Times Higher Ed on indigenous knowledge as science

October 25, 2023 • 1:00 pm

On October 1, I wrote about a big project in which the National Science Foundation was going to invest substantial dosh in integrating indigenous (Native American) knowledge into science.  But the “braiding” of modern science with indigenous “ways of knowing” worried me, especially when I’ve seen what it’s done to New Zealand. Here’s an excerpt of what I said in my post:

Here are two claims in the article that worry me. The first is a statement by Sonya Atalay, “an archaeologist of Anishinaabe-Ojibwe heritage at UMass Amherst and co-leader of the [Braiding] centre.”

“As Indigenous people, we have science, but we carry that science in stories,” Atalay says. “We need to think about how to do science in a different way and work differently with Indigenous communities.”

I’m not sure what it means to say “we carry that science in stories,” but stories can, like that Antarctica trope, be corrupted over years and centuries. Empirical claims in “stories” can’t be taken at face value, but have to be tested using the toolkit of modern science.  And what does it mean to say “we do science in a different say”.  Really? Even if you’re working with indigenous communities, don’t you want to ascertain truth the same way we do in modern science?

And there’s this:

Atalay is thinking about ways to measure success and communicate findings that go beyond publishing papers in peer-reviewed journals. In particular, she says, scientists will focus on finding ways to communicate their results with communities, including through the use of comic books, posters and theatre.

“You share what you’ve learned, and you do that through stories, through art, through any accessible means,” she says. “That is not a side note. It’s an integral part of the circle of doing science.”

Well, yes, if you need to tell the locals what you’ve found using comic books and plays, that’s fine. But if knowledge, whether coming from or derived from indigenous communities is to become part of modern science itself, it needs to be published, not in comic books but in peer-reviewed journals.

It’s statements like these that make me worry that the NSF is throwing piles of money (our money) at these endeavors primarily as a performative gesture showing that it cares about indigenous people.

A reporter for Times Higher Education somehow found this post and interviewed me about my views, writing about the project and giving some of my quotes from the interview in the article below (click to read, and make a judicious inquiry if you can’t access it). Forgive the self-aggrandizement, but I’m pleased that the problems with such a program are being given wider exposure.

Here’s an excerpt. Note the NSF’s response in bold. But they do say that some money will be allocated to training students, which is good.  The rest you can read at the site.

Already, there have been some early warnings that the outcome in the US could be similar. Indigenous knowledge certainly has useful applications in many fields of human activity, said Jerry Coyne, emeritus professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, but it does not contribute in significant ways to the modern scientific processes that have produced decades of major breakthroughs in critical fields such as medicine, physics and chemistry.

“The idea that indigenous knowledge is really going to push science forward seems dubious to me,” Professor Coyne said.

In their announcement of the new NSF centre, its organisers cited the example of clam gardens – rock walls built along shorelines to provide a welcoming habitat for molluscs – which indigenous people have been creating for thousands of years along the Pacific north-west coast of the US and Canada. The approach can double or quadruple clam production, according to Marco Hatch, an associate professor of marine ecology at Western Washington University who studies their use and who will receive some of the first allotment of funding from the new NSF centre.

That kind of work does seem beneficial, Professor Coyne acknowledged. But as similar cases in New Zealand have shown, the actual scientific content is thin, he said. “My response is: show me the results, show me what useful science has come out of this – and there’s very little,” he said. “It’s always in the nature of, well, we’ve learned to pick berries when this phase of the moon occurs at this time of year. Yeah, that’s useful practical knowledge, but it’s not really science in the sense that the NSF considers science.”

An NSF official insisted on the scientific value of bringing new “backgrounds and attitudes” to research work. “Scientists don’t always create good or optimal research questions and designs because they are sometimes missing critical information about culture or other aspects of human behaviour or the environment,” the official said.

A potentially more valuable outcome of such federal investment, Professor Coyne said, would be for the government to help more indigenous students become professional scientists, who could then use their ancestral backgrounds in ways that fit more directly into existing research channels. “If you want to help underserved people, bring them into modern science,” he said.

The NSF’s announcement of the new centre does indicate plans in that direction, saying that some funding would be spent on training students at school level all the way up to postdoctoral researchers and graduate research assistants, many at minority-serving institutions.

I wish, though, that the unnamed “NSF official” had given at least one example of a project that had gone forward or been improved by adding that “critical information about culture”. As I noted in the piece, those who push for the unification (and sometimes coequality) of science and “indigenous ways of knowing” often fall short when asked to give examples of how this will improve our understanding of nature.

A short Forbes magazine interview with Peter Singer

May 24, 2023 • 1:00 pm

I’m posting this clip for two reasons. First, it’s a Forbes Magazine interview with a philosopher I much admire: Peter Singer. He’s admirable because he deals with philosophy’s original purpose: to figure out how to live a good life; because he deals with tough questions (one of them here: the euthanasia of terminally suffering newborns, which he discusses at 6:45); because, even when attacked he defends his ideas with tenacity; because he walks the walk, giving a lot of his income to others; and because does a lot of charitable work. Despite calls to get him fired because of his views on infant euthanasia, he maintains his equanimity and simply proffers a defense of his stand that I, for one, find convincing. And, of course, he spends a lot of time dealing with animal welfare, which a biologist has to admire (sadly, I’m too hypocritical to give up eating meat, but Singer abjures it).

Second, because he’s one of the founders of The Journal of Controversial Ideas, I was chuffed to hear that he talks about our paper recently published there, “In defense of merit in science” (between 9:30 and 13:00). I’m not sure who the interviewer is, but she seems to push on our merit thesis because in some ways it opposes racial diversity. Singer, in response, seems dubious about the idea of equity trumping merit.

They begin by discussing Singer’s new book (an update, actually): Animal Liberation Now: The Definitive Classic Renewed, which came out on Tuesday. I read the original book  (Animal Liberation), which was when he first came to my consciousness. I also admire his book The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress., which suggests how our evolved ethical system has been extended to all humanity.

p.s. Singer has compiled a list of charities where, he thinks, you can get the most relief of suffering for your dollar. I’ve used that list, which you can find here, to decide who will get my money when I die.

My WaPo review of Jon Losos’s new book on cats

May 3, 2023 • 9:00 am

My colleague Jon Losos, an evolutionary ecologist at Washington University who works on lizards but also has three cats, has written the kind of book I’d always wanted to write: an exploration of the evolutionary roots of the housecat and an evolution-based analysis of its behaviors.  Given Losos’s line of work, it’s also imbued with ecology. The book came out today, and you can order it on Amazon by clicking on the screenshot below:


Knowing of the book’s existence since it is published by Viking/Penguin (my own publisher), I asked the Washington Post if they wanted me to review it. They said “yes” and the link to my review below is taken from today’s newspaper. Click on the screenshot to see it, and, if it’s paywalled, perhaps judicious inquiry will yield a copy.

I’ll just give a short excerpt since you should read it on the site. (It will be in the paper edition of the Post on Sunday.)

The review is positive, so if you want to learn about cats, you should read the book. I couldn’t resist a dig at d*gs at the outset, just to liven things up:

My view, and that of many other die-hard cat lovers, is that the internet exists primarily to circulate pictures and videos of cats. Dogs, you may be surprised to learn, can also be found on the internet but curiously tend to remain stuck in remote corners of cyberspace. Cats fuel wildly viral memes; dogs seldom get beyond that family vacation picture on Facebook (with just three likes, all from elderly relatives). Both cats and dogs — especially the younger versions of both — have fuzzy, big-eyed appeal, but dogs apparently lack what it takes to snare a global audience. As the New York Times contended, cat pictures are “that essential building block of the Internet.”

One prominent theory to explain this cat/dog disparity suggests that it’s the residual wildness of cats that makes them so special. This accounts for their infinite capacity for aloofness. Cats were domesticated rather recently — about 10,000 years ago when humans were busy inventing agriculture. And DNA tells us that the ancestor of all house cats is the African wildcat Felis silvestris lybica, which looks much like a domestic tabby.

. . . It’s appropriate, then, that an evolutionary biologist should write the definitive book on the biology, ecology and evolution of the house cat. That would be Jonathan Losos, who, although best known for his studies of lizards, also owns three cats. Those cats, he found, were every bit as interesting as his lizards but had a marked advantage over the reptiles: Losos didn’t have to leave his home to carry out field work. The result, “The Cat’s Meow: How Cats Evolved from the Savanna to Your Sofa,” is a readable and informed exploration of the wildcat that lurks within Fluffy.

. . . Many mysteries remain. Did meows (emitted only by domestic cats) really evolve, as has been seriously suggested, to resemble the cries of a distressed infant, to convert a hardwired human response — “I must take care of an unhappy baby” — into an ingenious ploy to get tuna? What is the real difference in the average life span between a cat allowed to roam outdoors and one kept inside? The traditional answer is five vs. 17 years respectively, but as Losos notes, “I have not been able to find the basis for this claim, and the discrepancy seems extreme to me.”

And we remain abysmally ignorant about my two most pressing cat questions: why they wiggle their butts right before they pounce on prey, and why they “chatter” when they see birds. All they seem to be doing in each case is alerting their potential meal to its hazardous situation, surely not a good idea. One of the lessons of the book, in fact, is that mysteries abound in cat science. One of the largest is how many times cats were domesticated in the Middle East. Did house cats evolve in a single location, or in several places around the same time? We don’t know, and the genetic data is ambiguous.

Like all good scientists, Losos admits that are many questions that will keep cat research active for years to come. Writing as a confirmed, and long-standing, cat lover, I look forward to an ever-expanding understanding of catness and to luxuriating, in quiet moments, in the joys of an infinite supply of online images, memes and videos of that most charismatic and beguiling of all domestic animals.

Coyne’s Laws of Life

March 10, 2023 • 8:15 am

Once again I’m racked with insomnia, intensified, I suppose, by jet lag. The result is that I probably get about 1-2 hours of sleep at night and can’t even fall asleep when I attempt a midday nap. We all have our burdens, and this is mine.

As the night turtles by, I’m instructed not to worry about falling asleep, which causes anxiety, so I try to think of other things. Last night I compiled a mental list of “Coyne’s Laws,” a list of observations about life that I began as a teenager. There aren’t many of them, but I bet readers have their own Laws. As I can’t brain today, I’ll give my list; I may have mentioned some of these before.


Always button your shirts from the bottom up; that way you will never mis-button them.

When running a bath or shower, always turn the cold water on first and then the hot; this ensures that you won’t get scalded.

If a man recounts a problem to you, he wants a practical solution. If a women recounts a problem to you, she wants an empathic hearing and, unless she asks for them, does NOT want solutions. Likewise, men faced with a friend’s problem, regardless of whether the friend is male or female, will immediately try to solve it by giving advice. Women, on the other hand, will be empathic and solicitous of your situation. That’s why some of my best friends are women, and why, when faced with another’s problem, I try to act in the female-like way. (This does not apply to problems like how to make a syllabus, which explicitly require a practical solution. Also, this is a generalization, not a law. I make no claims about whether this results from evolution or socialization.)

Be sure to floss once a day to save your teeth and gums. I highly recommend Listerine Reach UltraClean Dental Floss®, which my hygienist (who put me onto the stuff) says is no longer made. Immediately order tons of it from Amazon, as it’s still for sale there. The stuff is mint-flavored, unwaxed, thin, stretchy, and does a great job. I’ve never found better.  I now have several years’ worth.


Coyne’s First Law: Everyone thinks that they have a good sense of humor. (Observation: Some people have no sense of humor. Conclusion: Many people are fooling themselves.)

Coyne’s Second Law: Everyone thinks that they’re a “little bit nuts”, but always in a nice way. That is, everyone thinks they have some amusing eccentricities. (Observation: While this belief is nearly ubiquitous, some people are nuts but not in a nice way.)

Coyne’s Third Law: Nobody thinks they’re a jerk. (Observation: quite a few people are big-time jerks. Conclusion: many people have no self-awareness.)


All snack foods that are meant to be healthy eventually evolve into forms of confectionary. Examples: granola bars, once solidified blocks of tasteless grains, are turning into candy bars, covered with chocolate and sometimes containing raisins or even chocolate chips; thanks to Starbucks, coffee has turned into the adult equivalent of ice cream sodas; and fizzy water (known to we Jews as “seltzer” or “two cents plain?”) has acquired flavors and now is getting bit of added sugar as it inevitably gets turned into soda pop.

All ice cream manufacturers eventually shrink the size of their largest container while maintaining the price. (There are a few exceptions to this: honest companies who proudly offer the full half gallon.) My post about this last June, “The ice cream scams“, was the third most popular post I ever put on this site, tapping into a hidden vein of resentment permeating the American public.  There’s also a corollary: “All ice creams eventually become ‘frozen dairy desserts’,” which are cheaper to make. Unless you look closely, you won’t even notice. Do not be fooled.

I have begun formulating a new set of laws, which are mine. Here is the first one:


Any Facebook post that beings with “I am honored. . .” inevitably involves braggadocio: a description of some award or achievement that the poster wants either their friends or the whole world to know about. What “I am honored” really means is: “Look what I got!”

I’m sure you have your own rules that haven’t been codified into rules or laws, but if you have these kinds of personal generalizations, please put them into the comments.

A few more photos

February 22, 2023 • 2:00 pm

For the next ten days or so I’ll be polishing off a giant manuscript and getting ready to go to Poland, so posting will be lighter than usual. Bear with me, as I do my best.

Here are a few of my photos to round out the day (click to enlarge).  I suppose I put these up partly to remind me that my life hasn’t been so bad after all (I’m beset by the Black Dog today):

For a knish in New York, you must go to Yonah Shimmel’s on Houston Street. I don’t know how it’s survived 113 years!

Some of my fanciest cowboy boots, custom made by Rocketbuster. They hate getting orders for their Peacock Boots, as it takes hours of hand stitching:

Feral tabby Prince’s Mosque, Istanbul:

Roses at the central market, Bogota, Colombia:

A frog in the lab of Vicky Flechas, Universidad de los Andes, Bogota:

Drake fight, Botany Pond, 2011:

The Russian cruiser Aurora, built in 1900 for the Russo-Japanese war, photographed in St. Petersburg. It reportedly fired the first shot of the Russian Revolution, and still floats in the harbor.

A monument to all the cats sacrificed in laboratory experiments, University of St. Petersburg:

This is one of my favorite pictures. It’s a Cartier-Bresson-like picture of “the decisive moment” and I took it on purpose, sensing that here was a series of poses that wouldn’t be repeated. I underexposed the foreground to get a variety of girls in different lights and different dance-like poses. The original is in color, but I made it in black and white, too. (Which do you like best?) From Peter the Great’s summer palace, St. Petersburg.

Posing with a panelist and temporary friend (he gave me a smoke), Hay Festival, UK:

The shed where Dylan Thomas wrote poetry, behind The Boathouse in Laugharne, Wales:



Hitch, Sept 8, 2010; this may have been when he got the Dawkins Award but I can’t remember the occasion.

Sweet home Chicago:

A few photos I took

February 20, 2023 • 1:45 pm

The world was accurately characterized by Matthew Cobb the other day, as relayed by his partner Tina:

I’ll try to improve things with a few of my pictures. Pardon the ones of me: I was looking through my photos and remembering old times and good times. I’ll do more of these from time to time, because they cheer me up, at least!

First, one of Dorothy’s ducklings:

And me about to spend a sleepless night with a rescue duckling, Sam (sex unknown). Sam was taken to rehab the next morning. The wee thing, one day old, spent the night on my chest (with my hand cupped over him to imitate Mom’s wing) or in my armpit. I dared no sleep lest I crush it. All night long he’d vibrate his tiny body against me, which I understand is what ducklings do under mom to let her know they’re there and alive.

Woman gathering land snails for dinner, taken while I was doing field work on São Tomé:

Collecting flies in the wet forest, São Tomé:

The long climb to the island’s peak. I’m not sure who took these photos, it was likely my postdoc Ana Llopart:

Home from a week in the forest. Our field crew on São Tomé (to the extreme right is the late Daniel Lachaise from the CNRS outside Paris, who organized most of these expeditions):

Me at the Karni Mata (“Rat”) Temple in Deshnok, India. Note the cultural appropriation. Some of the gazillion rats who inhabit the temple as sacred beings are drinking offerings of cream.

Death Valley from above. Normally there is very little vegetation: saltbush and mesquite. The white are the salt pans, remnants of an ancient lake.  There are flies throughout this desolate valley, which is why I was there.

A rare bloom in Death Valley—happens about once a decade. Those flowers are insect pollinated, but where do the insects come from?


Dusty, the stray kitten who lived in the lab for a couple of weeks in 2006 until we found him a forever home:

Wessex: The house where Thomas Hardy was born and grew up:

Clouds Hill: T. E. Lawrence’s home (“Lawrence of Arabia”) where he lived until he crashed his motorbike nearby and died:

When the Spanish have a meeting, they do it right. A plate o’ seafood at the Littorina conference in Galicia. Don’t ask me why I was there.

. . . and Honey, of course:


Publisher’s promotion: 50% off audiobook of “Faith Versus Fact”

January 12, 2023 • 9:45 am

If you want to hear almost 12 hours of argument that science and religion are incompatible, and at a very low price, the http://www.audiobooks site is selling the audiobook of my Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible for half price until January 27. You can go to the site below to buy one copy, or join a recurring-shipment club and get two free books. This is a bit less than the paperback itself goes for on Amazon. Big fun! It’s just $8.50—you can’t beat that with a stick:

I’m not sure if there’s a shipping fee, as I’m not buying any and haven’t gone through the purchase process (I have many copies), but there are no taxes.  I am Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus), and I endorse this act of self-promotion.