Morning column opposing Huxley’s cancellation

October 29, 2021 • 9:15 am

How about a little critique of misguided “renaming” this morning? Reader Adrian sent me a link to this column in the Times of London, which isn’t paywalled. Adrian adds that “Oliver Kamm (acquaintance of Steven Pinker I think), has just written this defense of Thomas Huxley in today’s edition of The Times’ ‘Thunderer’ column. He cites your recent comments too.”

When I asked Adrian who Oliver Kamm is, and what “Thunderer” means, he replied, ” Thunderer was an old affectionate name of the readership for the Times in general – maybe dates back to 18th century from memory. Now, it seems to have been repurposed as the name the paper attaches to a column principally used for short, single issue polemics. Oliver Kamm is generally good – similar to Nick Cohen in many ways.”

And sure enough, Kamm has a Wikipedia entry.

Click on the screenshot, though I’ll save you the trouble by putting the whole column below (pardon the self-aggrandizement!).

Kamm takes out after Imperial College London’s proposal to rename lecture halls, buildings, statues, and academic positions after the famous but “tainted” biologists T. H. Huxley, Ronald Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, and William Hamilton. None of these people warrant cancellation.  And Kamm predicts, as I have, that Darwin is next. (I’ve considered, though, that some people are so well known and so iconic that they are almost immune to cancellation attempts. These include both Darwin and George Washington, though miscreants have gone after both of them.)

Herewith, Oliver Kamm:

When considering the ancestor of birds, the Victorian naturalist Thomas Henry Huxley concluded that it had to be a reptile of the type known as archosaurs. A few years later the discovery of a fossilised feathered dinosaur, Archaeopteryx, confirmed his thesis. It was a triumphant example of the explanatory power of the theory of evolution by natural selection and random mutation.

The passage of 150 years has not dimmed Huxley’s achievements. He was a great figure of scientific inquiry, and a famed defender and populariser of Charles Darwin’s discoveries. Yet not everyone approves. A report by an independent history group at Imperial College London recommends that the university remove Huxley’s bust and rename a building that bears his name. The reason is that in his writings Huxley advocated eugenics and made racist and sexist remarks.

The reasoning is specious. It’s not necessary to relativise Huxley’s views as being common among men of his time (though they were), let alone dispute their bigotry, to insist that his name be celebrated rather than eradicated.

It is a good thing that historical reputations are continually revised in the light of evidence and indeed modern mores. The common claim that we should not judge the past by the standards of the present is beside the point: scholars must do this, or knowledge would not advance. The issue is the criteria we use. Removing Huxley’s name in censure pre-empts the question of what weight to accord his contribution to knowledge. It should be immense. And as the evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne has pointed out, if Huxley is treated this way then the “cancellation” of Darwin (who was likewise an abolitionist who made racist comments) may not be far behind.

Coyne suggests that before we do any such thing with a historical figure, we ask whether their commemoration is due to the good they did, and whether this outweighed the bad. In Huxley’s case the answers have to be yes or the practice of science itself no longer matters.

Consider that the human costs of the coronavirus crisis would have been unimaginably greater but for the ability of scientists swiftly to identify the cause, sequence its genome and develop vaccines. The work of Huxley advanced what is perhaps the most important intellectual discovery in history, and even then he did not fully grasp its grandeur. (Unlike Darwin, he was a saltationist, believing that evolutionary changes happened in great leaps rather than over geological ages.)

If Imperial succumbs to a misguided campaign to suppress the name of Huxley then British society will become stupider without being kinder.

I love that last line, for it epitomizes the futility of these cancellation campaigns. They may succeed renaming buildings, but all they do is erase the history of biology without improving society one whit.

We hit 73,000

July 10, 2021 • 1:30 pm

I’m sufficiently vain that I do enjoy it when the number of subscribers to this website goes up—especially when they hit a round number. I don’t get money, but I do get naches. (Yes, I know “round numbers” mean noting.) However, we just reached this mark, and I never thought it would be this high.  Thanks to the many readers who stick with the site, and maybe we’ll get to 75,000 before this site sleeps with the fishes.

(Somehow I think someone is going to unsubscribe to ruin this figure!)

Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus): “Ask me anything”

April 14, 2021 • 9:45 am

When Why Evolution is True came out, part of the publicity was to do a reddit “Ask me anything” feature, or “AMA”.  People post questions and you choose which ones to answer. It was fun, but a bit frantic, as it was time-limited and you have to answer quickly.

There’s not much to write about today save John McWhorter’s latest installment of The Elect (stay tuned), so I’ll do an AMA here.  Each reader can pose one question (with one related followup) in one comment, and I’ll try to answer as many as I can. The rules: no personal questions beyond those relating to food, travel, tastes in music and literature, and non-intrusive inquiries of that ilk. Science questions are encouraged, though of course I am likely to say “I don’t know” to some of them. And that’s about it.

I’ll check in throughout the day, and perhaps in the evening, and do what I can. I’m doing this not because I think my life has been especially notable or interesting, but because interaction here is usually one way: readers often write or comment about themselves, and I enjoy that. I’ll turn the tables this time.

You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.

In which PCC(E) tells people how to get rid of fruit flies

April 7, 2021 • 2:00 pm

This is not the first time I’ve been asked “how to get rid of fruit flies,” but this time it’s by a reporter for Chicago Magazine in the article below.

The first thing I had to ask when they queried me, was “what kind of ‘fruit flies’ are you talking about?” For the true fruit flies, the tephritids that endanger California’s fruit industry (that’s why you get inspected at the state border), aren’t a problem to homeowners.

What the reporter was asking me about was what geneticists call “fruit flies” but are better known to entomologists as “vinegar flies”. These are in the sister family Drosophilidae, and are the familiar Drosophila used in the lab. When you see little yellow flies buzzing around your fruit bowl, they are drosophilids, most likely Drosophila melanogaster or D. simulans.

And Drosophila are harmless, except to winemakers, and only because they’re attracted to the smell of alcohol and fly into the wine vats to die a happy death. (Flies love the smell of alcohol, as it denotes their real love, rotting fruit, in which they lay eggs.) Winemakers use pyrethrins, a fairly harmless pesticide derived from chrysanthemums, to control them.

If you see Drosophila buzzing around your fruit bowl or a glass of beer, don’t kill them, just shoo them away. They shouldn’t be breeding in your house unless you have a bunch of rotting fruit that’s sitting around for 12 days or so—and who has that?

(When I lived in Davis, I was called by a bar in Sacramento that really did have a Drosophila problem. A quick investigation showed that there was a huge bin of leftover, rotting lemons and limes from the bartender behind the building, and that was the source of the flies. For solving that problem, I got free drinks!)

But a reporter from Chicago Magazine was interested in how to get rid of them, along with three other “problems”: hiccups, alley rats, and hangovers. Somehow I was picked to be the fruit fly expert, and here’s my answer (click on the screenshots below to see the others, each with a different expert:

Well, this is advice for those with dipteraphobia. If you see fruit flies, just gently shoo them outside!

A retrospective look at a paper: Coyne and Orr (1989)

April 4, 2021 • 12:00 pm

The two best-cited pieces of scientific work bearing my name were both done in collaboration with my graduate student, Allen Orr, who was recommended to me by Bruce Grant, my undergrad genetics teacher at The College of William and Mary. Allen had gotten a B.A. in philosophy there, and went on to do a master’s degree with Bruce in Drosophila genetics. Bruce recommended him to me as a good prospect, but wasn’t sure how he’d work out as a Ph.D. student.

At the time I was at the University of Maryland, took Allen on, and the rest was history. I had no idea how to mentor graduate students—Allen was my first—but it turned out he needed no mentoring: he was a self-starter. Over his few years in my lab, he published about ten papers and won the Society for the Study of Evolution’s Dobzhansky Prize in 1993, given to the person the SSE’s committee considers the best young evolutionary biologist.

The two most cited works include a pair of related papers (Coyne and Orr 1989, 1997), and our coauthored book Speciation (2004).

I summarized the main findings of the two papers, and gave a bit of their history, in a post from October of last year, which includes an interview I did about it in 2017 for Reflections of Paper Past.  At that time I didn’t know that two people, including my last student, Daniel Matute, were writing a retrospective of the 1989 and 1997 papers.

At any rate, in honor of the 75th anniversary of the journal Evolution, it’s been publishing retrospectives of notable papers that have appeared there. One chosen for this treatment was the Coyne and Orr duo. The retrospective paper, by Daniel Matute (UNC Chapel Hill) and Brandon S. Cooper, now at the University of Montana, can be accessed by clicking on the screenshot below, or you can get the pdf here. The reference to the retrospective is at the bottom. It will probably be of interest only to evolutionary geneticists, but it’s here for the record.

I have to say that Daniel and Brandon did a terrific job. It’s far more than a “retrospective” of our papers, but a new meta-analysis of existing data on how reproductive barriers between incipient species grow with time. (That was the subject of our original papers, and you can read the summary at the link above.) The new paper highlights where we were right, where we were wrong, what gaps there are in our knowledge about reproductive isolation, and what directions future research on the time course of speciation should take. In other words, it’s a review paper on a growing area of research rather than a discussion of just two small papers.

I’ll end by giving their abstract, which shows what the paper is about. But if you work on speciation, you’ll want to read their whole paper:


Understanding the processes of population divergence and speciation remains a core question in evolutionary biology. For nearly a hundred years evolutionary geneticists have characterized reproductive isolation (RI) mechanisms and specific barriers to gene flow required for species formation. The seminal work of Coyne and Orr provided the first comprehensive comparative analysis of speciation. By combining phylogenetic hypotheses and species range data with estimates of genetic divergence and multiple mechanisms of RI across Drosophila, Coyne and Orr’s influential meta‐analyses answered fundamental questions and motivated new analyses that continue to push the field forward today. Now 30 years later, we revisit the five questions addressed by Coyne and Orr, identifying results that remain well supported and others that seem less robust with new data. We then consider the future of speciation research, with emphasis on areas where novel methods and data motivate potential progress. While the literature remains biased towards Drosophila and other model systems, we are enthusiastic about the future of the field.


Matute, D.R. and Cooper, B.S. (2021), Comparative studies on speciation: 30 years since Coyne and Orr. Evolution.

Ask me anything

February 14, 2021 • 9:00 am

I’m still doing writing that requires braining (for another assignment to be divulged), and although I have a science post scheduled for later today I thought I’d do a reddit-like “AMA”.

Readers are welcome to ask all sorts of questions, with the proviso that the questions not be really personal ones. Exceptions: my life in science, food, travels, perhaps some philosophy, or things of that ilk. I can’t guarantee to answer every question (assuming there are some), but I’ll have a look from time to time and satisfy people’s curiosity.

Oh, and please, nothing rude or uncivil (as always!).

A recurrent dream

November 27, 2020 • 11:30 am

You’ve probably noticed that the site has a new look, which is similar to the old one but has eliminated many of the glitches. It’s still a work in progress. Do have a look on your mobile device and see how it looks there as well. And email or comment below if you have any beefs or suggestions.

I wanted to relate a recurrent dream I’ve had, which has replaced my old recurrent dream in the last five years. The old one is familiar to many academics, and involves being late for a class or an exam, or being in an exam and not having studied for it. I had that dream every week or so for decades after college. I later learned that my old Ph.D. advisor, Dick Lewontin, had it every night. Other academics have told me of such dreams as well, which shows that a). dreams are not completely meaningless, and b). we’ve internalized the anxiety that comes along with being a teacher and a professor, and that’s expressed in our dreams. Or so I think.

But I no longer have “college dreams”. Rather, I have a dream related to the “can’t-find-the-exam-room” dream. In this one, I’m in one locality and have to get to another one, and am severely time limited. Sometimes I’m with someone (usually a woman I don’t know), but often not.  Last night I was alone somewhere in New York City, but it was a city with very narrow, twisted streets, all confusing, and I had to get to Grand Central Station by a certain time. (I have no idea why.) I kept trying to make my way there, but kept getting lost. One time I found myself in a miniature suburbia, complete with cute houses, lawns, and picket fences, occupying a single street in the city. Then I found myself in a Chinatown, with narrow streets filled with Chinese restaurants.

In none of these dreams do I ever make it to my destination; I always wake up knowing that I didn’t make it on time. In this way the dreams resemble the “frustration dreams” involving exams and classes.

What does this mean? Beats me.

If you have a recurring dream—and I’m sure many of you do—by all means share it with us.

Moar photos from the proprietor

November 17, 2020 • 2:15 pm

There is much to brain about, but although the neurons are willing the flesh is weak. Perhaps tomorrow, but, for the nonce, here are some pictures I’ve taken. These are just random photos as I scroll through the years. Some of these I’ve posted before

Three from St. Petersburg, July 2011, during the Littorina (marine snail) meetings. Somehow I fell in with this great group of researchers, who love to have fun and hold good meetings in nice places. First: Dostoyevsky’s cigarette case, inscribed by his young daughter the day he died:  “28 January. Papa died today.” He died on February 9, 1881, so I assume that the written date is the Julian calendar date.  This is in his apartment home in St. Petersburg:

One of my favorite pictures I ever took, at Peter the Great’s Peterhof Palace (they took us all out there; the meeting organizers were fantastic). When I saw this scene I knew it was a Cartier-Bresson “decisive moment” with all the children posed as if in a dance. It might be better in black and white:

The locomotive and tender of the train that brought Lenin to the Finland Station from Switzerland on April 16, 1917, before the October Revolution. Not many people know this locomotive is there, and it took me nearly an hour to make myself understood that I wanted to see it. There were no English-speakers, and I finally drew a locomotive with a picture of Lenin on top to show a ticket-taker, which twigged him to my request. You have to get special permission to see it, and it’s under glass.

August, 2011. Lunch at Allen & Son, a ramshackle BBQ joint in the middle of nowhere near Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My companion was John Willis, a professor at Duke, who, like me, loves BBQ. Note the chopped North Carolina version, with slaw and hush puppies, as well as fried okra as a side dish. Banana pudding for dessert is served only on Fridays, and therefore we went on a Friday:


Alas, Allen and Son is no more. Genuine BBQ joints are an endangered species.

Chicago, September 2011:

October, 2011: What many think is America’s best pizza: the white clam pie at Pepe’s in New Haven, made with lots of garlic and fresh clams. It’s not available every day. I made my friend Fred Cohan take me there after I gave a seminar at his school,  Wesleyan.

November, 2011: eating the best paella I’ve ever had, and in Valencia, of course. I gave a talk at the University, and then my best friend Kenny and his wife Jane, whose son Adam was living in Valencia, came down to take me to this joint far out in the country. An old man tends the paellas over a wood stove. Lord, was it good!

On to another seminar in Madrid, where I visited one of the most famous places to get chocolate and fresh, hot churros. (This is one of the best things about being an academic: you get local hospitality and travel as part of the job.)

The chocolate is thick and rich, and you dip the hot churros into it.

Costa Rica, January 2012 for a meeting of the officers of the Society for the Study of Evolution. (I did a lot of traveling that year!) After the meeting, I traveled around with our Secretary, Judy Stone, to act as her companion while she collected plants:

Overlooking the Pacific:

Oophaga pumilio, known as the strawberry-poison-dart frog, or “blue jeans frog”. It’s tiny (this is an adult), and I photographed one in my hand.

The greatness of PCC(E)

November 13, 2020 • 2:15 pm

This CNN bulletin gives what’s likely to be the final Electoral College tally for Biden (306 votes) and Trump (232 votes). (Click on the screenshot.)

I’m letting you know because I was the first person to call the election for Biden AND to give the correct final Electoral College vote for Uncle Joe. This was in a post on November 5.  I ask all the readers to avoid false idols like Nate Silver and recognize the prescience and wisdom of your host, who will now celebrate by taking a nap.

Miscellaneous photos

November 9, 2020 • 1:45 pm

I’m off to look for hooded mergansers, which have been sighted not far away in Hyde Park.  In the meantime, while looking for photos this afternoon, I came across some old ones of interest—at least to me. I’ll share them. TRIGGER WARNING: Some self aggrandizement.

My landsmen uncles: Bernie and Moe. The brothers of my mom, they had a thriving auto parts business in Pittsburgh.  Look at those golf outfits! (I wonder how they got into the country club. . . )

My first student, Allen Orr, and I on the Great Wall of China at the International Congress of Genetics in 1998:

My dad (right) with Sophia Loren at a toy store in Athens, ca.  1956. Loren was there to film the movie Boy on a Dolphin, and my dad helped with the vehicle logistics (they used Army petrol and vehicles as there was a postwar shortage of both in Greece).

Feeding cats at a convent in Mystras, Greece, ca. 2000. I always carried a box of cat food in my backpack while in Greece. The nuns, who didn’t take good care of these hungry moggies, were peering out the windows:

At the Karni Mata “Rat Temple” in Deshnoke, Rajasthan, India, 2003. The rats (there are thousands who run loose in the temple) are eating one of the offerings: a pan of cream.

Pushing flies, 2005. My station at the lab bench. This is what I did for the vast majority of my career:

Beef brisket BBQ at the City Market in Luling Texas (2005)—in my experienced view, the best barbecue in America. No plates, just white bread, raw onion, pickles, beer (sausages if you want ’em), and their fantastic sauce.

Greg Mayer, who wrote this morning’s election post, in his office in 2005, cutting up a kringle for us to eat (this is a pastry speciality of Racine, Wisconsin):

A “Big Dat”, the monster donut that’s the speciality of Dat Donuts on the South Side. I see this is getting food-themed.

With my buddies at the end of a two-month field course in Tropical Ecology run by the Organization for Tropical Studies. Costa Rica, 1974:

Feeding a real Texas longhorn on the Hillis/Bull Double Helix Ranch, 2007

And shooting beer cans (I have never fired at a living thing!):

A ride on a tamed wild mustang, New Mexico, 2007. At last I got to put my cowboy boots to genuine use!

A beautiful feral kitten at the Şehzade Mosque, Istanbul, 2008:

Tasting wine with my oenophile BFF, Kenny. Denton, England, 2008.

Time to look for mergansers!