinson (1940), Will Provine (1942), Karen Silkwood (1946), Amy Tan (1952), and Seal (1963, real name Henry Olusegun Adeola Samuel).

Those who joined the Choir Invisible on February 19 include Ernst Mach (1916), André Gide (1951), Knut Hamsun (1952), Leo Rosten (1997), Stanley Kramer (2001), and Umberto Eco (2016).

And just yesterday, George Mendonsa died, a veteran of World War II. He’s famous for being the sailor in this iconic picture, celebrating the end of the war with Japan in Times Square, New York City. The jubilant sailor kissed a woman without her consent, and would be court-martialed today.  The date: August 14, 1945. The photographer: Alfred Eisenstadt. For many years after the photo was published in Life magazine, the sailor and woman in uniform (a dental nurse, it turned out, and it was her 21st birthday) were unidentified. Historians figured it out. . .

From Rare Historical Photos:

Decades later the unknown couple was identified as the American sailor George Mendonsa and nurse Greta Zimmer Friedman. Greta Friedman was 21 years old on August 14, 1945. After reporting to work at a dentist’s office, she heard the news: Japan had surrendered, and World War II was coming to an end. She wandered into Times Square when a passing sailor locked her in an unexpected embrace. “I did not see him approaching, and before I know it I was in this vice grip,” she told CBS news in a 2012 interview. “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed. That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me”.

The kisser was the 22-year-old George Mendonsa of Newport, Rhode Island. He was on leave from the USS The Sullivans (DD-537) and was watching a movie with his future wife, Rita [JAC: !!!!], at Radio City Music Hall when the doors opened and people started screaming the war was over. George and Rita joined the partying on the street, but when they could not get into the packed bars decided to walk down the street. It was then that George saw a woman in a white dress walk by and took her into his arms and kissed her, “I had quite a few drinks that day and I considered her one of the troops—she was a nurse”.

Friedman died at age 92 on September 8, 2016, in Richmond, Virginia. She is buried beside her husband, infantryman Mischa Elliott Friedman, at Arlington National Cemetery.

Here’s Mendonsa, deceased yesterday) with his Photo of Fame:

Credit: Connie Grosch/Providence Journal via AP.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is. . . well, let Malgorzata explain: “She is looking to the west (geographically), checking whether everything is in order. But she cannot resist the temptation to show off: ‘Look, I know the world’s literature!'”

A: What are you observing so intently?
Hili: It seems that all is quiet on the Western Front.
In Polish:
Ja; Czemu się tak przyglądasz?
Hili: Wygląda na to, że na zachodzie bez zmian.

A picture from reader Merilee:

And one from reader Moto:

A tweet I found showing a stupendous pass in the NBA All-Star game on Sunday.

From Gethyn, who along with his partner Laurie has just become the staff of two black kittens. Here’s a black allotment cat in Birmingham objecting to the city’s plans:

From reader Barry, who says he’s impressed because “a dog figured out two things”:

I guess “gender reveal” parties are a thing now, and reader Nilou found a particularly impressive one:

From Heather Hastie, a newborn kakapo chick. This thing is unrecognizable as a parrot!

Tweets from Matthew.  Thanks to Neil for this first one, which I can’t resist out of self-aggrandizement:

A Cambridge University physicist has a Senior Moment:

The impressive results of kin selection in H. sapiens:

Tweets from Grania. The first one is hilarious: an autotuned cat! This gets the Tweet of the Week Award. Needless to say, turn the sound up.

A brain-dump from our “President” about dogs, transcribed and tweeted by the Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star:

Grania loves those bodega cats; this one is apparently on a bread and water diet:

Mom triggered by anatomically correct toy lion with a willy

I can’t brain today, and have to go downtown, so this is what you get!

This story, from, is pretty funny, and I’m not quite sure why this mother is shocked. Click on the screenshot:

An excerpt and some photos from the piece:

Tanya Husnu, 33, was shocked after her daughter Aylah, three, ran up to her and asked her about the ‘willy’ on the doll.

She had bought it from a Kmart store in Melbourne, Australia, for her son Hakan, four, who then showed it to his sister and twin brother Osman.

Mum-of-five Mrs Husnu immediately looked at the toy and discovered it did indeed have a depiction of male genitalia hidden under the tail.

The other two toys she bought on February 8 for Osman and Aylah did not have the same. Mrs Husnu, a professional blogger from Melton, said: ‘We were planning a trip to the zoo and I thought it would be really great if the kids could take some animal toys with them on the day.

Here they are with their animals: an elephant, a hippo, and a male lion. We don’t know the genders of the first two, but that lion is either a biological male or a trangender male who’s had hormones and surgery, for it has a mane (and a willy).

There’s more!

 ‘We went into Kmart and my three youngest picked out their own toys. They were all really happy with them.

‘Then one of the twins turned the lion around, and my daughter yelled out ‘look mum, the lion’s got a willy’ and they all started laughing.

‘I thought it was really inappropriate. In this day and age, it’s not acceptable to have things like that on children’s toys. ‘I buy a lot of toys, and my house is full of toys. But I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s so stupid and just plain weird.’

Yes, for we all recognize that although Barbie has breasts, neither she nor Ken have genitalia. I know of no dolls that have genitalia, nor stuffed animals, either. But I think it’s time to change that, for this lion is awesome:

Is this accurate in size and conformation? Here’s the model; you be the judge:


Another picture from the story:

To be fair to Mrs. Husnu, in the end she thought it was “hilarious,” but she remains censorious.

‘My kids thought it was hilarious though. At the zoo, they kept lifting up the tail and showing strangers walking past the lion’s bits as they walked past and yelling out “willy!”. It was so embarrassing.’

Mrs Husnu said she wanted Kmart to stop selling the toy, which was aimed at kids older than three, because she felt it  parents should decide when to tell their kids about genitalia.

Fair enough, but remember this: when Grania saw this piece, she responded, “I mean, does she think people’s pets should wear nappies?”

(Note to Yanks: “Nappies” are diapers in the UK.)

It seems to me that all dolls and animal replicas should have genitals. What is gained by leaving them off? What is lost is children’s understanding of natural history, animal morphology, and sexuality. (Thank goodness there are no toy hyenas!)