A good anti-creationist tee shirt

May 19, 2022 • 9:15 am

While I’m writing a post on free will (up next), I thought I’d show you one of my favorite tee shirts that I chose to wear today. I can’t remember where I got it, but I’m sure you can still order them. It’s a funny one that makes fun of fundamentalist creationists, and I’ll let you figure out what it’s saying. It’s not hard!

“Teach the controversy” was, of course, the mantra of creationists after they failed to get creationism taught in public schools, either as Biblical or “scientific” creationism. They then started saying this mantra, hoping that teachers would think there was a real scientific controversy about whether evolution was true or not. Like all their other machinations, that one failed too.

I’ll leave the rest to you. This is the first time I’ve worn this shirt. I have an aversion to wearing new tee shirts, for fear that they’ll begin to wear out. But that’s stupid because I’m 72, have a gazillion tee shirts, and won’t be around before my collection even begins to wear out.

Anyway, enjoy. Maybe you’ll want one of these:

The annual evolution meeting raises some questions

May 12, 2022 • 1:45 pm

The annual “Evolution Meeting” is taking place next month in Cleveland, and each year it gets woker: there is less emphasis on science and more on “harm”, “safety” and the oppression narrative. This year the meeting is a tripartite gathering of members from three evolution-related societies: the American Society of Naturalists, the Society for the Study of Evolution, and the Society of Systematic Biologists. You can see the website here, and try perusing it a bit. What you won’t see is the names of prizes that have been dropped because the famous scientists once being honored were found to be flawed.

Call me an old grouch, but in my view the organizers are consciously turning societies devoted to the promotion of science into organizations devoted to the promotion of social change. Yes, organizations should not discriminate against any class of people so long as they’re qualified to give talks or attend meetings, but it’s another thing entirely for a meeting to promote equity on the grounds that science is structurally racist. In fact, I think scientific societies should remain politically neutral while obeying any anti-discrimination laws. Effecting social change should be the purview of individual members of societies, as different members have different views (I know a lot of people who object to the fulminating wokeness of evolution societies.)

Whlle perusing the long list of diversity initiatives (14 of them), guaranteed to bring people together by separating them, I found this one:

Latines? What happened to “Latinx”, itself created to avoid gendering an ethnic group as well as not to offend LGBTQ Latinxes? Recall that “Latinx” was itself a term imposed on several (and diverse) ethnic groups by largely woke white people trying to demonstrate their compassion and virtue.  Most members of the Latina(o) community spurn the term:

Despite its increasingly frequent use, a Gallup poll claims only 5% of Hispanic Americans prefer the term “Latinx.” In contrast, 37% preferred the usage of “Latino,” and 57% preferred “Hispanic.”

Aren’t we supposed to call a group what they want to be called? So why not “Hispanic”? And where the deuce did “Latine” come from? The Tulane Hullabaloo explains:

These numbers beg the question, why can Hispanic not be used when referring to this specific ethnic subgroup?

Essentially, the two terms are not exactly synonyms. “Hispanic” typically refers to someone from a Spanish-speaking region, while “Latino” typically refers to people of Latin American descent. A Portuguese-speaking Brazilian man would not be Hispanic, but he would be Latino. A woman from Spain would be Hispanic, but not Latina. Despite the two terms describing large and often overlapping groups, the term “Latino” includes people that “Hispanic” does not — similar to how “African American” refers to fewer people than “Black person” does.

Got that? Now you can ignore it, because everybody knows that the regular use of “Hispanic” lumps these two groups together.

But what is this “Latine”? Get ready—it’s even woker than “Latinx”, and is again a term promoted by woke non-Hispanics to make up for the fact that they realized that the term “Latinx” could cause harm. 

The criticism “Latinx” faces is not for it being more inclusive, even harsh critics of the term acknowledge that it stems from good intent. Instead, some believe it is the anglicisation of a term that does not belong to English speakers — an effort to impose their ideals onto a language with entirely different rules.

While it was created with good intentions, “Latinx” is not made for Spanish speakers. Some people just see “Latinx” as a “White thing.” The kind of term that gets used in academics, but not at taqueriasIf that is the chief issue, then input from Spanish speakers, particularly under the Latino umbrella, would be the key to making a term that both satisfies Spanish speakers and includes marginalized groups. Fortunately, such a term exists: “Latine.”

You don’t hear “Latine” at taquerias, either! But I digress:

“Latine” offers a more organic alternative to “Latinx.” On the surface, Latine and Latinx may strike readers as synonyms. Both terms are designed to be more inclusive than their gendered parents, specifically in reference to nonbinary people, and both terms are relatively new. So what justifies the use of the younger, less popular “Latine?”

Latine fills the void in a way Latinx never could, mostly because it was designed to work with the Spanish language. It is not an insertion; it is an evolution. A natural progression from gendered terms to neutral ones. As such, Latine can be pronounced and conjugated in Spanish, while “Latinx” cannot.

Any bets whether Hispanic Americans are going to proudly proclaim themselves as “Latines”?

I also found the event below, apparently based on the title of a book by Joan Roughgarden that I reviewed (critically) in the Times Literary Supplement of 2004 (email me for a copy of the review as it’s no longer online). Roughgarden, who had recently become a trans woman, made the case in her book that the diversity of sexuality in nature justifies human sexuality other than the “cis” form, and at any rate should erase our opprobrium towards members of the LGBTQ+ community. But this is an example of the “naturalistic fallacy”: we needn’t—and shouldn’t—see how animals express sexuality to inform our own morality towards those with different sexual expression. Here’s a screenshot of one paragraph from my review:

The event below, bearing the title of Roughgarden’s book, looks to me like the same kind of stuff: a romp through the diverse sexuality of animal species with the express aim of “supporting and retaining our LGBTQ+ students and colleagues.”  But the diversity of sexuality in nature is completely irrelevant to that aim: people of different sexual preferences, genders, and so on, should be treated as moral equals on the simple grounds that they are fellow humans and such equality is a boon to society.  I find it bizarre that this event (which costs $5 extra) is being given, assuming its aim is what they say it  is:

Brian Charlesworth on the errors of a new paper supposedly showing that a fundamental assumption of neo-Darwinian evolution is wrong

May 9, 2022 • 8:00 am

Intro by Jerry:  One of the pillars of neo-Darwinian evolution is the assumption, supported by a great deal of evidence, that mutation is “random.” This does not mean that mutations occur with equal frequency everywhere in the genome (they don’t), that different genes have the same mutation rate (they don’t), or that even within a gene some mutations don’t occur more often than others (they do). Rather, the statement that “mutation is random” means that the likelihood of a mutation occurring does not depend on whether in a given situation it would be advantageous or deleterious.

The idea that mutations are “nonrandom”—usually meaning that adaptive mutations are more likely to occur in some situations (e.g., a change in environment)—has been bruited about for years, mainly because if this was a fairly common phenomenon, it would create a substantial rethinking of the neo-Darwinian theory of evolution. But there is no way we know of that the frequency of an error in the DNA sequence, which is what a mutation is, can be elevated in the adaptive direction when the environment changes. (We know that environmental changes can raise the overall mutation rate, but this is not an adaptive phenomenon because the vast majority of mutations are harmful.) Because of this lack of evidence for “adaptive mutation,” and the absence of a mechanism whereby it could occur, evolutionists continue to accept that mutations are “random” in the sense I defined.

Recently, a paper appeared that seemed to show that at least one mutation in human hemoglobin—the one causing sickle-cell anemia when present in two copies—could occur more frequently in areas where the mutation is adaptive: malaria-ridden areas of Africa. The sickle-cell mutation, as Brian Charlesworth shows below, is adaptive, but only when present in one copy, when, together in a “heterozygote” with one copy of the “normal” hemoglobin beta chain, it confers substantial protection against malaria.  The heterozygote has higher survival and reproductive fitness than either the homozygote for the ‘normal’ allele, which is more prone to fatal malaria, and the sickle-cell homozygote, which has the disease sickle-cell anemia and is prone to die before adulthood.  The mechanics of population genetics show that if a heterozygote with one copy of each of two alleles has higher reproductive ability (read “survivorship” here) than either of the two homozygotes, it will be maintained in the population at a stable equilibrium frequency, regardless of how bad off the homozygotes are. The sufferings of those with sickle-cell anemia can be seen as the price paid because of the higher malaria resistance of heterozygotes carrying only one copy of the gene. It also shows that evolution doesn’t create the optimum situation: that would be a single mutation that causes malaria resistance when present in either one or two copies.

This, by the way, explains why African-Americans are more prone to sickle-cell anemia than people from other populations, for they still carry the “HbS” mutation prevalent in their ancestors who were brought to America as slaves. The frequency of the HbS mutation in the U.S., however, is now falling, and for two reasons: we don’t have malaria in the U.S., which is necessary to keep the gene at an equilibrium frequency, and because African-Americans have intermarried with whites, who don’t carry copies of HbS.  Eventually, prenatal testing and genetic counseling will be able to eliminate sickle-cell anemia, and the HbS allele, completely.

At any rate, the paper, by Melamed et al. (reference below), appeared to show that the mutation rate from the “normal” DNA sequence to the HbS “sickle-cell” sequence was higher in Africans than in Europeans. This was quickly picked up by the popular press as an example of “adaptive mutation” and as a refutation of modern evolutionary theory. (The “Darwin Was Wrong” trope still sells newspapers, especially in America!) Many readers wrote me and asked me about this paper, which I hadn’t yet read, but I told them that a better analysis was in the works.

I pointed this out to my friend, colleague, and ex-chairman (at Chicago) Brian Charlesworth, one of the world’s premier evolutionary geneticists. He quickly spotted the error in the Melamed et al. paper that refuted its conclusion of “adaptive mutation,” but was too busy to refute it on paper. After I kept hectoring him to write something up since the “Darwin was wrong” trope was associated with this paper in many articles in the popular press, he finally deigned to write a short and sweet refutation. Rather than submit it as a rebuttal to the journal (he said he has two refutations of other papers in press, and doesn’t want to get a reputation as a debunker), Brian allowed me to publish the rebuttal here. I’ve put it between the lines below.

Note that the error in Melamed et al. stems from a flaw in the assumptions: that all the new mutations analyzed were independent.

No evidence for an unusually high mutation rate to an adaptive variant

Brian Charlesworth
Institute of Evolutionary Biology
School of Biological Sciences
The University of Edinburgh
Edinburgh, UK

The hemoglobin S variant (HbS) causes the near-lethal sickle cell disease when homozygous (present on both the maternal and paternal chromosomes) and confers protection against malaria when heterozygous (present on either the maternal or paternal chromosome). The HbS variant exists at substantial frequencies in several populations in Africa, as well as in Arabia and India. It is the classic example of heterozygote advantage, whereby a mutation that increases the fitness of its heterozygous carriers cannot replace its alternative because of the loss of fitness to homozygotes. (Note that 2022 is the 100th anniversary of R.A. Fisher’s discovery of how this process works). The HbS mutation is a single change from adenine to thymine at the sixth amino acid position in the beta globin gene, resulting a change in the amino-acid in the corresponding protein for valine to glutamic acid (it was the first mutation to be identified as causing a change in the sequence of a protein). Studies of the DNA sequences of chromosomes carrying the HbS mutation show that there are five major classes of sequences associated with it, but recent analyses show that the mutation probably arose only once, followed by recombination events that placed it onto different genetic backgrounds. This provides a classic example of what is known as a “partial selective sweep”, in which a new mutation with a selective advantage arises on a single genetic background, so that variants present on this background spread through the population in association with it.

Melamed et al. (2021) claim to have evidence that challenges the standard neo-Darwinian view that natural selection acts on mutations that arise “randomly”, i.e., without reference to their effects on the survival or fertility of their carriers (indeed, most mutations with noticeable effects reduce the fitness of their carriers). The evidence for Melamed et al.’s claim comes from an experiment in which the authors applied a novel technique for identifying new mutations in millions of sperm cells. With regard to the detection of HbS mutations, they characterized sperm from 7 African and 4 European men. They observed 9 instances of the HbS mutation in the sperm of Africans and none in the Europeans. They pointed out that HbS is at a selective advantage in Africans but not in Europeans, and suggested that the seemingly higher mutation rate is the result of a hypothetical process proposed by Adia Livnat, a co-author of the paper, whereby “adaptations and mutation-specific rates jointly evolve”. This claim has been disseminated in the media as evidence against the neo-Darwinian view of selection on random mutations [JAC: see below for some of these media references]– here it is claimed that mutations that are selectively advantageous in a particular environment arise more frequently than in environments where they lack an advantage.

However, there is no statistical support for the claim that there is a higher mutation rate to HbS in African men. While the authors looked at very large number of sperm, these came from only 11 individuals. Five of the nine HbS mutations occurred in a single individual, and 2 other individuals contributed 2 mutations each. The events within individuals cannot be treated as independent of each other, because there is a large population of dividing cells that are precursors of the mature sperm. If a mutation occurs in a cell that gives rise to several sperm after a number of divisions, there will be several copies of the mutation in the sperm pool. This is the cause of the well-established fact that the frequencies of mutations in human sperm increase with the man’s age. If we treat each individual as a single observation, we have 3 cases of HbS mutations among 7 Africans and 0 among 4 Europeans. Fisher’s exact test shows that the difference between Africans and Europeans has a probability of about 11% of arising by chance in the absence of any true difference.

There are other reasons for doubting this claim. First, it is exceedingly hard to see how there could be any biological process that could cause the HbS mutation to have a higher mutation rate in order to allow Africans to evolve malaria resistance, which is thought to have become a significant selective factor at most around 20,000 years ago. Mutations arise as errors in the replication of DNA molecules or as the result of damage to non-replicating molecules. There is no known mechanism whereby an organism could devise a process that would allow it to produce one specific class of mutation at a higher-than-average frequency just when that mutation is at an advantage. Further, the genetic evidence referred to above suggests that the HbS variant prevalent in human populations traces its ancestry back to a single ancestral mutation (Shriner and Rotimi, 2018; Laval et al., 2019) , so that there is no reason to believe that a high mutation rate has enabled multiple copies of the mutation to spread.


D. Melamed et al. 2022. De novo mutation rates at the single-mutation resolution in a human HBB gene region associated with adaptation and genetic disease. Genome Research 32:1-11.  Free pdf here

D. Shriner and C. N. Rotimi. 2018. Whole-genome-sequence-based haplotypes reveal single origin of the sickle allele during the Holocene wet phase. Am. J. Hum. Genet. 102:547-556.

G. Laval et al. 2019. Recent adaptive acquisition by African rainforest hunter-gatherers of the late Pleistocene sickle-cell mutation suggests past differences in malaria exposure.  Am. J. Hum. Genet. 104:553-561.

Among the many popular articles that cite Melamed et al. as a rebuttal of modern evolutionary theory, see here, here, here, here, here, ad infinitum:

Two examples (click on screenshot)s:


And here’s Brian:


Biogeography of the Canary Islands

April 29, 2022 • 2:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Jerry has long insisted–quite rightly, to my mind– that biogeographic evidence was critical in leading Darwin to accepting descent with modification, and that to this day it is among the most pedagogically effective tools in teaching about evolution. Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos Islands is the most heralded of his encounters with island biota, and I would argue that his visit to the Falkland Islands was also quite formative of his views. It is less well known that HMS Beagle also called at Tenerife in the Canary islands but that, much to Darwin’s disappointment– for he had long wished to visit the island– the crew was not allowed to land, due to a cholera scare. Despite Darwin’s disappointment, many of the phenomena of island life that so impressed him can be observed in the biota of the Canaries; and we can look forward to Jerry’s return, when he’ll be able to share more photographs of the islands and their biota.

Frontispiece of Bannerman and Bannerman, volume 2, on the birds of the Madeiran archipelago. There are two similar species in the Canaries.

As Jerry has already noted, these are volcanic islands which emerged from the sea and have never been connected to the African mainland to the east. They are thus, biogeographically speaking, oceanic islands: they have received their biota via what Darwin called occasional means of transport— floating, flying, or swimming. The vertebrate fauna of the islands thus consists of birds, bats, lizards, a few now extinct rats/mice, and a single species of shrew. There are no native large land mammals, no snakes, and no amphibians. Endemism (species found only in the Canaries) is quite high, especially among the lizards and land mammals.

The lizards include skinks (Chalcides), geckos (Tarentola), and “true lizards” (Gallotia; they are in the family Lacertidae, lacerta meaning lizard in Latin, and thus are the “true” lizards). All of these have their closest relatives in North Africa and the Mediterranean region, from whence they came. The most interesting lizards by far are those of the genus Gallotia.

The giant lizard of Roque Salmor, from Boulenger (1891).

This genus is endemic to the Canaries, and is found throughout the archipelago. Some species/populations are endangered or already extinct. There can be up to three species on an island– small, medium, and large– thus coming closest of any to an adaptive radiation; most endemism in the Canaries is of representative forms on each island, rather than a genuine splitting of lineages leading to multiple related species sharing the same island (as Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos do).

The Canaries fall in the Palearctic zoogeographic region, the affinities of most of their fauna being with North Africa and Europe. The Mediterranean Sea is only a partial zoogeographic barrier, and North Africa lies in the Palearctic region (which extends to Japan and Siberia), rather than the Ethiopian region, which comprises sub-Saharan Africa. Within the Canaries, there’s quite a bit of ecological and climatic variation. The eastern islands are dry and desert-like, while the western islands are wetter, with a vegetational zonation of scrub on the coasts with pine forest and the distinctive laurel forest at higher elevations, with an alpine scrub at the very highest elevations.

The following is an annotated bibliography for those who might wish to learn more about the Canaries. It is somewhat idiosyncratic, reflecting my own interests and what I happen to have in my own library, rather than any comprehensive review of the literature.

Books for a broad audience

Bannerman, D.A. and  W.M. Bannerman. 1963-1968. Birds of the Atlantic Islands. 4 vols. Oliver and Boyd, Edinburgh. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at a copy, but this is a classic, with some beautiful plates and a comprehensive account of the avifauna as known at the time. The Canaries are volume  1.

Bowler, J. 2018. Wildlife of Madeira and the Canary Islands. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. The only general guide to the Canaries I’ve seen, but fairly disappointing. The field guide illustrations are photographs, many of which seem inadequate for identification; scientific names are relegated to an appendix; the author misunderstands concepts of island biology; and there is no overall appreciation of the islands’ biodiversity and its origins. Nonetheless, I think it is a must have if you ever make a visit.

Garcia-del-Rey, E. 2018. Birds of the Canary Islands. Christopher Helm, London. I have not seen a copy of this, but the available extracts online show it to be a well-done modern bird guide by a Canarian with fine illustrations. Although general European field guides sometimes include the Canaries, you’d want to have this book with you if visiting.

More technical articles

Most of these, depending on your library access, will be paywalled. Discreet inquiry may yield a copy.

Böhme, W., and R. Hutterer, eds. 1985. Ergebnisse des 1. Symposiums “Herpetologia Canariensis.” Bonner Zoologische Beitrage 36(3-4): 233-606. Zoologischen Forschunginstitut und Museum Alexander Koenig, Bonn. (Biodiversity Heritage Library) A collection of papers in German, Spanish, and English that focuses on herps, but has more general articles as well. This was published shortly after some of the exciting discoveries of living giant lizards; see Maca-Meyer et al. (2003) for some more recent work.

Boulenger, G.A. 1891. On Simonyi’s Lizard, Lacerta simonyi. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1891(1):201-202. (Biodiversity Heritage Library) A technical description, with illustrations, of a specimen that had been in the London Zoo.

Grant, P.R. 1979a. Ecological and morphological variation of Canary Island blue tits, Parus caeruleus (Aves: Paridae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 11:103-129. On some of the Canaries, blue tits, in the absence of the pine-dwelling coal tit, have shifted into pine forest, and their beaks have become adapted to this foraging substrate.

Grant, P.R. 1979b. Evolution of the chaffinch, Fringilla coelebs, on the Atlantic Islands. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 11:301-332. Presents morphological evidence for ecological character displacement between common and blue chaffinches in the Canary Islands, and that Azores common chaffinches have evolved a more generalized, intermediate, morphology.

Illera, J.C., J.C. Rando, D.S. Richardson, and B.C. Emerson. 2012. Age, origins and extinctions of the avifauna of Macaronesia: a synthesis of phylogenetic and fossil information. Quaternary Science Reviews 50:14-22. Reviews recent molecular phylogenetic work on the birds of these islands, finding that most extant birds are recent (<4 Mya) colonists, even though the islands are much older (ca. 30 Mya).

Lack, D. and H.N. Southern. 1949. Birds on Tenerife. Ibis 91:607-626. A classic paper pointing out many interesting problems of ecomorphological adaptation and distribution, particularly in chaffinches and tits, which have been studied by later workers, e.g. Grant (1979a,b). Less technical and quite readable.

Maca-Meyer, N., S. Carranza, J.C. Rando, E.N. Arnold, and V.M. Cabrera. 2003. Status and relationships of the extinct giant Canary Island lizard Gallotia goliath (Reptilia: Lacertidae), assessed using ancient mtDNA from its mummified remains. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 80: 659-670. Uses ancient DNA to investigate the relationships of the Canary-endemic genus Gallotia.

Condolence letters to Darwin’s family released on the 140th anniversary of his death

April 21, 2022 • 2:00 pm

April 19 was the 140th anniversary of Darwin’s death, and the wonderful “Darwin Online” project, which presents virtually everything the man ever wrote, has released a bunch of messages received by the Darwin family after his death.  Kudos to John van Wyhe, who curates this project and sent out a notice that this material has been released.

Below is the site’s introduction to the many letters, of which I reproduce but a few (via links) below:

2022, 04.19

On the occasion of the 140th anniversary of Darwin’s death, we are providing the Darwin family’s collection of letters and telegrams from his relatives, friends, contemporaries and institutions at home and abroad upon the news of his death in 1882. The messages, addressed to the Darwin family, expressed grief and sorrow, offered condolences, reminiscences and tributes to the scientific figure who had transformed our understanding of the world forever. Over ninety of these letters reveal intimate and personal sentiments felt by the sender. These have been transcribed for the first time, only on Darwin Online.

Click on the link below to access them all.

Here are some notable letters from Darwin’s friends and colleagues, as well as people whom he influenced (with links):

Galton, Francis. 1882.04.20. Letter to George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.7h

Haeckel, Ernst. 1882.04.24. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.8a

Huxley Thomas Henry. 1882.04.21. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10k

Huxley, T. H. 1882.04.22. Letter to George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.6c

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1882.04.21. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10i

Hooker, Joseph Dalton. 1882.04.29. Letter to William Erasmus and George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10j

Murray, John. [1882].04.24. Letter to William Erasmus Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10p

Murray was Darwin’s publisher, which included the various editions of On the Origin of Species

Papé, Charlotte. 1882.04.21. Letter to [Francis] Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.7k

Romanes, George John. 1882.04.22. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.8e

Gray, Asa. 1882.04.23. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.10h 

Students, Agricultural Academy in Petrovsky, Moscow. 1882.04.24. Telegram to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.12l

Vries, Hugo de. 1882.04.25. Letter to Francis Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.9i

Moscow University Geological Department. 1882.04.28. Letter to George Howard Darwin. Text & image CUL-DAR215.11o


How do we tell left from right?

April 6, 2022 • 12:15 pm

I’m sure this topic has been covered by scientists before, but I haven’t researched it, so I’m raising it as a naive question.

First, it’s easy for you to tell up from down because down is where your feet are and up is what you see when you look away from your feet and toward the sky. Or you could drop something; the direction it falls is “down”.

It’s also easy for you to tell your front from your back. Your front is what you see when you look down, and the other side of your body is your back.

But how do you tell right from left at any given moment?

Now of course there are a number of cues that we could use to tell right from left. The side our heartbeat is most detectable by touch is on the left (unless you have situs inversus!), I wear my watch on my left wrist and my ring on my right hand, and so on. If you drive a car in the US, the steering wheel is on the left side.

But we don’t actually use these cues. When someone tells you “turn right” when you’re asking directions, you just know which way to go.  But HOW?

Presumably we learn right from left when we’re kids: a parent presumably points out your right hand and says “that’s the right hand” and vice versa. But again, what cues do we use now? Surely not the hands! (I’m sure the answer is out there somewhere, but if a reader provides it, many of us will have learned something.)

That’s my question, but it’s related to a genetics question that I pondered for years before any answer was ever given. It’s about asymmetry in animals.  There are basically two types of ways a bilaterally  symmetrical animal can be asymmetrical in some ways. I’ve posted on this three times before (here ,here, and here), so have a look at those posts. Here’s just a brief summary.

1.) Fluctuating asymmetry. Individuals are asymmetrical for some features, but the direction of asymmetry varies from individual to individual. Handedness in humans is this way, though it has a genetic component, too, making right-handed people more common. Lobsters have asymmetrical claws: one is a “cutter” and the other a “crusher”, and it’s random whether the crusher claw is on the right or left. (We know, by the way, how this comes about. Young lobsters start their lives with identical claws, but the claw that is used most often provides more neurological activity, and that activity irrevocably creates the asymmetry, which lasts for life.The most-used one becomes the grinder.) Some species of flounders are randomly flat on the left or right sides, though all start off being vertically postured fish who develop into flat fish, with the eye on the bottom migrating to the top. Many human facial features are examples of fluctuating asymmetry: the right sides of our faces are not the same as the left, but the kind of differences differ in direction from person to person. Fluctuating asymmetry is also called “anti-symmetry” since the sides are different, but not in a consistent direction.

2.) Directional asymmetry. This is what always puzzled me. There are some basically bilaterally symmetric animals, like us, in which there are some asymmetries that are directional. That is, the right side always differs from the left in a consistent way. The narwhal tusk (a hyper-developed canine tooth) is always on the left side, some owls use directionally asymmetrical ears as a way to locate prey, I’ve mentioned the human heart before, and there are many examples. (In some flounder species, individuals are always right-flat, while individuals of other species are left-flat.)

The question I always had about this rests on the observation that because every individual is directionally asymmetrical the same way, that asymmetry must somehow rest on genes for those traits that are active in development. But how does a gene know it’s on the right or left side so it can turn on or off? Given a bilaterally symmetrical individual, it’s easy to genetically specify “front” and “back”, and “up and down”, but once those are specified, then the internal features of the organism should be identical on the right and left side. So how does a gene for say, hyper-development of the canine tooth “know” that it’s on the left side to become activated? There has to be some consistent physiological or metabolic difference between the right and left sides of an animal to provide the relevant developmental cues.  But how could that occur?

We’re beginning to find out now, though we’re far from a complete understanding of the phenomenon. There are two suggestions I know of, based on either the asymmetry in the way embryonic cilia beat (causing an asymmetry in the flow of embryonic fluid) or in the “handedness” of our constituent amino acids. I describe these in the second post I wrote in the series.

Of course, once a single directional asymmetry has evolved in an animal or plant, then the evolution of further directional asymmetries can evolve using developmental cues provided by the first one.

But this is irrelevant to the question above, so I repeat it:

How do you know the difference between left and right?

Once again: Was E. O. Wilson a racist? His closest colleague says “no way”!

April 6, 2022 • 10:00 am

The accusations that biologist E. O. Wilson was a racist began with an unhinged article in Scientific American, which gave no evidence at all and, as a sign of its scholarly deficiencies, also accused Gregor Mendel of being a racist! Oh, and, based on semantics alone, it also claimed the statistical “normal distribution” was racist!

Of course, the racist hit-piece mode began before that, perhaps with the horrific death of George Floyd or even before that. And while in some ways the “racial reckoning” is a good thing, it’s also had bad side effects, including the rush to label many famous scientists of the past as racists, when in lots of cases the evidence was either thin or (as in the case of T. H. Huxley, in the opposite direction).

There have since been more scholarly arguments claiming or at least implying that Ed Wilson was a racist (see my post here and an NYRB paper here), as well as some defenses of Wilson, including here and the piece by Wilson’s close colleague Bert Hölldobler I’m highlighting in this post.

The more rational attacks on Wilson, though, have suffered by leaning too hard on Wilson’s association with Canadian psychologist J. Phillippe Rushton, who certainly seemed to have been a racist. Wilson sponsored a paper in PNAS coauthored by Rushton, wrote a favorable review of a paper Rushton tried to publish (but rejected another one), and wrote a letter of support for Rushton when he was about to be fired. (See also Greg’s addendum to my post here.) What people don’t seem to realize is that the paper sponsored by Wilson also had as a co-author Wilson’s protégé Charles Lumsden, whose work Wilson was constantly trying to promote. Rather than supporting Rushton’s ideas, Wilson’s sponsorship could be seen as a way of advancing Lumsden’s career.  And defending Rushton against being fired could be also be seen as a simple defense of academic freedom, or, as Hölldobler does below, as a reflection of Wilson’s own trauma about being attacked on ideological grounds.

All in all, I simply can’t sign onto the slogan “Ed Wilson was a racist” based on what I know of him, what I knew from associating with him, nor from a few guilt-by-association accusations ignoring the possibility that Wilson was probably trying to promote his own colleague Charles Lumsden, not support Rushton’s racism. Nor will I run with those who imply that Wilson supported racist ideas because he was sympathetic to racism.  For right now, it’s best to await further analysis that involves a broad reading of Wilson’s correspondence.

When that full correspondence is eventually sifted (it hasn’t been), we’ll know more. Using my Bayesian sense, for now I’d say that it’s way premature to call Wilson a racist, or imply that he was sympathetic to racism, but we should remain open to the evidence. From what I know of his own work, in fact, I see not a smidgen of racism, which to Wilson’s detractors seems to rest solely on Wilson’s association with Rushton or his advocacy of sociobiology, which Wilson denied promoted racism (see below).

So here we have another defense of Ed against these accusations by perhaps his closest professional colleague, Bert Hölldobler, another ant biologist who shared a floor at Harvard with Wilson.  Bert co-wrote the magisterial book The Ants, with Wilson, and, knowing Bert, I can say that by no means was he an uncritical admirer of Wilson. Bert took strong issue, for example, with Wilson’s late-life conversion to group selection as an explanation of human behavior—and many other evolutionary phenomena. But he was well placed to assess Wilson’s character and the accusations against it.

Hölldobler does so in the magazine piece below published on Michael Shermer’s Skeptic site and Substack site. The two pieces are identical, and you can see them by clicking on either of the screenshots below.  Shermer has a preface in the Substack site that there is more to come:

Note from Michael Shermer: In response to the calumnious and false accusations of racism and promoting race science against the renowned Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, made shortly after his death (so he can’t defend himself) by the New York Review of Books, Science for the People, and Scientific American, I asked his long-time collaborator and world-class scientist Bert Hölldobler to reply, since he worked closely with Wilson for decades. I have penned a much longer and more detailed analysis of the affair, which will be published in the coming weeks. Watch this space and subscribe here.

And Michael prefaces Bert’s piece at the Skeptic site with this subtitle:

Is there vigilantism in science? Was the renowned Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson wrongly convicted of racism and promoting race science in the court of public opinion? Yes, says his long-time collaborator and world-class scientist Bert Hölldobler.

(Hölldobler and Wilson are in the photo below.)


Bert keeps a low profile about personal stuff like this, so it’s both remarkable and a testimony to the strength of his feeling about Wilson that he wrote this rather long defense of the man. While Bert doesn’t suggest that it’s possible the PNAS affair was motivated by Wilson’s desire to promote Lumsden rather than Rushton, he does indict Wilson for his favorable review of Rushton’s paper in Ethology and Sociobiology (Lumsden wasn’t an author), which Bert calls “a serious misjudgment”. As for Wilson’s trying to prevent Rushton’s firing, Bert argues—and this may be true—that he was motivated more by trying to prevent others from being persecuted as Wilson himself had been (by Gould, Lewontin, and other Leftist biologists, argues Hölldobler).

And, familiar with Wilson’s own views and his vast record of publication, Hölldobler vehemently denies that Wilson wrote anything that was racist. Indeed, he says, Wilson decried racism.

Read the piece and decide for yourself, but I’ll give a few quotes by Hölldobler. I am not an unthinking fan of Bert dedicated to supporting him or Wilson, but did know both men, admire their work, and think that before you start slinging terms like “racist” against one of the most distinguished ecologists and evolutionists of our era, or implying he was sympathetic to racism and racists, you should read Bert’s piece.

I’ll give more quotations than usual in case you don’t want to read the paper—though you should.

Sadly, there are some quotes that don’t put my advisor, Dick Lewontin, in a very good light. But I don’t reject them, for I know well about Lewontin’s ideological biases.  I also know for a fact that Lewontin despised Wilson and, when I interviewed Lewontin about his life, the discussion about Wilson was the one part he wouldn’t let me put on tape.

Here Bert accosts Lewontin for denying that there was any evolutionary/genetic basis for human behavior:

It was a point that Dick Lewontin himself acknowledged when he showed up at my office the next day, apparently eager to soften what he had said. Although I respected Lewontin as a scientist and colleague at Harvard, I did not appreciate his ideologically driven “sand box Marxism.” When I asked why he so blithely distorted some of Ed’s writings he responded: “Bert, you do not understand, it is a political battle in the United States. All means are justified to win this battle.” In fact, it is nonsense to claim that Ed Wilson’s comparative and evolutionary approach to behavior in any way endorses racism. This was a case of a scientist’s views being distorted to suit someone else’s ideological goals.

The “money quotes” by Bert below are in bold:

I always thought that a basic tenet of collegiality is to first discuss differences of opinion in person, especially when the opposing party are members of the same university, even the same department. The Lewontin lab was located on the third floor of the MCZ-Laboratories (Museum of Comparative Zoology), and Wilson had his office on the fourth floor. What prevented Lewontin, Gould, and other members of Science for the People from coming up and knocking on Ed’s door to discuss with him their disagreements? In a letter written to the New York Review of Books and sent on November 10, 1975, Wilson explained that he felt “that actions of the letter writers represent the kind of self-righteous vigilantism which not only produces falsehood but also unjustly hurts individuals and through that kind of intimidation diminishes the spirit of free inquiry and discussion crucial to the health of the intellectual community.” Thus, Science for the People launched its political war, and as is so often the case with ideologues, they erected a straw man to tear down with bravura.

I could go on with many more apposite quotes. The point is I never found one statement in his writings that would indicate that Ed Wilson followed a racist ideology. This was the invention, or rather the falsehood, created by the International Committee Against Racism (INCAR), members of which physically attacked Ed at the beginning of an invited lecture he was to deliver at a meeting of the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). This is intellectual fascism. In fact, even Lewontin made clear that Wilson is not a racist. As Lewontin said in an interview with The Harvard Crimson on December 3, 1975: “Sociobiology is not a racist doctrine, but any kind of genetic determinism can and does feed other kinds, including the belief that some races are superior to others. However, this is very far from Wilson’s intuition. Because Wilson is concerned with the universals of human nature — his chief point is that we are all alike.”

Here’s Hölldobler on Wilson’s defense of Rushton—the pivot on which the accusations of racism rest:

Having now looked at the work by Rushton with greater attention, it is clear to me that Ed could not have paid much scrutiny to Rushton’s work but rather was motivated by the impression he got from Rushton’s own description of his plight, namely, that he was being persecuted by far-left wing ideologues, as Wilson himself had been after publication of Sociobiology. Note too that Rushton had strong academic credentials as a former John Simon Guggenheim Fellow and a fellow of the Canadian Psychological Society. Nevertheless, Ed’s recommendation of a manuscript submitted by Rushton to the journal Ethology and Sociobiology, in which Rushton wrongly applied Wilson’s r-K selection model, was in my opinion a serious misjudgment. When Wilson encouraged Rushton to pursue this line of investigation and advised him not to be discouraged, at one point warning him “the whole issue would be clouded by personal charges of racism to the point that rational discussion would be almost impossible,” my guess is that Wilson’s response was colored by his own and painful experience and decision to continue with his work despite vicious attacks from Science for the People, rather than an in-depth examination of the of Rushton’s paper. If we could ask Ed today, I am sure he would say: “I made a mistake, I was wrong.” But a misjudgment made when reviewing a paper for a journal does not make Ed Wilson a racist or a promoter of race science!

Bert points out Wilson’s own arguments that biology does not justify racism:

In fact, in a note to Nature (Vol. 289, 19 February 1981) Wilson wrote “I am happy to point out that no justification for racism is to be found in the truly scientific study of the biological basis of social behaviour. As I stated in On Human Nature (1978), I will go further and suggest that hope and pride and not despair are the ultimate legacy of genetic diversity, because we are a single species, not two or more, one great breeding system through which genes flow and mix in each generation. Because of that flux, mankind viewed over many generations shares a single human nature within which relatively minor hereditary influences recycle through ever changing patterns, between the sexes and across families and entire populations.” In the 2004 edition of his book On Human Nature Wilson wrote: “most scientists have long recognized that it is a futile exercise to try to define discrete human races. Such entities do not in fact exist. Of equal importance, the description of geographic variation in one trait or another by a biologist or anthropologist or anyone else should not carry with it value judgements concerning the worth of the characteristics defined.”

And the money quote at the end. Here Hölldobler assesses the most serious and scholarly attack on Wilson as a racist, the paper in NYRB by Borello and Sepkoski:

In the recent New York Review of Books article, “Ideology as Biology,” by the historians of science Mark Borrello and David Sepkoski, I feel the authors make too much out of Wilson’s encouragement of Rushton which, as I said, was probably motivated more by his own painful experiences with politically provoked distortions of his work and unfair attacks, than by in depth scrutiny of his correspondent’s views. Looking at Rushton’s work today, when most experts agree that these kinds of IQ tests are biased and have to be taken with a grain of salt, Wilson’s positive response to Rushton’s pleas appears to me naive. I assume that he realized this later too, because to my knowledge he never cited Rushton’s work nor mentioned it in conversations I had with [Wilson].

Given Wilson’s numerous articles, books, lectures and public statements, which contain nothing even remotely supportive of racism, it seems unfair to zero in on this limited correspondence with a single colleague to be waved like a red flag to tarnish a scholar’s reputation. This may not be what Borrello and Sepkoski intended, but their disclaimer that they wanted to distance themselves from any scarlet letter activism and “cancel culture,” was gainsaid by the prevailing theme of their analysis that Ed Wilson was closely aligned with a racist, which in today’s culture of hyper-sensitivity to all matters of race and racism, they had to know would scuttle the reputation of one of the greatest scientists of our time. Such self-righteous vigilantism is highly unjust and distortive.

Greg echoed this sentiment in his addendum to my post that you can find here.

Overall, my present judgment is that attacks on Wilson, calling him a racist or implying he was, are tendentious and supported almost entirely by his association with a man who was a racist, Rushton. But in Wilson’s own work, as Bert notes above, there is not a line “even remotely supportive of racism.” If Wilson was a racist, why this absence of evidence, and the guilt-by-association ploy? Yes, Bert says that Wilson’s favorable review of Rushton’s paper was a misjudgment, and one that Wilson would probably admit today. But if that’s pretty much all that the critics have got, then we can let the dog bark but let our caravan move on.

Why is there such a rush to judgment here? Why the winnowing out of a long and productive life of a few bits of equivocal evidence to indict someone as a racist? Is this going to eliminate racism, or accomplish anything—even if such accusations were true (and I’m not convinced they are)?

I’m not going to psychologize any of the authors who attack Wilson or trawl through the history of biology trying to sniff out racism in figures like Mendel and T. H. Huxley, concluding that they were either racist themselves, sympathetic to racism, or “racist-adjacent.” But trying to exhibit your own virtue, or to place yourself on the “right side of history”, can be a powerful incentive. And that, at least, must explain a lot of the recent attacks on famous evolutionary biologists as racists.

Natural selection is cleverer than you are

April 1, 2022 • 1:07 pm

The title of this very short post is widely known in our trade as “Orgel’s Second Rule” after evolutionist Leslie Orgel. Of course the Rule doesn’t mean that natural selection is conscious or has a pre-planned goal or outcome: simply that sometimes natural selection can achieve a result so wild and unexpected that it looks as if there was a clever mind behind it. (I say this so that the ID types won’t attribute to me a “mind” behind evolution.)

I lectured about this during this trip when explaining how, in Antarctic “icefish”, the gene making the enzyme trypsinogen—produced by the pancreas to help digest food in the intestine—became duplicated over evolutionary time, and thereafter one duplicate became rearranged by natural selection so it produced a bizarre glycoprotein having a small amino-acid sequence repeated many times over. That sequence allows the new protein (the old one’s still there) to glom onto the small particles that would enable ice to form and grow in the body. It is an anti-freeze protein that, produced in large quantities, reduces the freezing point of the fish’s blood below the -1.9° C of Antarctic waters. Therefore the fish’s cells don’t freeze and it can survive in water that would kill most other fish.

We know the evolutionary source of this antifreeze protein because it bears, at the beginning and end, the “start” and “stop” bits of the DNA that makes trypsinogen. Those “vestigial sequences” are evidence of evolution—of the ancestry of the antifreeze protein.

But I’ve digressed. I wanted to talk about something I just realized. I took my daily half-hour constitutional on the top deck (daily when the weather’s good, that is), and came back thirsty. It was gloriously warm and sunny outside, and I grabbed my aluminum water bottle from the cabin fridge. (We all get these bottles to save plastic, as Hurtigruten is green.)

I don’t like “hydrating”, but this time I needed to. And this time, because I had a thought, I timed how long it took me to take the several deep swallows needed to slake my thirst. It was about five seconds.

Now over those five seconds, my body didn’t have time to absorb and use the water that it needed. The thirst, of course, is a signal that your body needs water. But what struck me is this: I drank sufficient water for my body’s needs before those needs had even begun to be satisfied!

In other words, not only is thirst a way of telling you need water (and hunger for food and so on), but the slaking of thirst is a way of telling you when you’ve had enough water. It’s as if by simply ingesting a medicine you need, you’re cured before the medicine even does its thing. Or it’s as if you have an infection, and the infection starts to go away five seconds after you swallow your antibiotic. Or it’s as if your headache went away the minute you swallowed your aspirin.

Of course, we didn’t evolve to take antibiotics, but we did evolve to drink water when needed. And natural selection has been clever enough to find a way to tell us that we’ve drunk enough before that water has entered our system.

Presumably the “that’s enough” reflex evolved because you don’t want to drink too much water. You could get bloated, or perhaps a predator is lurking nearby to snatch you as you guzzle from the water hole. I don’t know how it happened, but it did happen.

Maybe this seems tedious and obvious to you, but it still amazes me. What mechanism operates in your throat and stomach to let you know that you can stop drinking?

UPDATE: Well of course biologists have thought about this problem before; I certainly didn’t think I was the first. And, sure enough, in the first comment below Cyrus Martin, senior editor of Current Biology, steered me to a paper in his journal that dealth with the issue, “Thirst,” by David Leib et al.

Here’s the most relevant part, but the article has lots of information about the generators of thirst and the physiological distress it signals:

 Drinking quenches thirst in anticipation of water absorption

There is a delay of tens of minutes between the ingestion of water and its full absorption into the bloodstream. However, drinking can quench thirst within seconds, long before the ingested water has had time to alter the blood volume or osmolality. Thus, thirst is not quenched by the reverse of the process that generates it; instead, the brain terminates thirst by using sensory cues from the oropharynx to track ongoing water consumption and then estimate how this water intake will alter fluid balance in the future, after the water has been absorbed. These anticipatory signals are transmitted from the oral cavity to the SFO [JAC: the “subfornical organ” i the brain that detects changes in blood osmolarity and partly generates the “thirst signal”] where they inhibit the same thirst neurons that respond to change in the blood volume and osmolality. This circuit organization allows SFO thirst neurons to make a comparison between the physiological need for water, which they measure directly by monitoring the blood, and the amount of water that has recently been consumed, which they measure by tracking oropharyngeal signals of fluid intake. SFO thirst neurons compare these two values to decide when drinking should be terminated. It is likely that a similar integration occurs within other structures of the lamina terminalis that control drinking behavior and hormone release.

That IS clever, isn’t it? But wait—there’s more:

The specific oropharyngeal mechanisms that are used to track water consumption are not well defined. One signal appears to be temperature, because cold liquids inhibit SFO thirst neurons more efficiently than warm liquids, and oral cooling alone can reduce both thirst and the activity of these SFO cells. One explanation for this temperature-dependence is that water ingestion tends to cool the oropharynx, and as a result animals may learn to associate changes in oral temperature with the post-ingestive effects of water consumption. In addition to temperature, other somatosensory signals that report on the sensation of water in the oral cavity are likely to be important. There is also evidence that signals from further down the gastrointestinal tract, such as stretch receptors and osmosensors in the stomach, may play a role in thirst satiation. In none of these cases, however, is the identity of the relevant sensory neurons and the neural pathway by which they transmit information to the lamina terminalis clear.

I was just wondering last night why cold water is so much more desirable when you’re thirsty, and why people don’t just guzzle lukewarm water when they’re thirsty. This temperature-dependence, as it says above, may be a phenomenon involved with learning the relationship between temperature of water and how well your body is satisfied with the water. But, as usual, we don’t know the full answer.

I was just wondering last night why cold water is so much more desirable when you’re thirsty, and why people don’t just guzzle lukewarm water. This temperature-dependence, as it says above, may be a phenomenon involved with learning the relationship between temperature of water and how well your body is satisfied with the water. But, as usual, we don’t know the full answer.

On the origin of the specious: Jesuit magazine says that Darwin was both an evolutionist and an advocate of “intelligent design”

February 23, 2022 • 10:45 am

The article below (click on screenshot), is from the magazine America, a “Jesuit Review”. and it’s by Christopher Sandford, a writer who, while he may be religious, is certainly no padre. Here’s his bio from MacMillan:

Christopher Sandford has published acclaimed biographies of Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney, Imran Khan, Harold Macmillan, John F. Kennedy, Steve McQueen, and Roman Polanski. He is also the author of Masters of Mystery: The Strange Friendship of Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini. He has worked as a film and music writer and reviewer for over 20 years, and frequently contributes to newspapers and magazines on both sides of the Atlantic. Rolling Stone has called him “the pre-eminent author in his field today.” Sandford divides his time between Seattle and London.

But the article below, with its provocative title, suggests expertise in the history of science. Sadly, little is evident in the piece, as Sandford is setting up a straw man and then burning it down.

Click on the screenshot to read:

What he means by saying that we’re reading Darwin “all wrong” is that we read Darwin as an icon of atheism, a man who had no truck with any species of the divine, and deliberately designed his works to demolish the idea of God. As I’ll show below, that’s not true. Darwin simply didn’t care much about God so long as he could explain biological design by a theory that didn’t invoke God.

Sandford also states that, after writing the Origin, Darwin had two ideas in his head at the same time: a materialistic evolution but also one mixed with some intelligent design.  This is not true. Insofar as Darwin thought of “intelligent design,” he merely suggested in passing that perhaps the “laws of the universe” were designed. He rejected the idea of God held by his contemporaries (see below). We know this because Darwin told us this. He was at best an agnostic.

But he was also canny: he knew very well the implications of evolution for the religious—the implications of giving a purely materialistic explanation for phenomena that for several millennia had been seen as the strongest evidence for God: design in nature. This is why Darwin devoted only a single weaselly sentence to human evolution in The Origin: “Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history”.

But then he put his cards on the table in 1871 with the publication of The Descent of Man.  But his continuing reluctance to discuss the theological implications of his theory is simply because he wanted his theory to be accepted, and accepted by people who were Bible-believing Christians. This reluctance has been interpreted by some as equivocation, but is seen by Sandford is seen as Darwin believing both in evolution and “intelligent design.”

Sandford’s thesis is summed up in a paragraph near the end (my bolding):

For many people today, Darwin has become a sort of secular deity, an icon for atheism who at a stroke swept away the antediluvian superstitions of his age and ushered in an invigorating new era of scientific logic and rationalism. A close reading of On the Origin of Species, however, strongly suggests that the work was not only an argument against the concept of miraculous creation but also a theist’s case for the presence of intelligent design, broadly in keeping with Albert Einstein’s subsequent aphorism that “God does not play dice with the universe.”

Well, those who see Darwin as an icon for atheism have some justification, for he is an icon for atheism by having replaced divine explanations with materialistic ones. But the last sentence, implying that there was intelligent design in the universe, is not justified by Darwin’s writings. He rejected the idea of a personal God, and as for a Higher Power who created the laws of Nature, Darwin was pretty mute. This letter to Asa Gray in 1860 shows that while Darwin rejected a beneficent God, he just didn’t know if there was any higher power. Bolding in the quote below is mine:

With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidæ with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.—   Let each man hope & believe what he can.—

Now one could, as Sandford apparently does, take the words “designed laws” as evidence for a higher power who designed those laws. I’m not so sure, for in the next sentence Darwin famously punts, saying that he gives up on the whole subject as “too profound for the human intellect”—”a dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton   . . ”  (That’s an excellent sentence!) I think Darwin just didn’t want to discuss the theological underpinnings of his theory because he wasn’t interested in theology and couldn’t come to any answers about gods.  In that sense, he was a true agnostic, and it’s proper to read him as such.

And, as we see below, while Darwin still believed in “laws” towards the end of his life, the idea that they were “designed” laws seems to have disappeared.

Yet Sandford makes several game tries to show that Darwin was more than just a straight-up agnostic. For example, Sandford says this:

To take another example: Charles Darwin himself would almost certainly not have endorsed the views of many of his spiritual heirs today that the biblical story of creation and the evolution of the physical universe are mutually exclusive rather than twin manifestations of a divine act of self-revelation.

Note Sandford’s claim that Darwin wouldn’t have seen “the biblical story of creation” and the “evolution of the physical universe” as mutually exclusive. That’s almost certainly wrong: Darwin’s Origin was “one long argument” against the biblical story of creation. Time after time he compares what one would expect to see in the biological world if biblical creationism be true, and he shows that you don’t see that: you see what you’d expect if evolution be true.

As for “twin manifestations of a divine act of self-revelation,” I don’t know what that means. Either the Biblical story is true or it’s not. It’s not, and, as far as we know, Darwin’s theory of evolution was true. And how did “a possibly divine origin of the laws of physics” suddenly turn into an acceptance of “the biblical story of creation”?

Sandford also, for some reason, lays at Darwin’s feet the use of his theory by eugenicists, particularly Hitler:

“With savages,” Darwin wrote, in perhaps the most striking passage in the text,

the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated. We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination. We build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor-laws; and our medical men exert their utmost skill to save the life of every one to the last moment. There is reason to believe that vaccination has preserved thousands, who from a weak constitution would formerly have succumbed to small-pox. Thus the weak members of civilised societies propagate their kind. No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this must be highly injurious to the race of man. It is surprising how soon a want of care, or care wrongly directed, leads to the degeneration of a domestic race; but excepting in the case of man himself, hardly any one is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed. The aid we feel impelled to give to the helpless is mainly an incidental result of the instinct of sympathy.

This passage is not perhaps what most modern adherents of Darwinian thought have in mind when extolling their hero’s rigorously materialist approach to evolutionary biology. Nor, to be fair, is it entirely representative of 1871’s The Descent of Man as a whole. Even so, this was the partial reading of Darwin’s theory seized upon by Adolf Hitler and his like-minded crew of genocidal fanatics in their quasi-scientific musings on the evolutionary process.

Here is Hitler, for instance, speaking at Nuremberg in 1933: “The gulf between the lowest creature which can still be styled man and our highest races is greater than that between the lowest type of man and the highest ape.”

Nope. Hitler rejected Darwinism, and his views on Jews, genocide, and the superiority of Aryans were derived from elsewhere—certainly not from Darwin! To see an expert refutation of this claim, read my colleague Bob Richards’s definitive article, “Was Hitler a Darwinian?” And here’s Richards’s answer:

In order to sustain the thesis that Hitler was a Darwinian one would have to ignore all the explicit statements of Hitler rejecting any theory like Darwin’s and draw fanciful implications from vague words, errant phrases, and ambiguous sentences, neglecting altogether more straight-forward, contextual interpretations of such utterances. Only the ideologically blinded would still try to sustain the thesis in the face of the contrary, manifest evidence. Yet, as I suggested at the beginning of this essay, there is an obvious sense in which my own claims must be moot. Even if Hitler could recite the Origin of Species by heart and referred to Darwin as his scientific hero, that would not have the slightest bearing on the validity of Darwinian theory or the moral standing of its author. The only reasonable answer to the question that gives this essay its title is a very loud and unequivocal No!

Sanford mentions that Darwin had a quote in the frontispiece of The Origin that was sympathetic to religion. Well, actually, there are two quotes in that frontispiece that are both sympathetic to religion:

. . . [Darwin] acknowledged the intellectual debt himself by opening On the Origin of Species with a quote from Whewell’s Bridgewater Treatise about the consistency of scientific evolutionary theory with a natural theology of a supreme creator establishing laws:

But with regard to the material world, we can at least go so far as this—we can perceive that events are brought about not by insulated interpositions of Divine power, exerted in each particular case, but by the establishment of general laws.

Indeed. And there’s another religion-friendly quote there, too!:

“To conclude, therefore, let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficience in both.”

BACONAdvancement of Learning.

Knowing Darwin’s own views at this time, it’s nearly impossible to believe that these quotes are there because Darwin really thought there was not only a divine creator establishing laws—that’s a dog speculating on the mind of Newton—but that one should also diligently study “the book of God’s word” or “the book of God’s works” (does he mean biological works?).  I suspect, and I’m not alone in this, that Darwin knew perfectly well that the book following these opening quotes would hit Christians in the solar plexus, and these quotes are there to leaven his arguments—to make people think that Darwin saw the Bible was the word of God, and that world showed the Works of the Word.

Here’s one last passage from Darwin’s Autobiography showing, over his life, how his disbelief in the conventional idea of God increased (again, my bolding):

By further reflecting that the clearest evidence would be requisite to make any sane man believe in the miracles by which Christianity is supported,—that the more we know of the fixed laws of nature the more incredible do miracles become,—that the men at that time were ignorant and credulous to a degree almost incomprehensible by us,—that the Gospels cannot be proved to have been written simultaneously with the events,—that they differ in many important details, far too important as it seemed to me to be admitted as the usual inaccuracies of eye-witnesses;—by such reflections as these, which I give not as having the least novelty or value, but as they influenced me, I gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation. The fact that many false religions have spread over large portions of the earth like wild-fire had some weight with me. Beautiful as is the morality of the New Testament, it can hardly be denied that its perfection depends in part on the interpretation which we now put on metaphors and allegories.

But I was very unwilling to give up my belief;—I feel sure of this for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.1

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws. 

1 Mrs. Darwin annotated this passage (from “and have never since doubted”…. to “damnable doctrine”) in her own handwriting. She writes:—”I should dislike the passage in brackets to be published. It seems to me raw. Nothing can be said too severe upon the doctrine of everlasting punishment for disbelief—but very few now wd. call that ‘Christianity,’ (tho’ the words are there.) There is the question of verbal inspiration comes in too. E. D.” Oct. 1882. This was written six months after her husband’s death, in a second copy of the Autobiography in Francis’s handwriting. The passage was not published. See Introduction.—N. B. [Nora Barlow, the editor]

Note that in the last sentence the “fixed laws” are NOT imputed to God. So, at the end, we have no indication that even the “fixed laws” were of God’s devising. Note as well that the Autobiography was published five years after Darwin’s death. We can take it, then, as the cumulation of his views.

In the end, we are reading Darwin right so long as we realize that:

a.) He did not believe in the Christian personal God, a good God, that was prevalent in his day.

b.) He did not accept the Biblical story of creation. The “design” he saw in nature, which his predecessor Paley thought was strong evidence for God, came instead from evolution by natural selection.

c.) He was not an antitheist, nor an atheist in the sense of one who says “the evidence for a divine being is almost nonexistent”.  He was an agnostic who thought, “I don’t know if there’s a divine power and it’s beyond my ken to figure this out.” (Some people would call this atheism, but I don’t.


d.) Darwin’s views may have been coopted by eugenicists, but not by Hitler, and few people fault Darwin for eugenics laws and acts after his time. Darwin, of course, wasn’t responsible for the misuse of his ideas.

Sandford’s claim that “we’ve been reading Darwin all wrong” is, in the end, a strawman argument. It depends, of course, on who “we” represents. Most people have never read a word of Darwin, and get what they know about him from rumor, so they can’t have been “reading Darwin all wrong.”They might have been getting Darwin wrong, but that’s not Sandford’s argument, which seems to be directed at scientifically-minded laypeople.

For those who do read Darwin, those familiar with his books and letters could never conclude that he saw harmony between his theory of evolution and any form of “intelligent design”. For even if you accept (and I don’t) that Darwin thought that only the laws of nature were designed, he still saw the evolution of life as the result of deterministic processes operating on material protoplasm. By and large, the views that most modern people have about Darwin, and I refer to people who have read Darwin, are correct.


h/t: Karl, Andrew Berry

Two books on Darwin

February 12, 2022 • 5:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

For Darwin’s birthday, I thought I’d mention two books about Darwin, both by the noted Darwin scholar John van Wyhe, whom Jerry and I have both had the pleasure of meeting, and who we’ve had occasion to mention here on WEIT a number of times. As anyone with more than a passing interest in Darwin should know, John is the editor of the indispensable Darwin Online.

The first is Darwin: The Man, His Great Voyage, and His Theory of Evolution (Andre Deutsch, London, 2018). Although I hadn’t planned it that way, very fittingly I finished reading it this morning. This is a reissue of a book first published in 2008 in anticipation of the Darwin bicentennial. The first issue was published in the US and the UK with different subtitles, and slightly later (2009) in the US.

I can highly recommend this as a very well-illustrated capsule summary of Darwin’s life. It begins with one of the best summaries of the state of knowledge and inquiry into natural history in the early 19th century I’ve ever read, then takes up Darwin’s life from birth, to university, to the four corners of the Earth in the Beagle, then to his return to England. Succeeding sections (there are no numbered chapters) are mostly structured around Darwin’s major works, tracing his life and contributions through a chronological sequence of those works.

The text covers at most half of the pages of this 160 page book, the rest being given over to illustrations. Almost all are contemporary, either illustrations from scientific papers and monographs, or of people and places in Darwin’s life. There are also quite a few reproductions of pages from Darwin’s published works and manuscripts. (Pages 120-123, a reproduction of several pages from the Darwin-Wallace Linnean Society paper of 1858, is labeled, incorrectly, as an extract from one of Darwin’s unpublished MS from 1857.) The illustrations are a great plus. In the original issue of 2008, the selection of illustrations was somewhat different (there were more of them), and they were larger, some being fold out; in the current issue the size may be a bit of a problem in seeing detail in some of them.

My own copy is the UK issue of 2018. A US reissue has a 2022 copyright date, but the UK one of 2018 is available in the US. (The larger format issue of 2008 [2009 in the US] can also still be found.) To learn all about Darwin’s life, read Janet Browne’s 2-volume masterpiece. But until you do, read this book, and have it alongside for the illustrations when you read Browne.

The other book, Darwin: A Companion, by Paul van Helvert and van Wyhe (World Scientific, Singapore, 2021) came out last year. I have not seen it yet, though I have seen the earlier edition (1978) by Robert Freeman on which it is based.

Unlike the previous book, which is a great entry point for the tyro, this book is for the more serious student of Darwin. The Companion is an encyclopedic collection of virtually everything known to be connected to Darwin the man. The new edition is 50% again as large as the first, and has added several dozen illustrations. This is not really a book to be read, but rather consulted or browsed (in the nutritive sense); Darwin completists will need a copy. As Janet Browne wrote in her blurb for the new edition, “There is more here than even Darwin would have known about himself.”