Christine McVie died

November 30, 2022 • 2:37 pm

As we Boomers age, we’re going to suffer the loss of many musical idols of our youth. The latest was Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac fame, who passed away on Wednesday. She was 79, which is close to a reasonable life expectancy, but still. . .

From the NYT:

Her family announced her death on Facebook. The statement said that she died at a hospital but did not specify its location. The statement also did not give the cause of her death. In June, Ms. McVie told Rolling Stone that she was in “quite bad health” and that she had endured debilitating problems with her back.

From the band:

Here’s the group performing a song she wrote (my favorite of hers), and she sings lead:

RIP Robert Nola

October 25, 2022 • 8:30 am

I am sad to report the death on Sunday of Robert Nola (born 1940), a retired philosophy professor from the University of Auckland and one of the “Satanic Seven” involved in the kerfuffle about the Listener Letter—a letter he signed with six others arguing that while Mātauranga Māori, or Māori “ways of knowing”, should be taught in sociology or anthropology classes, it was not the equivalent of “science”(see the original letter here) and should not be so taught in science classes. This plunged Robert into a deep controversy, culminating in an investigation of him and another Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand. Though they were cleared of what was in effect a charge of “disrespecting indigenous knowledge”, Robert and his colleague Garth Cooper (a Māori) publicly resigned as fellows. (The kerfuffle and his resignation are detailed in this series of posts). Here are the final two paragraphs of the letter:

Indigenous knowledge is critical for the preservation and perpetuation of culture and local practices, and plays key roles in management and policy. However, in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself.

To accept it as the equivalent of science is to patronise and fail indigenous populations; better to ensure that everyone participates in the world’s scientific enterprises. Indigenous knowledge may indeed help advance scientific knowledge in some ways, but it is not science.

Signing the Letter, and resigning from the RSNZ, was an act of bravery, and showed the Royal Society for what it was, a bunch of invertebrates unable to distinguish true science from superstition.

But I met Robert well before these culture wars occurred. When I went to New Zealand and asked readers if they wanted to get together. Robert wrote me and invited me to stay with him and his wife Jan at their house in Auckand. And so I did—for the last few days before I left the country. It was a delightful visit in a spiffy house with a gorgeous garden that even had a bit of rainforest and a a lava tube. As a philosopher of science, Robert took the trouble to fill in some gaps in my knowledge, and I fondly remember long talks over breakfast about Kuhn, Popper, and the lot. You can see Robert’s list of books and publications on his Wikipedia page.

We continued to correspond after I left New Zealand and the “Listener wars” began, exchanging news and publications (including my posts about Mātauranga Māori).  Then the correspondence stopped; I was told that Robert had gone to the hospital and then, on top of that, caught covid in the hospital. My last email from him explained that he had finally returned home after several months, and was recuperating slowly. Then this morning the news came from Jan that Robert died two days ago, peacefully and at home.

I was much looking forward to seeing him again on my next trip to New Zealand, which I hope will take place before too long. Alas, that is not to be. He was a good man, gentle and wise, but with a will of iron.  I and all his friends will miss him.  My condolences to Jan.

Here’s a photo of Robert and Jan I took during my visit in April five years ago.

In memoriam: Dick Lewontin and Ed Wilson

October 20, 2022 • 11:45 am

The American Naturalist has just published short “in memoriam” pieces for two Harvard professors I knew: Dick Lewontin, population geneticist, evolutionary biologist, and my Ph.D. advisor, and Ed Wilson, naturalist, ant expert, and double Pulitzer winner. I knew and liked both of them, but in the end they thoroughly disliked each other. Curiously, Ed was instrumental in bringing both Dick and me to Harvard, but after the sociobiology battles began, Ed and Dick’s friendship was replaced by animosity. But I’ve written about all this before.

The obituaries are good ones, especially that of Lewontin (it’s the best one for him that I’ve read):

Click on the screenshots to read them; access is free.  I’ll give a brief excerpt from each piece.

Many academics, and perhaps scientists in particular, consider teaching a burden—a diversion from their “real” work. Lewontin loved it. Indeed, he taught more courses than required (the old-fashioned way, with blackboards, chalk, and transparencies), and after retiring he confessed to one of the authors that he regretted the decision because he so missed the experience of teaching. (At the request of a group of graduate students, he did continue to teach gratis a seminar in biostatistics.) He was proud of the many people he had mentored. Historian Michael Dietrich (2021) records how Lewontin deflected enquiries about his own career and contributions, focusing on his mentees: “When, in 1997, I asked him how I should write about his life, he pulled out of his desk a list of every graduate student, postdoc and visitor at his laboratory—more than 100 people—and said I should write about all of them.” Lewontin’s commitment to teaching extended beyond traditional academia; he wrote frequently (and wittily) for magazines of general intellectual interest, such as the New York Review of Books, and he published a number of popular science books (e.g., Lewontin 1982, 1991b, 2000; Rose et al. 1984).

That’s absolutely true. Lewontin was the least self-aggrandizing scientist of high reputation that I ever knew. I wrote my own “in memoriam” piece on this website.

Here’s a photo (taken by Andrew Berry) of Lewontin receiving homage from moi. Cambridge, MA, 2017


Many scientists have marveled that a single person could have managed to find the time to write at least 30 books on such a diversity of subjects in addition to hundreds of research articles, even aside from his other activities. The feat becomes more astounding when one realizes that Wilson never used a word processor; he did all his writing in longhand. The accomplishment remains astounding, but a good part of the explanation is that, beginning in 1965, he had a research assistant, Kathleen Horton, who worked with him until his death and promptly typed all of his writings. She quickly assumed much responsibility for his various projects, including handling virtually all of his correspondence, scheduling, and many of the chores associated with his research activities. Several remembrances noted her importance in Wilson’s work, and Rhodes (2021) provides some details of her life and contributions. Wilson was very aware and appreciative of her lifetime of support, and this account of his scientific contributions would be incomplete without recognizing her.

Indeed, it was Kathy who, guarding Ed’s office, got me in to see him when I showed up at Harvard with my dossier, begging to be admitted. (I was supposed to go to grad school at the University of Chicago, but found out when I returned from my Wanderjahr that Lewontin, formerly at Chicago, was moving to Harvard, and didn’t remember to ask for me to be admitted as his prospective student.) I thus had to get into Harvard on my own, and Ed was instrumental in setting up appointments for me with various faculty, who then voted to admit me after I filled out an application. I could never dislike Ed after that, plus he was always very gracious to me. (I was a t.a. for him twice in Introductory Biology.)

Here’s a photo I took of Ed in 2007 at a lunch during a symposium at Harvard:

RIP: Richard Cook

September 22, 2022 • 9:15 am

Team Duck and I are deeply saddened by the recent death of one of our members, Dr. Richard Cook, who passed away from pancreatic cancer on August 31. He was only 69.  An anesthesiologist by training, he was also a polymath, something I discovered only after he died. Richard’s many talents are highlighted in one of the articles below; I did not know of these, for we Team members rarely talk about their work while on duty at Botany Pond. Usually we feed the ducks and then gather on the bridge or at a nearby table for a while, soaking in the beauty of the pond, chatting about this and that, and, of course, discussing the ducks and the vagaries of their behavior.

Richard and his wife Karen were on the team for two years, faithfully appearing every day two summers ago at 6:30 a.m. to do the morning feeding of Honey and Dorothy’s ducklings, and coming regularly after that.  Beyond the quotidian tasks of tending ducks, which require diligence and commitment, Richard had two special talents. One was to design various contrivances to assure the safe arrival of ducklings at the pond (cushions, covered holes, padding on spikes, and so on). He and Karen spent a long time preparing for the arrival of one brood of ducks this year (as well as Dorothy’s last year). Unfortunately, this year’s nest, under my air conditioner, never produced offspring, as the mother abandoned her nest after all the preparations. I am leaving up these preparations as Richard’s legacy to Team Duck.

Richard was also superb at calming me down during the many moments of anxiety I had as Duckmeister over the last couple of seasons. Perhaps it was his “bedside manner” acquired during his years as an M.D., but whatever it was, he helped me immensely to put things in perspective—to accept the things that I could not change, and to suggest how to proceed with the things I could change. He was a soft-spoken and gentle man, and though he was surely suffering from the disease during much of the time I knew him, we didn’t learn how ill he was until just a few months ago. Pancreatic cancer is a cruel ailment, and I could never have borne it with the fortitude he did.

Karen sent us the sad news, but added a summary of Richard’s life, work, and persona that I reproduce below; it was put together by his friends:

I have asked Richard’s closest professional friends to capture the arc of his career and highlight a few of his major accomplishments in the next couple of paragraphs. But because his career was both long, storied and highly influential, they have also put together a longer summary of his professional impact on many fields available at the following link: https://www.adaptivecapacitylabs.com/blog/2022/09/12/richardcook-a-life-in-many-acts

What stands out, professionally, about Richard is how he dedicated himself to the health and safety of others in the many ‘acts’ of his career.

It is rare for people to have second, third or even fourth acts in their careers (some concurrently). He was foremost a caring physician and anesthesiologist dedicated to his patients well being (for 25 years at the Ohio State University (OSU) and University of Chicago Medical Centers). For example, after the massive Haiti earthquake of 2010, Richard helped lead a University of Chicago-sponsored medical mission to set up a field hospital caring for the injured and destitute.

But, both at the beginning and at the end of his career, he worked on computing challenges as a software engineer (after college at Control Data Corp.; after ending clinical practice, co-founding a successful software engineering company, Adaptive Capacity Labs).

Alongside these careers, he was a researcher for 35 years – at OSU, University of Chicago, KTH Royal Institute of Technology (Sweden), and OSU again. From the beginning he pursued new paths in Human Factors, in Human-Computer/Automation Interaction, and in Resilient Performance in complex systems, and then helped young researchers expand the new directions. His ideas and innovations arose from his commitment to learning from incidents – close observation of actual work, not work as imagined from afar. As a result, he made lasting contributions to the fields of Cognitive Systems Engineering (designing joint systems of people and computers in high performance, high risk settings) and Resilience Engineering (how people provide a unique and critical form of adaptive capacity to make complex systems work). His publications and recorded talks in these areas are a gold mine for young researchers (google “How Complex Systems Fail”).

As a patient safety advocate, he used his science and engineering expertise to contribute to the start of the patient safety movement (he was a founding board member of the National Patient Safety Foundation in 1996 and co-founded the GAPS Center in 2000 to conduct a major patient safety campaign in the VA of Ohio). He was unafraid to speak out whenever the movement veered off-course from the science.

Through all of the varied acts of his career, he looked closer, thought harder, saw deeper, and envisioned new directions. As one colleague said, “Richard is a genius troublemaker.” Then he patiently shared his wisdom with varied emerging talents he encountered across the diverse ‘acts’ of a storied life.

Richard leaves his wife, Karen, three children, Cliff, Kristin, and Kara Schwandner and their spouses, his father, Richard G. Cook, his siblings, Sue and Paul Cook and six grandchildren. He is remembered as an extraordinary person, both funny and generous with his time, an incomparable doctor and a wonderful husband, father and grandfather. He was a lovely man in every sense.

It is only now, as I said, that I’m learning what a polymath the man was. We will miss him, as will our feathered charges at the pond.  Here are Richard and Karen photographed on the bridge on November 10 of last year, at the tail end of duck season:

And here’s the memoriam to Richard assembled by three of his colleagues; click on the screenshot to read it.

Like our ducks in the fall, he left us suddenly and unexpectedly, and we won’t see his like again. We join his friends and family in remembering him and being grateful for the time we had in his company.

“The Queue” in real time

September 17, 2022 • 8:00 am

There will be no wildlife photos today as I have only a few sets that I must conserve until more come in (hint, hint).

The Queue, as it’s called, has now achieved iconic status in England. Queuing, of course, is the British national hobby, and woe be to the American who doesn’t Respect the Queue!  But the line to see Queen Elizabeth’s coffin is the Mother of All Queues, now about five miles long.  Below is a live Queue Tracker that shows you how long you have to wait (14 hours right now). And it’s not going to get shorter, either, as the line is expected to grow until before the lying-in-state ends in two days. As I wrote a couple of days ago,

The lying-in-state ends “at 06.30 BST on Monday, 19 September, and the queue will close early to ensure as many people as possible can get in.” If the crowds continue, it have to close a day early!

Elizabeth is lying in the Palace of Westminster, first built in the 11th century and reconstructed in 1834 after a fire. You all know this building; it’s where the Houses of Parliament are and is flanked by the tower of Big Ben:

Palace of Westminster, Big Ben, and Westminster Bridge as seen from the south bank of the River Thames.

So get your tuchas in line if you’re in London want to see it all. Here’s a live tracker of the waiting time and a map, but you’ll want to watch the live feed of the lying-in-state at the bottom of this post.

Here’s The Queue at present At least you can see many of London’s sights as you shuffle along for a day or so. It’s now about 5.5 miles long, which means it would take you two hours to walk past it all at normal speed.

Satellite images! Enlarge the photos.

I have to say that although I wasn’t a big fan of Queen Elizabeth, and an even smaller fan of the Royal Family, it is touching to see the Brits come out in such huge numbers, enduring long waits for a few seconds of meditation before the coffin of their late Queen. They are a stalwart folk, able to endure a lot to show their love of country. Even Matthew, who is like me (thought Elizabeth was okay, doesn’t like the Royal Family), wavered a bit, sending me an email this morning:

Almost makes me want to go. Almost.

He won’t go, of course, but it’s telling that the thought crossed his mind.  He also sent me a fantastic series of tweets by Jules Birkby. a 42-year-old artist who endured the long wait with her mum. I highly recommend that you read through her whole series! (Keep clicking “show more replies” when you get to the end of one part.) Birkby is full of patience and good humor, and really gives you a sense of what it’s like to walk The Queue. Click on the first tweet below to get started:

Keep clicking “show replies” until you get to the end of the thread (the tweet in which Jules mentions her greeting-card operation).

I add two tweets Jules made right after she and her Mum exited Westminster Palace. The last one is so British: Jules was pining for a cup of tea the whole night and morning, and she finally got one. Oh, and David Beckham was also in The Queue in front of them, and waited just like anyone else. NOBODY jumps The Queue!

Jules notes that some women walked the whole way in high heels. 

Now you’ll want to have at least a look at the livestream of the ceremony on YouTube. Do watch for at least 15 minutes, as that’s how often they change the guard. and that is definitely worth seeing.

As Matthew said, “Very soothing, no commentary, no music. They change the guard every 15 mins.”.  I’m touched by how all the guards look down and also by the behavior of the visitors, which is quite variable but always respectful. Some people bow, some people weep, but nobody tarries, as they know others are waiting.

There are several cameras that alternately focus on different aspects of the crowd and the venue.

h/t: Matthew

Two articles on the Queen: one lionizing her and the other attacking her

September 10, 2022 • 12:45 pm

Because Queen Elizabeth was more or less a cipher, her death has led to people projecting all manner of their own feelings onto her, seeing her ranging from a kind, diligent, and dedicated person to a  representative of an outdated and bloody colonialist regime, as well as of a monarchy past its time. This post will give you one example of each pole. I have no d*g in this fight, so I tend to see the Queen as a decent and hardworking person, but the monarchy as an institution whose time has come and gone.

Reaction to the death of Elizabeth II was at first wholly worshipful, but a backlash is beginning—largely in the U.S. I’ll talk about that in a bit, but first let’s hear the positive assessment of Elizabeth by one of her former “subjects,” Andrew Sullivan. Her legacy is the main object of his column yesterday (click to read, but subscribe if you read frequently).

As a conservative and an ex-Brit, one might expect Sullivan to admire the Queen, and indeed he does.  But he mainly admires her for hanging in there, for choosing a life that is not a human life, because she knew that her lot would be the abandonment of freedom for duty.  I have to say, Sully does say that well:

[When Biden was elected], I found myself watching the life of an entirely different head of state: a young, somewhat shy woman suddenly elevated to immense responsibilities and duties in her twenties, hemmed in by protocol, rigidified by discipline. The new president could barely get through the day without some provocation, insult, threat or lie. Elizabeth Windsor was tasked as a twenty-something with a job that required her to say or do nothing that could be misconstrued, controversial, or even interestingly human — for the rest of her life.

The immense difficulty of this is proven by the failure of almost every other member of her family — including her husband — to pull it off. We know her son King Charles III’s views on a host of different subjects, many admirable, some cringe-inducing. We know so much of the psychological struggles of Diana; the reactionary outbursts of Philip; the trauma of Harry; the depravity of Andrew; the agonies of Margaret. We still know nothing like that about the Queen. Because whatever else her life was about, it was not about her.

Part of the hard-to-explain grief I feel today is related to how staggeringly rare that level of self-restraint is today. Narcissism is everywhere. Every feeling we have is bound to be expressed. Self-revelation, transparency, authenticity — these are our values. The idea that we are firstly humans with duties to others that will require and demand the suppression of our own needs and feelings seems archaic. Elizabeth kept it alive simply by example.

Yes, she is to be admired for that self-restraint, though I don’t think it would have sullied her image to do a few more Paddington Bear skits. But, I suppose, Sullivan does come close to the reason for the outburst of grief in Britain at the Queen’s death:

Elizabeth never rode those tides of acclaim or celebrity. She never pressed the easy buttons of conventional popularity. She didn’t even become known for her caustic wit like the Queen Mother, or her compulsively social sorties like Margaret. The gays of Britain could turn both of these queens into camp divas. But not her. In private as in public, she had the kind of integrity no one can mock successfully.

You can make all sorts of solid arguments against a constitutional monarchy — but the point of monarchy is precisely that it is not the fruit of an argument. It is emphatically not an Enlightenment institution. It’s a primordial institution smuggled into a democratic system. It has nothing to do with merit and logic and everything to do with authority and mystery — two deeply human needs our modern world has trouble satisfying without danger.

The Crown satisfies those needs, which keeps other more malign alternatives at bay.

Well, one could disagree that countries need royalty to keep them stable. Although I’ve heard it argued that America could use a “head of state” for ceremonial purposes, alongside the President for governance, I think we’ve done pretty well (excepting for one four-year period); and many countries thrive without royalty.  I, for one, don’t crave authority and mystery.  Could Sullivan’s emphasis on those qualities have something to do with his Catholicism, which teems with both?

But in contrast to the article below, Sullivan does explain the Elizabeth-worship that so puzzles Americans:

 But it matters that divisive figures such as Boris Johnson or Margaret Thatcher were never required or expected to represent the entire nation. It matters that in times of profound acrimony, something unites. It matters that in a pandemic when the country was shut down, the Queen too followed the rules, even at her husband’s funeral, and was able to refer to a phrase — “we’ll meet again” — that instantly reconjured the days of the Blitz, when she and the royal family stayed in London even as Hitler’s bombs fell from the sky.

Every Brit has a memory like this. She was part of every family’s consciousness, woven into the stories of our lives, representing a continuity and stability over decades of massive change and dislocation. No American will ever experience that kind of comfort, that very human form of patriotism across the decades in one’s own life and then the centuries before. When I grew up studying the Normans and the Plantagenets and the Tudors, they were not just artifacts of the distant past, but deeply linked to the present by the monarchy’s persistence and the nation’s thousand-year survival as a sovereign state — something no other European country can claim.

She was there, she didn’t screw up, she was one fixed point in a changing world, and she was the latest instantiation of a hereditary monarchy.  The first three points I can understand, the last I can’t. I’d prefer a country that didn’t have a lineage set apart (and considered superior to) all others. The United State is only about 250 years old, but would having a king ensure our persistence? Would a king have prevented Trump from nearly subverting the Republic? I don’t think so.

***************************************************

I was told that the NYT article below was “pretty good,” but when I read it I discovered a hit job on Queen Elizabeth from a woke-ish perspective.  In other words, though I wasn’t a huge fan of the Queen or the monarchy, I see this article as fundamentally unfair. For it pins on Queen Elizabeth all the horrible crimes and tragedies that went with the creation of the British Empire, even though she had nothing to do with those things. She may have embodied that history as a ruler, but she was a virtually powerless figurehead who had nothing to do with the stuff. Nevertheless, Jasanoff finds a way to pin it on her: colonialism, racism, paternalism—the whole schmear.  Click to read:

 

Jasanoff begins with the obligatory bow to Elizabeth’s fortitude and commitment, but quickly begins tarring her with the crimes of Empire formation:

Tell me if this is not an undeserved slur:

The queen embodied a profound, sincere commitment to her duties — her final public act was to appoint her 15th prime minister — and for her unflagging performance of them, she will be rightly mourned. She has been a fixture of stability, and her death in already turbulent times will send ripples of sadness around the world. But we should not romanticize her era. For the queen was also an image: the face of a nation that, during the course of her reign, witnessed the dissolution of nearly the entire British Empire into some 50 independent states and significantly reduced global influence. By design as much as by the accident of her long life, her presence as head of state and head of the Commonwealth, an association of Britain and its former colonies, put a stolid traditionalist front over decades of violent upheaval. As such, the queen helped obscure a bloody history of decolonization whose proportions and legacies have yet to be adequately acknowledged.

Seriously? The queen obscured a bloody history? Was it her job to stand up and pronounce about that? Did she deliberately obscure the bad aspects of British colonial history. No, because that’s not her brief. She did not favor or perpetuate or obscure any bloody history; all she did (which Jasanoff emphasizes) is make occasional visits to the “colonies” and have her picture taken with “mostly nonwhite” people in those places.

Here’s more:

In photographs from Commonwealth leaders’ conferences, the white queen sits front and center among dozens of mostly nonwhite premiers, like a matriarch flanked by her offspring. She took her role very seriously, sometimes even clashing with her ministers to support Commonwealth interests over narrower political imperatives, as when she advocated multifaith Commonwealth Day services in the 1960s and encouraged a tougher line on apartheid South Africa.

Note that the queen was against apartheid. But. . . but. . .

What you would never know from the pictures — which is partly their point — is the violence that lies behind them.

. . . for which the Queen bears no blame. Jasanoff brings up British violence in Malaya, Ireland (not that the IRA had anything to do with that), and especially in Kenya, where the British engaged in mass slaughter to subdue the populace (read this piece: “The colonization of Kenya” to hear about British malfeasance in all its horror.)  I could add India to Elizabeth’s crimes. Was the Queen to blame for the Jallianwalah Bagh Massacre, or the deaths of millions following the partition in 1947?  She wasn’t even Queen during these times.

Perhaps Elizabeth knew all the bloody details, but knowing is not perpetrating or approving. Yet look at this sly dig: she might have known!

We may never learn what the queen did or didn’t know about the crimes committed in her name. (What transpires in the sovereign’s weekly meetings with the prime minister remains a black box at the center of the British state.) Her subjects haven’t necessarily gotten the full story, either. Colonial officials destroyed many records that, according to a dispatch from the secretary of state for the colonies, “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government” and deliberately concealed others in a secret archive whose existence was revealed only in 2011.

This is perilously close to the “have you stopped beating your wife?” accusation.  Jasanoff keeps mixing up Elizabeth with the bad actions of others, like the previous Prime Minister, tarring her with the sins not just of her contemporaries, but also of the sins of the past. She is even faulted for “her white face”! Jasanoff just can’t stop mixing up the sins of the Empire with the character of the Queen:

Yet xenophobia and racism have been rising, fueled by the toxic politics of Brexit. Picking up on a longstanding investment in the Commonwealth among Euroskeptics (both left and right) as a British-led alternative to European integration, Mr. Johnson’s government (with Liz Truss, now the prime minister, as its foreign secretary) leaned into a vision of “Global Britain” steeped in half-truths and imperial nostalgia.

The queen’s very longevity made it easier for outdated fantasies of a second Elizabethan age to persist. She represented a living link to World War II and a patriotic myth that Britain alone saved the world from fascism. She had a personal relationship with Winston Churchill, the first of her 15 prime ministers, whom Mr. Johnson pugnaciously defended against well-founded criticism of his retrograde imperialism. And she was, of course, a white face on all the coins, notes and stamps circulated in a rapidly diversifying nation: From perhaps one person of color in 200 Britons at her accession, the 2011 census counted one in seven.

The second paragraph faults her for having a “personal relationship” with Churchill, for being somehow associated with Boris Johnson’s defense of Churchill, and of course for having a “white face” that’s on all the currency and stamps. I suppose that visage on money and postage harms people. At long last, Dr. Jasanoff, have you no sense of decency?

At the end, Jasanoff calls for an end to the imperial monarchy. I agree. I oppose any hereditary aristocracy, and it’s time to at least ratchet back on the pomp and circumstance. But for Jasanoff, Elizabeth is a screen on which the sweating Harvard Professor projects all her hatred of colonialism and the bad things the British did to secure their empire. And I agree with that assessment of colonialism as well. But I do not agree that Elizabeth, by merely existing, somehow legitimizes the racism and xenophobia of British history.

Matthew tells me that this kind of criticism of Elizabeth is far stronger in America than in Britain. That, of course, is because she was the British Queen, but also because Americans are more Pecksniffian and woke than Brits.  Perhaps it is time for a reckoning of the “British Empire’s violent atrocities,” as the Guardian piece below reports. In that way the Queen is like George Floyd, as the deaths of both of them have unleashed huge amounts of resentment and calls to reassess the past.

When Matthew sent me these tweets about what was going on in the UK, and I read some of the vicious criticism of Jasanoff’s piece by readers commenting on her article, I thought, “Wait, this is surely an overreaction.” Now I’m not so sure. Here are some tweets:

Eizabeth’s death unleashes anger at both her and British history:

h/t: Matthew

Queen Elizabeth dies

September 8, 2022 • 1:00 pm

Here’s the official news:

She was 96, and her last official act was to install Liz Truss as Britain’s new Prime Minister. I trust St. Peter won’t hold that against her.

You can read more about the death at nearly every website and social media site, as well as every television and radio station, so I will leave you to peruse.

Post by Greg Mayer: More thoughts on E.O. Wilson

January 8, 2022 • 1:20 pm

by Greg Mayer

As WEIT readers well know by now, E.O. Wilson died last month at the age of 92. Jerry knew Ed better than I did, but my scientific interests were actually much closer to his than were Jerry’s. I was greatly influenced by Ed and Robert MacArthur‘s theory of island biogeography. The Harvard Gazette just republished an interview with Ed from 2014, and the interviewer asked what he thought his most important contribution was. Ed said there were several, but his work with MacArthur is the first thing he mentioned.

My well-worn copy of MacArthur and Wilson, purchased in 1977, when I was an undergraduate.

I had learned about their ideas–especially the idea that the number of species on an island was the result of a dynamic equilibrium between ongoing colonization and extinction–in my undergraduate classes. I got a copy of their book and began reading it between my sophomore and junior years of college. When I went off to graduate school to work on island lizards with Ernest Williams, I expected that I would wind up applying and exemplifying the principles of the theory.

The title page of my copy, signed by Ed, with an added sketch of an ant; inscribed on 6 October 2007, at the “Island Biogeography at 40” symposium held at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). I had brought my copy with me; Ed and I chatted, and he graciously signed it, adding the ant unbidden. The symposium resulted in a book edited by Jon Losos and Bob Ricklefs (reference below).

Ed’s work in island biogeography included theoretical formulation (though the mathematics was primarily MacArthur’s), analysis of faunal lists and distribution patterns, and, very ambitiously, experimental manipulation of species numbers on mangrove islets in Florida. One of his contributions to island biogeography that has gone largely unremarked, but which I regard as of real significance, are his studies of Cenozoic fossil ant faunas in amber from the Dominican Republic. He found that the ancient amber ant fauna was more characteristic of a continental fauna, rather than that of an oceanic island. I was very impressed by this work; at the time it was, and remains to this day, among the strongest evidence that the Greater Antilles are old continental islands– islands once attached to or closely adjacent to the mainland, from which their fauna derives.  (Several of his papers on the amber ants are open access, and are linked below.)

Ed gave a seminar about his amber fossil work while I was a grad student, and we talked afterwards, and he suggested we continue the discussion. Knowing how busy Ed was, I went to make an appointment to see him with his secretary, rather than rely on us passing in the hallway to set a time (Ed was not often in the hallway). His secretary was very suspicious about who I was and what I wanted, and said I would need to write a letter requesting a meeting. The demand seemed to me beyond the pale, considering that I was a grad student in the MCZ and that Ed wanted the meeting. I never wrote the letter, and that conversation never continued.

A few years later, in 1988, James D. ‘Skip’ Lazell and I wrote that the discovery of bolitoglossine salamanders (a mainland group, with little capacity to cross a salt water barrier) in the Dominican amber would be powerful evidence from the vertebrate fossil record for an old continental origin of the Greater Antillean fauna (Wilson’s work having provided invertebrate evidence). In 2015 George Poinar and Dave Wake reported exactly that– a well-preserved bolitoglossine salamander from the Dominican amber!

Many people (including Ed) have commented on Ed’s rather sour relationship with Dick Lewontin. What is sometimes overlooked in these discussions is that both of them were involved with a group known as the “Marlboro Circle”. This group, which sought to conceptually unify ecology and evolutionary biology, included, among others, Ed’s key collaborator, Robert MacArthur, and also Richard Levins. (Levins was a Marxist who made important contributions to island biogeography, collaborated on publications with MacArthur and Lewontin, and visited Wilson’s experimental mangrove islands.)

I find the activities of this group fascinating– in many ways they set the agenda for ecology and evolutionary biology for the second half of the 20th century. It is one of the most important episodes in the biology of that century–that the group was marked by tragedy (MacArthur’s death at 42) and a falling out among its members lends pathos as well. The episode has, unfortunately, been little studied or remarked upon by historians of science. My last communication with Ed (in 2020) was about some of the sources for the data that went into the origination of his and MacArthur’s formulation of their theory.

I mentioned above that I had expected my studies to apply and exemplify the theory of island biogeography, but as I learned more about reptile distribution and did my own studies in the West Indies, I found that species number on islands was not the result of a dynamic equilibrium between ongoing colonization and extinction. Rather medium (10^4 to 10^5 ka, especially ice age changes in sea level) and long term (10^6 to 10^7 ka; the origin and diversification of major lineages) geological and evolutionary events were much more important in shaping the fauna.

Nonetheless, MacArthur and Wilson, like Darwin in the Origin and Mendel in his seminal paper, had limned many pathways for further progress, and despite failing to find evidence of their equilibrium process, I had, and continue to have, the greatest respect for their work. For my thesis defense, I planned to bring two past members of the Marlboro Circle– Dick Lewontin, my advisor, and Ed Wilson, original island biogeographer– back together, at least briefly.

My thesis defense talk was entitled “A theory of island biogeography, with especial reference to the amphibians and reptiles of the West Indies”. (This was a deliberate mashup of the title of Ed’s book and the title of a monograph from 1914 by Thomas Barbour, an early curator of herpetology at the MCZ, “A contribution to the zoogeography of the West Indies, with especial reference to amphibians and reptiles“.) I gave the talk at Dick’s weekly Population Biology Seminar on the 3rd floor of the MCZ Labs, one floor below Ed’s lab.

I tried to make sure that Ed would attend, despite its location, by placing a copy of my seminar announcement in his mailbox. He did come, and sat at the middle of one side of the great table that sat in the middle of Dick’s lab (Dick was further back in the room). I argued in my talk that the equilibrium theory was a special case of a more general theory, and that the equilibrium theory per se didn’t apply very well to West Indian amphibians and reptiles.

After my talk, among the questions were one or two from Ed. He defended the applicability of his and MacArthur’s theory to broader situations than the ones where it fit best, and, indeed, I concur that they had anticipated modifications, expansions, and refinements that would improve it– that’s why I had said there was a more general theory of which theirs could be a special case. After the questions, Ed left.

Although much of Ed’s public reputation rests, rightly, on Ed’s advocacy for biodiversity, and on the controversy over sociobiology (which accounts for essentially all the negative bits), in remembering Wilson we should not lose sight of his other accomplishments.


Losos, J.B. and R.E. Ricklefs, eds. 2010. The Theory of Island Biogeography Revisited. Princeton University Press, Princeton, N.J. publisher

MacArthur, R.H. and E.O. Wilson. 1967. The Theory of Island Biogeography. Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. publisher

Wilson, E.O. 1985. Ants of the Dominican amber (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). 1. Two new myrmicine genera and an aberrant Pheidole. Psyche 92:1-9. pdf

Wilson, E.O. 1985. Ants of the Dominican amber (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). 2. The first fossil army ants. Psyche 92:11-16. pdf

Wilson, E.O. 1985. Ants of the Dominican amber (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). 3. The subfamily Dolichoderinae. Psyche 92:17-37. pdf

Richard Leakey dies at 77

January 2, 2022 • 12:22 pm

This just in: Richard Leakey, well known paleoanthropologist, conservationist, and politician, has died at 77.  (Two of his team’s finds are H. rudolfensis and “Turkana Boy,” placed in H. ergaster.) A brief bio from the France 24 website:

World-renowned Kenyan conservationist and politician Richard Leakey, who unearthed evidence that helped to prove humankind evolved in Africa, died on Sunday at the age of 77, the country’s president said.

“I have this afternoon… received with deep sorrow the sad news of the passing away of Dr Richard Erskine Frere Leakey, Kenya‘s former Head of Public Service,” said Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta in a statement late Sunday.

Leakey, the middle son of famed paleoanthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey, had no formal archaeological training of his own but led expeditions in the 1970s that made groundbreaking discoveries of early hominid fossils.

His most famous find came in 1984 with the uncovering of an extraordinary, near-complete Homo erectus skeleton during one of his digs in 1984, which was nicknamed Turkana Boy.

In 1989, Leakey was tapped by then President Daniel arap Moi to lead the national Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), where he spearheaded a vigorous campaign to stamp out rampant poaching for elephant ivory.

In 1993, his small Cessna plane crashed in the Rift Valley. He survived but lost both legs.

He also tried his hand at politics, ran civil society institutions, and briefly headed Kenya’s civil service.

In 2015, despite ailing health, he returned to the helm of the KWS for a three year term at the request of Kenyatta.

Here’s Leakey in 2010:

And Turkana boy (1.5-1.6 million years old), the most complete early hominin skeleton found to date:

E. O. Wilson died

December 27, 2021 • 6:06 am

Matthew sent me a tweet this morning saying that Edward O. Wilson, known to all of us as “Ed”, died yesterday at at 92. He died at the same age as my mentor—Ed’s nemesis Dick Lewontin—as both were born in 1929.  There’s a short obituary by Carl Zimmer that you can read at the NYT link below (click on screenshot); there will be a longer one for sure as Carl fleshes it out.

As usual, I’ll leave the details of his career and accomplishments to the formal obituaries and to Wikipedia (look at his list of books!), except to say that Ed was a polymath who was a Harvard professor for 46 years before retiring. And he was working tirelessly up to his death, just like his colleague Ernst Mayr (who died at 100).

Ed’s lab occupied the fourth floor of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ) Laboratories at Harvard, while Lewontin’s lab, where I worked, was one floor below. But they might as well have been light years apart, for Lewontin intensely disliked Ed, and the feeling was mutual. (Ed had less rancor, he was more or less blindsided when Lewontin and Steve Gould—who worked in the adjacent main MCZ—began attacking him as a reactionary biological determinist after Ed published his landmark book, Sociobiology.)In fact, Ed originally helped recruit Dick to Harvard from the University of Chicago; but that didn’t make Lewontin temper his reaction when the Great Sociobiology Wars began.

But I did not share Dick’s dislike of Ed. If you knew Ed as a person—and I knew him as an acquaintance—you simply could not dislike him. (Dick and Steve’s animus was based purely on politics.). Ed was mild-mannered, gentle, and helpful: I’ve written before about how he got me into Harvard as a graduate student in a single day, an act of generosity I’ll never forget. I also taught two semesters of Bio 1 (introductory biology) under Ed, and was great friends with some of the people in his lab. The result was that I spent a fair amount of time on the fourth floor, but never in my six years at Harvard did I see Ed on the third floor—our floor.

Only one time I know of was he even near Lewontin. That’s when I was waiting with Dick for the elevator to the third floor, and Ed strode into the building and joined us in the elevator. The tension immediately became thick and palpable. It was a silent and uncomfortable ride up three floors; not a word was exchanged between the two Harvard professors, not even “hello”.

In his later years, Ed became wedded to the idea of group selection, and wrote several books and papers touting it as an explanation for eusociality in insects like ants and bees (communal living with a queen and sterile workers), as well as for many traits in humans. This was unfortunate, as this view was almost surely wrong, but Ed clung to it tenaciously. It was, I think, his only big misstep in a sterling career. Sadly, I had to review one of his books on group selection and panned it.

When I interviewed Dick a few years ago about his own career, he had nothing nice to say about Wilson; in fact, that was the one time he made me turn the tape off, and you can imagine what he said during the hiatus, though I’m not at liberty to divulge it. But Dick also mourned the loss of the great evolutionary biologists who reigned when he was a student: people like Ernst Mayr, Al Roemer, G. G. Simpson, and Theodosius Dobzhansky. Dick said, “There are no great ones left. Where are the great ones?”

He was wrong. Ed was one of the great ones. Evolutionary biology, ant biology, and conservation biology will be poorer for his absence. And he was a terrific guy—rare for someone who was so famous. Just ask people who knew him.

Here are two photos I took of Ed at a lunch at Naomi Pierce’s and Andrew Berry’s house in Cambridge on October 5, 2007.  This was during was a symposium at Harvard, though I don’t remember what it was about.

Talking to Patty Gowaty.