Ask me anything: 2022 edition

June 26, 2022 • 10:15 am

Yesterday reader Peter sent me an email in which he reminded me of my “ask anything” post from last year’s Valentine’s Day, and added that he’d like to see another one. Well, Peter, as you know, ask Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus) and ye shall receive (assuming PCC[e] is in a beneficent mood).  Here’s Peter’s email

Early last year you created an “ask me anything” post which I just ran across while looking for something — and it seemed to be very popular, with nearly 200 comments. You fielded lots of questions — some serious (like mine) and some frivolous. A good time was had by all. I’d love to see another one — maybe you could make it a regular feature?

Well, not much is going on that I want to write about today, as the news is uniformly bad and depressing, so let’s have an AMA session again.  As I wrote last time:

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!).

So go ahead. I’ll look in from time to time and answer some questions (assuming there are some questions).

p.s. I’ll try to answer these from time to time today (Sunday) and maybe some on Monday morning.

142 thoughts on “Ask me anything: 2022 edition

    1. That’s a snarky question, so be careful. Cats clean themselves, don’t need to be walked, are easy to take care of, don’t need baths, don’t smell, are the perfect size for cuddling and are not sycophants. And you don’t have to pick up their poop except from the litter box.

        1. If your dog doesn’t purr, exchange it. All my dogs (two mutts, one Wheaten Terrier) purred when they we’re being cuddled or petted. When was the last time that, when you returned home, your cat came running joyously down the hall to greet you and jumped up into your arms? My question: why are so many people so eager to believe in exoplanet life, and, stranger, to believe that they could ever be contacted by us or vice versa? Are people so ignorant of the laws of physics? and that includes some physicists too.

          1. “When was the last time that, when you returned home, your cat came running joyously down the hall to greet you and jumped up into your arms?”

            My cat comes to the door to greet me, especially if I’ve been out for several hours. He doesn’t exactly run down the hall, more like he saunters and rubs up against my legs. I know that he is happy to see me. (And also, he wants food.) He definitely doesn’t jump into my arms though. He is much too sophisticated for that nonsense.

            If anybody else comes to the door, however, he does run down the hall, cause he’s a nosey bugger and has to check them out and give his approval before they can come in.

            Btw, I do like (some) dogs very much, but I am far too lazy to have one. Too much work. I like that my cat pretty much takes care of himself, and I just get to enjoy his company.

            1. At least one of my cats comes out to the front patio to greet me whenever he sees my car enter the garage. The other one doesn’t do that but curls up around my head or on my lap whenever he can. They both love me but have each decided to express it in ways that won’t be seen as copying the other cat’s behavior.

          2. Most people don’t understand physics, or the immense distances and lethal radiation of deep space. So they imagine we will be contacted (or have been contacted). But it is essentially impossible. No being with delicate chemistry can survive the time and the conditions.
            There is a picture going around on the internet that depicts our galaxy, and toward one side of it is a very small yellow dot. That dot represents a sphere with a radius of 100 light years, and it is clearly a tiny, tiny thing compared to our galaxy. But that yellow sphere represents the distance that our broadcasts have reached. Any civilization outside of that range cannot possibly detect our signals, and of course if there are any listeners within that range they too are unlikely to detect our broadcasts bc of the inverse square law.

          3. “Why are so many people so eager to believe in exoplanet life . . .?”

            I believe that this is a substitute for traditional religion; the hope that there are benevolent beings in the sky, and that if we can only contact them, they have wisdom that they can impart to us. Consider the movie E.T.: he descends to Earth, performs miracles, dies, comes back from the dead, and ascends into the heavens. Hmmm . . .where have I heard this before?

            Even the poster for E.T. is based on Michelangelo’s painting of “The Creation of Adam,” with E.T.’s glowing finger replacing the hand of God.

            Of course, even if intelligent aliens exist, and did make contact with us, they might be so different that they would no more be able to communicate with us than we can communicate with lobsters. They might not even have “intelligence” as we understand it, but have evolved some other, equivalent, talent instead. I would be surprised if life does NOT exist elsewhere, but the religious aspects of the question have always seemed obvious to me.

            1. I don’t know about “make contact with us” as that implies they have received our signal and want to talk to us. I think it is more likely that we someday receive their radio transmissions. They could have easily developed intelligence millions of years before the present and a million light years encompasses quite a lot of stars and planets. Would we recognize such a signal? I think we would. Deliberate transmission of data, whether analog or visual, is expected to be quite distinct from other radio transmissions. There’s no guarantee, of course, but there’s a well-developed science behind it.

              A part of that science is the recognition that, up until now, we haven’t been looking at much of the sky, haven’t been monitoring many frequencies, and haven’t been looking very long. This will change as our abilities grow. It’s grown by several orders of magnitude in just a few decades. While our chances of spotting a signal may still be small, they are growing very quickly.

              As far as whether there’s religion involved, I’m sure that applies to some people that care about this sort of thing. Obviously, anyone who says they’re sure that there’s intelligent life out there is either religious or just making a calculated guess. I suppose I fall into the latter category. Partly it is based on the principle that there’s no reason to believe humans or the Earth are special. To believe we’re the only intelligent life in the universe takes more religious hubris than to believe there’s intelligent life out there but we just haven’t seen it yet.

          4. I think it’s likely, given the number of planets in the Universe, plus the short time it took for life to appear after Earth cooled, that there is life on other planets, so thinking that’s probable is not unwarranted. However, contact over immense distances seems equally unlikely. Remember, Carl Sagan thought it was probable enough that he sent out a precis of Earth and its life into space. I just don’t think we’ll ever know.

  1. I find ‘road to sexual orientation’ and ‘road to gender identification’ coming out stories boring, overplayed, and unnecessarily emotional. I do find ‘road to atheism’ stories interesting – maybe because they are driven by ideas and rationality, rather than urges and emotions. Could you share anything about your road to atheism?

        1. Here’s the story from the link:

          One of the more colorful scientific de-conversion stories comes from Jerry Coyne, a professor of genetics and evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago. It happened in 1967 when Coyne, then 17, was listening for the first time to the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album while lying on his parents’ couch in Alexandria, Va.

          Suddenly Coyne began to shake and sweat. For reasons he still doesn’t understand, it dawned on him at that moment that there was no God, and he wasn’t going anywhere when he died. His casual Judaism seemed to wash away as the album played on. The crisis lasted about 30 minutes, he says, and when it was over, he had left religion behind for good. He went on to study how new species evolve, and found the Darwinian view of nature perfectly in tune with his abandonment of faith.

          “Scientists in general tend to be more atheistic, and particularly evolutionists,” Coyne says. “That’s because we’re dealing with a subject that was previously known to be a product of God’s intervention, and now we know it’s not.”

  2. Why do you leave the “o” out of “dog”? Is there something about dogs that doesn’t measure up to cats for you? They both charm me in their own ways.

    1. I am much fonder of cat than dogs, so you could say it’s because of that. But mainly it’s because, like observant Jews, you can’t spell out God’s name so you write “G*d”. “D*g” is just that backwards.

    1. Boston (Cambridge, actually) because of the demographics, the atmosphere, the location on the river and sea, and because I have lots of friends there.

      Paris, if I could afford it.

      San Francisco, though it is said to be not so liveable any more. Plus it’s expensive.

  3. In your opinion, what is one quality from the music you grew up with that is lacking in today’s corporate soundtrack?

    I’m 28 years old and I’ve been listening to Steely Dan and Billy Joel CDs as of late.

      1. There is a documentary series on Apple TV (but I’m sure you can find on the internet or u-tube) by Mark Ronson, called “Watch the Sound”. (BTW, Ronson produced some of Winehouse’s most famous songs like “Rehab” and “Back to Black”.) He does a deep dive into different aspects of sound, each episode featuring some type of sound effect: reverb (which featured Winehouse), sampling, synthesizers and one episode was dedicated to “auto-tune”. Like you, I used to disregard auto-tuned songs outright, but after watching this in-depth doc. of how it was discovered (by accident), the early pioneers and all its aspects, I’ve softened my critique of its use. I still think it’s over-used and abused, but it’s a fascinating story and I believe for some, auto-tune is a valuable tool in the musical tool-box. Anyway, I found the entire series erudite and engrossing.

      2. Listening to the music we came of age on, I can imagine, in my mind’s eye and ear, live human being playing actual music instruments. Not so much with recordings of contemporary popular tunes.

  4. Dear Professor Ceiing Cat (Emeritus),
    I care for 16 feline welfare recipients. One of them is 19 yrs old (and doing very well for an old lady cat) so she gets to eat whatever she wants, whenever she wants, even if it means opening a fresh can of food for her more than once a day. The other ne’er-do-wells reap the benefit of her pickiness and have come to expect the leftover delectable canned foods instead of their usual crunchies. Some of them earn their keep by maintaining a rodent-free zone around the house. But how do I tell the others that they are becoming fat and lazy and dependent without causing an insurrection? I despair for the future of Cat-merica.
    The Can Opener

  5. Last year you (and several others) recommended Nick Lane’s books regarding origin of life. I’ve since enthusiastically read a couple of them, and also listened to Sean Carroll’s excellent recent podcast with Lane. Do you think Lane’s views about the origin of life are more plausible than the other (roughly, RNA-first) ones?

    1. I really can’t judge their plausibility, but they seem at least as plausible as anything else, and Lane makes a good case for his views. But we won’t ever know the answer, even if (as I think we will) we will someday create “life” in the lab under conditions approximating those of early Earth. That will tell us that it could have happened, but not necessarily HOW it happened.

    2. I have a Nick Lane book in an ever growing list of “to read” books (as its part of the Oxford Landmark Science series, along with Why Evolution is True) and just listened to him speak with Sean Carroll on Sean’s podcast. Very good.

      I just wonder if you, or anybody else, could suggest which of his books I should read first and is there a suggested order? If you could only pick one or two, which would they be?

      (I have “Oxygen” on my list, and was going to read “Power, Sex, Suicide” if I enjoyed it.)

      1. I read The Vital Question and then Life Ascending. Probably the reverse order would have been better, since Vital Question is more specialized. I plan to get his new one (Transformer ) when it comes out in paperback.

  6. I was told by my urology consultant that only two species have the male urinary tract passing through the prostate, one is Homo Sapiens – blast it – and the other I have forgotten. Does PCC(E) or anyone know?

      1. The whole human waste-water elimination system, in which the sewage pipe runs smack dab through the amusement park, doesn’t make a lotta sense from a design standpoint, does it?

  7. 1stly thank you for all your efforts on this wonderful website.

    My questions are a bit technical: what proportion of the Genome do you think is functional (under selection)? How important is neutral (& nearly neutral) mutation in the genome, especially compared to adaptive forces? Is this debate a significant issue in trying to advance our understanding of evolution?

    Thanks for answering I’d really appreciate learning your views on this area.

    1. I’d say about 2% of the genome is “functional” in coding for proteins, and some of the rest has to be involved in gene regulation in ways we don’t understand, but I’d say the bulk of the genome doesn’t do anything. The person to direct your question to, though, is Larry Moran, who has studied this extensively. He sometimes reads here and maybe he’ll answer your question. The neutral and nearly neutral debate is a huge topic. Clearly those kinds of mutations are very important for molecular evolution, but not so much for adaptive evolution. However, one could consider a new gene duplication as a “neutral” mutation, and duplication is of course vastly important in adaptive evolution.

      1. Thank you so much. Yes, I read Sandwalk regularly, and will read Prof Moran’s book when it is published. It was his discussion of the issue which stimulated me to ask you the questions.

  8. What do you think of situations in which an individual is expected to recite language written by someone else? (Examples include the pledge of allegiance and land acknowledgement statements.) Even when I agree with the general sentiment that’s being expressed (as I do with some land acknowledgement statements, for example), I feel uncomfortable reciting someone else’s language, as it feels too much like indoctrination to me. What are your thoughts?

    1. In the case of those examples, I oppose it, and you shouldn’t have to. It’s the law that you don’t have to recite the pledge of allegiance, and I don’t do land acknowledgements. Academics shouldn’t be forced to say stuff that they object to. The only case where I would favor repeating what somebody else said is if I were in court and had to swear that I was going to tell the truth.

      1. Funny you mention that: The common pledge, “I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” is a complete nightmare to me, for reasons that are surely perfectly obvious to most readers here. Namely, I don’t know “the truth”, let alone “the whole truth”. I suppose I can do my best not to add anything but what I believe to be the truth. And don’t even get me started with “so help me god,” surely the least helpful entity imaginable, even if s/he/they existed, when it comes to telling the truth.
        Why can’t one just say “I promise/swear to honestly relate what I believe I know/saw/heard/witnessed.”?

      2. Could you elaborate on your position against doing land acknowledgements? I detest them, but they are increasingly creeping into corporate and professional spheres and would rather be prepared with an optimized rationale from voices across the political spectrum.

        1. They accomplish nothing, are often erroneous because land has been taken over again and again, and are performative virtue signaling. If you want to acknowledge theft of land, GIVE IT BACK OR PAY THE PEOPLE YOU’RE APOLOGIZING TO. Mainly, it is a no-cost gesture showing that you’re virtuous.

  9. Do you have conservative friends with whom you disagree about guns, or politics, or evolution? I am concerned about the polarization in this country. I am a moderate who lives among conservatives. The only liberal I know here believes in astral projection. My old friend in Austin knows no conservatives!

    1. I have friends who are more gun-friendly than I am, and indeed go hunting, but I don’t really have any close friends who are very conservative. I see it as somewhat of a character flaw to adhere to many tenets of the Republican party, and I wouldn’t enjoy being around people who espouse them.

  10. Philosophy:

    Objectivism, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, is staunchly atheistic, supports abortion rights on a broad and solid philosophical basis, holds reason as an absolute (no woo whatsoever), valorizes the victories of science and the scientific method, excoriates “The Rich” who get their power and money by pull instead of productivity, denounces US involvement in foreign wars and ‘nation-building’, and rigorously upholds the “liberal” worldview of The Enlightenment once flown on the flag of Democrats. Ayn Rand, and Objectivists, are absolutely no friend of Conservatives — not even close.

    Unless I am mistaken, you are against Objectivism and Ayn Rand. Why? Would you be willing to spell it out?

    1. You’re putting words in my mouth. I don’t endorse “Objectivism” as a whole, though it’s been years since i read Ayn Rand, but some of the tenets you mention above are things I agree with (valorization of science, upholding the worldview of the Enlightenment, etc. I’d prefer to take issues one at a time rather than endorse a whole “worldview”.

      1. You don’t endorse Objectivism as a whole. By your post, you agree with some of its positions, so you don’t condemn it as a whole — is that a justified statement?

        I’ll conform to bringing this up in the future on the basis of one issue at a time.

    2. Science? When dying of lung cancer, Rand claimed that her smoking had nothing to do with it. Individualism and a lean state, yet in her later years was content to live off of welfare. Difficult to find a bigger hypocrite. Not everything about it is bad, but it is certainly not something we should all look up to.

      1. Both of those, and many more, thoroughly countered in essence hundreds of times over decades. I won’t bother. Why? Because the ideas that count are so important it is an insult to them to spend any time on the trivial and the spun.

  11. Did you read Micheal Pollens book “ How to change you mind”? Did your previous psychedelic use help form in anyway you outlook on life? Would you ever use them again?

    1. No, never read it. I am not sure psychedelics changed my life in any way other than seeing how amazing the brain can react to a minute amount of drug, but also that one can find incredible beauty in the mundane under psychedelics. I don’t know if I’d ever use them again. Pollan says they’re useful if you’re at the end stage of life. . .

  12. Good morning and thank you for the AMA. I’m wondering, did you ever have an abortion experience? If so, would you describe how it impacted you?

        1. Two years into the Pandemic I wonder if we are better able to confront the next one. If the work done through CRISPER/RNA/DNA research has brought us to point where we can swap out viruses or bacterium and quickly find vaccine solutions. Or could the next Pandemic be so completely different that it stumps science long enough to kill many more than Covid.

  13. Is there any subject that you’ve considered taking up either to study or as a hobby that you currently don’t have a solid understanding of? My wife has recently taken up rockhounding and really loves it, so we are learning a lot about geology, etc. I am interested in late(r) life changes. Thanks, I love this AMA.

    1. Yes, for years I’ve wanted to play guitar in the style of John Fahey or Doc Watson. I even have a good Martin guitar that I got decades ago for my birthday. I taught myself to play some, but I really do need lessons, and now it’s almost too late.

      1. Not too late!! Come on out to Colorado for Roots Music Camp sometime – folks range from beginners to experts with instruction by some of the finest – Grammy winners, winners at Winfield/Walnut Valley, etc.

  14. Infinity, I am afraid that it has always been ununderstandable to me. If one can travel in a distance forever, there is potential space there, so, to me, it is not nothing. How can that be?


  15. I understand that the homeobox contains genes which link body parts to organs, at least in the anterior-posterior direction. My question is, how do they link to body position? I have read that they are in the same order along the gene, but I have also read the contrary.

    1. The homeobox (Hox) clusters of genes are ordered along a chromosome in the same order that they are expressed, from anterior to posterior, in developing embryos. This seems to apply to all animals that have a head-to-tail axis. It’s very weird.

  16. Tell me something that you believe/know to be true, but is politically inappropriate to talk about..

    1. I’ve said this before, but it’s this: “At the present time, equity (proportional representation of groups) and meritocracy are incompatible.” (Of course we strive to make them compatible some day.) This explains why people will rarely give the real reason for things like eliminating grades and standardized tests, and favoring “holistic” admissions.

  17. As Republicans seem to be working their way towards personhood rights at the moment of conception, and Democrats were unable (or uninterested) in protecting Roe v Wade, how to you seen the next few years playing out?

    1. All I can say is “grim”. If, as everyone predicts, the Republicans will make big inroads in this fall’s Congressional elections, it’s all going to hell. The only hope for national abortion protection is for Congress to pass a law, and we can’t do that even now.

    2. But that’s not really the position of most voters on either side. Just heard on CNN that some poll or other reports that only 9% of US voters want abortion to be illegal with no ifs, ands, or buts.

  18. I got sidetracked, hope you’re still open for questions. This is going back a bit. During the last years of life Steven J. Gould’s life there was an ongoing dispute, rivalry, or something going on between him and Dawkins. I (a layperson for sure), could never figure out what the issue was. All I saw were petty jealousies (mostly on Dawkin’s part) and personality conflicts. Was there something serious going on at a scientific/phiisophical level that this naive soul was missing?

    1. Yes, there was a conflict over adaptationism (later in life, Gould could barely get himself to admit that natural selection actually operated, while Dawkins of course has spent his life emphasizing the power of natural selection.) It’s not petty jealousy: it’s a real conflict about whether when we see a feature the default explanation should be selection for that feature or some epiphenomenal explanation. That oversimplifies matters, but it’s largely about selectionism.

      1. I found Kim Sterelney’s short book “Dawkins vs. Gould: Survival of the Fittest” illuminating.

  19. Is there a definition of what life is that actually works and doesn’t have holes in it? We all know that according to the NASA definition mules aren’t alive, for example, so is there a definition that we all can use?

    1. No, but we know it when we see it. I could make as a definition something that metabolizes and has a mechanism for reproducing itself nearly exactly, but I guess others would find problems with that.

      1. What is your favorite exception to that definition? I remember an episode of Star Trek TNG that said that fire meets those precise criteria.

        Now I’m thinking of Conway’s Game of Life and information patterns/programs that do the same thing.

        1. Fire oxidizes but doesn’t metabolize, and doesn’t replicate nearly exactly. But I suppose viruses are a good exception. I’m not sure I’m willing to say they’re “alive”!

          1. But viruses do not and can not metabolize.
            Nor can they reproduce without hijacking something that is inarguably alive.

              1. But don’t we, including scientists, generally regard them as alive (despite the debate)? As a part of the great tree of life? Are they not treated in all biology textbooks?

              2. I think this is running into the limits of the word “alive”. It’s language, but just. Like trying to shoehorn the virus into the definition. We might invent some fanciful term like “pseudoalive” to use (not me), but the important thing is that we know viruses require a host – a live, living host. Not the other way around. Clarity and precision is what language is for. So viruses are not alive, I say.

              3. I see, good point. They certainly do inhabit that gray area between alive and not alive. Though presumably “require a host” is not really the decisive criterion, as this would rule out a whole range of (other) parasites as well.

          2. I have a strong feeling that entropy should feature centrally in whatever definitions we come up with. As far as I can see (though I’ve never been a biologist), all organisms that we consider to be alive must spend energy to maintain a configuration of matter that would be thermodynamically unfavourable on its own, locally reducing entropy. And this process is irreversibly stopped on what we consider death.

            This would also serve to exclude things like fire.

              1. I didn’t mean to suggest it would be sufficient, but I do believe it would make sense to include it.

  20. Like you, I have an old Honda Civic (mine is 1999) that still takes me where I want to go. I’ve pretty much decided to drive it until it drops. If/when do you ever see yourself upgrading, given the currently high price of everything?

    1. Nope. I put a fair amount of bucks into the car last year so that it would last the rest of my life. Cheaper by far to do that than upgrade! Plus my Honda has only about 80,000 miles on it.

  21. I bought Gould’s ‘Structure of Evolutionary Theory’ when it came out, naively believing it would be a good reference-class work on modern evolutionary theory for someone with undergraduate-level science. But it is way too long, needing a drastic haircut, reading like a free-form dictation without any revisions for pages on end.
    1. What’s the view of the developmental biology world about Gould’s non-Magnum Opus now? [ Major factual errors, biasses, etc? ].
    2. As an alternative, would you recommend Futuyma’s book on evolution [ new edition due out about now ] or something else apart from your books, as a one-stop reference for the sorts of people who comment on your website?

  22. Nobody I know but Allen Orr and I (he reviewed the book in the NYRB, I think) have even read the damn thing. It’s tedious, tendentious, and you have to wade through 1,200 pages of the stuff before your see that he ADMITS that there is no evidence for “species selection” as the prime motivator of punctuated equilibrium. While the PE theory might be right in discerning a pattern, what made Gould notorious for it was that he proposed a basically non-Darwinian MECHANISM for the pattern. And that hasn’t worn well. You don’t see people arguing about PE any more.

    Yes, I highly recommend Futuyma’s book (there’s a coauthor or two now) as the best intro to professional evolutonary biology. It’s the book I always used in my evolution classes, settling on it after trying many others. Doug has a deep understanding of evolution and a felicitous writing style, and if you want to understand a topic in more than superficial detail, Futuyma is, in my view, the best. Remember, though, it’s not a “trade” book but a textbook. Some of my students found it rough going but I still think it’s the best.

  23. Thanks for the AMA. Do you have an opinion or maybe just an educated take on animals such as chimpanzees, elephants etc being granted legal personhood? I can agree wholeheartedly that almost any being should be free from exploitation, fear and abuse. I can accept that animals such as Octopi have an intelligence or consciousness that we cannot as yet understand, and not put a value on it as compared to human consciousness, and that there may be multiple evolutionary pathways to consciousness or intelligence. I think the simple answer may just be that as a litigious society, overwhelmingly human, we need to legally describe this situation on terms most familiar to us.
    Just wondering if you see where this might be headed, any pitfalls that might be encountered, what your take on it might be. For instance, does the rights granted by personhood now imply also responsibilities? I guess we already put down animals that attack humans (often the persons fault) but where else might this go? Thanks, Steve

    1. All I can say is that I don’t know about legal personhood, but the future is legislation preventing animal cruelty, and the more sentient the animal, the stricter the legislation needed. Our treatment of farm animals is abysmal, and zoos and squaria (particularly the ones with large mammals) should be abolished. You don’t need concepts of “personhood” to deal with this issue.

  24. When/where did your affection for ducks start? Was Botany Pond the catalyst, or do you have earlier tales of feathered friends?

    1. No, it was when, six years ago, I saw Honey swimming in the channel with four of her half-grown babies. (Who knew how many she actually had?) I thought, “Hey, maybe I should feed those.” That’s when it all started.

      I miss Honey.

      1. How sweet. She had wonderful, thoughtful care – and you endeared her to many around the world.

    1. I don’t know if it’s a “crisis”, but it does mean that important experiments in some areas, like sociology and psychology, should definitely be repeated (viz., Vohs and Schooler on free will). It’s not so much of a problem in the harder sciences since experiments tend to build on other experiments, and errors can be sussed out that way. (However, not that many nonmolecular evolutionary biology experiments build on each other in ways that earlier errors can be detected.)

    1. Well, of course this comes from the opening line of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (“April is the cruellest month”). It just seems to me that you can skate into Monday on the high of the weekend, but when Tuesday comes you realize that most of the long hard week still lies ahead.

  25. I’m going to Paris in September—could you recommend a few restaurants? I’m a budget traveler who appreciates traditional French cooking. And if you know any good restaurants in Lyon, Nimes, or Toulouse I would love to hear your recommendations as well!

    1. Lots of them, but remember that even a decent French restaurant will cost you more than in the U.S. Email me privately and I can send you some. September is a good month to visit and eat, and I myself favor bistros with home cooking. Don’t forget to reserve several days before you go, and if that means calling from America, do so. (It helps if you speak French, so get some help if you don’t).

      Here are two great ones:

      Auberge Pyrenees Cevennes in the 11th near Republique. Have the cassoulet, the salade aux lardons, and the profiteroles

      Chez Denise (also called the Tour de Montlhery) in the 1st, near the Louvre. A classic French bistro, now a bit touristy but with huge portions of great food and plenty of locals. This is always the FIRST restaurant I eat at when arriving in Paris. Get the salade frisee, the onglet (hanger steak–rare) with shallots, and any dessert. Order a bottle of the house red (Chiroubles?) which comes in liters. They charge you only for what you drink.

      For a fancier bistro, where you’ll pay about $100 a person if you eat high on the hog, Chez Josephine Dumonet (ask to be seated in front, not the rear where they put tourists) can’t be beat. Smoked salmon appetizer or stuffed morels to start, and DO NOT MISS the boeuf bourguignon (get a half portion) with homemade noodles. They’re famous for their souffle, but the millefeiulle is also good.

      There are more. . . .

      1. Many thanks! When I was last in Paris (2019) I ate at Chez Denise after reading about it on your site. I had an excellent meal (fois gras and lamb kidneys) and will return to try your recommendation of hanger steak. I live in San Francisco, so chances are some Parisian restaurants will be less expensive than my hometown’s!

  26. I’m not sure I have one in me. Oxford Univ. Press has asked me to write a short (35,000 words) intro to speciation for it’s Very Short Introduction series, and I’m contemplating that.

      1. I’m waiting to hear from the putative illustrator, but he hasn’t answered my emails. I’m trying to work up the courage to write him this month, but I’m shy and not pushy about these things. But the text is done and the illustrator initially agreed to do the pictures. I may be getting the brush-off now. . .

        1. So it is on hold, sorry to hear that. I understand your passive attitude, and it’s not like your livelihood depends on it. Still sucks if you get the brush-off. Esp. now that the text is done. If it doesn’t get published, it’s the illustrator’s loss if that’s where the blame lies. WEIT readers’ purchases alone would probably guarantee a break-even scenario. Sigh…

        2. Please consider ask again, technology can be fickle and communications do get lost. (And there are other talented illustrators.)

          All the heroic work you’ve done, (continue to do) should be immortalized in a nicely illustrated book. I have a growing list of folks I would already love to send it to! 🦆

  27. I don’t recall having seen anything here on xenobiology. Do you have any thoughts you would like to share – about basic principles, building blocks, etc.? Do you have a preferred response to the Fermi Paradox?

  28. I think it’s fine to believe in one conspiracy (within reason, no flat earthers), but many more and you start to sound like a kook. Mine is MH370, I believe there’s a good chance it was hijacked, made to look like it flew south, whilst in fact flying and landing north.

    Dr Coyne, are there any conspiracy theories you believe?

  29. If vp Pence — the most obsequious person ever to reside on the grounds of the US Naval Observatory — had given the last full measure of his servility and capitulated to Donald Trump’s incessant browbeating to follow John Eastman, Esq.’s plan to ignore the legitimate results of the presidential election and had instead counted the fugazi EC votes cast by the play-acting Republican electors from seven states, thereby handing another term to Trump contrary to the clearly expressed will of US voters, what do you think would’ve happened to this country on January 7, 2021?

    I think the nation would’ve been on the brink of a civil war of some sort, though I have a hard time imagining what shape it would have taken.

    I, for one, would have been willing to wait a reasonable time to see whether SCOTUS stepped in to vindicate US democracy, but, failing that, I would have been ready to take it to the streets. How about you?

    1. Well, I’m a conscientious objector and a pacifist, and I wouldn’t want to hurt anybody else in such a fracas. I would certainly demonstrate in the streets, but I wouldn’t have a weapon.

      1. By “taking it to the streets” I simply meant massive demonstrations and civil disobedience. I, too, abjure violence, at least as anything but a final, unavoidable resort.

  30. Considering how versatile microorganisms like COVID, I am wondering why evolution has arrow, namely simple to complex. Any perspective would be appreciated.

    PS. I am not a creationist crackpot. I am a physicist interested in arrow of time.

    1. There is no such arrow from simple to complex. Life started simple and thus there HAD to be an increase in net complexity over time. But we also have evidence for decreases in complexity (tapeworms, for example, have lost their digestive system, most of their sensory system, and most of their reprodcutive system). I’d read Dawkins on this topic

  31. I’ll try a question, regarding the website in general :

    Are there any large or small scale plans/objectives that you can share looking out into the far future (as in, not in the next five minutes ) – no spoilers, of course. Maybe a teaser of some articles in long-term development, like the fabled “What is the deal with Wikipedia?” (my paraphrase) article?

  32. AMA question:
    I know very little biology (my field is engineering/physics) but I have a question about evolution: Take, for example, a giraffe. It acquired a long neck because a random gene mutation caused an increase in neck length in an individual, this means it has an advantage and is more likely to reproduce more times, thus spreading the gene. This happens again in future generations, thus the neck length keeps increasing until an optimum is reached.

    Each generation, the probability of different kinds of mutations, including those for neck length, is approximately equal. So it seems very unlikely that a mutation for increased neck length would keep happening, but presumably in the giraffe it has kept happening, as the long neck didn’t occur in one mutation.

    So my question is: If an organism suffers a random genetic mutation that causes a beneficial phenotypic change, does that make it more likely that the same event, affecting the same characteristic, will occur in future?

    Best wishes, Peter

    1. No. And mutations are happening all the time: those both increasing and decreasing neck length. Selection keeps the long ones until there’s no longer a reproductive gain to be had by increasing neck length.

  33. There’s a lot of questions here, so many thanks for taking the time to answer them. If you’re still up for one more, my question would be: what do you think will be, or what would you like to be, the next big discovery in evolutionary biology?

    1. I don’t prognosticate about these things as science is always surprising. And because I like to be surprised, I don’t have a preference for (or an idea about) the “next big discovery” in evolutionary biology.

  34. A simple one: roughly how many books do you think you’ve read in your life? What ratio of fiction vs non-fiction?

    1. Crikey, I have no idea. I don’t even know how many books I’ve read lately, but it must be about two a month (more during the early days of the pandemic). And when I was in college I read more than that because almost every non-biology course required us to read several books.
      The ratio of fiction to non-fiction varies. Right now I’m reading fiction in my Booker Initiative, but I just finished a non-fiction book, Jason Rosenhouse’s new attack on intelligent design, which is very good (and which I’ll review briefly soon.)

  35. I saved a bookmark long ago to get your opinions on this article about planaria. Part of the abstract:

    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.

    They also point out that planaria reproduce by fission more often than sexually.

    Maybe you’re not familiar with the paper, but are familiar with these issues as they concern such animals, in which case please still comment.

    1. What’s your take on genetically modified crops? I recall Edward O. Wilson was generally in favor of them, particularly as a way to farm marginal land. USDA does not allow GMO seed for crops, or GMO feed in organic meat. (It would seem to me that GMOs would be a “clean” way to improve and increase yields of organic crops.)

      1. I’m generally in favor of them too, as they haven’t proven to be the disasters that many predicted. But Matthew makes the case in his upcoming book on genetic engineering that they haven’t been nearly as useful as people think, either. I can’t remember his arguments, so you’ll have to wait until his book comes out!

        I don’t know a lot about this area.

  36. If it’s not too late….what distinguishes an apparent organism that is actually a colony of individuals (e.g., Portuguese Man of War), from an individual organism?

  37. If evolution is true, then it seems all living things are nothing,
    or IOW, everything is in the process of becoming something else.

    What do you think about this?

Leave a Reply