Fire use by hominins: an example of rapid cultural evolution?

July 26, 2021 • 9:15 am

Yesterday we discussed the possibility of cultural evolution (dissemination of a behavior or skill through imitation and learning) in cockatoos, which attracted a lot of attention, probably because of its parallel with human cultural evolution. (The cockatoos seem to have learned to open garbage bins by watching each other.) And in our species there are a gazillion examples, especially since transportation allowed innovations to be spread quickly and widely. You can think of lots of cases: blue jeans, cuisines from other places, music, and, earlier than that, printing, the wheel (some cultures never got it) and even religion.

The new paper in Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci. below, however, suggests what may have been the very first behavior that spread though species of Homo (not only H. sapiens, but perhaps Neanderthals, which some consider a different species) through movement of individuals: the use of fire.  Click on the screenshot to read the article (free) below, or get the pdf here. The reference is at the bottom.

Fire, of course, has many uses: besides cooking meat and tubers, it can be used to harden wood to make spear points, change the quality of stone to make it easier to flake, and to keep yourself warm. Other uses are given in the Wikipedia article “Control of fire by early humans.”

The MacDonald et al. paper collects evidence of fire use from species of Homo, concluding that it got started about 400,000 to 350,000 years ago and then spread rapidly throughout the species. The rapidity of spread then led them to propose what kind of social structure was present in humans at that time.  This contradicts speculations H. erectus controlled the use of fire about 1.5 million years ago; the authors find that evidence unconvincing.

The problem is to distinguish anthropogenic (“human caused”) fire from natural wildfires. But there are ways of doing this, as the article summarizes. Hearths and charred animal bones are one way. Here’s another bit of evidence: a fire-hardened wooden spear from, coincidentally, about 380,000-400,000 years old, part of a group of artifacts found in Germany:

I can’t evaluate the quality of the evidence, but the authors summarize a lot of data to conclude that regular fire use began about 400,000 years ago, and spread quickly throughout the Old World, with evidence coming from Portugal, Spain, France, Israel, and Morocco. Two quotes:

. . . a review by Roebroeks and Villa identified a clear pattern for Europe: there the record strongly suggests that anthropogenic fire use was very rare to nonexistent during the first half of the Middle Pleistocene, as exemplified by the absence—bar a few dispersed charcoal particles—of fire proxies in deeply stratified archaeological karstic sequences, such as the Atapuerca site complex in Spain or the Caune de l’Arago at Tautavel (France), as well as from such prolific open-air sites as Boxgrove in the United Kingdom. In contrast, the record from 400 ka onward is characterized by an increasing number of sites with multiple fire proxies (e.g., charcoal, heated lithics, charred bone, heat-altered sediments) within a primary archaeological context.

. . . The spatiotemporal pattern of the appearance in the archaeological record of an innovation provides evidence relevant for identifying how the innovation came to be widely distributed: that is, through independent innovation, demic processes, cultural diffusion, or genetic processes. The fact that regular fire use appeared relatively quickly across the Old World and in different hominin subpopulations strongly suggests that the behavior diffused or spread from a point of origin rather than that it was repeatedly and independently invented.

Since fire appeared in both warm and cold places around the same time, the authors suggest that its inception was not correlated with “environmental pressures” (e.g., cold). And because the spread was so rapid, the authors claim, correctly, that the spread throughout the Old World was very unlikely to have been caused by the diffusion of genes producing the tendency to create fire, which would spread only very slowly. Likewise, the near-simultaneity makes it seems unlikely that the use of fire was invented independently by several groups.

If fire use did spread through imitation and learning, then, what does that say about the social structure of early humans? If we were divided up into groups of xenophobic hunter-gatherers who didn’t interact, that would not facilitate the spread of fire. Why would a group give the skill to a competitor group? There are two alternatives.

The first, “demic diffusion,” is that a “deme” (a cohesive populations of hominins) spread rapidly, taking with it the fire use they invented. This seems unlikely given that the spread was more rapid than one could imagine a single population could migrate.

The alternative comprises groups that tolerated each other, and were at least somewhat friendly. As the authors suggest, there was a more “fluid social structure with multiple levels of clustering in social networks”. In other words, perhaps hominims were more interactive than we thought.

Well, we have no direct evidence for that, and it would be hard to come by. And I’ll let other physical anthropologists judge the “simultaneous spread” hypothesis. But I wanted to bring this up because the scenario is at least plausible, and it may be the first evidence for cultural evolution in our genus.

There’s one other trait they add in to the mix as another behavior that spread by cultural evolution: the “Levallois technology” for knapping stone (striking flakes off a stone like flint to make weapons and other implements). This, say the authors, can be learned only through “close and prolonged observation combined with active instruction.” Here’s the Levallois method, which involves producing a flint core in such a way that sharp flakes, useful for tools, can be easily struck off:

The authors posit that this technology also originated in one place, but about 100,000 years later than fire (and surely in a different place), and then spread rapidly among groups in a similar way: non-hostile group interactions in a multi-level social network.

I’ll close with the authors’ final paragraph, summarizing their views:

We hypothesize that around 400 ka, cultural processes supported change in technology across wide areas. This indicates, at a minimum, a degree of social tolerance for individuals from different groups, and suggests the less minimal but still plausible hypothesis that more intensive cooperative interactions within larger-scale networks were already in place, occasionally crossing the boundaries between what we usually infer to have been different biological populations within the wider hominin metapopulation. [JAC: I think they’re referring to movement between “modern H. sapiens and Neanderthals. After all, these groups did mate with each other] We conclude that the spatial and temporal pattern of the appearance of regular Middle Pleistocene fire use documented in the archaeological record signals more than the advent of an important tool in the hominin toolbox: the presence of cultural behavior more like that of humans today than of our great ape relatives. We suggest that long before the cultural florescence associated with the late MSA/Middle Pleistocene and to a greater extent LSA/Upper Paleolithic periods, hominins were beginning to develop the capacities for complexity, variability, and widespread diffusion of technology and behavior that we tend to associate only with H. sapiens.


MacDonald, K., F. Scherjon, E. van Veen, K. Vaesen, and W. Roebroeks. 2021. Middle Pleistocene fire use: The first signal of widespread cultural diffusion in human evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118:e2101108118.

Readers’ wildlife photos

July 26, 2021 • 8:00 am

Lou Jost, who’s been absent from this site for a while doing biology in Ecuador, where he lives, has returned with some lovely photos of orchids, including some new and undescribed species. His captions are indented, and you can enlarge the photos by clicking on them.

It’s been wonderful to read about your exploits as a duck foster dad. I am answering your call for photos.

The orchid genus Dracula has a modified petal (the “lip”) that imitates a mushroom, and smells like one too. They are pollinated by female fungus gnats looking for mushrooms to lay their eggs on. Here is an undescribed Dracula species that I discovered in our Rio Zunac Reserve in eastern Ecuador.

Lepanthes lophius is a tiny orchid flower pollinated by male fungus gnats who think the flower is a female gnat. These orchids emit female gnat pheromones, and the male gnats follow the pheromone trail upwind to the flower. The gnats actually mate with the flower, and even deposit sperm on the fake female genitalia on the underside of the flower. This is a huge genus of over a thousand species, many of them very local endemics.

I spent a lot of time mapping the ranges of the hundred or so Lepanthes species that live in the Rio Pastaza watershed where I live. This led to the discovery of some new species. Lepanthes ruthiana is one of my first discoveries.

While my friend Stig Dalstrom and I were exploring a poorly known forest in the Amazonian foothills, we discovered two new species of orchids in the genus Masdevallia, including this one. This was a beautiful tall forest full of unusual plants, including several other new species. My colleagues and I are currently working to make this forest into a reserve.

Andinia hippocrepica used to be included in the genus Lepanthes. DNA analyses by my friend Mark Wilson showed that the traits which had led taxonomists to classify it as a Lepanthes were actually cases of convergent evolution, rather than evidence for common descent.  DNA analyses have been shaking up the taxonomy of all groups of organisms over the last twenty years; it has been an exciting time now that we have the ability to trace out the actual paths of evolution.

Bomarea longipes is a climbing plant related to Alstroemeria (often sold as cut flowers). These are the only plants I know whose leaves are built “upside down”. As the erect leaf develops in the bud, in most plants the side of the leaf facing the stem will be the top, and the side facing away from the stem would be the underside of the leaf, with lots of stomata. In Bomarea the leaves are still erect, but they have the bottom side facing the stem. When the leaf is deployed, the leaf stem twists around so that the stomata face the ground. This particular species of Bomarea had been lost to science and was believed extinct for a hundred and fifty years.

Monday: Hili dialogue

July 26, 2021 • 6:30 am

Greetings at the start of a new work week: July 26, 2021. It’s National Bagelfest, so have a good bagel, some lox, and a schmear.  Avoid the donut-shaped Wonder Bread that passes for “bagels” in most of America. It’s also National Coffee Milkshake Day, World Tofu Day, Aunt and Uncles Day (only one aunt celebrated?), and Esperanto Day (see 1887 below).

Read this to learn how to choose and eat a bagel properly. You want to avoid junk like the “bagel” below, or the dreaded “everything” bagel, almost as bad as the blueberry bagel.


News of the Day:

The latest news is thin. We have two deaths, civil rights leader Bob Moses (86), instrumental in pushing forward voter registration of blacks in the South, and comedian Jackie Mason (93), born Yacov Moshe Hakohen Maza, ordained as a rabbi but gave it up after three years for standup comedy and later for movie roles.

From CNN: an Algerian judo competitor won’t face an Israeli, so he withdrew from the Olympics. So much for international solidarity in athletics! I know of no Israeli athlete who ever withdrew from competition to avoid competing with an Arab, but this isn’t the first time an Arab athlete has withdrawn rather than contest an Israeli. Who’s the apartheid state now?

Algerian judo athlete Fethi Nourine says he has chosen to withdraw from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics rather than face an Israeli competitor.

Nourine told Algeria’s Echourouk TV that he “decided to withdraw out of conviction, because this is the very least we can offer the Palestinian cause.”
“This is my duty,” he said, adding that he wanted to “send a message to the whole world that Israel is an occupation, a lawless country, a country without a flag.”
Algeria does not officially recognize Israel.
After announcing his withdrawal, the International Judo Federation (IJF) said on Saturday it was temporarily suspending Nourine and his coach, Amar Benikhlef.

In a statement, the IJF said that the judoka’s actions were “in total opposition to the philosophy of the International Judo Federation.”

The International Judo Federation suspended Nourine and he faces further disciplinary action.

Speaking of the Olympics, the German women’s gymnastics team, tired of being “sexualized” by wearing skimpy outfits during competition, has exchewed the traditional bikini-cut leotard for unitards that cover most of the body. Here’s the new garment. And more power to them.  You’re supposed to be watching the performance, not ogling women’s bodies.

And speaking of gymnastics at the Olympics, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team, undoubtedly the best in the world, slipped up on Sunday, with even Simone Biles off her form. America finished second to Russia, but that won’t count in the finals, in which the competition is restarted with fewer teams. Nevertheless, if the U.S. is to take gold, they have to get their act in order An excerpt:

Perhaps what’s most concerning is that the United States wasn’t undermined by a single disastrous routine. Instead, persistent miscues culminated in an underwhelming outing. And the result is just as much a product of the Russians’ fantastic showing. The Russian Olympic Committee has a deep team that showcased its progress since it last faced the Americans at a major competition.

And another screwup: the U.S. men’s basketball team, which hasn’t lost a game at the Olympics since 2004, lost to France 83-76 on Sunday, blowing an eight-point lead in the game’s last four minutes. That doesn’t bother me as much as the women’s gymnastics, as I like the latter competition far more than basketball. Besides, now with their stupid three-on-three basketball competitions, who cares about the sport at the Olympics at all?

And now one more “disappointment”: swimmer Katie Ledecky finished second in the 400-meter freestyle swim, a race she’d never lost. Well, a silver medal is pretty damn good, but you know they all want gold.

For the first time, researchers have reported lethal attacks on gorillas by chimpanzees! If you wonder how chimpanzees can kill gorillas, read the link: there was an altercation between two groups, one of each species, but two gorilla infants were killed while the adults escaped.  Gorillas are way stronger than chimps. (h/t cesar)

Finally, today’s reported Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. is 610,463, an increase of 269 deaths over yesterday’s figure. The reported world death toll is now 4,176,208, an increase of about 6,600 over yesterday’s total.

Stuff that happened on July 26 includes:

  • 1745 – The first recorded women’s cricket match takes place near Guildford, England.
  • 1803 – The Surrey Iron Railway, arguably the world’s first public railway, opens in south London, United Kingdom.
  • 1882 – Premiere of Richard Wagner’s opera Parsifal at Bayreuth.
  • 1887 – Publication of the Unua Libro, founding the Esperanto movement.

Here’s the Unua Libro by by Polish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof, who invented the language. I wanted to learn it when I was a kid, but gave up quickly when I learned that it would be useless, though it was envisaged as a universal language (it’s much like Spanish):

Here’s Naoroii, an imposing looking chap, who besides serving in Parliament until 1895, was also elected President of the Indian National Congress three times and was one of the first vigorous exponents of independence from Britain.

Here’s Noether’s and below that the first page of her paper, which was extremely important in showing that if a physical system is symmetrical (“if the Lagrangian function for a physical system is not affected by a continuous change [transformation] in the coordinate system used to describe it”), then there will be a corresponding conservation law.

  • 1936 – Spanish Civil War: Germany and Italy decide to intervene in the war in support for Francisco Franco and the Nationalist faction.
  • 1945 – The Labour Party wins the United Kingdom general election of July 5 by a landslide, removing Winston Churchill from power.

Perhaps someone will explain to me why Churchill, who had led Britain to victory in the war, was unceremoniously dumped as PM right afterwards.

  • 1948 – U.S. President Harry S. Truman signs Executive Order 9981, desegregating the military of the United States.
  • 1953 – Arizona Governor John Howard Pyle orders an anti-polygamy law enforcement crackdown on residents of Short Creek, Arizona, which becomes known as the Short Creek raid.

About 400 Mormon fundamentalists were taken into custody, including children. Wikipedia notes that “The Short Creek raid was the largest mass arrest of polygamists in American history. At the time, it was described as “the largest mass arrest of men and women in modern American history.”  I don’t know of any larger mass arrest in America, but perhaps readers are aware of some. The Utah Supreme Court ruled that the children could indeed be taken from their parents and put in state custody. But of course polygamy quickly revived, and it’s still out there in Utah.

Here’s a photo taken during the raid:

A group of children and women sit and wait under a tree while state policemen guard them in a schoolyard at a Mormon settlement during the Short Creek Polygamy Raid, Short Creek (now Colorado City), Arizona, July 26, 1953. State officials arrested over 100 men on polygamy charges but photos of the raid, especially crying children, caused a backlash against the secular authorities. (Photo by Loomis Dean/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)
  • 1956 – Following the World Bank’s refusal to fund building the Aswan Dam, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalizes the Suez Canal, sparking international condemnation.
  • 1971 – Apollo program: Launch of Apollo 15 on the first Apollo “J-Mission“, and first use of a Lunar Roving Vehicle.

Here’s that vehicle in its final resting place on the Moon. The Wikipedia caption calls attention to “the red Bible atop the hand controller in the middle of the vehicle, placed there by [Commander Dave] Scott.” Oy vey! There’s a Bible on the Moon!

  • 1990 – The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 is signed into law by President George H.W. Bush.
  • 2016 – Hillary Clinton becomes the first female nominee for President of the United States by a major political party at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Notables born on this day include:

  • 1875 – Carl Jung, Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist (d. 1961)
  • 1894 – Aldous Huxley, English novelist and philosopher (d. 1963)
  • 1928 – Elliott Erwitt, French-American photographer and director

Erwitt, a superb street photographer, is still alive at 92. Here are two of his pictures (he liked to photograph d*gs)

USA,New York city. New York, 1974. Felix, Gladys and Rover.

. . . and a cat

USA. New York City. 1953.
  • 1938 – Bobby Hebb, American singer-songwriter (d. 2010)

Here’s a live performance of Hebb’s most famous song, “Sunny“, in 1972. It’s never been clear what the song, written in 1963, was about.

  • 1943 – Mick Jagger, English singer-songwriter, producer, and actor
  • 1945 – Helen Mirren, English actress 
  • 1959 – Kevin Spacey, American actor and director
  • 1964 – Sandra Bullock, American actress and producer.

Who doesn’t love Sandra, the Girl Next Door? Here she is rapping to “Rapper’s Delight“, the first popular hip-hop song, on the Jonathan Ross show.

  • 1973 – Kate Beckinsale, English actress

Those who found their final repose on July 26 include:

  • 1863 – Sam Houston, American general and politician, 7th Governor of Texas (b. 1793)
  • 1934 – Winsor McCay, American cartoonist, animator, producer, and screenwriter (b. 1871)

I’m a big fan of McCay, who was way ahead of his time in both cartoons and animation, using weird perspectives and angles. Here’s Nemo’s bed taking a stroll in Little Nemo in Slumberland, a cartoon from 1908.

Evita and Juan:

  • 1971 – Diane Arbus, American photographer and academic (b. 1923)

Here’s Arbus at work; you can see a selection of her photos here.

  • 2009 – Merce Cunningham, American dancer and choreographer (b. 1919)
  • 2020 – Olivia de Havilland, American actress (b. 1916)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn: Hili detects the scent of deer, but doesn’t understand why she can’t see them.

Hili: Deer were here yesterday.
A: And?
Hili: They must’ve gone somewhere.
In Polish:
Hili: Wczoraj tu były sarny.
Ja: I co?
Hili: Musiały gdzieś pójść.

From Facebook:

Anne-Marie sent another caricature from Serge Chapleu at the French-Canadian paper La Presse. Remember when Bezos thanked all the Amazon employees for making his space flight possible? The header says “Return to the Earth for Bezos,” and I think you can read what he’s saying:

Another superfluous sign from reader David. If you’re old enough to read, you’re old enough to not want to swallow a hanger:

Tweets from Barry, who says, “It’s not just the United States—it’s a whole thread.”. And so it is. Here are but two demonstrations against the Covid vaccination.

From Luana—a d*g who can’t paint! Is this for real? There’s also a cynical comment:

Tweets from Matthew. Read more about Chusovitana here.

Ducklings at the University of Nottingham. I hope they found a pond or lake!

Do you get this one? I got half but Matthew explained the last name to me.

These are honeypot ants, whose workers spend their lives filling their abdomen with liquid food and then regurgitating it to others on demand. They’re a living larder! Translation from Twitter: “Myrmecocystus nest. The queen of this nest is five years old, a colony that has been bred for many years and is often exhibited at events.”

Recommended film: “My Octopus Teacher”

July 25, 2021 • 1:30 pm

When I was getting my teeth cleaned the other day, my hygienist Maria and I were talking about travel and biology, both of which she likes, and she recommended a movie I hadn’t heard of: “My Octopus Teacher“. She couldn’t say enough good things about the movie, so I investigated it. I found out that it was a Netflix film made in 2020, won the Oscar that year for the Best Documentary Feature, and had a high critics’ rating of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes (91% critics rating).  And it was about a man forging a relationship with an octopus. How could I not watch it?

I did, and I was entranced. It is a fantastic film, and you really must watch it.

The story is simple: South African filmmaker Craig Foster, burned out from work, unable to relate to his family, seeks peace in getting away from everyone, snorkeling in the local kelp forest. There he finds a female common octopus (Octopus vulgaris), and, after days and weeks of effort, befriends her. Not interfering in her life, he simply visits her every day for over 300 days, marveling at her intelligence and adaptations, living through her travails. The experience is bittersweet because he knows that her lifespan is about a year, and he’s with her to the end.

What did the octopus teach him? I’ll leave you to watch the film to see the marvelous ending that sums up what he learned. I have to say, though, that I’ve formed a similar bond with my ducks, seeing them several times a day from when the day they hatch until they leave the pond in the fall. When you spend hours and days with an animal, you learn a lot about them, and it does change you.

Here’s the trailer. SEE THE MOVIE!

Panpsychism hangs around like a bad penny

July 25, 2021 • 12:00 pm

I’ve written a fair bit about panpsychism (see here for all the posts), and I don’t really feel in the mood to summarize the problems at length. Suffice it to say that it’s a “theory”—probably an untestable one, or maybe it’s better seen as a religion—that every bit of matter in the Universe has some form of consciousness, including electrons and rocks, and if you put them together the right way, as in a dog or a human, you get “higher” consciousness automatically. It’s a “turtles all the way down” view that finesses the problem of consciousness—i.e., how we get qualia, or subjective sensations—by simply making up stuff.

The problems with it are many, and you can read my posts to see the issues that I and others have found with it. They include the following:

a.) There’s no evidence that rocks or electrons or water are “conscious”, and there’s no way to find out if they are because the proponents never define what it means for this kind of matter to be conscious.

b.) There’s the “combination problem”: how do we put together “conscious” molecules in a way to create the kind of consciousness that humans have? At what point do “qualia” appear. If you make a complex machine like a typewriter, it’s a combination of lots of conscious molecules, too, but doesn’t have “higher” consciousness. There has been no convincing solution to the “combination problem” by even the advocates of panpsychism

c.) A problem raised by one of its proponents (one of the four boosters whom Salon uses to say panpsychism is “gaining steam”:

“Panpsychists think you can’t explain human consciousness by putting together lots of non-conscious things in the right structure; okay, but is it actually easier to explain it by putting lots of conscious things in the right structure?” Roelofs asked.

c.) The entire theory is untestable, as one of the proponents admits in the Salon article below (click on screenshot). It is not a scientific theory as much as mental masturbation. At least scientific theories of consciousness, like what neurons are required to have it, and how to change or eliminate it, can be testable.

Count on Salon, the Daily MIrror of websites, to have an article claiming that panpsychism is “gaining steam in science communities.” There’s no evidence adduced at all that the theory is spreading in science communities. Author Rozsa cites, beside Philip Goff, one of the theory’s long-time proponents, only three other people who accept this cockamamie view. None of them are scientists; all four are philosophers of mind. Nor is the author of the piece a scientist. That’s because no respectable scientist would say we should study how consciousness arises by simply assuming that all matter is inherently conscious.

Read and weep:

Here’s how the article frames the “hard problem” of consciousness:

On the other hand, science is equally stuck when it comes to explaining the subjective experiences that we can embrace when we listen to music, enjoy delicious food, watch a movie or fall in love. There is something unquantifiable about the joys of life, a reality that is not encompassed when we try to reduce emotions to hormones.

. . .”Consciousness involves quality — the redness of a red experience, the smell of coffee, the taste of mint,” Goff said. “These qualities that can’t be captured in a purely quantitative vocabulary of mathematics. So Galileo said that if we want mathematical science, we need to take consciousness out of the domain of science. In Galileo’s worldview, there is this radical division in nature between the quantitative mathematical domain of science and the physical world, and the qualitative domain of consciousness with its colors, and sounds, and smells and tastes.”

My own view, which I derived from Patricia Churchland, is that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of a certain arrangement of living molecules, most of them in the brain. Once you have all the ingredients for consciousness in place (and science is beginning to learn about some of them), then you get the phenomenon of consciousness and the presence of subjective sensation. End of the story; nothing more to find out. To me, there’s nothing more to the explanation than that: once the components are there, the being is conscious. The scientific task is to find those components and, if we could, assemble them to see if we get consciousness, or at least fiddle with them to see if we can alter, diminish, or erase consciousness in predictable ways.

But I’m not a neuroscientist, so I’ll leave it to people like Churchland to go after panpsychism. The fact is that, contra Salon, the idea is not gaining steam, but winding down as people realize that panpsychism is a worldview that is absolutely untestable. In fact, Luke Roelofs at NYU more or less admits that:

“Panpsychism does suggest that there may well be some level of consciousness everywhere in nature,” Roelofs explained. “Panpsychists all accept dog-consciousness, but some might not want to accept chair-consciousness: they might say that each particle making up the chair is conscious, but it’s not constructed the right way for these to ‘add up’ to anything. Others might think that chairs have consciousness, but of an incredibly diffuse sort: because there’s no brain or nervous system, there’s no order or structure to the chair’s experience, just an undifferentiated blur.”

Ultimately, he added, “The impact of panpsychism isn’t so much to answer these questions, but to suggest continuity: don’t expect to find a discontinuous boundary somewhere between the simplest animal that is conscious and the most complex animal that isn’t.” Roelofs says there isn’t a line that one could draw: “even if some sorts of consciousness are so simple that it’s more useful for us, in practice, to treat them as ‘mindless’, nevertheless the differences are ultimately just matters of degree.”

In the end, it may prove impossible to ever definitively ascertain whether panpsychism holds water.

Well, if it doesn’t answer questions but “suggests continuity” (that is, positing that all matter is conscious), then it cannot form a program for scientific research.

Well, as Sabine Hossenfelder said in the video this morning (see Hili dialogue), if a scientific theory doesn’t help us make progress in understanding the universe, it should be thrown into the bin for the cockatoos to eat. And surely panpsychism is such a theory.

Two more points. In trying to explain why inanimate matter might be conscious, Roelofs produces a classic Deepity (I’ll put it in bold):

“Panpsychists think that thought, reasoning, decision-making, vision and hearing and smell and all of our cognitive complexity: none of those are the same thing as consciousness. Consciousness is just subjectivity, just ‘is there something it’s like to exist right now?’ And so they think it makes sense for consciousness to exist in simple forms without thought, without reasoning, without vision or hearing or smell. A lot of critics think that’s just a mix-up: they think that once you take away thought, reasoning, etc. that’s it, there’s nothing left to talk about.”

I don’t understand what the “subjectivity” of an atom can be: does an atom know “what it’s like to exist right now”? No, “consciousness is just subjectivity” is a Deepity, which sounds good, but when you dig deeper, you find. . . well, empty words.

Finally, the proponents of panpsychism are now pointing out that it may help us live on after death. Many people want that (that’s why there’s Christianity), and if every atom in our brain is conscious, is it beyond possibility that maybe, just maybe, our memories could live on in those molecules? Yes, I know it’s stupid, but here’s what Salon says:

Panpsychism also has radical implications for religions, since so many focus on questions of what happens after we die. It is likely that our brains still comprise the bulk of our identity (so when the neurons which store your memories die, the memories most likely die forever along with them), but panpsychism allows for the possibility that your conscious “self” lives on in some form. It does not even entirely preclude the possibility that we take some of our identity with us; to paraphrase Stanley Kubrick when he directed “The Shining,” the seemingly horrifying prospect of ghosts existing at least means that death is not final.

Fine; let the theologians discuss this, but I reject it since there’s no evidence. The paragraph above is simply porcine shampoo, that is, hogwash.

When the panpsychists start making real progress in understanding consciousness instead of simply positing an infinite regress of the phenomenon, then we can talk.


h/t: Tim

Cultural evolution in an Australian parrot (?)

July 25, 2021 • 9:15 am

I put a question mark in the title because although the evidence for cultural evolution in Australian sulphur-crested cockatoos (Cacatua galerita) is pretty strong, the authors are missing a crucial piece of evidence. Read on.

The paper below (click on screenshot, or find the pdf here) was just published in the prestigious journal Science, and got tons of airplay in the media. And I can see how the observation of cockatoos learning to open garbage bins, and then other cockatoos imitating the first ones, leading to learning and then diffusion of the behavior rapidly around Sydney, is cool.  After all, it mimics how humans learn and transform their culture by imitating others. And, like humans, cockatoos in different areas modify the learned behavior, with different populations opening the bins in different ways.

But given the previous literature on cultural evolution in animals, and in birds, I was surprised that this paper got so much publicity. The authors do have rapid evidence for cultural spread of a trait in only a year, but no direct evidence that the birds learn to open bins by watching and imitating others. (Another theory—admittedly less likely—is that birds see open bins and, noticing that there’s food inside, learn to open other bins on their own. That could also lead to rapid spread of the trait, but not by watching and imitating others.)

But already in the 1950s there was a similar observation from the UK: several species of tits learning to peck open milk bottles delivered to doorsteps, and then drinking the cream from the top of the bottles. That behavior, too, spread rapidly (see below) but there’s not the mathematical-model evidence to suggest spread through cultural learning. However, in that case there were direct lab experiments showing that one tit can indeed learn to open the bottles by watching another: the kind of evidence not cited (and apparently missing) in the cockatoo paper.

In none of the journalists’ reports on this phenomenon have I seen any reference to the much earlier work on tits (several species of them), despite its similarity to the present study and the direct evidence of imitative learning. I ascribe this lacuna to journalists’ ignorance of the scientific literature. For the study of Fisher and Hinde on tits opening milk bottles is very famous among behaviorists, ornithologists, and organismal biologists (it’s cited in the new Science paper, but just as a number without comment). In those days, though, it was published in more obscure journals like British Birds, though there were two short News and Views pieces in Nature.

My conclusion, stated in advance: the cockatoo work a cool study, but I’m not sure why it got so much attention in light of the earlier work, and am puzzled why the journalists ignored the earlier work and the authors of the cockatoo paper don’t describe it.

On to the cockatoo study: click on screenshot. I’ll try to be brief:

Before 2018, there were sporadic reports of the cockatoos opening trash bins near Sydney to get food. Here’s a photo of one bird that’s been marked with paint for identification. (By the way, these birds have been described as a cross between a bolt cutter and a car alarm.)

The behavior involves at least five separable actions, as shown below.

But although they have to be performed in sequence, each behavior save “pry open” and “flip” can be done in several different ways, so the number of sequences are many. A given bird tends to open the bin in a characteristic way. Here are the sequences:

And here’s are two different birds holding the top in different ways, the first one with the beak and the second with the foot and the beak.

This plot shows the rapid spread of the trait around Sydney. See the caption for explanation, but realize that this is only within a few years (the color of the bars show the number of bin-opening observations).

(From paper): Fig. 2 Spread of bin opening across the Sydney and Wollongong regions. Reported in only three suburbs before 2018, bin-opening behavior had spread to 44 suburbs by late 2019. Suburbs outlined with black returned only negative reports, whereas suburbs with at least two positive reports for the respective time period are colored (cumulative over time). Forested areas (>9.6% of the area covered by trees 10 to 15 m high) are shown in dark gray. For all time periods, see fig. S1.

The spread, as with the tits drinking milk, was documented by reports of citizens and ornithologists. In the case of the cockatoos, there were 1396 reports of which 338 in 44 suburbs described bin opening. Multiple birds were present in 93.3% of the openings, suggesting the possibility that the cockatoos were learning to open bins by watching others.

To determine if the behavior spread by culture and imitation, the authors combined the known times of bin-opening observations with their geographic location and compared a model in which the birds independently learned to open the bins with one involving imitation and geographic spread. (One would expect, for instance, that in the latter model observations of bin opening would be more geographically contiguous as the behavior spread from bird to nearby bird.) Sure enough the “network models with social transmission” got overwhelmingly stronger statistical report than any other model, implying learning by imitation and spread by flight.

A few other points. As I said, individual birds tended to use a characteristic sequence of bin-opening moves; that is, the variance among openings within individuals was less than the variation among individuals, even from the same area.

Second, different geographic populations tended to develop different ways of opening bins, though it was no means uniform within a location.  And the farther the regions were apart, the more different the behavioral sequences of bin-opening. This is just like human culture. Languages, for example, developed in exactly this way: individuals migrated and, over time, people’s imitations of others’ way of speaking led to characteristic linguistic differences between regions—up to the point of mutual unintelligibility.

Finally, unlike the tits (see below), it was largely the male cockatoos who opened the bins (89%), and those birds who succeeded tended to be higher in the dominance hierarchy than those who failed or who didn’t try.

The results are impressive, but to complete the experiment the authors need to actually show that cockatoos learn to open bins by watching others. While the presence of other birds at Grand Openings suggests this, the authors need to do an experiment in which birds are trained to open bins, and then exposed to naive birds in the laboratory to see if the naive birds learn to open bins faster in the presence of these “tutors”.

That experiment was in fact done for the blue tits in a very clever experiment by Aplin et al. (see reference at bottom), using containers sealed with either foil or paper (just as milk bottles were sealed), but containing waxworms instead of milk.

On to the famous observational paper by Fisher and Hinde from 1949 (reference and link at bottom, click on screenshot to get pdf).


Great and blue tits opening milk bottles to get the cream was a behavior first described in 1921 in Southampton. The birds would either pry up the lids or, if they were foil, peck a hole in them to drink the cream. Here’s some adorable pictures given in the paper:

There’s a cute anecdote described in the paper:

The bottles are usually attacked within a few minutes of being left at the door. There are even several reports of parties of tits following the milkman’s cart down the street and removing the tops from bottles in the cart whilst the milkman is delivering milk to the houses.

A few birds drank the cream so eagerly that they stuck their heads too far in and drowned!

The authors note that the trait spread rapidy throughout Britain, and give maps of reports of milk-drinking tits from several years. I show just three: 1939, 1943, and 1947. Each dot is a bottle-opening observation:


Here the authors made no mathematical models of the spread, but adduce two arguments that this is due to learning through observation. First, very few cases were reported in isolated areas, where individuals would learn it for themselves (tits don’t fly very far). Second, most observations made after 1930 are near the pre-1930 localities or occur in regions where isolated openings were first observed earlier. Further, the observations increased much more rapidly over time than expected if each bird was learning to open a bottle by itself. As the authors say, “This does seem to support the view that, when the habit has been acquired by one tit, it can then be spread through the population by some form of imitation or learning.”

Confirmation of the last view came in 2013 by Aplin et al. in a complicated experiment involving capturing wild birds, training some to open foil compartments containing waxworms (a favorite treat) and others to open compartments covered with cardboard, as some milk bottles are. They then exposed naive birds to the “demonstrators” by having the naive ones watch the acquisition of waxworms by a “demonstrator” in an adjacent cage.

The results were conclusive: not only did the naive birds learn to open the compartments much more quickly and efficiently than naive birds not watching the demonstrators, but they opened them the same way the demonstrators did: piercing the foil covers and flipping the cardboard ones. Here’s a photo of the apparatus from the paper. Bird (a) is being trained on foil, bird (b) on cardboard:

(From the paper): Figure 1. Individuals using alternative solutions to the same novel task to get access to worms inside cells. (a) Piercing and tearing foil caps, (b) flipping up lids. Demonstrators were trained on one of two possible solutions using a gradual shaping procedure.

Clearly the wild-caught tits, at least in the lab (they were released after being tested) learn to pry open lids by watching other tits. This strongly implies that the spread of the trait described by Fisher and Hinde involves a considerable amount of “social learning.” Curiously, it was the female tits who were best at learning, and the subordinates more than the dominant birds—the opposite of the cockatoos.

The upshot: Birds are clearly capable of learning through imitation and spreading what they’ve learned to others, especially when the object is to get food. In the cockatoo paper there’s indirect evidence for social learning from a mathematical model, while in the tit experiment there is direct evidence for social learning from lab observations (but not, like the cockatoos, in “nature”). The cockatoo experiment also shows geographic variation in culture, while I don’t recall any mention of geographic variation of how tits open milk bottles, though that may well be present if in some areas the bottles tend to have cardboard lids while in others they use foil.

What bothers me most is the many reports about this in the press, reports that neglected cultural learning and spread not only in other species but in BIRDS—the tits, which is a remarkably similar study of learning by imitation to get human food in an urban environment. The lesson: science writers need to dig deeper into their stories or, preferably, have a degree in biology.


Aplin, L. M., B. C. Sheldon, and J. Morand-Ferron. 2013. Milk bottles revisited: social learning and individual variation in the blue tit, Cyanistes caeruleus. Animal Behav. 85:1225-1232.

Fisher, J. and R. A. Hinde. 1949.  The opening of milk bottles by birds. British Birds 42:347-357. (link goes to pdf)

Klump, B. C., J. M. Martin, S. Wild, J. K. Hörsch, R. E. Major, and L. M. Aplin. 2021. Innovation and geographic spread of a complex foraging culture in an urban parrot. Science 373:456-460.

Readers’ wildlife photos

July 25, 2021 • 8:00 am

Today’s Sunday, ergo we have a themed bird post from biologist John Avise. John’s notes and IDs are indented, and you can enlarge his photos by clicking on them.

Avian Sexual Dichromatism

Sexual dichromatism is a difference in plumage coloration between males and females, typically due to sexual selection via male-male competition and/or female preferences during mate choice.  Many bird species are sexually dichromatic.  Ducks (including Jerry’s beloved Mallards) offer great cases-in-point.  In most ducks, breeding drakes are brightly colored whereas hens are dull brown and well camouflaged.  But many other kinds of birds are sexually dichromatic too.  This week’s post highlights several species in the taxonomic order Passeriformes in which males are much brighter than females.  I took these pictures near my home in Southern California.

House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) male:

House Finch female:

Blue Grosbeak (Guiraca caerulea) male:

Blue Grosbeak female:

Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus) male:

Red-winged Blackbird female:

Vermillion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) male:

Vermillion Flycatcher female:

Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) male:

Western Bluebird female:

Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) male:

Western Tanager female:

Hooded Oriole (Icterus cucullatus) male:

Hooded Oriole female:

Lesser Goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria) male:

Lesser Goldfinch female:

Lazuli Bunting (Passerina amoena) male and female:

House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) male and female:

Sunday: Hili dialogue

July 25, 2021 • 6:30 am

Greetings on Sunday: July 25, 2021: National Hot Fudge Sundae Day (and it is Sunday!). If you come to Chicago, you must have yours at Margie’s Candie’s in Bucktown a soda fountain unchanged for 90 years. The ice cream confections are incomparable. It’s also National Wine and Cheese Day, Culinarians Day, and International Red Shoe Day. Here’s the source of the last holiday:

International Red Shoe Day remembers and celebrates all those who have passed away from Lyme disease and other “invisible diseases” such as fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. It was founded in memory of Theda Myint of Australia, who passed away from Lyme disease on July 25, 2013. Some of her friends who were in an Australian Lyme disease support group came up with the day. A friend asked what her favorite color had been, and was told, “Her favourite colour was green, unless it was shoes! She loved red shoes.” Karen Smith, another of Theda’s friends, then asked, “Red Shoe Day in her memory?” giving the idea for the holiday.

News of the Day:

The New York Times reports that there is a growing consensus that older Americans (65+) and those who are immunocompromised will need Covid booster shots if they got the two-jab Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna doses. Get ready! (I suppose I have to un-laminate my vaccination card.)

The Associated Press was granted access to a “detention center” in Xinjiang, which can hold up to 10,000 inmates. The inmates are of course Uyghurs, members of the Muslim minority that China is trying to extirpate. The change from “detainees” to “inmates” appear to be a way to convert potential dissidents, or even those completely innocent of everything, into criminals:

China has described its sweeping lockup of a million or more minorities over the past four years as a “war against terror,” after a series of knifings and bombings by a small number of extremist Uyghurs native to Xinjiang. Among its most controversial aspects were the so-called vocational “training centers” – described by former detainees as brutal internment camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.

China at first denied their existence, and then, under heavy international criticism, said in 2019 that all the occupants had “graduated.” But the AP’s visit to Dabancheng, satellite imagery and interviews with experts and former detainees suggest that while many “training centers” were indeed closed, some like this one were simply converted into prisons or pre-trial detention facilities. Many new facilities have also been built, including a new 85-acre detention center down the road from No. 3 in Dabancheng that went up over 2019, satellite imagery shows.

And. . . three-on-three basketball in the Olympics? What is that about? I don’t care what you say: it’s not even a sport! Look at what the NYT says:

Three on three is basketball reimagined for the TikTok generation, with fast-paced choreography and a hip-hop soundtrack. “If you have a short attention span, this is your sport,” said Kara Lawson, the coach of the U.S. women’s team.

The half-court game is played outdoors with a 12-second shot clock, no breaks and four-player rosters. The game ends after 10 minutes or when a team reaches 21 points, whichever comes first. Baskets scored outside the arc are worth two points; buckets inside it are worth one. The play is physical and fouls are rarely called.

“It’s like the X Games,” said U.S. guard Kelsey Plum. “There’s music going on, there’s a commentator making jokes about people’s play, about people getting crossed over, about someone shooting in someone’s face, saying someone is quicker than a Kardashian marriage.” (That omnipresent play-by-play announcer, Kyle Montgomery, peppers his commentary with Meek Mill and Drake lyrics and one liners like: “She’s all business like the front of the plane.”)

That’s enough for me; I ain’t watching, and they should deep-six it. What’s next? Rock/papers/scissors?

Have you heard about the Pegasus spyware? It was created by NSO, an Israeli firm to help governments track terrorists and criminals, but is now being used more widely to track journalists and dissidents, and for general surveillance. (h/t Jean) At least 37 smartphones were tested and shown to be infected, none of them belonging to “terrorists or criminal.” As the Washington Post reports,

The targeting of the 37 smartphones would appear to conflict with the stated purpose of NSO’s licensing of the Pegasus spyware, which the company says is intended only for use in surveilling terrorists and major criminals. The evidence extracted from these smartphones, revealed here for the first time, calls into question pledges by the Israeli company to police its clients for human rights abuses.

The Israeli government has to approve licensing of the software to any country who wants to buy it? So how did these people manage to get hacked? NSO has no answers.

Physicist Sabine Hossenfelder was asked to write an article for Physics Magazine about whether some types of physics could be “too speculative” to prompt fruitful research (e.g., string theory). Her article was too honest, apparently, and the magazine rejected it. So she made her piece into a YouTube video (below). She takes up the issues of speculations about dark matter (does not further progress in understanding the Universe), the “fifth force” (ditto), string theory (overhyped but still worth pursuing), multiverses (Hossenfelder doesn’t even consider the idea scientific), and so on.  Reader Steve, who sent me the link, says he’d love to see a debate between Sean Carroll and Hossenfelder about multiverses. As for the rejection, the editors of Physics Magazine didn’t want to hear an opinion that might offend some physicists, but the video has a link to what she submitted.

She doesn’t pull her punches; I like her.

Finally, today’s reported Covid-19 death toll in the U.S. is 610,414, an increase of 267 deaths over yesterday’s figure. The reported world death toll is now 4,169,613, an increase of about 8,200 over yesterday’s total.

Stuff that happened on July 25 includes:

  • 1261 – The city of Constantinople is recaptured by Nicaean forces under the command of Alexios Strategopoulos, re-establishing the Byzantine Empire.
  • 1603 – James VI of Scotland is crowned king of England (James I of England), bringing the Kingdom of England and Kingdom of Scotland into personal union. Political union would occur in 1707.
  • 1755 – British governor Charles Lawrence and the Nova Scotia Council order the deportation of the Acadians.

Some of the Acadians deported to France returned to the New World and settled in Louisiana; they are the genetic and etymological ancestors of the “Cajuns”. Here’s a Louisiana Cajun speaking the local dialect of French:

Ajinomoto is a Japanese spice and flavoring company specializing in MSG, which is the basis, as Ikeda discovered, of the umami flavor.


Here’s Blériot taking off for his flight:


  • From the New York Times, July 24, 1948 (one day late); Olympic Committee caves to Arab threats (the State of Israel came into being on May 14 of that year).

Here’s a short newsreel piece of the sinking:

Indeed it did, and here’s the set:

  • 1976 – Viking program: Viking 1 takes the famous Face on Mars photo.
  • 1978 – Birth of Louise Joy Brown, the first human to have been born after conception by in vitro fertilisation, or IVF.
  • 2000 – Concorde Air France Flight 4590 crashes at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, killing 113 people.

A tire blew out during takeoff, and the debris ignited a fuel tank, which rendered the plane unflyable. It crashed into a hotel two minutes after takeoff, killing all on board. Here’s a photo of the takeoff:

  • 2019 – National extreme heat records set this day in the UK, Belgium, The Netherlands and Germany during the July 2019 European heat wave. Wikipedia reports some extremes:

France experienced temperatures in excess of 45 °C (113 °F) for the first time in recorded history. A national all-time record high temperature of 46.0 °C (114.8 °F) occurred on 28 June in Vérargues.

Here’s a chart of the maximum temperatures in Europe on July 25, 2019. France and Germany were especially hard hit. More than 567 people died from the heat.

Notables born on this day include:

  • 1844 – Thomas Eakins, American painter, sculptor, and photographer (d. 1916)

Eakens was one of the greatest American realist painters. Here’s one of his finest works, Max Schmitt in a Single Scull (1871):

Who doesn’t love Parrish’s work. Here’s an unusual one, “A good mixer”, that has a cat:

  • 1875 – Jim Corbett, Indian hunter, environmentalist, and author (d. 1955)

He’s famous for killing big cats, and I want nothing to do with him.

  • 1894 – Walter Brennan, American actor (d. 1974)
  • 1906 – Johnny Hodges, American saxophonist and clarinet player (d. 1970)
  • 1920 – Rosalind Franklin, English biophysicist, chemist, and academic (d. 1958)
  • 1941 – Emmett Till, American lynching victim (d. 1955)
  • 1948 – Steve Goodman, American singer-songwriter and guitarist (d. 1984)

Steve Goodman didn’t write “The Dutchman“, but it’s a lovely and a sad song—my favorite of his and the most well known cover. I’m putting up the recorded version because it’s the best. The lyrics, about an old Dutchman, somewhat demented, being cared for by his daughter, are beautiful.

Those whose ceased respiring on July 25 include:

  • 1834 – Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English philosopher, poet, and critic (b. 1772)
  • 1995 – Charlie Rich, American singer-songwriter (b. 1932)

In my view, this is his best song, and it’s one of the best country songs (sexism goes with the genre):

  • 2008 – Randy Pausch, American computer scientist and educator (b. 1960)

Paush is perhaps most famous for his “Last Lecture”, when he’d been given a diagnosis of terminal cancer, with 3 to 6 months of good health left (he died 11 months later). This really was his last lecture, and he talked about his fate with energy and humor.  Listen for yourself:

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn: Szaron is getting sassy:

Hili: You are encroaching on my territory.
Szaron: Get used to it.
In Polish:
Hili: Wkraczasz na moje terytorium.
Szaron: Przyzwyczaj się.

A cat meme from Bruce (note superfluous apostrophe, not his fault):

Another superfluous sign from David:

From Jesus of the Day, though I don’t know who drew the cartoon:

Two tweets from Luana. First, cool flying robots:

Second, claims of white privilege reach peak ludicrousness:

What is this new book about? Waterstones says that Stephen Fry has hundreds of ties, and I guess this book features them:

Stephen’s collection now numbers well into the hundreds. And each tie – whether floral, fluorescent, football themed; striped or spotty, outrageous or simply debonair – tells a story. A tale of the garment itself – the shops, makers and designers – as well as of Stephen, his reasons for choosing it, whether an
occasion or just a whim.

Inspired by Stephen’s hugely popular Instagram posts, this book will feature beautiful, hand-drawn illustrations and photographs to celebrate his expansive collection of man’s greatest asset: the Tie, in all its sophisticated glory.

Tweets from Matthew. The first two features phorids, or flies in the family Phoridae. They prefer to run rather than fly, and the ones below are wingless, and parasitoids of ants.

I guess they had to operate on the snake:

Matthew’s comment: “When atheists know more about religion than the religious”:

An ancient optical illusion. Enlarge the photo and look closely:

Steven Weinberg died

July 24, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Reader Rick informed me of this news, summarized in the piece below from Not Even Wrong (click on screenshot):  Steven Weinberg, a physicist, writer, and popularizer of science, died yesterday at the age of 88. (In fact, his Wikipedia biography hasn’t yet been updated.) For his work on unifying two of the fundamental forces of nature: electromagnetism and the weak force in nuclei, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics along with Sheldon Glashow, and Abdus Salam.

I’ve read several of his books (he was an excellent writer), and of course all of us know his most famous bon mot: “”With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”  He was a diehard atheist.

Click on the screenshot to read more about him:

As the obituary above gives you the relevant information about his career, I’ll tell just one story about him. In October, 2012, we were both participants in the small “Moving Naturalism Forward” conference organized by physicist Sean Carroll in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. I sat next to Steve during the two days of the meeting, and watched as he worked out physics equations on a notepad during the talks. When he left the room, and his notes, I asked him if I could have them. He said, “sure”, but I included them as lagniappe in the autographed version of WEIT that he signed and we put up for auction.

Here’s a photo I took of Weinberg and the hard-core materialist Alex Rosenberg at the meeting:

And here’s Weinberg’s signature (circled) in my book, which was illuminated by Kelly Houle and auctioned off for charity for more than $10,000. I’m not sure what that diagram shows, but I am sure that one reader will tell us.

Although I had lunch with Weinberg one day, and remember that it was fun, I can’t recall what we talked about. My Weinberg story is this. At the meeting, Dan Dennett and I gave dueling presentations about free will, with Dan claiming, of course, that we had a form of it—a compatibilist one—while I argued not only that we had no libertarian free will, but also criticized compatibilism. (This led to Dan haranguing me for the entire three-hour drive back on the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston, which wasn’t covered with snow.)

At any rate, at some point after my talk, Weinberg asked me something like this: “Are you telling me that at any given point in time when I’m making a choice, I could not have chosen otherwise?” I said “Yes.” And he said he didn’t believe that. I was a bit taken aback that an atheist, determinist physicist of the stature of Weinberg could still accept what seems like libertarian free will. But we never got to discuss it further.

We’ve lost another great one—not just a scientist, but a writer, scholar, historian of science, and nice guy.

Andrew Sullivan recommends going easy on China and letting them have Taiwan, all to reduce global warming

July 24, 2021 • 11:00 am

When I visited Tibet some years ago, it was painfully evident that China was trying to wipe out native Tibetan culture, replacing Tibetans with the dominant group, Han Chinese. Pictures of the Dalai Lama were outlawed, and Buddhism itself was being suppressed: monasteries closing, Han stores moving in, and so on.

The same thing, but on a larger and more brutal scale, is going on with another religious minority in China: the Uyghurs—a Muslim ethnic group living largely in the big province of Xinjiang. The Chinese are eliminating them in every way possible, including putting them in “reeducation camps” where they’re brainwashed out of their Islam and turned into Han Chinese. Although reports from these camps are hard to come by, they’re dire, with forced labor, punishments, brutality, and, as described in the second video below, torture. There are 6 million Uyghurs, and it’s estimated that a million of them—one in six—are living in the camps.

The Chinese are also imposing strict surveillance on Uyghurs, monitoring their phones with special apps, ensuring that they don’t own “dangerous” books like the Qur’an, tripling the security budget, and installing cameras everywhere that are programmed to identify faces. While there are no mass killings reported, this is in effect a cultural genocide, one described in the two videos below.

The first is from The Economist, and the second from Al Jazeera. The content is somewhat overlapping, but it’s well worth the 18 minutes of time to watch both of them. See what happens when a dictatorship decides to get rid of a minority that won’t be “assimilated” into the Han culture. Both Trump’s and Biden’s Secretaries of State have called this a “genocide.”

China, of course, denies nearly all of it: it’s all in the interest of peace and security, and the camps are there to provide Uyghurs with “job skills.” (Note that the Rohingya, another Muslim minority, are persecuted by Myanmar as well, but nothing near on the scale of China’s repression.)


So what can the U.S. do about this. We couldn’t do much about Tibet, though India has provided a refuge for the Dalai Lama, and we can’t do much about the Uyghurs, either.  Our impotence on this issue is the major topic of Andrew Sullivan’s new column in The Weekly Dish (click on screenshot to read; it should be free):

In view of China’s dictatorial system and genocidal intentions, what can we do? Sadly, Sullivan, at the expense of his own conscience, suggests that we practice Realpolitik: pragmatism. He does recognize China for what it is:

And what China truly is helps defuse some of the hysteria that demonizes America: China, not America, is a built on a racist (Han) supremacy. As Jonah Goldberg notes, China is far, far worse on “free speech, democracy, police abuse, racism, reproductive freedom, corporate greed, colonialism, and corruption.” What China does to the Tibetans and Uyghurs makes Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians (while lamentable) seem minor. Where is the BDS for China, one wonders?

Good question! What China is doing to the Uyghurs really is creating a genuine apartheid system, but of course Israel and not China is the Country of Demons.

And then Sullivan says things that disturb me, including writing off the vigorous country of Taiwan (Sullivan seems to think that a Chinese takeover is imminent) and ignoring what’s going on in Tibet. He has bigger fish to fry.

And no, Taiwan is not a vital US interest, and we shouldn’t pretend it is. Nor is there any conceivable way the American public would support a global war to defend an island on the other side of the world — a war which essentially every Pentagon war-game predicts we’d lose. We should, it seems to me, maintain a certain ambiguity about Taiwan, and stress to the Chinese the huge international blowback if it were to be the aggressor in such a conflict.

So Sullivan’s “solutions” involve, à la Gwynnie, conscious economic decoupling, calling attention to the Chinese use of forced or slave labor, asking us to boycott goods made with such labor (which may include products by the likes of Nike and Apple), and asking us to “shame them.” That’s right: shame both those companies and China:

We cannot prevent major US companies from becoming enmeshed with a totalitarian country; but we can shame them when they re-write their film scripts, or when they manufacture their products with slave labor, or when they distract from their enabling of real oppression with woke takes on “oppression” in America, or when they kowtow to China’s language police. It should be possible for there to be a revulsion at China’s model on both right and left in America. And Biden’s framing of our rivalry as one between a free society and a totalitarian one is a contrast that can also win converts abroad if we do not overplay our hand.

That will work in the U.S, since we have more of a moral backbone, but it will do jack for our relationship with China. None of Sullivan’s recommendations will do accomplish much except keeping U.S. companies from exploiting workers in other countries. As for making China our friend, fuggedaboutit. It’s like expecting the renaming of birds to have a serious effect on reducing racism.

Why is Sullivan so pessimistic? Well, by and large he’s right: China is a big and powerful country full of smart people, and its leadership is canny and has a plan. We’re just a minor impediment in their plan. But, it seems, the main reason Sullivan wants us to coddle China is—wait for it—we need their help to reduce global warming:

Unlike with the Soviets, we also have a global emergency we need China’s cooperation and help with: climate change. There is no longer any hiding of the fact that we are facing a global catastrophe, made much, much worse by China’s coal plants and breakneck growth. Without their signing off on drastic carbon reduction, we are all fucked. Similarly with one result of that climate change: a world which will likely endure ever more viral outbreaks of unknowable power, released as the ground thaws, species move, and temperatures gyrate. You can see the Covid disaster — and China’s key role in creating it — as a reason to cut them off, and isolate them. I understand that. But, given their technological capacities, how does this actually help us stymie the next plague?

Yes, we are facing a global catastrophe, and the savvy now admit it. And China has to pitch in if we’re to conquer it. But seriously, does Sullivan really think that if we go easy on China, and let them persecute the Uyghurs without protest and then hand Taiwan to them, they’ll be so well disposed toward America that they’ll take serious steps to reduce carbon emissions?  If you believe that, I have some land in Florida to sell you.

I’d like to hope that Sullivan is right. But I just can’t see it.