David B. Wake (1936-2021)

May 8, 2021 • 10:45 am

by Greg Mayer

David B. Wake, emeritus Professor of Integrative Biology, Curator, and Director of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, died on April 29, 2021. Dave was a herpetologist and evolutionary morphologist who not only exerted great influence in his core disciplines, but also made notable contributions to conservation, systematics, evolutionary genetics, and paleontology. In conservation, his contributions were not just in conservation biology as an academic pursuit, but in actually conserving the world’s biodiversity, especially amphibians.

Dave Wake in his MVZ office (from his lab website).

Dave was born and grew up in South Dakota. He went to Pacific Lutheran College, and then down the coast to the University of Southern California for his Ph.D. with Jay Savage (another notable herpetologist), which was on the comparative osteology and evolution of salamanders of the family Plethodontidae. This species-rich family of lungless and mostly American salamanders remained the central, though not exclusive, object of his research over the whole of his long and very productive career. It was at USC that he met Marvalee, who became his wife, and who is a formidable herpetologist and morphologist (specializing in caecilians) in her own right.

After finishing his degree, Dave spent 5 years as a professor at the University of Chicago, but in 1969 he was lured back to California to Berkeley and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, and he stayed there the rest of his career. He was the Director of the Museum from 1971 to 1998; he retired in 2003, but continued a rich research output: over 400 publications are listed on Dave’s website. Dave’s legacy is reflected not just in the enormous outpouring of his own work, but in the stunning roster of the undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and collaborators who have flourished under his influence. The “People” page on his lab website reads like a who’s who of herpetologically-oriented evolutionary biology. (And there are many others not listed, such as “grandstudents”, who fell within at least the edges of Dave’s penumbra.)

Berkeley has put out a fine notice, and we are fortunate that Dave himself contributed to a biographical paper published in Copeia in 2017, and a transcript of an interview he did with his longtime MVZ colleague, mammalogist Jim Patton, is available; I have drawn from these sources for some of the above account.

When I was applying to graduate schools in 1978, I applied to Berkeley, and went out to visit in the winter of 1979, where I was graciously and generously received into the home of Dave and Marvalee (and their son Tom– now a zooarcheologist at UCLA). I was enormously impressed by his overview monograph on tropical American salamanders, published a few years earlier with James Lynch, and by the MVZ and the group of students and faculty there.

I had also applied to Chicago and Harvard, and I soon realized that there were close connections among the herpetologists at all three places. I wound up going to Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology to work with Ernest Williams, but one of Dave’s graduate students Pere Alberch, whom I had met on my visit to the MVZ, the next year came to the MCZ to be the curator of the herpetology department. (Pere, who died tragically young, was later Director of the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, and one of the founders of the modern sub-discipline of evolutionary developmental biology, or “evo-devo”; Dave wrote his obituary for Nature.) There was an “MCZ-MVZ axis”, which passed through Chicago (including the Field Museum in Chicago). The strength of that connection was driven home by Dave himself many years later, when in 2017, he remarked that, in devoting himself to the study of plethodontid salamanders,  he had “consciously modeled his approach on Williams'” work on anoles. It is fitting that he and Marvalee both spent their last sabbatical year in 2002 at the MCZ, the long-serving director of which is Jim Hanken, yet another of Dave’s students.

Although I did not wind up in Berkeley or working with Dave, I would see him at meetings and on visits to California, and want to extend my deep condolences to Marvalee, Tom, and all their family and friends.

Dave’s major works are too numerous to mention, so I include here only the 1976 monograph that so impressed me as an undergraduate; a University of California publication on the history of the MVZ; and his obituary of Pere Alberch. I’ve also included the biography in Copeia mentioned above, and two articles analyzing Dave’s research program by James Griesemer, a philosopher of science who had been an undergraduate in Dave’s lab.

Griesemer, J. 2013. Integration of approaches in David Wake’s model-taxon research platform for evolutionary morphology. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44:525-536.

Griesemer, J. 2015. What salamander biologists have taught us about evo-devo. pp. 271-301 in A.C. Love, ed. Conceptual Change in Biology: Scientific and Philosophical Perspectives on Evolution and Development. Springer Verlag, Dordrecht.

Rodriguez-Robles, J.A., D.A. Good, & D.B. Wake. 2003. Brief history of herpetology in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley, with a list of type specimens of recent amphibians and reptiles. Univ. Calif. Pub. Zool. 131: xvi+119. pdf

Staub, N. and R.L. Mueller. 2017. David Burton Wake. Copeia 105(2):415-426. pdf

Wake, D.B. 1998. Pere Alberch (1954-1998): Synthesizer of evolution and development. Nature 393:632. pdf

Wake, D. B., and J. F. Lynch. 1976. The distribution, ecology, and evolutionary history of plethodontid salamanders in tropical America. Sci. Bull. Nat. Hist. Mus. Los Angeles Co. 25:1-65.

I am grateful to Jonathan Losos for reading a draft of this, and providing suggestions.

On celebrating Rush Limbaugh’s death

February 21, 2021 • 9:30 am

The other day, depressed with the number of people I saw expressing sheer joy at the death of Rush Limbaugh, I put up a Facebook post:

In response, people proceeded to inform me, as if I didn’t know, what Limbaugh’s odious political and personal opinions really were, with some adding me that it was really okay to celebrate. (Nobody unfriended me.) After all, his existence was a net minus for the world’s welfare—something I’m prepared to believe—so why not gambol with glee when he died? (Let me note that he died of lung cancer, and it was probably a pretty horrible way to go.)

And, as Frank Bruni notes in his New York Times op-ed below (expressing a view similar to  mine), the celebrations were not only widespread, but pretty mean-spirited:

“BIGOT, MISOGYNIST, HOMOPHOBE, CRANK: RUSH LIMBAUGH DEAD.” Those were the words, capitalized and adrenalized, that HuffPost splashed across its home page. Several other left-leaning sites took the same tack and tone.

Of course, they were positively restrained in comparison with Twitter, which is basically talk radio’s less windy bastard child. “Rest in piss” had currency there. The F word, followed immediately by Limbaugh’s name, was taken out for a spin. There was speculation that Limbaugh had gone to a very hot place reputed to have nine circles and a red, horned ruler. There was wishing that he would rot there. One tweet said that Limbaugh “brought a lot of people a lot of joy by dying.” It was liked by more than 35,000 of the morbidly contented. I don’t begrudge them their relief that he’s no longer ranting. But is that really what they want to lavish a cute little heart symbol on?

Not for me.  While I don’t mourn the absence of Limbaugh from the scene, celebrating it just didn’t feel right. I couldn’t join the chorus of glee, and yet I didn’t understand why. I didn’t feel that I was superior to those who were celebrating (yes, it was mean-spirited, but I can be, too), but something in me baulked at expressing the verbal equivalent of heart symbols.

Part of it was that Limbaugh’s wife was on the news, clearly distraught, and she loved him, as other members of his family must have. So some people are more heartbroken than we are gleeful. And I’m a conscientious objector, which I think has made me wary of celebrating anybody’s death, even an enemy’s.

But most of all, I suppose, I realize how much every human values their own lives. Evolution has instilled strong instincts for self-preservation in us, and few can face a terminal diagnosis with equanimity. Limbaugh himself must have gone through unspeakable mental and physical torments after his diagnosis and before his death. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody, and it’s hard for me to look at that and laugh.

Yes, he might have had a negative effect on the world, but there are many people you can say that about. Not just Trump, but, as I think from comments by some on this site, almost every Republican, from Mitch McConnell to Ted Cruz on down, could be described as having a net negative effect on the world. Even regular people, if they engage in stuff like killing animals for fur or evicting poor people from their homes, might create, through their existence, a net loss in “well being”, however you measure that.  If having a net negative effect on the world is the criterion for celebrating someone’s death, then we should constantly be celebrating.

And yet, like Bruni, I think it erodes one’s character to engage in that kind of hate, and I think it’s eroded both Democrats and Republicans over the past four years to engage in the kind of demonization that led to the celebration of Limbaugh’s death. What doesn’t erode one’s character is a measured yet highly negative take on Limbaugh’s legacy, which both Bruni and Andrew Sullivan (below; click on screenshot) offer.

Bruni extols the New York Times‘s own obituary of Limbaugh as the way it should be done:

He earned it. If you’re going to fling your opinions at the world, you must be braced for the world to fling its reaction back at you. Those are the terms of the contract.

And it would be journalistic malpractice and morally wrong to publish obituaries about Limbaugh that merely noted his role in the rise of talk radio and his adoration by millions of listeners. Those appraisals were obliged, for the sake of history and accuracy, to note and be reasonably blunt about how he used his format, what listeners were thrilling to and what impact it had on the country’s political culture.

The Times’s obituary did precisely that. I don’t always agree with the approach and decisions of the news organization that employs me and have never felt any pressure to play cheerleader for it, but I think it handled Limbaugh’s death expertly.

Christopher Plummer, 1929-2021

February 5, 2021 • 4:00 pm

by Greg Mayer

Christopher Plummer, the distinguished Canadian actor, has died. Playing many roles on stage, film, and television, he had won an Oscar, two Tonys, and two Emmys during his very long career. The New York Times‘ obituarist, while noting that most will remember him for his role in the film version of The Sound of Music, writes that he was “a Shakespearean foremost.”

Given my own, perhaps odd, combination of cultural tastes, I recall him best as General Chang, the Shakespeare-quoting chief of staff to Chancellor Gorkon of the Klingon Empire who desires peace with the Federation in Star trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. The title is a phrase from Hamlet, and Gorkon, as well as Chang, is a Shakespeare-quoter. Plummer speaks lines from several of Shakespeare’s plays, including lines he has spoken on stage and screen in performances of those very plays.

Chang opposes peace, and Plummer’s final line in the film, as Federation starships breach his ship’s defenses and blow it to smithereens, is “To be, or not to be.”

If you watch the whole of the preceding clip, you’ll hear several more lines of Shakespeare from Plummer. The following are two slightly different compilations of some of Plummer’s Shakespearean lines from throughout the film, including from the preceding clip.

The second, with references:

To perhaps explain the prominence of Shakespeare in the mouths of Klingons, Gorkon (played by David Warner, himself a prominent Shakespearean) says, at 42 seconds, “You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon”; right afterwards Plummer says “To be, or not to be” in Klingon.

Alas, poor Christopher; he has come not to be.

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:

Olivia de Havilland died

July 26, 2020 • 12:30 pm

Gone With the Wind was made in 1939, and Olivia de Havilland, who played the stolid Melanie in that film, was 23.  de Havilland, who did far in her life than play Melanie, died yesterday at 104 at her home in France, where she’d lived for seventy years. I had no idea she was still alive. She’s surely the last of the great movie stars of that era (her younger sister was another: Joan Fontaine.)

de Havilland was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar for her role, but didn’t win (Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy, nabbed that award, the first to go to an African-American). But I’m sure most of you have seen that movie (it now comes with caveats about slavery). Here are a few scenes with Melanie:

de Havilland eventually won two Oscars for Best Actress: one in To Each His Own (1946), and the other in The Heiress (1946). I’ve seen neither of those films, but will now.

She received two other nominations beyond GWTW, and one was in a mesmerizing movie I have sees: The Snake Pit (1948), in which she plays a character thrown into a mental institution. I’ve seen it twice, but both times as a youngster, so I can’t pronounce on the quality of her performance. But the fact that it sticks with me after decades does say something. And I well remember this scene, when she’s thrown among the inmates although she’s not as bad off as they are:

Here’s a scene from the movie; many of the other actors were (paid) inmates of an asylum, and, like the nonfiction movie Titicut Follies, this one inspired reform of state mental institutions.

As for her other achievements, I’ll let Wikipedia recount them:

DeHavilland’s career spanned 53 years, from 1935 to 1988. During that time, she appeared in 49 feature films, and was one of the leading movie stars during the golden age of Classical Hollywood. She began her career playing demure ingénues opposite male stars such as Errol Flynn, with whom she made her breakout film Captain Blood in 1935. They would go on to make eight more feature films together, and became one of Hollywood’s most successful on-screen romantic pairings. Her range of performances included roles in most major movie genres. Following her film debut in the Shakespeare adaptation A Midsummer Night’s Dream, deHavilland achieved her initial popularity in romantic comedies, such as The Great Garrick and Hard to Get, and Western adventure films, such as Dodge City and Santa Fe Trail.  In her later career, she was most successful in drama films, such as In This Our Life and Light in the Piazza, and psychological dramas playing non-glamorous characters in films such as The Dark MirrorThe Snake Pit, and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

During her career, deHavilland won two Academy Awards (To Each His Own and The Heiress), two Golden Globe Awards (The Heiress and Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna), two New York Film Critics Circle Awards (The Snake Pit and The Heiress), the National Board of Review Award, and the Venice Film Festival Volpi Cup (The Snake Pit), and a Primetime Emmy Award nomination (Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna).

For her contributions to the motion picture industry, deHavilland received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6762 Hollywood Boulevard on February 8, 1960. Since her retirement in 1988, her lifetime contribution to the arts has been honored on two continents. In 1998, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hertfordshire in England.

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.)

NBC News, reporting Jerry Stiller’s death, touts heaven

May 11, 2020 • 6:15 pm

The great comedian Jerry Stiller, who often performed with his wife Anne Meara, passed away this morning at age 92. Reporting on his life and comedy, NBC News finished the report with these words:

“Meara passed away five years ago. Now this legendary pair is laughing together again.”

Now if that isn’t a paean to togetherness in the afterlife, you tell me what it is. You might be able to confect a tortuous interpretation, like a Sophisticated Theologian®, but I see the words as a sop to the religious.

We are constantly inundated by these nods towards religion and religionists, and this is one of them. It sounds good, doesn’t it? But it’s a lie.

Let’s just watch them laugh together when they were alive. Here they are on the Ed Sullivan show in 1964, with Meara trying to kiss off her ardent boyfriend.

NYT kicks a dying man—because he’s a right-winger

February 9, 2020 • 12:00 pm

Rush Limbaugh is dying: he’s been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, which has a survival rate of well below 10%. I suppose it’s that diagnosis, as well as Limbaugh’s relentless promotion of Donald Trump, that prompted Trump to bestow the Presidential Medal of Freedom on him at Tuesday’s State of the Union address.

Limbaugh is an odious character: a true spokeman for the real “Basket of Deplorables” who elected Trump. He’s a hatemonger, a sexist and a nativist, if not a racist, and I have no use for him. The Medal of Freedom award is a travesty and outrageous, but given the circumstances I can’t get too worked up about it.

Still, he’s married (though without kids) and there are presumably people who care about him. Can you not help feeling a bit of empathy for a man who’s been told that he almost certainly will die soon? It’s a horrible thing to learn.

Nevertheless, there are people who are using these circumstances to reiterate what a horrible man he is. One of them is Talmon Joseph Smith’s in today’s New York Times Sunday Review, who presents a bunch of pretty horrible quotes from Limbaugh over the years. Click on the screenshot:

The introduction to the quotes, which I admit are racist, sexist, and generally deplorable, is snarky, implicitly opposing Limbaugh to people considered true heroes (I guess Smith hasn’t gotten the news about Mother Teresa yet):

During his third State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Trump presented the country’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to the longtime conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh, who recently announced he has late-stage lung cancer. Past recipients of the award include Elie Wiesel, Rosa Parks and Mother Teresa. Mr. Trump told Mr. Limbaugh he was being recognized for “the millions of people a day that you speak to and that you inspire.” Millions more have perhaps never listened to his popular radio program. For those who haven’t, here is a selection of his comments on various issues.

Of course all the quotes will make the hairs on your neck stand up, but note the seemingly neutral way the article is presented, though it damns Limbaugh by using his own words.

Maybe readers will disagree with me, but I think it’s a supreme example of bad taste to publish an article like this about a man who is dying. After he’s dead—sure, by all means have at him. I have no quarrel, for example, with Christopher Hitchens famously excoriating Jerry Falwell after the man’s death. But there’s something unseemly about going after a guy, and in such a snarky way, when he’s got one foot in the grave. But this is today’s New York Times, the organ of an ideology without empathy for its opponents.

Can’t they wait until he’s dead?