Dick Lewontin, 1929-2021

July 5, 2021 • 9:00 am

Although my Ph.D. advisor Richard Lewontin—known to everyone as “Dick” and to his students as “The Boss”—hadn’t been well lately and wasn’t receiving visitors, the news of his death yesterday at 92 was still a shock. He was without doubt the most important figure in my career as an evolutionary geneticist, helping mold me in both academic and behavioral ways. I can’t imagine a better advisor, and I loved the man. I can offer only a few words in memoriam, and forgive me if this is the only post I put up today.

Dick’s death in Cambridge, Massachusetts came only three days after that of his beloved wife, Mary Jane (below, left). They were the closest couple I knew. They had been high-school sweethearts and I believe got married when they were around 20. They were inseparable until their deaths. Dick went home to have lunch with her every day, and they read literature to each other in bed each night. Their pet names for each other were “Mr. and Mrs. Bloom”, after Joyce’s characters.  To those who knew both of them, it was inconceivable that either could live without the other. It was thus a mercy that neither had to do that that for more than a few days.

As a grad student, I once encountered Dick and Mary Jane when my partner and I were going to the movies at the Harvard Square Theater. We chatted in line, and then Dick said, “Excuse us if we don’t sit with you, but Mary Jane and I like to sit in the balcony and hold hands.” He was not making that up.

Mary Jane Lewontin (l) and Rosario Levins (wife of Dick’s close colleague Dick Levins); photo by Stuart Newman, 1973.

It’s hard to think that when I first met Dick, in 1971 at the University of Chicago, where I was accepted to be his student, he was only 42.  I was thereafter drafted as a conscientious objector, took a Wanderhalbjahr, and then, after a detour as a prospective student of Dick’s own advisor, Theodosius Dobzhansky, called up Dick to say I was ready to join his lab. Unfortunately, he’d taken a position at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology, had forgotten about me while negotiating the transfer of his five Chicago grad students, and I was stuck. I had to wangle myself into Harvard on my own, and managed to do so with the help of E. O. Wilson, a story I told here.  I was in Dick’s lab for five years as a grad student and then, unable to find a job, I stayed on for another year as a postdoc.

Here’s what Dick looked like about the time I entered his lab:


Dick ran his lab as an egalitarian commune. His office was no fancier than ours, and all the offices were arrayed around a large room containing a ten-foot map table procured from the geographers at Harvard. You couldn’t get to your office without passing that table, which of course was Dick’s design to facilitate interaction. A lot of science was proposed, vetted, and criticized at that table.

Why was he such a good advisor? For one thing, his lab was always full of smart people to learn from: not just the other students, but a constant parade of visiting scholars and luminaries passing through or staying a few months. In that way you got to meet almost everyone in evolutionary genetics. You can see the breadth of Dick’s academic lineage here (note: it goes on for several pages). Dick himself was fiercely smart, a terrific writer, and ferociously eloquent, which, while giving us all a role model, made some of us discouraged, realizing we’d never even get close to his level of achievement and intelligence. For two years I thought about dropping out of Harvard, but realized that, in the end, Dick was not typical of people in the field and that, with hard work, I might accomplish something worthwhile.

As an advisor, Dick insisted that you find your own Ph.D. thesis project. As he told me, when he went to work in Theodosius Dobzhansky’s lab, and was looking for a research problem, Dobzhansky told him, in his high and nasal Russian voice, “I have my research problem. What’s yours?” And so we had to find our own. Unlike many advisors (whose proportion is increasing over time), Dick did not tell you to do research that somehow slotted into his NIH grant or his own research plan. You thought up your project, and he funded it.

The result was that every student in the lab worked on a very different problem, though the overriding theme of the lab, and of Dick’s later work, was measuring the degree of genetic variation in natural populations. Dick and Jack Hubby had pioneered the use of gel electrophoresis at Chicago: a way to visualize variant forms of enzymes produced by mutation. His goal, and the theme of his 1974 book The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change, was to measure the amount of genetic variation at different loci in the genome, and then to understand why it was there. (That, too, had been a major goal of his advisor Dobzhansky.)  My own contribution was to expand electrophoresis by changing the biochemical conditions of running gels, which revealed a tremendous increase in the amount of variation at many loci. But that only increased the puzzle. Dick’s solution in his 1974 book proved unsatisfactory, and we still don’t understand the reason for so much variation, though the variants could well be selectively equivalent (“neutral”).

Besides the independence he afforded us, Dick was always available to talk or provide moral or financial support. His office door was always open, and if you needed an expensive piece of equipment, all you had to do was ask. He also kept the lab afloat in strong coffee, which was available for purchase with grant funds from the departmental stockroom. I remember that the NIH once audited the lab’s finances, and the auditor, seeing the huge budget for canned coffee, asked Dick, “What is all this coffee for?” Dick responded, “For drinking.”

Below: Lewontin in his office door labeled “Dr. O. Sophila”. You can see a bunch more pictures taken when I was in the lab at this post.  Dick’s attire was always the same: a work shirt, khaki pants, and work boots (topped with a green sweater in winter). We once found a label that had fallen out of his shirt, and it read “Brooks Brothers Gentleman’s Work Shirt”. We gave him a lot of guff about that! Some Marxist!

Perhaps most important, Dick had a strong sense of ethics which he took care to instill in all of us. If he thought a scientist was overselling their data, he would write them off—forever. (I won’t name names.) He refused to put his name on any papers from his lab in which he didn’t have a substantial role. I remember when I wrote my first paper about gel electrophoresis, I typed out a draft and put, on the author line “Jerry A. Coyne and Richard C. Lewontin.”  I put it on his desk for vetting.

The next day the paper was returned to me with, among the other comments, his name crossed out as author. He told me, “Don’t ever do that again.” It was drummed into us that adding your name to a student’s paper was bad form, which caused what he called “The Matthew Effect” (from the Biblical verse, “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.”) Taking credit for your students’ work, he said, was a cheap way to make a name for yourself, which should be made based on your own work and ideas. Dick didn’t count providing research advice or helping rewrite papers as a “contribution.”

When we held a celebration in his honor since he showed no signs of retiring in 1998, 150 of his colleagues showed up at “DickFest”. Here’s the gang; you may recognize some of the famous scientists in here. Andrew Berry and I organized it; it was Andrew who informed me yesterday of Dick’s death. (Andrew is in the very front of the photo below.) I’ve circled Dick:

DickFest ended with a celebratory meal in the very corridors of Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. At the end, we asked Dick to say a few words, and he stood up briefly in front of a tank containing a coelacanth preserved in formalin. (He noted the irony of that.) But his brief talk had only one point: “DO NOT PUT YOUR NAME ON YOUR STUDENTS’ PAPERS”. That was the message he wanted to impart, and one he himself got from Dobzhansky, who adhered to that practice as well. And Dobzhansky got it from Thomas Hunt Morgan, the Nobel Laureate who was also generous with credit. When it came my turn to say a few words at CoyneFest five years ago, I said exactly the same thing.

Sadly, the competition for fame and, especially, jobs is such that few professors can afford to leave their names off student papers: they are mostly lab managers and do little science with their own hands.

I find it hard to recount Dick’s scientific accomplishments—not because I don’t know them, but because they’re already well known and you can read about them in many places, including here and here. He made fundamental contributions in theoretical population genetics, in experimental population genetics (out of his lab came the first assays of genetic variation at individual loci using both electrophoresis and DNA sequencing), and even in ecology. He never wrote a trivial paper. I will leave it to others, in the spate of obituaries to come, to recount his achievements in detail.

Dick was an avowed Marxist, and on this we disagreed. But he kept his lab’s science separate from his politics, and it caused no friction. It did motivate both him and Steve Gould (also at Harvard) to attack biological determinism and especially sociobiology, a fight that persisted throughout my time at Harvard. E. O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology, had his lab only one floor up from ours. They did not speak to each other when I was there, though it was Ed who helped recruit Dick to Harvard from Chicago.

Lewontin was a prolific author of popular pieces, especially in the New York Review of Books. You can read many of those article here. He was a terrific writer, but didn’t have the ambition to be a public figure on the order of, say, Steve Gould or Carl Sagan. When he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, he resigned his membership after finding out that some of the members were working for the Department of Defense.

Eventually Dick did retire, but he never seemed to age. I don’t think his hair turned gray until he was about 75. In the last decade or so his short-term memory began to fade, though he always could remember the past. In 2009 I interviewed him for several hours about his life and career for a piece for Current Biology, but it went on for so long that I couldn’t find a way to shorten or publish it. I still have a recording of the interview that I need to place somewhere, and may make it available to readers.

I’ll end by alluding to an anecdote I’ve told before, recounting how Lewontin caught me buck naked in his office one night. You can read about it here; the nudity, while embarrassing, had nothing to do with sex. It’s a tribute to Dick’s sense of humor that he accepted my explanation and then forgot about it.

Below: a few photos and a video that will give you a sense of Lewontin’s presence.

A group of us in Dick’s lab around 1976. (More photos are here.) Top left to right: Russ Lande, Harold Lee (fly food cook), and Alex Felton (Dick’s technician). Bottom, Don Wallace (postdoc) and me:

A photo taken by Andrew Berry in Oct. 2017 when we visited Dick at his assisted living facility in Cambridge. This is where he died. I am demonstrating my fealty to the Great Man.

From a post I put up on March 30, 2019:

 Greg Mayer visiting Dick in, July 2019. Note that after he retired, Dick replaced his khakis with jeans, and donned a lumberjack shirt.

The autograph Dick put in my copy of The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change:

When Dick asked me to review a paper for a journal in which he was editor, I did a good job and got this note of approbation, which still hangs on my office wall:


To give you a sense of what talking to Dick was like, here’s a video in which he discusses diverse matters with Harry Kreisler on a visit to Berkeley to give a series of lectures. Kreisler’s first question is “What drew you into the sciences?” Dick’s answer: “A charistmatic high school teacher.” Dick was one of those charismatic teachers and, along with Bruce Grant of The College of William and Mary, was one of the two teachers who drew me into evolutionary biology.

Note the work shirt, khakis, and green sweater.

And so it’s goodbye at last, Dick. It was great having you on loan from the Universe for so long.

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

June 2, 2021 • 1:15 pm

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

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

Click on the screenshot to read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

h/t: Jez

Jennifer A. Clack, 1947-2020

December 22, 2020 • 9:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Jennifer A. “Jenny” Clack,  Emeritus Professor and Curator of Vertebrate Palaeontology in the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, died on 26 March of this year. Jenny, as she was universally known, was one of the leading paleontologists of the past half century, making fundamental discoveries about the origin of tetrapods, and training, through her students and postdocs, many of the current generation of leaders in the field. The cause of her death was cancer.

Jenny Clack in 2009, at her election to Fellow of the Royal Society. Photo by Angela Milner.

After completing her undergraduate work in zoology at the University of Newcastle in 1970, Jenny took a certificate in museum studies at the University of Leicester, and then worked for several years in local museums. It was during this time that she began studying the specimen of the Carboniferous amphibian Pholiderpeton, which led to the Ph.D. thesis for which she returned to the University of Newcastle, taking her degree in 1984 under the supervision of her old undergraduate teacher, Alec Panchen.

Even before finishing her degree, Jenny took a position in the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, where she remained until her death, eventually rising to Professor and Curator. At Cambridge, she found unstudied material of the ‘co-first’ tetrapod, Acanthostega, collected by a Cambridge expedition to Greenland in 1970. It was study of these important specimens that led to Jenny’s most important and influential work, on the origin of tetrapods from their piscine (fish) ancestors. Jenny led two expeditions to collect more material in Greenland, in 1987 and 1998, revisiting the sites at which earlier specimens had been collected, and gathering new material not just of Acanthostega, but of the other ‘co-first’ tetrapod, Ichthyostega, which prior to Jenny’s work had been the better known of the two. Jenny and her colleagues, in addition to the material at Cambridge or newly collected, were able to study Erik Jarvik‘s Ichthyostega material in Stockholm.

“Grace”, an Acanthostega specimen studied by Jenny Clack and her colleagues.

Along with work by others on other forms (such as Tiktaalik and Panderichthys), Jenny’s work on these earliest tetrapods has made the fish-amphibian transition one of the best understood of all transitions between higher taxa (although much is still to be learned!). Jenny summarized the work of her and her colleagues in Gaining Ground: the Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods (Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2002; 2nd edition 2012). Jenny also worked on a number of other related issues in vertebrate evolution–including the evolution of the ear, faunistic works, and Carboniferous fishes, to name a few–but she will be best remembered for her work on the transition from water to land, and especially the transition from fin to limb.

In addition to her scientific work, Jenny was actively involved in outreach to the general public, in which she conveyed the wonder, interest, and importance of her discoveries. She appeared in numerous video and television programs, including Nova’s The Missing Link (2002), in which she was referred to as the “Diva of the Devonian”; was a featured scientist in the PBS program based on Neil Shubin’s work, Your Inner Fish (2014); and was the subject of an episode of Beautiful Minds (2012) on the BBC. Here’s a short video from Cambridge University (which I could embed; another nice, short, video, The First Vertebrate Walks on Land (2001), which I could not embed, can be seen on Shape of Life, an educational website).

Jenny received many honors in her lifetime, including being elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (2009), the Daniel Giraud Elliot Medal of the National Academy of Science (USA 2008), membership in the National Academy of Sciences (USA 2009) and the Royal Swedish Academy of Science (2014), honorary doctorates from the University of Chicago (2013) and the University of Leicester (2014), and an ScD from Cambridge (a “higher” doctorate, not an honorary degree).

Last year, Jenny was honored by her colleagues, students, and collaborators with a festschrift, “Fossils, Function and Phylogeny: Papers on Early Vertebrate Evolution in Honour of Professor Jennifer A. Clack”, published in the Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of The Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Memorial notices and recollections have appeared by Tim Smithson in the Guardian, Per Ahlberg in Nature, Darren Naish at Tetrapod Zoology, and from her colleagues in the Cambridge Department of Zoology. I have drawn from these sources, Jenny’s own website, and the paper by Marcello Ruta, Per Ahlberg, and Tim Smithson in the Edinburgh festschrift for many of the facts above.

I found out about her death only about a month ago (perhaps part of my pandemic disconnect from the wider world–I spent most of three months at a poorly lit table in my basement). While reading her latest paper (published in November), I was shocked to notice the notation “Deceased” among the authors’ addresses. I could not think of who it could be. Two of the other authors were known to me–Tim Smithson, Jenny’s long-time colleague, and Stephanie Pierce, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology; the senior author turned out to be a recently minted Ph.D. student of Pierce’s–and, looking more closely, I saw that it was Jenny. A Harvard Gazette article provides a layman’s account of that latest paper, a functional analysis of the humeri (upper arm bones) of early tetrapods and close relatives. (The tetrapods’ piscine ancestors already had humeri.)

Jerry and I both followed her work. I taught a special topics seminar on her book, Gaining Ground, when the second edition came out in 2012, and I attended a symposium on “The Origin and Diversification of Stem Tetrapods” she organized at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meetings hosted by the Field Museum in 1997. I don’t think we ever met, either then or at some other meeting we might both have attended, but she was such a lively personality on the Your Inner Fish documentary series on PBS that I feel that I know what it would have been like to meet her.

Clack, J. A. 1987. Pholiderpeton scutigerum, an amphibian from the Yorkshire Coal Measures. Philosophical Transaction of the Royal Society of London B 318:1–107. pdf (Her Ph.D. work.)

Clack, J.A. 2012. Gaining Ground: The Origin and Evolution of Tetrapods. 2nd ed. Indiana University Press, Bloomington. (First edition published in 2002.)

Dickson, B.V., J.A. Clack, T.R. Smithson, and S.E. Pierce. 2020. Functional adaptive landscapes predict terrestrial capacity at the origin of limbs. Nature in press. pdf

Royal Society of Edinburgh. 2019. Fossils, function and phylogeny: Papers on early vertebrate evolution in honour of Professor Jennifer A. Clack. Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 109(1-2):1–369.

Ruta, M., P.E. Ahlberg, and T.R. Smithson. 2019. Fossils, function and phylogeny: Papers on early vertebrate evolution in honour of Professor Jennifer A. Clack – Introduction. Earth and Environmental Science Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 109:1–14. pdf

Joyce Carol Oates eulogizes her late husband in a science journal

December 11, 2020 • 11:30 am

This is a first, I think: a major literary figure writing a piece in a science journal. The award-winning author Joyce Carol Oates was married to distinguished neurobiologist Charlie Gross for a decade—until Charlie died in 2019. (They both taught at Princeton.) I met them at the Great New Yorker Cat vs. Dog Debate in 2014, where Joyce was on Team Cat, and had dinner with them afterwards at the Union Square Cafe. They were clearly deeply connected, and I remember that dinner fondly.

I’ve kept in touch with Joyce ever since, and know how devastated she was when Charlie passed away. She told me how, like me, Charlie was addicted to travel, especially to Antarctica, and also loved photography. She added that she was more of a homebody, but went with him on some of his trips.

This is recounted in a lovely new memorial that Joyce wrote for Charlie in Progress in Neurobiology—in a special issue devoted to him. Hers is a short piece, highlighting Charlie’s photos from around the world and connecting his vocation with his avocation.

I’ll give an excerpt and show a few of his photos. You can read the piece for free by clicking on the screenshot (if the link doesn’t work, a judicious inquiry will yield a pdf):

An excerpt:

If the world is essentially a mystery, research scientists are investigators, explorers, pilgrims, even at times mystics; “scientific method” is the crucial tool, but the motive underlying the pursuit of intransigent truth in a world of shifting illusions and delusions is likely to be deep-rooted in the personality, as the motives for art are deep-rooted, essentially unknowable. The research scientist, like the writer and artist, is not satisfied with surfaces—the “superficial”; the comprehension of underlying principles and laws are the goal.

Neuroscience dares to address the most basic of all questions involving life: what is the neural basis of behavior? how can it possibly be that out of molecules, ions, and nerve cells somehow there emerges the vast richness of human consciousness and experience? It isn’t an accident that Charlie Gross spent most of his professional life exploring vision in the cerebral cortex. He was never more fiercely concentrated in thought—(if indeed it was “thinking” that so absorbed him)—than when he was taking photographs, and afterward working with the digital images he’d captured. Out of the raw image, what “meaning” can be discovered? The camera lens radically narrows the visual field into an aesthetically satisfying form because it is limited, reduced; “coherence” is created out of a chaos of impressions that without the camera lens lack focus and meaning. Surely there is some fundamental analogy here with the mechanisms of the eye—the visual cortex.

. . . Charlie and I were married in March 2009 and in the decade we spent together traveled widely—to Spain, Italy and the Greek Islands, Capri, Corsica, Dubrovnik, Galapagos and Ecuador, Australia, and Bali as well as, more frequently, to London, Paris, Rome, and (his favorite) Venice. We spent time in the most scenic parts of California—Berkeley, Humboldt State Redwood Park, Big Sur; we visited many National Parks—Death Valley, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Yosemite. To all these places Charlie brought his photography equipment and spent many hours taking pictures, ideally at dawn. He was exacting and patient; he could wait a long time for a perfect combination of landscape, sky, and light. His work is surpassingly beautiful — not a consequence of accident but design. Though Charlie did not “photoshop” his work, he spent much time selecting images he wanted to make permanent. He was a serious artist of beauty but he did not theorize —he followed his intuition.

For the article Joyce selected nine photos “that are most abstract and apolitical—indeed, ahistorical—in their beauty; and those set in the West, which he loved and had visited many times.” Three of them are below— and one of Charlie as well.

Go to the article to read more about Charlie and photography, and to see more of his work.

Bryce Canyon at twilight:

Yosemite. A Magritte-like boulder suggestive of a glacier or a dream image seems to push through the surface of the water in this Yosemite scene:


Charlie in Antarctica, photo by Rowena Gross:

Reader’s photos: A Nagasaki memorial

August 9, 2020 • 8:30 am

Regardless of whether you think that dropping the atomic bomb on Nagasaki 75 years ago today actually saved lives by shortening the war, I think we can all agree that it was still a tragedy, snuffing out many lives, including those of children. Here’s a photographic memorial to the bombing contributed by Joe Routon. I’ve indented his words.

Here are three photos that I made a few years when my wife and I were there.
My father, a lieutenant in the U.S. Marines, was one of the first American soldiers sent into Nagasaki after the bomb was dropped. He stayed there for several weeks, soaking up harmful radiation. Fortunately, it didn’t have any of the lasting deleterious effects on him that were suffered by a good number of his fellow soldiers, many of whom died of cancer.
The Peace Statue in Nagasaki Peace Park is full of symbolism. The right hand points to the sky, reminding us of the danger of nuclear weapons; the left hand symbolizes eternal peace. The closed eyes represent a prayer for the victims. The right leg is in meditation, while the left leg is rooted to the ground, telling us to stand up and help the world.
In the center of the Peace Park is the Hypocenter Park, with a black cenotaph that marks ground zero, the explosion’s epicenter. Concentric circles represent the spreading devastation of the blast.
In the park are many statues and works of art that have been donated by countries all over the world in support of peace. Here is a detail of one.

Grania died a year ago

June 16, 2020 • 8:15 am

It was on June 16, 2019—just a year ago today—that Grania Spingies died, collapsing at the door of a clinic in Cork, Ireland while she waited for help. She’d been ill for a while, and had resisted my orders to go to the doctor (she disliked medicos). In September of that year, we learned from her sister Gisela the cause of death:“haemopericardium, rupture of a dissecting thoracic aneurysm”.

Grania was only 49, a week shy of her 50th birthday.  She was a great friend, though I never met her in person—we Skyped almost daily—and had lots of good advice about this website and, indeed, about my own life issues. And, as you may recall if you were reading this site then, she contributed a number of posts, mostly about issues affecting Ireland, including gay rights, abortion, and blasphemy laws. (She was one of the founders of Atheist Ireland.) Grania was born and grew up in South Africa, had German citizenship (her dad was German), and lived for 20 years in Cork, where she worked for a large multinational firm.

In honor of Grania, whom I miss every day, I’m reposting the post I put up when I learned she died. It was called “Grania died“, and I wrote it in shock early in the morning in Hawaii, where I was traveling when she sent me her last email.

This is very hard to write, and is written through tears. Grania Spingies, a very good friend—though I never met her in person—and someone who, as you probably know, did an enormous amount for this website, passed away yesterday in Cork, Ireland. She was only 49, and would have turned 50 on the 23rd of June.

She leaves behind a mother and two sisters, Gisela and Gunda. Grania’s father was murdered by a burglar in South Africa 18 months ago. Her mother is bedridden and doesn’t recognize anyone, so perhaps it’s a mercy that she doesn’t know her daughter died.

Those who follow this site will know Grania’s involvement with it: she was always there to cover for me when I was on trips, to advise me when I had a website issue or wanted to know if I should write about this or that, and to discuss ideas for posts with me (she gave me plenty of them). She also wrote many of her own posts over the years, keeping us up to date on issues like abortion in Ireland and blasphemy laws.

But more than that: we Skyped nearly every day and exchanged a gazillion emails. She had a pretty solitary existence in Cork, but I made sure we kept in touch. She was a great pleasure to talk to— always rational and sensible, but with a fantastic dry wit. As I said, I never met her, though we were in constant touch for at least eight years. She often spoke of wanting to visit America, and I tempted her with all the great food she could try here that wasn’t available in Ireland, like good Southern barbecue.

On Wednesday she became ill with what seemed to be a stomach ailment. Over the next few days it didn’t go away, and I suggested that she see a doctor. She didn’t like doctors, and simply bought pain medication at the pharmacy. Her illness persisted, and by Friday I began harassing her heavily to get medical attention. On Saturday she still wasn’t better, and I made her promise to go to the doctor—an emergency clinic in Cork—by Sunday at the latest.

Here was our last email exchange from yesterday:

On Sun 16 Jun 2019, 12:32 Jerry Coyne wrote:

Are you going to the doctor today AS YOU PROMISED????

Her response:

Yes. Im on my way.

That was her last email; she never made it to the doctor. According to one of her friends, “As far as we can tell, she collapsed just outside the doctor’s office some time on Sunday and had no pulse. They did CPR and rushed her by ambulance to the hospital.” They will do an autopsy to see what killed her.

It’s 5 a.m. in Hawaii, and my brain isn’t clear enough to write more, but let me post some pictures of Grania sent to me by Gisela.

Grania was born and raised in South Africa. She went to the University of Cape Town and then spent several years teaching small children in a remote area of KwaZulu. About twenty years ago, she decided to leave South Africa and take a job with Schlumberger in Ireland, where she did financial accounting. She was a feminist, a secularist, an atheist, and formerly an active member of Atheist Ireland. She loved animals, and often spoke of her cats Trinket and Pippen and her beloved dog Frodo.

A photo of her in Africa:

Grania just before she moved to Ireland in 1999.

As an atheist, Grainia would simply laugh if she heard me say, “Rest in peace, dear friend”. So all I’ll say is that she brought a lot of light into my life, and into this site—often in ways you don’t know about. I will miss her terribly, as will her family and friends, and my heart goes out to those who were privileged to know her.

This is the way I’ll remember her: with that slight smile I’d see on Skype when she pondered the craziness of the world.

In honor of Grania and her life, I won’t post any more today, but I will put up a “readers’ thread” in which you can discuss anything you like. I don’t do this often, and don’t know if it will be successful, but you can talk, kvetch, blow off steam, or bring news to our attention. (There is no need to discuss Grania in that thread; you can do it below if you wish.)

A deceased reader’s wildlife photos

February 10, 2020 • 8:00 am

Today we have photos from Andreas Kay, a superb  nature photographer who lived in Ecuador and who came to my notice when he rediscovered the frog Atelopus coynei and wrote to inform me in 2012.

Andreas died of brain cancer last October at only 56. Lou Jost, who knew Andreas and now has custody of his massive collection of photos, wrote a memoriam to him that you can read here.  In response to my call for photos, Lou sent some of Andreas’s, which will constitute part of his legacy. Lou’s words are indented:

I am sharing with you some of Andreas Kay’s last photos before he died. It was important to him to expose people to the biodoversity of Ecuador, so he gave me a copy of his hard drive and encouraged me to help spread the photos after his death. There are more than thirty thousand of them.
In this set I include two weevils, a jumping spider, a harvestman with strange green pedipalps, and some treehoppers. I believe all of these were taken in the vicinity of Puyo, in Amazonian Ecuador.









Andreas Kay

RIP Andreas Kay

October 9, 2019 • 11:30 am

Andreas Kay, known to me as the naturalist and photographer who redisovered Atelopus coynei, has died, and died too soon (I believe he was just 56, and had contracted brain cancer). I was informed of his death by two people, and I’ve asked Lou Jost, who knew him, to write a brief memoriam. I’ve put it below.

by Lou Jost

Andreas Kay, well-known macro photographer residing in Ecuador, has just died after having a golf-ball-sized tumor removed from his brain in Quito a few weeks ago. He was in great pain.

He re-discovered and photographed the toad Atelopus coynei, once thought to be extinct. 

Andreas had discovered many new species of plants, and several are named after him, including the orchids Lepanthopsis kayii and Lepanthes kayii. He helped the EcoMinga Foundation set up its Dracula Reserve. He is best known for his magnificent collection of 29,048 macro insect and plant photos from Andean Ecuador, published on his “Ecuador Megadiverso” Flickr site.

This vast collection of breathtaking photos surely contains many more species new to science.

Andreas lived a simple life devoted to nature photography. His brain tumor was not discovered until it was very large, and his health declined rapidly after that. Knowing he would die soon, he gave me his hard drives, and I will send some of his photos to Jerry periodically.

Here are some photos sent by Lou, the first of Andreas and the other of his photographs. I’ve included Atelopus coynei: one of the photos he took at the rediscovery.  And I will put up Andreas’s photos as I get them from Lou. If you go to his Flickr site linked above, you’ll see how wonderful they are.

Andreas Kay

This orchid is one of his discoveries, Lepanthes kayii, photo by Kay.

Atelopus coynei, from an email Andreas sent me in February of 2012:

I found this post on Andreas’s Facebook page, and it makes me tear up, even though I didn’t really know him. “I had a wonderful life but much more to learn.”  You can’t do better than that, for although he’s gone, he still has much more to teach us.

RIP, Andreas.

I’ve learned that you can make a donation to Andreas’s family (and perhaps his work) at this link.


Pete Moulton died

July 19, 2019 • 8:40 am

I was shocked to hear that Pete Moulton, a regular contributor of fabulous bird, mammal and insect photos to this site, died on March 29.  I don’t know what happened except that Diana MacPherson, who along with me was Pete’s Facebook friend, said he’d been in and out of the hospital.

I never met Pete but we had email correspondence, often with me begging to use his photos that first appeared on Facebook. (One time I sent him a photo of me on my knees, begging with clasped hands, and that did the trick!). He was always cordial—a nice guy—and his lovely photographs often graced this website. We’ll all miss him and his pictures, too, which he clearly loved taking.

Here’s a small selection of Pete’s photos on this site, which go back four years (go here to see all of them). His last contribution was on December 7 of last year.  They’re all birds except for one dragonfly.

RIP, Pete.


I especially loved Pete’s photos of pie-billed grebes and their bizarre-looking chicks. Pete was taken with them, too.

And a dragonfly for good measure:


My condolences to Pete’s friends and family, and I will note this post on his Facebook page so people will know that he had a wide and appreciative following here.

The Lagers: A farewell letter from a doomed woman

July 15, 2019 • 9:00 am

This article from the Indy [Indianapolis] Star is more than a year old, but I still found it moving and wanted to call it to your attention (there’s a similar piece with additional information in the 2019 Journal Review).

Click on the screenshot to read the Star piece, whose words I’ve put in indents below:

In 1944, Frank Grunwald and his family, along with many other Jews, was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. Grunwald (then 11) was standing in line with his mother Vilma and crippled brother, waiting for the gas chamber when, unaccountably, a German guard pulled him out of the death line and put him with children who weren’t to be immediately executed. (Frank’s dad Kurt wasn’t killed, but had been put to work earlier in the prison hospital.)

Here is Frank with his mom before the war:

And Frank’s parents:
As his mom waited for execution (most of those prisoners were aware of their fate, as they could see the crematorium smokestacks billowing ashes of the dead), she scribbled a ten-sentence note on a sheet of paper in pencil and handed it to a German guard.  It was addressed to her husband : “Dr. Grunwald F Lager.”  (F Lager was her husband’s barracks, and her husband had apparently been sent to Auschwitz before the rest of the family.) Unaccountably, the guard actually gave that letter to Kurt Grunwald.

The article tells the rest:

Auschwitz was liberated seven months later. Some time after that Kurt Grunwald was reunited with his surviving son, and said: I have a note here from your mother.

“I didn’t want to see it, I was too upset,” said Frank.

In 1951 the surviving Grunwalds moved to New York City. The father practiced medicine in Forest Hills. The son went to the Pratt Institute and studied industrial design. He got a job with General Electric in Syracuse and married his wife, Barbara. The couple had two children.

Kurt Grunwald died in 1967 at age 67, and it was while going through his father’s belongings that Frank came across the letter. “He had it in a desk in his bedroom,” Frank said.

“The paper had turned yellow. I saw it and knew what it was right away. I recognized my mother’s handwriting.”

The Grunwalds were Czechoslovakian, and Vilma had written in her native language. Frank read it.

Frank kept the letter to himself for ten years, and eventually donated it to the National Holocaust Museum.

Over the years the museum has received donations of thousands of personal artifacts. But Vilma Grunwald’s letter stands alone.

“I’m always reluctant to say it’s the only such document ever created,” said Judith Cohen, the museum’s chief acquisitions curator, “but to the best of our knowledge it is — it is the only one we have ever seen. Auschwitz, in the moments before gassing. In the extermination camps it was almost impossible to write material that was preserved.”

Here it is:

By now you’ll want to see what the letter says. It’s heartbreaking. Here’s a translation:

“You, my only one, dearest, in isolation we are waiting for darkness. We considered the possibility of hiding but decided not to do it since we felt it would be hopeless. The famous trucks are already here and we are waiting for it to begin. I am completely calm. You — my only and dearest one, do not blame yourself for what happened, it was our destiny. We did what we could. Stay healthy and remember my words that time will heal — if not completely — then — at least partially. Take care of the little golden boy and don’t spoil him too much with your love. Both of you — stay healthy, my dear ones. I will be thinking of you and Misa. Have a fabulous life, we must board the trucks.

“Into eternity, Vilma.”

The “into eternity” signature makes me tear up.

There’s nothing more to be said, except that although this is stirring, as is Anne Frank’s diary, they are unique only in that they are written documentation of the lives and feelings of doomed Jews. Multiply this letter by six million who did not leave words and you’ll have an idea of the enormity of the tragedy.

Frank Grunwald, now 85, with his mother’s letter


h/t: Ginger K.