Punctilious scientists correct Google Doodle, possibly incorrectly

I wrote yesterday about the “Lucy” Google Doodle, which looked like this:


Some of my colleagues didn’t like that Doodle, and fixed it. They couldn’t help it . . .:

Actually, I’m not sure this is scientifically accurate, as it shows Lucy (middle figure; A. afarensis) as a lineage that split off from modern humans rather than being one of our direct ancestors. We don’t know that, as Lucy’s species could have continued evolving into modern H. sapiens. The leftmost ape, if it’s a modern chimp, is correct, as they certainly branched off before hominins. But I’m not even sure, nor are the people at the Beacon Center, whether it’s a modern chimp or some ancestor of modern humans.

I therefore asked Greg Mayer, who knows more about this stuff than I do, to tell me if I was right in what I just said. He responded at some length, and even made a figure (upshot: I was right, and readers not conversant with taxonomy needn’t read on). Greg’s comments:

Yes, afarensis may have living descendants, and thus to show it as a terminal lineage isn’t quite right (or, at least, it involves additional assumptions). Some conventions for depicting fossil species in a tree with living species are needed, and it could be plausibly argued that they should be shown as terminal taxa (i.e at the tip of a branch, as in the corrected Google doodle Figure A).

Lucy phylo tree

But when a fossil species may be ancestral to a living species, we would consider the branch leading to the fossil species to have 0 length (i.e. it is at the node: Figure B).

Fossil species are usually depicted as terminal taxa, on the reasonable notion that of all the many species in an ancestral group, the probability of finding the ancestor is small. (For example, we know that early synapsids are ancestral to mammals, but the chance that Dimetrodon grandis is the ancestor of all mammals is small, so it probably is accurate to show it as a terminal taxon.) But when dealing with recent events with a rich fossil record in a geographically proscribed area, the probability of finding the ancestor does go up to the point where it’s no longer safe to make the assumption that it won’t be found.

For molecular and chromosomal data, where a complete description of the phenotype/genotype (i.e., nucleotide or banding sequence) is possible, actual ancestors can often be identified, and are often shown in trees as lying along the branches or at nodes in the tree.

Based on what we know about how speciation occurs, most ancestral species are probably paraphyletic relative to their descendants (Figure C, with afarensis zoomed in on and shown as ancestral to the lineage leading to Homo), and thus some parts of afarensis are terminal relative to Homo. If Lucy were in one of these terminal bits (the X in Figure C), then the corrected Google Doodle could be construed as accurate.

(I made the figure before checking the original Google doodle, and now realize that the leftmost ape was not identified as a chimp. If it was intended to be a chimp, then all of the above holds. However, if Google intended it to be a fossil ancestral species– which I think most likely– then it should fall along the branch, and not be a terminal taxon.)

Quotes of the day

We have two quotes today. The first is from a reader who, commenting on the pervasive campus movement to restrict “offensive” speech, said this, which I see as pretty profound:

If we ban offensive speech, how will we know who the assholes are?

The second is from an interview in the New York Times with Bob Mankoff, who holds the very important post of cartoon editor for The New Yorker, which of course has the world’s best cartoons. Among other things, he says this in the Q&A:

This might get you in trouble: Do dogs or cats make better cartoon material?

No question, cats. We can project so much more onto cats. If you look back at the history of New Yorker cartoons, in the ’20s and ’30s, the cats and dogs don’t talk. And once they really start talking, in the ’40s, they don’t shut up.

Now why do you suppose, dear readers, that it’s possible to “project so much more onto cats”? Because they don’t express emotions as much as dogs do?

High Court rules that British schools must include humanism in religious studies

Just a quick note about what appears to be a landmark decision. The British Humanist Association (BHA) reports that the High Court has ruled that non-religious “philosophical” views such as humanism must be included in the Religious Studies curriculum. As you may already know, religious education is mandatory in government secondary schools in England and Wales (see details here). The BHA report notes this:

In his decision, Mr Justice Warby stated that the Government had made an ‘error of law’ in leaving non-religious worldviews such as humanism out of the GCSE [General Certificate of Secondary Education, awarded to students who successfully complete a specified curriculum] amounting to ‘a breach of the duty to take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner.’ The British Humanist Association (BHA), which was responsible for bringing the case and has supported the three families throughout, has welcomed the landmark decision.

While the Government will not be immediately compelled to change the GSCE, religious education syllabuses around the country will now have to include non-religious worldviews such as humanism on an equal footing, and pupils taking a GCSE will also have to learn about non-religious worldviews alongside the course.

In his judgment, Mr Justice Warby said, ‘In carrying out its educational functions the state owes parents a positive duty to respect their religious and philosophical convictions… the state has a duty to take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in a pluralistic manner… the state must accord equal respect to different religious convictions, and to non-religious beliefs; it is not entitled to discriminate between religions and beliefs on a qualitative basis; its duties must be performed from a standpoint of neutrality and impartiality as regards the quality and validity of parents’ convictions.’

He found that GCSE specifications drawn up along the lines recommended ‘would give priority to the study of religions (including some with a relatively very small following and no significant role in the tradition of the country) over all non-religious world views (which have a significant following and role in the tradition of the country)’ and would therefore risk being unlawful.

As the BBC reports, the Justice ruled that earlier governmental changes in the curriculum, which left out non-religious views, were unlawful, for they failed to be sufficiently pluralistic.

I wonder if “atheism” will be in there along with “humanism.” Although atheism isn’t, strictly speaking, a “philosophy,” as it’s simply nonbelief in gods, it is an alternative to the religious views described in the curriculum.

You can find the full decision of Justice Warby here, and here’s the most important bit:

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 8.18.33 AM

h/t: Dom


Just a self-aggrandizing note related to the British Humanists: I’ll be delivering their annual Darwin Day Lecture on February 12 in London. My title: “Evolution and atheism: best friends forever?” (the answer, of course, is “yes”; they asked me to add the question mark). Richard Dawkins will be chairing the talk, and you can get information and buy tickets at this site.

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Paris

Today’s excellent Jesus and Mo refers to something you may already know about: the Paris attacks caused the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Least Reverend Justin Welby, to doubt the presence of God. The BBC recently reported this:

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said the terror attacks in Paris made him “doubt” the presence of God.

The Most Reverend Justin Welby told BBC Songs Of Praise he had prayed, asking “where are you…” after the attacks.

He said his reaction to the attacks had been “first shock and horror and then a profound sadness”, heightened because he and his wife once lived in Paris.

The gun and suicide bomb attacks on 13 November, carried out by so-called Islamic State, left 130 people dead.The archbishop said: “Saturday morning, I was out and as I was walking, I was praying and saying: ‘God, why – why is this happening? Where are you in all this?'”

“He said ‘in the middle of it’ and also in answer from Psalm 56 – ‘he stores up our tears in a bottle, none of our sufferings are lost,'” he added.

Yes, of course: Welby managed, as he always does, to find a reason why God allowed such horrors. It’s the old chestnut that all will be set right in Heaven.  For that’s surely what Welby means, unless there’s some other reason why those tears are stored up.

What I want to know is this: why didn’t any of the other atrocities in our age—all the way from the Holocaust to the depredations of Boko Haram to the suicide bombings in in Beirut—cause Welby to doubt God? Why just the killings in Paris? Does he think that God especially favors the French?

I really don’t like that man. He parades his doubt, which I see as a cynical ploy to convince wavering Anglicans in the UK that “I’m just like you,” and then, of course, resolves that doubt—this time by pulling a genie out of a bottle of tears.

But I fulminate; here’s today’s strip:


In my email, the author notified us of a contest:

Yesterday was this comic’s 10th birthday, and to celebrate we’re running a little competition (thanks to sparky_shark for the suggestion). To enter, you just have to write a script for the last panel of a J&M “X-factor” strip (see the entry under today’s comic). The script should a line from Jesus, a line from Mo (in any order), plus the off-screen judge if required. Just words, presented like this:

Jesus: Blah
Mo: Blah
Judge: Blah

Here’s the strip for the contest:


Send entries entitled “X-factor script” to author[AT]jesusandmo.net

The best script will win a book of the latest collection of Jesus & Mo strips (Vol 7), plus publication on the website (anonymously, obvs). There may be runners-up prizes, too.

Oh, and if you want to send us a birthday present, please consider becoming a Patron of the Blasphemous Arts at this site.

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Craig Carpenter sent a very artistic photo:

Beaver (Castor canadensis; photo by Judy Carpenter) on a small lake in North Georgia.
And from reader Colin Campbell:
I am sending a few pictures taken with my iPhone, insects from the south of France and an extra from Spain (plus lagniappe)
The first is a beautiful black waspish thing I saw sheltering on the inside of a window. I think it looks like an ichneumon and have tentatively identified it as Pimpla rufipes.
Second up is a true illegal immigrant! This I believe is a walnut husk fly, Rhagoletis completa, native to north america and an invader in Europe that is causing damage to native walnuts.
This I think is another invader enjoying our gapes in the evening sun, an asian hornet Vespa velutina nigrithorax (actually that might just be a local hornet)
Now to return in a roundabout way to a traditional topic of your website, is a Mantis religiosa (the predator that knows its creator – i just know there is a metaphor in there somewhere!) that was sitting on the courgette plant.
Lastly,  a view of migrating Eurasian cranes [Grus grus] moving south for the winter last year (a bit far away, sorry). This is a bleak and lovely spot in central Spain where up to a a couple of hundred thousand cranes congregate to feed and rest on route. In the evening as the sun goes down they can be heard before they are seen as they come low overhead to roost by the waters edge for the night. Magical, though it is very cold in late November!
Finally, a landscape from reader Ken Phelps in British Columbia:
Sunrise yesterday at Nanaimo Lakes.
Ken Phelps

Wednesday: Hili dialogue (and Leon lagniappe)

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and although in Europe and other places people are blithely going to work, here in the U.S. everybody has either gone home to relatives, or is leaving at noon—all bound for that Big Turkey Dinner. But in Dobrzyn it’s an anniversary of sorts, with Hili taking some dubious credit:

Hili: It’s an anniversary today!
A: What anniversary?
Hili: Two years ago I became the Editor-in-Chief of “Listy”.
A: But we first started the website on December 15, 2013.
Hili: You have to admit that I prepared everything very well.


In Polish:
Hili: Dziś jest rocznica!
Ja: Jaka rocznica?
Hili: Dwa lata temu zostałam naczelną “Listów”.
Ja: Ale w sieci ruszyliśmy 15 grudnia 2013.
Hili: Przyznasz, że dobrze to wszystko przygotowałam


Meanwhile in Wroclawek, Leon appears to be bored. Might I suggest an evening constitutional?

Leon: Any suggestions for the evening?



G*d help me, I want these!

They’re Oreo churros, sold frozen and then reheated in your microwave (the press release is here).


I know people will excoriate me for this, but I don’t care. If you’ve tried them, weigh in below. And beware of attacking the palate of PCC(E)!


Woman and her Doppelgänger marionette feed a squirrel

The week is effectively over for most Americans, I think: even my department is largely empty, and tomorrow will be even emptier. So, as an end-of-the-week treat, here’s a short story from Neatorama about an activist woman who had an affinity for marionettes and squirrels, resulting in this adorable photo:


The whole story, and be sure to check at least the first link:

You may have seen this photo of 85-year-old civic activist Doris Diether of West Village, New York City, feeding a squirrel with a marionette that looks like herself.

The story behind the old lady and her “mini me” marionette is actually an interesting one. It all started one day at the park, where puppeteer Ricky Syers was performing with his handmade marionette, according to Nina Golgowski of NY Daily News:

“One day she comes up to me and whispers, ‘I have something for you,'” he recalled.

Opening a scrap book she revealed old newspaper clippings and articles she had written on marionettes back in 1974. Articles more recently added to her collection were ones she had seen on Syers’ work, which she cut out and saved for him.

The gesture floored him.

Syers proceeded to build Diether her own marionette, made to look just like her “featuring Diether’s short, white hair and rosy cheeks … complete with handbag, cane and floral blouse and skirt.”

“She’s … known as the woman who feeds the squirrels,” Syers said to NY Daily News, “Now, her little marionette feeds the squirrels.”

h/t: Ant

Many Americans, and even more Europeans, favor restricting speech offensive to minorities

A brand-new poll from the Pew Research Center gives a dispiriting result: there’s widespread resistance to free speech in the U.S., and even more so in Europe. Further, within the U.S. itself, younger people favor more restrictions on speech than do their elders.

The complete report is here, and I haven’t yet read it, but the link above gives the salient results on free expression—queried as the right to utter offensive speech. First, though, the precise survey question:

We asked whether people believe that citizens should be able to make public statements that are offensive to minority groups, or whether the government should be able to prevent people from saying these things.

That’s not too bad, because the question is clear, and the issue of government prevention is clearly an issue of censorship and, in the U.S. of our Constitutional First-Amendment rights.

Here are the results for the U.S., broken down by age, sex, political affiliation, ethnicity, and education.


The upshot:

  • The younger the age group, the more restrictions people place on “offensive” speech. I was frankly, astounded to see that 40% of Millennials favor censorship. That drops with age, declining almost 70% in the older “silent generation.” While I’d like to think this is an age thing, and that the Millennials will accept less censorship as they mature, I’m afraid this is might reflect a real change in the Zeitgeist, a change we see in the calls among college students for censorship of views they deem offensive.
  • Democrats and Independents favor more restriction on freedom of speech than do Republicans. That’s not surprising given the new connection between censorship and liberalism. Democrats, of course, are those most likely to support minorities, and this is now translated into protecting minorities from hearing what offends them.
  • Minorities (“non-white”) are, unsurprisingly, more likely to favor the censorship of speech that offends them.
  • Finally, increased education is associated with less desire for censorship. I’m not sure why.

When you go to Europe, some of whose countries already have speech restrictions (e.g., Germany and Poland), the approval of censorship is higher—shockingly high. Given the common accusation of “Islamophobia” in some of these countries, it’s even more surprising that, say, 48% of French and 70% of Germans favor censorship of speech that offends minorities. Overall, censorship of this sort is approved by 28% of Americans and by 49% of Europeans: almost twice as many as in the U.S.! In this sense, at least, we are the “land of the free”.

One reason that Europeans may be less opposed to censorship are the laws already in place in some countries, which may make citizens think that it’s okay to restrict speech. It would be instructive to see if there’s a correlation between the existence of anti-speech laws and individuals’ responses to this question.


Finally, Pew confected an “index of censorship” for the many countries it surveyed, though there are no data for many countries in the Middle East, southeast Asia and Africa. What they found is below: the greener a country, the freer expression it favors, while more orange countries favor more censorship:

Screen Shot 2015-11-24 at 11.52.22 AM

Pakistan, Jordan, and Senegal get the raspberries here, while North and South America, Europe, South Africa, and Australia are less censorious.

The full report gives many more data on things like gender equality, freedom of the press, and the effect of the Internet on feelings about free expression, but I’ll leave you to peruse this yourself.

I’ll end with a caveat: although I’m in favor of higher numbers of people opposing censorship of statements offensive to minorities, that doesn’t mean I’m in favor of offending minorities. It should be clear from what I’ve written on this site that “offensive” speech is the form of free speech that deserves the most protection, because banning speech that offends anyone is the surest way to shut down free discourse—the foundation of democracy.

Templeton’s at it again, wasting money promoting Christianity

Not long ago, an executive with the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) invited me to dinner on his dime. His aim was twofold: to discuss my latest book, which he was going to review (clearly not positively!), and, more important, to convince me that I had the Foundation all wrong: that it wasn’t really interested in advancing religion, but was becoming more scientific.  We palavered about this meeting: I insisted, for instance, that the JTF would not pay for my dinner, so this gentleman kindly offered to pay out of his own pocket. But I ultimately decided not to go, for I envisioned it as a one-way conversation in which the Templeton guy would propagandize me and ignore my own complaints about his Foundation. After all, why would a billion-dollar enterprise like the JTF listen to a tiny critic like me? I may have been wrong about what would have transpired, but I’ll never know, for I eschewed the dinner (it was at a fancy place, too!).

But what I’m not wrong about is that the JTF has NOT changed, for it continues to promote religion with one hand, science with the other, and then with both hands mix them into a toxic brew of science-y woo. Their continued conflation of science with religion merely confuses people about the relationship of these areas, yet many scientists—among them are atheists!—are eager to line up for a place at the Templeton Trough. (JTF gives millions away annually.) The World Science Festival in New York, for instance, is partly sponsored by Templeton, and always has some “Big Questions” seminars that give credibility to the JTF.

But whatever credibility the JTF gains by supporting science is eroded by their real mission, which is stated clearly on their website (my emphasis):

The John Templeton Foundation serves as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. We support research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. We encourage civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers, and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.

Our vision is derived from the late Sir John Templeton’s optimism about the possibility of acquiring “new spiritual information” and from his commitment to rigorous scientific research and related scholarship. The Foundation’s motto, “How little we know, how eager to learn,” exemplifies our support for open-minded inquiry and our hope for advancing human progress through breakthrough discoveries.

Before I begin, could someone explain to me what they mean by “ultimate” reality? Is there any other kind of reality? (Of course they’re talking about God—or so I think).

Just remember that everything the JTF does, including trying to burnish its image by supporting “pure” science, is ultimately aimed at acquiring “new spiritual information” through science, for Sir John believed that science could ultimately tell us stuff about the supernatural.  If you think Templeton has reformed, or if you want to take money from this Foundation, first have a look at how the JTF has just wasted £1.6 million pounds on a useless study, founding a Christian institute at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. The 1.6 million pounds follows another half million pounds given earlier to the same recipient:

SCOTTISH theologians are taking the world lead in a controversial study of the existence and nature of God at a new international institute.

Experts at St Andrews University will tackle the biggest questions facing humanity, including confronting religious belief and analysing the challenges of hostility, sectarianism and terrorism.

The new Logos Institute – logos being the Greek for word or study – is being launched by a £1.6 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, which supports research relating to the major questions of human purpose and ultimate reality, and will be the centre for excellence in the study of analytic and exegetical theology.

The work of the institute was founded by father and son academics Alan Torrance, professor of systematic theology at St Mary’s College of the University of St Andrews, and Dr Andrew Torrance of the university’s School of Divinity.

. . . The new institute, which will open in the summer of 2016, builds on existing resources at St Andrews University and the funding will help pay for part-time positions of four leading international thinkers and a further full-time senior appointment.

There will also be research fellowships, six PhD scholarships and a new Masters programme as well as a series of public lectures, a blog, a website and podcasts.

What questions will this institute address? (These Black Holes of Money never answer the Big Questions, they just address them.) The Scotsman reports further:

The range of questions it will consider relate to the existence and nature of God, God’s relationship to time, the nature of the person and the conceptual and social challenges confronting religious belief, which will also look at analysing the challenges of religious hostility, sectarianism and terrorism.

. . .[Alan Torrance]: “Our primary concern will be to explore the immense explanatory power of Christian theism and its relevance for how we understand the ultimate significance of human life. We shall be doing this in dialogue with exciting new developments in contemporary Biblical scholarship. One of the key research topics will be the nature of forgiveness and what this central Christian notion might mean for how we approach religious enmity, sectarianism and terrorism.”

Well I certainly look forward to the answers they’ll provide about the existence and nature of God, and the perennial and vexing question about His relationship to time! Seriously, what progress can be made spinning one’s wheels about these unanswerable questions involving fictitious beings? It’s as if the JTF funded an institute to discover how Santa could really deliver presents to every deserving child within a single night, and about the challenges to Santa-ism. Can Santa do that because he’s outside of time?

And can we expect that JTF will fund atheists to represent “the conceptual challenges confronting Christianity”? I think not, for they’re only accepting fellow members of the asylum (see below).

And really—Christian theism has “immense explanatory power”? What power is that, exactly? What does it explain? Certainly nothing about reality, though it can explain why certain people believe the things they do. And does Christianity have more explanatory power than, say, Islam or Hinduism?

The end of the Scotsman piece shows the intellectual futility of this conference, and also how they’re limiting participation to those with similar beliefs (I’ve put the euphemism in bold). No atheists allowed!

Andrew Torrance said: “At its best, the task of theology gathers together and engages a diverse range of perspectives. Not only does it draw on the insights of biblical scholarship and philosophy, it also draws on the insights of the natural and social sciences. Further, it seeks to be attentive to the religious communities that have devoted themselves to pursuing a knowledge of God.

Such a diverse conversation is not easy, however. For constructive conversation to take place, those at the table need to share the same language, and this requires conceptual clarity and discipline.

I’d like to know what the task of theology really is, and how it will be aided by discoveries in natural and social sciences. I could go on, but enterprises like the Logos Institute, which coopt smart people into discussing unaswerable and silly questions, sicken me. As Hitchens insisted, they should be mocked and reviled.

I wonder how the gentleman who invited me to dinner, assuring me that the JTF has changed, can face himself in the mirror each day in light of things like the Logos Institute. Truly, Templeton is throwing away good money in a desperate attempt to meet Sir John’s aims: find out how science can tell us stuff about God. What a waste of time, money, and brainpower!

h/t: Alexander



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