Readers’ wildlife photographs

Everyone loves mimicry (well, don’t you?), so we can all appreciate the photos sent by Tony Eales from Australia (his captions indented). Mimicry is not only an outstanding example of how well natural selection can mold the shape (and behavior and pheromones) of unrelated species, but also served as some of the first evidence for natural selection. After all, if you’re a creationist, there’s no obvious reason why God would create a tasty species to resemble one that is distasteful and dangerous.  Check out the ant-mimicking spider in the fourth picture!

I know you like mimicry and I’ve been getting into insect photography of late and have found a few nice examples of mimicry

First a couple of ant mimics [and an ant]

This is a beetle, probably of the family Anthicidae, but I haven’t traced it further than that:

1Ant mimic beetle

This is a fly, Parapalaeosepsis plebeia:

2Parapalaeosepsis plebeia

Here’s a larger photo from Brisbane Insects:


And this is a common sort of ant around here, often called Golden Bum or Gold Tail but, it’s a Polyrhachis sp.

3Polyrhachis ant

Here is a species of jumping spider that imitates these ants so well it’s quite extraordinary, right down to waving their front pair of legs like antennae. This can’t be to fool the ants as they are nearly blind and work off chemical cues but probably to fool parasitic wasps which commonly catch spiders to feed their flesh-eating larvae.

4Myrmarachne sp

Here is a species of wasp, probably Callibracon sp.:

5Callibracon sp

JAC: Here’s a wasp in the same genus from Brisbane Insects:


And here are two photos of a species of bug that imitates these wasps to a t—Rayieria basifer:

6Rayieria basifer1

7Rayieria basifer2

And another photo of the Batesian mimic from Insects of Tas:


Wednesday: Hili dialogue (and Leon lagniappe)

It is Wednesday, May 25, and perhaps the rains predicted for today won’t materialize, with a chance of rain of only 15% and a high temperature of 25ºC (77ºC).

On this day in 1878, the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta H.M.S. Pinafore opened in London. In 1895, Oscar Wilde was convicted of  “committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons” (homosexuality) and given two years of hard labor, which wrecked his health. He died at 46, impoverished and forgotten, three years later in Paris. On May 25, 1925, John Scopes was indicted in Dayton Tennessee for teaching that humans had evolved, and, in 1977 Stars Wars opened in American theaters.

Those born on this day included Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803), and those who died on this day included two well known photographers, Robert Capa (1954), a war photographer who stepped on a mine in Indochina, and Mary Ellen Mark (2015), famous for her photographs of the odd and marginalized. Here’s one:


Ram Prakash Singh with his elephant Shyama, Great Golden Circus, Ahmedabad, India, 1990 Photography: Mary Ellen Mark

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, the cherries are coming along nicely (harvest predicted for late July), and Hili is trying to help. You can see a few baby cherries in the photo below.
A: How is it coming along?
Hili: So far so good. But it’s time to start meowing for rain.
In Polish:
Ja: No jak?
Hili: Jak dotąd dobrze, ale trzeba zacząć miauczenie o deszcz.

Over in Wroclawek, Leon contemplates his coming noms:

Leon: I wonder what will be for dinner, duck or tuna.


And we have a new cartoon on epigenetics and religion from reader @michdevilish:


You won’t believe how much food this hamster can store!

This cute video is also scientifically interesting, as it shows an X-ray of a nomming hamster, and the extent of those cheek pouches. The Daily Mirror gives its source:

X-ray footage of a hamster stuffing its cheeks has revealed how the animal’s food pouches extend all the way to its hips!

The film – shot by the BBC and narrated by David Tennant – shows a hamster stuffing nuts and chips into his cheek pouches to save for later.

The tiny animal eats like it has never eaten before – and may never again.

To keep the food fresh and dry, its mouth doesn’t release any saliva. The x-ray footage shows how the pouches extend all the way back to the animal’s hips.

Once the pouches are filled to the brim, the hamster waddles back to his den and disgorges his stash so that the food can be eaten later.

The clip comes from BBC show Pets- Wild at Heart, a two-part documentary from the team behind Penguins – Spy in the Huddle.

h/t: Diana MacPherson

Is “privilege” like Original Sin?

I direct your attention to a short piece on Allthink by James Lindsay and Peter Boghossian: “Privilege: The Left’s Original Sin“.  Their thesis is cute, and makes some sense: the Authoritarian Left’s notion of “privilege”, which establishes a hierarchy of victimhood, is analogous to religion’s Original Sin. You can read it in 5 minutes, but I’ll give two excerpts:

The concepts of Original Sin and privilege are identical except that they operate in different moral universes. In familiar religions, Original Sin is something you’re born with. It’s something you can’t escape. It’s something you can’t really do anything about – except be ashamed. It’s something you should confess and try to cleanse yourself of. It’s something that requires forgiveness, atonement, penitence, and work. It’s something, if you take it to heart, for which you will browbeat others.

For many contemporary left-situated activists, privilege occupies the same role in a religion of contemporary identity politics. There is no greater sin than having been born an able-bodied, straight, white male who identifies as a man but isn’t deeply sorry for this utterly unintentional state of affairs.

Everybody is a sinner; everybody is privileged; and both are the fall of Man. Both are the stain upon everyone who, by virtue of existing, falls short of moral perfection. Both are a kind of disease that threatens society. Neither can be escaped. Both must be abhorred and demand redemption from the guilty.

Lindsay and Boghossian are not saying that “privilege” is completely without merit—just that it substitutes, as do so many other notions in the Authoritarian Left, for the impetus to actually fix society:

Sin and privilege aren’t empty concepts, and they’re not exactly useless. They generate a particular kind of awareness and empathy that motivates certain kinds of behaviors seeking to avoid, minimize, and atone for them, but they’re effectively useless for solving any real problems. Wiser people focus more on the positive qualities they’d like to instill in others – temperance, self-control, generosity, fairness, even purity – rather than wallowing in the failures of miscreants and leaving it at that. Those adhering to the religion of identity politics (many of whom already reject the concept of religious sin) should learn from example and turn their attention to what matters, campaigning to create social, political, and economic systems that raise the underdog to genuine equality.

They point out one difference: that Original Sin, unlike privilege, can be expiated. And here’s another: you either have Original Sin or you don’t, but everybody except the single most disadvantaged person in society has some form of privilege. The most privileged, and thus the biggest sinners, are people like me: heatlhy white, cisgendered males.

A digression:  I was once told by a privileged cis-gendered white woman that all my academic success was due to my privilege. (She didn’t realize that hers was as well.) Well, that’s part of the story, of course, but there were a lot of factors involved beyond race and gender: a set of parents who valued learning, the fact that my Army dad was stationed near good schools, my exposure to charismatic teachers in college (I couldn’t afford to go to the school I wanted, which was Princeton), and so on. I take no real credit for my accomplishments, for I’m a determinist and didn’t make any choices. What diligence I exercised was due completely to my genes and environment.

I’m pleased that I’ve had a pretty good life, but it’s not because I made the right choices. I can’t even say I was “lucky,” for my fate was largely predetermined by my genes and environment, and determinism isn’t “luck”. But, as Lindsay and Boghossian note, the accidents of birth and environment involve a lot more things than just the color of your skin and whether you have a Y chromosome.

If you’d like, discuss the oft-repeated mantra of “privilege” below.

Do chimps grieve?

Over on the BBC website, there’s a piece and a video (click on screenshot below) that raises the provocative question of “Do chimps grieve?”  What you see in the 5-minute clip (apparently an excerpt from a 20-minute clip) is the reactions of groupmates to the death from pneumonia of a nine-year-old chimp, Thomas, in a reserve in Zambia. The chimps gather around the body, touch it, shriek, and even beat the body.

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 10.30.32 AM

Is this “grieving”? I have no idea, for that requires knowing what the chimps are actually feeling. I could claim, for instance that the chimps are freaked out that a previously animate companion is now without motion and behavior, and they don’t know what to do. That may mean they know that something has happened, but it doesn’t mean they’re mourning their companion, or have an understanding of death.

What’s most important is whether the chimps know that THEY are going to die: that what happened to Thomas will some day happen to them. That question is unanswerable for the moment, but I suspect they don’t. For if they did apprehend their mortality, we’d immediately see the rise of chimpanzee religions. (Only kidding!) Have a look at the BBC article, and the comments of the researchers, to see how they analyze this rarely witnessed event.

Here’s a YouTube video further explaining and analyzing what you see above:

h/t: Chris

England and Wales are now predominantly nonreligious

There’s a new survey out about the religiosity of England and Wales, and although the Guardian report on it doesn’t link to the original study, it does give the salient results, which are these:

  • The secularization of Britain is very rapid, to the point where most of England and Wales consists of people who say they have no religion. The Guardian:

“The proportion of the population who identify as having no religion – referred to as ‘nones’ – reached 48.5% in 2014, almost double the figure of 25% in the 2011 census. Those who define themselves as Christian – Anglicans, Catholics and other denominations – made up 43.8% of the population.

‘The striking thing is the clear sense of the growth of ‘no religion’ as a proportion of the population,’ said Stephen Bullivant, senior lecturer in theology and ethics at St Mary’s Catholic University in Twickenham, who analysed data collected through British Social Attitudes surveys over three decades.

‘The main driver is people who were brought up with some religion now saying they have no religion. What we’re seeing is an acceleration in the numbers of people not only not practising their faith on a regular basis, but not even ticking the box. The reason for that is the big question in the sociology of religion.’”

and this:

“Neither church is bringing in fresh blood through conversions. Anglicans lose 12 followers for every person they recruit, and Catholics 10.”

A nice chart to use:

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 10.11.06 AM

Remember that “nones” still include people who believe in God, or have a heavy spirituality, as well as atheists and agnostics, so it might not be accurate to say they have “no religion.” They are practicing no religion. Regardless, if you don’t practice a religion you’re less likely to join fellow believers in doing harmful stuff.

  • The Scots are becoming more secular, too. The Guardian links to a BBC article from April saying that, “Findings from the Scottish Social Attitudes survey show 52% of people say they are not religious, compared with 40% in 1999 when the survey began. The proportion who say they belong to the Church of Scotland has fallen from 35% in 1999 to just 20%.” The BBC adds that even among religious Scots, 2/3 of them rarely or never attend church, up from 49% in 1999.
  • All Christian denominations seem to be waning at about the same rate; the proportional drop is roughly 40-45% of believers in a given faith, though the absolute proportion declining differs:


Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 10.11.35 AM

The Anglican Church’s response to these figures is pretty funny: they declare victory and then get out!:

A spokesperson for the Church of England said: “The increase in those identifying as ‘no faith’ reflects a growing plurality in society rather than any increase in secularism or humanism. We do not have an increasingly secular society as much as a more agnostic one.

“In a global context, adherence to religion is growing rather than decreasing. Christianity remains the world’s largest religion with over 2 billion adherents. In the UK the latest census found the overwhelming majority of people to have a faith.”

The Catholic church did not respond to a request for comment.

I’m not sure how a “growing plurality” differs from “fewer believers”! Declaring that you “have a faith,” after all, could mean “a spiritual faith” or “a sort of belief in God, but not one that comports with an established Church.” Neither Anglicans nor Catholics can bring themselves to admit that they’re growing increasingly irrelevant.

Yes, secularism is winning. Some of the “nones” are still believers, but, as in the U.S., I’d bet that the proportion of agnostics and atheists is rising within that group.



AAAS refuses to consider population growth as a cause of environmental degradation, and promotes Catholic point of view

I’ve had my worries about the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), especially its cozying up to religion. They’ve collaborated with Templeton in funding an accommodationist program, the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSer), and have engaged in other religion-coddling activities unseemly for a secular science organization (see, for instance, herehere, here, and here). I’m not sure why that is, unless somehow the AAAS wants to court popularity by making nice with faith.

But when I saw a new “editorial” in the AAAS’s journal Science, I was gobsmacked. The piece, “Pursuit of integral ecology,” is clearly labeled as an “Editorial” (which means its message has the approval of Science), and was written by Monsignor Marcelo Sánches Sorondo, Chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Science and of Social Science, and Veerabhandran Ramanathan, a climate scientist at UC San Diego and a council member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

The editorial, part of a special Science Issue on “Urban Planet,” is basically a paean to the Pope’s views on environmentalism, and really says nothing more than this: “We like the Pope’s views that pollution, environmental degradation, and so on, impacts people differently, with the poor suffering the brunt of the damage.” Fine, but that’s been said over and over again. There’s nothing remarkable or new in the piece. But there’s also a notable inclusion and a notable omission.

The inclusion (my emphasis):

The Paris agreement was signed by 195 nations to limit global warming to well below a 2°C increase. These global acknowledgements of systemic ecological and social problems have opened a window of opportunity to focus on how problems of poverty, human well-being, and the protection of creation are interlinked. The real innovation is this new synergy between science, policy, and religion.

What the hell is the notion of “creation” doing in a science journal? It’s this kind of wording that got the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History in trouble for referring to its Nature Lab exhibit (funded by a donor) as helping celebrate “God’s creatures.” On the curators’ insistence, that sign was quickly taken down. Why does Science, then, allow mention of “creation,” a clearly religious concept, in an “editorial”?

And the notable omission: there is not a single word in the Science editorial about population growth as a cause of environmental damage, nor about population control. No surprise, given who wrote it! The Catholic Church has of course refused to connect population growth with environmental damage—perhaps the most important nexus between society and ecology—because the Church wants its warren to breed like rabbits. And no condoms or pills! Instead, the piece simply praises Pope Francis as being prescient:

Indeed, 1 year ago, Pope Francis emphasized, in the encyclical Laudato Si, that complex crises have both social and environmental dimensions. The bond between humans and the natural world means that we live in an “integral ecology,” and as such, an integrated approach to environmental and social justice is required.

Where is the social dimension of birth control?

Others have noticed the AAAS’s reluctance to even discuss birth control. In a piece called “AAAS wields the censor’s hammer on U.S. population issues,” Stuart Hurlbert, emeritus professor of biology at San Diego State, writes a “J’accuse” piece on the AAASs apparent accommodationism:

Over the last four years three different population-focused NGOs have tried to have exhibitor booths at AAAS meetings. All have been turned down. The 2011 battles by Californians for Population Stabilization and Population Institute Canada to have booths at the 2012 AAAS meeting in Vancouver have been recounted elsewhere (1), as has AAAS’s exclusion of substantive discussion of U.S. population growth and policies from its flagship journal, Science.

Most scientists scream bloody murder when others suppress knowledge. But a few are in fact happy to censor when it suits their own ideological predispositions.

The positive consequence of those earlier battles was the formation of a new national NGO, Scientists and Environmentalists for Population Stabilization (SEPS). SEPS now educates people not only on population issues but on the problem of censorship by scientists of other scientists as well.

SEPS applied for a booth at the 2014 AAAS meeting in Chicago and was rejected. So when it applied for one at the 2016 AAAS meeting in Washington, D.C., it listed in its application the 19 scientific societies that since 2012 have warmly welcomed SEPS exhibitor booths at their meetings. No society other than AAAS has ever rejected a booth application from SEPS.

The 2016 application also listed 40 current or former presidents of scientific societies who were endorsing SEPS’ application. These included several distinguished past and present members of my own San Diego scientific community such as: Michael Soulé, former UCSD professor and founding president of the Society for Conservation Biology and the Wildlife Network; Margaret Leinen, director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and current president of the American Geophysical Union; John Rieger, former SDSU grad student and founding president of the Society for Ecological Restoration; Peter Jumars, former SIO grad student and past president of the American Society for Limnology and Oceanography; Edith Allen, former SDSU professor and past president of the Soil Ecology Society, and Dennis Murphy, former SDSU grad student and past president of the Society for Conservation Biology.

But no luck. The narrow-mindedness of AAAS staff once again trumped the judgment of large numbers of top scientists both in and out of SEPS, including the meeting organizers of 19 other societies.

Pretexts offered by AAAS for application rejections have been diverse, disingenuous and puzzling.

For the 2016 meeting, AAAS CEO Rush Holt claimed that rejection of SEPS’ application was  “based on the mission, focus and actions of your organization.”

So let’s see what is causing all this fear and trembling at AAAS.

SEPS mission statement as given on its website is this: Our mission is to improve understanding within the U.S. scientific, educational and environmental communities of the fact of overpopulation and its social, economic and environmental consequences at both national and global levels. We advocate for U.S. population stabilization followed by its gradual reduction to a sustainable level by humane, non-coercive means.

Hurlbert ends this way:

Such discussions seem destined to never be had in an AAAS exhibition hall.

The problem here is far bigger than rejection by AAAS of booth applications from a few NGOs. The AAAS staff and board of directors seem to have decided, surreptitiously, to exclude substantive discussion of U.S. population issues from all AAAS venues. An independent board of inquiry is needed. This behavior by AAAS has already been discussed by the board of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents. Perhaps they will bite the bullet and take up the task.

For some reason the AAAS, like the Pope and the Pontificating Academy of Partial Sciences, doesn’t want to bring up population control as an important social issue affecting the environment. I get why the Catholics don’t do that, but why a respected scientific organization? How do they benefit from censoring discussion of population growth?

h/t: Anne

The End of the Mukherjee Affair: He “clarifies” in response to a critical letter

Let’s mercifully draw the curtain on L’Affaire Mukherjee, which started when a number of eminent scientists criticized Siddhartha Mukherjee’s May 2 New Yorker piece because it gave a completely distorted view of how genes are turned on and off to make bodies (see critiques here and here). I’ve been awaiting the New Yorker‘s and Mukherjee’s response to the criticism.

Well, the New Yorker has finally published 1 (one) letter criticizing the piece; it’s by Florian Maderspacher, a senior editor of Current Biology, and is a much-edited version of a letter that originally appeared on this website. Here’s his published letter and Mukherjee’s response:


Siddhartha Mukherjee’s article about twins and epigenetics misrepresents the processes by which genes are regulated and how the environment influences the genome (“Same but Different,” May 2nd). Mukherjee centers his article on the work of David Allis and Danny Reinberg, who think that “epigenetic” mechanisms play a causative, instructive role in gene regulation. But many researchers consider these mechanisms to be downstream processes, secondary to the work of proteins called transcription factors, which turn genes on or off. Ignoring the vast body of work on gene regulation from the past half century, Mukherjee gives the lay reader the impression that “epigenetics” is providing new answers to an unsolved problem in biology, when scientists already have a very good understanding of how the environment influences the genome. (And, rather than referring to a process that functions “above genetics,” the term “epigenetic” was introduced in the nineteen-thirties as the adjective form of “epigenesis,” the process by which structures form de novo in the developing embryo.) Instead of explaining gene regulation to readers, Mukherjee introduces confusion into one of science’s most important domains, one that touches deeply on who we are as biological beings.

Florian Maderspacher
Senior Editor, Current Biology
Salt Lake City, Utah

Siddhartha Mukherjee replies:

I agree that the broader context of gene regulation is critical, and “Same but Different,” with its focus on recent research into histone modification and DNA methylation, left out foundational work by other scientists on transcriptional activators, repressors, and regulators, a class I refer to as gene “regulators” or “master regulators” in my new book, “The Gene: An Intimate History.” These regulatory factors (and regulatory RNA) are indeed the primary mediators of the biological response to the environment. My book, from which the article drew, details these fundamentals of gene regulation—such as Jacques Monod and François Jacob’s research on gene regulation in bacteria; Shinya Yamanaka’s ongoing work on regulatory genes in stem cells; and studies of transcriptional master regulators, such as SRY, which lie atop gene-regulatory hierarchies. Such material would have given readers a fuller, and sounder, view of gene regulation in response to various stimuli.

As one reader commented, “That’s about as close as you can get to an apology without saying he’s sorry.” It’s a good letter by Florian, and although Mukherjee was given a sound drubbing, he basically claims that the “foundational work” he neglected in the New Yorker article is all to be found in his new book—and I’ve heard it is. But that seems more like an advertisement for his book than an admission that he told an incorrect story in the article, which was NOT, as Mukherjee implies, an excerpt from his book.

Amy Winehouse might have sung, “What kind of Mukherjee is this?” But I’ll take the “correction,” such as it is, and hope that people learn two lessons from this fracas.

First, when you’re writing popular science, make sure you get the facts right, and don’t use word limits as an excuse to tell an appealing story that’s wrong or unsupported.

Second, all of us should have learned that the trendiness of “epigenetics”, at least as a primary method of gene regulation—as well as a supposed novel and Lamarckian process of evolution—is unwarranted. Epigenetic modifications of DNA produced by the environment and not coded in the DNA itself (as are “imprinting” phenomena) are most likely the results rather than the causes of differential gene action. And environmental modifications of the DNA are almost invariably wiped out after a single generation of reproduction, making them unable to be the basis of evolutionary adaptations.

Winner: song contest

We had 61 comments on the song contest from yesterday, with readers asked to guess the name and artists of songs containing the words in bold below. Next to each word I’ve put the song I had in mind, all of which were at least minor rock and roll hits. The links go to the song so you can check for yourself:

Which songs have these words in them? (Note: the word must be exact; for instances, you can’t use a song that has the word “owls” as an answer for “owl”. 

pineapple. “Savoy Truffle” by the Beatles.

barley (you must name TWO different songs mentioning the grain). “Fields of Gold” by Sting and “Kiss me” by Sixpence none the Richer.

french fries “Under the Boardwalk” by the Drifters

omelettes “California” by Joni Mitchell

mushroom “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane

owl Wildfire” by Michael Martin Murphey

decal “Be True to Your School” by the Beach Boys

Bonus word (for a cat drawing).

Jew “Me and Mr. Jones” by Amy Winehouse, a song featured at least twice on this site!

Several people came close, but the best answer was by reader Max Russell, who posted the following answers. Having looked up the songs unfamiliar to me (“Agadoo”, “They Don’t Care About Us”): I judge this to be the WINNER. Mr. Russell can contact me to receive his book, along with an autograph and a cat drawing.

‘Pineapple’ – Black Lace: Agadoo
‘Barley’ – Sting: Fields of Gold & Sixpence None the Richer: Kiss Me
‘Mushroom’ – Jefferson Airplane: White Rabbit
‘Omelettes’ – Joni Mitchell: California
‘Owl’ – Elton John: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
‘Decal’ – Beach Boys: Be True to Your School
‘Jew’ – Michael Jackson: They Don’t Care About Us

And now, let’s hear of the winners, an underappreciated song that reminds me of D. H. Lawrence (The Rainbow has a scene with lovers disporting themselves in a cornfield): “Kiss Me”,  by Sixpence None the Richer.

The lead singer is Leigh Nash, and the band was a Christian one, with the group’s name coming from the most popular work of theology ever: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis.

Readers’ wildlife photos

Stephen Barnard once again escaped from the Paradise of Idaho to go fishing—in Florida. He sent us some photos from both places:

I photographed three species of swallow in-flight within 2 minutes over Loving Creek. (Check the EXIFs.) Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica), Violet-Green Swallow (Tachycineta thalassina), and Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). They were feeding on midges. [JAC: I’m not sure I’ve got them in order, so readers can help out.]




Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni):


Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheucticus melanocephalus), through my window. A lifer for me.

Bonnethead Shark (Sphyrna tiburo) I caught in Florida.

Gar (Belone belone), on a length of pink egg yarn caught in its teeth. No hook. That’s my fishing Buddy, Willi, hands-down the best fisherman I know, fresh or salt.




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