How should I get my hair cut?: a poll

June 11, 2020 • 8:30 am

Well, the tonsorial parlors, salons, and barbershops are now allowed to reopen in Chicago, and I’m thinking of getting a trim, as my hair is quite wild and unruly (see second photo below). But some people say they like the longer look, so I’m contemplating leaving it longer but neatening it up.  I’ll give two photos and crowdsource an answer, though there’s no guarantee I’ll go with the majority.

Have a look at two choices:

Thie is pretty short (photo taken in Shakespeare & Co. bookstore in Paris, petting the resident cat):

Pandemic hair, taken this morning. I wash it and run a brush over it, but that’s all I do. It’s definitely unruly.


“The Duckling Professor”

May 12, 2020 • 11:15 am

On Sunday, the local ABC News ran a story about the pond, the ducks, and yours truly. You can see the 3.5-minute video (and a transcript) of the piece below, shot and reported by ABC correspondent Zach Ben-Amots.

It’s a nice piece, I think, but I always cringe when I see myself. And it’s worse this time because I’m all shaggy from a lack of a haircut. And, in the second bit, I admitted to being stressed out (I was!), even though I greatly enjoy tending the waterfowl. This was right after we had another duckling death and the hens were fighting. So I’m not going to watch it again.

Oh well, I submit it for your approval. Just ignore the (lack of a) haircut.


The Chicago Tribune does a story on my ducks

April 1, 2020 • 9:30 am

UPDATE: Mary emailed me saying that she’d gotten a lot of email from people saying, in essence, “Thank you for making me cry and feel more hopeful this morning.”  Such is the power and value of good journalism!



A few days ago, Colleen Mastony, the Director of Media Relations at the University of Chicago, contacted me, saying that she’d heard about my duck-feeding activities as well as the letter from our Provost and President allowing me access to Botany Pond during the lockdown. Colleen used to work for our biggest local paper, the Chicago Tribune, and wanted to pitch the story to the Trib, saying that she thought it would make a nice “feel-good” story for these troubled times.  She wrote up a prospectus and sent it to her former colleague Mary Schmich, who writes a regular column for the Trib.

Schmich is a big presence in Chicago media (indeed, nationally): she writes a regular, widely-read, and nationally syndicated column for the paper for which she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. On top of that, she wrote the comic strip “Brenda Starr, Reporter” from 1985 to 2011, and penned one of the most famous “advice” pieces of our era, a column called “Wear Sunscreen“, incorporating the advice that she’d give were she asked to deliver a commencement address. That column became an eponymous book and was turned into a piece of mix music by Baz Luhrmann, which you can see and hear here (I can’t find the column online, but its words are in the video).

At any rate, Mary liked the idea of the story, interviewed me about Honey and the ducks over the phone, and, two days ago, appeared at the pond with a Tribune photographer, Terrence James. Mary asked lots of questions while Terrence snapped Honey, Dorothy, and Wingman, who cooperated by eating duck food for the camera and then preening on the center “bathtub ring”. He also photographed me feeding the birds. Fortunately, no other ducks showed up to cause trouble.

After those two interviews, Mary texted me with more questions: she was punctilious about getting all the details correct. And then, that same day (yesterday), her story on Honey, me, the ducks, and the University went online. And today it’s in the paper version of the paper. If you’re in the U.S. you’ll be able to access the story from the links below, but if you’re overseas those links won’t work and you’ll have to use this “wayback” link.

Yanks can read the online story, complete with two photos, at either the Tribune link below or the Effingham Daily News link below that (click on the screenshot).  Note that you can get one free Tribune story per month, but can subscribe for only 99 cents for three months.

I won’t reproduce the story; see it by clicking on these headlines or on the link above.



from the Effingham Daily News:

Mary did a terrific job synthesizing everything and giving it the necessary background, atmosphere, and feel-good patina (see the ending). I went down to the pond a few minutes ago and told the ducks, but they seemed more interested in their mealworms than in their newfound fame.

The original online story had two photos by Terrence (below), but the new online story, as well as the paper edition, has only the photo of me. Here they both are, along with the Trib’s original online captions:

Jerry Coyne, a widely respected evolutionary biologist and an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, feeds migratory ducks on Botany Pond on the University of Chicago campus March 30, 2020. He feeds the ducks three times a day.(Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

Here, in order from left to right, are Dorothy, Wingman, and Honey:

Migratory ducks return to Botany Pond on the University of Chicago campus in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, where they are seen preening on March 30, 2020. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

Finally, I sneaked a peek at the neighbor’s version in front of their door, and found that the story occupies half of page three. This is what you see when you turn the front page. Truth be told, I know why they used a photo of me but they should have had one of the ducks!

Anyway, now that Honey and her friends are famous, perhaps it will lead to more people visiting the pond. That carries the risk of them feeding bad stuff to the ducks, but the University has promised me a swell new “Do not feed the ducks” sign that will go up by the pond next week. It will say “Please do not feed the ducks. They are well taken care of” (my wording). More on that later.

My last research paper is published

January 23, 2020 • 11:45 am

Thie paper below is the culmination of research started at least ten years ago in Chicago, but, due to various glitches and re-doing the research in a more thorough way, it didn’t see light for a decade. The paper also represents a collaboration between several investigators, starting with my last NIH grant, but was delayed because of the need to do DNA sequencing (which I couldn’t do), and then the arrival of better, faster, and cheaper DNA-sequencing methods, which allowed us to sequence 20 million bases of DNA for the final paper.

It’s finally appeared as an “early online” paper in Genetics, and will be in the journal soon (I hope). Click on the screenshot to see the online version (pdf here), which isn’t as spiffy-looking as the published version will be. Since I’m not doing any more research with my own hands, this represents what I think will be my last research paper, but perhaps not my last refereed scientific paper.

I’ll explain the results as briefly as I can when the paper appears in final form, but if you want to read it now, it’s free.  I want to say two things, though.

First, I think it’s a really cool experiment, and a good way to go out. It’s the sort of experiment that every evolutionary geneticist thinks of, wants to do, but realizes that it’s dicey because it takes a long time and you might not get the answer before applying for your next grant. Fortunately, this was a major part of what I knew would be my last NIH grant, so I was under no pressure to finish the experiment in the three-year granting period. The question involved was this: if you thoroughly mix two different species of Drosophila, producing a “hybrid swarm” that has the DNA and cytoplasm of both species in equal proportion, what happens to that swarm? Does it evolve into a new species? Or does it revert back to one or the other parental species, and, if so, does it revert to the same species over and over again when you make replicate swarms? And if there is such reversion, how much is reflected in morphology, behavior, and DNA sequence? (That is, does the evolved swarm superficially resemble one of the parental species but still contains DNA from both species?) Or does the admixture produce a swarm that is not a “new species” (like the hybrid parrots that the Washington Post got wrong), but simply a mixed population of mongrels that isn’t reproductively isolated from its parents?

The answer, it turned out, was very clear, repeatable, and quite interesting. But stay tuned.

Second, my very first real research paper, published in 1972 based on my undergraduate research at William and Mary—and also on speciation—appeared in Genetics as well, which is a very good journal. (That paper is free online here.) So there’s been a pleasing symmetry in my research career.

Lunch with Pinkah, and a preview of his next book

January 17, 2020 • 9:15 am

When I’m in Cambridge visiting old friends, I always try to get together with Dan Dennett and Steve Pinker—separately— for I enjoy the intellectual stimulation this provides (and, in the case of Dan, the inevitable stentorian arguing as well). Dan’s out of town this week, but yesterday I managed to dine with The Pinkah at Legal Seafoods near Harvard Square. (Coincidentally, a reader recommended that restaurant in a comment yesterday).

Pinker had just finished lecturing at the Kennedy School next door, and we had a longish lunch over seafood and brewskis. Since Pinker is wickedly smart, eloquent, and apparently remembers everything he’s ever read, lunch with him is not just a culinary experience, but a bout of cerebral ping-pong. While ingesting the food one must also try to absorb his arguments, which come fast and furious. We talked about determinism, free will, the evolution of music (Steve thinks that there is not an adaptive evolutionary basis for music and musicality, even though music is universal in all cultures), the penal system, evolutionary differences between the sexes, speciation, Sewall Wright’s shifting balance theory of evolution, evolutionary psychology in general, Steve Gould, and other diverse topics.

Below is my lunch: Legal Seafoods’ famous crabcake (sadly, only one in the lunch portion). I also had a Belgian sour ale. Steve had an IPA (as I recall) and salmon cooked as rare as they could. (I told him he should have just asked for lox.) My crabcake, which was fabulous—all crab and no filler—came with a salad that contained walnuts and cranberries:

Here’s Pinkah after lunch, resplendent in his dark suit and elephant cowboy boots (he immediately assured me that the elephant was legally culled to reduce population size, not to harvest its skin).

At some point I asked Steve what his next book will be (there’s always a next book for him). He first referred me to its nucleus, the article in Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. below (click on screenshot to see the whole article). I’ve also put up the abstract:

So I told Steve that I wouldn’t reveal the topic of his next book, but he said it was more or less an open secret, and even sent me a summary of its topic, which I have permission to publish. Here’s what he said:

This PNAS paper is a preview of the ideas and the research from my group that will be the core of the new book. Its tentative title will make it sound more controversial than it actually will be:

Don’t Go There: Common Knowledge and the Science of Civility, Hypocrisy, Outrage, and Taboo.

Though I’ll discuss outrage and cancel culture and social media shaming mobs, they won’t be the focus of the book—there is no shortage of articles documenting and deploring them, any day of the week. This one will probe the game theory and psychology behind them, together with other example of coordination like fads, bank runs, political protests, network externalities, moral norms, social conventions, and everyday informal cooperation. I’ll probe at the psychological phenomena beneath them, including the sense that certain things are public (“out there”), emotions such as shame, embarrassment, guilt, and outrage, and nonverbal displays including blushing, cringing, crying, laughter, and eye contact.

So you can look forward to that (as usual, the Pecksniffs will come out in force to criticize it, no matter what he says). Steve said he’ll start writing it in about a year, and I suspect it won’t be long after that until it’s finished (he wrote The Better Angels of Our Nature in only a year and a half).

Finally, before lunch I tarried for a while in the book section of the Harvard Coop, and found that they had moved the biology section down to the first floor, right inside the door—where it deserves to be. There’s even an “evolution” section (which, unaccountably, is missing WEIT). But several copies of Faith Versus Fact reside in the History of Science section, also where they should be. I’ve seen them in “Theology” sections, but they could also be comfortable in “Philosophy of Science” sections. (I have to tout my books because, unlike Steve’s, they’re not self-touting!)

Monday: Hili dialogue (and Leon monologue)

December 30, 2019 • 6:45 am

It’s now Monday, December 30, 2019: the Sixth Day of Christmas (Geese a’-Laying), but, more important, the last day of both Hanukkah and of Coynezaa—the day on which Our Savior J.C. was born and, today, becomes officially old.

And oy, it’s National Bicarbonate of Soda Day, presumably meant to help you recover from holiday overeating. But it’s also Bacon Day (not kosher) and Falling Needles Family Fest Day, marking the senescence of the Christmas tree and symbolizing the enroaching decrepitude of our Savior J.C.

News of the Day: The Chinese scientist who created the two CRISPR babies has been sentenced to three years in jail (see the link, h/t: Matthew). He’s also been fined $425,000 and is banned for research on reproduction for life.

Stuff that happened on December 30 include:

  • 1066 – Granada massacre: A Muslim mob storms the royal palace in Granada, crucifies Jewish vizier Joseph ibn Naghrela and massacres most of the Jewish population of the city.
  • 1916 – Russian mystic and advisor to the Tsar Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin was murdered by a loyalist group led by Prince Felix Yusupov. His frozen, partially-trussed body was discovered in a Moscow river three days later.

Here’s the bizarre fellow:

With wife and daughter. As you may remember, he was a hard man to kill. First he was poisoned with both wine and cakes, and then shot. That didn’t do him in, so he was shot again and thrown into the river.

  • 1922 – The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is formed.
  • 1965 – Ferdinand Marcos becomes President of the Philippines.
  • 2006 – Former President of Iraq Saddam Hussein is executed.

Yes, my birthday marks the execution of two loons.

Notables born on this day include:

  • AD 39 – Titus, Roman emperor (d. 81)
  • 1865 – Rudyard Kipling, Indian-English author and poet, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1936)
  • 1910 – Paul Bowles, American composer and author (d. 1999)
  • 1928 – Bo Diddley, American singer-songwriter and guitarist (d. 2008)
  • 1931 – Skeeter Davis, American singer-songwriter (d. 2004)

Davis, of course, was famous for her monster hit “The End of the World“, released in 1962 and produced by Chet Atkins. It made it to #2 on both the Billboard Hot 100 and country charts, thus being one of the first country crossover songs. (It was also recorded by The Carpenters.) It was played at both Atkins’s funeral (2001) and Davis’s funderal at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville (2004).

  • 1935 – Sandy Koufax, American baseball player and sportscaster
  • 1942– Michael Nesmith, American musician and songwriter
  • 1945 – Davy Jones, English singer-songwriter and actor (d. 2012) [JAC note: two Monkees were born on my birthday]
  • 1946 – Patti Smith, American singer-songwriter and poet
  • 1949 – Jerry Coyne, superannuated evolutionary biologist, your host
  • 1959 – Tracey Ullman, English-American actress, singer, director, and screenwriter
  • 1965 – Heidi Fleiss, American procurer
  • 1975 – Tiger Woods, American golfer
  • 1984 – LeBron James, American basketball player, producer and businessman

Those whose lives were quenched on December 30 include:

  • 1916 – Grigori Rasputin, Russian mystic (b. 1869) [see above]
  • 1970 – Sonny Liston, American boxer (b. 1932)
  • 1979 – Richard Rodgers, American playwright and composer (b. 1902)
  • 2004 – Artie Shaw, American clarinet player, composer, and bandleader (b. 1910)
  • 2006 – Saddam Hussein, Iraqi general and politician, 5th President of Iraq (b. 1937)
  • 2012 – Carl Woese, American microbiologist and biophysicist (b. 1928)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, I am happy that Hili sent me birthday wishes!

Hili: Do you still have that delicious bacon in the fridge?
A: Why do you ask?
Hili: I will eat it to celebrate Jerry’s birthday.
(Photo: Paulina R.)
In Polish:
Hili: Czy w lodówce jest jeszcze ten pyszny bekon?
Ja: Dlaczego pytasz?
Hili: Zjem go, żeby uczcić urodziny Jerrego.
(Zdjęcie: Paulina R.)

And in Wloclawek, Leon is engaged in his usual activity: waiting for noms.

Leon: I could eat something.

In Polish: Zjadłbym coś.

Reader Rick tells me I’m featured on Anu Garg’s “A Word A Day” section of today’s Wordsmith (I don’t know that site); to wit:

I’ll Follow the Sun (cat version):

An oldie but a goodie from Literary Jokes and Puns (h/t: vanewimsey):

From Jesus of the Day:

A tweet from reader Barry. Is this a therapy fish or a therapy human?

Tweets from Dr. Cobb, beginning with the daily egress of fowls from the Marsh Farm Barn. Sadly, I got no shout-out, though I asked. But there are four flying ducks (and a partridge in a pear tree):

And now a peacock has joined the menagerie:

Matthew and I both think this one is real, though I suppose it could be bogus:

I wonder if the cat does this to anyone who sings?:

Another lovely cat/staff interaction:


The battle of Wtaerloo, with this key from Matthew:

Blue = French
Solid block = infantry
Diagonal block = cavalry
“tour” in tweet = “tout”

A lot going on in these videos. First, an obstreperous young goat. And then a humorous mongoose/hornbill video. Make sure the sound is up for the second:


Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ NEWS (and crowdsourcing)

December 4, 2019 • 11:30 am

Today’s Jesus and Mo strip, called “five”, is ten years old but still relevant, which shows you how little things have changed on the theism front. It also comes with some news, which I’ve self-aggrandizingly put in bold below. The creator’s email said this:

This is actually an old one, from 10 years ago, except Jesus has Mo’s lines and the numbers have been updated.

Congratulations to Eoin from Dublin for winning this month’s raffle prize – a signed copy of the soon-to-be-published 8th volume of Jesus & Mo strips, with a foreword by the great Jerry Coyne.

If you want to keep the J&M comic ploughing its lonely furrow in this crazy old word, you can help by becoming a patron by clicking this link below. Just a dollar a month goes a long way to keeping our Engine of Blasphemy ticking over:

Well, “great” is really hyperbole, but I was chuffed to be asked to write the foreword, joining the company of others like Richard Dawkins and Kenan Malik. I already have a draft written, but wanted to ask readers, in case I’ve forgotten anything, what you like about the strip. Please put your answers below.  I’ve been reading it since forever and am a big fan.

But on to the strip, which shows several of the themes of Jesus and Mo: hyprocrisy (but not on the barmaid’s part), the conflict between different faiths (but why do Jesus and Mo not only live together, but share a bed), and the collision between faith and fact, with the barmaid representing fact:

Neglected at the Hyde Park Book Fair

October 12, 2019 • 3:49 pm

Today’s the day when the denizens of Hyde Park congregate in the open-air plaza at the Hyde Park Shopping Center, looking for used books. Cardboard boxes of books, roughly divided by subject, sit atop folding tables, awaiting the senior citizens who will buy them (yes, the demographic at the book fair skews OLD).

As I was taking my walk, I chanced upon the Fair and stopped abruptly at the sight below. I did not move my book; this is exactly as it was when I photographed it in the “Religion and Theology” section.

There my work sits, next to the Apocryphal New Testament. Worse, I opened the book to inspect it, and IT SEEMS TO BE UNREAD. Oy! Nor was there a price in it.

So, if you live in my area, you may be able to get a good bargain on this book in brand-new condition. And, to show this poor unread book some love, if you buy it and bring it to my lab, only a 15-minute walk away, I’ll sign it and draw a cat in it for you. (The Religion section is right along 55th Street at the south end of the plaza.)

UNREAD! That’s like a knife in the gut. . .

My upcoming talk on free will at Williams

September 22, 2019 • 1:00 pm

I’m headed to the lion’s den: Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to give a talk on free will (or rather the lack thereof) sponsored by the Biology Department, the Science and Technology Studies Program, and Phi Beta Kappa. It’s on October 3 at 7:30 p.m. and open to the public; the venue is the Wege Auditorium. On that same day I’m also talking to Dr. Luana Maroja’s class about evolution, as she’s teaching an evolution course that uses Why Evolution is True as a text.  You can see the more comprehensive announcement by clicking on the screenshot below:

Baby photos

May 24, 2019 • 9:15 am

I have no heavy intellectual content today as I’m on vacation. But here are some pictures of Professor Ceiling Cat (Emeritus) with a human infant (Homo sapiens in statu nascendi).

This may be the only photograph in existence of me holding a baby   . (I get scared to for fear I might hurt them.) Meet Selma Louise Ludovico, the 7 month-old granddaughter of my hosts in Cambridge. Her father is Brazilian, mom is American, and she’s an adorable hybrid. And she seemed fascinated by “Uncle Jerry,” as I’m known around here.

We have a discourse on free will: