Evolution 2016: Mammals

July 2, 2016 • 10:30 am

by Greg Mayer

I spent June 17-22 in Austin, Texas, for Evolution 2016, the annual joint meeting of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the American Society of Naturalists, and the Society of Systematic Biology, which is the premier annual gathering of evolutionary biologists from around the world. I hope to make a few posts about the goings on, and we’ll start with some natural history.

On the day I arrived I met up with my friend and colleague Steve Orzack, and we headed out to Pedernales Falls State Park, about an hour west of Austin, to do some birding and herping prior to the official kickoff of the meeting that evening. Also keeping an eye out for mammals, I noticed a sign mentioning “rock squirrels”, showing a black headed squirrel, and recalling how variable fox squirrels are, I wondered if this might be the local variety of fox squirrels. We soon came across a squirrel, which, however, was a rather interesting Eastern gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis).

Eastern gray squirrel at Pedernales Falls State Park, Johnson City, Texas, 17 June 2016
Eastern gray squirrel at Pedernales Falls State Park, Johnson City, Texas, 17 June 2016

In the northern United States, gray squirrels are typically gray above and white below, while fox squirrels are a slightly different shade of gray above and fulvous below. Very rarely a gray squirrel may be fulvous below, in which case the definitive character to look for is that gray squirrels have a white frosting or “halo” on their tails (the tips of the outer tail hairs being white). The squirrel above caught our attention because while gray above, it’s clearly ochraceous buff below, so I thought it might be a fox squirrel. We kept it under observation, and it soon showed its true colors.

Eastern gray squirrel at Pedernales Falls State Park, Johnson City, Texas, 17 June 2016.
Eastern gray squirrel at Pedernales Falls State Park, Johnson City, Texas, 17 June 2016.

Obligingly raising its tail while stopping to drink out of small puddles and pools in the spring-fed muddy track along which we walked, it revealed its gray squirrel-defining frosting on its tail, while also clearly showing it was reddish below.

I’ve never seen gray squirrels in the north drink like this, and it may reflect the scarcity of water sources in the dry scrublands of Texas. This squirrel was also of interest because the park is in Blanco County, and according to Texas Tech, Blanco County is just outside the range of the gray squirrel, so this would be a new county record. (The rock squirrel of Pedernales Falls turns out to be a rather bushy-tailed, black-headed ground squirrel, Spermophilus variegatus, but we did not see any).

The reddish ventral coloration was not a peculiarity of this individual, for the urban squirrels of Austin were also gray squirrels with ochraceous buff venters. This guy was hanging out at one of the bars on Rainey Street.

Eastern gray squirrel on Rainey Street, Austin, Texas, 19 June 2016.
Eastern gray squirrel on Rainey Street, Austin, Texas, 19 June 2016.

This one was in the parkland strip along Lady Bird Lake (actually an impounded strip of the Colorado River) just west of Rainey Street. The ochraceous buff venter is clearly visible.

Eastern gray squirrel,Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016.
Eastern gray squirrel, Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016.

This particular squirrel was first spotted with a mixed flock of great-tailed grackles, white-winged doves, and rock doves. Try spotting all four species in the picture below

Mixed feeding flock of rock doves, white-winged doves, great-tailed grackles, and an eastern gray squirrel, Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016. Can you spot all the species?
Mixed feeding flock of rock doves, white-winged doves, great-tailed grackles, and an eastern gray squirrel, Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016. Can you spot all the species?

Austin’s most famous mammals are the Mexican free-tailed bats (Tadarida brasiliensis) that roost under the Congress Avenue Bridge, and emerge by the millions (or so I am told) each evening. I went out twice to see them, once from below the bridge, and once from the sidewalk above; they came out about 9 PM. Both times large crowds gathered both above and below, and many vessels, including tour boats, gathered on the lake below the bridge. Attempts to photograph them were unsuccessful with my limited camera, but you can see them briefly in the video; listen for the murmur of the bats in the background behind the voices. The red light is a search light used by one of the tour boats, and I tried to follow this light to catch the bats on the video.

On the last day of the meetings, I walked under the bridge to get to the concluding Super Social, and found this dead bat below the bridge. You can clearly see its ‘free tail’ (i.e. the tail is not completely contained within the membrane of the uropatagium).

Mexican free-tailed bat, Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016.
Mexican free-tailed bat, Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016.

The deposits of bat-feces rich sediments (bat guano) below bat roosts (especially if in caves) are often important sources of fossils of bats and associated creatures; there’s a ‘rain’ of dead bats into this sediment. But with a lake and sidewalk below, this cute fellow is unlikely to be fossilized.

Mexican free-tailed bat, Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016.
Mexican free-tailed bat, Austin, Texas, 21 June 2016.

The pièce de résistance of the mammals of Austin for me was a new species and family of mammals for my life list: I spotted a coypu (Myocastor coypus) swimming down Waller Creek in the heart of downtown Austin, right behind Iron Works BBQ. The coypu (or nutria) is an invasive species, originally brought to the U.S. from South America. They look like large muskrats, but do not have a laterally compressed tail. I was looking for the tail, which I could not see clearly, but once I looked at my pictures and video I could easily see the distinctive, diagnostic whitish snout of the coypu.

American Humanist meeting: Day 2

May 29, 2016 • 10:30 am

I went to one panel yesterday: “Humanism and Humor: Funny Ladies Discuss”, with Margaret Downey as moderator and featuring comedian and author Julia Sweeney and comedian and activist Leighann Lord (she also co-hosted Star Talk with Neil deGrasse Tyson). I thought it might be a rather serious discussion of comedy and its implications for nonbelievers, but it turned out to be hilarious: both comedians cracked us up many times with spontaneous quips. I suppose I should have realized that, but what I realized only during the panel was that comedians have brains different from the rest of us. I, for one, couldn’t emit bon mot after bon mot, and on the spot. It’s a great talent. Julia told some stories about her SNL days, and added that she can’t watch Al Franken as a politician, because she knows what he’s really thinking when he’s speaking as a senator from Minnesota, and she cracks up when thinking of what’s going through Franken’s mind. He was, she said, the funniest person she ever met.

She was also asked what kind of sketch her most famous character, the androgynous Pat, would do in these days of the transgender bathroom fracas: she responded that it would probably be along the lines of people hanging around outside the bathrooms to see which one Pat entered. She also told some stories about SNL regular Victoria Jackson (a believer): one involved Jackson saying offstage that we really shouldn’t help poor people, because they’re going to heaven anyway and their miserable lives shouldn’t be prolonged, for that just delays their receiving their ultimate reward. According to Julia, she and Al Franken said, “You’re kidding, aren’t you, Victoria?”, and Jackson said, “No, I really mean it!”

Left to right: Margaret Downey, Leighann Lord, Julia Sweeney

Star Trek fans may know John De Lancie, an actor and director who is best known for playing the role of Q in the Star Trek series (I never saw it, but Q was apparently an omnipotent and nasty character—much like Donald Trump). De Lancie has done a lot of other work, including Shakespearian acting and playing the role of Clarence Darrow in a traveling play that (unlike Inherit the Wind), was based on the real Scopes Trial.

Accepting the Isaac Asimov award for Humanist Arts, De Lancie gave a really lovely talk (well emoted, since he’s an actor!) on how he became an atheist when only about 8 years old, how he was thought to be stupid because he couldn’t read till he was about ten, and how he found himself (and his ability to read) by being cast in a school production of Shakespeare. His speech will be on YouTube in about a month, as will all the others, so I won’t recount some of his anecdotes, including his meeting with another atheist (and previous Isaac Asimov awardee), Gene Rodenberry. He did say that his favorite Shakespeare plays were Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.

John DeLancie

Elizabeth Loftus got the Isaac Asimov award for Science, and gave a nice talk on her work on faulty memory and the fallacy of recovered memories. She also discussed the persecution she faced from social workers and psychologists opposed to her assertion that there is little evidence for long-term repression of traumatic memories, including those involving sexual abuse. She was, in fact, sued by a “recovered memory” patient for investigating her case and finding that the evidence for a recovered memory of abuse was bogus. At one point in the five-year lawsuit, which went to the California Supreme Court (she won, although the lawyers were the real winner!), Elizabeth said she spent hours trying to feel better by watching Lifetime T.V., which often has shows about beleaguered women who triumph over adversity. She said she was embarrassed to be a professional psychologist who found solace in such dreck, but that it worked. In the Q&A session afterwards, a guy got up and confessed that, he too, watched Lifetime T.V. and it was even worse, for he skipped the NFL playoffs to watch it.

I had my picture taken with Dr. Loftus afterwards; she’s a lovely person, and a very tough woman:


The banquet food continued to be good, with a nice piece of salmon over lentils for dinner:


. . . followed by a chocolate tart with whipped cream. (There was a salad an a nice bread basket beforehand.)


And, in my room, “hydrate” yourself: only $3.50 for a 16-ounce bottle of water. How dare they? Needless to say, I drank tap water.


I give my talk in about an hour, so it’s time to shower and put on the nice clothes.

American Humanist Association convention

May 28, 2016 • 10:30 am

Yesterday was actually the second day of the annual AHA meetings in Chicago, but the first day in which the conference was in full swing. I arrived in the late afternoon and so was able to make only one panel discussion: “Examining Honor Culture in Islam”, with Muhammad Syed and Sarah Haider (co-founders of the Ex-Muslims of North America) as well as Mya Saleem, a former hijabi who works with that organization.

The discussion was pretty good, with Saleem questioning the notion of what “choice” means when it comes to religious covering like the hijab. Her own story belies the notion that a Western Muslim always wears the hijab by choice: she was forced to wear it in a religious school starting in her teens, and then was shamed by other girls when she tried to take it off after school: they said the “good girls” wore their hijabs all the time. Mya continued to wear it for over a decade after school. Haider said that she thinks there should be no laws in the West forbidding wearing religious clothing, but that even discussing such legal strictures is premature: first we must have a conversation about what wearing such clothing really means. And that conversation is only beginning.

The question I would like to ask those who celebrate the hijab as their “choice” is this:

“What criteria, exactly, would lead you to agree that wearing the headscarf is not someone’s choice?”

As a determinist, in this discussion I take  “choice” to mean “an action that was taken without any social pressure to perform it.” (n.b.: This does not mean that I accept a compatibilist version of free will.) Using that criterion, I think there’s much less choice than people maintain. If your parents or schoolmates tell you or pressure you to wear it, it’s not a choice. And in the vast majority of cases, I suspect, there’s parental and social pressure, eroding the narrative that it’s a “choice” in the sense above. How many Muslims living in the West don the hijab if they didn’t come from a family that urged them to wear it (many Muslim schools in the U.S. put the scarf on girls as young as 5), or didn’t belong to a group of hijab-wearing friends and coreligionists?

If you want to see the Authoritarian Leftist celebration of the putative choice, just check out the PuffHo Religion Page. For the past few months PuffHo has been celebrating the hijab: here are a few recent articles.

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 7.48.51 AM Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 7.49.05 AM

Screen Shot 2016-05-28 at 7.49.46 AM

Beautiful reasons?


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PuffHo’s motivations are good: to help dispel bigotry against Muslims; but their incessant pro-hijab campaign rings hollow, as they never discuss the difficult issue of whether wearing the garment is really a “choice”. Nor do they mention that in countries like Iran and Afghanistan, it’s not a choice, nor is it in places like Egypt or Turkey where, although wearing it isn’t mandatory, there’s intense social pressure to do so.

The evening’s banquet featured two notables getting awards: Bishop John Shelby Spong and Jared Diamond. (The noms were pretty good, too: a nice salad, chicken breast stuffed with greens, good bread basket and a lovely cheesecake for dessert. Sadly, there was no free booze, and the prices at the convention bar were outrageous: $10 for a glass of wine and $9 for a beer. Fortunately, Elizabeth Loftus offered me a “you fly and I’ll buy” deal, giving me $20 for drinks if I’d go and get them.)

I knew about Spong, of course, as he’s famous for being the Nonreligious Bishop: a man who, while Episcopalian Bishop of the Diocese of Newark for many years, wrote several dozen book about the silliness of conventional Christianity, all while preaching a doctrine of tolerance and nontheism. You can read about him at the link above, and about some of his beliefs here, but his religion is basically secular humanism. Spong doesn’t believe in a personal or anthropomorphic God, and sees the manifestation of God as our living of a good life and “wastefully” dispending love (he also mentioned the “Ground of Being”). He sees the Bible as a completely manmade document, and argues that in no sense should it be taken literally. (I’m not sure how he feels about Jesus.)

Spong’s speech, which he he gave after receiving the Religious Liberty Award, was magnificent: the perfect after-dinner combination of humor (we were in stitches much of the time) and seriousness (a commitment to equal rights for all)—all delivered in a wonderful, fluid style and an appealing North Carolina accent. I suspect the talk, which was filmed, will be on YouTube, as the AHA posts its award videos. I’ll thus put it up eventually, and leave you with one thing Spong said. During his life, he noted that he’d received sixteen serious death threats, and none of them were from atheists. They all came from his fellow Christians. Not much of a surprise there!

Along with Martin Luther King, Jr., Spong may be the preacher I most admire. Spong has fought tirelessly for women’s rights and gay rights, ordaining the first openly gay priest in his Church in 1989. He got in big trouble with his Church for that: they passed a resolution “disassociating” themselves from Spong’s diocese. But in the end he won, and there are now many gays and women who are Episcopal priests.

During the Q&A, I wanted to ask Spong (but didn’t) why he considered himself a Christian, for he rejects most of its tenets and doctrines. Someone did ask him why, if he valued Judaism so highly (he had a great spiel on the demonization of Jews by Christians), he wasn’t a Jew. He didn’t really answer, but gave his idea that the New Testament was really made up to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament, and that any ancient Jew would have immediately recognized the New Testament as a completely confected, nonliteral document.

Bishop John Shelby Spong

Would that all the world’s preachers were like Spong! Were that the case, with their flock believing likewise, I’d have no problem with religion.

The AHA’s Humanist of the Year Award for 2016 went to Jared Diamond, whom all biologists know as a man who has successful (and simultaneous) careers as a physiologist, avian ecologist, and anthropologist. (He’s still going strong at 78, and still making  expeditions to New Guinea.) Many of you will also know him as the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel, an analysis of why some human societies flourished and others didn’t.

Jared Diamond, also famed for his colorful jackets

Diamond’s 20-minute talk, which he said he wouldn’t have given nearly so passionately before a “regular” audience, was about the incompatibility of science and religion—a topic dear to my heart. He mentioned several scientific issues that, he said, didn’t necessarily show that two areas were wholly incompatible, but that theologians had yet to face.

One was the issue of other planets in the Universe harboring intelligent life. Diamond noted that of the nearly 3000 planets that we know of outside our Solar System, about 0.3%—nine—were in the “life zone,” with temperatures amenable to the evolution of carbon-based life. He is certain that there are many planets in the Universe that do harbor intelligent life, but said theologians haven’t settled on a doctrine of how God would deal with them. (Well, Michael Ruse has: he wrote about an “Intergalactic Jesus” who could fly from planet to planet, bringing salvation to all!) Diamond also wondered how theologians would deal with the salvation of hominins who didn’t leave descendants, like Homo erectus or the Neandertals, or how they’d deal with those early hybrids between “modern” humans and Neandertals.

Finally, Diamond discussed why he thought we’d never even learn about intelligent life elsewhere. The reasons were varied, including the notion that intelligent civilizations have only a limited window of time to send out “flying saucers”. For example, Diamond sees our society collapsing to the point that by 2050 we will no longer have the ability to send out space vehicles, so that over all of human history there was only a hundred-year window for interplanetary communication. Even the closest star is several light years away, making interplanetary travel nearly impossible. Further, the chances that a vehicle sent out by an intelligent civilization would find intelligent life on another planet would be low: such planets are rare.

In response to a question about why alien vehicles couldn’t home in on our electromagnetic signals—whether the signals come from SETI project or just regular t.v. and radio transmissions—Diamond said that endeavors like SETI angered him, because the meeting of two intelligent species would undoubtedly lead to Big Trouble. He used the examples of what humans have done to chimps and gorillas, and how different human cultures historically dealt with each other when they met.

All in all it was one of the best evenings I’ve had at a secular/humanist/atheist meeting, with great talks and good food.

Oh, and here’s the panorama from my room at the Hyatt. On the left is the Chicago skyline, and in the center looms one of my favorite buildings: the R. R. Donnelley Printing Plant (built 1912-1929), a great specimen of brick Art Deco architecture. I’ve heard that most of the telephone books in the U.S., as well as the Sears Catalogue, were made in this printing plant. It closed in 1991, 5 years after I moved to Chicago. You can see a bit of Lake Michigan to the right:

IMG_1055 (1)

Noms: I forgot to photograph the individual cheesecakes last night, each bearing a chocolate AHA symbol; but here’s a picture from the AHA Facebook page. It was scrumptious!


Fun at the Atheist Alliance of America meeting

October 19, 2015 • 9:00 am

I was in the suburbs a fair amount of time during the AAA convention, being a “handler” for Jeff Tayler and Inna Shevchenko, so I didn’t take a ton of pictures of the meeting itself. Fortunately, Mark Gura did, and posted a lot of them on his Facebook page’s AAA album). I’ll put his photos first, and mine toward the bottom.

Our master of ceremonies for the two days was none other than our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, played by Harry Shaughnessy. He had some kind of mechanized skateboard and glided around like a divine being.


These were all speakers at the meeting. First, Dale McGowan:

Dale McGowan

Dave Silverman, president of the American Atheists:

Dave Silverman

Herb Silverman, who debated Dave Silverman in a “Silverman vs. Silverman Smackdown”, the topic being “Can you call yourself a Jewish atheist?” Herb said yes, Dave no. Although people seemed to think that Dave got the upper hand, I’m not going to stop calling myself a secular atheistic Jew.

Herb Silverman

Left to right: JT EberhardRichard Hayes,Hugh Mann and Tim Branin. 


Mandisa Lateefah Thomas:

Mandisa Lateefah thomas

Stephanie Guttormson:
Stephanie Guttormson

Richard Hayes (my photo):

Richard Haynes

Outgoing AAA President Jana Weaver and her husband Richard Halasz (they were married by Dan Barker at an FFRF convention).

Jana 9987202013789_n

And my photos.  The hotel is very near the Atlanta airport, and since I got up early I could see the planes stacked up to land before dawn. Here they make their final approach as the sun comes up:


Below are the strident atheist Jeff Tayler of The Atlantic (and author of Sunday Secular Sermons on Salon), and his colleague and friend Inna Shevchenko, head of the activist organization FEMEN (Jeff wrote about Inna and FEMEN in his book Topless Jihadis: Inside FEMEN: The World’s Most Provocative Atheist Group. They’ve both had fascinating lives and both gave great talks. Inna got a standing ovation at two of the three talks she gave in the area.


Jeff and Inna doing a joint Q&A after their separate talks at the Southern Crescent Freethinkers meeting. I can’t find a YouTube video of Jeff talking about religion, but there’s a recent one of Inna giving a TED talk, “I will not stop speaking out loud.”

J&I peachtree humanists

This was only Inna’s second visit to the U.S. (she’s originally from Ukraine, and is now a political refugee in Paris), and Jeff’s first visit to the American Deep South (he’s lived most of his life overseas, the last 23 years in Moscow). I had great pleasure in introducing them an echt Southern barbecue meal at The Barbecue Kitchen, which I highlighted the other day. We all had chopped BBQ pork, with three vegetable “sides”. Inna also essayed sweet tea, the “table wine of the south.” And they both cleaned their plates. (The place is good!)

J&I southern kitche

The night before that, we exposed our visitors to another Southern food experience at Mary Mac’s Tearoom, a famous place to eat down-home Southern food in a fancier atmosphere. It’s an Atlanta institution. Here we all are about to chow down (the waiter took the photo). I had chicken and dumplings with tomato pie (a fantastic side) and squash souffle. And sweet tea, of course. At the right is Melissa Dawn, the brand-new president of the Atheist Alliance of America.

Jeff,Inna, Jerry, Mel

The bread basket at Mary Mac’s includes corn muffins, cinnamon rolls, and yeasty dinner rolls. Uncharacteristically, I forgot to take pictures of our main courses!

Bread Mary Mac

Atheist Alliance of America meeting in two weeks

October 2, 2015 • 3:00 pm

I’m just back from speaking in Torun, which was great fun, including a slap-up traditional Polish lunch in the dean’s office, which is the fanciest office I’ve ever seen (some of the furniture dates from the sixteenth century). I also saw Copernicus’s house, but I’m getting ahead of myself; there will photos of all this tomorrow. In the meantime, I’m announcing a secular meeting whose organizers seem to have been rather dilatory about publicizing it. Here goes:

The Atheist Alliance of America (AAA) has finally put up the program for its annual meeting, held this year in Atlanta, Georgia between October 15 and 18. I’ll speak briefly (less than 10 minutes) as recipient of the Richard Dawkins Award, but there is a big slate of other speakers—including Jeff Tayler (his strident secular Sunday sermons summarized here), and Inna Shevchenko, head of FEMEN—who will be giving full-length talks.  I’m also scheduled to talk to the kids of Camp Quest about the wonders of evolution—another a longish talk.

I’ll look forward to meeting any readers there, and although I don’t think the conference will be selling my books, I’ll be glad to sign any that you bring (if you want a cat drawn in, you must say the magic phrase, which in this case is the Latin binomial for the tiger).


Breakfast at Aspen

July 2, 2015 • 10:30 am

The atmosphere around Aspen, besides being intellectual, is also green: they provide free bikes for people to ride (not really needed on the grounds, which are compact); those who can’t walk are ferried around in electric golf carts; all the material for meals is recyclable, and there are recycling stations; and the food is healthy but delicious. That’s fine with me: I have to make up for that chili cheeseburger I ate two days ago (see tomorrow’s post). Here’s breakfast, provided free for all attendees, at today’s festival. Notice the healthy aspect:

The breakfast buffet. The covered dish holds “Egg white frittatas with roasted Provencal vegetables” (oy; I’ve never before eaten an egg without the yolk!). There are healthy Siggi’s yogurts (“More protein than sugar,” it says on the label), fresh fruit, bagels, hard-boiled eggs, cranberry and orange juice, and good coffee.


And of course what would a left-wing intellectual festival be without a smoothie bar? There were three types; I had raspberry:


My healthy breakfast: the egg frittata (tried out of pure curiosity; it was ok), a smoothie, cranberry juice, two hard-boiled eggs (to get my yolk quota), a yogurt, a bagel, watermelon and raspberries, and a banana. Note: any reader who criticizes me for having two eggs with yolks will be banned!


There were also fancy-schmancy granola bars; I took one for later:


Black-billed magpies (Pica hudsonia) hopped around the tent, hoping for crumbs. I confess that I sneaked a few to this bird. Magpies are gorgeous, and unappreciated in the western US because they’re so common.


“Yoga stations” are scattered around the grounds should you be seized with the sudden urge to do the double-headed lion, or whatever the hell those poses are called:


Most of the talks I want to see are tomorrow, but I plan to go to Richard Dawkins’s and Jane Shaw’s joint talk today, as well as Paul Bloom’s and Richard Davidson’s joint talk later (the schedule is here).

12:00 pm1:00 pm MDT on Thursday, July 2, 2015
Listen in, as two former Oxford colleagues, one from science and one from religion, talk about what leads to a meaningful life — wonder, ethics, empathy and much more. Jane Shaw, Dean for Religious Life and professor of Religious Studies at Stanford and Richard Dawkins, fellow emeritus of New College Oxford, preview the not-yet-published second volume of Dawkins’ memoir, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science, which is a candid look at the events and ideas that encouraged Dawkins to shift his attention to the intersection of culture, religion, and the natural world.
I met Paul at the speaker’s soirée last night, and he told me he’d be talking about empathy, and would make the point that the classic conception of empathy—to put oneself in another’s shoes as a way of trying to help them—is totally misguided. The summary (it’s a joint talk with Richard Davidson):
5:30 pm6:30 pm MDT on Thursday, July 2, 2015
Empathy is typically seen as wonderful, central to cooperation, caring, and morality. We want to have empathic parents, children, spouses and friends; we want to train those in the helping professions to expand their empathy, and we certainly want to elect empathic politicians and policy makers. But empathy has certain troubling features, and questions have begun to arise about just how useful empathy really is and how it might be different from related capacities such as compassion.
Paul Bloom, Richard J. Davidson
I may also go to these two:
3:00 pm4:00 pm MDT on Thursday, July 2, 2015
In the United States, 25 percent of young adults under age 30 do not claim affiliation with any particular religion. That’s twice as unaffiliated as their parents were at their age. What does this new reality mean for communities of faith, and culture at large, as a generation of Americans increasingly turns away from such identity-forming institutions? And outside of those traditional religious institutions, what rituals, gatherings, and ways of thinking are defining the millennial search for meaning?
Mark Oppenheimer, Naomi Schaefer Riley, Jordan Alam, Casper ter Kuile, Jane Shaw
and this one (I quote Rosen in my talks on free will):
4:10 pm5:00 pm MDT on Thursday, July 2, 2015
Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, leads an interactive discussion about the myriad issues, history, and opinions.

Tuesday: Hili dialogue (and lagniappe)

June 9, 2015 • 7:45 am

Today I fly to Toronto to give a book talk tomorrow to the Centre for Inquiry chapter there. I’ll also be on the t.v. talk show “The Agenda” with Steve Paikin, taped tomorrow. It’ll be a busy day. Then I fly back to Chicago on Thursday to start preparing for the Big Road Trip. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is trying to preach the Golden Rule, but she’s doing it rong!

Hili: Love thy neighbour!
A: Or what?
Hili: Or else!


In Polish:
Hili: Kochaj bliźniego swego!
Ja: Bo co?
Hili: Bo zobaczysz!

And. . .lagniappe! reader Ken Phelps, who sent four photos (I’ll post two) of the Unholy Duo in their Saturday-evening conversation.

Krauss & Dawkins. Hand held with available light from back of room = low resolution, but still got some personality.

Dawkins Finger BW Layers

Krauss Hands BW

And yours truly, photographed by Melissa Chen.

In disguise, lecturing as Jerry Coyne:

Free will talk

Disguise removed, revealing Professor Ceiling Cat:

Professor CC


INR 5 photos

June 8, 2015 • 9:56 am

Here are some photos from the INR 5 meeting and our speakers’ dinner last night. Aron Ra, his head mysteriously floating above the podium: Aron Ra The Unholy Trinity in their last appearance. From left to right: Seth Andrews, Matt Dillahunty, Aron Ra: Unholy trio Seth in cat glasses (they are mine, a present from Melissa Chen; see below). Also shown is a book of cat poetry I was given. Seth cat Peter Boghossian: Peter B. Lawrence Krauss boozing it up right before his onstage conversation with Richard Dawkins (I wouldn’t have the moxie to drink whiskey before going onstage!). The booze didn’t show, though: Lawrence and Richard did a great job. Krauss Richard and Lawrence in conversation; Richard is in his usual impeccable dress (and biologically themed tie); Krauss has foregone his usual red Keds and is wearing the pair of authentic handmade, beaded buckskin moccasins that all of us speakers were given (we had to provide our size beforehand by email; Carolyn Porco accidentally copied it back to everyone by mistake and so I’ll reveal that she’s a size 9): Krauss and Dawkins Faisal Saeed Al-Muttar, secular activist and founder of the Global Secular Humanist Council, in cat glasses (I’m one of the moderators on the GSHC FB page). Faisal cat Richard Dawkins and Robyn Blumner, CEO of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science: Dawkins Blumner Richard wearing the new tie emblazoned with the Australopithecus sediba fossil, a tie given to him by Melissa Chen (see below). He fell and cut himself badly running for a plane, and so has a big bruise under his eye as well as stitches above it, which were removed by a doctor attending the meeting on the day before this photo. Dawkins and tie Melissa Chen—MIT grad student and one of our co-administrators of the GSHC website—knows no fear, and often dons her Space Girl helmet in protest against NASA cutting the space program. She’s sitting next to a Canadian politician whose name I’ve forgotten. Chen i Melissa’s special “thug life” nails, which represent the fact that she’s been bitten by every animal she’s ever encountered: Chen 2 Chen 3 A Canadian energy drink at the meeting. This cracks me up. It’s “dam good” and sports a maple leaf. O Canada! Beaver buzz Bill Ligertwood, who, with his wife Kathy (see below), is the motiviating force behind the Imagine No Religion conferences. He’s a wonderful guy and, with only a light hand, manages to persuade a diverse array of speakers to come and talk about whatever they want. Bill Left to right: Bill, Harriet Hall, and Kathy. Bill Kathy Harriet Peter Boghossian (second from left) labels this photo the “Four No Free Will Men”, as we’re all diehard determinists. I take some credit for persuading Richard (right). Second from right is Greg Stikeleather, who’s on the board of the Dawkins Foundation and a good friend of Richard. Free will guuys The brave and eloquent Vyckie Garrison: Garrison Professor Ceiling Cat takes the podium: Me lecturing Carolyn Porco (left) and Robyn Blumner: Porco Blumner Robert Price and Seth Andrews. Before them on the table is a statue of Aron Ra: Ra It was a wonderful meeting, as the INR conclaves always are. If you get a chance to go to only one secular meeting, this is the one to go to.

Sunday: Hili dialogue

June 7, 2015 • 8:16 am

Though it’s Ceiling Cat’s Day of Rest, the Imagine No Religion meetings proceed, with talks today by Harriet Hall, me, Lawrence Krauss, and Carolyn Porco, and a speakers’ dinner tonight. There were some interesting talks yesterday, with three of them about how to address the growing problem of Islamic radicalism—two by ex-Muslims. All of the talks gave different suggestions, but Maryam Namazie’s was especially controversial for me, since she claimed that Islamic radicalism was not at all a problem of religion, but of “politics and control”—the desire of one group to control others, both Muslims of different sects and women.  Yet she also asserted that bringing secularism to the Middle East would help the problem (why, if it’s not religious?), and at the end of her talk she quoted from Lennon’s “Imagine no religion” verse. But if religion isn’t at least a major part of the problem, why would its absence help anything? Her implication was that if there were no religion, things would still be as bad in the Middle East as they are now, for the desire to control others would still cause harm. I disagree strongly, for I see that as a Glenn Greenwald/Karen Armstrong approach based on avoidance of palpable motivations. I have great respect for Namazie’s work, but her words seem to contradict both her actions and even other words in her own talk.

Peter Boghossian had some interesting suggestions about how to intervene on both the macro and micro level to “de-brand” ISIS, including forming a PAC to develop an advertising campaign to take the “cool” out of ISIS, just as they took the “cool” out of cigarette smoking in the 80s. He suggested that we rebrand ISIS as “goofy” rather than cool, though I don’t know how one would do that. Both he and Faisal Saeed al Muttar, however, agreed that religion, not “power,” was the biggest problem behind Islamic radicalism, and that the key to solving that problem lies in first recognizing its religious nature.

Chris DiCarlo related the heartbreaking tale about how he had lost jobs and tenure by being an atheist—in Canada!—and proposed that we devise some kind of “fairness machine” that could make decisions without human bias. That, of course, presupposes some objective view of ethics, à la Sam Harris, and I’m dubious that such a machine could work without first being programmed by subjective human values. But it would at least have decided to give DiCarlo tenure, which he fully deserves as an articulate philosopher and excellent teacher who uses the Socratic method.

Finally, Robert Price, an atheist who works at a theological seminary, gave a nice talk about the question of the historicity of Jesus, which he doubts but can’t adduce convincing disproof, though he agrees that question has nothing to do with either the existence of God or the tenets of Christianity. His talk was full of erudite references, but was engrossing, as he showed convincingly that Christianity was just a myth resembling many that had gone before it. He also mentioned—and this is something I hadn’t thought about—that we have no proof that the Jesus person or myth didn’t begin forming long before the “zero A.D.” time we commonly think of.

Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss had an hourlong conversation at the end of the evening, covering diverse topics including the security blanket of religion, the nature of alien life (what might it be like? carbon based? would it have eyes, and DNA?), the bizarre nature of quantum mechanics, and so on.  I have pictures, but no time to share them today, I suspect. Tomorrow I have the day off before I fly to Vancouver, and a kind reader, a research biologist at the facility, has promised to give me a “behind the scenes” tour of the Vancouver Aquarium in Stanley Park, which I certainly intend to do. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is jarred by religion:

A: What are you thinking about?
Hili: Either my ears are ringing or it’s the church bells.


In Polish:
Ja: Nad czym myślisz?
Hili: Albo mi w uszach dzwoni, albo to dzwony kościoła.

Friday: Hili dialogue

June 5, 2015 • 8:49 am

I am up ungodly late for me: 6:15 a.m., but I deserve to sleep late on a conference/vacation. Also, I was stuffed with Indian food from last night (see next post). The meetings start today with afternoon registration, and then a talk at 2:30 by Vyckie Garrison, of “No Longer Quivering”. Garrison, who won the 2014 “Atheist of the year” award from the American Atheists, was once in the odious Quiverfull Movement of Christianity (viz., the Duggars) that aimed to turn women into subservient breeding stock. I saw her speak in Pittsburgh last year, and she was absolutely terrific; her story of that movement’s beliefs and aims was terrifying. She is an engrossing and passionate speaker, and now an outspoken atheist.

An hour later, Ian Mitchell, a physician in Kamloops and clinical assistant professor at the UBC Department of Emergency Medicine,  will speak on “Reefer Madness: How to go forward with evidenced-based drug policy”. After a dinner break, the UNHoly Trinity (Seth Andrews, Aaron Ra, and Matt Dillahunty, will do their joint “act”: all are podcasters, entertainers, and former fundamentalist Christians. Tomorrow and Sunday the meetings begin in the morning and last all day, but it is a pleasure to hear good speaking having a full hour to talk. (Tentative schedule here.) And the organizers always ensure plenty of time for chats and noms.

So that is how my day lines up, and I will provide photos and other information later. The weather is once again gorgeous, and although it’s early I can see a sunny and cloudless sky.

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, I see Hili is actually making some incursions into philosophy!* Don’t ask me to explain this; perhaps Malgorzata will in the comments!

Hili: I have a firm principle.
A: What principle is that?
Hili: Everything that moves has to be defined immediately.
A: So what is it?
Hili: It looks like Cyrus painted with a brush made of camel hair.


In Polish:
Hili: Mam twardą zasadę.
Ja: Jaką?
Hili: Wszystko co się rusza musi być natychmiast zdefiniowane.
Ja: I co to jest?
Hili: Wygląda jak Cyrus malowany pędzlem z wielbłądziego włosia.
*Malgorzata writes this:
Hili is a proponent of alternate taxonomy taken from an ancient Chinese encyclopaedia and quoted by Jorge Luis Borges.