Jane Goodall nabs the Templeton Prize

June 2, 2021 • 9:30 am

I was a bit queasy when I woke up this morning to see the announcement below.  It’s not that I don’t like Jane Goodall, for who doesn’t? She’s a respected primatologist, spent years finding out new stuff about chimps, and is also a conservationist and prolific publicizer of science, as well as founder of her eponymous institute. She’s also long-lasting, having turned 87 this year while remaining as active as ever (she says she travels 300 days per year!). Nor do I begrudge her the $1.5 million that the John Templeton Foundation hands out to the prizewinners, as Goodall will undoubtedly use it for good causes.

No, I was queasy because the prize was given, as it always is, to someone who conflates science and spirituality, promoting John Templeton’s accommodationist mission. Granted, the JTF’s giving it to more scientists these days (they used to give it to people like Alvin Plantinga, Rabbi Sacks, John Polkinghorne, Chuck Colson, Mother Teresa, and Billy Graham, but they’re realizing that they’d better “science up” the prize). The word “God” and “divine” has been downplayed, replaced by the eupheism “The Big Questions”.  As the Wikipedia entry on Sir John notes,

In an interview published in the Financial Intelligence Report in 2005, Templeton asserts that the purpose of the John Templeton Foundation is as follows:”We are trying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities.”

If you know what “spiritual realities” are beyond something numinous and divine, please enlighten me. Were I to answer that, I’d use terms of neurology and emotion rather than anything external to the physical world.

And Goodall is really known for showing not human exceptionalism, which is what the Prize is about, but for showing our psychological and behavioral connections to our closest relatives. In other words, she’s showing that we’re part of an evolutionary continuum, and share many traits with other primates. Evolution is one Big Question that’s been answered to most people’s satisfaction. Another is that our closest living relative is the chimpanzee.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s the announcement from Templeton, or part of it:

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, UN Messenger of Peace and world-renowned ethologist and conservationist, whose groundbreaking discoveries changed humanity’s understanding of its role in the natural world, was announced today as the winner of the 2021 Templeton Prize. The Templeton Prize, valued at over $1.5 million, is one of the world’s largest annual individual awards. Established by the late global investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, it is given to honor those who harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it. Unlike Goodall’s past accolades, the Templeton Prize specifically celebrates her scientific and spiritual curiosity. The Prize rewards her unrelenting effort to connect humanity to a greater purpose and is the largest single award that Dr. Goodall has ever received.

“We are delighted and honored to award Dr. Jane Goodall this year, as her achievements go beyond the traditional parameters of scientific research to define our perception of what it means to be human,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation. “Her discoveries have profoundly altered the world’s view of animal intelligence and enriched our understanding of humanity in a way that is both humbling and exalting. Ultimately, her work exemplifies the kind of humility, spiritual curiosity, and discovery that my grandfather, John Templeton, wrote and spoke about during his life.”

Investigating the “deepest questions”, Sir John’s original purpose in bestowing the Prize fund, was intended explicitly to show that the more we learned about science, the more we understood about God. Those are what Templeton calls “The Big Questions”, like “why are we here?” and “what does it mean to be human?”. (The ultimate question, which isn’t broached, is “What is God like?”)  As for Goodall’s efforts to “connect humanity to a greater purpose,” that’s just bogus. Sure, she’s shown evolutionary commonalities, but evolution is not a “purpose.” “Purpose” implies teleology, i.e., for Templeton, “God.”

Goodall’s work surely enriched our understanding of chimps far more than about humans, but did show that in many respects, such as tool-using, humans are not unique—not exceptional among the beasts of the field.  As for “humility”, I know nothing about that, though Goodall has a reputation for being nice and certainly was engaging the one time I heard her speak. But that’s not the kind of humility that Templeton means: they mean “humility” before the Great Unknown—the same way theologians are always bragging that they’re “humble”. (They’re not: they pretend to know things they don’t.)

What about Goodall? It does appear she has a spiritual side that helped her get the prize. Here’s another paragraph from the award description (my emphasis):

Dr. Goodall receives the 2021 Templeton Prize in celebration of her remarkable career, which arose from and was sustained by a keen scientific and spiritual curiosity. Raised Christian, she developed her own sense of spirituality in the forests of Tanzania, and has described her interactions with chimpanzees as reflecting the divine intelligence she believes lies at the heart of nature. In her bestselling memoir, A Reason for Hope, these observations reinforced her personal belief system—that all living things and the natural world they inhabit are connected and that the connective energy is a divine force transcending good and evil.

What? The “divine intelligence she believes lies at the heart of nature”? “A divine force connecting all living things in the natural world”? Indeed, the subtitle of her 1999 book is “A Spiritual Journey.” And I’ll readily admit that “spiritual” can be construed as “awe before Nature”. If that’s what spiritual can mean, than I am spiritual, and so is Richard Dawkins. But “divine”? That’s a different kettle of fish. And yet eleven years ago she abjured acceptance of the divine in Right Attitudes:

In the May-2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, Jane Goodall discussed her spirituality: “amazing moments—when you seem to know something beyond what you know and to understand things you don’t understand—can’t be understood in this life.”

“Can’t be understood in this life.” That means it’s beyond empirical investigation. But I digress: there’s more:

When asked if she believes in God in an interview published in the Sep-2010 issue of Reader’s Digest, Jane Goodall said,

I don’t have any idea of who or what God is. But I do believe in some great spiritual power. I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature. It’s just something that’s bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it. And it’s enough for me.

That could simply be “evolution” or “wonder”. So why, in 2021, is Templeton touting Goodall’s acceptance of a “divine intelligence in nature”? As usual, as with other scientists like Francisco Ayala, Templeton often bestows its Big Prize on scientists who don’t explicitly say they believe in God, but are sufficiently ambiguous or waffle-y about the concept that they can slip under Templeton’s radar. And of course there are the explicit religionists who get the prize: people like Francis Collins.

Well, judge for yourself from the 9½-minute video below, and, later, from the Templeton Lectures that Goodall has signed up for:

As the 2021 Templeton Prize laureate, Dr. Goodall filmed a reflection on her spiritual perspectives and aspirations for the world and an interview with Heather Templeton Dill to announce her award. She will participate in the 2021 Templeton Prize Lectures in the fall.

In the video she mentions the soul, the Bible, “powerful spirituality” and so on, and says that “even the trees have a spark of divine energy”. The interview is definitely infused with the numinous. Granted, she says some good stuff about ecology and conservation. One telling statement, “It is just a feel of spirituality, you know, it’s something so powerful and so much beyond what even the most scientific brilliant brain could have created.” What? Where does it come from, then?

At 8:35 she resorts to a form of the First Cause argument: “What created the big bang?”

Before you give me flak for dissing a much beloved scientist, I’ll assert again that Goodall’s scientific work is exemplary and helped change the paradigm of human exceptionalism that preceded her. I admire her a lot, and clearly her life has produced on balance a great good. But that’s not what Templeton is giving her the prize for! She gets her $1.5 million for banging on about spirituality.

No, Goodall’s probably not perfect in that she evinces a weakness for the numinous, but we all have her flaws, and given her accomplishments, that a trivial one. What burns my onions is that the JTF is roping her into their stable so they can parade her as another example of someone whose work helps bring us closer to the Divine.

You can’t not like and admire this woman. The problem is that Templeton saw an opportunity to use her, and seized it.

My nephew awards his Oscar equivalents, the “Golden Steves”

April 24, 2021 • 12:00 pm

Every year my nephew Steven hands out his awards for achievements in the film industry, the “Golden Steves”.  He’s a movie critic and buff, so you should take his views pretty seriously.

And it’s that time of year. Click on the screenshot below to see this year’s “Golden Steve” nominees and winners.

Let nobody accuse my nephew of modesty, for here’s his introduction:

Far and away the most coveted of motion picture accolades, Golden Steves are frequently described as the Oscars without the politics. Impervious to bribery, immune to ballyhoo, unswayed by sentiment, and riddled with integrity, this committee of one might be termed in all accuracy “fair-mindedness incarnate.” Over 165 of the year’s most acclaimed features were screened prior to the compilation of this ballot. First, some caveats:

1) Owing to a lifelong suspicion of prime numbers, each category comprises six nominees, not five.

2) A film can be nominated in only one of the following categories: Best Animated Feature, Best Non-Fiction Film, Best Foreign Language Film. Placement is determined by the Board of Governors. Said film remains eligible in all other fields.

3) This list is in no way connected with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—a fact that should be apparent from its acumen. Please look elsewhere for Oscar analysis.

And his list of the Big Six winners. There are actually six additional categories not shown here but on Steven’s website (“Best Screenplay,” “Best Original Song,” etc), but these are the ones people pay attention to. Nominees are given and the winners are in bold. I’ve added a Wikipedia link to the winning film.

Best Picture

Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets
First Cow
I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Best Director

Lee Isaac Chung, Minari
Sean Durkin, The Nest
David Fincher, Mank
Eliza Hittman, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Charlie Kaufman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Kelly Reichardt, First Cow

Best Actor

Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Willem Dafoe, Tommaso
Anthony Hopkins, The Father
Delroy Lindo, Da 5 Bloods
Gary Oldman, Mank

Best Actress

Jessie Buckley, I’m Thinking of Ending Things
Carrie Coon, The Nest
Sidney Flanigan, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Frances McDormand, Nomadland
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman
Aubrey Plaza, Black Bear

Best Supporting Actor

Brian Dennehy, Driveways
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Orion Lee, First Cow
Leslie Odom Jr., One Night in Miami…
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
Glynn Turman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Best Supporting Actress

Charin Alvarez, Saint Frances
Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire
Talia Ryder, Never Rarely Sometimes Always
Amanda Seyfried, Mank
Youn Yuh-jung, Minari
Helena Zengel, News of the World

I have to say that for the first time in memory, I haven’t seen any of the movies nominated, though I did see “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and found it okay but not a classic.  I will surely see “Minari” and “Never Really Sometimes Always” now.

And if you’ve seen the movies, and have your own views on who or what should be the winner, weigh in below.

Pinker and Goldstein respond to the American Humanist Association’s cancellation of Dawkins

April 22, 2021 • 8:45 am

As I wrote yesterday, the American Humanist Association (AHA), interpreting some of Richard Dawkins’s tweets as “transphobic”, revoked his Humanist of the Year Award from 1996, saying that he “demeaned marginalized individuals,” both transsexual and black (the AHA’s statement is here).  And as I said, I think this “cancellation” was a mistake. Though the AHA has a right to do what they want, I disagree that Dawkins’s statements have been either transphobic or racist.

Apparently Rebecca Goldstein and Steve Pinker do, too. In a tweet from Steve yesterday, the pair, who had separately received Humanist of the Year Awards, objected strongly to what the AHA did. I’ll reproduce their letter as screenshots:

It’s hard to take issue with what Rebecca and Steve say. The penultimate paragraph of their letter, “This will only intensify. . . “, is especially good.

And crikey, while I knew that the anti-Semite Alice Walker had gotten the same award, I didn’t know that Margaret Sanger had as well. She’s been accused of racism and eugenics by the group she founded, Planned Parenthood, which is in the process of cancelling her. (See this response from a biographer of Sanger.)

You can see the list of Humanist of the Year Awards here, and I already spotted several that would, by Woke standards, now be seen as “problematic.”

I won’t adjudicate the Sanger debate, but it’s clear that Walker was anti-Semitic and has made clear statements to that effect. If a case for bigotry is to be made against award recipients, that against Walker is far clear than any case against Dawkins. The AHA, if it’s to be consistent, should take away Walker’s award immediately. Or, better yet, stop this Pecksniffery.

I doubt that the AHA will restore the award, but if they read what Dawkins actually said, and abided by their own dictates, they should give it back. They have indeed turned themselves into a laughingstock.

h/t: Simon

Evolution society renames Fisher Prize; some of us wrote a letter in response

April 2, 2021 • 12:00 pm

I’m putting this up for the record, for it’s likely that not many outside of evolutionary biology will be interested in this kerfuffle, though the wokeness of the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE) may be a harbinger of a general wokeness in science as a whole.

Not long ago the Society for the Study of Evolution, the premier society promoting the study of evolutionary biology, put up the following statement announcing a renaming of the Fisher Prize given for an outstanding Ph.D. dissertation paper published in Evolution, the Society’s Journal. Ronald Fisher (1890-1962) was one of the founders of evolutionary genetics as well as the modern science of statistics. We still use many of the tests and methods he devised.

But he also promoted eugenics, though not of the racist variety but the “classist” variety, urging the “lower classes” to have fewer children and the “upper classes” to have more. As far as we know, none of his recommendations was ever made into policy. Nevertheless, his views on eugenics were sufficient for the SSE to erase his name from the prize.

Here’s the SSE’s statement.

SSE statement on the Fisher Prize

SSE statement on the Fisher Prize This award, formerly called the R. A. Fisher Prize, was renamed the SSE Presidents’ Award for Outstanding Dissertation Paper in Evolution in June 2020. This prize, first established in 2006, is awarded annually for an exceptional PhD dissertation paper published in the journal Evolution. The award comes with a $1000 honorarium. Nominations are due in January of each year. Learn more about the award here.

The original name of the prize was chosen to acknowledge Fisher’s extensive, foundational contributions to the study of evolution, particularly through his development of population genetic and quantitative genetic theory. Alongside his work integrating principles of Mendelian inheritance with processes of evolutionary change in populations and applying these advances in agriculture, Fisher established key aspects of theory and practice of statistics.

Fisher, along with other geneticists of the time, extended these ideas to human populations and strongly promoted eugenic policies—selectively favoring reproduction of people of accomplishment and societal stature, with the objective of genetically “improving” human societies. Fisher and other geneticists, ignoring logical flaws certain to undermine the efficacy of this program, were highly influential in promoting eugenic policies. Fisher in particular maintained his support for these ideas even after others had abandoned them. The eugenics movement was founded in racist ideologies, and although eugenics has been repudiated by the evolution community, the field of population genetics continues to carry the mark of its historical connections to eugenics (read more here), causing harm to Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other communities of color. We sincerely regret that authors of color may have chosen not to submit their work for consideration for this award because of its name.

For these reasons, the SSE Council voted in 2020 to change the name of the award, shifting its focus to the scholarly achievements of the awardee. The name also acknowledges that the winning paper is chosen by the three current society presidents. Going forward, SSE recognizes the need to continue to invest significant effort toward making our Society and our field more inclusive and more equitable. The Diversity Committee, established in 2017, has galvanized SSE’s major strides towards this goal, and welcomes input and involvement from the membership in prioritizing and carrying out its initiatives (read more here).

In September 2020, SSE Council approved a suite of actions proposed by the Diversity Committee to increase inclusion of and support for members of historically excluded groups in the field of evolutionary biology and through all of the activities of SSE. Updates on the progress of these actions can be found on the SSE website.

Ten past Presidents and Vice Presidents of the SSE, including me, objected to this renaming on several grounds (we do not favor renaming existing prizes), and sent the following letter to the officers of the SSE (I’ve omitted the names of the signers, though one was clearly me).

March 23, 2021

To the SSE Council:

While we applaud the efforts of the Society to enhance diversity in science, and to oppose racism and other forms of prejudice, we wish to express our concerns about the statement on the SSE website concerning the reasons for renaming the R.A. Fisher Prize (https://evolutionsociety.org/societyawards-and-prizes/sse-presidents-award-for-outstanding-dissertation-paper-in-evolution/ssepresidents-award-for-outstanding-dissertation-paper-in-evolution-context-statement.html). There are two issues that we feel should be considered.

First, the statement contains significant inaccuracies, which are injurious to the reputation of one of the greatest of all evolutionary biologists. These inaccuracies are listed below; for further details, see Bodmer et al. 2021 Heredity (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41437-020-00394-6). A scientific society surely has the duty to avoid factually incorrect statements.

Second, it is unclear why the Council and Diversity Committee considered only the renaming of the Fisher Prize. The awards named after the following three people should also have been examined in this context. Theodosius Dobzhansky signed the Geneticists’ Manifesto of 1939, which expressed support for eugenic measures (Crew et al. 1939 Nature 144: 521-22). In his book Mankind Evolving, he remarked that “Equality means that all humans are entitled to equal opportunity to develop their capacities to the fullest, not that these capacities are identical” . In his Narrow Roads of Gene Land. Vol. 2. The Evolution of Sex, William Hamilton expressed support for infanticide as a solution to the problem of the accumulation of deleterious mutations in human populations, and a belief that Jews have innately higher mathematical abilities than the English. T.H. Huxley, while opposing slavery, believed that black people were inferior to white people (https://mathcs.clarku.edu/huxley/CE3/B&W.html).

There is a general issue that the Society needs to consider carefully: to what extent do views that were held by eminent people in our field, and are today repugnant to most or all of its members, negate their scientific contributions? To focus attention on just one individual is to fail in this task.

Inaccuracies in the SSE statement about the Fisher Prize

First, it contains the misleading statement that “the field of population genetics continues to carry the mark of its historical connections to eugenics (read more here), causing harm to Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other communities of color”. The founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, never accepted Mendelian genetics, and the mis-applications of genetics by white supremacists and the Nazis had nothing to do with population genetics as developed by Fisher, Haldane, Weinberg, Wright and their contemporaries; indeed, population genetics completely undermines the concepts of racial groups as homogeneous entities. This is the opposite of “causing harm” to ethnic groups who have suffered discrimination or persecution.

Second, Fisher was not “highly influential in promoting eugenic policies”. None of his proposed measures (family allowances for the supposedly better endowed intellectually, and voluntary sterilisation of people with learning disabilities) were implemented in the UK, and he never advocated the type of compulsory sterilisations carried out in the USA, Sweden and Germany.

Third, the policies promoted by the Eugenics Society in the UK, with which Fisher was associated until 1941, were not “founded in racist ideologies”. The Society was concerned solely with improving the genetic quality of the UK population, although individual members may have held racist views, as was common at the time. Many people of liberal and left-wing political views were members of the Society. Indeed the “The Geneticists’ Manifesto” of 1939 (Nature 144:521-22) contained statements about improving the human population that went substantially further than Fisher’s proposals. It was signed by Dobzhansky, Haldane, Huxley and Muller, among others. According to the introduction to the Wellcome Trust Archive of documents concerning the Eugenics Society (https://wellcomelibrary.org/collections/digital-collections/makers-of-modern-genetics/digitisedarchives/eugenics-society/), the society publicly dissociated itself from Nazi ‘race hygiene’ in 1933.

Fourth, the claim that Fisher “maintained his support for these ideas even after other abandoned them” is not accurate; H.J. Muller continued to advocate eugenic improvement as late as 1959 (Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 3:1-43). Fisher in fact withdrew completely from the Eugenics Society in 1941, and his only later publication mentioning eugenics was in the 1958 Dover edition of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection; the relevant section was virtually unchanged from the 1930 edition.

Fifth, the statement overlooks the work that Fisher did to encourage the development of statistics in India (see his obituary in Sankhya 24: 207- 208). This work probably achieved more to encourage scientific endeavour by people of color than most scientific societies have done in their entire history. Fisher had relatively few PhD students by modern standards; one was C.R. Rao, the noted Indian statistician, and another was Ebenezer Laing, the Ghanaian geneticist. This was very unusual for academics in the UK at the time. Fisher’s last known letter was a very friendly letter to Laing.

Sixth, the statement claims that there were “logical flaws” in his ideas about improving society; there are no logical flaws in these ideas, but they can of course be questioned on both empirical and ethical grounds.

That’s the letter. The response we got from an official of the SSE, though thoughtful, was basically to reject our objections. I am not at liberty to reproduce the letter, as it was a private response to the ten signers, but I will quote one of its statements:

There emerged a consensus, however, that naming of an award after an individual honors all that person’s dimensions.

This “consensus” is completely misguided, both for the SSE and in general. Who among any famous scientists, particularly before 1940 or so, did not have some views that should not be honored? Most scientists before that time expressed some racist, sexist, or politically “offensive” opinions, and that includes four of the greats, Charles Darwin, Thomas Henry Huxley, Theodosius Dobzhansky, and W. D. Hamilton. The latter three already have SSE Awards named after them. Why shouldn’t the SSE ditch those, too? (Note: as I said, we don’t favor that.)

And if you applied this standard to American history as a whole, virtually all of honored politicians and notables, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, and so on, have dimensions of their actions or beliefs that aren’t worthy of being honored. My own view is that when we honor someone, we honor them for the good things they did, and I’ll add that such honors should be given when the good they did outweighs the bad. Based on these criteria, Fisher clearly deserves an honorific.

Nobody is perfect, for crying out loud. Who could afford to have all their beliefs and statements put before the public eye?

I still maintain that the purpose of the SSE originally was and should still be to promote the study of evolution, not to promote particular ideological, political, or moral statements. That can be left to the individual members speaking for themselves.

Further thoughts, by Greg Mayer. Putting aside the factual errors noted in the letter from the past presidents and vice presidents, the statement about the Fisher Prize from the SSE seems so suffused with cognitive dissonance as to be redolent of doublethink: Fisher is awful and must be degraded; but Fisher is responsible for extensive and foundational contributions that we use to this day– which is it?

It’s the inability to hold two thoughts at once– epitomized by the claim that an award “honors all that person’s dimensions”– that leads to this muddled thinking. Fisher can be a great scientist worthy of honoring and emulating in his science, without endorsing every part of his life. He had a lousy marriage, eight children, overcame really bad eyesight, held grudges, deeply mourned the death of his eldest son (an RAF pilot in WW II), supported the tobacco industry, was a British patriot, and an anti-totalitarian– some people will want to denigrate him for each of these things. But why would we think  anyone today has an exclusive insight into a final revelation of value? We can only imagine what we will be condemned for in the future; John McWhorter has contemplated a future in which those who have not opposed abortion will be retrospectively condemned.

The BBC nominates J. K. Rowling’s controversial essay for the Russell Prize (it didn’t win)

December 23, 2020 • 9:15 am

The article below, from the Deutsche Welle, knocked me for a loop. Remember when J. K. Rowling was vilified as “transphobic” for putting up this tweet last December?

She then published an essay on her website in June explaining her stand on transexual women, discussing her own domestic abuse and sexual assault, decrying the “trans activists” who tried to destroy her career (impossible, of course) and, most tellingly, expressing sympathy for trans women in statements like this:

If you could come inside my head and understand what I feel when I read about a trans woman dying at the hands of a violent man, you’d find solidarity and kinship. I have a visceral sense of the terror in which those trans women will have spent their last seconds on earth, because I too have known moments of blind fear when I realised that the only thing keeping me alive was the shaky self-restraint of my attacker.

I believe the majority of trans-identified people not only pose zero threat to others, but are vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve outlined. Trans people need and deserve protection. Like women, they’re most likely to be killed by sexual partners. Trans women who work in the sex industry, particularly trans women of colour, are at particular risk. Like every other domestic abuse and sexual assault survivor I know, I feel nothing but empathy and solidarity with trans women who’ve been abused by men.

It’s a poignant essay, explaining in what ways she sees differences between trans women and biological women. Nevertheless, she was also attacked by two stars of her Harry Potter movies: Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson, who showed thereby that they were ignoramuses. As the DW article below (click on the screenshot) adds:

The Leaky Cauldron and Mugglenet — two of the biggest fan sites of the Harry Potter series — have also rejected Rowling’s beliefs.

“Our stance is firm: Transgender women are women. Transgender men are men. Non-binary people are non-binary. Intersex people exist and should not be forced to live in the binary. We stand with Harry Potter fans in these communities, and while we don’t condone the mistreatment JKR has received, we must reject her beliefs,” the sites said.

The sites also found “the use of Rowling’s influence and privilege to target marginalized people” to be out of step with “the message of acceptance and empowerment” in the Harry Potter books.

Read the essay: she is not “targeting marginalized people”—far from it. She shows empathy for them. She is making an argument for making some distinctions between trans women and biological women. That is an argument worth having, no matter what you believe.

Rowling’s essay also says this:

On Saturday morning, I read that the Scottish government is proceeding with its controversial gender recognition plans, which will in effect mean that all a man needs to ‘become a woman’ is to say he’s one.

I don’t know how those plans are faring, but this is a very bad idea. If a reader knows about this initiative, please post below.

At any rate, the article below notes that Rowling’s essay was one of five nominated for the BBC’s Russell Prize, named for Bertrand Russell and awarded by the BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan for the best (nonfiction) prose of the year—prose that embodies Russell’s qualities of engaging language, erudition, and moral force.

To use the British term, I was gobsmacked. J. K. Rowling? The woman whom much of the world rejected as a “transphobe”?  The nomination didn’t comport with what I knew about the Beeb and its wokeness.

To be sure, the prize doesn’t seem to be an “official” BBC award—simply one editor’s take—but even so. . .

I was going to put this post up two days ago, and then forgot about it. In the interim, the Russell Prize was awarded—and Rowling didn’t win. You can see all the nominees at Rajan’s article below, and I’ve put up links to their pieces.

Here’s what Rajan had to say about Rowling’s piece in the nomination, and it’s very good:

JK Rowling: Reasons for Speaking Out on Sex and Gender Issues

JK Rowling is almost certainly the greatest writer of English children’s fiction of her generation, and a remarkable humanitarian. It turns out she writes exhilaratingly powerful prose too.

In a blog about the transgender debate, she offended many people. Offence is the price of free speech. Those offended felt she was questioning their identity and even attacking their human rights, which they argue is a form of discrimination or hate speech.

I take absolutely no view whatsoever on the issues that she raises.

I do take an issue on abuse and trolling, and Rowling has achieved the inglorious honour of topping many a league table for those. The deluge of hatred that she faced before writing this blog made it brave, and it was nothing compared to what came after. Talking about bravery, so too, by the way, was Suzanne Moore’s engrossing, long, personal essay for Unherd on why she left the Guardian.

We should all applaud bravery in writers – even those with whom we disagree. And Rowling’s essay contained moments of both real beauty and piercing honesty, as when she revealed that she is a survivor of domestic abuse and sexual assault.

What the judges – that is, the voices in my head – most admired about the writing was the plain English. It is an interesting fact about rhetoric that if you want people to understand something, plain, mono-syllabic words are usually your best bet: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”.

Or think of the final line from Enoch Powell’s most notorious speech: “All I know is that to see, and not to speak, would be the great betrayal.”

I’m not endorsing the argument; but the rhetorical power of that line comes from the fact that there are 16 words, the first 15 of which have one syllable, and the last of which has three.

Compare it with this line in Rowling’s essay: “So I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe.”

The rhetorical power from those two sentences derives partly from the plainness of the English. Only “women” (twice) and “natal” contain more than one syllable.

If you’re ever editing copy that seems verbose, go through it and think about cutting syllables while conveying the same meaning. Plain English has power. JK Rowling gets that.

The four other nominees and their pieces (with links) were:

Paul Vallely: “How Philanthropy Benefits the Rich” (the Guardian)
Ian Leslie: “64 Reasons to Celebrate Paul McCartney” (The Ruffian)
Wade Davis: “The Unraveling of America” (Rolling Stone)
Decca Aitkenhead: “How a Jamaican Psychedelic Mushroom Retreat Helped Me Process My Grief” (The Times)

Aitkenhead won, but I’m unable to access her piece because The Times is behind a paywall. Congrats to her, despite the horror and pain she experienced that her story describes.

But if nothing else, I hope the nomination gets people to go back and read Rowling’s essay. As happens so often these days, people, running in a social-media herd of sheep, attack something that they don’t even read. I would hope that Radcliffe and Watson read her essay, and, if so, why they see Rowling as somehow harming trans women.


Some winners, Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest

October 21, 2020 • 2:00 pm

This year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest, devised by London’s Natural History Museum, had nearly 50,000 entries in several categories of nature photography. The Atlantic published 15 of the winning images, which you can see by clicking on the title screenshot below. I’ve reproduced five of my favorites—two are felids—along with the magazine’s captions, but go see them all; it was a hard choice.

The Atlantic adds this: “The museum’s website has images from previous years and more information about the current contest and exhibition. Captions are provided by the photographers and WPY organizers, and are lightly edited for style.”

Five of the winners:

Watching You Watching Them. Urban Wildlife Winner: What a treat for a biologist—the species you want to study chooses to nest right outside your window. The Cordilleran flycatcher is declining across western North America as the changing climate causes shrinkage of the riparian habitats (i.e. river and other freshwater corridors) along its migratory routes and on its wintering grounds in Mexico. In Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, it typically nests in crevices and on canyon shelves. But one pair picked this remote research cabin instead, perhaps to avoid predation. The nest was built on the head of a window frame by the female. Both parents were feeding the nestlings, flying out to snatch insects in mid-air or hovering to pick them off leaves. So as not to disturb the birds or attract predators to the nest, Alex Badyaev hid his camera behind a large piece of bark on an ancient spruce tree leaning against the cabin. He directed a flash toward the trunk, so the scene would be illuminated by reflection, and operated the setup remotely from the cabin. He captured his shot as the female paused to check on her four nestlings. At 12 days old, they will probably fledge in a few days. Behind her—the cabin serving as a conveniently spacious hide—the biologist recorded his observations. 

© Alex Badyaev / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Late Delivery. Behavior Birds Highly Commended: With a beak full of krill, an Atlantic puffin comes in to land on Grimsey Island in northern Iceland. Most of the colony had already settled for the night, and Catherine Dobbins d’Alessio tracked the puffin as it circled in on the wind, lit by the evening sun, giving her a glance as it shot past. The food was for its chick, in a burrow down the cliffside.

© Catherine Dobbins d’Alessio / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Great Crested Sunrise. Behavior Birds Winner: After several hours up to his chest in water in a lagoon near Brozas, in the west of Spain, Jose Luis Ruiz Jiménez captured this intimate moment of a great crested grebe family. The grebes build a nest of aquatic plant material, often among reeds at the edge of shallow water. To avoid predators, their chicks leave the nest within a few hours of hatching, hitching a snug ride on a parent’s back. Here the backlings will live for the next two to three weeks, being fed as fast as their parents can manage. Even when a youngster has grown enough to be able to swim properly, it will still be fed, for many more weeks, until it fledges. This morning, the parent on breakfast duty—after chasing fish and invertebrates under water—emerged with damp feathers and a tasty meal, and the stripy-headed chick stretched out of its sanctuary, open‑beaked, to claim the fish.

© Jose Luis Ruiz Jiménez / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

When Mother Says Run. Behavior Mammals Winner: This rare picture of a family of Pallas’s cats, or manuls, on the remote steppes of the Qinghai–Tibet Plateau in northwest China is the result of six years’ work at high altitude. These small cats are normally solitary, hard to find, and mostly active at dawn and dusk. Through long-term observation, Shanyuan Li knew his best chance to photograph them in daylight would be in August and September, when the kittens were a few months old and the mothers bolder and intent on caring for them. He tracked the family as they descended to about 12,500 feet in search of their favorite food–pikas (small, rabbit‑like mammals)—and set up his hide on the hill opposite their lair, an old marmot hole. Hours of patience were rewarded when the three kittens came out to play, while their mother kept her eye on a Tibetan fox lurking nearby. Li caught their expressions in a rarely seen moment of family life, when their mother had issued a warning to hurry back to the safety of the lair.

© Shanyuan Li / Wildlife Photographer of the Year

And the grand prize winner:

The Embrace. Grand Title Winner and Animals in their Environment Winner: A tigress hugs an ancient Manchurian fir, rubbing her cheek against the bark to leave secretions from her scent glands. She is an Amur, or Siberian, tiger, in Russia’s Land of the Leopard National Park. Hunted almost to extinction in the past century, the population is still threatened by poaching and logging, which also impact their prey—mostly deer and wild boar.

© Sergey Gorshkov / Wildlife Photographer of the Year


h/t: Barry


The Nobel Prize in Literature goes to Louise Glück, for poetry, and nobody wins the guess-the-Laureate contest

October 8, 2020 • 6:30 am

Rarely does a poet receive the Nobel Prize for Literature (Bob Dylan was the most recent one), but we have one this year, the American poet Louise Glück. The Nobel Foundation’s Press release (very skimpy) is here, and her official Nobel biography is here. The award is ““for her unmistakable poetic voice that with austere beauty makes individual existence universal”. One excerpt from the biography:

The American poet Louise Glück was born 1943 in New York and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Apart from her writing she is a professor of English at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. She made her debut in 1968 with Firstborn, and was soon acclaimed as one of the most prominent poets in American contemporary literature. She has received several prestigious awards, among them the Pulitzer Prize (1993) and the National Book Award (2014).

Louise Glück has published twelve collections of poetry and some volumes of essays on poetry. All are characterized by a striving for clarity. Childhood and family life, the close relationship with parents and siblings, is a thematic that has remained central with her. In her poems, the self listens for what is left of its dreams and delusions, and nobody can be harder than she in confronting the illusions of the self. But even if Glück would never deny the significance of the autobiographical background, she is not to be regarded as a confessional poet. Glück seeks the universal, and in this she takes inspiration from myths and classical motifs, present in most of her works. The voices of Dido, Persephone and Eurydice – the abandoned, the punished, the betrayed – are masks for a self in transformation, as personal as it is universally valid.

Glück is much honored; she also won the National Humanities Medal, a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and the Bollingen Prize.

I have to say that I’m not at all familiar with her work, and, given these encomiums, I should have been (my knowledge of American poetry stops with Sylvia Plath and of non-American poetry with Seamus Heaney). The Nobel Committee gave an excerpt from her work:

Louise Glück is not only engaged by the errancies and shifting conditions of life, she is also a poet of radical change and rebirth, where the leap forward is made from a deep sense of loss. In one of her most lauded collections, The Wild Iris (1992), for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, she describes the miraculous return of life after winter in the poem ”Snowdrops”:

I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing me. I didn’t expect
to waken again, to feel
in damp earth my body
able to respond again, remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring –

afraid, yes, but among you again
crying yes risk joy

in the raw wind of the new world.

As of this writing there’s no video of the announcement, but I’ll post one when it appears.  Here’s Glück reading from her collection Faithful and Virtuous Night, which won a National Book Award.

As for yesterday’s “Guess the Literature Prize” contest, it was again a miserable failure—nobody guessed Glück.  (The favorite seemed to be Margaret Atwood.) What a pity!

A consolation contest: guess the Nobel Prize for Literature

October 7, 2020 • 8:00 am

As I noted this morning, my Nobel Prize Contest was a miserable failure: nobody even came close to guessing any winners of the three science prizes. Ergo, nobody won.

Well, you get another chance. The Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded tomorrow morning. Guess the winner and put your guess below.

Rules: One guess only, and best to give a single name. In the unlikely event that the prize is shared by more than one person, your guess is counted correct only if you name both people. Since you can win with just one name, best to suggest only one name.

The first person to guess the winner wins the prize, so if you have a likely candidate, best to post the name now.

The contest closes at 7 p.m. Chicago time today.

The Prize will be be a paperback copy of Faith Versus Fact, autographed, made out to you, and bearing an original PCC(E)-drawn animal cartoon with a pro-science and anti-faith message.

Let’s have some entries this time—this ain’t rocket science.

Doudna and Charpentier win Chemistry Nobel for CRISPR/Cas9 method of gene editing

October 7, 2020 • 6:15 am

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was long anticipated, for the CRISPR/Cas9 system of gene editing was a tremendous accomplishment in biology and chemistry. It promises a lot, including curing human genetic disease (see the first five posts here). Remember, Nobel Prizes in science are designed to reward those who made discoveries potentially helping humanity, not those who just made general scientific advances.

A prize for developing the editing system was, then, almost inevitable. The only question was “who would get it?”, since several people contributed to the work that led to CRISPR/Cas9.  It turns out that the Prize—in Chemistry—went to the two frontrunners, Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin.  Other serious contenders were George Church of Harvard, Virginijus Šikšnys at the Vilnius University of Biotechnology, Francisco Mojica of the University of Alicante, and Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute (the dispute was largely over whether those who developed ways to use the method in human cells also deserved the Prize). There will be a lot of kvetching today, but if I had had to pick two to get the prize, given that only three can get it au maximum, it would be Doudna and Charpentier. (They could have awarded up to six prizes if they’d split the CRISPR award between Physiology or Medicine and Chemistry.)

The press release from the Nobel Foundation says this:

Genetic scissors: a tool for rewriting the code of life

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna have discovered one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Using these, researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true.

Researchers need to modify genes in cells if they are to find out about life’s inner workings. This used to be time-consuming, difficult and sometimes impossible work. Using the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, it is now possible to change the code of life over the course of a few weeks.

“There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments,” says Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

As so often in science, the discovery of these genetic scissors was unexpected. During Emmanuelle Charpentier’s studies of Streptococcus pyogenes, one of the bacteria that cause the most harm to humanity, she discovered a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA. Her work showed that tracrRNA is part of bacteria’s ancient immune system, CRISPR/Cas, that disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA.

Charpentier published her discovery in 2011. The same year, she initiated a collaboration with Jennifer Doudna, an experienced biochemist with vast knowledge of RNA. Together, they succeeded in recreating the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube and simplifying the scissors’ molecular components so they were easier to use.

In an epoch-making experiment, they then reprogrammed the genetic scissors. In their natural form, the scissors recognise DNA from viruses, but Charpentier and Doudna proved that they could be controlled so that they can cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site. Where the DNA is cut it is then easy to rewrite the code of life.

Since Charpentier and Doudna discovered the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors in 2012 their use has exploded. This tool has contributed to many important discoveries in basic research, and plant researchers have been able to develop crops that withstand mould, pests and drought. In medicine, clinical trials of new cancer therapies are underway, and the dream of being able to cure inherited diseases is about to come true. These genetic scissors have taken the life sciences into a new epoch and, in many ways, are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.

I haven’t looked it up, but I think this is the first time that two women have been the sole recipients of any Nobel prize.(Correction: I should have said “Prize for Science”, for, as a reader pointed out below, two women shared the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize: Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan. Their achievement was organizing to suppress sectarian violence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Here are Doudna and Charpentier from the Washington Post (the paper’s caption):

FILED – 14 March 2016, Hessen, Frankfurt/Main: The American biochemist Jennifer A. Doudna (l) and the French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, then winners of the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize 2016, are together in the casino of Goethe University. The two scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry 2020. Photo: picture alliance / dpa (Photo by Alexander Heinl/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Here’s the live stream of the announcement from Stockholm. The action begins at 11:45 with the announcement in English and Swedish, and the scientific explanation starts at 19:10.

Once again, although seven people, including Matthew, guessed the winners in our Nobel Prize contest (here and here), nobody got the Chemistry or Physics prizes. Given your miserable failures, I may have to have contest for the literature prize alone.

Matthew was also prescient in his book, Life’s Greatest Secret (2015), which includes this sentence:

“Whatever happens next, I bet that Doudna and Charpentier—and maybe Zhang and Church—will get that phone call from Stockholm.”

In 2017, I reviewed (favorably) Jennifer Doudna’s new book on CRISPRA Crack in Creation, for the Washington Post. (Samuel Sternberg was the book’s co-author). The book is well worth reading, but I did have one beef connected not with the narrative, but with where the dosh goes for this discovery. Here’s what I wrote then:

. . . this brings us to an issue conspicuously missing from the book. Much of the research on CRISPR, including Doudna’s and Zhang’s, was funded by the federal government — by American taxpayers. Yet both scientists have started biotechnology companies that have the potential to make them and their universities fabulously wealthy from licensing CRISPR for use in medicine and beyond. So if we value ethics, transparency and the democratization of CRISPR technology, as do Doudna and Sternberg, let us also consider the ethics of scientists enriching themselves on the taxpayer’s dime. The fight over patents and credit impedes the free exchange among scientists that promotes progress, and companies created from taxpayer-funded research make us pay twice to use their products.

. . . . Finally, let us remember that it was not so long ago that university scientists refused to enrich themselves in this way, freely giving discoveries such as X-rays, the polio vaccine and the Internet to the public. The satisfaction of scientific curiosity should be its primary reward.

I’m not sure how the legal battle between the participants (via Berkeley and MIT) has shaken out, and can’t be arsed to look it up, but surely a reader or two will know

Nobel Prize in Physics goes to three for showing that formation of black holes is predicted by relativity theory

October 6, 2020 • 6:15 am

This morning the Karolinska Institute awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics to two men and a woman—Roger Penrose, Reinhard Genzel, and Andrea Ghez—for work on black holes.  As the press release notes:

Three Laureates share this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for their discoveries about one of the most exotic phenomena in the universe, the black hole. Roger Penrose showed that the general theory of relativity leads to the formation of black holes. Reinhard Genzel and Andrea Ghez discovered that an invisible and extremely heavy object governs the orbits of stars at the centre of our galaxy. A supermassive black hole is the only currently known explanation.

Penrose got half the prize, with Genzel and Ghez sharing the other 50%.

My Nobel Prize Contest (see here and here) is already a big flop this year, with nobody guessing even one person from each of the two sets of winners so far. Reader ThyroidPlanet, though, did guess Penrose for physics.

The Chemistry prize will be announced tomorrow, and the Literature prize on Thursday.

Below is a video of this morning’s announcement featuring Professor Göran K. Hansson, Secretary General of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The action begins at 26:15, with the announcement in both Swedish and English. At 33:15,  David Havilland, chair of the Nobel Committee for Physics, and Professor Ulf Danielsson explain the significance of the discovery.