Nola and Cooper resign from New Zealand’s Royal Society after being exculpated for criticizing indigenous “ways of knowing” as “science”

March 18, 2022 • 11:45 am

For a while now I’ve been discussing the row in New Zealand about whether  indigenous “ways of knowing”, Mātauranga Māori (“MM” for short), should be given equal treatment in the science classroom to modern science. The short answer for those with any neurons is “no”. While MM does comprise some “practical knowledge” like how and when to pick berries or catch eels, it also comprises a mélange of legend, superstition, moral dicta, and palpably false empirical claims (one being that Polynesians discovered Antarctica, another being divine creationism as the source of life).  As a whole, MM should be taught in New Zealand as part of local history and sociology, but not as science.

That was the position of seven University of Auckland professors who wrote a letter to the magazine The Listener pointing this conflict out (for relevant links, go here). They did not impugn MM as a subject worthy of teaching, but did say that it shouldn’t be taught as co-equal to science in school—a movement pushed by NZ’s woke government and academic authorities. The seven signers—or “Satanic Seven”—were demonized, though they had lots of silent support (to criticize MM as science is decidedly unfashionable, since it’s seen as an attack on the indigenous Māori.

Two of the seven professors, philosopher Robert Nola and biochemist Garth Cooper, were further demonized by being singled out for investigation as members of the prestigious Royal Society of New Zealand (RSNZ). They were accused by two people of writing a letter that violated the Society’s regulations (see this link for a fuller epxlanation). The complaints didn’t go very far: the RSNZ convened a committee to study the two sets of complaints, and then concluded that the complaints, all involving bad or unethical behavior, as well as harm to people (i.e., Māori) were not worthy of further investigation. Cooper and Nola were thus vindicated, though, in a last slap at them because of the trouble they caused, the RSNZ removed this sentence from their final report (it was in an earlier version):

The Panel considered there was no evidence that the Fellows [Nola and Cooper] acted with any intent of dishonesty or lack of integrity.

Removing that sentence was just a nasty piece of work.  And now, after. being vindicated, both Nola and Cooper have resigned from the RSNZ, as recounted in this article in Point of Order. Click on screenshot.

I had a feeling resignation was in the air, but haven’t been formally informed by either man, though I’ve asked them for statements (stay tuned).

I think they did the right thing. There was no point in staying on to change the RSNZ “from the inside,” as the institution has shown itself refractory to change, as well as ignorant and vindictive. And the pair have already gotten their honor of being elected; there is no additional honor accrued by staying on. Why would they want to remain members of a society that issued this statement about the Listener letter that Cooper and Nola signed?:

The recent suggestion by a group of University of Auckland academics that mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth is utterly rejected by Royal Society Te Apārangi. The Society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in The Listener – Letter to the Editor.

It deeply regrets the harm such a misguided view can cause.

These are people who don’t know what science is, but they’re woke enough to defend superstition when it’s unscientific but purveyed by a local minority. In other words, theyre cowardly and ignorant.

I won’t go on except to give a few quotes from the Point of Order piece. The second is self-aggrandizing.

Two distinguished scientists – Professors Garth Cooper and Robert Nola – have resigned both as members and as fellows of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

. . .The resignations of the two luminaries follow the society’s decision – announced last week – not to formally proceed with a complaint against them as Fellows of the Society for being among seven University of Auckland professors who signed a letter to the New Zealand Listener headed ‘In defence of science’ in July last year.

The self-aggrandizing bit:

The society’s decision not to proceed has spared it the prospect of being criticised – if not mocked – by scientists around the world.

Jerry Coyne, emeritus professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Chicago, pointed out that mātauranga Māori contained strong elements of Creationism (“refuted by all the facts of biology, paleontology, embryology, and biogeography”) and that “expelling members for defending views like evolution against non-empirically based views of creation and the like is shameful”.

He concluded his letter to the society by advising:

 “I hope you will reconsider the movement to expel your two members, which, if done, would make the Royal Society of New Zealand a laughing stock.”

But they don’t mention that a much bigger fish, Richard Dawkins, wrote letters to both the RSNZ and The Listener defending science against MM, and Richard has a big microphone. Also, there are rumors that I can’t confirm that the BIG Royal Society, the one in London, wrote to the RSNZ chewing them out for investigating Nola and Cooper. That would have shaken up the people in Wellington!

And so all’s well that ends well:

In the upshot, there have been no expulsions – but the professors have decided they no longer want to remain members and fellows of this society.

But it’s not that simple. The RSNZ, made to look like fools, have been suitably chastened, and Nola and Cooper have been exculpated. But the battle for the hegemony of MM continues and shows no sign of abating. All over New Zealand, science students should prepare themselves for a dire watering down of the curriculum.

Robert Nola


Garth Cooper

h/t: Don

Readers’ wildlife photos

January 22, 2022 • 9:30 am

Richard Dawkins and Robyn Blumner (CEO and President of CFI and of the Dawkins Foundation) were in Dubai this past week, and both sent photos. I don’t have many captions, but these show you the intricate topiary and some of the food. (Photos by both RD and RB.)

A topiary plane!

Camel meat for dinner. Robyn said it “tastes a lot like beef but drier and chewier.” Sounds like beef jerky to me.


Some pictures of the flamingos in Dubai at the Ras Al Khor Wildlife Sanctuary:

My book at the mall in Dubai. Robyn said that they didn’t carry Faith Versus Fact, but that was no surprise to me.


What did the Galileo affair say about science vs. religion?

December 26, 2021 • 11:30 am

Several readers sent me a link to this post by Patrick Casey on the Heterodox Academy blogs because I’m mentioned in it (and in good company too!). It’s an example of what historians of religion (who are often religious) write about all the time. Casey, like other accommodationists, most notably Ronald Numbers, maintains that:

1.) Religion and science are not continually at war with one another (a view called the “conflict hypothesis”), and

2.) The Galileo affair was not an example of the conflict hypothesis. A “nuanced” and complete analysis shows, says Casey, that other factors were involved, including history and philosophy.  This stance is often used to tout accommodationism: the view that science and religion are actually compatible. And it’s often held by people who want to make nice to religion.

I didn’t know of the author, Patrick J. Casey, but he is an assistant professor of philosophy at Holy Family University, a private Roman Catholic University in Philadelphia.  I can’t find him in the faculty directory, but I won’t worry about that; and I have no idea whether, even though he teaches at a religious school, he’s religious. But I won’t psychologize his motivations, I’ll just mention his arguments.

Now I don’t embrace the “simplistic” conflict hypothesis, characterized as arguing that science is continuously at war with religion(see below). Some people like Andrew Dickson and William Draper at the turn of the 20th century did pretty much embrace the “conflict hypothesis,” and I discuss this in Chapter 1 of Faith Versus Fact (p. 5):

The truth lies between Draper and White on one hand and their critics on the other. While it’s undeniable that religion was important in opposing some scientific advances like the theory of evolution and the use of anesthesia, others, like smallpox vaccination, were both opposed and promoted on biblical grounds. On the other hand, it’s a self-serving distortion to say that religion was not an important issue in the persecutions of Galileo and John Scopes. Nevertheless, since not all religions are opposed to science, and much science is accepted by believers, the view that science and faith are perpetually locked in battle is untrue. If that’s how one sees the “conflict thesis,” then that hypothesis is wrong.

But my view is not that religion and science have always been implacable enemies, with the former always hindering the latter. Instead, I see them as making overlapping claims, each arguing that they can identify truths about the universe. As I’ll show in the next chapter, the incompatibility rests on differences in the methodology and philosophy used in determining those truths, and in the outcomes of their searches. In their eagerness to debunk the claims of Draper and White, their critics missed the underlying theme of both books: the failure of religion to find truth about anything—be it gods themselves or more worldly matters like the causes of disease.

As I wrote on Christmas Eve:

My own view, which I’ll summarize in one sentence (read Faith Versus Fact if you want the whole megillah) is this: science and religion both claim that they involve “ways of knowing about the universe”, but while the methods of science really do enable us to understand the universe, the “ways of knowing” of religion (faith, authority, scripture, revelation, etc.) are not reliable guides to truth. If they were, all religions would converge on the same truth claims, which is palpably untrue.

Note that I do not claim that religion is the same thing as science, for it includes things like morality and worship and divinity. The Bible is not a “textbook of science.” But all religions do make firm claims about what’s true, and these truth claims, insofar as they’re not based on actual evidence, contravene the methods of science. That’s why science converges on what we think is real (and can use to make correct predictions), while religions haven’t converged one iota. (Compare the truth claims of Hinduism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Scientology, cargo cults, and so on.) Nor do I claim that religion has always been opposed to science, is always in conflict with science, that religionists can’t accept modern science, or all all scientists are or must be atheists.

So when Casey says that I am one of the promulgators of the “conflict hypothesis”, as below, he’s just wrong. Is he familiar with my writings?  I’ve put the statement in bold below because I’m chuffed to be lumped together with such thoughtful men.

But simplistic narratives like the conflict thesis aren’t innocuous — they can warp our understanding of history (for example, here and here the historians of science Stephen Snobelen and Seb Falk address the myth of the “Medieval Gap,” which is grounded in the conflict thesis, as promulgated by writers like Carl Sagan, Jerry Coyne, and A.C. Grayling).

Nor do I think that Sagan promulgated the simplistic narrative of the “conflict thesis”, and I’m not sure that Grayling ever did (he’s too smart to think that). For this is how Casey defines the “conflict thesis”:

Yet anecdotes about religion suppressing science are part of a broader cultural narrative of conflict where science and religion have been locked in a zero-sum struggle — when science advances, religion is forced to beat a hasty retreat. This view of the historical relationship between science and religion is called “the conflict thesis” (see hereherehere).

Note that all of these videos were made by believers, including the DoSER wing of the AAAS (Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion), headed by evangelical Christian Jennifer Wiseman and designed to “to facilitate communication between scientific and religious communities.”

Now, the argument by Casey is that the Galileo affair involves politics and philosophy and religion, and is not as simple as the Pope accepting a Biblically-based geocentric solar system, Galileo touting a heliocentric one, and Galileo going on trial for contradicting the Bible and then being sentenced to lifelong house arrest. Galileo was not tortured, but none of us believe that anyway; he was threatened with torture if he didn’t recant. And of course Galileo insulted the pope by putting the geocentric arguments in the mouth of a character called Simplicio, which surely pissed off the Pope.

Here’s the most important “nuance” that Casey adds to the argument

The Pope was a better scientist than Galileo, for he realized that there were arguments against Galileo’s hypothesis, and he just wanted Galileo to do good science and not assert he had “proof” of heliocentrism. 

I quote Dr. Casey (my emphasis):

In addition to a reasonable desire to keep with the Church’s previous ruling, the pope had a fairly sophisticated philosophical justification for his instruction — one that foreshadows what is now called “the underdetermination thesis” in the philosophy of science. The pope argued that whatever evidence Galileo may have had for heliocentrism, it couldn’t amount to a demonstration or proof of its physical truth, since it is possible for God to bring about whatever was observed through means other than heliocentrism. At the time, an obvious example would have been Tycho Brahe’s geo-heliocentric system, which readily accounted for Galileo’s new observational evidence without needing the objectionable hypothesis of a moving Earth.

In taking this position, the pope was standing in a long tradition in natural philosophy that maintained that the job of astronomers was not to determine what the world was physically like but only to provide useful models for predicting the motions of planets. Stated charitably, the pope was instructing Galileo not to go beyond his evidence.

I love that last sentence: it’s more than charitable; it borders on dissimulation. And it’s FUNNY. And the tradition that astronomers are just supposed to make models and not find truth has long fallen by the wayside.

But Casey goes on.

Unfortunately, when Galileo published his Dialogue, he argued adamantly for the physical truth of heliocentrism, “clearly, though not explicitly” (in the words of Peter Machamer and David Marshall Miller), while sometimes making his opponents seem like idiots. To make matters worse, Galileo foolishly put the pope’s argument about the difficulty of ascertaining final scientific truth into the mouth of a character called Simplicio, which many have taken to be an insult to the pope. The pope was enraged by Galileo’s apparent deceit in defending the physical truth of heliocentrism as an established matter of fact, and Galileo was summoned to Rome to stand trial.

But Casey does admit that there was a conflict between Catholicism and Galileo’s arguments:

For better or worse, the trial of 1633 was not the site of a renewed debate about the status of heliocentrism. Rather, the trial focused on whether Galileo had violated the Church’s instruction not to argue for the physical truth of heliocentrism. In the end, Galileo was forced to recant and sentenced to house arrest at his villa in Florence for the rest of his life.

Is that not a conflict between science and religion? Galileo argued for a physical truth that the Pope didn’t want to hear, ergo he was found guilty.

Casey’s last resort is to deny that the conflict hypothesis predicts eternal enmity and war between religion and science. But that’s a straw man:

Third, and most important, even if this were a clear case of conflict, one incident wouldn’t by itself justify the grand cultural narrative of inexorable conflict between science and religion. Historians of the era have repeatedly pointed out that the Galileo affair was not representative of the norm.

But in the last 80 years or so, nobody said that this kind of conflict was the “norm”. Rather, people like Sagan and I argue that the method of finding truth in science is incompatible with the method of finding “truth” in religion, and this occasionally leads to clashes. The church doesn’t argue against the existence of electrons, or claim that benzene doesn’t have six carbon atoms, or argue against most of science in general, because most of science isn’t relevant to the Bible.

But there’s one important part that is: the story of creation. In particular, the first two chapters of Genesis, which 40% of Americans take literally—with another 33% thinking that God guided evolution. (Total percentage of those thinking God helped create life: 73%.) Only a measly 22% of Americans accept naturalistic evolution (including of humans) the way that we teach it in college. That’s about one in five.

And all modern creationism is, at bottom, rooted in religion: Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, as well as other creationist faiths, including Hindusim. There is no creationist or Intelligent Design organization that is not based on religion. And I know of only a single creationist who isn’t religious—David Berlinski (and I have my suspicions about him).  Is this not, then, a palpable conflict between science and religion? Of course it is! I look forward to Dr. Casey’s explanation of why the battle between creationism and evolution in American is much more nuanced than the simplistic narrative that evolution contradicts the Qur’an or the Old Testament.

Why do people like Casey feel compelled to repeat the same old narrative about Galileo? Well, they’re partly right: more than science is involved and lots of misconceptions (e.g., the Church tortured Galileo) litter the field. But I also think that this kind of accommodationism often comes from religious people who admire science, and fear that the “conflict hypothesis” will drive people out of religion since they feel they’re being forced to choose between science and religion.

That’s not the way it works, though.

If you talk to former creationists who became atheists because of science, it’s not because a scientist told them that “they had to choose.” No, you hear that they were curious about science and evolution in particular (often because the subjects were banned), and learned about it. They finally realized that evolution is true and Genesis is false, and, like Samson, this brought down the edifice of their faith. Plus they realized that there’s simply no good evidence for God—far less evidence than we have for the existence of atoms or the fact that infectious diseases are caused by microbes.

In which I start to ascertain my genetic ancestry

December 12, 2021 • 10:00 am

Thanks to a friend who told me that the 23andMe company is running a big sale on DNA kits that give you not only a readout of the presumed ancestral composition of your genome, but the much of the sequence itself, and, if you wish, what diseases you’re prone to get.  I have sprung $79 (usually $99) to get the “traits and ancestry” kit.  I didn’t want to know whether I’ll get Alzheimer’s or die from some horrible cancer, so I didn’t choose the $129 (usually $199) “health + ancestry” kit, which includes the DNA data plus those SNPs associated with various diseases.

The cheaper alternative still has lots of useful information, including the ability to scan large parts of your genome if you want to look for particularly interesting genes. It will give you a guesstimate of your ancestry (they have data for 200+ regions) and tell you the probability that you have various physical traits, like brown eyes or attached earlobes. And if you register your DNA at the site (optional), you may be able to find some lost relatives.

All in all, it’s a bargain for $79, and this would have been inconceivable two decades ago.  You can order at the link below. I think it would make a swell holiday gift for someone, as who isn’t interested in their genetic background?

I did this years ago for my Y chromosome to find out if I was a “Kohen“—one of the groups of Jews who have special status in the synagogue, taking care of the Torah and the like. Kohanim are elite Jews, regarded as “priests” and the job is passed from father to son, starting with the supposed Biblical Aaron, brother of Moses. That means that there is an unbroken lineage of Kohanim-specific Y chromosomes going back to the distant past. Yes, there’s been some pollution due to lack of sons or illicit canoodling, but there is a definite genetic sequence of the Y associated with being a Kohen. These people often bear the name “Cohan” or “Cohen” today, but while all Kohanim bear those names, not all Cohens or Cohans are members of the kohanim, as there are pretenders—those who use the name without the job. “Coyne” might have been a corruption of “kohen”, so I wanted to know

Well, I found out that I am a faux kohen: although my Y-chromosome ancestry is Eastern European Jewish, I don’t have the genetic signature of the Kohanim. So it goes.

Now, however, I will get a readout of my entire genome, not just the Y. What will it be? Surely mostly eastern European Jew, but there may be some real Irish genes in me, too, as my lineage does include an Irish goy in the 18th century.  And how Neanderthal am I? Do my brow ridges suggest a higher level of Neanderthal genes than normal (about 2%, I think)?

You can guess below, but I do suggest that a DNA testing kit is a great idea for a present.  All you do is pay the fee, and the kit comes within a few days. You spit into a plastic tube and put a special top on the tube that releases a liquid that mixes with your saliva. Remove that device, cap the tube and shake it, put it into a special plastic bag, and then return it, postpaid, in the box in which it came. Easy peasy!

Click below to order if you wish. And guess what I’ll turn out to be, genome-wise!


Ready to find out what “I” am (LOL):

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!).