A long read on Pinker

September 29, 2021 • 10:15 am

The Guardian has one of its “long reads” on Steve Pinker, and it’s pretty absorbing. For one thing, if you’re interested in what Steve’s life is like, especially in his Cape Cod home where he’s spent most of the pandemic, it’s quite enlightening. I learned a lot of stuff I didn’t know about him (I’ll put a few excerpts below).

Second, it’s a summary of reactions to his work (it also gives a precis of his new book, Rationality) and it’s not fawning. In fact, it’s rather critical, painting him as almost a servant of capitalism, a man determined to maintain the status quo while ignoring crises like global warming. I also detect criticism of his materialism and implied self-regard, but I may be overly sensitive since he’s a friend.

While I know know that some of the criticisms are misguided (like the grossly misleading letter people wrote trying to get him demoted at the Linguistic Society of America), others I can’t adjudicate, like claims that he distorts data in some of the graphs in his latest books. At any rate, in a piece he wrote for Quillette, Steve defended himself against many of the criticisms of his book Enlightenment Now.  You’ll be familiar with many of the these criticisms, but the readers of the Guardian probably weren’t. I’d be curious to see whether readers think that, overall, it paints a positive picture of Steve, a negative one, or a mixed one.

Click on the screenshot to read it for free:

A quote on his increasing propensity to do intellectual combat:

Since Enlightenment Now came out, in early 2018, Pinker has been engaged in almost unceasing conflict with what he considers his many intellectual enemies, who include intellectuals (“intellectuals hate progress”), progressives (“intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress”), and universities full of progressive intellectuals (a “suffocating leftwing monoculture”). He has also taken aim at postmodernism (“defiant obscurantism, dogmatic relativism, and suffocating political correctness”), a stretch of the green movement running all the way from Al Gore to the Unabomber (“quasi-religious ideology … laced with misanthropy”), contemporary identity politics (“an enemy of reason and Enlightenment values”), and the many people who “lack the conceptual tools to ascertain whether progress has taken place or not”. In these conflicts, Pinker sometimes presents himself as the lone contrarian in a sea of irrationality. He has written in the past that arguments that are “completely reasonable to me, yet blazingly controversial to everyone else” are “the story of my life”.

And a few personal things. It’s clear that he’s made a lot of dosh from his books, though I think writer Alex Blasdel is deliberately pointing to his perks as a flaw:

This summer, I flew to Provincetown, on Cape Cod’s northern tip, to observe up close the intellectual habits of a man considered by some to be one of the most influential thinkers of our time. I arrived on a warm morning at the start of tourist season, and when Pinker picked me up he had the top down on his Volvo convertible. Provincetown has long been a summer resort, especially for LGBTQ people; it is the sort of liberal idyll – commerce meets individual rights meets cappuccinos – that Pinker extols. Fourth of July celebrations had ended the previous day, and the clothing boutiques and cafes along the main drag were festooned with American flags and pride banners. Men in thongs with tanned pectorals cycled by the waterfront.

His widespread interests. You should look up his photography page. I was chuffed to hear about his love of “The Last Waltz”, which is my favorite rock-concert movie and one of my favorite documentary movies:

Pinker recognises the dangers of being trapped within the comfortable perspective of such a comfortable world. The antidote, he says, is an empirical mindset. In Rationality, he notes that in 2019, following the first shark fatality in Massachusetts in 80 years, towns up and down the Cape invested in expensive shark warning and control measures, even though car crashes kill 15 to 20 people there every year, and “cheap improvements in signage, barriers and traffic law enforcement could save many more lives at a fraction of the cost”. That actuarial approach to human life has caused some to think he is bloodless, which he is not. He loves classic rock, says his favourite genre of movie is the concert film or rock documentary, and has watched The Last Waltz, about the largely Canadian band the Band, at least a dozen times. He is a keen landscape and wildlife photographer. “He just takes an infinite delight in the world as it presents itself,” his mother, Roslyn, told me.

His penchant for food. I’ve never eaten at Peter Luger’s which has a huge (though declining) reputation for ribeye steak. I approve of his food choice, though I’d have wine rather than beer, and fie on the San Pellegrino water:

When we stopped to order sandwiches at a deli in the small town of Truro, he brought up a study from the 80s that identified two species of vegetarian – those who eschew meat for moral reasons, and those who do it for health. Pinker, who ordered a smoked turkey sandwich with muenster cheese, described himself as a “reducetarian” and reckons that, morally speaking, he probably shouldn’t eat meat. (If he could choose his final meal, he told the aspiring jet-setter’s magazine Monocle, it would be a rib steak, beer and bottle of San Pellegrino at the Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger.)

His bike (and sense of humor):

Having toured the house, Pinker and I suited up for a bike ride. “I like to go fast,” he told me. He rides a several-thousand-dollar carbon frame, which he bought secondhand on eBay. For many years, he used to check the weight of everything that went on his bike, including his water bottle. “It was truly obsessive compulsive, because we know that, when it comes to speed, aerodynamics are a far bigger factor than weight,” he said. Before the advent of GPS tracking apps, he used to measure his routes out on a map and record his rides in a journal. He still weighs himself every morning.

“We’re a pair of Mamils,” Pinker joked as we cycled out of his garage. “Middle-aged men in Lycra.”

And his boots and fancy loafers—a bit I couldn’t leave out because I put him together with Lee Miller, who made my own custom boots:

Pinker and I had planned to go up to Harvard to see his office, which he hadn’t entered since the start of the pandemic, nearly a year and a half earlier. Before we left, I asked to see a pair of black caiman-leather cowboy boots he had custom made for him by the legendary bootmaker Lee Miller, part of his signature look at public events. (“He told me he likes cowboy boots because it’s the only way a man can get away with wearing high heels,” Pinker’s friend the biologist Jerry Coyne told me. “He likes mostly reptile boots, I think.”) Pinker showed me the boots, but opted to wear a pair of driving loafers designed by Nicolas Sarkozy’s son Louis, for whom Pinker is a celebrity model.

I’ve left out a lot of stuff out about his ideas and the criticism he’s received, as Steve is capable of dealing with that himself. I suppose I’ve highlighted the “People Magazine” aspects of his life because I didn’t know about them, and it’s no secret that I greatly admire him—he’s perhaps the smartest public intellectual I’ve ever met (my meeting with Hitchens doesn’t count because it lasted about five minutes). But whether you want info about his work, his life, or both, I do recommend the piece.  I’m also a bit nosy about what it’s like to be a famous public intellectual, and both the perks and flak you get.

A young Pinker; his trademark hair had already gone gray when I first met him:

Pinker in 1999. Photograph: Graham Turner/The Guardian

Guardian: All statues should come down, no matter whom they depict

June 2, 2021 • 1:15 pm

In the latest “Long Read” of the Guardian (which, to be honest, could have been considerably shorter), Gary Younge defends this view: not just statues of historically nefarious people should come down, but that all statues should come down. No person should, he claims, be memorialized with an effigy, though events themselves might. But no statues of people, whoever they may have been.

Right off the bat Younge identifies himself as a “black leftwing Guardian columnist for more than two decades”. Such is how people establish their credibility these days, though, to be sure, Younge’s background shouldn’t really count one way or another. But when he argues against putting up statues of people like Rosa Parks, you can be sure that his remarks don’t stem from ideological bias.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here are the reasons why Younge wants every statue toppled. Quotes from the article are indented:

a.) Status are lazy and ugly, especially when they’re of people. I don’t really agree and can think of some notable exceptions, one being the statue of Lincoln in his eponymous Washington D.C. memorial. And what about the Statue of Liberty? (Well, that’s not a real person. . . ) Do religious statues count? And what about, for example, the great statue of Augustus Prima Porta in Vatican City? But Younge thinks they’re all “poor as works of public art”. Younge doesn’t, however, think this is true of other public memorials, mentioning the lovely Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D. C.

b.) Times change and so do norms. Statues no longer represent a consensus view.  This is the conventional argument for removing statues of people whose morals don’t comport with modern ones. But this isn’t Younge’s main argument, for this doesn’t argue for removing statues of people who did good things and whose good deeds are being commemorated.

c.) Statues don’t erase history because they are not themselves history. They show an individual who may have helped make history, good or bad, but Younge doesn’t subscribe to the “Great Man” (and Women) theory of history as promoted by Thomas Carlyle and attacked by Tolstoy in books like War and Peace. A quote:

Statues are not history; they represent historical figures. They may have been set up to mark a person’s historical contribution, but they are not themselves history. If you take down Nelson Mandela’s bust on London’s South Bank, you do not erase the history of the anti-apartheid struggle. Statues are symbols of reverence; they are not symbols of history. They elevate an individual from a historical moment and celebrate them.

Nobody thinks that when Iraqis removed statues of Saddam Hussein from around the country they wanted him to be forgotten. Quite the opposite. They wanted him, and his crimes, to be remembered. They just didn’t want him to be revered. Indeed, if the people removing a statue are trying to erase history, then they are very bad at it. For if the erection of a statue is a fact of history, then removing it is no less so. It can also do far more to raise awareness of history. More people know about Colston and what he did as a result of his statue being taken down than ever did as a result of it being put up. Indeed, the very people campaigning to take down the symbols of colonialism and slavery are the same ones who want more to be taught about colonialism and slavery in schools. The ones who want to keep them up are generally the ones who would prefer we didn’t study what these people actually did.

. . . Statues always tell us more about the values of the period when they were put up than about the story of the person depicted. Two years before Martin Luther King’s death, a poll showed that the majority of Americans viewed him unfavourably. Four decades later, when Barack Obama unveiled a memorial to King in Washington DC, 91% of Americans approved. Rather than teaching us about the past, his statue distorts history.

But isn’t remembering “values of the past” a useful exercise as well?

d.) By memorializing specific individuals, statues “erase” or “marginalize” important people involved in the same or similar  historical events. For this Younge uses the case of Rosa Parks:

Consider the statue of Rosa Parks that stands in the US Capitol. Parks was a great woman, whose refusal to give up her seat for a white woman on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama challenged local segregation laws and sparked the civil rights movement. When Parks died in 2005, her funeral was attended by thousands, and her contribution to the civil rights struggle was eulogised around the world.

But the reality is more complex. Parks was not the first to plead not guilty after resisting Montgomery’s segregation laws on its buses. Before Parks, there was a 15-year-old girl named Claudette Colvin. Colvin was all set to be the icon of the civil rights movement until she fell pregnant. Because she was an unmarried teenager, she was dropped by the conservative elders of the local church, who were key leaders of the movement. When I interviewed Colvin 20 years ago, she was just getting by as a nurses’ aide and living in the Bronx, all but forgotten.

And while what Parks did was a catalyst for resistance, the event that forced the segregationists to climb down wasn’t the work of one individual in a single moment, but the year-longcollective efforts of African Americans in Montgomery who boycotted the buses – maids and gardeners who walked miles in sun and rain, despite intimidation, those who carpooled to get people where they needed to go, those who sacrificed their time and effort for the cause. The unknown soldiers of civil rights. These are the people who made it happen. Where is their statue? Where is their place in history? How easily and wilfully the main actors can be relegated to faceless extras.

Again, I’m not fully on board here. When I see a statue of Rosa Parks, I don’t think of her in particular, but of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in general, and of the cooperation of the black community that eventually brought the bus company to its knees and ended segregation on Montgomery buses. Where is the statue to the “unknown soldiers of civil rights”? Well, look no further than the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and the new Legacy Museum in Montgomery.   There are several others as well.

I’ll ask other readers to agree or disagree with Younge’s thesis, and to name statues, if you like them, that you think should stay up. I’ll end her with Younge’s last two paragraphs:

Of course I want Parks to be remembered. Of course I want her to take her rightful place in history. All the less reason to diminish that memory by casting her in bronze and erecting her beyond memory.

So let us not burden future generations with the weight of our faulty memory and the lies of our partial mythology. Let us not put up the people we ostensibly cherish so that they can be forgotten and ignored. Let us elevate them, and others – in the curriculum, through scholarships and museums. Let us subject them to the critiques they deserve, which may convert them from inert models of their former selves to the complex, and often flawed, people that they were. Let us fight to embed the values of those we admire in our politics and our culture. Let’s cover their anniversaries in the media and set them in tests. But the last thing we should do is cover their likeness in concrete and set them in stone.

Here’s a statue of Rosa Parks erected in the U.S. Capitol n 2013 and dedicated by Barack Obama (you can see a video of his remarks here).

h/t: Jez

The New Yorker’s hit job on Elizabeth Loftus

April 25, 2021 • 9:30 am

I doubt that psychologist and memory expert Elizabeth Loftus knew that, when Rachel Aviv of the New Yorker interviewed her for a recent profile, Aviv had a hit job in mind. I say this because Aviv makes statements in the piece (click on screenshot below; I think access is free) implying that she, Aviv, believes in the dubious and largely discredited concept of repressed and recovered memory; and Loftus has spent much of her life doing research that caused the discrediting.

When I first saw the piece’s title, I thought, “Wow! The New Yorker is doing some real science pieces now.”  Indeed, the title seems to be about Loftus’s work, which I knew a bit about. I had met Loftus (her friends call her “Beth”) at the 2016 American Humanist Association Meeting in Chicago, where I spoke and she received the Isaac Asimov Science Award for scientific work that advanced humanist values. After the award, Loftus gave a talk on the fallacies of memory, a talk I found quite impressive. (As you’ll see from the TED talk below, she’s a very good speaker.) At the conference dinner, I sat beside Loftus and we had a delightful conversation, which was also a bibulous one because, as I recall, we’d each had more than our share of wine.  But after I wrote the preceding sentence, I looked up my emails from Loftus after the dinner and found one that said “they should have given us wine”, implying that my memory of being tipsy with her was false! What I wrote was an example of the kind of false memory she works on!

Click below to read the New Yorker piece:

Here’s Loftus speaking about her work. You’ll learn a lot more from this 17½-minute talk than you will from Aviv’s piece.

So I looked forward to reading Aviv’s piece, hoping to learn more about Loftus’s work on memory.  As Aviv notes, Loftus is “the most influential female psychologist of the twentieth century, according to a list compiled by the Review of General Psychology.”  She’s written 24 books and more than 600 papers. I haven’t read any of those works, but know Loftus from her talks and from what I’ve read about her, and so anticipated learning a lot more about memory from the New Yorker.

Oy, was I mistaken! For despite the piece’s title, it has almost nothing about Loftus’s accomplishments, which are many. Instead, Aviv concentrates on Loftus testifying at the trial of Harvey Weinstein, at the appeal of Jerry Sandusky and in legal proceedings of other miscreants—while noting that Loftus has only ever refused a single invitation to testify in anyone’s defense, for she testifies about the known science, not the defendant’s actions. That action alone demonized her, as it did Ronald Sullivan, a Professor of Law at Harvard who was kicked out of his position as a Harvard “faculty dean” at Winthrop House because he also worked for Weinstein’s defense. Because of this, Loftus was also deplatformed at New York University and snubbed by her colleagues at UC Irvine, where she’s a professor.

As someone who worked on the DNA evidence at O. J. Simpson’s trial, and testified about DNA evidence for public defenders in trials for rape and murder, I object to this kind of demonization. (I didn’t take money for any case after the first one I worked on in Chicago.) The job of the defense is to make the prosecution prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, and if the prosecution is making statements that are scientifically questionable, including, as we see above, using eyewitness evidence, which can be deeply fallible, the defense’s job is to call those statements into question. Everyone deserves a fair trial, including those accused of the most odious crimes, as well as those who are wealthy.

I digress, I suppose, but I see Aviv’s repeated mentions of Loftus’s testimony for Weinstein as an attempt to smear her. There are too many mentions to think otherwise.

But it’s worse, for while Loftus’s work is barely mentioned, you’ll see that Aviv concentrates on Loftus’s personal trials: in particular, her relationship with her late mother.

Virtually the entire article is devoted to Loftus’s childhood and adolescence, and a large part of that to a single Skype call Loftus had with her two brothers, largely about their mother, Rebecca.  A depressive, Rebecca died, most likely by suicide, when Loftus was a teenager. Loftus is still wounded by this loss. Worse, Elizabeth has very few concrete memories of her mother, and cannot decide whether her mother drowned accidentally or as a deliberate suicide attempt. Elizabeth had a heart-to-heart talk with her mother the night before she was found drowned, and that makes her feel even worse.  Aviv mentions several times that the Skype call, which Aviv was party to, made Loftus cry, and that also appears in the last sentence. I don’t think that’s accidental.

After I finished this peculiar article, I wondered why Aviv concentrated so much on Loftus’s thoughts about her mother and not on her work. When Loftus is asked whether her work on memory somehow grew out of her attempts to remember her mother, she denies it, for all three of her degrees were in mathematical psychology and had nothing to do with memory. Loftus hit upon the memory work only after she started a job at The University of Washington and came upon police records of car crashes, which piqued her interest in memory.

The rest is part of the history of psychology, but Aviv isn’t interested in that. She’s obsessed with Loftus’s scant remembrance of her mom, and Loftus’s doubts about whether she did kill herself. It goes on and on and on, and the article becomes not only boring, but pointless.

When I was puzzled about this, I asked my friend Fred Crews—former professor and chair of English at UC Berkeley, well known critic of Freud and his ideas, student and critic of recovered memory therapy, and a friend of Loftus— if he’d read the piece. He said he had, and had not only found it dreadful, but also had an explanation for its slant. I quote him with permission:

To be brief,  Aviv subscribes to Freud’s original bad idea: People repress traumatic memories, and psychotherapists can coax them into recalling them. With that conviction, Aviv regards Loftus less as a memory scientist than as someone who lets abusers off the hook. In that case, the only interesting question is biographical: how did Loftus acquire this undesirable peculiarity? The result, in Aviv’s prose, is what I would call a “friendly libel.” We are meant to empathize with Loftus’s personal trial, but insofar as we do so, we impugn her testimony as a neutral expert witness.

That assessment seems fair to me, and explains Aviv’s neglect of Loftus’s work in favor of her “personal trial”. In fact, Aviv even impugns some of Loftus’s work, noting that one of her famous studies, on car crash memories, had a sample size of only 24. I can’t comment on that, but sample size alone does not invalidate the study. Does Aviv know enough science to raise such a criticism?

Loftus has sacrificed a lot for her work, and although she is highly influential, and to my mind has largely laid to rest the idea that traumatic memories can be repressed and then recovered through therapy, she is still demonized by the kind of people who think that anybody who testifies in court for an odious person is to be shunned. Loftus moved to Irvine because her position at the University of Washington became untenable when she was criticized for asking questions about a woman who said she’d been abused by her mother.

Enough. I want to close by reproducing, again with permission, a letter Crews wrote to the New Yorker criticizing Aviv’s execrable hit job on Loftus.  The magazine didn’t publish it, for the New Yorker which has a reputation for allowing only very mild criticism of its pieces and deep-sixing any highly critical letters.

The letter notes that Aviv appears to buy into the idea of repressed but recoverable memories of sexual abuse broached (and later rejected) by Freud. Aviv seems to think that Freud made a mistake when he reversed course and decided that the “repressed” events never happened, but were confected by the patients and manifested as hysteria.

According to Rachel Aviv, Sigmund Freud “realized that his patients had suppressed memories of being sexually abused as children.” In subsequently disavowing that realization, Aviv adds, Freud “walked away from a revelation” of the prevalence of child sexual abuse. Later, Aviv writes that in the 1980s and 90s Ellen Bass—the coauthor of The Courage to Heal—and other theorists were “careful not to repeat Freud’s mistake.” And then Aviv refers again to “Freud’s female patients, whose memories of abuse were believed and then . . . discredited.”

This version of events became popular in 1984 with Jeffrey Masson’s book The Assault on Truth, which argued that classical psychoanalysis was founded on a cowardly retreat by Freud from the truth of his “seduction” patients’ molestations. But Freud scholars have known since the 1970s that this account is wrong.

In the brief period of his “seduction theory,” Freud maintained that hysteria is invariably caused by the repression of traumatic abuse memories from early childhood. Although he later claimed that his hysterics had spontaneously told him (in error) about having been molested, the reverse was true. He told them so, because his theory demanded it. Nearly all of his patients at the time disputed Freud’s claim, even scoffing at its absurdity. Freud finally abandoned the “seduction” etiiology because his colleagues, too, regarded it as “a scientific fairy tale” (Krafft-Ebing). They were entirely right. But in the hands of Bass and other modern proponents of “recovered memory,” a theory that collapsed in its own time was rehabilitated for very risky ends.

If you want to see what a charlatan Freud was, I’d highly recommend Fred’s book Freud: The Making of an Illusion.

Full disclosure: here’s a picture I asked someone to take of Loftus and me after the AHA dinner (see my post here). I may not be a completely unbiased observer, but read the NYer piece for yourself and see if you don’t find it weird.

The New Yorker continues to largely ignore or denigrate science, mired as it is in a woke perspective and a view that the humanities are valid “ways of knowing”. Aviv’s piece is a particularly good example of how the magazine misses the boat when it comes to science, obliquely trying to denigrate an influential scientist by concentrating on her life and her own traumas rather than on her peer-reviewed work.

Christopher Hitchens’s widow and agent ask friends and associates not to cooperate in a new biography of Christopher

February 6, 2021 • 1:15 pm

According to the NYT article below (click on screenshot), both Christopher Hitchens’s widow Carol Blue-Hitchens, as well as his literary agent Steve Wasserman, are urging their friends and family not to cooperate with Stephen Phillips in his new project: a biography of Christopher Hitchens.

The biography, not yet written but snapped up by W. W. Norton, is tentatively called Pamphleteer: The Life and Times of Christopher Hitchens. Now I object to the title “Pamphleteer”, as Hitchens was far more than that (it’s even a bit pejorative), as well as “The Life and Times” of Christopher Hitchens, for the “Times” are relevant only in terms of the “Life”. In other words, the subtitle is trite.

But I have no objections to people doing biographies of Hitchens. Carol Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman do, however—apparently because they read the book’s prospectus.

“We are aware that a self-appointed would-be biographer, one Stephen Phillips, is embarked on a book on Christopher,” they wrote in an email, which The New York Times reviewed. “We read his proposal and are dismayed by the coarse and reductive approach. We have no confidence in this attempt at the man in full. We are not cooperating and we urge you to refuse all entreaties by Mr. Phillips or his publisher, W.W. Norton.”

It is not uncommon for family members to feel protective of a loved one’s memory, particularly when approached by a biographer. But circulating a letter encouraging others to rebuff the writer has struck some in literary and publishing circles as unusual, especially given Hitchens’s confrontational stance on topics such as atheismthe Iraq war and whether women are funny.

Here’s the email they sent, reproduced in The Nation‘s piece mentioned below:

Now I have no way of knowing what was in the prospectus, but it must have struck the two as a some kind of hit job. To me, that notion is substantiated by the reaction of Christopher’s brother:

Peter Hitchens, Christopher’s brother, and a journalist and author himself, said that he has spoken with Phillips for the project. He said that he received an email from Wasserman about it but saw no harm in cooperating.

“My view has been for a long time that there ought to be a biography,” he said. “And as far as I can tell, this guy seems to be a straightforward person with a good record as a writer, intelligent, knowledgeable. Why not him?”

The two brothers didn’t like each other at all (the NYT might have noted that!), and the rush to approbation by Peter makes me suspicious.

Still, there should be a biography. The only existing one, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist, by Larry Alex Taunton, which I read, was simply a slimy attempt to claim that Hitchens was growing soft on religion and in fact thinking of converting to Christianity on his deathbed (see here, here, and here for some people’s takes). Perhaps Taunton’s pabulum made Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman wary of yet another attempt at a biography. But Phillips is not Taunton, who was a believer.

Nevertheless, there may be facts about Hitchens that his wife and agent aren’t keen to have come to light. Hitchens had a big-time libido, and had affairs with both men and women; perhaps they’re worried about that. I wouldn’t, but I met the man only once and was never part of his inner circle, much less his family.

Hitchens’s family and agent have every right to object to a proposed biography, and every right to proselytize Hitchens’s friends against cooperating with its author. And those friends can make their own decisions. Still, I like to think that Hitchens, contrarian and dirt-digger that he was (viz., Mother Teresa, Henry Kissinger), would bridle at the desire to have his biography vetted by his family. I’d like to think that he’d say, “Let a hundred biographies flower.” But it’s true that non-cooperation by the people who knew Hitchens best, like Martin Amis, would make for a much poorer biography. One thing is for sure: there won’t be many biographies, so we need assurance that this one will be a decent one, and won’t be written with an agenda.

Over at The Nation, David Nasow argues that there should be no prior restraint like that given in the email above (click on screenshot):

Nasaw admits that any biography will show but a few facets of someone’s life, particularly someone as multifaceted as Hitchens. But he argues that the email above is akin to censorship:

What we can infer from [Blue-Hitchens’s and Wasserman’s] refusal to cooperate with or respond to the “entreaties” of this “self-appointed” biographer and his publisher, W.W. Norton, is that they prefer a biographer who has been appointed, no doubt by them. In publicly discouraging the publication of a book that has not yet been written because they do not think much of the proposal, they are playing a zero-sum game. Either they will succeed in dissuading Phillips and Norton from moving forward or, more likely, the biography will be published and the publicity generated by their opposition will create the sort of buzz that marketers dream of.

The larger question is not whether they are acting judiciously, but whether their actions—and similar ones by other executors—do a disservice to those of us who wish the historical record to be as close to complete, as complex, as stirred-up and muddied as possible.

. . .Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman are well within their rights to refuse to cooperate with this particular biographer, but by reaching out, as they have done, to so wide a universe of individuals who might have something to say on the subject, they are engaging in a sort of preemptive censorship, intended to frighten away not just this one writer but any others who might not, for one reason or another, pass muster with them.

Now I don’t infer, as does Nasaw, that the family and agent want an “approved” biography.  Before I’d conclude that, I’d like to see the book’s prospectus. And I can’t find out much about what Phillips himself has written.  To me, the whole tempest rests on what was in the proposal that put off Blue-Hitchens and Wasserman. And we’ll never know about that.

Sequencing of penguin genes gives family tree, presumed geographic origin, and hints about natural selection

August 20, 2020 • 9:00 am

A big group of researchers from around the world—science is truly international in this case—just published a paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that involved sequencing the complete genome of 18 species of penguins as well as an outgroup, the southern giant petrel.  (Researchers differ on the number of extant penguin species, ranging from 17 to 20, as some populations are geographically isolated, making it hard to discern species status.)

The DNA information was combined with fossil data to yield a family tree of the living species, and also to reconstruct their evolutionary history, which suggested that the ancestor of all living and fossil penguins probably lived not in Antarctica, but on the coasts of Australia and/or New Zealand. Finally, the researchers were able to narrow in on a group of genes that may have undergone natural selection in the group, suggesting which adaptations were crucial for making a well-functioning penguin.

You can access the paper by clicking on the screenshot below, or see the pdf here. The full reference is at the bottom, and there’s a popular summary article at CNN.

I’ll try to be brief here. First, I’ve put below the family tree of living penguins deduced from the DNA information, with the divergence times that come from both DNA and fossil data. The radiation started around the beginning of the Miocene, roughly 22 million years ago.

As you can see, the largest species—the emperor and king penguins, form their own “outgroup” to the rest of the penguins, splitting off from the rest early in the group’s radiation but splitting from each other only about two million years ago. (Despite the radiation being old, most modern species split from their closest relatives only within the last few million years.)

The average temperature of the southern ocean is given by the graph in white and the scale on the left, with the dotted red line showing the beginning of the “strengthening” of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), a strong ocean current that sweeps clockwise around Antarctica as seen from the South Pole, isolating the continent from warmer ocean temperatures to the north and allowing the ice sheet to persist.  A lot of the radiation followed the advent of this current’s new strength, which also coincided with the opening of the Drake Passage, creating a water gap between the previously connected land masses of Antarctica and South America.  It also produced a lot of sub-Antarctic islands that were also sites for colonization. And geographic isolation, possibly enforced by temperature, is an impetus for the formation of new species.

It was this stronger current and geographic separation that, the authors say, prompted new speciation events in penguins (most biologists assume that new species usually arise after populations become geographically separated). They did, however, detect some gene flow between penguin species, though it wasn’t extensive enough to wipe out the differences that produced this tree:

Using some assumptions and a complicated program, the authors could use the phylogeny to estimate the geographic range of the ancestral species as well as the ranges of ancestors within the phylogeny. Those are indicated with the letters A through I in the figure above.

The procedure is complicated, but it’s done the way evolutionists estimate ancestral traits of species—assuming that ancestors pass traits down to their descendants. In this case “geographic range” is considered a trait of a species. For example, if two closely related but distinct species occupy geographic areas that are close together, one can assume that their joint ancestor lived in that general area as well. The figure below shows the geographic areas that correspond the the letters of existing penguins (under their names) as well as the ancestors of groups (letters at the branch points).

The range of the ancestral node is letter I, and you can see that corresponds to the coastal areas of Australia and New Zealand, which, the authors assume, is where the ancestral species that gave rise to all modern penguins lived. This is a big conclusion of the paper, but since there are numerous assumptions that go into the biogeographic model, and not a lot of fossil data, I would take that conclusion as very tentative. If it’s true, that means that penguins evolved in areas where the water temperature at the time was abut 9ºC (48° F), and then some descendants (e.g. kings and adelies) colonized colder waters, while others (e.g.. Galápagos and African penguins) colonized warmer waters.

The ancestor of king and emperor penguins presumably lived on the coast of South America or Antarctica (letters A and C); kings currently breed on subantarctic islands and emperors only in Antarctica.

It’s possible, looking at the amount of genetic variation within whole genomes, to discern something about the demographic history (i.e., population sizes) of penguin species (again, there are some big assumptions here). You see below the plot of the “effective population size” (a figure that’s usually somewhat lower than the actual census size) for six species of penguins. Most show a strong drop in population size between about 70,000 and 40,000 years ago, which corresponds to the last glacial maximum (LGM, indicated by the vertical line). The authors say that the extreme cold during the LGM may have reduced the productivity of marine waters, and hence the abundance of fish and krill, the main diet of penguins.  That, in turn, is said to have reduced the population size of many penguin species:

Finally, there are ways to detect genes in a lineage that may have been subject to natural selection. This is done by finding genes in which there is an elevated rate of amino acid substitutions, which change the structure of a protein, over the rate of presumed “neutral” changes in DNA, which don’t change protein structure.  The assumption here, which is a good one, is that a relatively faster rate of protein evolution was promoted by natural selection.

Here’s a diagram of some of the genes, and classes of genes, that, says the analysis, underwent (positive) natural selection, presumably conferring adaptation on individuals in the various species. The genes that apparently evolved adaptively are in pathways influencing thermoregulation, osmoregulation via renal function (fluid and salt balance), blood pressure regulation (helps conserve oxygen and maintain core body temperatures), and oxygenation (important in deep diving). Some of the genes are named in the diagram below. Again, these genes are identified as candidates for adaptation only from their pattern of DNA substitution in the tree, and we don’t know for sure whether the changes really were adaptive, much less how they affected the animal.

The authors conclude on a sad note, saying that it took penguins millions of years to adapt to new temperatures (including colonizing the relatively warm waters around the Galápagos Islands), and thus would likely be unable to adapt to the relatively fast temperature increases accompanying global warming. While one would think that a history of slow adaptation doesn’t say anything about how fast adaptation could proceed under more rapid environmental change, we already know that global warming is seriously damaging some populations of penguins. The CNN report quotes the first author of the paper and describes some heartbreaking changes:

“Right now, changes in the climate and environment are going too fast for some species to respond to the climate change,” said Juliana Vianna, associate professor at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, in the UC Berkeley statement.

The different elements of climate change culminate in a perfect storm. Disappearing sea ice mean fewer breeding and resting grounds for emperor penguins. The reduced ice and warming oceans also mean less krill, the main component of the penguins’ diet.

The world’s second-largest emperor penguin colony has almost disappeared; thousands of emperor penguin chicks in Antarctica drowned when sea ice was destroyed by storms in 2016. Reoccuring storms in 2017 and 2018 led to the death of almost all the chicks at the site each season.

Some penguin colonies in the Antarctic have declined by more than 75% over the past 50 years, largely as a result of climate change.

In the Galapagos, penguin populations are declining as warm El Nino events — a weather phenomenon that sees warming of the eastern Pacific Ocean — happen more frequently and with greater severity. In Africa, warming waters off the southern coast have also caused penguin populations to drop drastically.

I’m lucky to have seen five species of penguins, including kings, on my trip to Antarctica last winter. It would break my heart if we humans, through our depredation of the environment, drove these magnificent products of evolution to extinction. They were here long before we were!

h/t: Matthew, Terrance


Vianna, J. A., F. A. N. Fernandes, M. J. Frugone, H. V. Figueiró, L. R. Pertierra, D. Noll, K. Bi, C. Y. Wang-Claypool, A. Lowther, P. Parker, C. Le Bohec, F. Bonadonna, B. Wienecke, P. Pistorius, A. Steinfurth, C. P. Burridge, G. P. M. Dantas, E. Poulin, W. B. Simison, J. Henderson, E. Eizirik, M. F. Nery, and R. C. K. Bowie. 2020. Genome-wide analyses reveal drivers of penguin diversification. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:202006659.

The colorful and erudite J.B.S. Haldane: my take and a new biography

August 15, 2020 • 10:30 am

UPDATE: Greg Mayer noted that Jonathan Weiner reviewed the new Haldane bio in the New York Times, also favorably. The link is below, and here’s one quote from Weiner’s review:

“A Dominant Character” is the best Haldane biography yet. With science so politicized in this country and abroad, the book could be an allegory for every scientist who wants to take a stand. “In the past few years,” Subramanian writes, “as we’ve witnessed deliberate assaults on fact and truth and as we’ve realized the failures of the calm weight of scientific evidence to influence government policy, the need for scientists to find their voice has grown even more urgent.” Haldane’s political principles were “unbending and forthright,” as Subramanian says, and his science illuminated all of life. In both these ways, for all his failings, he was “deeply attractive during a time of shifting, murky moralities.”


J. B. S. Haldane (1892-1964) was probably the most colorful character in the history of modern evolutionary biology. Son of a famous physiologist, he was precocious and brilliant, earning a First in both Greats (classics) and mathematics at Oxford. He went on to become one of the three people (along with R. A. Fisher and Sewall Wright) to provide the mathematical underpinnings of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, in particular working out how genes would behave under natural selection.

But he made other substantial contributions, suggesting possible theories for the origin of life, becoming the first person to suggest that the gene for sickle-cell anemia was (in one copy) adaptive in areas where malaria was prevalent (he was right), and was also the first to estimate the mutation rate for a human gene.

He was also the first to notice a phenomenon I worked on much of my career: “Haldane’s rule.”  That generalization, which others named after him, was the observation that in crosses between different species, if only one sex of offspring was sterile or inviable (with the other being fertile or viable), it was almost invariably the heterogametic sex: the one that had unlike sex chromosomes. So in flies and mammals, for instance, where males are XY and females XX, if there’s an asymmetry in hybrid sterility or inviability, over 95% of the time it is the males who suffer. In contrast, in birds and butterflies, in which females have unlike sex chromosome and males like ones, it’s the females who suffer among hybrids. Haldane’s explanation for this phenomenon was wrong, but I took up the issue again since it laid fallow since 1922, when Haldane published a short paper on it. It was mainly my students and collaborators, however, who worked out the complete explanation, which has an important bearing on speciation.

Haldane was famous for being a colorful character. Eager to serve in the trenches in World War I, he rode a bicycle along the line, trying to provoke enemy fire. (He apparently knew no fear his whole life.) He was a ferocious drinker, and his student, John Maynard Smith, used to tell me stories about Haldane’s bibulous episodes. One was that, after a night in the pub, the engine of Haldane’s car caught on fire. He immediately urged everyone to douse the fire by urinating on it.

Haldane is also known for his (possibly apocryphal) reply to someone who asked him what one could infer about the creator from the nature of the creation. Haldane’s supposed reply, “An inordinate fondness for beetles.” (Beetles are the most numerous of insect orders—Coleoptera—with over 350,000 species.)  My Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin told me that he once invited Haldane to Rochester (where Dick held his second academic job), and Haldane insisted on going shopping for underwear for his wife, Helen Spurway. Wearing his characteristic Indian clothes (Haldane had by then moved to India in protest of British policy in the Suez), Haldane embarrassed everyone by asking for black lace panties and bras in his loud, booming voice.

Haldane was also an immensely talented science writer and popularizer, erudite—remember, he had a First in Greats—with a light touch. With his terse prose, he could be considered the Hemingway of popular science. To get a flavor of his writing, read one of his famous essays, “On Being the Right Size,” which you can find free at the link.

By the way, when I graduated from Harvard, Dick gave me, as a graduation present, an aerogramme he’d received from Haldane in response to an invitation to lecture. You can read it for yourself, and see the diversity of J. B. S.’s interests:

Dick also told me that it was when Haldane was visiting Rochester that he noticed blood while defecating, the first sign of the colon cancer that eventually killed him. But even his impending death didn’t bother Haldane that much, and he wrote a really funny poem about his cancer and colostomy called “Cancer’s a funny thing.” You can read it here, but below are a few lines:

I wish I had the voice of Homer
To sing of rectal carcinoma,
Which kills a lot more chaps, in fact,
Than were bumped off when Troy was sacked.

Yet, thanks to modern surgeon’s skills,
It can be killed before it kills
Upon a scientific basis
In nineteen out of twenty cases.

I noticed I was passing blood
(Only a few drops, not a flood).
So pausing on my homeward way
From Tallahassee to Bombay
I asked a doctor, now my friend,
To peer into my hinder end,
To prove or to disprove the rumour
That I had a malignant tumour. . .

. . .So now I am like two-faced Janus
The only* god who sees his anus.

*In India there are several more
With extra faces, up to four,
But both in Brahma and in Shiva
I own myself an unbeliever.

I’ll swear, without the risk of perjury,
It was a snappy bit of surgery.
My rectum is a serious loss to me,
But I’ve a very neat colostomy. . .

Note that Haldane consulted a doctor on his return from Tallahassee, which, as he noted in the aerogramme above, he was visiting after he came to Rochester.

Finally, Haldane was an intensely political animal. He was a Communist, joined the British Communist Party (often giving speeches against the government), and even supported the charlatan Trofim Lysenko and his Lamarckian theories of crop breeding, simply because Lysenko was touted by Stalin. This was a serious misstep for a scientist—especially an evolutionary biologist—but Haldane, disenchanted, eventually left the party. He moved to India in 1956 to join the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata, and died in Bhubeneswar, where the aerogramme above was written. After his move, Haldane always dressed in Indian clothes, even when traveling to the West (he said “sixty years in socks is enough!”). Here’s a picture of him (left) with the famous statistician P. C. Mahalanobis:

Wikipedia gives several encomiums tendered by those who knew him or knew of his work:

Arthur C. Clarke credited him as “perhaps the most brilliant science populariser of his generation”.  Nobel laureate Peter Medawar called Haldane “the cleverest man I ever knew”. According to Theodosius Dobzhansky, “Haldane was always recognized as a singular case”; and to Michael J. D. White, “the most erudite biologist of his generation, and perhaps of the century.”

I’ve written too much already, as all I intended to do was highlight a new biography of Haldane that was favorably reviewed (by conservative Matt Ridley!), in the London Times. Reader Pyers sent me a transcript, adding, “You might be interested in a new book which is a biography of JBS Haldane. The headline in the review in the London Times sums him up perfectly: ‘The stupidity of a brilliant mind’.”

I’ll send a copy of the review if you’d like to see it.

There was an earlier biography of J. B. S. (that’s what his colleagues and students called him) by Ronald Clark, which is okay but very light on Haldane’s science. Click on the screenshot to go to its Amazon page:

And here’s the new biography (click to go to Amazon page), which came out July 28. The title is a double entendre, as in genetics “a dominant character” is a trait produced by a gene that gives full expression of the trait when the carrier has only one copy of the gene (polydactyly and attached earlobes are two such traits in humans).

Here is the evaluative part of Ridley’s review:

Subramanian does a masterly job of summarising a rich and rough life. He uses sharp analogies and arresting images. Haldane’s handwriting was like “ants somersaulting through snow”. His columns for the Daily Worker were like “razor blades in print”. He writes that in his thirties “the various streams of his experience pooled within the basin of his character”. Haldane would have approved. Look for a familiar analogy, he wrote in “How to write a popular scientific article”. But, both illustrating and contradicting the point, he also wrote “an ounce of algebra is worth a ton of verbal argument”.

. . . Subramanian summarises Haldane’s contribution as “an incandescent persona: the man who lifted the arras that hid the work of nature; the man who stepped down, into the everyday world, from his tower of ivory; the man who shrugged away convention and defied authority”. Haldane deserves a biographer who is eloquent, intelligent, fair, but unsparing and as good at explaining science as politics. Not an easy combination, but he has got one.

I’ll be reading the book, for it’s hard to get enough Haldane. I wish I’d met the man, but he died before I graduated from high school and began studying biology.

Woody Allen memoir finally published

March 23, 2020 • 12:45 pm

After Woody Allen and his memoir, Apropos of Nothing, were cast adrift by Hachette Publishing after an employee walkout and the loss of their author Ronan Farrow, the memoir has been acquired and will be published by Arcade Publishing, according to this announcement by Publisher’s Weekly (click on screenshot). In fact, the book was released today:

A bit of the PW report (I’ve left out the bit about accused sexual misconduct that I’ve discussed before):

After the acquisition of filmmaker Woody Allen’s memoir by Grand Central Publishing led to protests at the imprint as well as at parent company Hachette Book Group, the book has a new home. Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, announced that it has acquired world rights to the title, Apropos of Nothing, and has released it in the U.S. today.

Speaking to the title, Arcade, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing, said it is “a candid and comprehensive personal account by Woody Allen of his life, ranging from his childhood in Brooklyn through his acclaimed career in film, theater, television, print and standup comedy, as well as exploring his relationships with family and friends.”

From Vox:

As part of that cancellation, Hachette reverted all rights over the book to Allen. That meant he was free to sell the book to any other publisher, and now he has. Apropos of Nothing has gone to Arcade Publishing, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing.

Unlike Hachette, Skyhorse is not one of the so-called “Big Five” houses that dominate US trade publishing. It’s a smaller independent house that has published plenty of legitimate authors, including Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, but also has a history of publishing conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination and vaccines. Skyhorse has also worked with Allen before: In 2011, he wrote the introduction to director Ingmar Bergman’s memoir, published through Skyhorse.

In a statement to the AP, Arcade editor Jeannette Seaver said: “In this strange time, when truth is too often dismissed as ‘fake news,’ we as publishers prefer to give voice to a respected artist, rather than bow to those determined to silence him.”

The AP appears to be the only outlet that has been able to see a copy of Allen’s memoir thus far. In the book, the AP reports, Allen continues to deny ever harming Dylan Farrow. He writes that he “never laid a finger on Dylan, never did anything to her that could be even misconstrued as abusing her; it was a total fabrication from start to finish.”

And there’s a bit more about the contents from (ugh) HuffPo, which is the only place I’ve found this (I didn’t look hard):

“Apropos of Nothing” begins in the wry tone of such literary heroes as J.D. Salinger and George S. Kaufman, describing his New York City upbringing and love affairs with Diane Keaton and others with a sense of nostalgia and angst that also mirrors Allen movies ranging from “Radio Days” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo” to “Annie Hall” and “Hannah and Her Sisters.” But it darkens and becomes defensive, not surprisingly, as he recalls his relationship with Mia Farrow and the allegations he abused daughter Dylan Farrow that for many have come to define his public image in recent years.

He was with Mia Farrow for more than a decade, and recalls happy times with the “very, very beautiful” actress that would cool over the years, especially after the 1987 birth of their one biological child, Ronan (named Satchel at birth). As he has alleged before, he and Farrow were essentially apart by the time he began dating her daughter Soon-Yi Previn, more than 30 years younger than him, in the early 1990s. “At the very early stages of our new relationship, when lust reigns supreme … we couldn’t keep our hands off each other,” he writes of Previn, whom he married in 1997 and to whom he dedicates the book.

Recalling the day Farrow learned of the affair, after discovering erotic photographs of her twenty-something daughter at Allen’s apartment, Allen writes: “Of course I understand her shock, her dismay, her rage, everything. It was the correct reaction.” But he also expresses no regret over he and Previn becoming lovers.

“Sometimes, when the going got rough and I was maligned everywhere, I was asked if I had known the outcome, do I ever wish I never took up with Soon-Yi?” he writes. “I always answered I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

I’ve found the Arcade version on Amazon, but only in the large-print edition (it costs $40). There’s an extract on the Amazon site as well.

As I’ve said several times before, Allen deserves to have his say, and Hachette acted badly by first acquiring the book, defending Allen against his critics, and then instantly caving in to social-media and mob pressure. It was, in effect, an act of censorship. At least it will be available now (I’m betting that some woke bookstores won’t carry it), and the market can vote, though I wouldn’t trust the Amazon reviews, which will be highly conditioned by whether people think Allen is innocent or guilty of sexual misconduct.


The BBC’s Hitchens remembrance

April 17, 2019 • 10:00 am

A few days ago I directed you to an hourlong BBC show about the life and work of Christopher Hitchens, who, had he lived, would have been 70 on April 13. If you haven’t yet heard it, I recommend it highly. You can listen to the program by clicking on the third screenshot below (or going here); it won’t be up forever.

And you have to click a trigger warning verifying that you’re over 16 years old and also have turned off a “parental guidance lock”. Hitchens would be amused at that:

Even if you think you know everything about the man, I think you’ll learn quite a bit. There are interviews with his brother Peter, his BFF Martin Amis, Ian McEwan (who poignantly describes his farewell to Hitchens in the hospital), his Nation colleague Katha Pollitt, his ex-wife Elena, and others. His youthful Marxism is on view, as is his sexism and his prodigious consumption of libations. You’ll be intrigued at the very last thing he wrote: a few words scrawled on a pad, described as “the most succinct op-ed piece ever written—by a writer who was never at a loss for words.”

One thing that struck me was that even those who were opposed to his political beliefs or who found his personality off-putting still admired and felt affection for him. As Amis notes, “I think the key to Christopher is how intensely he was loved by so many people. Not many commentators are loved. I mean, some are valued and respected, but not loved.”

The program is ably narrated and moderated by D. D. Guttenplan, Editor at Large for The Nation. Click below:

Flowering plants remain viable after passing through the guts of waterfowl

December 16, 2018 • 9:00 am

We’ve long known that plant seeds can remain viable not only after floating a long time in fresh or salt water, but also when passing through the guts of birds, including waterfowl. In fact, I believe that at least half of the plants that arrive on oceanic islands, later to form new species, come from seeds pooped out by birds—as opposed to having floated across the ocean.

Now, however, there’s a new method of dispersal: instead of plant seeds being transported in bird guts, plants themselves can pass through a gut and remain able to reproduce (at least asexually). This is the first time it’s been shown for any flowering plant (“angiosperm”) in any bird, though there are previous reports of moss fragments and fern spores being able to pass through and remain viable in the guts of waterfowl. The study described here allows plants a new way of dispersal, and it happens to create a fortuitous mutualism between waterfowl and the plants.

The report, a short one, and free, is in Biology Letters of the Royal Society (click on screenshot, pdf here, and reference at bottom). 

The authors showed that the white-faced whistling duck (Dendrocygna viduata) and the coscoroba swan (Coscoroba coscoroba) eat a small duckweed-like plant called Wolffia columbiana, and that the plantlets—among the smallest of all angiosperms—can sometimes pass through the digestive tract of these species and remain able to divide (asexual reproduction) afterward. First, the players:

The white-faced whistling duck, found in the Southern hemisphere:

The coscoroba swan, endemic to southern South America:

And a mallard (not a whistling duck) eating duckweed, a similar plant, along with a close up of Wolffia columbiana (they’re tiny). Both regular duckweed (probably Lemna minor in the first photo below) and Wolffia are called “duckweed” because ducks nom the stuff with relish. (I’m kidding: they eat it plain!)

From a NYT story: Duckweed, and a duck, on a pond in Germany. CreditCreditKay Nietfeld/DPA, via Getty Images
W. columbiana on fingertip


A sarcastic tweet from the Twitter site #Wolffia:

The authors collected duck and swan poop produced by both birds in five temporary wetlands in southern Brazil that harbored the plant. The poop was taken from near resting waterfowl, and was inspected to ensure that no plants adhered to the outside of the excrement.  Some samples were frozen and then defrosted for dissection to see if plants were in the poop, while plants taken from dissected unfrozen droppings were incubated in Petri dishes to see if they could reproduce asexually—by division.

The upshot is short and sweet: whole plants were found in frozen droppings of both swans and ducks, and intact plants found in three duck samples (they didn’t do this for the swan samples, and I don’t know why), and the plants began to divide in three out of the five Petri-dish cultures. Admittedly, that’s a small sample, but still meaningful. Half of the samples, fresh or frozen, contained whole plants. And remember that these tiny plants divide rapidly to produce exponential increase in numbers, so if a duck pooped out a plantlet into a pond, it wouldn’t take long until the pond had a tasty mat of Wolffia.

Here’s a figure from the paper showing live and dead plantlets; the caption is below:

(From paper): (a) Wetland where faeces of D. viduata with W. columbiana were collected. (b) Intact plantlets obtained from faeces, showing a healthy appearance (bright green colour and integral structure). (c) Seven plantlets observed after 7 experimental days, confirming asexual reproduction. (d) Plants that died during the experiment lost their colour.

Previously, biologists had thought that these plantlets, and similar plants, could disperse by epizoochory—adhering to the outside of the bird, like many seeds do. But this paper shows another method of dispersal for whole plants or plant parts, one called endozoochory (“gut dispersal”). The latter method is less likely to kill the plants by desiccation, though gut acids could do a number on the duckweeds.

How far can the plants disperse? The authors say that “the average retention time for waterfowl faeces is several hours”, so Wolffia could move several km per day via ducks who fly from pond to pond. The swans migrate over a thousand km, so the potential dispersal through them is greater (remember, though, that swan poop didn’t show viable and reproducing Wolffia, since they didn’t look for it.)

It also seems likely that the plants most likely to move this way are those that, like W. columbiana, reproduce clonally. All you have to do to colonize a new habitat this way is to divide asexually rather than grow and produce sexual parts (stamens and pistils), and it’s probable that the latter would be more sensitive to being killed in bird guts.

Finally, while this is a mutualism (the ducks help the plants colonize new habitat, and the plant growth helps feed the ducks), it’s not likely to be an coevolved mutualism. That is, perhaps the plant has evolved resistance to being passed through waterfowl guts, since those plants able to resist gut acids would be more likely to survive and colonize new habitats, but it’s unlikely that the duck has evolved so as to harbor and not kill the plants. There would be little advantage, I suspect, to a new mutation in a duck rendering it less likely to kill plants, as those mutant ducks, moving from pond to pond, wouldn’t benefit more than ducks that didn’t kill plants (all ducks benefit from a Wolffia harvest on a pond).

The results may sound trivial and unremarkable, but may not be. While plants that can survive passage through waterfowl guts may be rare, they’re still able to colonize distant habitats in a way that other plants can’t. And we have no idea yet how many plants can disperse in this way. This paper may stimulate more work along those lines. As the authors note:

 Given that production of asexual vegetative propagules and an ability to grow from fragments is widespread in plants, dispersal of such vegetative propagules (e.g. fragments of grasses or pondweeds, or whole floating plants) by endozoochory may be an important and overlooked process.

h/t: Nilou


Silva, G. G. et al. 2018. Whole angiosperms Wolffia columbiana disperse by gut passage through wildfowl in South AmericaBiology Letters, 14 (12), online

Susan Jacoby’s biography of Ingersoll

March 17, 2018 • 10:30 am

On my train rides up to and back from Madison, I polished off Susan Jacoby’s 2013 short (211 small pages) book on Robert G. Ingersoll (1833-1899). Ingersoll was an author, freethinker, and perhaps America’s most spellbinding orator of the 19th century, despite the fact that he was absolutely godless and spent much of his writing and speaking criticizing religion.  Click on the screenshot to go to the Amazon page, where you’ll see it’s been rated highly by readers:

It’s a good book, concerned more with Ingersoll’s ideas than his life, and well worth reading to see a true antecedent of the “New Atheists”. As Jacoby says in her antepenultimate chapter, “A Letter to the ‘New’ Atheists”, the hallmarks of what I see as New Atheism—its love of and use of science in dispelling religion as well as its uncompromising and in-your-face godlessness and antitheism—were all present in Ingersoll’s writings and speeches. And yet despite his atheism, which denied him the possibility of any public or elective position despite his fierce intelligence and drive, he regularly sold out his lectures, so wonderful a speaker was he. Further, most of his audience, unlike those attending the talks of people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or me, weren’t nonbelievers: many religious people came to see Ingersoll because of the power of his rhetoric.

Ingersoll was impressive in many ways. He was apparently as close to a perfect human as one could get: a devoted husband and father, a faithful friend, and someone whom even his enemies couldn’t fault. His virtues extended to his views: he was an ardent opponent of slavery and any law or behavior that discriminated against blacks, a strong promoter of women’s rights—complete equality with men—and a great popularizer of Darwin’s work. (Jacoby considers him a better explainer of evolution to the average person than was Thomas Henry Huxley, for Ingersoll had no scientific training and so was able to gauge and address people’s ignorance.) Ingersoll constantly emphasized the Founders’ view of the First Amendment, fighting against the incursion of religions such as Catholicism into government. Finally, he was also a lover and supporter of the arts, especially fond of Shakespeare and—his one flaw, in my eyes—Walt Whitman.

Jacoby feels, rightly, that all of us heathens should be aware that a New Atheist existed long before the genre got its name, and tells us why in her “Letter” chapter. I’ll let you read that for yourself. Although Ingersoll’s reputation waned after his death, and few modern atheists know much about him, it’s salubrious to see a man of our stripe being “strident” (the adjective doesn’t really apply: he didn’t have a mean bone in his body) and changing minds well before the rise of Fundamentalism.

After reading that book, I wanted to go further into Ingersoll. For those who feel likewise, here’s some other material you might essay (screenshots take you to Amazon page)

Here’s a half-hour interview of Jacoby about her Ingersoll book (by Chris M**ney); click on screenshot:

Finally, near the end of his life Ingersoll visited the laboratory of his friend Thomas Edison and recorded seven short bits of oratory. At the site below (click) you can hear the three ones that remain. The quality is poor, but at least you can get an idea of his voice and his cadences. (Remember, Ingersoll spoke to large audiences without a microphone.)

I end with a photo of The Great Agnostic himself (Ingersoll said there was no difference between an agnostic and an atheist) as well as my very favorite quote from him—about the “compatibility” of science and religion. I often use this quote in my talks about faith versus science:

There is no harmony between religion and science. When science was a child, religion sought to strangle it in the cradle. Now that science has attained its youth, and superstition is in its dotage, the trembling, palsied wreck says to the athlete: “Let us be friends.” It reminds me of the bargain the cock wished to make with the horse: “Let us agree not to step on each other’s feet.”

Robert G. Ingersoll