Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus): “Ask me anything”

April 14, 2021 • 9:45 am

When Why Evolution is True came out, part of the publicity was to do a reddit “Ask me anything” feature, or “AMA”.  People post questions and you choose which ones to answer. It was fun, but a bit frantic, as it was time-limited and you have to answer quickly.

There’s not much to write about today save John McWhorter’s latest installment of The Elect (stay tuned), so I’ll do an AMA here.  Each reader can pose one question (with one related followup) in one comment, and I’ll try to answer as many as I can. The rules: no personal questions beyond those relating to food, travel, tastes in music and literature, and non-intrusive inquiries of that ilk. Science questions are encouraged, though of course I am likely to say “I don’t know” to some of them. And that’s about it.

I’ll check in throughout the day, and perhaps in the evening, and do what I can. I’m doing this not because I think my life has been especially notable or interesting, but because interaction here is usually one way: readers often write or comment about themselves, and I enjoy that. I’ll turn the tables this time.

You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.

192 thoughts on “Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus): “Ask me anything”

  1. My favorite McCartney-led Beatles song is “Penny Lane.” My favorite Harrison-led Beatles song is “Here Comes the Sun.” My favorite Lennon-led song? It might be “In My Life,” but I’m leaning toward the song discussed in this excellent analysis video from a couple of days ago:

    So what are your three favorite Beatles songs, one per Lennon, McCartney, Harrison? It may be hard to choose, but this is Desert Island Singles time! Note: You’re not on the clock for an answer.

    1. Well, one of the best of all their efforts is “A Day in the Life,” though I’m not sure you can ascribe that more to Lennon than to McCartney. I posted a list of this stuff a while back, but can’t find it, so I’ll have to guess anew. Another great collaboration is the medley from the second side of “Abbey Road”.

      McCartney: Either “Yesterday” or “Eleanor Rigby”. (“Blackbird” is also great.)

      Lennon: “In My Life”

      Harrison: “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”

      Somebody should find my list posted on this site; I think it was of the 50 best Beatles songs chosen by me and my friend Tim.

      1. If I had to single out one Beatles song, I would choose ‘Eleanor Rigby’. I think that was something completely new, compared to other popular songs of that time.

      2. My source say pretty authoritatively that Lennon was responsible for the basic tune (up to the first orchestral orgasm) – George Martin was gobsmacked when Lennon first sang it for him – and it was McCartney’s scrap of a tune laying around that was inserted in the middle (“Woke up, fell out of bed. . . .”). It was McCartney who came up with the orchestral orgasm (I think), and it’s not clear to me who developed the transition after McCartney’s middle tune to get back to Lennon’s “I read the news today oh boy” for the send time at the end.

        It’s basically a Lennon tune, but would be significantly different without McCartney’s contributions. Which validates the Beatles joke (although it’s not funny, it’s more substantive): How many Beatles does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: all of them.

    2. Along these lines, I’d be curious about favorite atheist/anti-religious songs in popular music. Offhand, I think of: Sting, All This Time and Randy Newman, God’s Song, both of which I like and still like to listen to.
      Also on Newman’s Sail Away album: He Gives us All His Love, and Old Man.
      John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, God (when I first heard the first line, before he repeated it with clearer enunciation, sound to me like God is a c***), which I find just okay. I much prefer Working Class Hero on that album, which makes one mention of religion.
      Beatles, Eleanor Rigby, not so clearly aimed at religion?
      Nothing else popping into my brain at the moment.

      1. Porcupine Tree/Steven Wilson has some good atheist songs/lyrics. “Halo” and “Deform to Form a Star”. XTC had that hit “Dear God”

      2. Might I recommend “When I Go, I’m Gone”, “Born With a Tail”, or “Creepy Jackalope Eye” by the Supersuckers? Popular, unfortunately no, but atheist/anti-theist. And they rip it up!

      3. Hands down, “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.


          1. i’ve always thought the line in the Jonah/whale verse
            “He made his home in that fish’s abdomen”
            (It Ain’t Necessarily So)
            was a piece of absolute verbal genius.

            Biologically, not so much. Of course, it should be:
            ‘He made his home in dat mammal’s abdomen’

  2. Is there a contradiction between the idea of random mutations, which are an integral part of evolution as far as I know, and a deterministic universe? I don’t see how you can believe in determinism and randomness at the same time. Where have I gone wrong? (If this is too heavy, I also have a cat question.)

    1. I don’t see a contradiction, and I discuss this very issue in Faith Versus Fact. Mutations may be deterministic, in which case they’re just like the roll of a dice: unavoidable errors in DNA replication that we don’t know enough to have predicted. But mutations might also have a quantum and therefore fundamentally unpredictable component, as when a cosmic ray alters a DNA base. In the first sense mutations aren’t really “truly random”, but in the second sense they are. Since I accept quantum fundamental unpredictability as part of my determinism (I really should call it “naturalism”), I see no conflict. Just realize that what I call “determinism” is really “naturalism”, and is just the working of the laws of physics.

      1. Thanks for your reply – and to the other posters who added their takes on this question. I hadn’t heard the term “naturalism” used in this context before. I need to do some more reading. (Obviously, I’ll start with that chapter in Faith Versus Fact. 🙂 )

      1. Yep. The “random” in random mutation simply has to be mostly unrelated to it’s biology; it doesn’t have to mean nondeterministic. A cosmic ray hitting your DNA is pretty much a completely deterministic event, but since cosmic rays don’t strike targets selectively, that is random enough to count as random mutation.

          1. Yes, effectively random. they might not be random sensu stricto, but they are random as to the fitness (or lack thereof) that results.

    2. There are at least two mutations which have happened which make biological systems depend fundamentally on quantum effects, and therefore with non-deterministic outcomes – the mutation which gave rise to increased energy absorption in the chlorophyll molecule, and there is another energy-absorption one in the light-sensitive pigments found in visual systems. Since both of these have greatly affected the environments of other life forms, and therefore the selection pressures upon their suites of mutations, you can easily argue that the consequences of those mutations have affected pretty much every organism since.
      There were (probably) several “inventions” of photosynthesis before the invention of chlorophyll and it’s characteristic oxygen-producing form of photosynthesis (the chloroplast itself seems to be derived from a group called the “purple photosynthetic sulphur bacteria”), but it was the oxygen-producing variant which poisoned off most of the previous population of microbes which could not handle the presence of free, intensely corrosive, oxygen leading to the oft-capitalised Great Oxidation Event between about 2.5 and 2.0 billion years ago.
      Similarly, the development of “sensing at a distance” (by using one of the 40-odd different designs of eyes) has been hypothesised as another seminal event in the history of life. Even if you didn’t have genes for eyes yourself, after other organisms developed eyes and mobile predation your skin colour compared to your environment suddenly became a selection pressure. That has been proposed as the fundamental event at the root of the “Cambrian Explosion” in metazoan diversity. (And other people have laughed at the idea, it must be said ; the truth is probably somewhere in the middle.)
      So I would argue that these classical (physics sense) mutations which led to quantum mechanical interactions within important molecules have effectively made the history of life since dependent on quantum effects, and no longer strictly deterministic.
      Well, that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. “Adhering”, even.
      Does anyone know if there are QM effects in “adhesin” molecules? That would add an argument for all multi-cellular life being QM, from a Sequoia to the squirrel in it’s branches.

      1. I think all interactions and processes are quantum-mechanical. The effects you mention do not have Newtonian limits, so they are a bit special, but they aren’t fundamentally different from other interactions Heck, atoms themselves are fundamentally quantum-mechanical systems and should not exist according to classical physics. .

        1. [Self : files “existing atoms” in the circular file, along with bumble bees which can’t fly and the ultraviolet catastrophe.]

  3. You’ve posted on the extended evolutionary synthesis stuff before, so apologies if this is old-hat, but: what, in your view, is the future of the neo-Darwinian synthesis? Let’s say, 100 years from now- will it be essentially the same, even if details are added/changed? How’s that for a very broad and very deep question! And, yes, prognostication is hardly objective, but it’s still fun.

    Oh, actually, this just occurred to me. It’s related to the above but choose one or the other if you want: what do you think of Dawkins’s idea of ‘Universal Darwinism’?

    1. Wasn’t “universal Darwinism” Daniel Dennett’s idea? If I recall correctly, he said somewhere in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” that if life exists elsewhere it will flourish and propagate under the same conditions and processes as life on Earth.

      1. Maybe- I’m not sure who can claim precedence. But in ‘Science in the Soul’, a Dawkins essay collection, the Universal Darwinism piece is from 1982, which precedes Dennett’s book. And the wiki page on UD credits Dawkins with the coining of the term. I think maybe there’s two versions of the idea- one in the sense that Darwinism can be applied outwith biology, and the Dawkinsian version which states that wherever life arises, some version of Darwinism will be responsible for adaptive complexity.

        1. Yes, pace Kimura, there has not been another mechanism found -or even imagined-
          that can explain complexity. I fully agree with Dawkins and Dennett there.

          1. From a footnote added later to Dawkins’s UD essay (sorry for the length of the comment, but it’s mostly someone else’s [very relevant] words!): “Kimura, and some other enthusiasts for the neutral theory, seem not to appreciate the importance of the functional near-perfection of biological adaptation. It’s as though they’ve never seen a stick insect, a flying albatross, or a spider web. For them, the illusion of design is a trivial and rather dubious add-on, whereas for me and for those naturalists from whom I have learned (including Darwin himself) the complex perfection of biological design is the very core and centre of the life sciences. For us, the evolutionary changes that interested Kimura amount to resetting the text in a different font. For us, what matters is not whether the text is written in Times New Roman or Helvetica. What matters is what the words mean. Kimura is probably right that only a minority of evolutionary changes are adaptive. But, for pity’s sake, it is the minority that *matters*!”

    2. I really can’t predict that. I could say “more of the same”, which may be true, since the Synthesis of the Thirties hasn’t changed much, but expanded enormously with the use of DNA. However, the “neutral theory” came out of left field, and one never knows what advances in thought are in the offing.

    3. Interesting, I’d never heard of “Universal Darwinism.” After a very brief skim of the Wikipedia entry on it, it sounds like it means pretty much what the words say, that biological evolution is universal. I would never have thought to consider that it might not be.

      As far as we know the laws of physics are the same everywhere so I don’t see why we shouldn’t expect that the basic underlying principles we’ve discovered about the evolution of life on Earth also apply universally. Sure, the historical aspects of Earth life’s evolutionary history will be largely unique and constraints imposed by the conditions of the environment on Earth will also no doubt result in variations (for example compared to life that evolved in the atmosphere of a gas giant), but I can’t see how the underlying principles wouldn’t be the same.

      1. I recommend the Dawkins article, which you can find in ‘Science in the Soul’, where he makes the case for it, taking into consideration other mechanisms of evolution such as the neutral theory, Lamarckian ideas, etc, and argues that even *in principle*I they can’t work ie. it’s not just that they happen not to work on Earth, but that they *couldn’t* work, anywhere, at least not to produce adaptive complexity. It’s an interesting read!

  4. I read somewhere that the rate of mutation sometimes increases when an organism is under threat. How can an organism sense it is under threat?

    1. Let me try? Cell receptors activated or deactivated due to reception of chemicals and/or heat/light energy in their environment. Resulting in change in chemical activity within the cells.

    2. This is not generally true. There is an argument that bacteria elevate their mutations rates under bad conditions. This MAY be an adaptation, but the problem is that a general elevation of mutation rate is deleterious, not advantageous, even when conditions change. However, you can show under some circumstances that an elevated mutation rate would be adaptive under restrictive theoretical conditions. But in terms of the empirical demonstration, I think that’s limited pretty much to bacteria, and we’re not sure if it’s an adaptation. There are ways of sensing whether you’re under threat (poor nutrition, toxins, etc.), and if there are genes that can elevate mutation rates under such conditions, it’s not inconceivable that those genes would evolve as a form of “genomic plasticity”.

      1. I find the arguments unconvincing for even bacteria “deliberately” elevating mutation rates when they are stressed. Isn’t it at least as likely that stressful situations simply make parts of the cellular apparatus, including the machinery of DNA replication, more prone to malfunction?

        1. I assume that no mutations are deliberate. The orgamism in question doesn’t know that it is under stress. I figure that, under stress, the mutations that occur my be “accelerated”, in the sense that any mutations that might normally occur will be either very favorable or very deliterious, because of the stressed situation. This may lead to the false appearance that the organism is reacting, because positive or negative mutations have a greater effect in a situation of stress. They have an exaggerated effect, because the situation is exaggerated. The organisms that have “delitirious” mutations will die even quicker that usual, those that have “positive” mutations, depending on the stressed situation, will survive far better than usual. In non-stress situations, the mutations aren’t as important, because with less stress even the mutations that don’t have an advantage are more likely to survive. Without stress, “bad” mutations aren’t quite as bad. “Malfunction” is simply a normal process that happens all the time. It’s not really a malfunction at all, but rather a variation that may be good or bad depending on the situation.

    1. Difficult question, it used to be Archaeopteryx of course, but later? Deinonychus, Tiktaalik? I’ll stick with Thrinaxodon liorhinus, the perfect intermediate between reptile and mammal, and found in South Africa’s Karoo basin.

  5. When did you realize, as a student, what an extraordinary lineage you had been adopted into? Or did you know from the start?

    1. I was advised as an undergraduate that I should not choose a grad school based on the quality of the school itself, much less its location, but I should study with the best person in the field. I therefore chose Dobzhansky. But when I was drafted and then resumed study, Dobzhansky had retired, and so I went to Lewontin (who had been Dobzhansky’s own Ph.D. student). I chose them for their reputations, so I knew what I was getting into. It was intimidating, and sometimes I thought of quitting when I went to Harvard. But now I realize that I couldn’t have done better than Lewontin, who was kind, supportive, fiercely smart, didn’t put his name on students’ papers and, most important, made you choose your own research problem.

  6. What do you think (if anything) of Nick Lane’s theory of the origins of cellular and then eukaryotic life? (I’m reading The Vital Question, and wondering what an evolutionary biologist thinks of it).

      1. So “not memorable” then lol.
        At the risk of doing him a disservice, a couple of the main ideas were: bacteria and archea evolved in alkali vents where the porous semiconducting barriers between the vent and seawater produces a proton flow early life could use for energy. Then eukaryotes evolve from a bacteria capturing an archea as nuclei.

  7. What is your absolute favorite book about a band or musician,? It can be written by anyone, including the musician/s themselves.

    Thanks for all your hard work, and especially for maintaining a website where the comments section is so engaging, friendly, and tolerant. You’ve done and continue to do a great job, and this remains the only website on which I post comments because of the environment you’ve fostered and maintained.

  8. Thank you for your posts about the sex/gender issues. I very much liked yesterday’s post with the ontological/epistemological distinction.

    My question is this: where do people with a non XX or XY chromosomal pattern fit in re: sex/gender? In other words, is an XXY person’s “situation” a sex or a gender issue?

    1. Good question. It’s clearly a gender issue since it will influence how people see or choose to present themselves. Since these are developmental anomalies, however, it is SOMEWHAT of a sex issue, since the individuals often don’t produce gametes, making their biological sex sometimes indeterminate.

      1. I don’t think it is clearly a gender issue. In terms of sex, the default for mammals is female. Maleness is determine by the expression of the SRY gene which is located on the Y chromosome and is involved in testis (vs ovary) determination. So you can’t be male (as determined by gonad type and production of sperm) without a Y chromosome, and if you have a functional Y chromosome you will develop testes.

        So, XXY (Klinefelter’s) are male, as are XYY (imaginatively known as XYY syndrome) individuals, while XO (single X chromosome, Turner Syndrome) are female.

        That being said, a lot of the physical characteristics of males and females are downstream of gonad action. So, for example, XY individuals harboring mutations in the androgen receptor gene are unable to respond to androgens (actually it’s more complicated, sine there are many mutations with varying levels of function). This is know as Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome, AIS. As a result of the lack of androgen receptor action these individuals are phenotypically female although with undescended testes and no ovaries, and are not normally identified until puberty.

        Gender is a whole different issue that seems to be responsive to hormonal input at critical developmental points, but is clearly much more complex.

  9. Are there any tentative plans or prospects of you do foreign visits again (once the pandemic is over, of course) in which you will make public appearances e.g. lectures/talks/ discussions etc, particularly with reference to the UK?

    1. If they ask and I want to go there. I was asked to give several virtual talks overseas, but I refused on the grounds that a. I don’t give virtual talks except Q&A sessons to colleges or high schools that use my trade book on evolution, and b. I want to VISIT a place when I talk there; that’s part of the fun.

      I have my fingers crossed about going to Antarctica and lecturing on a Hurtigruten ship, but that hasn’t been determined. No plans to give science talks in the UK.

      1. I think I saw your “concert” in Zagreb online and I enjoyed it.
        Also Trivers’ shows there were top notch.
        I often wonder what lecturers do about stage fright (which I used to get in a small court as a defense lawyer). My Dad was a professor and he said: “Just make sure your fly isn’t open.”

        NYC awaits, professor, and we also have FOOD!

        NYC (and dogs!)

    1. Hard question, and realize that I have virtually no experience with Italian food. I’d say a good cassoulet, a good paella from Valencia cooked over a wood fire, and the beef burgundy at Joséphine Chez Dumonet. But I could go on and on, and most of the answers would be French.

          1. I am pretty good around the kitchen so the prep itself doesn’t scare me. It’s the length of the process and the difficulty in getting the right ingredients that keeps me from making it. Unfortunately, the local chefs around here seem to have the same problems. I recently went to a fancy place in Costa Mesa and they served a deconstructed cassoulet and it was terrible.

          2. I have found that any quality, store-bought andouille sausage serves fine. Bacon subs for lardon, no problem, and the pork and lamb are easy enough to find. Even the beans: Sometimes I use canned beans (and a variety: Mix of black, pinto, and navy/great northern). It all comes out great.

            I like my versions of her recipe better than any cassoulet I’ve eaten in a restaurant. (Admittedly, I have not eaten at the Auberge Pyrénées Cévennes in Paris.)

            One thing to avoid like the plague: Too much clove. This seems to be a thing in the USA. Julia calls for N=4 whole cloves in the herb sachet (tossed after steeping with the beans) — no more. The clove flavor is barely perceptible, if at all. My French language teachers (all ex-apt French women) all derided the American propensity to put a lot of clove into cassoulet.

          3. I think canned beans would be fine for something cassoulet-like at home but I would expect better in a restaurant. Similarly for the sausage. I like the kind with duck confit as well. There are online places that will sell you a Cassoulet Kit with all the main ingredients but I haven’t tried them.

          4. I’m curious what you found distasteful in that cassoulet in Costa Mesa. (I’m always curious about people’s taste likes and dislikes.)

            Do you live in OC?

            In a previous life, I worked for Boeing and spent about 6 months in Seal Beach on Boeing’s nickel. (I was single then.) I loved it. I ate at Walt’s Wharf so often, they knew me. Also the Abbey Pub in Seal Beach.

          5. I live in Long Beach which is LA County but I’m only about 2 miles from the OC border and Seal Beach. I love Walt’s Wharf. It closed during the pandemic, supposedly permanently, but I hear that it will be resurrected. I’ve never been to the Abbey but I know of it.

            The place in Costa Mesa, Knife Pleat, is inside South Coast Plaza though it is a fancy restaurant, not a typical mall place. It has a nice ambiance but it isn’t as good as the restaurant it replaced which moved to Laguna Beach. Check it out on Yelp. My scathing review is still there.

  10. This may be considered personal, so apologies in advance.

    I’ve loved Attenborough documentaries for a long time. I was especially moved by his most recent one “A Life On Our Planet” in which he makes a heartfelt appeal to viewers to change their lifestyles, including their diet.

    I changed my diet to mostly plant based (vegan) many years ago after I learned about the impact of factory farming on habitat destruction and climate change.

    I have always wondered why you haven’t done so. You are much more informed on the subject and I presume you have a much better appreciation for the natural world than any lay person.

  11. Can you think of why male pattern baldness might be favored in evolution? (Sexual selection seems unlikely in this case, but weirder things have happened.) Or could it be an accidental by-product of selection for another trait? Or just a plain accident?

      1. A genetic spandrel, maybe?
        Above-my-paygrade but not my experience. I started losing my hair in late high school and have been bald on top since 25. With covid and covid hair I’ve gotten used to the long on the sides/back nothing on top look (IT IS NOT A “MULLET”! damnit).
        I’ve been surprised over my life how little it matters to the ladies. 🙂

        1. I really don’t understand this obsession with having somebody else cut your hair during the pandemic, at least not for us baldys. I have, for many years, used an electric hair trimmer and a bathroom mirror.

          1. My “cut” is a #1 buzz cut. I’ve done my own during the pandemic; but it’s a hassle (for a 60-year-old) and I prefer to have it done for me. I got my second jab yesterday, so, in two weeks’ time or son thereafter …

  12. Your 3 favorite Hem short stories? Here are mine: ‘A Way You’ll Never Be’ which is never picked by anybody but me, but which leads right into ‘Big 2-Hearted River,’ the war story with no war in it; finally, ‘A Clean Well-lighted Place,’ his most deeply troubling story. These 3 are great, but just in terms of the written word, every sentence in Big 2-Hearted just flies off the page.

          1. I figured it was either that or a momentary conflation with Papa’s non-fiction book published a year earlier, The Green Hills of Africa.

  13. The Japanese per-capita death rate from COVID-19 is about 25 times smaller than for the US (as extracted from NY Times coronavirus pages).

    Why is that true?

    My money is on conscientious masking and distancing and nothing else.

    Why isn’t there a big-time investigation?

    1. Non-expert on epidemiology but former Japanese resident here.
      Evidence of this can be seen on google.street view over the past few years: Japanese have been quick to use masks for the last 50 years. You see them frequently there (before covid) and the point is not to avoid getting infected with something oneself….but rather those people with the masks ARE SICK AT THE MOMENT and don’t want to spread it to others in society.
      Social trust, y’see.

      NYC (formerly of Tokyo)

    1. I went to a Greek-American school when I was 5-7, and I think it was run by the British but I can’t recall. In Germany I went to Heidelberg American High School, which was run by the Army or the military.

  14. Some months ago you mentioned visiting Greyfriars Bobby’s Bar, Candlemaker Row, Edinburgh when you were on Sabbatical. Did you get the chance to visit the Forest Road Bar ( More usually known as ‘Sandy Bell’s ‘ ) A wonderful pub with almost constant folk music. The memorable character, Hamish Henderson, of the School of Scottish Historical Studies, part of the University of Edinburgh; poet, raconteur and collector of folk song throughout Scotland and further afield was a frequent towering presence in the pub. He was prob as famous in Scotland for his work in saving for posterity the significant oral culture of story and song in Scotland as were the Lomaxes, father and son for similar work in America. Indeed, Henderso is known to have assisted Alan Lilac in the collecting of some Scottish songs.

  15. After you posted a couple of pieces reminiscing about your life in the past some readers expressed an interest in a full-blown autobiography. Do you have any plans for one when the hectic duck-farming season is over?

    1. No, as my life hasn’t been all that interesting. Further, I don’t have the memory needed to reconstruct a lot of my life. But the main issue is the first: only people with interesting lives, or who have produced a great body of work well known to the public, should write their autobiographies. And even then, those who write one are often tempted to distort their lives to fit some narrative.

      I did make up a title for my autobiography, though: “Triumph of the Ill.”

      1. That sounds fair enough. If not a total life story, are there any plans for more vignettes covering some of the more exciting incidents? Or perhaps a slim volume covering the Honey years (maybe even a duckumentary) to raise funds for future generations of mallards at Botany Pond in perpecktuity?

  16. What about meditation? Is that a route to “transcendence,” that you’d accept as not religious, but maybe good for you?

    1. I tried it, but I don’t think my brain is set up to empty my mind, and I kept thinking about specific stuff instead of letting thoughts come and go and observing them (what Sam Harris recommends). I think you have to work hard at learning to meditate, and I didn’t want to make the effort.

      1. If you ever want to give it another shot, try reading Robert Wright’s “Why Buddhism is True.” And his blog, along with yours and Matt Taibbi’s are the only ones I read regularly. Love your travels! They are my vicarious pleasures.

      2. I’m glad I’m not the only person who thinks like that! I read Sam Harris’ book on meditation several years ago; it seemed that the rewards for achieving some level of mastery were small compared to the amount of time and effort you need to put in.

        1. I never perceived meditation as solving any problems to which I was seeking a solution. It was a bit like someone telling me to try some new designer drug because “You will never look at life the same way.” Not a strong selling proposition.

    2. Meditation would have to be defined before asking auch a question. Happens automatically in many cases, to me meditation is simply not thinking about anything specific. For me It has nothing to do with transendence (what IS that, actually?).
      I used to read stories to my kids to get them to sleep, and they wouldn’t, so I lay there with them for a while until they did. Those were phases of absolute quietude, well-being and thought. I did not stop thinking (I honestly don’t think anyone ever does), but I wasn’t thinking anything specific, and I was sometimes in a half-sleep state.
      I invariably came of ouf this (when the damned brats finally condescended to sleep) in an absolutely refreshed state. Afterwards I often had new ideas or solutions to problems that had been plagueing me. But this also happens when I sleep.
      I think that meditation may be a way to put your brain in a state in which it can evaluate things, a state which is on a another leven that concious thinking. But *you are still thinking*. It has nothing to do with transendence. I figure our brains have many ways to get solutions to our problems, not neccesarily “concious” thought, but it’s still neurons firing.

  17. What’s your opinion on junk DNA? How much of the non-coding portion of the genome do you think has other functions vs. being actual junk? What about the ‘onion test’or ENCODE results?

    1. A related question: The INS gene on chromosome 11 is a main factor in the production of insuline (hence its name) in certain cells in the Islands of Langerhans in the pancreas.
      What does that gene do in other cells of the body, like nerve cells, bloodcells etcetera?
      If anything.

  18. We are always railing about the “woke.” I think by educating your readers you give us arguments against some of the wokes’ extreme positions, but what else can we do, for instance, to lessen the disparity in outcomes between the races? Thanks!

    1. As I’ve said many times, the best way is to ensure equal opportunity of all groups from the very outset, and that means from the day one is born. That’s a big job and will take a lot of money, but I think it’s the only permanent solution.

      One should also make people AWARE of the opportunities (for someone like me, that involves outreach), and one should not praise aspects of cultures that prevent people from achieving. It doesn’t help, for example, to tell people that promptness, hard work, and so on are “white” traits. If you want people to achieve in our society, they have to have these traits for they’re correlated with success.

      If you equalize opportunity, and that will take financial sacrifice from many people, as well as hard work, then any disparities in OUTCOME (inequities) will not result from unequal opportunities but from other factors, like preferences. And we have to recognize that, too. In my view, our job is to equalize opportunities, not to equalize outcomes. (Does the absence of male schoolteachers, pediatricians, and nurses reflect an absence of opportunity for or bigotry against males in these professions?)

      And, of course, vote for Democrats, not Republicans.

  19. I was curious as to your educational history and time-line. I know you went to William & Mary as an undergrad and to Harvard for your PhD (or was that a Masters?) and I’ve also read some posts where you write “when I was at Davis…” and “while at Berkeley…” And you’ve also written about studying abroad in France and iirc England. So could you jot down a chronological time-line of the colleges/universities you’ve attended and what you studied there? Thanks!

    1. From my c.v.:


      The College of William and Mary, 1967-1971. B.S. summa cum laude, with Highest Honors in Biology
      The Rockefeller University, July-October 1971. Biochemistry course.
      Harvard University, 1973-1978. Ph.D. in Biology. Sponsor: Richard C. Lewontin.
      Universidad de Costa Rica, Summer 1974. Organization for Tropical Studies course: Tropical Ecology.

      Professional Experience

      Professor Emeritus, Department of Ecology and Evolution, The University of Chicago, 2015-present
      Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolution, The University of Chicago, 1991-2015.
      Associate Professor, Department of Ecology and Evolution, The University of Chicago,
      Associate Professor, Department of Zoology, The University of Maryland, College Park,
      Assistant Professor, Department of Zoology, The University of Maryland, College Park,
      NIH Postdoctoral Fellow, Department of Genetics, The University of California, Davis, 1979- 1982. Sponsor: Timothy Prout
      Research Associate, The Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1978-1979.
      Medical Technician, Cornell University Medical School, New York, New York, 1971-1972 (alternative service position).

      1. That’s some serious learnings and experience boss. I had no idea you’ve been at the University of Chicago for so long- this being your 35th anniversary- Congratulations! Thanks for the info and taking the time to answer this and other reader questions. This is a most delightful post.

  20. If you could live anywhere in the world, which countries/cities/towns/places would be among your top 5 choices?

    If you were POTUS, what would be your first executive order or most important policy change or project closest to your heart?

    1. I’ll give just three as I’ve lived or spent a lot of time in these places and know I’d be happy there:

      San Francisco

      You need big bucks to get a flat in any of these places, though.

      Executive order is a tough one as I’m not a politician. I’d do as much as I could by executive order to effect gun control, but I’m not sure what exactly CAN be accomplished by executive order.

      1. As a San Franciscan I approve! Could you name a few of your favorite places and/or eateries in SF?

        1. House of Prime Rib! I love old-school steak houses, esp. in the English tradition. I know you didn’t ask me, but I couldn’t help myself. 😉

      2. Many thanks! Same questions to fellow readers who care to answer. It doesn’t have to be by executive order, but by whatever powers and influence afforded the highest office in the land.

        1. Washington state (where I will soon retire to!)
          The Vaucluse, in Provence, France

          I would push for universal, single-payer health coverage for all living in the USA.

  21. (Does the absence of male schoolteachers, pediatricians, and nurses reflect an absence of opportunity for or bigotry against males in these professions?)

    Not sure about pediatricians. I’d opine that the historical differences in the other professions is a result of bigotry against women, not men. As in: discriminated against when trying to be a professor or doctor, so default to teacher or nurse instead.

    Very similar to how the federal civil service has a larger percentage of minorities and women in it than your average for-profit corporation. That’s not due to bigotry against white males in the civil service, it’s due to greater hiring bigotry against women and minorities in the for-profits (at least historically).

    Also worth noting that the federal civil service and teachers are two of the Republican’s perennial ‘groups we like to hate on and call lazy.’ Probably not coincidence that the two professions they want to actively cut and lower salaries for are the professions where minorities and women have found the most welcome. Gotta keep those white male salaries higher.

  22. Is it possible for two extant species to have a common ancestor which is still around? If so, are there examples where they split from the common ancestor a long, long time ago?

  23. Yes, it’s theoretically possible that, say, a bird on the mainland could have migrants that fly to two isolated islands about the same time and form new species. I know of know such cases, though, but I’m sure they exist. However, some systematists would insist that the mainland species, at the instant it throws off an island species, BECOMES A NEW SPECIES ITSELF and is therefore not a common ancestor. I think that’s crazy. But there’s no reason why what I just suggested couldn’t happen.

  24. I appreciate your daily posts, they are fun and inspire my thinking.
    At death due to heart arrhythmia, where do you suppose consciousness goes, taken that all human thought exists as an electromagnetic or a wave phenomenon–do you think it may disperse in the chaos or does it remain united?

      1. I respectfully do not agree. When I have been under anesthesia all is blank, but when I wake up it is all there again. So as I see it, my consciousness was was not “gone” because I recovered it immediately. If it was gone it would not be so easily recovered. It was there, I think.

        1. Except when you die it doesn’t come back again. I was referring to the LOSS of consciousness when you’re anesthetized, which is permanent when you die. Consciousness is a product of the brain; when the brain degenerates, consciousness is gone for good.

          I don’t see what you’re getting at. We have no evidence of any remaining consciousness when people die.

        2. How do you know it’s not gone? When you wake up again, your memories are obviously still there but how do you know it’s not a new consciousness with the same memories?

          1. I am just proposing a thought for discussion. You have studied probability, so you know nothing is 100% true. In my experience our science is “built on the shoulders of giants.” Your books are a thread of electromagnetic pulses that you gathered from thoughts you had through communications with others, real or imagined, and experiences your organism have experienced. To say that one beef brisket is superior to another is subjective and dependent on the cook, beef, seasoning, and cosmic debris that were involved. I do not know for certain anything, why do you ask?

      2. Two simplistic analogies. When I disconnect the battery of my car the error messages disappear. When I do a hard reset on my computer everything is lost accept my permanent ram, if I want more I need to download my data from a backup. If the mind stores information using electric waves, it seems the data would be cleared when the electric waves were no longer propigated with the exception of life sustaining information. In my mind there must be some back-up stored.

        1. But the mind doesn’t store information using electric waves. Information is apparently stored in physical connections between neurons. Immediate communication between parts of the nervous systems is via electrical signals, but not long-term storage. So, the signal of pain when you burn your hand travels via an electrical signal to the brain, but the memory of the event is stored in a physical change in your neurons.

          1. The physical change in neurons recording pain is not anything that can be recalled. Can I presume it must be a dead end? The storage in neurons is an electrical pattern that is detectable. We look for electrical activity and determine patterns in a response. Bacteria that are in us also absorb the signals.

    1. Your consciousness goes away every time you fall asleep. The last time, you just don’t wake up. You return to the general environment as molecules and atoms. The unique pattern of neurons in your brain that produced your conscious states is gone forever.

        1. Yep, I am as certain of this as I am of anything. I am susceptible to being moved with data. I’ve never seen any data that shifts this view.

  25. Do you have any recommended books/articles for a scientifically literate layperson (but non-biologist) to get acquainted with modern research on abiogenesis? Internet searches have been hit and miss for me.

    1. I think Nick Lane’s book, The Vital Question, mentioned in this thread, is a good start. For something a bit more technical, I’d see Addy Pross’s book What Is Life: How Chemistry Becomes Biology.

  26. Dr. Coyne, I have read creationists saying that mutation always results in a “loss of information” (genetic, I assume they mean), or that natural selection can only result in a “decrease in information,” so that’s why (they say) “macroevolution” can never happen, only a limited amount of “microevolution.” I feel sure this is a bunch of nonsense, but could you tell me how I could respond to this claim? Thanks for your consideration and help!

    P.S. I emailed you once a year or two ago, and you sent me a very nice response. I now have a hard copy of your email saved in my paperback copy of Why Evolution Is True as a bookmark. I used to use your “today in history” items in my high-school history classes, but I am retired now. Thank you for all your interesting content!

    1. Here are two references to get you started. Gene duplication and divergence, one of the major ways new genes are formed, is surely an increase in information (that’s how globin families originate). Also, we’re starting to discover how new and useful genes are created by cobbling together odd bits of the genome. Finally, single mutations, as the one for lactose tolerance, surely do NOT lead to a decrease in information.

      1. That was one of the best answers while Rodgers was hosting Jeopardy. Brilliant and funny! Assuming that’s your reference.

        1. Yes, and he could see the answer while it was being written so his reaction wasn’t totally spontaneous.

    1. The subspecific designation: they hybridized a fair amount when they became sympatric; to me that says “subspecies” rather than “species”. I know I’m the odd person out on that opinion, though. But anthropologists tend to be splitters.

      1. I’ve always found the “sapiens” designation to be an unjustified honorific. And we shouldn’t get to be called Homo sapiens sapiens.

      2. When I was studying biology in Zurich 40 years ago, i.e. ages before ancient DNA could be studied, the anthropology professor would consider Neanderthals as being a subspecies of H. sapiens. So to me it was always Homo sapiens neardenthalensis.

  27. I am not sure anyone has asked before, but I would like to know your favorite meal that you personally rustle up for dinner (several options would be grand).

  28. I hope I may be permitted two questions. Recently, I read a newspaper article on a female Bonobo which had ‘adopted ‘ an orphaned baby Bonobo from another pack. The new arrival seems not just to have been tolerated by the other bonobos but welcomed into the pack. The article described this as a clear case of altruism. I searched for scientific articles on similar scenarios and found there to be a good deal of scepticism on the part of biologists / zoologists. If you are aware of this case and / or similar cases do you think there have been any undisputed cases of non human altruism?

    1. Not that I know of. Pure altruism, in which you gain no genetic benefits but suffer a direct or indirect genetic cost (i.e., your net reproductive output is reduced by the action) seems limited to humans. One example is throwing yourself on a grenade to save other members of your platoon. Even in humans, altruism in the biological sense isn’t that common. Giving money to a charity is admirable, but doesn’t cost you future genetic output if you’re reasonably well off.

  29. Are there scientific queries that are “out of bounds,” “foul ball,” for example about average intelligence among human groups, and should there be?

    1. I go back and forth on this question. On the one hand, I don’t think any question is out of bounds, though of course there’s some research in which the results are either not that interesting or would (like the one you suggested) be such hot potatoes that I would not engage in it myself. I don’t think any research should be banned, but funding projects is a different issue: it depends on scientific interest in the question. I’d be curious how other readers would answer this question.

  30. What in your opinion are the most important unsolved problems, i.e. seemingly adaptive traits unsatisfactorily explained by natural selection (s.l.), in evolutionary biology? My short list is 1) how did life initially evolve through abiogenesis; 2) how did meiosis first evolve (what was the selective impulse); 3) why does the woodcock bob and rock, 4) why do almost all tropical trees have entire (unlobed, untoothed) leaves, whereas the situation is reversed in temperate tree species; 4) why in animals that defend mating territories, it is the resident male “territory owner”, even if it is smaller, that almost always wins fights with intruders (e.g., territorial butterflies); and 5) why do the leaves of temperate trees turn red and yellow with anthocyanins in the fall while the leaves of tropical trees, even in completely deciduous species, mostly turn brown before being shed? [Sorry to be so late]

    1. That is a very good list already. I don’t consider the origin of life a question of evolutionary biology, since evolution didn’t start until the first replicator evolved, but it’s still a very interesting one, well worth working on.

      I think some of your queries have been answered or been given reasonably convincing answers (e.g., 4 and 5, though I’m not sure).

      To this I’d add “how does sexual selection work? Is it through a handicap model, a good genes model, a runaway model, or some other processes?” Of course there will be a mixture of different mechanisms, so, as in so many evolutionary questions, the answer involves not one definitive answer but a list of frequencies of different processes. But have very little information about how cases of sexual dimorphism come to be.

      Some of the major questions are phylogenetic ones: what are the evolutionary relationships of different groups, both in animals and plants? I wrote about the uncertainty of this recently.

      This uncertainty also goes for the fossil record, like what the hell was the Ediacaran fauna? Solipsistically, we know something about human evolutionary history but there’s a lot more we need to know, and may never know because of the scarcity of hominin remains. What happened to Homo erectus? What on earth was Homo floresiensis (the “hobbit”)?

      1. I think the homo erectus question is excellent: They seem to have thrived over a large part of the earth and over a very long period of time. Why did they die out?

        1. The end of Homo erectus: Something better and meaner came along? If He’s end came suddenly, little will have remained in the line of evidence

  31. I’m dumbstruck by the axolotl. Pretty simple creature though it has pretty impressive tissue regenerative abilities. This amphibian/salamander has a genome that is 10-times (!) the size of the human genome.

    Why? How? Why hasn’t there been selective pressure to reduce the metabolic cost of making and maintaining all that DNA (surely the vast majority of which is junk) in every cell by shrinking the size of their genome?

  32. Hi Jerry,
    PZ has fired back at your recent content on Fisher, the 2 (consecutive) posts are…
    – Marinated in wokeness!
    – Who’s afraid of the big bad Woke Mob? Not me.
    Any inclination to take a look ?

    1. Wow. I stopped reading Pharyngula years ago because it just got so… nasty; an unrelenting lack of humanity and empathy from a group of people supposedly devoted to justice for all. I see nothing has changed.

      1. Yeah, I read both. PZ does make me frown sometimes. It’s hard to deny his views are coloured by his idealogical persuasions. He often talks at tangents to the substance he’s critically responding to, not actually engaging with the content of a position. It’s frustrating to witness.

      1. Perhaps people are hoping you’ll react and write a post overwhelming PZ with your superior logic and reasoning. Or maybe they’re just looking for a good fight. PZ has insulted commentators here, writing that your commentariat is made up of rat droppings from the slymepit. (The slymepit was started by former PZ readers who were kicked out because their opinions were found to be wrong and offensive)

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