Readers’ wildlife

Reader Doris Fromage sent an email titled “Proposed honorary cats,” adding that “I know this is too long for your site.” I’m pondering the first bit (plants as honorary cats?), but she’s wrong about the second. Her notes are indented:

. . . in particular, white pitcher plants (Sarracenia leucophylla). I grow them for flying insect pest control, as we’re out in the country and properties around us have livestock.  Note: We experience virtually no flies or mosquitoes.  Here are some of my planters – I have over a dozen, with other carnivorous plants as well, but the white pitchers are really the stars:


I started with the one plant, but white pitchers are *quite* vigorous. If you lift the cap and look inside, you’ll often see doomed struggling individuals:
That’s a honeybee, possibly Apis mellifera.  We have a wild hive on our farm, which is good because we have fruit trees that need pollination.  My neighbor says they’re Africanized, but I’ve seen nothing to lead me to that conclusion after much interaction with them.
Of course the Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula) and sundew are the stars of the carnivorous plant family, because they move!  You typically see the remains after the fly trap is done with its catch:
IMG_20150912_154254132_HDR_zps0aaeb98a (1)
But while a Venus fly trap can catch perhaps 3 individual insects tops before the trap is worn out, the white pitcher is more like the Doomsday Machine from the old Star Trek:
(^ Not my own work O_O)
I had thought that the insects wander into the pitcher, find the internal stiff downward-pointing hairs directing them ever further in and down, until they fall into some fluid in the bottom and are dissolved.  Here is an image that, if you enlarge, shows the inward-facing bristles inside the cap – they go all the way down:
While that may happen, the evidence suggests something far more sinister is actually going on – see dissected pitcher pics below:
A dying pitcher from previous season:
The inside – including a freed fly (Musca domestica):
It’s an absolute TRAIN WRECK!!  They kill EVERYTHING that wanders in – even if there’s no way to digest it to extract the nutrients!  NOTHING gets out! They’d eat YOU if they could fit you inside!!  Sometimes there is a loud buzzing from a pitcher, loud enough to be heard several feet away, from the desperate struggles of a housefly. Even in a very slender pitcher, you can see the silhouette of carnage:
IMG_20141025_103704506_zps56adb3c4 (1)

I couldn’t resist adding this photo of an overheated squirrel sent by reader Barbara Wilson. I hope it was okay!

Western Gray Squirrel on a wire when the temperature was headed over 100 degrees, weather we’re not used to in western Oregon.  Its fur slicked down for minimum insulation.  It was so still we wondered if it had died, but eventually it got up and slowly made its way toward where these wires run through tree branches.  It’s on the middle wire of the three on the electric poles.

Hot squirrel on a wire%2c Corvallis OR%2c 20 Aug 2016 %282%29

Monday: Hili dialogue (and Leon monologue)

It’s August 22, which, although the weather’s great, is entirely too close to fall for me. (Although I’m retired, like most academics I get nervous and anxious when “back to school time” approaches: years of conditioning have rewired my neurons). It’s Madras Day in India, celebrating the city now known as Chennai, and the one famous city in India where I’ve never been and would like to visit.

On this day in 1770, James Cook, landing on Possession Island, claimed the entire east coast of Australia for Britain. Ten years later he was dead, killed in Hawaii, and the two ships he’d commanded turned back to England. Notables born on this day include Claude Debussy (1862), Leni Riefenstahl (1902), and Ray Bradbury (1922). Those who died on this day include Huey P. Newton, cofounder of the Black Panther Party, murdered in Oakland in 1989. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili has gone upstairs to snooze in the empty apartment where the lodgers used to live.

A: So you’re hiding here!
Hili: Yes, I need some peace and quiet.
P1040677 (1)
In Polish:
Ja: Tu się schowałaś?
Hili: Tak, potrzebuję trochę spokoju i samotności.

In the south of Poland, Leon is still hiking with his staff, and after a hard day on the trail, he’s demanding specific noms:

Leon: Give me Sheba with duck and something to drink.


And out in the wilds of Winnipeg, Gus tries to roam as freely as he can given his harness (required by city law). He often gets tangled.


Some Lagniappe: a morning cartoon from the Bizarro strip by Dan Piraro, contributed by alert reader Susan Heller:


Canadian lynx baked on catnip

Reader Christopher M. called my attention to this video, apparently showing a TAME CANADA LYNX (Lynx canadensis) named Max. The YouTube note says this:

I received a mighty large heavy-duty catnip pillow from Mountain Weaver of Averill Park, NY. I know Max loves catnip but he destroys his toys very quickly. I believe this one is going to last!

Look at his huge paws! Hear his mighty purr! Is there any doubt that this animal is showing the classic “catnip reaction”?

Content note: do not try this at home.

Sean Carroll on free will

Yes, I know some of you are thinking “Oh, no—not another post on free will!” Well, if you’re one of those, you know what to do: just don’t read any further. I write about what interests me; and the free will debate, which is a rare nexus of of science, religion, and philosophy, is interesting. Plus I’m finishing up Sean Carroll’s very nice book, The Big Picture, and have just read his short chapter on the free will issue.

Sean is a compatibilist: someone who’s a determinist but still thinks that we should retain some conception of free will. In other words, he’s with me on the view that, in a given situation, we could not have “chosen” other than we did, for the laws of physics are either deterministic or probabilistic, and the quantum-mechanical “probabilistic” part doesn’t give us any “freedom of will.” Further, Sean is adamant that libertarian free will is not on the table, for it violates the laws of physics.

To his credit, Sean doesn’t try to offer up an alternative definition of free will like some compatibilists do, but merely says that using the language of “choice” is a useful convention, even if it’s not true that we “could have decided otherwise”. We talk about making such free choices, we feel like we make them, and we (I’m included here) use language implying that we could have chosen otherwise. As Sean says, “We attribute reality to our ability to make choices because thinking that way provides the best description we know of for the human-scale world.”  This is in fact the theme of his book: if talking about “higher order” behaviors beyond the behavior of particles—things like consciousness or pain—is a useful convention, and helps us communicate or understand things better, than it’s okay—so long as we keep in mind that such behaviors result from the underlying physics.

I am not going to fight about that. I use the language of choice, and I don’t suggest eliminating it (the alternative is awkward, as I’ve discovered when trying to be scientifically accurate); but I do insist that we always remember that we could not have done otherwise, and I insist that because its ramifications for human behavior are profound, we must always keep fundamental determinism in mind. (Some readers disagree on these ramifications of determinism, but Sean agrees that they are important.)

But there’s an important way that higher level talk about free will differs from higher level talk about emotions like love. Our feeling of volition, like our feeling of love, ultimately rests on neuronal, biochemical, and physical processes that adhere to the laws of physics. And we are better able to communicate by talking about “love” and “choice” than by trying to parse that language down to the level of leptons. (In fact, you could lose your lover if you talk that way!) But there’s a difference. Knowing that love rests on chemistry (once a metaphor, now a reality) doesn’t have any clear or important implications for society.

That’s not true for free will, for the difference between pure determinism and most people’s conceptions of free will (a libertarian one) has huge implications for society. Sean is correct when he says “Where the issue [the debate between compatibilists and incompatibilists] becomes more than merely academic is when we confront the notions of blame and responsibility.”

That’s why it’s not that important to keep reminding people that their feeling of love is a reflection of their experiences and genes mediated through the laws of physics, but why it IS important to keep reminding people that their feeling of agency is just a feeling, and doesn’t mean that in a given situation we could have chosen otherwise. It’s important to let them know that their behavior feel like they had agency, but really didn’t.

So, after this, there are two points I want to make about Sean’s chapter 44: “Freedom To Choose.” The first is simply a paragraph that I don’t understand, and perhaps readers can clarify. It’s this one (pp. 380-381):

One popular definition of free will is “the ability to have acted differently.” In a world governed by impersonal laws, one can argue that there is no such ability. Given the quantum state of the elementary particles that make up me and my environment, the future is governed by the laws of physics. But in the real world, we are not given that quantum state. We have incomplete information; we know about the rough configuration of our bodies and we have some idea of our mental states. Given only that incomplete information—the information we actually have—it’s completely conceivable that we could have acted differently.

I don’t get that paragraph at all. Lack of information simply means we cannot perfectly predict how we or anybody else will do, but it doesn’t say that what we’ll do isn’t determined in advance by physical laws. Unpredictability does not undermine determinism. And therefore, if you realize that, I don’t know how you can assert that “it’s completely conceivable that we could have acted differently.” It’s surely not conceivable to either Sean or me, or anybody who’s a determinist! Maybe we FEEL we could have acted differently, but what is “conceivable” is what we can conceive of with our existing knowledge. To me this means that it’s inconceivable that we could have acted differently. Am I missing a point here?

My other question is about Sean’s example of how our conventional human-level “ability to make choices” can be undermined by physical circumstances. He uses an example of a patient who had a brain tumor that changed his personality, causing him to download child pornography. (The “disease” was Klüver-Bucy syndrome, which causes hypersexuality). The patient was arrested, and, though a neurosurgeon testified that the patient was “not in control of his actions—he lacked free will”, he was convicted anyway.

What I would have added to this is that nobody who downloads child pornography is in control of his actions, at least in the sense that they could have avoided downloading the pornography. I’m sure Sean would agree. Whether you have a brain tumor, some other cause of hypersexuality, were abused yourself as a child, were mentally ill in a way with no clear physical diagnosis, or simply have been resistant to social pressures to avoid that kind of stuff—all of this is determined by your genes and your environment. How you treat someone convicted of that crime will differ depending on those causes, but a tumor takes away no more “freedom” than does the nexus of your genes and environmental experience.

And, to give him credit again, Sean recognizes this. But at the end he still seems to think that there’s a substantive difference between a tumor that affects your neurology or other things that affect your neurology, even if both cause you to seek out child pornography. Here’s what he says on p. 384:

To the extent that neuroscience becomes better and better at predicting what we will do without reference to our personal volition, it will be less and less appropriate to treat people as freely acting agents. Predestination will become part of our real world.

It doesn’t seem likely, however. Most people do maintain a certain degree of volition and autonomy, not to mention a complexity of cognitive functioning that makes predicting their future actions infeasible in practice.

But what does predictability have to do with this? We already know that people are not freely acting agents in the sense that they are free from deterministic control by their brains. We already know that people are predestined. (I’m not sure what Sean means by “a certain degree of volition and autonomy,” unless he means something like “compelled not by a brain tumor, but by other aspects of their neurology.”) And we shouldn’t treat anyone as freely acting agents.

I’ve already given my solution to this issue. We recognize that, at bottom, nobody could have done otherwise. If they are accused of something that society deems to be a crime, you find out if they really did commit that crime. If they’re found guilty, then a group of experts—scientists, psychologists, sociologists criminologists, etc.—determine what the “punishment” should be based on the person’s history (a brain tumor would mandate an operation, for instance), malleability to persuasion, likelihood of recidivism, danger to society, and deterrent effects. None of that needs the assumption that someone is a “freely acting agent.”

I know many of you will disagree on that, or on the ramifications of determinism for our punishment and reward system. But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that Sean agrees with me on this: if science shows the way our behaviors are determined, that knowledge should affect the way we punish and reward people.


Naughty Niqabis on the Olympics

Eiynah (“Nice Mangos”) is an ex-Muslim and graphic artist (twitter feed here, podcasts here, website here, click “continue”), who occasionally produces a series called “Naughty Niqabis”. (I’ve written about Eiynah previously.) Her strip resembles Jesus and Mo, but features just two women in niqabs (and burquas). Here’s the latest strip, which deals with the overly adulated Muslim-American fencer, Ibthjad Muhammad.

Like all Muslim reformers, Eiynah has been repeatedly threatened, and so keeps her real identity under wraps. After all, producing cartoons like the above is a capital offense to some Islamists.

More mendacity and sleaze from the Clintons

The William J. Clinton Foundation, a charitable group, was started in 2001, and, given Bill’s charisma and connections, immediately began pulling in the dosh. In 2013 it was renamed the “Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation”; Chelsea and Bill were and are on the board of directors, as was Hillary herself from 2013—after resigning as Secretary of State—until 2015, when she began her Presidential campaign. But the Foundation continued to accumulate money from 2001 until now, despite Hillary’s tenure as both U.S. Senator and Secretary of State during that period.

There’s no denying that the Foundation does good things despite its unusual structure (it doesn’t accept grants but uses its own staff, in conjunction with existing organizations, to dispense money). Among other things, it’s fought AIDS and malaria, worked to bring public awareness of climate change, helped bring clean water to African villages, and promoted increased opportunity for women. To these ends it’s taken in about two billion dollars.

The problem is not that it misuses its money, but that it takes huge sums of money from foreign donors, corporations, and wealthy people, some of whose policies are questionable or odious. This has lead to serious questions about conflicts of interest as well as the breaking of promises by the Clintons about the Foundation’s transparency. The critics aren’t just Republicans, either, but mainstream liberal organs like the New York Times, New York Magazine, as well as the American people in general: a poll in June showed that 72% of all voters “said that it bothered them either a lot or a little that the Clinton Foundation took money from foreign countries while Mrs. Clinton was Secretary of State.”

The New York Times points out some of the conflicts:

The Clinton Foundation has accepted tens of millions of dollars from countries that the State Department — before, during and after Mrs. Clinton’s time as secretary — criticized for their records on sex discrimination and other human-rights issues. The countries include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Brunei and Algeria.

Saudi Arabia has been a particularly generous benefactor. The kingdom gave between $10 million and $25 million to the Clinton Foundation. (Donations are typically reported in broad ranges, not specific amounts.) At least $1 million more was donated by Friends of Saudi Arabia, which was co-founded by a Saudi prince.

. . . as does the Washington Post:

The [Washington Post’s] analysis, which examined donor lists posted on the foundation’s website, found that 53 percent of the donors who have given $1 million or more to the charity are corporations or foreign citizens, groups or governments. The list includes the governments of Saudi Arabia and Australia, the British bank Barclay’s, and major U.S. companies such as Coca-Cola and ExxonMobil.

The Times article gives several examples of possible conflicts of interest; here’s one:

A deal involving the sale of American uranium holdings to a Russian state-owned enterprise was another example of the foundation intersecting with Mrs. Clinton’s official role in the Obama administration. Her State Department was among the agencies that signed off on the deal, which involved major Clinton charitable backers from Canada.

There was no evidence that Mrs. Clinton had exerted influence over the deal, but the timing of the transaction and the donations raised questions about whether the donors had received favorable handling.

Of course the Clintons deny that favorable treatment is given to any donors, as does everyone with conflict-of-interest issues; but how do we know? Ask yourself this: Why on earth would countries like Saudi Arabia and large corporations like ExxonMobil give so much money to the Clinton Foundation? Is it their charitable impulses? If so, why not give the money directly to charities instead of funneling it through the Clintons? A reasonable conclusion is that although there may be no explicit tit for tat going on, the foundations and countries, perhaps anticipating a Hillary Clinton presidency, know that there’s the possibility their donations could gain them favorable treatment, even if it’s not explicit.

This in fact is precisely why politicians in office put their assets in blind trusts: it is the appearance of a conflict of interest that is damaging, not just the conflict itself. We have to be able to trust our politicians to make decisions unsullied by self-interest, which includes interest in getting more dosh for your family foundation. Yet the Clinton Foundation kept raking in the dough, even when Hillary was in office. Yes, what she did was largely legal, but did not adhere to the spirit of the law.

And, in fact, the Clintons didn’t abide by some of the promises they made about how the Clinton Foundation would be run.  This is from Wikipedia:

In March 2015, Reuters reported that the Clinton Foundation had broken its promise to publish all of its donors, as well as its promise to let the State Department review all of its donations from foreign governments. In April 2015, the New York Times reported that when Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, the State Department had approved a deal to sell American uranium to a Russian state-owned enterprise Uranium One whose chairman had donated to the Clinton Foundation, and that Clinton had broken her promise to publicly identify such donations. The State Department “was one of nine government agencies, not to mention independent federal and state nuclear regulators, that had to sign off on the deal.” notes that there is “no evidence” that the donations influenced Clinton’s official actions or that she was involved in the State Department’s decision to approve the deal and PolitiFact concluded that any “suggestion of a quid pro quo is unsubstantiated.”
And from the Wall Street Journal, in a hard-hitting piece called “Now the Clintons tell us“.

By now the corporate and foreign cash has already been delivered, in anticipation that Hillary Clinton could become the next President. So now it’s the better part of political prudence to claim the ethical high ground.

If you choose to believe or have a short memory. Readers may recall that the foundation promised the White House when Mrs. Clinton became Secretary of State that the foundation would restrict foreign donations and get approval from the State Department.

It turned out the foundation violated that pledge, specifically when accepting $500,000 from Algeria. The foundation also agreed to disclose donor names but failed to do so for more than 1,000 foreign donors until the failure was exposed by press reports.

So, the Clintons finally tried to do the right thing; or rather, they did what they thought would look like the right thing, but still isn’t the right thing. As CNN reports, on Friday Bill Clinton announced that the Clinton Foundation would not accept any more corporate or foreign donations if Hillary wins the Presidency. (Of course, they’ll still be taking that money until November 8!). Further, Bill would leave the board of directors.  There was no announcement, however, that Chelsea—their daughter, for crying out loud—would also leave the board of directors should her mother become President. And of course private individuals would still be able to give tons of money to the Foundation while Hillary is President and Bill is the First Man. More conflict of interest problems!

The question is this: why are they doing this only now, when all along Hillary knew, as did almost everyone else, that she was going to make a run for the Presidency. Why would they continue to accept corporate and foreign money while Hillary was a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State? If it’s wrong now to do so, why wasn’t it wrong then? Answer: it was.

The Wall Street Journal puts the issue plainly (they, are, of course, a Republican paper):

Now they tell us.

If such fund-raising poses a problem when she’s President, why didn’t it when she was Secretary of State or while she is running for President? The answer is that it did and does, and they know it, but the foundation was too important to their political futures to give it up until the dynastic couple were headed back to the Oval Office. Now that Hillary is running ahead of Donald Trump, Bill can graciously accept new restrictions on their pay-to-play politics.

Bill must be having a good laugh over this one. The foundation served for years as a conduit for corporate and foreign cash to burnish the Clinton image, pay for their travel expenses for speeches and foreign trips, and employ their coterie in between campaigns or government gigs. Donors could give as much as they wanted because the foundation is a “charity.”

By now the corporate and foreign cash has already been delivered, in anticipation that Hillary Clinton could become the next President. So now it’s the better part of political prudence to claim the ethical high ground.

. . . Far from offering some new clean ethical slate, this latest foundation gambit ought to be a warning about a third Clinton term. Protected by Democrats and a press corps desperate to beat Donald Trump, the Clintons really do think they can get away with anything.

So there we have it, and I have to agree with the WSJ. This latest announcement only confirms the irredeemably shady nature of the Clintons, and their skirting or flouting of the rules in their view that they’re above the law—they’re the Clintons, Jake! And no, you can’t argue that all politicians are shady and duplicitous like the Clintons. This is not business as usual. Obama, for one thing, has never been plagued by the recurring scandals that dog the Clintons.

Yes, I’ll still be voting for Hillary in November; the alternative is too awful to even contemplate. But I won’t be voting happily, and the prospect of Hillary as the first woman president doesn’t make me much more cheerful. Why couldn’t it have been Elizabeth Warren? And I’ll predict this, too: Hillary’s mendacity and sense of entitlement is so deeply ingrained that, should she be elected, I can’t see her as a great President. Sure, she’ll do better than Tr*mp, and she may even get a Democratic Senate to help bring the Supreme Court back on track. But I still predict a failed presidency. I hope I’m wrong.

In the meantime, the right thing to do is to shut the Clinton Foundation down now, and reopen it only after Hillary’s terms—should she win—are over. But of course the Clintons won’t do that; they like the money and power too much. To paraphrase Casablanca, “Of all the candidates, in all the towns, in all of America, Hillary Clinton walks into our nomination.”

Readers’ wildlife photos

We have some diverse photos today, but the tank is running a little low, so please send your good wildlife photos.

First, a bittersweet wildlife story (and lovely photo) from reader Sylvain Duford:

This Red-legged Honeycreeper [Cyanerpes cyaneus] was flying around with his all-green female and they both hit a window pane. Unfortunately the female died half-hour later but this male was stunned and unable to fly for about 15 minutes but eventually he flew away. He rested on a nearby tree branch for about two hours waiting for his mate.
I had to protect them from the cat and it was a very humbling experience to hold this tiny and delicate but beautiful animal in my hand. Caressing his back gently seemed to calm him down as he was obviously very stressed. I hope the little guy is OK now.
I live in Panama where we have close to a thousand bird species, but I had actually never seen this one.

Sylvain Duford BlueColibri

Here are four snaps from from Phil Finnimore, who lives in Singapore, where I’ll be in late October/early November:

Some Australian wildlife for you. Kite, Koel, Pademelon and Whiptail wallaby.

Black-shouldered kiteElanus axillaris. Taken near Brunswick Heads in northern New South Wales.


Pacific koelEudynamys orientalis. Often called rain bird or storm bird. These are more often heard than seen, and this one is female, and sighted even less often. Taken in the back garden of my house in Ocean Shores, NSW.

Red-necked pademelonThylogale thetis. Taken at O’Reilly’s Rainforest Retreat, Gold Coast Hinterland, Queensland.

Whiptail wallaby. Also called Pretty-faced wallaby, Macropus parryi. Near O’Reilly’s Retreat, Gold Coast Hinterland. QLD.


And a lovely snake from reader Rick Longworth:
This was my first sighting of the eastern milk snake (Lampropeltis triangulum). Apparently a common species which has avoided me for a very long time. I photographed it as it passed through my driveway.  It is quite striking in pattern – spots, almost rings; and color – tan, black and reddish brown.
Rick Longworth
I was confused looking for info, since its cousin the western milk snake (Lampropeltis gentilis) has some striking differences. While it is harmless, it  has rings rather than spots and resembles the very poisonous coral snake. You’ve probably heard, “Red touches yellow, kills a fellow. Red touches black, friend of Jack”.  That’s what I’d call a strained bit of rhyme since most people are not Jack.  Anyway, the rings must be mimicry, intended to keep hands off.
JAC: Here’s a western milk snake from the Tucson Herpetological Society:
Here’s a video clip (30 sec) I shot with a Panasonic GH3:

Sunday: Hili dialogue (and Leon monologue)

It’s a very cool Sunday in Chicago (60° F or 16° C at sunrise, with rain prognosticated), and fall is coming on fast. It’s August 21, and it’s Ninoy Aquino Day in the Philippines, marking the assassination of Ferdinand Marcos’s political opponent in 1983—a killing that ultimately brought down Marcos and installed Ninoy’s wife, Cori Aquino, as President.

This is a big day in musical history, too, for it was on August 21, 1961 that Motown Records released what would become its first number one hit. It was by the Marvelettes, later covered by the Beatles. Can you guess the song? On this day in 1936, Wilt Chamberlain was born, one of the greatest basketball players of all time. Later in his career (he died at 63 of heart failure), he became famous for his sexual exploits, estimating that he’d slept with 10,000 women in his life. Notables who died on this day include Sheriff Buford Pusser (1974), whom I’ve put in just because I like his name. But he was a colorful character, and a television show and several movies were based on his life. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, we have another complicated Hili dialogue, which requires Malgozata to explain:

Explanation first:  “Sophism” in Polish is spelled “sofizm” and for Hili and Cyrus it is an inseparable part of their sofa [JAC: The words are similar in Polish.] Poland is now ruled (in a way deeply disapproved by both animals) by a party with the name “Prawo i Sprawiedliwość” (PiS) [JAC: That means “Law and Justice”.] So if there is sophism-sofa there must also be pisism-PiS.

Cyrus: Sophism is a great philosophy.
Hili: But it’s being driven out by pisism.

P1040703In Polish:
Cyrus: Sofizm to piękna filozofia.
Hili: Tak, ale wyparta przez pisizm.

Meanwhile, Leon is in Southern Poland enjoying another walking trip. He and his staff are staying in a quaint cottage:

Leon: I’ve found a place suitable for meditation.


And, out in Winnipeg, Gus is, well, doing his usual thing:


Can we please abandon the word “spiritual”?

I’m busy with my children’s book, and will be for a few days, because writing it is HARD. In fact, it’s about harder than any 1500 words I’ve ever written. I don’t have children, and know only that you shouldn’t condescend to them in books, and that the books should appeal to parents as well as their kids. So I’ve had to go to bookstores and read gazillions of children’s books, which has left me more confused than ever. They are very diverse. But I’ll say this: I have a newfound admiration for those who can write well for children.

But I digress. As my head is wrapped around India, cats, and mice, it’ll be hard to deal with anything substantive on this site for a few days. Bear with me; like Maru, I do my best.

But here’s one thing, which came from reader Steve S. who sent me a link this morning with the note “Not to ruin your day right off, and suspect you may have seen this. Note the comment from a fellow Chicagoan. Had to double check it wasn’t you.” The “ruining my day” bit was because Steve sent a link to a piece in The Nation about the oleaginous Krista Tippett, the National Public Radio host of “On Being”. (Three years ago, sensing a change in the winds, she changed the name from “Speaking of Faith”). If you’re a regular or semi-regular reader here, you’ll know I’m not a fan of Ms. Tippett, because, as I said about her previously, “She hasn’t met a religion she doesn’t love, is infatuated with ‘spirituality,’ uses a lot of words to say nothing in particular, and always seems on the verge of bursting into tears at the depth of her own insights.”

It turns out that Tippett has written a new book, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, whose title already sets my teeth grinding and kishkas roiling. And for some reason that I can’t fathom, I always recoil at the description of someone as “wise.” I’ll let the piece’s author, Michele Moses (!), describe the book’s contents:

Becoming Wise is Tippett’s “cartography of wisdom for the emerging world,” a world which she says is marked by the decline of organized religion and the rise of the Internet. The book is divided into five sections, each dedicated to one of the central theme’s five components—Words, Flesh, Love, Faith, and Hope. The book consists primarily of excerpted interviews from the show, with brief sections of exposition, and a few autobiographical stories. It effectively synthesizes her ideas and seamlessly carries her conversational tone into print. Becoming Wise doesn’t offer anything new, but then, it’s not really meant to.

Offers nothing new and doesn’t try to? Then why on earth should we read it? And if you read the book’s blurb on Amazon, you’ll see that it certainly does intend to offer something new: “a master class in living, curated by Tippett and accompanied by a delightfully ecumenical dream team of teaching faculty.” In fact, the only book worth reading that doesn’t offer anything new is a dictionary.

If you’ve had the misfortune to listen to Tippett on NPR, you’ll see that she’s really big on “spirituality,” which has replaced religion as her main topic of conversation. She always asks guests about their spirituality, and returns to it when the conversation takes a different turn. But what is spirituality? I looked up both “spiritual” and “spirituality” in the Oxford English Dictionary (a book worth reading that does offer something new: first and historical usages). And I found this: you have to go pretty deep down in the definitions before you get one that doesn’t have religious overtones or includes the word “ecclesiastical.

For example, here’s “spiritual”. Yes, it could include “higher moral qualities”, though they’re usually religious. And it could refer to non-material things, which must include mathematics, physics, and philosophy.


 1). a. Of or relating to, affecting or concerning, the spirit or higher moral qualities, esp. as regarded in a religious aspect. (Freq. in express or implied distinction to bodily, corporal, or temporal.)

       d. Of transcendent beauty or charm

 4.) a. Of or relating to, consisting of, spirit, regarded in either a religious or intellectual aspect; of the nature of a spirit or incorporeal supernatural essence; immaterial.

It gets worse with “spirituality,” as you have to get to the third definition before religion isn’t mentioned:


3. a. The quality or condition of being spiritual; attachment to or regard for things of the spirit as opposed to material or worldly interests.

I haven’t really heard Tippett define what she means by “spirituality”, but let’s be honest: for most people it connotes either religion or the numinous, things “not material or worldly” as in the definition above. But if we adhere to that definition of spirituality, then what do we mean when we say we or others are “spiritual”? Michele Moses gives a hint:

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans increased from 15.3 to 19.6 percent between 2007 and 2012. And more than a third of this group identified themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” These people access spiritual life in an enormous range of ways: through yoga, meditation, music, poetry, community service, psychedelic drugs, the outdoors, and more.

But some of these things are worldly, like community service and the outdoors! What do these things have in common that could be called spiritual? It is simply that these activities promote emotional well-being rather than material gain. And if that’s the case, then other things become spiritual, too: reading books and newspapers, taking a walk, having sex, watching movies, and (often) doing science. In fact, who isn’t spiritual in this respect? Yet pollsters and other regularly not only fail to define spirituality, but imply that it’s somehow an offshoot of religion. And that’s why we should get rid of the word—so we don’t get lumped in with religionists.

In fact, when Tippett tries to discuss spirituality with scientists, she can get into trouble. We like precision in language, and the term “spirituality” is about as precise as compatibilist’s “free will.” Moses describes one such run-in:

Faith, for Tippett, entails no particular set of convictions or beliefs. Instead, it’s a kind of curiosity—a willingness to stand amidst the mysteries of life without demanding certainty. In whom or what faith is placed—that’s incidental. It’s the process of investigation that matters. “Spiritual life is a way of dwelling with perplexity,” she writes.

Well, if that’s the case, science is spirituality embodied, for it’s the formalization of curiosity. Even religious faith isn’t nearly as imbued with curiosity as Tippett’s conception of faith. But it’s somehow wrong to equate the scientific process with sprituality. Moses continues:

Still, even this broad definition of faith can cause trouble. Becoming Wise contains several conversations with cosmologists and physicists; in their “reverence for wonder and the possibility of never-ending discovery,” Tippett sees a kind of spirituality. This can occasionally cause her and her guests to disagree. When the theoretical physicist Brian Greene describes the power of quantum mechanics to map the universe’s unseen truths—“How can you not be in awe of that? And how can you not be convinced that that is revealing some deep truth about reality?”—Tippett asks, with obvious hopefulness, about the aspects of life (love, consciousness) that “can’t be measured.” Greene, a materialist, delivers the bad news that even love is measurable: It comes down to “some physical process playing out inside this messy grey blob inside of our heads.” To Greene, the ultimate nature of reality may be unknown, but it is not unknowable.

So if you conceive of spirituality, as I would, as “emotionality or wonder”, then of course those remain emergent properties of molecules. Emotion and wonder are still real—Sean Carroll makes a good case for this in The Big Picture—but they’re not separate from the material, and must be consistent with the laws of physics, even if they give us a way of talking about things that is useful and convenient.

Nevertheless, Tippett, who desperately and constantly searches for nonmaterial aspects of human life (I truly believe she’s a dualist), manages to finesse even this contretemps with Greene. As Moses notes,

There are limits, in short, even to Tippett’s radically open definition of faith. And as a fan, it can be jarring to hear her bump up against them. But even in the same breath, she succeeds in other ways. She might not share Greene’s worldview [JAC: I don’t think she does, as I don’t see her as a big advocate of naturalism] but she finds common ground with him in the experience of wonder; in the end, they agree that his work is like poetry in its reverence for exploration. “Science deserves to be right smack in the center of culture, because it is our quest to understand who we are and how we fit into the big picture,” says Greene. With inspiring regularity, On Beingcaptures moments when people with differing beliefs manage to find meaning together.

Well, pardon my French, but that’s screwed up. Science is not at all like poetry. Science finds truth (which can make us emotional); poetry recounts one human’s emotional reactions, and is not a way of finding truth about the cosmos.

Greene is right, of course—science should be a foundation of any educated person’s worldview—but calling curiosity about the world “spiritual”, as Tippett wants to do, is simply a misuse of language. One might as well call a police detective solving a crime as having a “spiritual experience.” For if anything is a “worldly concern”, it’s the desire to find out how the world works—the purview of science and empiricism.

So let me suggest one word to replace the noun “spirituality” for us atheists—a word that doesn’t toe the line of the numinous:


Of course Tippett wouldn’t be able to dine out on that one. Imagine if her show were called “On emotionality”!

Replacing “spirituality” with “emotionality” comports, I think, with how we nonbelievers conceive of our “nonmaterialism”. The practice of science, and the curiosity that drives it, isn’t emotional: looking for the laws of physics isn’t an emotional experience. Having wonder about the laws of physics is an emotional experience.  Eating is not an emotional experience; watching a movie can be.  Enjoying a hike in the mountains is an emotional experience. For some people sex is fraught with emotionality, for others it’s recreational.

Instead of allowing people like Tippett to corral nonbelievers together with religionists by characterizing us all as “spiritual,” let’s insist that we don’t know what that term means—but we do know what “emotionality” means.  I believe it was Richard Dawkins who pointed out the use of “spirituality” as a lasso by faitheists to put us into the herd of believers. We should adamantly refuse to let ourselves be so herded. When someone asks you if you’re “spiritual,” ask them to define the term. If they mean anything other than “emotionality” or “wonder”, it’s likely to be woo. If they mean emotionality and wonder, then let’s just use those words.

Of course I welcome commentary below. You can, for instance, say we should retain the use of “spiritual”, and give a definition, or give a substitute word as I have. Or say anything you want on the topic.


Evolution 2016: Food

by Greg Mayer

After Jerry noted that the world’s most expensive BBQ is dry-aged and in New York City, and that “true Texans wouldn’t have anything to do with” it, I thought it might be a good time to feature Texas BBQ, which I enjoyed at Iron Works BBQ in Austin while at the Evolution 2016 meetings earlier this summer.

Iron Works is in an old iron works at the corner of Red River and Cesar Chavez Streets, conveniently located just down the block from the convention center where the meetings were held. It was recommended by locals, and so I went with a couple of colleagues. You order and pick up your main course at a counter window, grabbing drinks out of an open ice chest and heading to the check out, and then get to sit down.

One of my colleagues had the pulled pork, with which she had a Shiner IPA (Shiner being a brewery to the southeast of Austin).


My other colleague had the sampler plate– brisket, ribs, sausage, and maybe you can spot some other sort of BBQ in there. (New category of WEIT post: Spot the meat!)

I had the sausage, with an added large pickle. For sides I had creamed corn– delicious, and you don’t often see it these days– and beans– also delicious. But they didn’t have my two favorite Southern sides: okra and fried pickles. There may well be regional variations in side preference and availability, which as a northerner, I am not accustomed to.


Like all good BBQ joints, there was a roll of paper towels at the table.


I went back another time with another colleague, this time enjoying the brisket, with potato salad and mac and cheese as my sides. I washed it down with a Big Red, a Texas-made soda of the cream soda/Dr. Pepper class.


For a more upper crust brunch, a colleague and I went to a classier joint, with bloody marys


and beignets with a cream sauce among the comestibles. Beignets are a New Orleans specialty, which I guess have migrated west to Texas.


Austin is famed for its musical nightlife, and there were two areas I got to see.


Dead robot soldiers.

The first was the Rainey Street District, which is an older residential neighborhood, now with condos, with the remaining low frame houses (and their lawns) converted into bars. It attracted mostly the young urban professional crowd. These two signs were in the neighborhood (the pictures obviously taken in daylight). I don’t know what the second one means, but it has a cat, so I liked it.

The other nightlife area was 6th Street, which seemed the more traditional honky-tonks-with-live-bands kind of a place I was expecting. This is Darwin’s Pub, which of course was a must see for visiting evolutionary biologists. My vision was not as blurry as the photo– it’s hard to get a decent picture in a darkened pub.


And one night at the street corner bar at the aptly named Corner, we discovered it was a colleague’s birthday, and the waitress managed to rustle up a filled red velvet cupcake for her, which was on the house. After singing Happy Birthday, we devoured it.






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