Another Olympic-watching kitten

This morning we saw a cat trying to catch televised snowboarders from the Olympics. Now we have a reader’s cat, Minnie, who does the same thing, except to skiers.  Staff member Alexandra reports:

My grandkitty enjoying the Olympics. Minnie is a rescue, about 5 months old, living happily with my  nearby daughter and several Great Danes. She watched for quite a long time, with that delicate little paw interaction.

Here’s Minnie and her Great Dane housemate:

Pinker on the science “wars”, identity politics, and his new book

Steve is doing a full-court press publicizing his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, which has now risen to #10 on Amazon.  And this publicity is exactly what I’d be doing if I had his renown and intellectual chops. At any rate, I’ll call your attention to three news items that are based on the book, including two excerpts or rewrites.

The first is from The Chronicle of Higher Education, and you can see it by clicking on the screenshot below.  It’s fairly similar to Steve’s 2013 piece in The New Republic, “Science is not your enemy“, in that it calls for an infusion of science into some areas of the humanities while still extolling those areas of the humanities, like literary interpretation, that have little to do with science.  That piece drew an intemperate response from literary editor Leon Wieseltier in the same magazine, “Crimes against humanities” (Subtitle: Now science wants to invade the liberal arts. Don’t let it happen.”)

Nevertheless, check out the comments after the Chronicle piece to see the humanities scholars fighting for their turf. There’s no need to, really. Their endeavors are a vital part of a liberal education, and I, for one, would have had a much poorer life were it not for my English, fine arts, philosophy, and ancient history courses in college. By suggesting that some areas of the humanities could benefit from a more quantitative and empirical (i.e., scientific) approach, Steve has been criticized as “scientistic”, and I expected this misguided kvetching will get even louder when people read the book.

This week Pinker also gave an interview on NPR’s program 1A (I’ve listened only to the first bit).  It’s still up, and you can hear the 35-minute show, in which Pinker discusses his new book, by clicking on the screenshot below. From the part I’ve heard, he shows his usual eloquence, speaking in full paragraphs that, if written out, would also be excellent prose.

Finally, there’s this, which I quite like. I’ve thought a lot about identity politics but never as clearly or succinctly as Pinker. This is from The Weekly Standard, a venue I never go to.

This is clearly connected with the new book, and is an interview with Adam Rubenstein. I’ll give just one or two excerpts (I especially like the last paragraph of this first excerpt):

Steven Pinker: Identity politics is the syndrome in which people’s beliefs and interests are assumed to be determined by their membership in groups, particularly their sex, race, sexual orientation, and disability status. Its signature is the tic of preceding a statement with “As a,” as if that bore on the cogency of what was to follow. Identity politics originated with the fact that members of certain groups really were disadvantaged by their group membership, which forged them into a coalition with common interests: Jews really did have a reason to form the Anti-Defamation League.

But when it spreads beyond the target of combatting discrimination and oppression, it is an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values, including, ironically, the pursuit of justice for oppressed groups. For one thing, reason depends on there being an objective reality and universal standards of logic. As Chekhov said, there is no national multiplication table, and there is no racial or LGBT one either.

This isn’t just a matter of keeping our science and politics in touch with reality; it gives force to the very movements for moral improvement that originally inspired identity politics. The slave trade and the Holocaust are not group-bonding myths; they objectively happened, and their evil is something that all people, regardless of their race, gender, or sexual orientation, must acknowledge and work to prevent in the future.

Even the aspect of identity politics with a grain of justification—that a man cannot truly experience what it is like to be a woman, or a white person an African American—can subvert the cause of equality and harmony if it is taken too far, because it undermines one of the greatest epiphanies of the Enlightenment: that people are equipped with a capacity for sympathetic imagination, which allows them to appreciate the suffering of sentient beings unlike them. In this regard nothing could be more asinine than outrage against “cultural appropriation”—as if it’s a bad thing, rather than a good thing, for a white writer to try to convey the experiences of a black person, or vice versa.

My one beef with this is that there still is very real oppression of non-binary people, women, and gays in the U.S. and other parts of the world—that is not a “multiplication table” or a myth. It is an objective reality, even if, at least in America, such oppression is not “institutionalized” in law.  But I agree with him that cries of “cultural appropriation” are almost always risible, and will hinder rather than improve the world.

Oh hell, one more—a defense of free speech:

AR: There is, as you recognize a “liberal tilt” in academia. And you write about it: “Non-leftist speakers are frequently disinvited after protests or drowned out by jeering mobs,” and “anyone who disagrees with the assumption that racism is the cause of all problems is called a racist.” How high are the stakes in universities? Should we worry?

SP: Yes, for three reasons. One is that scholars can’t hope to understand the world (particularly the social world) if some hypotheses are given a free pass and others are unmentionable. As John Stuart Mill noted, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” In The Blank Slate I argued that leftist politics had distorted the study of human nature, including sex, violence, gender, childrearing, personality, and intelligence. The second is that people who suddenly discover forbidden facts outside the crucible of reasoned debate (which is what universities should be) can take them to dangerous conclusions, such as that differences between the sexes imply that we should discriminate against women (this kind of fallacy has fueled the alt-right movement). The third problem is that illiberal antics of the hard left are discrediting the rest of academia, including the large swaths of moderates and open-minded scholars who keep their politics out of their research. (Despite the highly publicized follies of academia, it’s still a more disinterested forum than alternatives like the Twittersphere, Congress, or ideologically branded think tanks.) In particular, many right-wingers tell each other that the near-consensus among scientists on human-caused climate change is a conspiracy among politically correct academics who are committed to a government takeover of the economy. This is sheer nonsense, but it can gain traction when the noisiest voices in the academy are the repressive fanatics.

This, using words like “repressive fantatics” (I agree!) is about as explicit as he gets about the foibles of the Left. And you can be sure that the usual suspects will be going after Steve, calling him an “alt-righter”, a misogynist, or even a racist for sentiments like these.

The last question posed to Pinker is this: “What should the president be reading? And why?” I’ll let you read the answer for yourself (hint: it doesn’t involve Pinker’s books).

I’ll be starting Enlightenment Now this weekend. It’s a big ‘un, and will take a while, but stay tuned for my take.

h/t: Michael, Thomas

Sweet Ceiling Cat: Not another shooting!

It’s been just a few days since the Florida shooting occurred, and now this breaking news (click on screenshot):

There are no reports save that the school is locked down and the police are setting up a perimeter.

Let’s hope it’s a false report, or that nobody was hurt if it was a real attack, but I’m not optimistic.

No ant left behind: Ants carry injured comrades back to the nest and tend to their wounds

This is a science post, and if you don’t read it I’ll shoot this kitten:

Today we learn of an amazing behavior of termite-hunting ants, who carry their wounded comrades back to the nest and tend their injuries, licking them in a way that appears to heal them. It’s the first time that anybody’s shown “social wound treatment” in ants. The paper, by Erik T. Frank, Marten Wehrhahn and K Eduard Linsemair, appears in the new Proceedings of the Royal Society B (reference at bottom, free access, and pdf here).

Remember when you read this that these are haplodiploid organisms, which means that males have a half set of chromosomes produced from the queen’s unfertilized eggs, and, further the diploid female workers who raid the termite nests are sterile. They’re all sisters: daughters of the queen and the single male she’s presumably mated with.

The species at hand is the ant Megaponera analis, a termite-eating specialist found in sub-Saharan Africa.  A column of 200-600 ant raiders leaves the nest, heads for a termite colony underground, breaks it open, collects the termites for food, and carries them back to the nest. Because termites aren’t unprotected—they have “soldiers” with huge heads and formidable biting mandibles—some of the ants get hurt on these raids. Their legs and other bits get chomped off, and termites even clamp onto the ants with their jaws, with the ants running about with a termite attached to them.

An injured ant releases “alarm” pheromones—dimethyl disulfide and dimethyl trisulfide—from a gland on their head. This attracts the other ants. Here’s a video showing an injured ant attracting its nestmates and then being carried back to the nest.

The carried ants become quiescent and compliant, tucking their legs underneath the body—almost like a kitten being carried by its mom. The injured ants are tended in the nest, with other ants actually cleaning the wound with their mouthparts (the ants can easily get infected from bacteria in the soil or from the termites). They also try to remove any termites clinging to the ants, and this can take up to several hours.

The authors did a number of experiments that involved artificially injuring ants, either lightly (2 legs removed) or severely (5 legs removed). Of 20 ants in each class, 45% of the lightly injured were taken back to the nest (this is on the return journey from the raid), while only 5% of the severely injured ant were (that is one ant). This, of course, is an adaptive behavior, as four-legged ants can survive and raid in the future, while one-legged ants can’t do squat.

Ants who have lost more than three legs are never found in the nest, and, as I said, those with five legs artificially removed (I have to say, I don’t like hurting insects this way) are rarely brought back to the nest. There’s some evidence that lightly injured ants may exaggerate their injuries, flailing about when nestmates are nearby, though as soon as they’re touched by the antennae of a nestmate, this behavior ceases and they curl up for carrying. If the lightly injured are not discovered and carried back, they trot back on their own.

To see if ants were actually counting the legs of the injured, the experimenters crushed the legs without removing them, rendering the legs unusable. Again, those with five injured legs (which were still attached) were ignored by their nestmates and left to die, while those with only two were carried back and tended. Ants with two legs can apparently function well, even participating in raids, while those with more legs injured are useless to the colony. The ants apparently discriminate between the lightly and severely injured not by counting but by the behavior of the wounded: those with a number of injured or removed legs can’t right themselves, and fling themselves about in an attempt to do so. Ants that do this aren’t picked up (they may be harder to pick up anyway). This is a form of insect triage.

Here’s a video of an injured ant whose leg wound is being cleaned:

How effective is this cleaning? Some experiments compared the mortality of artificially injured ants (two legs removed) when they were tended by their nestmates for either 1 or 12 hours (two treatments), and also when they were placed on sterile soil after injury as well as on unsterile soil, and also the mortality of control (unmanipulated) ants. Here’s the curve of mortality for all the five treatments. As you can see, injured ants placed on nonsterile soil die quickly, while being placed on sterile soil, being uninjured, being injured, or having only a one-hour treatment results in survivorship as high as in the controls—in fact, there’s no difference among these four classes. It looks, then, as if it’s nonsterile conditions that cause mortality, implying that ants in the nest, besides removing debris, may well be applying some anti-microbial substance to the wound. I suspect this is the case, but we don’t have evidence yet.

Now remember that the injured ants, like their nestmates, are STERILE. Saving them, it would seem, doesn’t help anybody propagate their genes, so if this rescue behavior is evolved, as it almost certainly is, what is the selective advantage?

The answer is probably this: since injured ants are numerous compared to the size of the colony, any ant who saves its nestmates allows the colony to flourish better (the rescued can function in the colony), and that helps the queen, who shares half of the workers’ genes. In other words (and as Darwin surmised) even if you’re helping a sterile worker, you’re giving a marginal reproductive advantage to the only reproductive female: the queen.

But how much of an advantage can that be given the size of the colony? Is saving one ant going to make any difference to how well the queen does? The answer involves three considerations. First, this evolution is more likely to happen in a smaller rather than a larger colony, for in the former case each ant constitutes a larger fraction of the population than the latter, giving the queen a larger marginal advantage. (There could also be some “colony selection” here—a form of group selection—but its efficacy requires that we posit differential extinction of entire colonies based on whether or not they contain “nursing” workers.)

Second, if injured ants nearly always died, there would be little advantage to tending them. But the tended ants are the lightly injured ones, and survive as well as uninjured ants. Those who are more severely injured are left to die.

As the authors note, however, Megaponera analis has small colonies and the rescued ants nearly all survive; the species thus “fits all the criteria where a rescue behavior focused on injured ants has a large benefit for the colony”.

Finally, if the behavior first showed up in just a single mutant worker, the advantage to the colony would be small. What’s more likely is that the queen herself or her haploid mate contained the first mutation for helping. The male, who doesn’t undergo meiosis, would pass it on to all the colony’s workers (assuming females mate but once and store sperm); the female to half the workers. Either way, a mutant gene for helping might first show its effects in a large fraction of the colony’s workers, thus tremendously boosting the evolutionary advantage of the queen who contained that mutant and produced helpful workers.

h/t: Matthew


Frank, E. T., M. Wehrhahn, and K. E. Linsenmair. 2018. Wound treatment and selective help in a termite-hunting ant. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 285. DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.2457

Ken Ham to speak at Oklahoma university after all; university president defends free speech

As NewsOK (Oklahoma) reports, and as verified by creationist Ken Ham on his Answers in Genesis (AiG) website, Ham’s invitation to speak at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO), previously withdrawn by the student government, has now been reinstated. (See my posts about this here and here, where I defend his right to speak on campus.)  It looks as if the President of UCO, Don Betz, decided to overturn the ban, and issued this statement:

This is a good arrangement given what’s happened: Ham will speak, there’s a presentation before his talk about the nature of the First Amendment and the courts’ interpretation of it, and later a panel discussion about speech on campus that will surely include dissenting voices. What Betz doesn’t say, but is reported in both NewsOK and AiG, is that another AiG flak will also speak at his event: Dr. Georgia Purdom, who will talk on “Genetics and the Bible.” (Oy!) Here’s some of Purdom’s scientific “work”:

Overall, we have a good outcome, though, unfortunately, the students’ attempt to deplatform Ham gave him a chance to beef about censorship—which is what it was—and about the persecution of Christians. It also made the University look bad and censorious. None of this would have happened had, as I asked, they “let the bigoted creationist speak.”

Of course I think Ham is a Liar for Jesus, is damaging scientific understanding of evolution, and helps brainwash children; I’m also completely at odds with his religious views about gays, abortion, and so on. He’s the embodiment of willful ignorance and superstition. But the students should still get a chance to hear him.

And now Ham has signed the contract, so it’s on. In the end, he gained a lot of positive publicity that he wouldn’t have gotten had UCO put its house in order.

Snake on a wire

[JAC: In lieu of “readers’ wildlife” today, we have “Mayer’s wildlife”: His disquisition on snake locomotion. Be sure to keep those photos coming in, and don’t worry if you haven’t seen yours yet, as I have them all.]

by Greg Mayer

Matthew sends the following tweet of a tiger snake making its way along a wire fence.

At first glance, two things struck me at about this, aside from its generalized coolness. The form of locomotion is a typical one for snakes called lateral undulation, in which waves of muscular contraction alternate down the sides of the body. You can see the snake is pushing first on one side of the wire, then the other, in waves down the body. This is not unusual for snakes. And there are many arboreal snakes (vine snakes, parrot snakes, etc.) that habitually move along very narrow surfaces, such as vines and branches. The novelty here to me is the length of the narrow surface– most vine snakes frequently encounter crosswise vines and branches, so they don’t move for any great distance in a perfectly straight line along a narrow surface, as this snake is doing.

But its movements are not unprecedented. While checking into this particular mode of locomotion, I found the following in Carl Gans’ Biomechanics: An Approach to Vertebrate Biology (p. 93):

Other climbers show a fabulous ability to throw their trunk into multiple, regular, and controlled bends of very short radius. The African file snakes (Mehelya) apparently can travel along telephone wires with alternate half-loops hanging respectively over the left and right sides of the wire.

The second thing that struck me was that a tiger snake is not a vine snake of any sort– they’re terrestrial. So, climbing along wires is not where I would expect to see them. But that’s book knowledge, and perhaps Australian readers can enlighten us from experience.

On reflection, I was also struck by this being an example of what Gans called “excessive construction”– the ability of structures (and in this case also behaviors) to be successfully used in circumstances that were not part of the historical evolutionary development of the structure. Gans thought, and I agree, that such circumstances can be the basis for adaptation (i.e. heritable changes in the structure/behavior) to the new circumstances.  Again from Biomechanics (p. 14-15):

Gans provides a much more insightful view here of how functions change, and how new adaptations arise, than did Gould and Vrba in their largely unnecessary coining of the word and concept “exaptation“.

Gans, C. 1974 (1980). Biomechanics: An Approach to Vertebrate Biology. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Gans, C.  1979.  Momentarily excessive construction as the basis for protoadaptation.  Evolution 33:227-233.

Gould, S.J. and E.S. Vrba. 1982. Exaptation- a missing term in the science of form. Paleobiology 8:4-15. pdf

Note to readers

The increasing volume of email is making it hard for me to keep up with correspondence, and is even making me forget emails which need to be answered. I’d like to ask readers to please send me no more than one email per day, unless it involves correcting an error I made in a post, requesting a pdf or other file I’ve offered, or sending me wildlife photos. If you have some links you want me to look at—and I appreciate these—maybe collect them over two days or so and send them all at once, unless they deserve immediate attention.



Friday: Hili dialogue

It’s Friday, and greetings on February 16, 2018, National Almond Day (brought to you by Big Almond). It’s also the Day of the Shining Star in North Korea, celebrating Kim Jong-il’s birthday in 1941—the day when a big star shone brightly, cats and dogs lay down together, and the birds sang the Dear Leader‘s name in five-part harmony.

Before you do anything, have a look at this video of a cat watching the Olympic snowboarders on television. It is the best cat + t.v. video I’ve ever seen, and you should thank me for putting it up! (h/t: Avis)


Not much happened on this day in history. On February 16, 1923, archaeologist Howard Carter unsealed the burial chamber of King Tutankhamun and saw the sarcophagus for the first time. On this day in 1937, Wallace Carothers got the U.S. patent for nylon (I told you not much happened!). On February 16, 1959, Fidel Castro became premier of Cuba after Batista was overthrown on the first day of the year.  On this day in 1968, the first “911” system for telephone emergencies went into service—in Hayleyville, Alabama.  In 1978, according to Wikipedia, “the first computer bulletin board system is created (CBBS in Chicago).” Finally, it was on this day in 2005 that the Kyoto Protocol for reducing greenhouse gas emissions went into effect.

Notables born on this day include Francis Galton (1822), Henry Adams (1838), Sonny Bono (1935), Kim Jong-il (1941; see above), Natalie Angier (1958) and John McEnroe (1959). Those who expired on this day include Lesley Gore (1959; I TOLD you not much happened on February 16.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is out but had a bad feeling. . . .

Hili: I’m going back to the house.
A: Why?
Hili: My intuition tells me that it’s better that way.
In Polish:
​ Hili: Wracam do domu.
Ja: Dlaczego?
Hili: Intuicja mi mówi, że tak jest lepiej. ​


From Heather Hastie, a house with a passel of hyper cats:

From Matthew we have a really bizarre optical illusion. Figure out why the hearts look like they’re in different colors:

The fracas about Bari Weiss’s tweet continues, and now Soledad O’Brien, someone I used to respect, joins the pile-on (and is answered). The “problems” with Bari Weiss are, of course, her repeated failures to conform to Regressive Leftism. These tweets from Grania:

I’m a bit dubious about whether the explanation below is true, but judge for yourself:

and. . . sunrise on Mars!:

Nature imitates art:

Immigration: Senate fails to pass anything

The “compromise” in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans on immigration has failed miserably. The bill, which would continue the DACA program, went down by a vote of 54-45, presumably because of Trump’s vehement opposition. (For chrissake, can’t we give those people a future in the US?). But then Trump’s alternative bill, which “would have also substantially increased federal deportation powers, heavily cut family-based legal migration and ended the diversity visa,” also went down by a vote of 60-39.

What this proves is that Trump can scare Republicans into voting down DACA, but can’t make them sign on to his odious views about The Wall and “chain immigration”.

This logjam mirrors the sentiments of many Americans, who want the Dreamers to remain, but also want some action on immigration—just not the draconian one Trump likes. And so the future of those young people (and some not so young now) remains in limbo.

Duckling rescue

I’m a tired boy and have a children’s book to work on. It’s nearly finished, but whether it will get published remains a mystery (my agent doesn’t handle this stuff, so I have to use other approaches). One thing I’ve discovered, and should have realized, is that writing children’s books is no walk in the park: it takes a completely different skill set from that used in technical and trade books.  And you have to be able to put yourself inside the mind of a child, yet I’ve never had offspring. It’s been a challenge, and I’ve worked harder on those 1200 words than on any similarly sized piece I’ve ever written.

But I digress. Here is a nice guy rescuing a baby mallard caught in some wire. Notice how protective the mother gets when she thinks her baby is being harmed. But in the end all is well.  (And when will my own mallard hen return?)


h/t: Grania