Med school and the denial of biological sex

July 27, 2021 • 12:45 pm

In November of 2018, I noted that, in an announcement, the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) maintained that not only gender, but biological sex should be “more accurately viewed as a continuum.” That came as a shock to someone (me) who had spent his life sorting fruit flies into piles of males and females. (Once a year or so I’d find a “gynandromorph”, an individual having bits from both sexes, but that is not in itself a sex—and they’re extraordinarily rare.)

Here’s the SSE’s original announcement (my emphasis)

Variation in biological sex and in gendered expression has been well documented in many species, including humans, through hundreds of scientific articles. Such variation is observed at both the genetic level and at the individual level (including hormone levels, secondary sexual characteristics, as well as genital morphology). Moreover, models predict that variation should exist within the categories that HHS proposes as “male” and “female”, indicating that sex should be more accurately viewed as a continuum.

Re the part in bold: which models?, and no.

Later on, probably in response to people like me who objected, the SSE added an asterisk at the end of the paragraph and appended this note:

*Here we are speaking of the multi-dimensional aspects that underlie male-ness and female-ness, including hormones, physiology, morphology, development, and genetic aspects.  We acknowledge that many of these aspects are bimodal. Furthermore, some of these aspects are discrete categories (e.g., XX/XY, SRY presence/absence, gamete size, sperm production vs egg production, presence/absence of certain genitalia), but these categories don’t always align within individuals, are not always binary, and should be irrelevant to the determination of a person’s legal rights and freedoms.

Since the biological definition of sex is whether gamete size is large (female) or small (male), and that trait is bimodal and discrete, the SSE might as well have said that sex should not be viewed as a continuum. But of course the SSE is subject to the Zeitgeist, which, as the new article by Katie Herzog on Bari Weiss’s site notes, is definitely against recognizing two discrete biological sexes in humans. This denial of reality has serious medical implications, but read the piece to see them.

Click on the screenshot to read:

This is part 2 of Herzog’s series on the wokeification of med schools; part 1, about the silencing of people out of fear, is here.

Herzog begins with an example of an obese transgender man who died because he went to the hospital, did not know he was pregnant (and there was nothing about his natal sex in his records), and the fetus died because the staff took a while to recognize the pregnancy.  But most of the article is about the pressure applied to professors in medical school to conform to prevailing terminology and opinion, and how that is inimical to the practice of good medicine.  I’ll give a few quotes from a few areas.  Quotes from Herzog’s article are indented:

Censoring of language. 

The denial of sex doesn’t help anyone, perhaps least of all transgender patients who require special treatment. But, Lauren says, instructors who discuss sex risk complaints from their students — which is why, she thinks, many don’t. “I think there’s a small percentage of instructors who are true believers. But most of them are probably just scared of their students,” she says.

And for good reason. Her medical school hosts an online forum in which students correct their instructors for using terms like “male” and “female” or “breastfeed” instead of “chestfeed.” Students can lodge their complaints in real time during lectures. After one class, Lauren says, she heard that a professor was so upset by students calling her out for using “male” and “female” that she started crying.

Then there are the petitions. At the beginning of the year, students circulated a number of petitions designed to, as Lauren puts it, “name and shame” instructors for “wrongspeak.”

One was delivered after a lecture on chromosomal disorders in which the professor used the pronouns “she” and “her” as well as the terms “father” and “son,” all of which, according to the students, are “cisnormative.” After the petition was delivered, the instructor emailed the class, noting that while she had consulted with a member of the school’s LGBTQ Committee prior to the lecture, she was sorry for using such “binary” language. Another petition was delivered after an instructor referred to “a man changing into a woman,” which, according to the students, incorrectly assumed that the trans woman wasn’t always a woman. But, as Lauren points out, “if trans women were born women, why would they need to transition?”

Herzog recounts the downfall of Lisa Littman, who documented the rapid increase of female adolescents wanting to transition over the last decade (1000% in the US, 4000% in the UK), suggesting that this “rapid onset gender dyphoria” may have partly due to social contagion (approbation online as well as families and doctors too willing to affirm dysphoria and approve of transition without proper procedures. I’ve already discussed that.

Puberty blockers. We are universally assured that these drugs are both safe and reversible. They are used to put potentially transsexual pre-puberty individuals “on hold” while they consider their options. Herzog questions the safety and reversibility.

[Pediatrician Julia] Mason generally avoids prescribing puberty blockers, which inhibit the development of secondary sex characteristics like breasts or facial hair. The reason, she says, is that because there have been no controlled studies on the use of puberty blockers for gender dysphoric youth, the long term effects are still unknown. (In the U.K., a recent review of existing studies found that the quality of the evidence that puberty blockers are effective in relieving gender dysphoria and improving mental health is “very low.”)

In girls, Mason says, blockers inhibit breast development, but “you end up shorter, and the last thing a female who wants to look male needs is to be shorter.” Other side effects may include a loss of bone density, headache, fatigue, joint pain, hot flashes, mood swings and something called “brain fog.” In boys, blockers inhibit penis growth, which can make it harder for them to achieve orgasm and for surgeons to later construct those penises into “neo-vaginas,” a procedure known as vaginoplasty.

Trans activists often claim the effects of puberty blockers are fully reversible, but this remains unproven, and studies show that the overwhelming majority of teens who start on puberty blockers later take cross-sex hormones (testosterone for females and estrogen for males) to complete their transition. The combination of puberty blockers followed by hormones can cause sterility and other health problems, including sexual dysfunction, and the hormones must be taken for life — or until detransition. Little is known about their long-term effects. While the line that blockers are “fully reversible” is oft-repeated by activists and the media, last year, England’s National Health Service back-tracked this unsubstantiated claim on its website.

Desistance is the reversal of either identification as a transsexual or of the medical transition itself. To even bring the topic up is taboo in the transsexual activist community. But look at the statistics and then judge whether doctors and parents should be so quick to affirm transsexuality and then begin risky medical procedures (my emphasis):

In 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that pediatricians “affirm” their patients’ chosen gender without taking into account mental health, family history, trauma, or fears of puberty. The AAP recommendations say nothing about the many consequences, physical and psychological, of transitioning. So perhaps it is not surprising that surgeons are performing double mastectomies, or “top surgery,” on patients as young as 13.

One leading clinician, Diane Ehrensaft, has said that children as young as three have the cognitive ability to come out as transgender. And the University of California San Francisco Child and Adolescent Gender Center Clinic, where Ehrensaft is the mental health director, has helped kids of that age transition socially.

But not all clinicians have cheered these developments. In a paper responding to the AAP guidelines, James Cantor, a clinical psychologist in Toronto, noted that “every follow-up study of [gender dysphoric] children, without exception, found the same thing: By puberty, the majority of GD children ceased to want to transition.” Other studies of gender-clinic patients, stretching back to the 1970s, have found that 60 to 90 percent of patients eventually grow out of their gender dysphoria; most come out as gay or lesbian. 

In an email to me, Cantor said: “The deafening silence from AAP when asked about the evidence allegedly supporting their trans policy is hard to interpret as anything other than their ‘pleading the 5th,’ as you in the U.S. put it.”

Knowing the bits in bold, shouldn’t we be a bit more cautious about rah-rah affirmation followed by puberty blockers—themselves almost inevitably followed by hormone treatment and/or surgery that leads to irreversible changes in physical characteristics, and often to sterility?

Part 2 of Matthew’s 3-part BBC show on genetic engineering

July 27, 2021 • 9:15 am

I was alerted to the appearance of Matthew’s BBC radio second show on genetic engineering from his tweet below. He’s offering a prize, too, if you understand the final music (put your guesses below or tweet them back at Matthew). I’m told the prize will be an autographed copy of Genetic Dreams, Matthew’s book that inspired this show: The book will appear next year.

Click below and then on “listen now” to hear the program. The BBC summary:

Professor Matthew Cobb looks at how genetic engineering became big business – from the first biotech company that produced human insulin in modified bacteria in the late 1970s to the companies like Monsanto which developed and then commercialised the first GM crops in the 1990s. Were the hopes and fears about these products of genetic engineering realised?

The show is based on lots of interviews—conducted by Matthew himself. It’s a good episode, beginning with the creation of venture-capital-funded genetic engineering firms, firms that made scientists wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, and eventually used recombinant DNA technology to manufacture “artificial” human insulin and growth hormone, as well as over 400 other drugs. But there was a downside of genetic engineering: interviewees complain about the secrecy it imposes on scientific research and about the fact that the technology made medicines more expensive. 

The last part of the show concentrates on GM (“genetically modified”) organisms—specifically crops. We all know about Monsanto’s creation of crops resistant to the herbicide Roundup, giving companies a convenient way to sell both crop and herbicide, as well as making it easier for farmers to tend their fields.  Despite these scientific advances, though, Matthew notes that GM crops haven’t led to more food being produced, all the while increasing the use of herbicides and pesticides that may have dire effects on the ecosystem. At the end, Matthew reaches a conclusion about whether GM technology has been more of a dream or a nightmare.


Readers’ wildlife photos

July 27, 2021 • 8:00 am

Today’s photos are from New Zealand and taken by Chris Taylor. The captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

In response to your request I’ve been looking through my photos for some you might be able to use.  To start off with, here’s a set of photos from New Zealand, from a trip I made to the North Island a few years ago.

First, a panorama of the active volcano Mt Tongariro.  It looks peaceful enough, but you can see steam issuing from two vents in the volcano’s slopes.

New Zealand Dotterel (Charadrius obscurus). Also known by its Maori nameof Tuturiwhat.

New Zealand Pigeon or Kereru, Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae:

Grey Duck or Pārera, Anas superciliosa.  Although known in Australia as the Pacific Black Duck and Grey Duck in New Zealand, there is almost no black in the plumage.  It is very closely related to the Mallard, and will interbreed with introduced birds.

Red Billed Gull or tarāpung, Larus novaehollandiae.Also called Pacific Silver gull in Australia.

Pied Stilt or Koaka , Himantopus himantopus . Two photos taken at the Hell’s Gate Thermal area near Rotorua.The birds were feeding in the warm water of the springs, and it was a couple of minutes before I saw the chicks – they were quite camouflaged against the volcanic rocks!

Can you spot the chicks?


Pohutukawa treeMetrosideros excelsa.

Photos from the Pūkorokoro / Miranda shorebird reserve.  Flocks of Bar-tailed Godwit/Kuaka Limosa lapponica , Turnstone Arenaria interpres, Wrybill/Ngutuparore Anarhynchus frontalis and others.  I was there at low tide, not the best time to see the birds!  This is looking out across the flats and the Firth of Thames to the hills of the Coromandel Peninsular.   This is a vital area for many of the migrant species that arrive in New Zealand, as they can feed here to build up their bodies after the rigors of their flight.  The Bar-Tailed Godwit or Kuaka is the world champion when it comes to migration, traveling from NZ to Alaska and back each year.  The Northward flight usually goes via Indonesia and China, but the southward return to Pūkorokoro is often done non-stop.  Last year, one bird known as 4BBRW, was fitted with a tracker and was observed to make a 12,050km non-stop flight.

Silver Fern, Alsophila dealbata, in Rotorua.  One of the Floral Emblems of New Zealand.

House Sparrow, Passer domesticus.  Introduced by the British after colonisation.  This one was flying around as we sat having coffee at a cafe in Whitianga.

Tui, Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae:

Tuesday: Hili dialogue

July 27, 2021 • 6:30 am

Greetings on the cruelest day: Tuesday, July 27, 2021: National Scotch Day (as always, I’ll have a Springbank).  It’s also National Crème Brûlée Day, National Chicken Finger Day, National Korean War Veterans Armistice Day (see below under 1953),and Bagpipe Appreciation Day.  And in North Korea, it’s a national holiday, the Day of Victory in the Great Fatherland Liberation War.

Posting will be very light today as I have two zoom calls, one about Antarctica.

News of the Day:

It’s now 188 days until the Bidens moved into the White House, and there still is no First Cat. Just sayin’

Predictable News: The Senate is still squabbling about Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan, and it’s hit a pretty big speed bump:

The impasse arrives after lawmakers toiled away into the weekend over their proposal to improve the nation’s roads, bridges, pipes, ports and Internet connections. Republicans including Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah initially hoped to finalize a more robust blueprint as soon as Monday so that the long-stalled debate could finally start, but the prospect now seems unlikely given the sheer scope of policy obstacles that negotiators must resolve.

Lawmakers must still sort through lingering disputes over how to spend billions of dollars to upgrade the country’s railways, for example, along with thorny policy issues around broadband spending — including efforts by Democrats to ensure Internet access is affordable.

Both sides also have failed to come to terms on the formula for doling out money to improve the nation’s highways, as well as the exact funding available for water improvements. And lawmakers remain at odds over provisions sought by Democrats that aim to ensure any federal spending to improve infrastructure will pay workers prevailing wages to do the job.

I have no idea whether this bill will pass, but if something isn’t done, the country will fall to pieces. At least there’s a hint of bipartisanship going on. Will the bill need 60 votes to prevent the dreaded Filibuster?

The final victim in the Florida condo collapse has been identified: Estelle Hadaya, who died at 54. That, at least, leaves no families with relatives still missing. The search continued for a long time, but only one person was found in the rubble. Final death toll: 98, including Ilan Naibryf, a third-year physics student at the University of Chicago set to graduate next year.

Reader Woody called my attention to a yahoo! news piece reporting that Facebook, trying to repair its image among Americans disillusioned with the site, is now partnering with churches, helping them develop attractive online platforms. It’s also a way to increase Zuckerberg’s bottom line, by sucking the goddies onto Facebook:

Facebook, which recently passed $1 trillion in market capitalization, may seem like an unusual partner for a church whose primary goal is to share the message of Jesus. But the company has been cultivating partnerships with a wide range of faith communities over the past few years, from individual congregations to large denominations, like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God in Christ.

But what about the “nones”, Zuk? Aren’t you one of us?

The first openly transgender athlete has competed at the Olympics: their name is simply Quinn (Quinn uses the they/them pronouns), and they played for the Canadian women’s soccer team last Wednesday, in a game that was a 1-1 draw with Japan. From the AP report:

Quinn, who plays professionally for OL Reign in the National Women’s Soccer League, is not the only transgender athlete participating in the Tokyo Games. Probably the most visible is Laurel Hubbard, a transgender woman competing in weightlifting for New Zealand. Chelsea Wolfe, a transgender cyclist, is a reserve on the U.S. women’s BMX Freestyle team.

There was the possibility for several more elite transgender athletes to compete in Tokyo. Nikki Hiltz did not qualify in the women’s 1,500 meters at the U.S. track and field trials, while CeCe Telfer was declared ineligible in her bid to run in the 400-meter hurdles. Volleyball player Tiffany Abreu did not make Brazil’s final Olympic roster.

The International Olympic Committee has allowed transgender athletes to participate at the Olympics since 2004, but until this year, none had done so openly. In addition to Quinn, Hubbard and Wolfe, some transgender athletes are competing without discussing their transition. Some have been outed and harassed online by people who oppose transgender athletes competing.

(From AP): Canada’s Quinn, left, and Chile’s Karen Araya vie for the ball during a women’s soccer match at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Sapporo, Japan. (AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo)

Speaking of the Olympics, the winner of the women’s “street skateboarding event” was only 13 years old! Japanese athlete Momji Nishiya got the gold, and the total ages of the three medalists was only 42.  But who could be younger than 13? Well, someone 85 years ago was:

Marjorie Gestring, [an American] diver who won gold at age 13 years and 268 days at the 1936 Berlin Games, is the youngest gold medalist in history, according to The New York Times. Nishiya, approaching her 14th birthday, is a bit older than Gestring was.

Here’s a 5-minute video of the skateboarding event, which I’m dubious about. There is another skateboarding competition besides this one: “Park Skateboarding”.

And here’s Gestring diving at the 1936 Olympics:

Finally, today’s reported Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. is 610,722, an increase of 275 deaths over yesterday’s figure. The reported world death toll is now 4,184,307, an increase of about 8,100 over yesterday’s total.

Stuff that happened on July 27 includes:

  • 1794 – French Revolution: Maximilien Robespierre is arrested after encouraging the execution of more than 17,000 “enemies of the Revolution”.
  • 1866 – The first permanent transatlantic telegraph cable is successfully completed, stretching from Valentia Island, Ireland, to Heart’s Content, Newfoundland.
  • 1890 – Vincent van Gogh shoots himself and dies two days later.

This is the only known authentic photo of Vincent van Gogh, taken in 1873. If you see any others, they’re either fakes or photos of his brother Theo. Also, note that a recent theory about van Gogh’s death involves him being shot by a kid rather than him trying to kill himself.

  • 1919 – The Chicago Race Riot erupts after a racial incident occurred on a South Side beach, leading to 38 fatalities and 537 injuries over a five-day period.

The riot started when a raft containing black kids accidentally drifted into a “whites-only” area of the 29th Street Beach. Whites pelted one black swimmer and killed him. The rest is history. Here’s part of a series of photos of the riot; this one shows a black man being pelted with stones. He died.

It was only two years before Banting and John Macleod won the Nobel Prize for this achievement. At 32, Banting remains the youngest Nobel Laureate in Physiology and Medicine. He split the prize money with his colleague Charles Best. Banting is at the right in this 1924 photo:

Here’s part of that cartoon. Bugs appears at 2:21:

They mean the first jet-powered commercial airliner. Here’s one, the model 4B:

  • 1953 – Cessation of hostilities is achieved in the Korean War when the United States, China, and North Korea sign an armistice agreement. Syngman Rhee, President of South Korea, refuses to sign but pledges to observe the armistice.
  • 1974 – Watergate scandal: The House of Representatives Judiciary Committee votes 27 to 11 to recommend the first article of impeachment (for obstruction of justice) against President Richard Nixon.

Remember when Richard Jewell, who found the bomb, was accused of planting it? (It killed one person and injured 111.) The real perpetrator was one Eric Rudolph (photo below), who’s spending the rest of his life in America’s most secure (and most horrible) prison, the ADX Supermax in Florence, Colorado:

  • 2016 – At a news conference, U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump expresses the hope that Russians can recover thirty thousand emails that were deleted from Hillary Clinton’s personal server.

Notables born on this day include:

  • 1667 – Johann Bernoulli, Swiss mathematician and academic (d. 1748)
  • 1768 – Charlotte Corday, French assassin of Jean-Paul Marat (d. 1793)
  • 1870 – Hilaire Belloc, French-born British writer and historian (d. 1953)
  • 1905 – Leo Durocher, American baseball player and manager (d. 1991)
  • 1922 – Norman Lear, American screenwriter and producer

Lear’s still with us at 99!

Eggleston is known for his color landscape photos. Here’s one:

  • 1948 – Peggy Fleming, American figure skater and sportscaster
  • 1975 – Alex Rodriguez, American baseball player

Those who took the Dirt Nap on July 27 include:

Here’s Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas in 1934. I still don’t understand why authors like Hemingway admired her so much; in my view, she was a dreadful writer.

  • 1984 – James Mason, English actor (b. 1909)
  • 2003 – Bob Hope, English-American actor, comedian, television personality, and businessman (b. 1903)
  • 2017 – Sam Shepard, American playwright, actor, author, screenwriter, and director (b.1943)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn: Szaron is busy in the orchard, but nobody knows why he has to count apples.

Hili: Where are you going?
Szaron: I have to count apples on the ground.
In Polish:
Hili: Gdzie idziesz?
Szaron: Muszę policzyć jabłka na trawniku.

An Olympics meme from Bruce:

From Divy:

Another superfluous sign from reader David:

As you know, physicist Steven Weinberg died on Sunday. Here’s his advice for young scientists, from a 2003 issue of Nature. (h/t: Scott Aaronson)


From the Internet. Hizzoner realized that he screwed up. However, “whole wheat” is not much of an improvement over “toasted”.

From Ken, who says, “Our 45th president, who plainly knows more about computer tech than anyone, is entranced by a new word he’s encountered: ‘routers.'”

Tweets from Matthew. How does this beetle walk upside down below the surface of the water? Well, nobody really knows, but people have theories. . .  Read the link.

Matthew wants me to ask the readers this question about next year. So answer and then see how people are voting:

This is quite frightening. Matthew says to be sure to watch to the end. For more on this story, go here. The landslide killed nine people and injured three.

(Translation of tweet: “Terrifying video footage of a landslide in Sangla, in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, shows large chunks of rock breaking off a mountaintop and rolling down into the valley below.”

A transparent gut:

. . . and this termite has really weird antennae:

Sean M. Carroll shows that panpsychism is unlikely and unnecessary

July 26, 2021 • 11:00 am

I’m heartened to see that other scientists and philosophers of mind I respect, like Sean Carroll and Patricia Churchland, have analyzed the idea of “panpsychism” and found it wanting. As I noted yesterday, adding some of my own criticisms, panpsychism is somewhat of a philosophical fad (or even a religion). It claims that we’ll never understand consciousness through a combination of neuroscience and philosophy, but instead must posit that every bit of matter in the universe has its own form of consciousness. And if you put enough of those conscious atoms and molecules together, you get “higher” consciousness: the feelings of subjectivity, pain, pleasure, and the perception of colors known as “qualia”.

The problems with panpsychism are at least fourfold: the theory is untestable, there’s no evidence for consciousness of inanimate matter, there’s no explanation how the “rudimentary” consciousness of molecules and atoms can combine to produce to the complex consciousness of humans and (surely) other mammals, and we have made no progress in understanding consciousness by considering or adhering to panpsychism. It seems to be a view that, ultimately, will not help us understand consciousness.

The physicist Sean Carrol takes another angle in a new (and yet unpublished) paper that was cited by reader Vampyricon and is online. Click on the screenshot to read it. I’ve included the abstract and the place where it will be published (the book referenced, Galileo’s Error, is advocate Philip Goff’s big defense of panpsychism, but I wasn’t impressed).

As he has in previous books and papers, Carroll demonstrates that our present theory of physics is perfectly adequate to explain the physics of everyday life—unless we go sticking our heads in a black hole or something. Further, adding “mental” properties to our known core theory of physics not only changes that core theory, but is unlikely to explain consciousness, which, though we don’t yet understand it, is in principle perfectly consistent with the laws of physics, with consciousness being an epiphenomenon of physical processes. Yes, we don’t understand it, but that doesn’t mean that we must go tinkering with the laws of physics to explain consciousness or positing untestable mental properties of inanimate matter.

Carroll’s is a long paper, and has some equations that I don’t understand, but his conclusions are clear, and demands that panpsychism clarify its propositions in explicit physical terms beyond merely saying “all matter has consciousness”.  Here’s his conclusions:

Any discussion of mental aspects of ontology must specify one of two alternatives: changing the known laws of physics, or positing that these aspects exert no causal influence over physical behavior. We cannot rule out the first option either through pure thought or by appeal to existing experimental data, but we can ask that any modification of the Core Theory be held to the same standards of rigor and specificity that physics itself is held to. The point of expressions like (1) and (3) is not that mentally-induced modifications of physical parameters are impossible, but that a promising theory of consciousness should be specific about how they are to be implemented.

The passive mentalism option, where mental aspects have no impact on physical behavior, seems even less promising. “Behavior” should not be underrated; the behavior of physical matter is literally “what happens in the universe.” Crying at a funeral is behavior, as is asking someone to marry you, as is arguing about consciousness. No compelling account of consciousness can attribute a central explanatory role to metaphysical ingredients that have no influence on these kinds of behaviors.

We don’t know everything there is to know about the laws of physics, and there is always the possibility of a surprise. But the solidity of our confidence in the Core Theory within its domain of applicability stands in stark contrast with our fuzzy grasp of the nature of consciousness. The most promising route to understanding consciousness is likely to involve further neuroscientific insights and a more refined philosophical understanding of weak emergence, rather than rethinking the fundamental nature of reality.

I have a feeling that in one or two decades panpsychism (which has been around in one form or another for centuries) will no longer be regarded as a fruitful way to understand consciousness.

Fire use by hominins: an example of rapid cultural evolution?

July 26, 2021 • 9:15 am

Yesterday we discussed the possibility of cultural evolution (dissemination of a behavior or skill through imitation and learning) in cockatoos, which attracted a lot of attention, probably because of its parallel with human cultural evolution. (The cockatoos seem to have learned to open garbage bins by watching each other.) And in our species there are a gazillion examples, especially since transportation allowed innovations to be spread quickly and widely. You can think of lots of cases: blue jeans, cuisines from other places, music, and, earlier than that, printing, the wheel (some cultures never got it) and even religion.

The new paper in Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. below, however, suggests what may have been the very first behavior that spread though species of Homo (not only H. sapiens, but perhaps Neanderthals, which some consider a different species) through movement of individuals: the use of fire.  Click on the screenshot to read the article (free) below, or get the pdf here. The reference is at the bottom.

Fire, of course, has many uses: besides cooking meat and tubers, it can be used to harden wood to make spear points, change the quality of stone to make it easier to flake, and to keep yourself warm. Other uses are given in the Wikipedia article “Control of fire by early humans.”

The MacDonald et al. paper collects evidence of fire use from species of Homo, concluding that it got started about 400,000 to 350,000 years ago and then spread rapidly throughout the species. The rapidity of spread then led them to propose what kind of social structure was present in humans at that time.  This contradicts speculations H. erectus controlled the use of fire about 1.5 million years ago; the authors find that evidence unconvincing.

The problem is to distinguish anthropogenic (“human caused”) fire from natural wildfires. But there are ways of doing this, as the article summarizes. Hearths and charred animal bones are one way. Here’s another bit of evidence: a fire-hardened wooden spear from, coincidentally, about 380,000-400,000 years old, part of a group of artifacts found in Germany:

I can’t evaluate the quality of the evidence, but the authors summarize a lot of data to conclude that regular fire use began about 400,000 years ago, and spread quickly throughout the Old World, with evidence coming from Portugal, Spain, France, Israel, and Morocco. Two quotes:

. . . a review by Roebroeks and Villa identified a clear pattern for Europe: there the record strongly suggests that anthropogenic fire use was very rare to nonexistent during the first half of the Middle Pleistocene, as exemplified by the absence—bar a few dispersed charcoal particles—of fire proxies in deeply stratified archaeological karstic sequences, such as the Atapuerca site complex in Spain or the Caune de l’Arago at Tautavel (France), as well as from such prolific open-air sites as Boxgrove in the United Kingdom. In contrast, the record from 400 ka onward is characterized by an increasing number of sites with multiple fire proxies (e.g., charcoal, heated lithics, charred bone, heat-altered sediments) within a primary archaeological context.

. . . The spatiotemporal pattern of the appearance in the archaeological record of an innovation provides evidence relevant for identifying how the innovation came to be widely distributed: that is, through independent innovation, demic processes, cultural diffusion, or genetic processes. The fact that regular fire use appeared relatively quickly across the Old World and in different hominin subpopulations strongly suggests that the behavior diffused or spread from a point of origin rather than that it was repeatedly and independently invented.

Since fire appeared in both warm and cold places around the same time, the authors suggest that its inception was not correlated with “environmental pressures” (e.g., cold). And because the spread was so rapid, the authors claim, correctly, that the spread throughout the Old World was very unlikely to have been caused by the diffusion of genes producing the tendency to create fire, which would spread only very slowly. Likewise, the near-simultaneity makes it seems unlikely that the use of fire was invented independently by several groups.

If fire use did spread through imitation and learning, then, what does that say about the social structure of early humans? If we were divided up into groups of xenophobic hunter-gatherers who didn’t interact, that would not facilitate the spread of fire. Why would a group give the skill to a competitor group? There are two alternatives.

The first, “demic diffusion,” is that a “deme” (a cohesive populations of hominins) spread rapidly, taking with it the fire use they invented. This seems unlikely given that the spread was more rapid than one could imagine a single population could migrate.

The alternative comprises groups that tolerated each other, and were at least somewhat friendly. As the authors suggest, there was a more “fluid social structure with multiple levels of clustering in social networks”. In other words, perhaps hominims were more interactive than we thought.

Well, we have no direct evidence for that, and it would be hard to come by. And I’ll let other physical anthropologists judge the “simultaneous spread” hypothesis. But I wanted to bring this up because the scenario is at least plausible, and it may be the first evidence for cultural evolution in our genus.

There’s one other trait they add in to the mix as another behavior that spread by cultural evolution: the “Levallois technology” for knapping stone (striking flakes off a stone like flint to make weapons and other implements). This, say the authors, can be learned only through “close and prolonged observation combined with active instruction.” Here’s the Levallois method, which involves producing a flint core in such a way that sharp flakes, useful for tools, can be easily struck off:

The authors posit that this technology also originated in one place, but about 100,000 years later than fire (and surely in a different place), and then spread rapidly among groups in a similar way: non-hostile group interactions in a multi-level social network.

I’ll close with the authors’ final paragraph, summarizing their views:

We hypothesize that around 400 ka, cultural processes supported change in technology across wide areas. This indicates, at a minimum, a degree of social tolerance for individuals from different groups, and suggests the less minimal but still plausible hypothesis that more intensive cooperative interactions within larger-scale networks were already in place, occasionally crossing the boundaries between what we usually infer to have been different biological populations within the wider hominin metapopulation. [JAC: I think they’re referring to movement between “modern H. sapiens and Neanderthals. After all, these groups did mate with each other] We conclude that the spatial and temporal pattern of the appearance of regular Middle Pleistocene fire use documented in the archaeological record signals more than the advent of an important tool in the hominin toolbox: the presence of cultural behavior more like that of humans today than of our great ape relatives. We suggest that long before the cultural florescence associated with the late MSA/Middle Pleistocene and to a greater extent LSA/Upper Paleolithic periods, hominins were beginning to develop the capacities for complexity, variability, and widespread diffusion of technology and behavior that we tend to associate only with H. sapiens.


MacDonald, K., F. Scherjon, E. van Veen, K. Vaesen, and W. Roebroeks. 2021. Middle Pleistocene fire use: The first signal of widespread cultural diffusion in human evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118:e2101108118.

Readers’ wildlife photos

July 26, 2021 • 8:00 am

Lou Jost, who’s been absent from this site for a while doing biology in Ecuador, where he lives, has returned with some lovely photos of orchids, including some new and undescribed species. His captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

It’s been wonderful to read about your exploits as a duck foster dad. I am answering your call for photos.

The orchid genus Dracula has a modified petal (the “lip”) that imitates a mushroom, and smells like one too. They are pollinated by female fungus gnats looking for mushrooms to lay their eggs on. Here is an undescribed Dracula species that I discovered in our Rio Zunac Reserve in eastern Ecuador.

Lepanthes lophius is a tiny orchid flower pollinated by male fungus gnats who think the flower is a female gnat. These orchids emit female gnat pheromones, and the male gnats follow the pheromone trail upwind to the flower. The gnats actually mate with the flower, and even deposit sperm on the fake female genitalia on the underside of the flower. This is a huge genus of over a thousand species, many of them very local endemics.

I spent a lot of time mapping the ranges of the hundred or so Lepanthes species that live in the Rio Pastaza watershed where I live. This led to the discovery of some new species. Lepanthes ruthiana is one of my first discoveries.

While my friend Stig Dalstrom and I were exploring a poorly known forest in the Amazonian foothills, we discovered two new species of orchids in the genus Masdevallia, including this one. This was a beautiful tall forest full of unusual plants, including several other new species. My colleagues and I are currently working to make this forest into a reserve.

Andinia hippocrepica used to be included in the genus Lepanthes. DNA analyses by my friend Mark Wilson showed that the traits which had led taxonomists to classify it as a Lepanthes were actually cases of convergent evolution, rather than evidence for common descent.  DNA analyses have been shaking up the taxonomy of all groups of organisms over the last twenty years; it has been an exciting time now that we have the ability to trace out the actual paths of evolution.

Bomarea longipes is a climbing plant related to Alstroemeria (often sold as cut flowers). These are the only plants I know whose leaves are built “upside down”. As the erect leaf develops in the bud, in most plants the side of the leaf facing the stem will be the top, and the side facing away from the stem would be the underside of the leaf, with lots of stomata. In Bomarea the leaves are still erect, but they have the bottom side facing the stem. When the leaf is deployed, the leaf stem twists around so that the stomata face the ground. This particular species of Bomarea had been lost to science and was believed extinct for a hundred and fifty years.

Monday: Hili dialogue

July 26, 2021 • 6:30 am

Greetings at the start of a new work week: July 26, 2021. It’s National Bagelfest, so have a good bagel, some lox, and a schmear.  Avoid the donut-shaped Wonder Bread that passes for “bagels” in most of America. It’s also National Coffee Milkshake Day, World Tofu Day, Aunt and Uncles Day (only one aunt celebrated?), and Esperanto Day (see 1887 below).

Read this to learn how to choose and eat a bagel properly. You want to avoid junk like the “bagel” below, or the dreaded “everything” bagel, almost as bad as the blueberry bagel.


News of the Day:

The latest news is thin. We have two deaths, civil rights leader Bob Moses (86), instrumental in pushing forward voter registration of blacks in the South, and comedian Jackie Mason (93), born Yacov Moshe Hakohen Maza, ordained as a rabbi but gave it up after three years for standup comedy and later for movie roles.

From CNN: an Algerian judo competitor won’t face an Israeli, so he withdrew from the Olympics. So much for international solidarity in athletics! I know of no Israeli athlete who ever withdrew from competition to avoid competing with an Arab, but this isn’t the first time an Arab athlete has withdrawn rather than contest an Israeli. Who’s the apartheid state now?

Algerian judo athlete Fethi Nourine says he has chosen to withdraw from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics rather than face an Israeli competitor.

Nourine told Algeria’s Echourouk TV that he “decided to withdraw out of conviction, because this is the very least we can offer the Palestinian cause.”
“This is my duty,” he said, adding that he wanted to “send a message to the whole world that Israel is an occupation, a lawless country, a country without a flag.”
Algeria does not officially recognize Israel.
After announcing his withdrawal, the International Judo Federation (IJF) said on Saturday it was temporarily suspending Nourine and his coach, Amar Benikhlef.

In a statement, the IJF said that the judoka’s actions were “in total opposition to the philosophy of the International Judo Federation.”

The International Judo Federation suspended Nourine and he faces further disciplinary action.

Speaking of the Olympics, the German women’s gymnastics team, tired of being “sexualized” by wearing skimpy outfits during competition, has exchewed the traditional bikini-cut leotard for unitards that cover most of the body. Here’s the new garment. And more power to them.  You’re supposed to be watching the performance, not ogling women’s bodies.

And speaking of gymnastics at the Olympics, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, undoubtedly the best in the world, slipped up on Sunday, with even Simone Biles off her form. America finished second to Russia, but that won’t count in the finals, in which the competition is restarted with fewer teams. Nevertheless, if the U.S. is to take gold, they have to get their act in order An excerpt:

Perhaps what’s most concerning is that the United States wasn’t undermined by a single disastrous routine. Instead, persistent miscues culminated in an underwhelming outing. And the result is just as much a product of the Russians’ fantastic showing. The Russian Olympic Committee has a deep team that showcased its progress since it last faced the Americans at a major competition.

And another screwup: the U.S. men’s basketball team, which hasn’t lost a game at the Olympics since 2004, lost to France 83-76 on Sunday, blowing an eight-point lead in the game’s last four minutes. That doesn’t bother me as much as the women’s gymnastics, as I like the latter competition far more than basketball. Besides, now with their stupid three-on-three basketball competitions, who cares about the sport at the Olympics at all?

And now one more “disappointment”: swimmer Katie Ledecky finished second in the 400-meter freestyle swim, a race she’d never lost. Well, a silver medal is pretty damn good, but you know they all want gold.

For the first time, researchers have reported lethal attacks on gorillas by chimpanzees! If you wonder how chimpanzees can kill gorillas, read the link: there was an altercation between two groups, one of each species, but two gorilla infants were killed while the adults escaped.  Gorillas are way stronger than chimps. (h/t cesar)

Finally, today’s reported Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. is 610,463, an increase of 269 deaths over yesterday’s figure. The reported world death toll is now 4,176,208, an increase of about 6,600 over yesterday’s total.

Stuff that happened on July 26 includes:

  • 1745 – The first recorded women’s cricket match takes place near Guildford, England.
  • 1803 – The Surrey Iron Railway, arguably the world’s first public railway, opens in south London, United Kingdom.
  • 1882 – Premiere of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal at Bayreuth.
  • 1887 – Publication of the Unua Libro, founding the Esperanto movement.

Here’s the Unua Libro by by Polish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof, who invented the language. I wanted to learn it when I was a kid, but gave up quickly when I learned that it would be useless, though it was envisaged as a universal language (it’s much like Spanish):

Here’s Naoroii, an imposing looking chap, who besides serving in Parliament until 1895, was also elected President of the Indian National Congress three times and was one of the first vigorous exponents of independence from Britain.

Here’s Noether’s and below that the first page of her paper, which was extremely important in showing that if a physical system is symmetrical (“if the Lagrangian function for a physical system is not affected by a continuous change [transformation] in the coordinate system used to describe it”), then there will be a corresponding conservation law.

  • 1936 – Spanish Civil War: Germany and Italy decide to intervene in the war in support for Francisco Franco and the Nationalist faction.
  • 1945 – The Labour Party wins the United Kingdom general election of July 5 by a landslide, removing Winston Churchill from power.

Perhaps someone will explain to me why Churchill, who had led Britain to victory in the war, was unceremoniously dumped as PM right afterwards.

  • 1948 – U.S. President Harry S. Truman signs Executive Order 9981, desegregating the military of the United States.
  • 1953 – Arizona Governor John Howard Pyle orders an anti-polygamy law enforcement crackdown on residents of Short Creek, Arizona, which becomes known as the Short Creek raid.

About 400 Mormon fundamentalists were taken into custody, including children. Wikipedia notes that “The Short Creek raid was the largest mass arrest of polygamists in American history. At the time, it was described as “the largest mass arrest of men and women in modern American history.”  I don’t know of any larger mass arrest in America, but perhaps readers are aware of some. The Utah Supreme Court ruled that the children could indeed be taken from their parents and put in state custody. But of course polygamy quickly revived, and it’s still out there in Utah.

Here’s a photo taken during the raid:

A group of children and women sit and wait under a tree while state policemen guard them in a schoolyard at a Mormon settlement during the Short Creek Polygamy Raid, Short Creek (now Colorado City), Arizona, July 26, 1953. State officials arrested over 100 men on polygamy charges but photos of the raid, especially crying children, caused a backlash against the secular authorities. (Photo by Loomis Dean/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
  • 1956 – Following the World Bank’s refusal to fund building the Aswan Dam, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalizes the Suez Canal, sparking international condemnation.
  • 1971 – Apollo program: Launch of Apollo 15 on the first Apollo “J-Mission“, and first use of a Lunar Roving Vehicle.

Here’s that vehicle in its final resting place on the Moon. The Wikipedia caption calls attention to “the red Bible atop the hand controller in the middle of the vehicle, placed there by [Commander Dave] Scott.” Oy vey! There’s a Bible on the Moon!

  • 1990 – The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.
  • 2016 – Hillary Clinton becomes the first female nominee for President of the United States by a major political party at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Notables born on this day include:

  • 1875 – Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist (d. 1961)
  • 1894 – Aldous Huxley, English novelist and philosopher (d. 1963)
  • 1928 – Elliott Erwitt, French-American photographer and director

Erwitt, a superb street photographer, is still alive at 92. Here are two of his pictures (he liked to photograph d*gs)

USA,New York city. New York, 1974. Felix, Gladys and Rover.

. . . and a cat

USA. New York City. 1953.
  • 1938 – Bobby Hebb, American singer-songwriter (d. 2010)

Here’s a live performance of Hebb’s most famous song, “Sunny“, in 1972. It’s never been clear what the song, written in 1963, was about.

  • 1943 – Mick Jagger, English singer-songwriter, producer, and actor
  • 1945 – Helen Mirren, English actress 
  • 1959 – Kevin Spacey, American actor and director
  • 1964 – Sandra Bullock, American actress and producer.

Who doesn’t love Sandra, the Girl Next Door? Here she is rapping to “Rapper’s Delight“, the first popular hip-hop song, on the Jonathan Ross show.

  • 1973 – Kate Beckinsale, English actress

Those who found their final repose on July 26 include:

  • 1863 – Sam Houston, American general and politician, 7th Governor of Texas (b. 1793)
  • 1934 – Winsor McCay, American cartoonist, animator, producer, and screenwriter (b. 1871)

I’m a big fan of McCay, who was way ahead of his time in both cartoons and animation, using weird perspectives and angles. Here’s Nemo’s bed taking a stroll in Little Nemo in Slumberland, a cartoon from 1908.

Evita and Juan:

  • 1971 – Diane Arbus, American photographer and academic (b. 1923)

Here’s Arbus at work; you can see a selection of her photos here.

  • 2009 – Merce Cunningham, American dancer and choreographer (b. 1919)
  • 2020 – Olivia de Havilland, American actress (b. 1916)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn: Hili detects the scent of deer, but doesn’t understand why she can’t see them.

Hili: Deer were here yesterday.
A: And?
Hili: They must’ve gone somewhere.
In Polish:
Hili: Wczoraj tu były sarny.
Ja: I co?
Hili: Musiały gdzieś pójść.

From Facebook:

Anne-Marie sent another caricature from Serge Chapleu at the French-Canadian paper La Presse. Remember when Bezos thanked all the Amazon employees for making his space flight possible? The header says “Return to the Earth for Bezos,” and I think you can read what he’s saying:

Another superfluous sign from reader David. If you’re old enough to read, you’re old enough to not want to swallow a hanger:

Tweets from Barry, who says, “It’s not just the United States—it’s a whole thread.”. And so it is. Here are but two demonstrations against the Covid vaccination.

From Luana—a d*g who can’t paint! Is this for real? There’s also a cynical comment:

Tweets from Matthew. Read more about Chusovitana here.

Ducklings at the University of Nottingham. I hope they found a pond or lake!

Do you get this one? I got half but Matthew explained the last name to me.

These are honeypot ants, whose workers spend their lives filling their abdomen with liquid food and then regurgitating it to others on demand. They’re a living larder! Translation from Twitter: “Myrmecocystus nest. The queen of this nest is five years old, a colony that has been bred for many years and is often exhibited at events.”

Recommended film: “My Octopus Teacher”

July 25, 2021 • 1:30 pm

When I was getting my teeth cleaned the other day, my hygienist Maria and I were talking about travel and biology, both of which she likes, and she recommended a movie I hadn’t heard of: “My Octopus Teacher“. She couldn’t say enough good things about the movie, so I investigated it. I found out that it was a Netflix film made in 2020, won the Oscar that year for the Best Documentary Feature, and had a high critics’ rating of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes (91% critics rating).  And it was about a man forging a relationship with an octopus. How could I not watch it?

I did, and I was entranced. It is a fantastic film, and you really must watch it.

The story is simple: South African filmmaker Craig Foster, burned out from work, unable to relate to his family, seeks peace in getting away from everyone, snorkeling in the local kelp forest. There he finds a female common octopus (Octopus vulgaris), and, after days and weeks of effort, befriends her. Not interfering in her life, he simply visits her every day for over 300 days, marveling at her intelligence and adaptations, living through her travails. The experience is bittersweet because he knows that her lifespan is about a year, and he’s with her to the end.

What did the octopus teach him? I’ll leave you to watch the film to see the marvelous ending that sums up what he learned. I have to say, though, that I’ve formed a similar bond with my ducks, seeing them several times a day from when the day they hatch until they leave the pond in the fall. When you spend hours and days with an animal, you learn a lot about them, and it does change you.

Here’s the trailer. SEE THE MOVIE!

Panpsychism hangs around like a bad penny

July 25, 2021 • 12:00 pm

I’ve written a fair bit about panpsychism (see here for all the posts), and I don’t really feel in the mood to summarize the problems at length. Suffice it to say that it’s a “theory”—probably an untestable one, or maybe it’s better seen as a religion—that every bit of matter in the Universe has some form of consciousness, including electrons and rocks, and if you put them together the right way, as in a dog or a human, you get “higher” consciousness automatically. It’s a “turtles all the way down” view that finesses the problem of consciousness—i.e., how we get qualia, or subjective sensations—by simply making up stuff.

The problems with it are many, and you can read my posts to see the issues that I and others have found with it. They include the following:

a.) There’s no evidence that rocks or electrons or water are “conscious”, and there’s no way to find out if they are because the proponents never define what it means for this kind of matter to be conscious.

b.) There’s the “combination problem”: how do we put together “conscious” molecules in a way to create the kind of consciousness that humans have? At what point do “qualia” appear. If you make a complex machine like a typewriter, it’s a combination of lots of conscious molecules, too, but doesn’t have “higher” consciousness. There has been no convincing solution to the “combination problem” by even the advocates of panpsychism

c.) A problem raised by one of its proponents (one of the four boosters whom Salon uses to say panpsychism is “gaining steam”:

“Panpsychists think you can’t explain human consciousness by putting together lots of non-conscious things in the right structure; okay, but is it actually easier to explain it by putting lots of conscious things in the right structure?” Roelofs asked.

c.) The entire theory is untestable, as one of the proponents admits in the Salon article below (click on screenshot). It is not a scientific theory as much as mental masturbation. At least scientific theories of consciousness, like what neurons are required to have it, and how to change or eliminate it, can be testable.

Count on Salon, the Daily MIrror of websites, to have an article claiming that panpsychism is “gaining steam in science communities.” There’s no evidence adduced at all that the theory is spreading in science communities. Author Rozsa cites, beside Philip Goff, one of the theory’s long-time proponents, only three other people who accept this cockamamie view. None of them are scientists; all four are philosophers of mind. Nor is the author of the piece a scientist. That’s because no respectable scientist would say we should study how consciousness arises by simply assuming that all matter is inherently conscious.

Read and weep:

Here’s how the article frames the “hard problem” of consciousness:

On the other hand, science is equally stuck when it comes to explaining the subjective experiences that we can embrace when we listen to music, enjoy delicious food, watch a movie or fall in love. There is something unquantifiable about the joys of life, a reality that is not encompassed when we try to reduce emotions to hormones.

. . .”Consciousness involves quality — the redness of a red experience, the smell of coffee, the taste of mint,” Goff said. “These qualities that can’t be captured in a purely quantitative vocabulary of mathematics. So Galileo said that if we want mathematical science, we need to take consciousness out of the domain of science. In Galileo’s worldview, there is this radical division in nature between the quantitative mathematical domain of science and the physical world, and the qualitative domain of consciousness with its colors, and sounds, and smells and tastes.”

My own view, which I derived from Patricia Churchland, is that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of a certain arrangement of living molecules, most of them in the brain. Once you have all the ingredients for consciousness in place (and science is beginning to learn about some of them), then you get the phenomenon of consciousness and the presence of subjective sensation. End of the story; nothing more to find out. To me, there’s nothing more to the explanation than that: once the components are there, the being is conscious. The scientific task is to find those components and, if we could, assemble them to see if we get consciousness, or at least fiddle with them to see if we can alter, diminish, or erase consciousness in predictable ways.

But I’m not a neuroscientist, so I’ll leave it to people like Churchland to go after panpsychism. The fact is that, contra Salon, the idea is not gaining steam, but winding down as people realize that panpsychism is a worldview that is absolutely untestable. In fact, Luke Roelofs at NYU more or less admits that:

“Panpsychism does suggest that there may well be some level of consciousness everywhere in nature,” Roelofs explained. “Panpsychists all accept dog-consciousness, but some might not want to accept chair-consciousness: they might say that each particle making up the chair is conscious, but it’s not constructed the right way for these to ‘add up’ to anything. Others might think that chairs have consciousness, but of an incredibly diffuse sort: because there’s no brain or nervous system, there’s no order or structure to the chair’s experience, just an undifferentiated blur.”

Ultimately, he added, “The impact of panpsychism isn’t so much to answer these questions, but to suggest continuity: don’t expect to find a discontinuous boundary somewhere between the simplest animal that is conscious and the most complex animal that isn’t.” Roelofs says there isn’t a line that one could draw: “even if some sorts of consciousness are so simple that it’s more useful for us, in practice, to treat them as ‘mindless’, nevertheless the differences are ultimately just matters of degree.”

In the end, it may prove impossible to ever definitively ascertain whether panpsychism holds water.

Well, if it doesn’t answer questions but “suggests continuity” (that is, positing that all matter is conscious), then it cannot form a program for scientific research.

Well, as Sabine Hossenfelder said in the video this morning (see Hili dialogue), if a scientific theory doesn’t help us make progress in understanding the universe, it should be thrown into the bin for the cockatoos to eat. And surely panpsychism is such a theory.

Two more points. In trying to explain why inanimate matter might be conscious, Roelofs produces a classic Deepity (I’ll put it in bold):

“Panpsychists think that thought, reasoning, decision-making, vision and hearing and smell and all of our cognitive complexity: none of those are the same thing as consciousness. Consciousness is just subjectivity, just ‘is there something it’s like to exist right now?’ And so they think it makes sense for consciousness to exist in simple forms without thought, without reasoning, without vision or hearing or smell. A lot of critics think that’s just a mix-up: they think that once you take away thought, reasoning, etc. that’s it, there’s nothing left to talk about.”

I don’t understand what the “subjectivity” of an atom can be: does an atom know “what it’s like to exist right now”? No, “consciousness is just subjectivity” is a Deepity, which sounds good, but when you dig deeper, you find. . . well, empty words.

Finally, the proponents of panpsychism are now pointing out that it may help us live on after death. Many people want that (that’s why there’s Christianity), and if every atom in our brain is conscious, is it beyond possibility that maybe, just maybe, our memories could live on in those molecules? Yes, I know it’s stupid, but here’s what Salon says:

Panpsychism also has radical implications for religions, since so many focus on questions of what happens after we die. It is likely that our brains still comprise the bulk of our identity (so when the neurons which store your memories die, the memories most likely die forever along with them), but panpsychism allows for the possibility that your conscious “self” lives on in some form. It does not even entirely preclude the possibility that we take some of our identity with us; to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick when he directed “The Shining,” the seemingly horrifying prospect of ghosts existing at least means that death is not final.

Fine; let the theologians discuss this, but I reject it since there’s no evidence. The paragraph above is simply porcine shampoo, that is, hogwash.

When the panpsychists start making real progress in understanding consciousness instead of simply positing an infinite regress of the phenomenon, then we can talk.


h/t: Tim