Neil Shubin to give prestigious lecture on “Your Inner Fish”

March 23, 2021 • 12:00 pm

The University has just announced that my colleague Neil Shubin, paleontologist, developmental biologist, and author, will be giving this year’s prestigious Ryerson Lecture. Click on the screenshot below for details:

You have to register in advance, and it’s online, but it’s free. Here are the details and the link:

A prestigious tradition celebrating the scholarly work of a UChicago faculty member, the Ryerson Lecture will take place virtually April 20 at 5 p.m CT. The lecture, entitled “Finding Your Inner Fish: Fossils, Genes and the History of Life,” is free and open to the public; registration is now open through this link.

The Robert R. Bensley Distinguished Service Professor of Organismal Biology and Anatomy, Shubin is known widely for his evolutionary work including the groundbreaking discovery of Tiktaalik roseae, the 375-million-year-old fossil considered a missing link between fish and all animals on land, including humans.

After you register (all that’s needed is your name, email address, and “do you plan to attend this lecture”—a weird question), you get a note that you’ll receive an email link to the talk on Monday, April 19—the day before.

Be there or be square!

Quillette lecture on the “religion” of social justice by John McWhorter: Sept. 25 or 26

September 3, 2020 • 8:45 am

Thanks to Quillette, you’ll be able to watch a free lecture by John McWhorter in a bit more than three weeks. The reason I’m announcing this early is that you have to reserve a spot, which is free for the talk and the afterparty (if you want to attend the virtual salon and ask McWhorter questions, it’ll cost you 200 Australian dollars). The dates and times vary because Australia is on the other side of the International Date Line. In the US, McWhorter’s talk will start at 7 p.m. on Friday, September 25, as noted below.

More info from the email I got:

While acknowledging that some aspects of modern social justice movements are vital and necessary, John McWhorter has likened some progressive activism to a new expression of ancient religious impulse – with its own versions of Original Sin, rituals, dogma, and even excommunication—often in the form of “cancel culture.”
As an associate professor of linguistics and comparative literature at Columbia University for over 25 years, and a popular writer penning pieces for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico and The New Yorker (just to name a few), John is well-versed in the dangers and pitfalls of radical social justice.
At a time when emotions are heightened and divisions seem intractable, McWhorter’s moderating voice is more valuable than ever. Join him in conversation with political satirist and television presenter Josh Szeps on September 26

The main event is this:

A free presentation where John will explore ideas around radical social justice and its place in today’s society. You will have the opportunity to debate and ask questions during the show via the Event Chat.

I’m not sure why one must reserve a spot for the free lecture, but I’ve done it anyway, and I suppose you should, too. To do that, go to the “reserve page” here, click “get tickets” on the upper right, and fill in the blanks. If you’re “going,” put it on your calendar now.


A blast from the past

August 22, 2020 • 10:30 am


by Matthew Cobb

About six months ago, in the time before lockdown, I gave a talk about my then new book, The Idea of the Brain, at the Royal Institution in London. About a week later, the country went into lockdown and because the RI staff were furloughed, they could not work on the video. Reader Christopher mailed Jerry last night to tell him that the video was now online – I didn’t know! Anyway, here you are:

The talk was chaired by my pal the science journalist and author Adam Rutherford, who fell ill with covid a couple of days later and is still not fully recovered. Be careful out there. . . 

JAC: The question-and-Answer section of Matthew’s talk has surfaced, and I’m posting it below:

Peter Holland lectures on the diversity of animals

July 2, 2020 • 2:30 pm

So far I’ve watched only about 30 minutes of this brand-new (virtual) lecture on the diversity of animals by Professor Peter Holland of Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, but it looks to be good. Not long ago I read his The Animal Kingdom: A Very Short Introduction, one of Oxford’s lovely small paperbacks to introduce people to new fields. It was an excellent read, despite my initial worries that a short book couldn’t begin to cover that topic.

Holland is a clear and eloquent lecturer, and his slides are very good as well.


Holland puts his talk within the framework of Darwin’s theory of evolution, laying out the evidence for evolution Darwin mustered in The Origin, and segues into one of his interested: evolutionary developmental biology (evo-devo).

Here’s the lecture summary:

When we think of evolution, the first person that springs to mind is Charles Darwin. In The Origin of Species (1859), Darwin presented evidence supporting evolution, proposed the useful metaphor of an evolutionary ‘tree’, and suggested an underlying mechanism: natural selection acting on variation. But there were still big questions, such as the shape of the tree (who is more closely related to whom?) and the nature of inherited variation (what are variants or mutations?)

In this talk, Professor Peter Holland explored how animal evolution is studied in the 21st century, with a focus on remarkable new insights we are gaining from molecular biology and genome sequencing.

h/t: Matthew Cobb

Pinker to post his “Rationality” lectures

February 9, 2020 • 1:30 pm

After I noted that Steve Pinker was teaching a course on Rationality at Harvard, and had put a lecture online, I’ve had a few inquiries about whether he’s going to publicly post all his lectures for the course. (Its website is below; click on screenshot.) The answer is yes for his lectures, but for guest lecturers he has to get their permission.

The lectures are being uploaded at this site, and there are already four of them posted. So tune in if you want to follow the course.

I am informed that Steve begins each lecture with a rock song appropriate to the topic of the day. And although, when I called attention to his first talk, I said I couldn’t see whether he was wearing cowboy boots, I’m additionally informed that he never lectures without cowboy boots and a necktie. The tie is partly is in memory of his grandfather Carl Wiesenfeld, who made ties in a factory in Montreal founded during the Depression (Metropolitan Cravat).

Dawkins’s Darwin Day lecture for Humanists UK: “Taking Courage from Darwin to Fight the Hubris of Faith”

February 18, 2019 • 9:15 am

Reader Michael called my attention to Richard Dawkins’s Darwin Day Lecture to Humanists UK (HUK). Richard is introduced by Humanists UK President and evolutionary biologist Alice Roberts, who was the moderator when I gave this lecture a few years ago. Richard’s lecture was just posted today, and as I write there are only 194 views. I’ll watch it as I write, and give any thoughts I have.

I was glad to see that Richard limned evolution and religion in an antagonistic light, which is what I did when I talked. After all, this is a talk to humanists, so it’s not hubris to do that, much as accommodationists like to argue that people can have their Darwin and Jesus too.

Ten minutes in, I was surprised at how hard Richard went after theology and religion, and especially after Islam and its obsession with “religious control-freakery” such as breast feeding. The audience likes it, of course, as they’re all a bunch of nonbelievers, but I don’t yet see any connection between the criticisms of Islam and Darwin.

The connection came at about 14:15, when Richard contrasts the certainty of theology with the doubt that’s endemic to science. “We don’t know” is his mantra here, and we should use it more often. At 17:30, he suggests a humorous Gendankenexperiment of the kind he’s famous for: he imagines what science would look like if scientists acted like theologians, operating from faith and revelation instead of evidence. (Note the mention of “SJW State University.”)

A quote:

“It isn’t that theologians deliberately tell untruths: it’s as though they just don’t care about truth, aren’t interested in truth, and demote truth to negligible status compared with other considerations such as metaphorical, symbolic, and mythic significance—or simply what feels good.”

Later on, he explains why he’s proud to be a product of evolution—a product with a flexible brain that has vouchsafed to us our ability, unique among animals, to understand our origins—and many other things.

Richard also argues that “the atheistic world view has an unsung virtue of intellectual courage.” To explain that, he introduces the “deep problems” that science might not answer, but that theology can’t, either: these include the “deep problem of consciousness” and the question of “why are the laws of physics as they are?” This leads to his conclusion (40:28) that science (and atheism) help kick ourselves out of the emotional reaction that the “big questions” defy naturalistic explanation—that they defy the scientific assumption that the whole universe arose and evolved through mindless naturalistic processes. As he says,

“However improbable a naturalistic answer to the riddle of existence, a theistic alternative is even more so. But it needs a courageous leap of reason to accept the conclusion.”

He then returns to Darwin as a good fount of courage to seek naturalistic answers to the Big Problems. After all, it was Darwin who, abjuring supernatural explanations, tackled the long-standing problem of life using purely naturalistic methods—and solved it!

In the end, Richard’s lecture is his version of “Faith Versus Fact,” and though it’s independent of my own ideas, I was pleased to see that he’s banging the same drum about the intellectual vacuity of theology as contrasted to the productive wielding of “the empirical attitude” that underlies science.

This lecture is also paean to the virtues of atheism, which won’t please religionists, theologians, and faitheists. Yes, New Atheism makes a brief comeback in this lecture.

If you’re a nonbeliever, you’ll find the last three minutes heartening, bracing, and eloquent. In the last 13 words, he connects atheism with social justice, though that won’t placate the SJWs who are always throwing shade on Dawkins.

At the end, Alice presents Richard with a “Darwin Day medal.”

My Indian lecture tour

November 23, 2017 • 12:00 pm

I head off to India for about three weeks starting December 15, and will give a series of lectures in five cities. The talks are sponsored by The Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (special thanks to Professor L. S. Shashidhara of Pune for organizing this).

It will be busy and probably exhausting, but I always enjoy meeting my Indian colleagues, and at the end there’s a reward in Delhi: a friend’s son is getting married and I’m invited to the ceremony. It won’t be one of those religious groom-rides-in-on-a-white-horse affairs, but it will be fun, and my first Indian wedding.

For my Indian readers, here is the schedule giving dates and topics. I don’t have times or venues, but you can contact the relevant institutions to get those, or I’ll post them here if they tell me. There are several topics ranging from straight scientific research on speciation to free will and “ways of knowing.” If you do want to come, I’ll be glad to sign any of my books that you bring.

Here are the talks in chronological order:

I will, of course, put up posts documenting my travels and all the good local food I expect to have (and have requested as my only emolument). I look forward to revisiting one of my favorite countries.

Jai Hind!

Why is life the way it is? A talk by Nick Lane

February 3, 2017 • 12:00 pm

by Matthew Cobb

Nick Lane of University College London has just been awarded the Royal Society’s 2016 Michael Faraday Prize and Lecture, which “is awarded annually to the scientist or engineer whose expertise in communicating scientific ideas in lay terms is exemplary”. Nick is a brilliant writer of several books, including Life Ascending and, most recently The Vital Question, which Bill Gates fell in love with. (You can find more about his work, which has been translated into 25 languages, here).

Nick is also a leading researcher on the origin of life, and in particular on the way that eukaryotes – organisms with a nucleus and above all with mitochondria – came about. His research and his way with words led to him being awarded the Prize this year, which is much deserved.

As you’ll have noticed from the title of the award, he also got to give a lecture at the Royal Society, which took place at the award ceremony on 1 February. His title was also the subtitle of The Vital Question – Why Is Life The Way It Is? The Royal Society has been incredibly speedy about editing the video and here it is, for your delectation.

It’s 55 minutes long (there are 2 mins of introductory remarks you can skip over before you get to the citation, and then the talk) so you need to take your time, or bookmark it for later viewing. It is highly recommended, with some very important and complicated ideas being put over in a simple and engaging manner – exactly  really is brilliant, and will help you understand why we all are the way we are.

[JAC: I echo Matthew’s enthusiasm; if you have an hour to spare, and can enlarge this (there are slides), you’ll learn a lot from this video.]

Sean Carroll’s Gifford Lectures

November 28, 2016 • 8:45 am

The Gifford Lectures, first given in 1898, were established by a bequest of Lord Adam Gifford, and were intended to “promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term — in other words, the knowledge of God.” In other words, they were supposed to use evidence from nature to give evidence for God (“natural theology”).  And that was how they began, with lecturers like Paul Tillich, Ian Barbour, and Alfred North Whitehead. But then the organizers decided to throw in some atheists as well, and those, including Carl Sagan, Steven Pinker, and now our own Official Website Physicist, Sean Carroll™, have given some of the best talks. Nevertheless, the emphasis is still on the evidence for theism, promoted by speakers like Alvin Plantinga, Simon Conway Morris, and Roger Scruton.

The Giffords are some of the most prestigious lectures around, and I’m pleased that Sean was able to deliver them. His were given in Glasgow: the lectures are alternated among Glasgow, St Andrews, and Edinburgh. (Wikipedia lists all the luminaries who have spoken.) The topics were drawn from his recent book: The Big Picture, which I recommend highly. He’s also a great speaker, and though I haven’t yet listened to all of these (though I have read the book), I certainly will. I present four of the five of the talks, put on YouTube, below. Sadly, for some reason the first lecture wasn’t recorded: a huge cock-up on the part of the organizers. But you can at least see the slides.

Here’s Sean’s take on his own performance from his website:

Sometimes the speakers turn their lectures into short published books; in my case, I had just written a book that fit well into the topic, so I spoke about the ideas in The Big Picture. Unfortunately the first of the five lectures was not recorded, but the subsequent four were. Here are those recordings, along with a copy of my slides for the first talk. It’s not a huge loss, as many of the ideas in the first lecture can be found in previous talks I’ve given on the arrow of time; it’s about the evolution of our universe, how that leads to an arrow of time, and how that helps explain things like memory and cause/effect relations. The second lecture was on the Core Theory and why we think it will remain accurate in the face of new discoveries. The third lecture was on emergence and how different ways of talking about the world fit together, including discussions of effective field theory and why the universe itself exists. Lecture four dealt with the evolution of complexity, the origin of life, and the nature of consciousness. (I might have had to skip some details during that one.) And the final lecture was on what it all means, why we are here, and how to live in a universe that doesn’t come with any instructions. Enjoy!

Lecture #1 has no video yet, just slides, and you can see them by clicking on the screenshot:



Lecture #2

Lecture #3

Lecture #4


Lecture #6

Stephen Hawking to give the 2015 Reith Lectures

September 7, 2015 • 3:15 pm

Professor Ceiling Cat is going home to rest, but before I do I want to call your attention, courtesy of reader Dermot C., to the fact that Stephen Hawking will be giving this year’s series of Reith Lectures for the BBC. This prestigious series has featured leading thinkers since 1948, when Bertrand Russell first spoke on “Authority and the Individual.” They’ve been a mix of science and non-science talks, but the lineup has been great. Here’s the series for this decade so far:

  • 2010 Martin Rees, Scientific Horizons
  • 2011 Aung San Suu Kyi and Baroness Manningham-Buller, Securing Freedom
  • 2012 Niall Ferguson The Rule of Law and its Enemies
  • 2013 Grayson Perry Playing to the Gallery
  • 2014 Atul Gawande The Future of Medicine

The 2015 lectures (it’s not clear yet if there will be more than one) will be on black holes, and Hawking will be recorded at the Royal Institution in London on November 12. (Presumably he’ll use his voice synthesizer).

And there’s more: at the link above you can actually email questions to Dr. Hawking (, and he’ll answer a few of them.  You can also get tickets here. Though they’re not available yet, you can get put on a mailing list to find out when they are.

The BBC has archived all the Reith lectures in one place, so if you find some of the topics and speakers intriguing, go here to listen.