My talk in Tallahassee in late March

February 25, 2020 • 12:00 pm

In almost exactly one month, I’m speaking to the Tallahassee Scientific Society in Tallahassee, Florida. My talk is on Thursday, March 26, and I think the time and venue are the same as those for the previous speaker: 7 p.m. at Tallahassee Community College’s Center for Innovation on Kleman Plaza. The topic is “Why Evolution is Still True”, and I’ll give a brief rundown of the evidence for evolution (updated in light of new discoveries), followed by discussion of why Americans remain so resistant to this scientific truth.

I’ll give one more announcement in mid-March or so, and all are welcome to come. I believe they’ll also have my two trade books on sale, which I’ll be glad to autograph. And, if you tell me the genus and species of any felid besides the house cat, I’ll draw a cat in it.

Here’s a photo I sent them to use for advertising the talk; the picture is from Wikipedia so it’s in the public domain. Toes, teeth, and size!

Photo credit: H. Zell (from Wikimedia Commons; CC license CC BY_SA 3.0).


New talk by Dawkins on taking courage from Darwinism

December 11, 2019 • 10:00 am

Reader Michael called my attention to this 40-minute talk from October’s CSICon in Las Vegas that was posted just this morning by the Center For Inquiry. There are only 150 views so far. First, the YouTube notes:

Compare two ways of knowing the world. On the one hand theologians claim that the universe and all that’s in it was divinely made and can be understood through faith and revelation. On the other hand there is science, and the scientific method which extols evidence, and demonstrated, repeatable outcomes.

Science knows a lot, but has the humility to acknowledge what it still doesn’t know, and is working on. Theology, by contrast, has contributed literally nothing to our knowledge, and hubristically makes stuff up.

Science is continually surprising, even shocking. Darwin dealt the biggest shock of all when he showed that the prodigious complexity of life has a stunningly simple explanation. Darwin’s courage should arm us to face the remaining deep puzzles of existence: how did the universe and the laws of physics originate? Why is there something rather than nothing?

Inspired by Darwin, this lecture celebrates the godless world-view as not just scientifically valid but courageous. We need intellectual courage to resist facile non-explanations. And we need moral courage to eschew comforting but empty illusions and face into the cold but bracing wind of reality.

Richard’s talk is actually two talks. The first discusses the contrast between religion and science, reprising, I have to say, many of the points I made in Faith Versus Fact. Dawkins notes, for instance, that some of the truth statements of Christianity, like the bodily assumption of Mary into Heaven, were simply made up by Church authorities—without even any scriptural justification. He also dilates on the minutely detailed rules of behavior promulgated by some branches of Islam: behavior that is both senseless and unjustified (he uses breast-feeding as an Islamic index or being a “relative”). He calls this religious authoritarianism “control freakery,” and contrasts the dogmatic certainty of religion with the tentativeness of science. He concludes that “religion has contributed exactly zero to what we know.”

Of course I don’t have Dawkins’s eloquence, and you’ll be amused at his contrast between how theologians versus scientists would answer the question, “Is second-hand smoke dangerous?” Finally, he calls out the Left for coddling religion, saying, “I find it nothing short of disgusting the way the Liberal Left in America, people who should be on our side, bend over backwards to overlook the illiberal, homophobic bigotry of Islamism.”

The second part of the talk gets to the title’s point: we should draw courage from Darwin. But how do we do that?

Richard’s solution is to list the “deep questions of science”, and admit that, in contrast to the certainty of theology, we don’t have the answers. These questions include how does our brain’s physiology lead to the subjective phenomenon of consciousness, where do the laws of physics come from, and why is there something rather than nothing. (He alludes to Lawrence Krauss’s solution to this question, but admits that Krauss’s definition of “nothing” is contested.) The intellectual courage that we should derive from Darwin is the courage to work on these deep problems, confident that there is a naturalistic solution even if we ultimately can’t find it. It is the courage to accept the possibility “that something as complex as life and the origin of the universe could have just happened.” It is the courage “to kick oneself out of our emotional incredulity and persuade yourself that there is no rational choice beyond accepting a naturalistic explanation, to think that solutions can be found to these deep problems.”

But why draw the courage from Darwin rather than science itself or pure naturalism? Because, argues Richard, Darwin already solved the biggest problem, the one that people thought could never be solved by reason: how the illusion of cosmic design could be explained in a purely naturalistic fashion. If Darwin could do that, then we should not quail before “lesser” problems like consciousness, dark matter, or the origin of life. As Richard says, Darwin’s success “should armor us with courage to tackle the remaining problems.”

And atheism should armor us with the moral courage: the courage to face our finitiude, and the courage to live our lives knowing that we’re not being overseen and protected by a celestial father.

It’s a good talk, but many of us who have been steeped in Dawkins’s speeches and books may not hear much that is new. Still, remember that he’s speaking not to the readership here, but to many people who can benefit from his kind of inspiration. As for Darwin, well, I greatly admire what he did, persisting in finding a naturalistic answer to the diversity and change of living creatures. Am I inspired by that to tackle harder problems? Well, I don’t tackle harder problems, but if I was inspired by anything when I was doing research, it was by pure curiosity. As scientists we’re inculcated with the idea that scientific problems have naturalistic solutions, and that comes unconsciously and not as an explicit lesson from Darwin. In fact there are many scientists working on hard problems who don’t even know much about Darwin.

But for this audience, yes, perhaps the lesson of Darwin should impart confidence that things appearing intractable almost surely have naturalistic solutions. I myself would have listed a bunch of problems that once were thought insuperable, requiring the intervention of a God, but now are known to have purely naturalistic solutions.



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:

Weddell seal chews breathing hole in the ice

August 14, 2019 • 1:15 pm

As I mentioned earlier, I’m preparing a set of talks for an upcoming voyage to Antarctica on which I’m a guest lecturer. One of them, which I posted on before, is about the science done by the Scott Expedition to the South Pole. It turns out that at least two of the group’s aims had something to do with evolution, and I’ll discuss those as well as dilate in general about the science that went on side by side with the exploration.

While these lectures are challenging, as I’m not an expert on polar biology, they’re also enormously fun, as I’m learning a ton about stuff that I’d never know otherwise. The second one is on the adaptations of animals to the extreme Antarctic environment (cold, windy, dry, and extremely variable in light regime over the year). I’m taking a few examples to show how these adaptations operate and how they evolved. One, of course, is the famous “antifreeze” proteins of fish that live at -1.9° C.

But this post is about the Weddell Seal (Leptonychotes weddellii), probably the most well-studied mammal in the Antarctic, for it lives close to the polar stations. It’s also the only pinniped in the region that lives under permanent ice. It can stay underwater for an hour and dive up to 2,000 feet (!!) to hunt for fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods. It spends most of its time in the water.

But it’s a mammal, and so it needs to surface for air—and find land to breed on.  How does it do this under permanent ice?

It does it by finding “tide cracks” in the ice, but also by chewing “breathing holes” that it uses repeatedly. They gnaw these holes with special dentition having huge incisors and canines (arrows) that jut forward more than the teeth of other seals.

This picture, taken from a Research Gate post on tooth wear as a cause of mortality in the species, is captioned “Skull of a Weddell seal showing incisor and canine teeth (arrows) worn to pulp cavity and two abscesses in bone of palate (right canine removed for age determination). Photograph by B. M. Dukes.”


A few notes from TravelWild:

This chewing wears down their teeth and, by 20 years of age, the Weddell seal may no longer have viable teeth and, unable to hunt or maintain its breathing hole, may die.

The Weddell seal’s hole is its lifeline: critical for both diving for food and resurfacing for air. When on ice, the seal rarely travels beyond three meters from its hole. Since there are no polar bears in Antarctica, these seals do not use their breathing holes to escape from terrestrial predators such as those found in the Arctic.

But enough background: look at this seal chew! It’s more like scraping than chewing, but I find it mesmerizing. I’ve never seen an animal do anything like this. (Now if evolution produced perfect adaptations, it would give this seal permanently growing teeth, like rodents!)

And here’s a general video on the biology of this species (another nice video, from the BBC, is here):

Reminder: Discussion on Tuesday with Andrew Seidel about his new book on the secular origins of America

June 8, 2019 • 9:45 am

If you’re in Chicago on Tuesday, remember that I will be having a discussion at the University of Illinois at Chicago with Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney for the Freedom from Religion Foundation, and author of the new book below on the secular origins of America. The time and place are in the announcement, it’s free, and Andrew will be signing books after our talk.

I’ve read the book twice, it’s good, and I’ve outlined some questions for Andrew. I just now saw the bit on the poster about “Emphasis will also be placed on whether science and religion can be compatible”, which I hadn’t planned on discussing since that’s my schtick and not Andrew’s, but maybe we’ll work that in. (My job is to draw out Andrew and have him talk about and around his book.)

If you’re coming, and I hope some readers will, I’ll see you there.

Talks in Belgium: April 1 and 2

March 23, 2019 • 11:00 am

If you’re in Brussels on April 1, I’m giving a public talk on the evidence for evolution. It will be delivered in English but simultaneous French translation will be offered through headphones, and the slides will be in both English and French. Admission is free.

Here’s the announcement (click on screenshot):

On the next day, April 2, I’ll be giving a science talk on the last decade of my fly work at Louvain, and that announcement is below:

My talks in Zagreb this week

October 7, 2018 • 7:30 am

If you happen to be in Zagreb, Croatia this coming week, or live in the city, note that I’ll be giving three talks on three successive days: October 15, 16, and 17. One is on the evidence for evolution, one on free will, and the third on religion versus science. I’ll be curious to see how the last two go down in this fairly religious country.

The talks have been arranged to coincide with the publication of the Croatian translation of my book Faith Versus Fact, and the first talk, on science versus religion, will be followed by Q&A and a book signing. If you say “cat” in Croatian (look it up), I’ll draw a cat in your book.

The talks will be delivered in English but I think at least one or two will have simultaneous Croatian translation. Here is the poster giving times, dates, and locations (in Croatian). Thanks to Pavel Gregoric and his colleagues for helping arrange this visit (I’ll be gone for a week).

The first talk will be delivered in the Kino Europa, or Europa Cinema, a lovely old theater built in 1924. I’m really excited to be lecturing here:

My talk in Delhi

January 4, 2018 • 8:30 am

Well here’s a bit of self-aggrandizement, but it’s cool. The front gate of the Indian National Science Academy sports a big fancy poster advertising my talk—in English and Hindi! Professor L. S. Shashidhara from IISER Pune, who sponsored and arranged my whole visit here, took this vanity picture. Not shown are the two pi-puppies who were snuffling around my feet.

The translation is almost line for line, so “Prof. Jerry Coyne” is the ninth line down on the left side. Now I know what my name looks like in Hindi!

I’m told that many of the attendees will be science teachers and students, with the teachers wanting to learn how to teach evolution. Though I’m no expert in pedagogy, I’ve tweaked the talk to make it more of a “critical thinking” exercise and have cut out some of the religion-dissing.

I’m writing this 1.5 hours before the talk starts, and will briefly report how it went when it’s done, which will be in the middle of the night U.S. time.


. . . My job here is done; I had a 10-minute introduction (always embarassingly laudatory in India), a one-hour talk, and 45 minutes of very good questions. My cold has abated and so I thought it went well (it’ll be videotaped, but there’s not much you folks haven’t seen before). Many of the attendees were local students, and I was heartened, as I have been this whole trip, by the high proportion of women among them, and by the fact that the women students were forthright and not afraid to argue with me. I hope India makes use of this pool of talent, as women tell me they still face bars to professional advancement at the post-Ph.D. level.

Even though religion was a very small part of the talk, at least half of the questions were about it, including from a Buddhist who told me that Buddhist scriptures were not only 100% consonant with science, but in fact anticipated all modern scientific advances. We hear this from Islam, too, with some scholars, as I show in Faith versus Fact, maintaining that the Qur’an already contains all modern scientific knowledge. That’s when “properly interpreted”, of course! I also mentioned that reincarnation and karma were faith-based concepts with no evidence from science.

Afterwards, some of the Institute dignitaries had lunch with me, which was fun, and besides sabzi, paneer curry, yogurt, rice and chappatis, there was vanilla ice cream and warm gulab jamun—a great combination.

I leave the guest house at 10 p.m. for the one-hour drive to the airport, and then three hours till my 2 pm flight. Wish me luck!

My talk in Delhi

December 29, 2017 • 1:08 am
For those of you in Delhi who want to attend my January 4 talk on “Why Evolution is True (But So Few People Accept It)”, details of location and time have been obscure. Reader Rajesh found them out, and so here they are.
Place: INSA Bhadurshah Zafar Marg
Time: 11:00AM