Ask me anything

February 14, 2021 • 9:00 am

I’m still doing writing that requires braining (for another assignment to be divulged), and although I have a science post scheduled for later today I thought I’d do a reddit-like “AMA”.

Readers are welcome to ask all sorts of questions, with the proviso that the questions not be really personal ones. Exceptions: my life in science, food, travels, perhaps some philosophy, or things of that ilk. I can’t guarantee to answer every question (assuming there are some), but I’ll have a look from time to time and satisfy people’s curiosity.

Oh, and please, nothing rude or uncivil (as always!).

188 thoughts on “Ask me anything

      1. I’m guessing the kids one relating to your friend in India.

        Not sure if this will post automatically, new laptop – I logged into WordPress but I’m showing up as an unknown here!

        1. Oh, that one. I found a really good illustrator to illustrate it, and an agent who was willing to sell it, and then everything stopped when the pandemic started. I’m hoping to get this moving again after things start opening up, but it was depressing to get that close and then have things shut down.

  1. AMA question…Other than voting, what actions do you think we should be taking, on grass roots level, to ensure we are successful in pushing back the Christian Nationalism that has fueled many Trump voters? (Love your blog BTW!)

    1. I’m not good at “tactics.” My own procedure is to criticize religion (and of course Christian Nationalists) whenever I can–without offending people who don’t want to listen–and to just wait, because Christianity is dying of its own accord.

  2. Did you have a second runner-up idea for a career before you went into science, or did you always know (from when you were a child, presumably) that you wanted go into that field? It would be fun to learn that you first thought of being a rock guitarist or any anything else unrelated to science.

    1. Not really; it was always science. But when I went off to college I wanted to be a marine biologist (at some point I think that all biologists want to do that–it’s the envisioned glamor of standing on the bow of a ship watching whales). But my first course was taught by an evolutionary biologist, and he was so charismatic and enthusiastic that that turned me to the direction I’m in now. A course in genetics by a Drosophila evolutionary geneticist then put the finishing touches on what I wanted to be, finalized by my second year in college.

  3. It seems to me there was some mention of a new book on speciation for the Oxford VSI series. Anything coming of that? I for one am looking forward to it. I’m afraid Coyne and Orr is beyond my level of competence.

    1. I haven’t decided whether to write it yet, as it will be very hard (no references allowed!), but I am reading the literature since Coyne & Orr to see what kind of updating would be needed. In the meantime, I quite like my chapter on speciation in Why Evolution is True, which gives one the basics.

      1. Hear, hear! Get out there and try wines! I recommend the relatively new book Wine Folly as an excellent learning tool for wine tasting. (And Edward Tufte would be proud of the data presentation.)

  4. Have you read Joe Henrich’s book “The WEIRDest People in the World,” and, if so, what did you think of it?

  5. Is there an explanation for “evolutionary pressure” for those of us who have trouble with the notion that there is no guiding force, no real goal except perhaps fitness to reproduce?

    1. “Evolutionary pressure” is not a word we use in the field. “Selection pressure” is, and that simply refers to the direction that new mutations could take that would increase fitness. For example, in an environment that’s getting colder over the years, mutations in homeotherms that increase body mass (therefore reducing surface-to-volume ratio) might be favored, as would mutations for thicker coats in mammals. This is of course based on exigent conditions, so there’s no “goal” here; just existing conditions that happen to give a reproductive advantage to mutations that create certain changes in the body, behavior, or physiology.

      1. In my mind, in the colder environment some homeotherms managed to adapt by developing warmer coats, but there may have been other coexistent homeotherms whose genes didn’t mutate in that direction, so they died out?
        The arms race between the cheetah and the gazelle may have included other cheetah/gazelle types that did not survive the arms race and so died out?

        1. You don’t have to die out if the cold doesn’t completely kill every individual or make them unable to reproduce. Also, animals have behavior, and can move to warmer climes, which is a much faster solution than adapting in situ (that behavior could eventually become genetically instilled, which is why birds migrate south).

          1. That reminds me of Wrangel Island mammoths – stuck there, they became smaller & eventually extinct…

    1. It depends. Lying that involves defamation designed to hurt somebody, incite immediate and predictable violence (viz., Jan. 6) or false advertising, should be and isn’t considered free speech. Lying that isn’t intended to hurt anybody, or that doesn’t fit into those other categories, should in my view be allowed. Creationism, for example, which is a big fat lie, should be allowed to be promulgated by people, though not taught in schools, because “free speech”, as the courts have ruled, doesn’t mean that you can just teach anything in the classrooms. Likewise, I have no objection to Holocaust denialism, though it’s against the law in some countries.

  6. Can I get your comment on Neuhof Levin and Rechavi, whose abstract states

    The Weismann barrier postulates that genetic information passes only from the germline to the soma and not in reverse, thus providing an obstacle to the inheritance of acquired traits. Certain organisms such as planaria – flatworms that can reproduce through asymmetric fission – avoid the limitations of this barrier, thus blurring the distinction between the processes of inheritance and development. […]

    If you haven’t seen it before, and if it’s interesting enough to you, maybe come back to it later?

    1. I haven’t seen it. Some epigenetic changes do reverse the Weismann barrier, but only for a generation or two: environmental factors can somehow get coded into the genome. But by and large, Weissmann was right, and this explains both inheritance and evolution. I haven’t read the paper.

  7. Generally, specifically, or otherwise:

    Can you point to any of the most misleading or otherwise inhibitory notions – such as the marine biology fantasy – that might occur to a young student, and how to settle such notions?

    In other words : given your successful academic career, what things – personally or externally – did you deliberately avoid, reject, or resolve, that would have hindered such a career at that time?

    1. Well, the marine biology fantasy might not be inhibitory for future marine biologists! It’s hard to give advice about how to strive for success in science. What I tell young grad students in evolution is to be sure to learn about the history of the field and read some of the great classics of evolution, like Fisher’s and Dobzhansky’s books, which are not only edifying but outline problems that are still unsolved. (I got onto the genetics of speciation because although Dobzansky started the field in the thirties, it alargely died off between then and the eighties). One of my most cited papers took up a problem that Haldane had raised in 1922, but which nobody had really addressed after that.

      Also, there’s no easy way to become a scientist, I tell them: you have to work VERY HARD. If you’re not in the lab on the weekends, at least when you work with flies, you’re not working hard enough. In other words, you can’t have a good career without working hard, and if you don’t like hard work, find some other line of work. What’s great about science is that if you really love it, it’s not LIKE work. You’re getting paid for fun–finding out stuff.

      1. Excellent ideas.

        But how can one know what NOT to work hard on? I suppose these topics were so compelling that, as the saying goes, nothing else mattered.

        1. I always made my students choose their own thesis topics, but would discuss them with the students to ensure that they were do-able. I had only four grad students in my career, and fortunately all of them were diligent and had a good eye for problems.

  8. I am interested in your opinion :

    In three ostensibly different segment of our society, the following:

    The Woke: If a student feels harmed by something that a professor has said, no objective evidence is needed; that professor should be punished.

    Stand Your Ground: If an armed man feels mortally threatened in an encounter, no objective evidence is needed; he may legally kill that person.

    Politics: If a president and his supporters feel he was cheated in an election, no objective evidence is needed; they consider themselves free to act on that belief.

    Are these examples separate, unique, and unrelated or do they represent manifestations of a single, possibly pervasive, societal phenomenon?

    1. The first two are similar in that how one FEELS, rather than the objective circumstances, are what is considered important. But from what I know of the SYG laws, I don’t agree with them. There has to be a threat beyond feeling. As for feeling harmed as a student, if the professor intends no denigration, then the professor shouldn’t be punished.

      The last example is also related in that objective evidence is considered irrelevant. However, if your actions in this case are always harmful, violent, or damaging, you are not justified in acting on your own. This is for the courts to resolve (as it should be for the SYG laws).

      1. My purpose was not to question the validity of feelings in these examples, but merely to note that in these very different circumstances involving very different segments of our society, personal feelings or beliefs are acceptable as basis for action and objective evidence is unnecessary or even irrelevant. This, it seems to me is new.

      2. I don’t want to send this too far off message, but this is not the legal meaning of “stand your ground.” To lawfully use deadly force against another person requires more than a feeling; it requires an objectively reasonable belief that you are in imminent danger of being the victim of deadly force from the attacker. You don’t have to be right but you do have to be objectively reasonable. (For example, you might reasonably fear for your life even if the gun you are being threatened with later turns out to be defective.) The “stand your ground” part means that IF you have an objectively reasonable belief that you are in imminent danger from the use of deadly force against you, you need not try to run away before responding to the threat by using deadly force against your assailant. (The alternative, in many jurisdictions, requires that the victim “retreat” when confronted with an imminent threat of deadly force, if you can do so in complete safety. I won’t speculate about how “stand your ground” has been applied in practice — I suspect there is some actual evidence about that — but it doesn’t seem obvious to me how you could simultaneously be in imminent danger of deadly force if you could also avoid that by retreating in complete safety.)

  9. Are you planning any new books? (I think, given some of the travels you’ve discussed here, that there would be a lot of interesting material for a memoir! Or an essay collection, bringing together and updating/expanding WEIT posts, dealing with some of big themes and arguments you’ve had here. You’d have one reader, at least!)

    And: are there any ‘sophisticated’ theologians you respect intellectually? (‘No’ is a perfectly valid answer…)

    1. No, I haven’t those plans; only the VSI that I mention in this thread.
      To your second question: NO! A sophisticated theologian does not deserve “respect” for his/her ideas because they’re arrant nonsense.

    1. I only write a book if I have a good idea and an compelled to write about it. I have no compelling ideas now though OUP wants me to write a VSI on speciation. That’s the only book on my radar screen, and I’m contemplating writing it. It would be short (30,000 words or so), and so not nearly as onerous as writing a big book.

      1. “I have a good idea and a[m] compelled to write about it”

        Perfect distillation of the reason to write a book (for an occasional author, as opposed to an author like Isaac Asimov).

  10. I’ve been waiting for a post like this for a long time!

    I’d like a recommendation for a good genetics textbook, so that I can teach myself enough to follow the conversations and make heads or tails out of papers and articles that I see. I’m looking for a mainstream book, not too old to exclude anything important and recent, but not so “new” that it tips over into identity politics or woo (for example, an overemphasis on epigenetics, or whatever else is being pushed to try to minimize evolution by mutation and natural selection as we know it). Not, of course, that I’d mind learning about things for which there is actual scientific evidence.

    I have a decent layman’s comprehension of science, and a fair amount of math and chemistry in my background. Thanks in advance!

    1. I called my friend Andrew Berry, who teaches genetics at Harvard, and he gave me three recommendations.

      First, are you sure you want a “professional” genetics text, will have tons of information that you may not want if you just want basic genetics. If you want a pro one, he recommends “Genetics, A Conceptual Approach” by Benjamin Pearce.

      If you want a more trade-ish book, but one that’s fairly rigorous, try DNA by Watson and Berry (yes, Andrew helped write it). I’ve read it and it’s good. Not so much a textbook but a survey of the field.

      If you just want a fairly thorough survey of genetics without going into arcane details like microRNAs, Andrew recommends reading the genetics chapters of the intro bio textbook Biology: How Life Works. Those chapters were written by Dan Hartl, a superb geneticist who knows what he’s talking about.

      1. HLW is an excellent text, except that some of the “classical experiments” discussed are oversimplified and just would not work as described. For example the Lederberg’s demonstration that mutation in E.coli was not a specific response to an inhibition would as described require millions of Petri dishes.

    1. I haven’t been to a lot of cities in the UK, but of the big ones I like London (that’s a no brainer). Of smaller ones I quite liked my week in St Ives, and I found Mousehole charming. I’d love to visit more of Scotland and the northern islands.

          1. Agree: Cornwall is wonderful. Tough bicycling though! Toughest physical bicycling I’ve encountered in the world: Devon and Cornwall.

      1. An excellent location in Scotland, apart from the obvious ones you’ve visited (like Edinburgh), is St Andrews, if you haven’t been. It’s on the east coast, has beautiful views, lots of museums and ruins, is fairly quiet but with plenty of nice shops and pubs, and the university is the oldest in Scotland and the third-oldest in the UK and the English-speaking world (after Oxford and Cambridge). There’s a really nice little university museum where you can try on the red gowns the students there wear on their processions along the pier and at graduations, I think (there was a local hero in the ye olde days who died saving people out at sea in a storm or something, hence the processions). Lovely, lovely place.

  11. Please help me out of this circular thinking.  Analysis of the Neanderthal genome has revealed some sequences that apparently evolved separately from the Homo sapiens line, and these sequences have been labeled Neanderthal genes.  But I am confused as to how the distinction is made – if Neanderthal sequences comprise 1 to 4% of the genomes of living humans, couldn’t it just be that these genes were mis-classified as Neanderthal-specific in the first place?

    1. No, because they were found originally in Neanderthal remains, are consistent in those remains, and are very different from the genes in the same places in H. sapiens sapiens. Because of this difference, we know that when some humans have the genes (and not all of us do!), they must have come into our species by hybridizing with Neanderthals.

      1. Jackson, Miss., despite its many serious problems, not least violent crime and crater-like potholes, has a fine museum of art and of course the fairly recently opened Civil Rights Museum. It it weren’t pandemic time, you could also enjoy some of the best food north of New Orleans.

          1. Walker’s, in the Fondren area on N. State St, seems to get better with age; Mick Jagger has eaten there. Hal and Mal’s, in the shadow of the old state capitol building, is a lively place that serves an excellent shrimp gumbo. Sal and Mookie’s, again in Fondren; Amerigo’s Italian, a bit farther north toward the reservoir; Primo’s on Lakeland Dr., especially for breakfast with grits that will win over any Northerner’s heart; the Mayflower downtown for seafood and a mix of local oddballs and elites ; and Bravo! in Highland Village beside I-55. Those are just the ones I know about. Many more have sprung up in the years I’ve been away.

    1. Well, the Beatles, but their concerts were in large venues and stadiums, and I don’t like listening to music in such places. I did see Manassas with Steve Stills, all the musicians at Watkins Glen, the Band, the Rolling Thunder review with Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Roger McGuinn (twice), Steve Goodman, and the Allman Brothers with Dicky Betts. These were all in very small venues, and were great.

      I would like to have seen Jimi Hendrix, Fleetwood Mac, Jim Morrison, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (though they aren’t that great in concert), Neil Young, James Taylor, Steely Dan (rarely gave concerts; a studio group), Laura Nyro, Joan Baez, Eric Clapton, and, just for the experience, the Grateful Dead, though I’m not a big fan of their music. This is just writing off the top of my head; I could make a much more extensive list with some thought.

      1. Re: Your comment about CSNY: I saw Crosby, Stills, and Nash (sans Young) in concert, and they were excellent! They nailed their harmonies in those days. They are a bit weaker in later times. Voices age, alas.

      2. I can recommend a YouTube concert The Doors at the Isle of Wight festival 1970. Jim Morrison was on his game, no flash and bang, just the band playing and a year or so before Morrison died.

  12. Are intelligent, technology-creating life forms such as ourselves vanishingly rare, even unique, in the universe? It strikes me that even in the hominin lineage, there were several “false starts” (Neanderthals, Denisovans…) and even H. sapiens nearly died out also — just one out of untold millions of species has managed to control fire, make sophisticated tools, and actually flourish. It seems that for the vast majority of animals, small brains work well enough and big ones aren’t worth the cost, even though Earth has ideal conditions to support them (compared to, say, Enceladus).

    Related: we have in the octopus a curious, somewhat intelligent animal that has superb vision and motor skills — why, after millions of years, has it not developed greater intelligence?

    1. I get asked this question all the time, and my response is always, “I don’t know.” I’m sure there must be some forms of life elsewhere in the Universe, and,, given the number of planets and the selection pressure for intelligence, some of them probably have human or octopus-level intelligence. Dawkins, I think, sees intelligence as a produce of arms races, so he (I may be wrong here) sees it as something that would evolve more often than we think.

      Why aren’t octopuses getting smarter? Because they’re perfectly smart enough to be an octopus. There may not be any reproductive advantage to them getting bigger brains

      1. Do we really know that octopuses aren’t getting smarter? Wouldn’t evolution of intelligent behavior likely be something that occurs way too slow for us to detect? There is fossil evidence for brain size in particular species not changing much compared to modern specimens but I wonder how accurate that really is and whether it tracks intelligence.

        A related question I think about. Does the presence of human intelligence somehow encourage evolution of intelligence in other species? It seems likely that it does. We select the smartest specimens for our pets. We provide lots of intelligent artifacts for other species to use to their advantage. We provide a structured world for other species to navigate. Has any scientific work addressed this question?

        1. We don’t know if they are getting smarter. If there is ongoing directional selection, they could as well be getting dumber in favor of some other measure for increased fitness like shorter generation time and greater reproductive rate.

        2. When you say “We select the smartest specimens for our pets” I disagree. Domestic animals have smaller brains than their wild cousins. They do not need to navigate the complexities of being ever alert for prey/predators etc. Merely to act in a puppy-like way to please humans. See the work on domesticating foxes for example…

          1. I take your point but I was thinking of the domesticated pets as an isolated population. Of course, they aren’t really isolated from their wild versions so, as usual, things are complicated.

      2. I read an essay by Loren Eisley a while back on the intelligence of dolphins. He said it would be kind of a shame since the dolphin has no apparent way of sharing what they know.

    2. There are two problems for octopuses and intelligence.

      1. They don’t live very long – usually no more than a couple of years. The male usually dies after mating and the female after the eggs hatch.

      2. They are very antisocial. Two octopuses in a tank are really one octopus and dinner.

      There’s simply no opportunity to learn things from other octopuses.

      1. There are some famous old experiments that show octopuses can learn from watching other octopuses in the lab. I don’t know how well those results have stood up over time. And it doesn’t demonstrate that they do this in nature, but they at least have the potential for some kinds of social learning.

        DOI: 10.1126/science.256.5056.545

        1. In the original Fly Lab–Morgan’s lab at Columbia, they kept a bunch of bananas hanging from the ceiling to make fly food. But only the boss himself, Morgan, was allowed to eat a banana from the bunch.

          1. From the bunch hanging from the ceiling. Students are hungry, of course, and would have eaten the hanging bananas, but there was an unwritten rule that only T. H. Morgan could take a banana from the bunch to eat.

  13. Hello Jerry,
    Gerry here. Long time listener first time caller…
    I was wondering if you could tell me the age of modern man. When I say modern man I mean Homo Sapiens Sapiens. You would think this is an easy enough answer to look up but there appears to be conflicting answers depending on where you look. With that said, are there any specific remains or artifacts of interest that have helped us come to this conclusion? Love the site and start my day off with the Hilli dialogue. All the best!

    1. I don’t have a grill and don’t like to fuss with grilling, but I’ve developed, with the help of my late friend Josh Ozersky, a method for preparing them that’s great (he has a video on this).

      First, marinate the steak in olive oil for 12-24 hours; throw in some chopped garlic if you want.

      Get a big, well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

      Blot the olive oil off the steak till it’s relatively dry. Coat steak liberally all over with ground pepper and salt (I use pink Himalayan sea salt ground in a salt grinder).

      Add olive oil to pan and heat on medium-high till oil smokes.

      Put salt side down in pan (immediately put salt on other side). I like my steaks quite rare, so I cook it for 1.5 minutes per side.

      Immediately put entire pan with steak into the oven. Depending on its thickness, I’ll leave it in between 2 min 15 sec and 3 min 15 seconds (only for thick steaks).

      Remove from oven, plate steak, and let sit for five minutes. Transfer to fresh plate after juices exude

      If you want, deglaze the pan with the juices and some cognac.

      Remember, the times I’ve given produce a RARE steak, Adjust the doneness by varying the oven time, not the searing time.

      Sometimes I put some pepper flakes in with the salt and pepper mixture I use to coat the steak.

      As Josh said, “you can hardly use too much salt.”

      Enjoy with a good red wine, a vegetable, and a starch (potatoes, rice, or bread).

        1. Or as the conspiracy theory (teeory?) goes, “G*d him a layin’ sea salt on da mountayins to confuze da unbelievers”? (Apologies to Dwayne from Death in Paradise for cultural appropriation of hiss ak-sent.)

    1. I wouldn’t mind helping a friend do field work, but you can’t really help somebody do lab work–that is a huge commitment. I don’t want to run a lab any more; I’m retired after 30 years of that.

  14. 1) What is your favorite small town in America?

    2) If you could time travel 60s era Jerry into woke era 2020s, how would he grapple with the abrupt transition on the first day?

    1. Probably Cambridge, MA, though that’s really a city. I’m not much of a small town boy as I like stimulation. Williamsburg, VA holds a lot of memories for me.

      Second question: I really have no idea.

      1. No. Paul had some great stuff afterwards. Wings, for eg? And later. Not the same RATE as Beatles’ success: flops ratio, but overall a very respectable set post 1970.
        And what about George? Chopped liver? Sheesh!

  15. What is the daftest thing you have ever done? For example, I know of someone who put their fingers in a mousetrap to see if it was set properly !

    1. Oy, there’s no end of daft things I’ve done. When I was in college, and under the influence of some weed or psychedelic, I put my entire head into the toilet and asked someone to flush it, just so I could experience what it was like. For the rest of the year I was known as “flush”.

      Of course I immediately hopped into the shower and washed my hair and head!

      1. Well, what was it like?!!! You can’t just drop that history on us and not share the experience – unless …. you were too far gone to remember? (Nah, you were aware enough to jump in the shower ….)

  16. How much time do you spend every day writing blog posts, and do you sometimes feel that gathering the information for your Hili dialogue posts is a tedious chore?

    1. I’d say about 2-3 hours a day, and I try to get the writing done between 5:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. When I write a science post, however, it takes much longer, which is why I’m so insistent that people read them. PREPARING for writing takes time, too, though: I have to read the papers or articles, usually twice, before I write anything. That I do in the evening along with my “pleasure” reading. I enjoy doing the Hili posts because I looks stuff up and have learned a lot finding out what events mean or what people’s lives were like. Readers often send me the tweets (Matthew is a good source) or memes, so that isn’t much work.

      I wouldn’t be writing this if it didn’t amuse and edify me, though sometimes it’s hard work, and sometimes I feel as if I have nothing to say.

  17. Escobar’s Colombian hippos- supposedly descend from a male & three females & there have been arguments over the damage they do to the environment Versus possible benefits –
    My question – how on earth have they not died out as they must be horribly inbred? Is it possibly purging of deleterious mutations?

    My guess is there must be some changes? The famous ‘wild’ (not really wild) white cattle of Chillingham are very inbred & although they are smaller now than 200 years ago I seem to recall…

    …& I wonder if it has happened in humans eg Andaman islanders…

    1. That’s a hard one. Lots of paleontology questions, of course, like what is the earliest known tetrapod, what’s the genealogy of some of the species whose placement we don’t know, how sexual selection works (there are many proposed processes but almost no hard answers), and what are the adaptive significance (if any) of various morphological traits that distinguish human populations. There are many more.

  18. Because lovebugs (Plecia nearctica) are killed by cars in huge numbers (in FL and other southern states), by definition before they’ve reproduced, should we expect a mutation to arise (and then be selected for) that would cause them to recognize and avoid flying over highways? With their short life cycles, has there theoretically been enough time since the advent of cars and highways for such a mutation?

    1. Don’t you think that the number of bugs killed by cars, while a large number, is not significant relative to all causes of death? At least not sufficient to be a prime mover for selection. I have no idea, of course. I don’t even know what a lovebug is though I plan to google it.

    2. I’ve often thought that mammals should be selected to cross asphalt as quickly as possible, and perpendicular to the roads. Yes, of course there’s been enough time; we can see substantial evolution in a decade or so. But the question is what proportion of all lovebugs get killed by cars. If it’s a very small number, then the population won’t change so quickly.

      1. I’ve been driving on unfenced Highland roads in Scotland for over 50 years, and am convinced that sheep have evolved to avoid running across in front of cars. Lambing season used to be the worst time, and of course a lamb would be killed by a car before it was able to breed.

  19. People have asked about travel, but not this I think:

    Did running a lab really tie you down, or were you able to spend half-years or full years well away from UChicago when a sabbatical or other opportunity came up? Did travel interests affect some more basic things early on, say, in choices of university for undergrad, grad, or accepting jobs?

    It could be argued that an academic might do as good or better research in a slightly less great university if they were happier with living in that geographical location.

    I hope this is not too personal, as you asked us to avoid! But obviously just say so if it is, as sometimes such decisions involve personal relations.

    1. I’ve always been happy in my jobs, which were both in large cities (D.C. suburbs and Chicago), though I chafed a bit in Davis, CA during my postdoc as it’s tiny and has one movie theater and no really good places to eat. Fortunately, I was an hour from Berkeley and SF and went there often. I did a postdoc in Davis as it was only a couple of years and had a great genetics department, and I went to William and Mary because it was a very good liberal arts college and, since I was a Virginia resident, very inexpensive.

      I took every sabbatical I could get: half years, years, a Guggenheim, etc. No way I would not go away for a sabbatical: a paid chance to see and study in a completely different place.

  20. David, from Christchurch, New Zealand. I would like to ask where you get your energy from Prof Coyne? I don’t comment often, but I can assure you i read this blog daily. I love it. I believe it is the best blog in the universe by a wide margin. Everyday, I learn something because of you Prof. You have so many interesting and inspiring tales and revelations on your blog each day. It’s wondrous. Thank you for making my life more interesting. All the best.

  21. What is the current status of the “extended evolutionary synthesis (EES)” in the field of evolutionary biology (i.e., the consensus view toward it)?

    What is your personal professional view of the EES and does it have any potential merit even if limited?

  22. The EES promised a lot but didn’t deliver much. The problem was that its advocates were overly ambitious and described a lot of phenomena that seemed important (genetic assimilation, epigenetic evolution, etc.) but for which there was not a lot of evidence. And, indeed, not much evidence has accumulated since: the field is pretty much where it would have been without the EES hype. It reminds me of punctuated equilibrium in paleobiology: a lot of hype and ambition and loudness but, in the end, not much new understanding.

  23. Why do you write “brain” and “braining” instead of think and thinking?

    I jest, if athletes can medal and mountaineers can summit, you can certainly brain. Through it does always look weird to me when I read it!

      1. Thank you for that answer! I am glad that is why you do it (and truth be told, I expected something of the sort) because it also amuses me. We are both equally strange in this respect :~D

  24. Humans used to be considered superior to other animals as we were the only ones who could make tools. Then it became clear that “lesser” animals could show, compassion, mourn the death of a mate, recognize their image in mirror, have interspecies relationships, enjoying play, etc.

    So, other than having the singular ability to destroy the world with nuclear weapons, what is it that makes humans unique or special or better?

    1. I’m not going to say better because lots of animals are better than we are at doing stuff (flying, staying underwater, etc). But what makes us unique is syntactic language, writing, and a very complex culture.

  25. Given that you are out there and probably pissed a few nasty people off, have you at any time worried about your safety?
    What jumps to mind is John Lennon and his deranged killer… with all those hand guns about.
    You may not consider yourself in the same league as Lennon but that doesn’t matter to the sick.
    I apologise if this makes you feel uneasy but I have thought about this many times since being a reader here on WEIT.

    1. Well, I’ve had a couple of trolls, one of which still tries to bother me from time to time, calling me up drunk at 4 am and leaving messages on my office phone. He loves Putin and berates me with obscenities every time I criticize the bare-chested horse-riding tyrant.

      The other one was scarier, sending me an email telling me he was going to perform a sexual act on me and then gouge my eyes out. That was a threat, and so I reported it to the FBI. They traced the email, and it was a federal offense since it was from out of state. They told me they went to the guy’s house and had a little talk with him, and they didn’t think he’d be bothering me any more. He hasn’t

      I get all kinds of hate mail, but I only worry if there’s a threat, and if it worries me, I report it. It’s happened only twice, far less often than I’ve been reported to the government of Pakistan for “blasphemy”.

      1. “They traced the email, and it was a federal offense since it was from out of state. They told me they went to the guy’s house and had a little talk with him, and they didn’t think he’d be bothering me any more. He hasn’t”

        Most excellent! People forget that everything online has footprints.

  26. When you started your career, the academic world (if you will), was, I presume, largely hidden from the general populace. Now, though internet access is not 100% accessible by the general populace, the academic world – papers, books, talks, actual courses, and more – provide, for ostensibly free, (from my perspective) a type of education to that populace – at ages younger than ever before – as well as the academic populace – to say nothing of graduates of that system that can also serve roles as educators. As Sullivan observes, we are all on campus now.

    Does this change the measures of what it means to be educated?

    What, if anything, does this mean for the role the academy and educators plays in education?

    Does that change how academic systems like tenure place on the output of faculty?

    1. Proofreading last question:

      “Does that change how academic systems like tenure EVALUATE the output of faculty?”

    2. I am not answering for the professor, but I need to respond.

      There may be far greater access to educational materials, but I feel the education level of people in the US has dropped a great deal. The education system has failed us, from preschool to grad school.

      1. That’s an enormous topic, but I have pointed at the graduates of the United States public education system that invaded the Capitol last month as just a tiny piece of evidence of what you are getting at.

      2. The cynical reply to the U.S. education level is:
        “The purpose of the U.S. education system is to train good workers.”

        1. I think it is a fact that the objective of the United States public education system is that 100% of the students graduate. I’m drawing largely from the story presented in Waiting for Superman, and other books from that documentary.

      3. In what sense? My father was the first from his family to attend college. All his kids graduated, most with graduate degrees.

        People’s knowledge of many subjects is higher than it used to be (check old education standards). People have to know about more things than they did in the 1940s or 1950s. Life has become more complex.

        Most people are ignorant of literature, the details of science, math beyond the simplest algebra, the time value of money (I could go on); but this has always been true. It’s less true than it used to be. (For example, very few of my father’s contemporaries attended college. I think he was the only one of his childhood gang to do so. A high school education had lower standards in his day than it does now. Kids at my son’s high school can take a full (college) year’s worth of Calculus and pass out of the college courses, for credit.)

        My wife teaches her 2nd graders more about how to actually write (for instance) than I learned in my entire education, including in college.

        1. “My mom would teach us mathematics at home. […]. We spent quite a bit on mathematics for only one reason : it’s because they were from Singapore, and they weren’t exactly sure if they were going to stay in the United States. And I remember my parents telling me : “Let’s make sure that you learn what all of your classmates in Singapore are learning, because if we go back to Singapore, that way you won’t be the bottom of the class”.

          – Po-Shen Loh, interview (1 of 3) with Eddie Woo, 22 January 2021, at t=1:36 :

    1. Oh dear, that’s a hard one. I suppose if I had to name one, it would be a Comté aged for four years, until the texture is almost gritty. I could get that regularly when I did a sabbatical in Dijon. I also love a very ripe Saint-Marcellin, so ripe that they liquify when presented in a bowl. After that, a good sharp English farmhouse cheddar like Keen’s, aged long enough that it starts to acquire mold.

      It is paradise for me to go to a great cheese store in Paris like Marie-Ann Cantin’s. And in England, I go to Neal’s Yard Dairy in London for great cheese. I am not in general a fan of blue cheese, but their Stilton is fantastic.

  27. I enjoy your posts about red wines. Have you ever tried some of our South Australian reds? Barossa Valley, Clare Valley, McLaren Vale for example?

    1. Yes, indeed, and I love them. One of my dreams is to go wine tasting in SE Australia. Sadly, Aussie wines aren’t imported that much into the U.S. Some of my favorites are the Australian “stickies”, which are world-class sweet wines at bargain prices.

  28. I’ve always wondered why is that your arguments on most topics are usually very cogent and airtight yet the people espousing these errant opinions are so unaware of it. Would love to see them come on WEIT and defend their positions.
    Love WEIT and everything about it, thank you Dr Coyne!

  29. From what I understand, you are retired from teaching but still go to your office each day. Nowadays what occupies your time there? Speaking only for myself, I find it easier to work outside the home and wonder if you feel the same.

    1. Yes; I always drew a distinction between the office (work) and home (relaxation, sleep, dinner). At work I write on my website in the morning, then read science or other stuff, write any pieces I have on tap (for places other than the website) and, when there are ducks, go down and feed them. These days I usually work from abut 5:15 am to about 2:30 pm.

    1. Yes, of course. She was a year ahead of me, but was good friends of many of my women friends in my class. How do you know her? What is she doing now?

      When I came back from Costa Rica in 1973, I stayed for a week in her house in Cambridge, though she wasn’t there at the time (one of my women friends from college was).

      1. I was her first husband, ’71-73. I last lived with her at a flat near Star Mkt, and railroad tracks, technically Somerville, functionally Cambridge. Lee died in 2015, age 66. She had chaired the Sociology Dept of U. of Maryland, spent years in China, gone to Divinity School. Overall she published over 50 scholarlies, I’ve read, plus co-authored a couple of text books and books.

  30. I’m incredibly late to this party…we lost power Friday night, and with power loss goes the internet (and the telephone, which is fine by me.) Everything came back online a few hours ago. Finally warming up. Thought I’d go to this WEIT post first. To my recollection, this is only the second post of this nature.

    I don’t have a question, other than, “do you mind?”, and it’s kinda weird. So Patti and I have created a quasi neologism: “jerry”. And it refers to money. You know the cockney rhyming slang construction? I’m assuming you do. So it started with, “you got coin?”, to “you got coyne?” then finally, “you got jerry?”. Barney Rubble trouble stuff. So now, we say phrases like: “how much jerry you need?” or, “you got enough jerry?” And this is where it might get weird, but I find it hilarious, I’ll just say, “everybody loves jerry!” Oh boy. Don’t know if it actually qualifies as a cockney construction as such.

    Thanks for allowing your readers to ask…this is one of the most enjoyable WEIT reads I’ve had in a while; added fun that I was able to read it all in one sitting.

  31. Hi Dr. Coyne, sorry if I’m late to the party, but I’ve needed some time to think about this post and formulate these following questions:

    1) I was wondering if you’ve tried any locally brewed beer. If so, what was the best?

    2) What is your favorite prehistoric animal?

    3) What is your opinion on recycling and our nation’s overreliance on plastic products?

  32. Imagine a star 10 light years away from earth. This means it would take ten years for light to travel from the star to here. Now, imagine a dimension so big that the star and the earth are in an open box sitting on a table. Someone looks in the box and can see both the star and the earth at the same time. This means that light is traveling almost instantly from inside the box to the man’s eyes. 10 billion light years for us, means a microsecond for someone in a larger dimension. What are the implications of this scenario? Though it’s my idea, it’s too big for my little brain.

    1. We can see the star and the earth from a distant vantage point simultaneously. That light left the star a long time ago, and the light that’s illuminating Earth left the sun a few minutes ago. There are no implications because you are assuming that you are seeing light that was just omitted, which is wrong.

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