A prisoner wants answers about evolution

September 10, 2014 • 12:24 pm

I used to get these letters all the time, when I was doing forensic DNA analysis (and testimony) for defense attorneys. Inmates would somehow find out about me, and write me letters asking for help. They were always pathetic, pleaded that they were innocent (something that has to be considered if they’re asking for DNA evidence), and I never had the time to do anything but (occasionally) respond by saying “no,” as I had a day job and my hands full with other cases.

The letters were umistakeable. They’d always come in a stamped envelope with my name and address scrawled in bad handwriting, like this one that came yesterday. (The address, by the way, is wrong, but it found its way to me anyway. I’ve also left out the return address and name.)

photo 2

And I knew that if I turned the letter over, I would find it rubber-stamped like this:

photo 1

But this letter was different: it was from an inmate who has been reading books about evolution (including mine and several of Dawkins’s), was a former M.D. and seemed intelligent. He had a couple of questions about whether there was enough time for evolution to occur (i.e., “What mathematical evidence is there that evolution had time to proceed from a one-cellular replicator to man in 4.5 billion years?” [JAC: it wasn’t quite that long]), and what I thought the best existing fossil evidence was for a transition from one species to another. Those aren’t bad questions for a layperson.

So I looked the guy up. He was in for murder, and the sentence was life without parole.  He killed his wife and tried to pretend that somebody else did it. It was not a pretty story. It was, however, sort of a crime of passion. I won’t divulge details, but I suspect that’s why, in a state that has capital punishment (e.g., Timothy McVeigh), he isn’t on death row.

My question is this? Should I answer his questions? The downside is that I’m busy, that it may engage me in a correspondence I don’t want, and the guy did something horrible.

On the other hand, he’s in for life without parole, which surely must be one of the worst possible ways to live one’s life. (And yes, I know he was convicted for taking away the life of another.) I also don’t believe in moral responsibility, that is, I don’t think the guy had a choice about whether to kill his wife or not. Yes, he needs to be punished, to deter others and keep him out of society (rehabilitation is not an option for someone who will never get out). But that doesn’t mean that he’s not a human being, or that his life could not be a tiny bit bettered by a response from a scientist.

I just keep thinking what it must be like to live in a small cell, knowing that the only way out is in a coffin. Yes, I know the guy did something unconscionable, but that doesn’t make him inhuman. My impulse is to answer, but I thought I’d pose it as a general question.


274 thoughts on “A prisoner wants answers about evolution

    1. I should probably say why… because at this point all we know is the guy seems genuinely interested. And his punishment doesn’t mean he should live without intellectual stimulation and growth.

      1. I strongly agree. Not only would you, Jerry, be bettering his life, but possibly bettering other inmates’. Many prisoners find religion; maybe you can help him (and others) find rationality.


      2. I don’t often agree with GB James, but this time I do, unhesitatingly. Roughly for the reasons GB stated.

        Always assuming Jerry can spare the time, it’s very easy for us to volunteer someone else’s time .

    2. I just keep thinking what it must be like to live in a small cell, knowing that the only way out is in a coffin

      The only way out is through his mind, and that’s what he’s trying to do, expand his knowledge of the world. I’d answer. You might even include some recs for other good fiction and non-fiction books

    3. Yeah I don’t even understand why Coyne is posting this. There’s literally no reason not the answer this letter unless he simply doesn’t feel like it. The fact that the guy is a convict is completely irrelevant.

      1. 2 points – first, “Coyne” sounds a bit rude, ‘Prof Coyne’ or ‘Gerry’ or ‘CC’ would pass. Prof CC also doesn’t much like being told what to post or not, as he has made clear on numerous occasions.

        Second, I expect Gerry has already decided, but he’s just curious to know how the usual suspects (that’s us) view the possible ethical dilemma.

              1. That’s a variant of muphrys punishing me for being a smart ass. I meant wrong of course.

              2. Of course you meant wrong. You have no cheeses on your hearth, correct? So you are therefore constitutionally incapable of meaning right and instead wrap yourself in satin.

                …at least, I think what the befuddled guy at the door was trying to sell me….


              3. Satan in satin – I can’t tell if that should be a fragrance or a perplexing action figure.

          1. Oh drat. I wrote ‘Jerry’ in another comment then I thought I must have been wrong so I wrote ‘Gerry’ here. My apologies for the mistake.

        1. I didn’t see it as rude so I apologize there. I noticed some others saying Jerry but I thought that was too personal and I just felt weird saying it. I guess ill use “prof coyne” next time.

          1. I’m curious about this – Nick where are you located? I sometimes wonder at this being a cultural phenomenon (casualness & familiarity) – indeed I know it is.

            1. Speaking of cultural phenomena and expressions,as an American in Canada I think I have on occasion offended people by saying “I don’t care” when I am just meaning to be easygoing between choice A and choice B ( be it a restaurant, or hike, or time, or whatever). And I don’t mean whatever in the snarky teenage way. I think Brits- and maybe Canucks – might be more likely to say “I don’t mind”.

              1. I say that all the time. I haven’t noticed anyone get offended. Maybe because I usually say “I don’t care; whatever you want is ok”. Or “I don’t care, either way”.

              2. Certainly to me (British background) “I don’t care” would sound snarky, if in response to an offer. “Whatever” would be slightly less so. “I don’t mind” or “either, thanks” (or, in some contexts, “it doesn’t matter”) would be acceptable.
                It’s a cultural thing.

            2. It is a cultural thing. As a young fellow my brother and I attended an English-style boarding school in Nairobi. Everyone was referred to by last name. I was “James”, my brother was “James…x” where “x” might be “2” or “minor” or some other qualifier.

              Teachers were always “Sir”. 😉

              1. I read a web site that gave tips to Germans, by Germans, working in Canada & the US. Some of them were not to be surprised that everyone addresses directors & CEOs, etc. by their first name & will chat to these people about personal things like what they did on the weekend, etc.

                I had a German CEO once & I used to imagine him having to get used to us calling him by his first name, etc.

                We also probably look rude to people in England. I’ve been told that we come off as somewhat abrupt because at work, we just blurt out the punch line of what we want without going through the social overhead of greeting and explaining.

            3. I’m currently in Mississippi and I was born and raised in Tennessee (both are states in the South-east U.S.A. Sorry if that’s obvious to you but for all I know you could be in Europe and have no idea which state is which). Honestly I wouldn’t say I’m very representative of Tennesseans though. People in the south-east U.S. are generally pretty informal and most people here would probably have no qualms calling Prof Coyne “jerry”.

              1. No, no, no, you should have said, “do you all live in igloos?” and the response should be, “no, only the very wealthy live in igloos. Most Canadians live in huts”.

              2. It reminds me of the conversation in an episode of King of the Hill where the guy from Laotia keeps telling people he is Laotian & the response is inevitably, “your from the ocean” to which the Laotian snaps & and yells, “stupid rednecks, I’m not from the ocean, I’m Laotian!”

              3. I meant to imply that I’m on the same continent so I have a vague familiarity of the neighbourhood.

      2. Nope, I don’t like Coyne. And Nick is being rude. I had reasons, one of which is whether I should help someone convicted for murder. That was a real question for me. Nick, in his superior wisdom, doesn’t feel that way.

        1. I responded to another comment before I saw this one so this may seem redundant to some viewers on here. I apologize for saying “Coyne” I didn’t see that as being rude. I didn’t want to say “jerry” because that feels too personal and I couldn’t think of anything besides “Coyne” right off the top of my head. I guess I’ll keep it at doctor or professor Coyne from here on out.

          Anyways I just can’t begin to imagine what would be wrong with simply writing a letter to someone (especially about a harmless subject like biology) so it seems like you’re bringing up a non-problem.

      1. That was my next thought after ‘yes, answer him’ – does he have Internet access?

        You know, from where I sit, life without parole seems almost like an excessive punishment for a single murder (assuming there weren’t exacerbating factors – and I’m not suggesting we should be told any more details). Being able to access the Internet would surely help to keep the guy sane. And if the argument for keeping prisoners incarcerated is ‘public safety’, specially for prisoners who are going to be released one day, I’d think the minimal security risk of allowing them internet access would be outweighed by the advantages of allowing them social contact.

        1. This raises the question of how to treat criminals generally. On the one hand, if you don’t feel retribution is justified, you might want to provide many amenities including access to mentally stimulating or entertaining media. On the other hand, by doing so you reduce the deterrent effect. This dilemma could be more pressing for some individuals than others.

          1. I think the deterrent effect is vastly overrated. Most people committing criminal acts assume, consciously or otherwise, that they’re never going to get caught.

  1. I hope you answer him. I used to do research on recidivism using data from North Carolina, and I found that most murderers are like this guy—they did something horrible and stupid to someone they loved. And, if they are released from prison they never commit another crime. Christians and the Nation of Islam prey on these people in prison, by showing them compassion.

    1. Murderers in general are known to have very low recidivism rates, at least in Australia. I guess you can’t murder the same wife twice!

  2. Perhaps answer him as you did in this post, that you are busy and may not be able to continue in an extended correspondence with him.

  3. Questions like do you have time and do you want to be involved in what could become a lengthy correspondence, only you can answer. However, the correspondence may be of use to the inmate. Becoming educated about a challenging subject is not the worst way to spend one’s time in prison. I’d vote for continuing the correspondence for a time and including recommendations of further reading, but being ready to pull out with an apology if it becomes too time consuming or manipulative.

  4. I know it’s arrogant to say this but I have always felt that atheists are better people than theists.

    We do things out of the goodness of our hearts and a desire to make the world a better place.

    At least I do.

    I would respond to this man if only because he is reaching out for a better way, a clearer understanding of his life and the circumstances of his situation.

    I like to think we are capable of sowing seeds of rationality that will someday eradicate the weeds of religion that are overrunning our planet and our population.

    This type of situation is amount more than this one man, more than the things he has done. It’s about being the people WE are and helping our fellow humans find freedom from religion, especially when they seek it out.

    But I may be an unrealistic romantic.

    1. I agree. I don’t think it is arrogant to say this is you impression. Atheists have motives to do good which are not tainted by threats and promises. A missionary may be trying to serve humanity for many reasons, but since it is compromised by a feeling of moral superiority and dogmatic certitude it can cause a lot of damage. Refusing contraception and abortions to patients for example.

    2. You know, it is probably unfair to imply that theists mostly do good things because they think there is a celestial reward for it. After all, I’ve never been generally impressed by theists behaving better than atheists even though, if they really believed their stupid religion, they should be afraid of going to hell. It is therefore unfair to assume that theists are mainly motivated by a desire to suck up to God. (To be sure, there are some sanctimonious jerks who love to lord their “goodness” over people to impress everyone of their piety.) The problem with theists is that they give credit to God when it is really themselves who deserves it.

    3. To be fair, theists also do things out of the goodness of their hearts and a desire to make the world a better place. They just don’t understand this fact. They think they do it for a completely different reason but are wrong in that thought.

  5. He’s probably bored and looking for a pen pal. If he’s read your book then he already has the fundamental answers about evolution.

    1. I wonder if he’s also written to Dawkins and others. Have those authors in their books not clearly said enough to answer his questions?

      “He killed his wife and tried to pretend that somebody else did it. . . I also don’t believe in moral responsibility, that is, I don’t think the guy had a choice about whether to kill his wife or not.”

      I wonder if he had a choice about whether to marry his wife, and wonder if his wife had a choice about whether to marry him. I wonder if he would have had a choice whether to kill any woman he married.

      Do I correctly perceive that the number of men who murder (murder-suicide) their wives is significantly greater than the obverse?

      I know of someone who, as a single woman, adopted her daughter as an infant. A few years later she met and married a guy. A couple of years later she discovered that he had been raping the young girl. (In fact, there’s a reasonable suspicion, in hindsight, that he married her because she had a young daughter.) He’s been in the penitentiary the last several years and, word is that, beyond his incarceration, what the aggrieved mother might reasonably construe as a certain retributive justice has also been meted out to him on something of a regular and recurring basis by certain members of his current “cohort” or “peer group.” Capice?

      One gathers that this fine fellow had no choice about what he did. Did the aggrieved mother similarly have no choice in her chosen course of action, to-wit: pursuing the available legal remedies and not killing him, no matter how much rage and inclination to kill she felt?

      1. This whole business of not having a choice, but still needing to be punished, and acting as a deterrent to others who also don’t have a choice, confuses the hell out of me.

        1. “Not having a choice” means that given the same initial inputs your brain will make the same decision.

          Knowledge of punishment and reward is one of those inputs.

        2. Jerry explained it well in this thread – think of not having a choice as there is only one possible outcome at that particular space and time, given all the inputs that went into the decision (personal experience, your genetic makeup – how your brain is wired), etc.

  6. A clarification on your reference to Timothy McVeigh. Although it is true that Oklahoma has the death penalty, McVeigh was convicted in federal court (the trial was held in Colorado) and was executed by the federal government.

  7. Maybe he could be a conduit, someone might visit him and he could perhaps open that mind to evolution, science ….thereby your knowledge, could continue and the time taken by you would be worthwhile???

    1. I agree and I would extend that to maybe other people he interacts with within the prison, presumably not every other prisoner he interacts with is there for life.

  8. I’d answer briefly and then direct him to books (like WEIT) which he could probably get from the prison’s interlibrary loan system (assuming they have one.)

    People are too complicated to place in simple “worthy” and “unworthy” piles in every situation. He came to you as a student; no need to judge him otherwise.

    1. It says in the post, Sastra, he had read WEIT and other books. But, how about sending a reading list that covers the topic broadly. This could be a form letter useful for other occurrences.

      1. But, how about sending a reading list that covers the topic broadly.

        That begs the question of what the prison library is like (I’ve heard horror stories ; then again, since the functional illiteracy rate in British prisons is in the order of 50% (I don’t have exact numbers), claiming that money spent on prison libraries is money wasted is a position one could defend without too much difficulty), and what the rules on external correspondence, including books, is.

        Would pointing him at a (postal) correspondence course be appropriate? Any volunteers to be a mentor? If he were online, I’d have no concerns about volunteering to support the geological/ palaeontological aspects.

        Not knowing the US penal system, sending frequent mail abroad may be an issue.

        Is there anything like a prisoner’s education group who can act as a snailmail-to-email bi-directional gateway?

        1. All those in favor of starting a “prisoner education group who can act as a snailmail-to-email bi-directional gateway”, raise you hand…

          anyone? … anyone?

        2. “then again, since the functional illiteracy rate in British prisons is in the order of 50% (I don’t have exact numbers), claiming that money spent on prison libraries is money wasted is a position one could defend without too much difficulty”

          That’s a bit rough on the non-illiterate 50%, don’t you think?

            1. If done right it could actually improve the literate too – would require monitoring and stuff, but “peer teaching” thing might work. Allows other prisoners the opportunity to learn a skill too. (Admittedly one which will be hard to directly use afterwards, but …)

          1. Yes, it’s rough. Most people want vengeance from the prison system, and don’t really give a good goddamn about recidivism or effectively reducing future crime.

  9. If it doesn’t cost you much time, yes. At this moment, he is just a person who’s genuinely interested in the field of your expertise.

  10. I think you should answer. I used to volunteer teach in prison. We were told not to ask what people did and not to look people up, not because of rules, I guess just to not make anyone uncomfortable. I suppose it’s different when you aren’t actually in physical contact. I was often curious about what people did, but never looked anyone up…sometimes people would volunteer the info to you. I don’t necessarily think you have to start a long correspondence…just maybe provide some references of more things to read. It’s really good for them to have something to do, to think about. It’s all they have in some cases. Never were there more interested and attentive students than the ones I taught in prison (not to say there weren’t some crappy students, but there were just more who weren’t crappy).

  11. “What mathematical evidence is there that evolution had time to proceed from a one-cellular replicator to man in 4.5 billion years?”

    Wasn’t it Haldane who allegedly said “Madam, you did it yourself in nine months.”

    I personally don’t see a problem with answering the guy’s questions about biology, assuming you have time. As you say, he’s a human being with a curious mind, and there’s nothing wrong with helping him satisfy his curiosity.

    You can always cut him off if he tries to draw you into a discussion of his crime or punishment, or asks you to come visit him or appear before his parole board, or anything of that nature.

    1. I’ve answered the substantive question above.

      Wasn’t it Haldane who allegedly said “Madam, you did it yourself in nine months.”

      Haldane may have had specific knowledge of the alleged woman, but for certain that woman had a mother who had performed the feat at least once.
      (Which reminds me of the politician who asked to be surrounded by one-armed economists … “On the other hand … Oh.”

      1. Haldane himself performed the feat of proceeding from a one-cellular replicator to a human being in nine months, and so did you.

        1. Several of the women that I work with have given birth over the last few years and one thing that I was unaware of is that the typical human gestation period is actually 40 weeks, or 10 months.

          Yet 9 months seems almost universally stated by most people.

          Perhaps some Googling is in order.

          1. A month is on average 30.44 days. 30.44 * 9 = 274 days. 40 weeks (280 days) is a lot closer to 9 months than 10.

            Also, 40 weeks is the average time from the woman’s last period to the baby’s birth. 38 weeks is the typical period from conception to birth. So, 9 months is pretty spot on if we’re talking months rather than weeks.

  12. I’ve got a “meme” going that I like: “Never let your own heart be broken by promises other people break.” I gave that as advice to a student, which they took to mean that in love or in life, their own dreams shouldn’t be subject to the whims of someone else (waiting to be discovered), or letting your heart become bitter after a bad break up. In my own life, I shouldn’t stop being a teacher because someone else did something wrong, regardless how heinous. If it was me, I’d respond as the teacher I expect myself to be.

  13. Your point of view is fair, balanced and respectful to the human beings in general. The guy is already being punished and it is nice he is spending his time reading about interesting topics instead of engaging on violent actions or something like this. There is no need to punish him even more by ignoring his letter on the grounds he is a convict murderer (For example, some christians would want him to burn in hell forever. Sorry, I could not let this pass:)). At the end, if you have time to reply, then do it. Maybe, the inmate can use your answers to ridicule some creationists inside the prison:).

  14. I know that I’ve sent email to some of the authors whose books have influenced me if only to express gratitude for what they did. It is always very nice to get a note back.

    (Dan Dennett, for example, replied to me. He didn’t need to, but he did and I appreciated it.)

  15. I think you should answer him.

    1.He took the time to write a letter. Most of us write poorly written comments on a blog, and you reply to some of us!

    2.The religious prey on inmates, prothletising under cover of rehabilitation, preying on their guilt and want for redemption/ salvation. Maybe, just maybe, you can save one soul from this fate!

    3. He is still a human. If an inquisitive school kid wrote you a letter like this you would probably reply. that’s age-ism (just kidding)

    1. Maybe, just maybe, you can save one soul from this fate!

      Granting the existence of any soul, which is a big assumption to make in this company.

  16. I would answer, for both his sake (as reprehensible as his crime is) and for the sake of inmates he talks with. You may inadvertently encourage inmates to explore science, which can only be a good thing.


  17. Yes, I would answer, and I would also indicate that despite how busy you are, that you would respond to one additional letter from him (if he has questions about your first response) — but then that would be it.

  18. If it weren’t from a prisoner, how would you respond?

    I know that atheists are supposed to be “better” but many Christian leaders are pastors whose only job seems to be to blather at people, while you have a full-time job. Plus you’re reaching out to others on the wings of an albatross and an impressively active website so whatever you decide, I think you’re already going above & beyond.

    1. Your first sentence is exactly what I was thinking. And the answer cuts both ways, for and against answering. I think the most important thing is that there is no shame in not answering, for sure. My older brother spent most of his adult life behind bars on non-violent charges, ultimately all drug-related. I cut him out of my life because he is a toxic and potentially dangerous person to be around and I feel no remorse, 25 years on. I weep for all prisoners and their families, if not as much as for the victims of crime, but I also know small gestures don’t make a difference one way or the other. Time spent writing to this man is time you might have spent writing to another. I personally think I would not respond except a “thanks and good luck” kind of way, like the form letters politicians send to supplicants.

    2. If it weren’t from a prisoner, how would you respond?

      Even here in Secular Europe (OK, I’m in Africa at the moment, but my network connection lands in Europe), we see people wearing tee-shirts with the legend “What would Jerry Do?”
      Some of them can’t spell “Jerry” correctly, using too few ‘R’s and too many ‘S’s. Many of them, in fact.

  19. Why not reply. He’s lost his liberty – that’s enough. He’s asking for info – what’s the harm if you have the time?

  20. Hello Jerry,
    I’d be skeptical because so many “lifers” in prison are recent converts to religion – mostly to evangelical Christianity or Islam – that he may be tying to earn points, and will end up regurgitating some tired creationist response like – “were you there?” It would be nice to think this inquiry was sent out of intellectual curiosity, but the information he seeks should readily available in a library or online.

    1. this is a good point. However, I think one can answer in a way that dismantles all of the usual creationist nonsense and still answers honest questions. Like saying, “now, I’m sure you’ve heard this creationist claim “x”. This is why it doesn’t work.”

      I think it could weed out the creationist liars and address the questions of an honest querent.

      I’d be happy to correspond with this individual, if Dr. Coyne doesn’t have the time.

  21. I live in the Southern Baptist south, and cherish my few opportunities to spend time amongst well-educated people. To be a doctor in prison is surely worse than my situation, so I guess I would probably answer out of simple compassion for someone whose life is doubtless a misery.

  22. I would keep the reply short. Tell him that this is a subject that can not be resolved in a email. Suggest to him further reading. Perhaps someone like John Maynard Smith? Close the email with a friendly closing.

  23. My impulse is, answer him if you can do it in a reasonable timeframe without sacrificing too much. We’re all pretty much on death row in a way, and we’re none of us perfect. Who’s to say he might not pass the info he learns on to someone else, too, and save them from an ignorance that would otherwise be little corrected in that environment?

  24. Definitely answer. I once emailed Jerry Coyne and mentioned I was being stalked by a chat noir who I happened to feed. He told me I should adopt it.
    I considered the suggestion, but then decided against it, as where I live stealing the neighbour’s cat would would probably classify as a criminal offence of some sort 😀

  25. He committed a heinous crime, is doing his time, and is no longer a threat to society. I don’t see any issue with engaging the man’s intellectual curiosity – especially if you don’t believe in the traditional concept of free will.

    Of course, if you don’t have the time, you don’t have the time. Maybe give him some brief answers to his questions, and then suggest additional reading? Do they have access to books?

  26. Dr. Coyne,

    It is not your responsibility to add to the punishment of this prisoner
    by refusing to communicate, especially on a matter that appears to be totally unrelated to his incarceration. As you seem to consider his
    inquiry to be worthy of reply, I think you should reply, in the spirit of one human being to another, and with a disregard for your correspondents circumstances.

  27. There may be other reasons that you’re unable to answer (time et al.), but I don’t think his crime should be one of them. Seems to me it’s pretty much always a good thing to spread education and knowledge.

  28. Of course you answer him. Knowledge should be shared regardless of to whom. You have no idea where this could lead and there should ne no moral dilemma for you.

  29. Answer it. There was a time when I got more letters every day from prisoners than I could read, much less answer. I picked a few people whom I felt were OK people and answered and worked with them. Through a friend of the court brief I was able to get a number of people who had done their time and were being ignored out of prison. Pick a small number carefully. Then work with them. You cannot fix all the problems of the world, but you can certainly fix things in a few small corners.

    When you die, you must ask yourself, will the world have become a better place because of my passing through it ?

    1. My answer to the theist question of what an atheist’s goal in life is “to leave this world in better shape than I found it” … which is more than many of them can say for themselves.

    1. not to presume to speak for Dr. Coyne: My take on this is that none of us are tabula rasa, and all we have done and have experienced influences what we do and will do.

      For instance, my husband is very bipolar without his meds. He has no choice in experiencing those lows and highs.

    2. I don’t get this either. By the same principle Dr. Coyne doesn’t have a choice to answer or not. Doesn’t the fact tha he is deliberating whter to act one way or the other mean he has a choice? Or is deliberation an illusion?

            1. I like this. Sounds like a good name for a deity or a new religion! Better than the trying-too-hard-to-be-funny Flying Spaghetti Monster.

              The Big Banger who has made all our choices for us, hallowed be Thy name.

  30. Or, see if we can answer one or the other question, and if you find an answer that meshes with how you’d reply, just copy and print that off and send it to the guy.

    As to the mathematical model, I’d start off that it’s virtually impossible to do that (despite supposing that it has been done or at least claimed), because of the super-short lifetimes of unicellular organisms coupled with their vast numbers, which we have little basis for assuming.

    There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, that Thomas Edison once hired a mathematician to figure out the volume of a light bulb. The guy fussed and fretted all morning with calipers etc, and Edison came by for the answer. The guy said he was getting close. Edison took the (open-ended) lightbulb, filled it with water, and poured it into a graduate. “There’s your answer!”

    So like with that, far better I think to look at the molecular evidence of the same DNA code and twenty amino acids being used in both bugs and us, and the clear homology in both sequence and structure of many enzymes, bugs vs. us. It’s not a question of could it possibly have happened. It clearly did.

  31. I would answer. I spent time working as a teacher in a prison for juvenile offenders. We received information from the DOC (which I later discovered we were not supposed to have) on the offenses each of our students committed. The best creative writing student I’ve ever had, and I’ve had thousands, was a 15 year-old bank robber. The individual is more than the offense. I can’t see any harm in answering his questions.

  32. After some research regarding corresponding with inmates, I was sickened to see how much the Christian ministry focuses on this group. The guidelines often contain that it is the word of god that is the most important aspect of any communication.

    This inmate is in prison because ‘of his weakest moment’ not because he is brain dead. If the correspondence interests you on any level, then you have a reason(s) to respond.

    (Just don’t pull a Norman Mailer; we knew Richard Adan, the young man murdered by Jack Abbott who at that time was out on parole because of Mailer’s efforts.)

  33. By the way, answer it. I always welcome someone who wants to learn about evolution in a country where so many reject it outright without bothering to learn one jot or tittle about it.

  34. Here’s an interesting discussion with Robert Sapolsky (interviewed by Alan Alda) on free will in relation the the prison system —

    You tube link

    “If there is free will, it’s in all the boring places, like maybe, how many buttons do I close on my shirt…and secretly I don’t think there’s much in that domain either..”

  35. Jerry – You’re concerned about the slippery slope of engagement with this guy over the long term. Understandable, but you might find such a correspondence rewarding in its own right. To have access to such a different experience of life. And you certainly can cut him off easily and at any time. Also, where else are we forced to resort to the nearly extinct form of communication of the mailed paper letter?

  36. What would his victim’s loved ones think about him carrying on intellectually stimulating conversation with you (or anyone else)? I would advise not responding to him, but that’s partly because I think he *did* have a choice to not murder.

    1. I don’t know what the victim’s loved ones think. Do you?

      If the victim’s loved ones thought he should be boiled in oil would that be the right thing to do? If they thought he should be released from prison and paid ten million dollars should we do that? How is what you think the victim’s might think remotely relevant to this question?

      1. 1) The victim’s loved ones *didn’t* say they wanted him “boiled in oil.”
        2) “How is what you think the victim’s might think remotely relevant to this question?” I find it just as relevant as yours.

        Or is the rule of the majority- as many people have claimed in this discussion- the only correct answer?

        1. We don’t know if they did or didn’t want him “boiled in oil”. We don’t know if they care if he interacts with biology professors.

          Justice is not (or should not be) a simple-minded vengeance-imposing system. The victim’s family may think that this guy should be disemboweled in the public square. So what? We don’t use such punishment anymore. Were they happy with the sentence that was imposed? We don’t know. But if we did it wouldn’t matter. A sentence was imposed. The victim’s family likely had an opportunity to speak about sentencing at that time. Did they? We don’t know.

          It is wrong to gratuitously add to a convict’s sentence simply because the victim’s family might think it should be done.

          1. I’d add that justice is not about therapy either. Just as victims’ anger is the wrong place to look for justice, the courtroom is the wrong place for victims to look for “closure”, and prosecutors do them a disservice by telling them otherwise.

        2. Some of the comments here seem far too gratuitous in my view. It’s simple really….

          This guy has committed a crime and the legal system has defined the appropriate punishment/reaction/sanction – call it what you will. Personally I prefer to think of it in terms of society protecting itself but I’m quite utilitarian like that. Either way – no matter.

          The fact is that he’s lost his liberty. That’s what the judiciary considered sufficient and appropriate.

          To deny him the opportunity to learn seems only to be motivated by a desire to see him suffer boredom over and above the already significant discomfort and frustration he must be experiencing with no hope of reprieve. That’s not only gratuitous – it’s sadistic.

          I say give the poor bloke a break. Society has incarcerated him through due process – fair enough. I’m not arguing with that. But there can be no practical benefit to making him suffer more than the court deemed appropriate.

          Send him a flippin’ Email!

          Thanks for reading and please accept my apology if this seemed a bit ‘ranty’ but hey ho – this nonsense where people think it’s OK to ‘improve upon’ the established legal process for their own sadistic reasons matters to me.



    2. I expect the killer has loved ones who would not want him deprived of all meaningful human contact. Do they get a vote too?

    3. Is part of the punishment inmates must receive the perpetuation of their ignorance? We allow inmates access to books and provide classes for them so why refuse to answer a couple of questions?

      Were I the victim’s relative I would have absolutely no objection to Dr.Coyne’s answering his questions.

  37. I think you should answer the guy.

    I recently found myself in a somewhat similar position. I decided on a whim to google an old school teacher from 25 years ago and was shocked and dismayed to discover that he had been arrested and charged with a serious crime (I have been unable to discover if he was convicted). While I am shocked at what he allegedly did, I also found myself contemplating what it would be like for him to be locked up for a long time and I wondered whether I might write him a letter.

    You allude to similar thoughts in your last paragraph so I would say “write!!”.

  38. Go for it but with one caveat. Answer his questions as asked but say clearly that you cannot entertain a correspondence and that your letter is a one-off.

    BTW It took me just a few seconds of Googling to identify him.

  39. Like most everyone else who has replied, I say answer it if you have the time. He is probably a complex person like all of us and could prove to be an interesting person. He probably has a lot of time to think about things and is curious about evolution.

  40. Knowing how busy you are I would reply with a list of books he should read. It would show respect for his desire to learn but not require ongoing correspondence. Wow. As I was typing this I noticed my cat was very interested in something outside. I looked and I saw a squirrel with what looked like a mouse in it’s mouth!

    1. Dr. Coyne writes for a living and updates this website numerous times a day with several lengthy posts. Plus – he is an expert on the subject and was asked a couple of elementary questions. Surely it wouldn’t take more than 5 to 10 minutes to write a (short) response.

      1. Given how busy he is, I’m assuming it’s a matter of Dr. Coyne deciding who to reply to. I do believe responding to this man’s questions is a commendable act. If it means not having time to reply to someone else, I’m not sure how you choose the prisoner over a curious kid, confused parent, etc. I think it’s an interesting decision with no wrong answer.

  41. Helping a prisoner expand his mind and better himself as a person while detained is not immoral. He’s criminal but he’s still a human being.

  42. There is such a thing as moral responsibility. Premeditation is not an impulse but a choice. Talking this nonsense is much more harmful than debunking some silly god.

    1. I apologize for the indelicacy of my statement. It was a knee-jerk reaction. (I could be a smart aleck and say I didn’t have a choice.) But I was wrong. Premeditation is not a choice, but a series of choices. And, yes, he is responsible.

      1. Jerry says it was “sort of a crime of passion”, which would seem to imply that it was more of a momentary impulse than a conscious, premeditated choice.

          1. Yes, Smokedpaprika, the murder, if done in a fit of passion, may not have had much forethought to it. But to then try to have the blame for it fixed on someone else is really vicious and cowardly. That, together with the murder itself, makes it hard to believe this person is really worth dealing with.

  43. If you have time, I would think it is well spent providing the man an answer and perhaps some recommendation for books to read. The man did terrible things, but I see only good coming from this.

  44. If he has no internet access, then perhaps you could donate some more relevant books for the prison library to encourage him in his intellectual journey without engaging in extended personal correspondence.

    It occurs to me that donation to a prison might be a good idea for some of my own paper library, since I now read mostly electronically.

    Is it generally true that prisoners don’t have internet access? Is that just a question of local policy?

  45. I once met a fellow who was mixed up with a bunch of Neo Nazis. He expressed some doubt about the racial things they were saying and expressed a desire to learn more, but did not know where to begin. I happened to have a copy of “The Mismeasure of Man” with me, which I immediately handed to him. Keep it, I said. It’s a good place to start.

  46. I think it would be wonderful if you replied. But, how is billions of years not enough time.

    1 billion = a period of 1000 years 1 million times in a row…

    Period 1) 1000 years
    2) 1000 years
    3) 1000 years
    4) 1000 years
    5) 1000 years
    6) 1000 years

    123,567) 1000 years
    123,568) 1000 years
    123,569) 1000 years
    123,570) 1000 years

    798,209) 1000 years
    798,210) 1000 years
    798,211) 1000 years
    798,212) 1000 years

    999,996)1000 years
    999,997)1000 years
    999,998)1000 years
    999,999)1000 years
    1,000,000) 1000 years

    It’s like…a really really long time frame!

    1. Nice demo. When I took freshman bio, we unrolled a ball of string representing 4.5 billion years with milestones marked. It wound all the way around the lecture hall. Impressive!

    2. Richard Dawkins replied to creationists that believing that life is just 6,000 years old is as far off as believing that the distance between New York and Los Angeles is 28 feet. I suppose it is not only creationists who have trouble wrapping their heads around the idea of billions of years. None of us naturally understand it until we see and accept the facts.

  47. It is of course very easy for me to allot your time–yet I think you should write this man and worry later about “what if he wants more” etc. And that doesn’t mean that you have to write everything personally. You could just write the introductory paragraph and his question get answered by your wonderful community. I actually quite like the idea that “we all here” have a pen pal in prison 😉

  48. If I were a busy academic I would ask my students if any of them would like to write to the prisoner. I would have a clear conscience; it would help both student’s and prisoner’s education and spirit. I would include a personal introductory sentence to the correspondence that could be used in similar circumstances later.

  49. I vote for writing him as thorough of a response as fits your schedule, for two reasons.

    First, why not? If you are interested and have time there is nothing wrong with being kind simply to be kind. Whether you want to engage in periodic our ongoing correspondence after that is a separate question.

    Second, educated inmates sometimes become teachers to other inmates. Any nudges toward rationalism you provide may benefit more than this one person. The influence of religion is so pervasive in prisons that anything to offset that must be good.

  50. One way to gain insight into the counterintuitive power of small changes compounded over time is to sit down with a spreadsheet and just play with the numbers.

    For example, suppose it’s compound interest at a modest annual real rate of interest of 1% (“real” meaning after adjusting for inflation)

    You start with $1.
    After 100 years, you have $3, not very impressive.
    After 1000 years, you have $20,000, and now it’s starting to get “interesting”.
    After 2000 years, you have $400 million.
    After 3000 years, you have $9 trillion, more than all the (physical) money in the world.

    So if you had $1 (inflation adjusted) in, I don’t know, ancient Carthage, and it were possible to invest at just a 1% real rate of return…

    I remember reading an analysis like this from an entertaining fellow called Marc Faber, author of the “Gloom Boom and Doom” report, to highlight the fact that impossible for financial markets to just go up gradually forever, sooner or later reality sets in and wealth is destroyed.

    But I came back to think about this as a way to get to grips with evolutionary (and geologic) timescales, for which we have poor intuition.

    Another illustration is the Grand Canyon. This seems like an ancient, eternal feature that surely has existed since time immemorial. But in geologic terms, it’s a transient hiccup. If you do a “Fermi estimation” of the time that it took to erode, guessing 1mm per year, that works out to order of magnitude 1 million years, which turns out to be about right. Geologic timeframes are so enormous that the Grand Canyon could have been filled in and eroded 1000 times within the age of the earth.

  51. I rarely get involved in discussions of free will (above my pay grade!) but how can punishment be a ‘deterrent’ if free will doesn’t exist?

    Not saying it does or does not. But deterrence implies a choice on the part of those who would otherwise commit a crime. Doesn’t it?

    1. Think about it. If our actions are determined, that doesn’t mean that they are free from the environment. If we see someone severely punished for an act, that can change our brain in a way that make it less likely for us to do that act, for we are evolved to avoid unpleasantness. The environment is part of the panoply of factors that lead to what people call a “choice”, but which has only one outcome.

    2. Your brain is just something that accepts and processes inputs and generates output. To say that there is no such thing as free will is simply to acknowledge that the inputs & the processing algorithms fully determine the output. Your brain is just an information processing machine.

      But it’s still true that if the inputs are different, then the output may be different.

      If you think about it for long enough, free will disappears in a puff of logic. We just have an extremely strong illusion that we are “free agents”, meaning that (given a certain set of inputs) when we generate output, we “could have” in some hypothetical sense generated a different output. The intuition is simply wrong, but it’s incredibly difficult to overcome that intuition through logical argument, however compelling the logic. That’s why it’s such a hot topic for debate.

  52. Sorry, Jerry, but I can not offer advice about how to respond to this person. However, something caught my attention. You wrote:

    “…I don’t think the guy had a choice about whether to kill his wife or not. Yes, he needs to be punished, to deter others…”

    That seems contradictory to me. If he had no choice, how can his story deter others?

    Whenever you (or anyone) writes about Free Will, I skip right over it because I don’t comprehend it and I came late to that debate. Could you possibly write a “Free Will for Dummies” section so that someone like me has place to start?


    1. My advice would be to read Sam Harris’s slim book on Free Will, as well as Dan Dennett’s reply to it, and Harris’s reply to Dennett. Both of those replies can be found on Harris’s website. Jerry’s position is largely aligned with Harris’s.

  53. Go for it.

    But if I were in such a position, I would just add that due to time constraints, I could only correspond just the once. (Perhaps you could send a copy of your book if you have a spare you won’t miss.)

  54. If I was in your shoes, and felt inclined to answer him, I might be inclined do so indirectly, that is, by writing a couple of posts (that might also function as articles in another venue) that addressed each question, then mailing him a printout of each post/article. As to the question about the best fossils that evidence transition, I imagine many people would find this interesting. As to the question re mathematical evidence, perhaps this could be expanded out into a wider question that more or less incorporated his specific question.

    If I was under time pressure now, but felt like writing these articles at some point, I might reply now to say that I’m considering writing something on these issues and will send him copies if I do. I might also include a printout of this post and its comments.

  55. I support you answering him, perhaps take it as an opportunity to answer the questions in as brief, coherent and convincing manner as you can. He mentioned reading your book, so maybe also reference him to specific chapters.

    I think we have free will because we cannot know almost all of the deterministic factors which lead to a decision. A simple analogy is a coin flip. Its outcome is completely determined by Newtonian mechanics, and is thus 100% predictable. However, we think the coin flip is random because we cannot measure the forces or do the calculations during the time the coin is in the air.

  56. “I begun to think how dreadful it was, even for murderers, to be in such a fix. I says to myself, there ain’t no telling but I might come to be a murderer myself yet, and then how would I like it?”

    –Mark Twain
    Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

  57. From the evidence at hand it looks as though his enquiry was motivated by genuine intellectual curiosity. I agree with what seems to be the consensus view here that if it’s not too much of a drain on your time I would respond with a short, succinct answer and some further suggested reading (assuming he has some means of accessing it). I’m sure your inclination is to pay anyone the courtesy of an answer if they pose a question like this. The fact that he’s in prison shouldn’t count against him.

    If he responds by trying to drag you into a long, protracted discussion, or changes the subject to something other than evolutionary biology, or if he reverts to boilerplate creationist-speak, then you can politely end the exchange, but I don’t see the harm in replying to a first enquiry. Of course, it all depends on how well you can fit it among all the other demands on your time. Presumably this chap has almost indefinite time on his hands, but you don’t.

  58. The obvious thing to do is to send him a reading list surely? That doesn’t take so much time and they do get books in prison.

  59. I afraid I don’t see the relevance of his crime when it comes to answering his questions.

    I would most certainly answer and feel compelled to point out that if you had time to write all of the above, you probably had the time to reply.

    I can see why an inmate would venture to put his questions to someone maintaining a website titled, Why Evolution is True, and not consider that he might be too busy.

    In replying, I would point out that I was exceedingly busy, to busy to continually correspond with him, but that I was happy to take the time to answer just the two questions he already posed.

    If it takes longer to reply than I’m assuming and you lack that much time, I hope you ask your students if any of them would volunteer to reply. If I were a student of years I’d eagerly volunteer.

  60. Maybe it is just in the way the post is construed with the “this one is different”, but I would think doing the dna analysis might be much more meaningful. Is there any place/organisation you can refer them to? It is sad they have to just almost randomly send mail to a eeb professor. I understand you cannot always answer, but if they they could be somehow referred to an ngo that does these services it would be a great relief.

  61. I would answer,if only because his situation involves a life sentence,and since he won’t be doing anything much with his time,why not answer someone who may be a fan of you? Might better his life in some way.

  62. Relevant? Prof. Coyne asked for opinions; I gave mine with an explanatory remark. Since the victim is dead, by this man’s hand, that leaves her loved ones to speak for her. I did not speak for them, but rather suggested one (probable) response.

    Perhaps reading some victims’ rights literature might sensitize you to other perspectives on justice.

    1. Does “sensitivity” apply only to victims? Can it apply to convicts to? Might it apply to wrongly convicted convicts? Do you know if he was?

      You did speak for them. You advised the option of cruelty on because (supposedly) the victim’s family would so desire. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t. I don’t need advice on what to read to make a moral and ethical answer to Jerry’s question.

      Justice is not simply a matter of the sensitivities of victims and their survivors. And justice should not be, IMO, a matter of vengeance, particularly beyond the punishment called for by law. This man’s sentence did not mandate that he have no further contact with human beings. Advising as you’ve done serves no conceivable purpose beyond slaking a (presumed) bloodlust among the victim’s survivors. I see nothing there but gratuitous cruelty.

      1. I see nothing in your original response but gratuitous rudeness. Dismissing my comment as irrelevant is inappropriate. Disagreeing? Fine. Hostile negation because you don’t like my comment? Not cool.

        Posted September 10, 2014 at 1:47 pm | Permalink
        … How is what you think the victim’s might think remotely relevant to this question?”

        Is this sort of obnoxious remark acceptable here? I would appreciate a response to this from Jerry Coyne or anyone else in an “admin”/site monitoring position.

        1. I’m certainly not trying to be rude. I am trying, however to be direct and blunt.

          I don’t think the victim’s survivor’s opinions here have any bearing on Jerry’s question. I’ve made the case elsewhere on this page as to why I think this and won’t repeat it here.

  63. Oh sure you should reply with a good generous letter and pass on the reply to the questions to someone else who knows enough to be helpful f you do not have time. I volunteered in the prisons in several places for several years and never encountered anything other than gratitude for providing some way to study something other superficial stuff.(I did encounter a few attempted cons but they were easily seen thru). And I managed to put together a library of fairly meaty stuff, begged from friends) which were devoured. I went in ,a woman, and taught a class to a circle of 12 men, in for all manner of heinous crimes, and encountered no rudeness, sexism or aggression of any kind- only gratitude for treating them like intelligent beings. There were some pretty smart guys in there.

    1. The county where I live is littered with meth houses. Wouldn’t it be great if kids could learn to love chemistry as scientists and not as drug users/makers/dealers? What wasted talent. (Even if meth is easy to make… they could have been great cupcake bakers!)

  64. “…nine hundred years of time and space and I’ve never met anybody who wasn’t important before.” The Doctor

    So, yes.

    Way back when I was churched, I was treated like dirt when I became unemployed for a spell. People would be unbelievably evil and nasty to my face, but then “butter wouldn’t melt” in front of everyone else. If confronted, they would deny everything and pretend I had only “imagined” their behaviour.

    So, many years ago I made up my mind that everyone would be treated with the same level of respect, the same casualness, and would see the same me.

    This principle has proven valuable while hobnobbing with famous scientists, dining with a movie actress, talking to the Prime Minister, advising the secretary of a major government department, having a beer with a local tradesman down at the pub, and chatting with homeless schizophrenics on the street: no fear, no favour.

    So, yes. As long as the questions are honest and meaningful, so long as you are not being trolled.

  65. OP: “…with my name and address scrawled in bad handwriting…”

    Two trivial observations. First, his handwriting seems pretty good to me. Certainly better than mine. Second, it is better than the handwriting of every other MD I’ve ever seen. I’m guessing he isn’t nearly as rushed these days.

    I would reply briefly, explaining I couldn’t address the questions in a letter and direct him to other info sources.

  66. Actually, you have already answered his question to some degree in WEIT, which he has read. In there you describe how long it would take to produce a huge # of species starting 3.5 billion years ago, and having an incredibly slow speciation rate. You show quite clearly that even though these conditions mean it will take a long time, the target # of species is still achieved by the Cambrian period!
    This is not the same thing as evolving something complex like a mammal, but the key events of doing that rest upon ‘fast’ steps like gene duplication.

    You can just send him the page number of that paragraph.

    1. Thanks for checking that Mark. This possibility occurred to me too, but I don’t have the book handy to check. Now this makes me a little suspicious about his motives. If he is an MD, he should be able to grasp the principles described in the book. But, hard to say.

  67. I’d reply, making it clear you don’t have time for extended correspondence, but answering his questions (and maybe recommending further reading, if applicable). A guy in the slammer has nothing but time, and I’d encourage those who spend it learning.

  68. If I didn’t have time to answer (and I know you are very busy), I’d pass the address on (with his permission) to those who do have time, like many commenters here.

  69. I think it is clear that this man is human, and deserving of the productive use of his mind.

    The other part of the question is do you have the time. Perhaps you should send a copy of your book WEIT to the prison library.

  70. What about suggesting taking a course in evolutionary biology through the mail. Many questions arise, naturally. There must be such courses, some free, but they are probably mostly web based. But, when I fly I always take a significant book for all the wait times. I can’t imagine how bored one would get waiting a whole lifetime. Reading and intellectual challenge is the only salvation.

  71. Whether you answer, Dr. Coyne, ought to depend solely upon your prior commitments and your ideals about education; that is, as opposed to what this man’s life is like. In other words, you do not owe any consideration to the pleasures and comforts had by someone who has taken another’s life, free will or not.

  72. I think the quest for knowledge should be honored whenever possible, as long it is not intended for nefarious purposes. As mentioned above we can’t speak for how you use you time; I already wonder how you have time to do all that you do. Perhaps you could direct him to books/papers focused on these issues.

  73. Until May of this year, my brother had been on death row in FL for 32 years. His death sentence was vacated by the 11th Circuit Court and he was given a resentencing trial. The jury and judge gave him 3 consecutive life sentences for 3 murders he participated in when he was 18 years old. Effectively life without parole.

    He entered prison almost illiterate but during the past 32 years he has educated himself by reading almost everything he could get his hands on. We were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, but like me he has shed all religious belief primarily because of books like yours. Now that he is in general population, he is studying for his GED.

    He committed a horrible crime and ended 3 lives; however, the way he has lived his life since has had a profound impact on countless people.

    I guess my long winded point is, I think you should only write to the guy if you have time and interest regardless that he killed his wife. Your response could end up shared with family, friends, guards, attorneys, or inmates and spark someone else’s interest in science and evolution.

  74. Go ahead… MAKE his DAY!
    Then again, his plight and circumstance should not lend itself to any undue demand on your time.
    But your answer could be a post and will serve as a reminder to readers here also of the process.

  75. I would also answer him. I think it would be better to give him real knowledge.. Maybe he wants to become a atheist or a free thinker and he needs arguments against those who preach the bible or about Jesus in the prison and wants to counter them.

    1. Imagine if this guy is somewhat charming and has a large following in the prison. In the coming years, he educates many fellow inmates and they eventually get released saying they’re going to walk a new path because they’ve found reason. The fundies would go nuts!

  76. I would, at least an initial letter that answers his questions and also mentions you don’t have time to get into a lengthy correspondence.

    A while ago my mom (a college physics instructor) also taught a course in prison as a volunteer and faced a lot of objections from highly-religious inmates about the Big Bang. I bet this guy will be facing a lot of objections from religious inmates when he talks about his interest in evolution with them.

    Yes, he committed second-degree murder and needs to be separated from society. But he already has been separated and it’s not our jobs to further it.

  77. Is there any possibility that if the warden or the powers that be aren’t amenable to evolutionary theory they’ll just redact the letter or refuse to deliver it? If that happened there would be a whole ‘nuther level of morality to contend with. Give it a go. Enjoy.

  78. Is there any possibility that if the warden or the powers that be aren’t amenable to evolutionary theory they’ll just redact the letter or refuse to deliver it? If that happened there would be a whole ‘nuther level of morality to contend with. Give it a go. Enjoy.

  79. I think you have to answer; as someone pointed out above, as atheists we tend to less judgemental, and the man has asked for help.

    Let’s face this subject is something that is dear to all of us.

    If you’ve got the paper to spare you could also print off the posts on this thread and let him see that there are quite a lot of us.


  80. He has been judged by society, so I see no harm in dropping a quick line suggesting further reading – if his primary concern is time surely there is an article or two you could send or maybe suggest a book on geology. I would suggest a history of science that goes through how humans came to terms with science like The Ascent of Man. I would be happy to send him a copy at my own expense.

  81. I can’t see the relevance of where he is or what he’s done at all. The Oklahoma Department of Corrections is taking care of that (bearing in mind that an inordinately large part of the US population is in prison compared to the rest of the world, and I have the impression that US prisons are inordinately tough).

    He’s just another person who’s written to you with a question about your field of study. Answer him or not, exactly as if he were anyone else who’d done that.

  82. When this thread has run its course, I suggest a print-out is sent to the prisoner, it will give him much food for thought and will mean the Jerry, who is greatly occupied with his book can continue his work.

  83. I think this situation prompts to cognitive dissonance. I would have to face the question if I accepted to correspond with someone that I know has committed a murder, regardless he is a human being like all of us or his interest in evolution or any other topic. To solve this I would search for more information about him, more context, and decide according to it.

    I’m curious about this – “I also don’t believe in moral responsibility, that is, I don’t think the guy had a choice about whether to kill his wife or not.” In which way he has no choice?

  84. Yes – or if you have a grad student or someone that volunteers to answer and has more time. Who’s not to say that a good theory might not come of this man’s questions? If not, at least he’s continuing his education.

  85. One must be very careful when dealing with inmates. I worked for five years in a Florida prison. I also taught problem-solving skills to inmate classes as a private contractor. Inmates are or learn to be manipulative. We had cases of nurses and guards falling in love with inmates and then being used to smuggle in drugs. Life in prison is not as depicted in the HBO series OZ, but inmate behavior is not to different.

    We had an inmate who committed the same crime as this one. He was a member of MENSA and learned his prison street skills very well. I would recommend that his letter be answered, but do not engage in a long pen pal relationship.

  86. “Crime of passion” suggests to me that something happened that made him act out of character. Yes, he may have killed his wife, but it’s not as if he’s a cold-blooded killer. If he was someone with no regard at all for the lives of others, it would be different. He was a victim of circumstance (which I can relate to, to some extent), and I think his sentence is punishment enough. I’d absolutely reply.

    1. No “Pre-Marital Check-Off List” can be complete.

      Nevertheless, I wonder if there should be included the questions:

      Do you believe that you have free will?

      What transgression would I have to commit sufficient to prompt you to murder me?

      1. You’d never get an accurate answer. Not because the responder would deliberately lie, but because I doubt anyone can accurately predict their response when under stress.

        I know my reaction to aggravation has varied all the way from ‘yeah, so what?’ to going completely bananas, and it has far more to do with a host of extraneous factors than it has the aggravating ’cause’ of my reaction. (And no, so far as I know I don’t suffer from any mental disorder other than being human…)

        1. You’d never get an accurate answer . . . I doubt anyone can accurately predict their response when under stress.”

          I agree. But one can’t be blamed for contemplating making some poor attempt at avoiding an abusive relationship/getting killed.

          (I’m thinking of that Rice football player noble fellow videoed hitting his fiancée. That video is evidence of assault. Was it up to her to press charges? Couldn’t the police charge him regardless of her wishes, and regardless of what the NFL did? Or is this “accommodating” and special pleading by another Amuricun religion, Sports?)

  87. I’m surprised at your statement that you don’t think the prisoner had a choice of whether to kill. I assume this is for the reasons advanced in e.g. Sam Harris’ book about free will, mostly that you can detect brain signals in a test subject reflecting a decision to do something seconds before the subject is consciously aware of his own decision.

    I’m surprised at Harris’ conclusions because from experience I know we can sense our own pre-made decisions, yet I think it’s clear we can overrule them. There may be some people incapable of overruling them but I think that falls into the category of mental illness.

    Unless there is other research I’m not aware of, this looks like bad science. If you do have any additional reasons for denying free will I’d appreciate being pointed to them.

    1. What is “bad science” is someone claiming that he/she KNOWS that you can sense your own pre-made decisions based on “experience,” and then can overcome them. There is no evidence for that at all save your own wish-thinking. Can you overcome what your brain has decided to do by overcoming the laws of physics? If so, you are a dualist. As for you denying the Libet and Soon et al. experiments because of your own experience, that’s just silly. How do you know that the overcoming of what you thought you decided wasn’t decided itself.

      Sorry, but I’m not going to reject science and the laws of physics based on one person’s “personal experience.” Everyone FEELS as if they have free will, but that’s an illusion, one that you are subject to as well, and is apparently operating on a meta level.

      1. Although in need of some tweaking, Peter Tse’s theory [1] strikes me as a potentially viable approach (but then, I’m a medievalist, not a scientist).

        Is anyone else familiar with Tse’s theory? If so, what do you think of it?

        [1] See: http://www.informationphilosopher.com/solutions/scientists/tse/ ; http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/illusion-chasers/2013/08/12/tse-free-will/ ; http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/flickers_of_freedom/2013/12/peter-tses-the-neural-basis-of-free-will-an-overview.html

  88. Jerry, if you do respond to this man, you may wish to direct his attention to the CFI’s Freethought Books Project: http://www.centerforinquiry.net/outreach/about_freethought_books/

    The FBP provides secular & freethinking literature to prisoners, inmates of psychiatric institutions, & related populations, & also connects the foregoing individuals with volunteer atheist/humanist/secular pen pals. If his questions are sincere, this could be an excellent resource for him.

    For what it’s worth, I would reply. Most likely I’d open my letter with a brief note to the effect that the demands of academia prevented me from entering into ongoing correspondence. Then I’d answer his questions, recommend a few texts, & provide the FBP contact information as a tactful ‘hint’ on where to direct further questions.

    1. This answers gravelinspector-Aidan’s question (above) affirmatively. I suspected there was something like this in operation.

      1. ah, I missed that question, else I would have replied to it directly. Apologies @ gravelinspector-Aidan!
        The thread was well developed by the time I arrived, so I didn’t read every comment closely. How nice to learn that I answered a question — even if inadvertently!

  89. I agree that you can respond, but I do not agree that the “moral responsibility” argument should factor in at all. If he had raped a child, there is no way you would reply to him. And yet the “moral responsibility” argument would apply there every bit as much as it does here.

      1. Ha! I don’t, thanks. Me and my assumptions! I assumed since he also cited the fact that it was a crime of passion. Does it make a moral difference to you personally what the crime was? I think it does to me.

          1. I’m not sure that’s true. It might be that someone who likes to rape and murder children “shouldn’t” receive replies to fan mail from their favorite public figures while in prison. Most people agree that criminals should be punished, whether we have free will or not. We draw moral distinctions, whether we are ultimately control of our actions or not. I think a moral distinction might be called for here. Maybe it sends the wrong message to the rest of society if you can brutalize children and still have your fan mail answered? I’m open to other thoughts on the topic.

            1. I take your point, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a “moral” objection. If their state of mind was such that they (or others) saw correspondence with a celebrity as somehow endorsing their crimes, then we might deprecate it. But that’s a different thing to the degree of moral outrage we feel about the crime.


              1. I would argue that teaching prisoners how to think rationally about the world is key to the rehabilitative goal. I have know idea what state of mind this prisoner is, but we know for surveys that the large majority of people in prison are both religious and, to differing degrees, uneducated (at least less educated than the public at large).

                A key component to religion is emotions, thus we shouldn’t be surprised to see a fundamentalist inmate who hungers to see people rot in hell and for God to smite sinners have more emotional responses to every day scenarios.

                I have a relatively quick temper, but I think I have learned over time to better assess whether anger is dictating my actions and whether the actions are logical. Rationality may be a key component in overcoming passion driven decisions. Of course, one could also argue it may help a person better plan crimes in order not to get caught. But, the evidence seems to support education and atheism corresponding with lower crime, which would by definition include passionate crimes such as murder.

          2. Unless the sentence mandates “no contact”, then you’re just adding your own extras. You and I are not in a position to arbitrarily add conditions and “extras” to the sentence.

            Personally, I think politicians who are sentenced for misconduct in office should also have their fingernails pulled out. Otherwise we’re sending a message that their crimes are OK.

  90. The subject of free will is briefly discussed in Stephen Hawking & Leonard Mlodinow’s book, “The Grand Design”. They consider the matter pages 30-33. They agree that our will is deterministic, beyond doubt, but argue that it is impossible to know and understand the deterministic pathway leading to a decision.

    Therefore they advocate a physics concept, an “effective theory”, one which models observed phenomena without describing in detail all the underlying processes. So we are left with free will as an effective theory. They mention gravity, chemisty, psychology, and economics as examples of effective theories. I suspect much of evolution, speciation for example, is in part, effective theory.

  91. Please Jerry answer the letter! I’m in a kind of cell too… I life far from my hometown, work in a place at a awful time (night) so i sleep at daytime and at night a almost don’t have contact with other general people and friends, only other workers who i dislike… At last i have my books, games and the internet… he has to be punished i agree but… 20 years it’s fair (i guess) but whole life…

Leave a Reply