Jerry as a Neanderthal

September 27, 2010 • 3:22 pm

by Greg Mayer

At the new Hall of Human Origins at the USNM on the Mall in Washington D.C., you can have a photograph of your face merged with the reconstruction of a Neanderthal, to see what you would have looked like as an early human.  Jerry’s there now, and here’s Jerry’s photo. I’m not sure I can detect any real differences.

Jerry as a Neanderthal.

Jerry will be posting about the exhibit later (as will I, as promised).

Jerry on ‘Why Evolution is True’ at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside

December 1, 2009 • 10:30 am

by Greg Mayer

As part of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside’s Darwin 1809-1859-2009 series commemorating the Darwin bicentennial and Origin sesquicentennial (some of the earlier events noticed here and here), Jerry spoke on ‘Why Evolution is True’ on Sept. 9 of this year. Here’s the video of his talk; that’s me doing the intro. (I’m not mic’ed, and the volume starts out low, but Jerry is mic’ed, and the volume is fine for his talk.)

Jerry at AAI

October 13, 2009 • 7:23 pm

by Greg Mayer

Russell Blackford has posted a picture of his meeting with Jerry at the AAI convention. From the right and behind is not Jerry’s good side. Or at least not a side from which he is very recognizable. And Russell does have a right hand– it only seems to be missing because the podium is the same color wood as the wall behind.

(Added note: in the original post, I spelled Russell with one ‘l’– now corrected. But since one ‘l’ is how Alfred Russel Wallace spelled his name, the error was actually a compliment!)

This is an amateur blog.

October 12, 2009 • 11:18 am

by Greg Mayer

Matthew has brought to my attention an article in Evolution: Education and Outreach by Adam Goldstein that mentions the WEIT blog. It’s apparently addressed to a curiously naive audience, taking great care to explain what a “blog” is, and how the word “post” is both a noun and a verb, and that bloggers often provide “links”, and much more in that vein. It’s curious in another way, too, calling WEIT an anonymous blog, deducing that Jerry is the author only from subtle cues, and the fact that PZ Myers has referred to the blog’s author as Jerry (actually, the Myers post he cites is about the book, and predates the start of the blog). Goldstein must have missed the “About the Author” link up over there to the right.

Besides characterizing what blogs are (and mis-characterizing them a bit, too: as the Darwinius case made clear, posting to the web does not constitute scientific publication), he also classifies blogs as being “professional,” “amateur,” “apostolic,” or “imaginative.” WEIT is “amateur”, but that’s a good thing in his classification. Goldstein says about amateur blogs that

…blogs of this variety are superior to those of other varieties for the purpose of explaining evolutionary science… Those who create the blogs in this category are not amateur scientists; indeed, most are experienced research professionals. Nonetheless, they are not professional bloggers, and their blogs present them with an opportunity to take a lighter, less formal approach to the topics they know and love. For this reason, many posts to blogs in this category are highly informative expository essays on a range of topics in evolutionary science.

I also learned from the article about a bunch of evolution-oriented blogs I didn’t know about (including one by people I know!). PZ is classified as “apostolic”; I’m sure he’ll appreciate the religious terminology!

Of more general interest is that the whole journal, which began publishing in 2008, is available free online, at least through the end of this year. Go take a look.

Jerry to speak at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside

September 7, 2009 • 9:12 pm

by Greg Mayer

As part of its Darwin 1809-1859-2009 commemoration of the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the sesquicentennial of the pJerry Coyneublication of the Origin, the University of Wisconsin–Parkside‘s Science Night series presents Prof. Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago speaking on “Why Evolution Is True” at 7 PM on Wednesday, Sept. 9, in Greenquist Hall 103.  The event is free and open to the public, and sponsored by the University’s Committee on Lectures and Fine Arts, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Department of Biological Sciences.  Parking is free after 6:30 PM. If you’re in southeastern Wisconsin or northern Illinois, we’re in Kenosha, and not hard to find or get to. (For one of our previous Darwin 1809-1859-2009 events, see here.)Diplomystus dentatus, Green River Formation, Eocene, WyomingA fossil fish, Diplomystus dentatus, with no particular relation to Jerry’s talk, but a nice picture.

Jerry’s Maggot

August 7, 2009 • 1:23 pm

by Greg Mayer

I haven’t listened to the interview yet, but I just have to note here that the story of Jerry’s encounter with a botfly larva is lovingly detailed in Tropical Nature by my friends and colleagues Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata (in Ken’s case, sadly, a late friend and colleague). It’s in the chapter with the wonderful title “Jerry’s Maggot”.  I’ve made it required reading for my Costa Rica field courses.

The Big Accommodationism Debate: all relevant posts

June 12, 2009 • 7:12 am

The Big Debate continues about whether faith and science are compatible and whether scientists should criticize those religious people who agree with them about matters like evolution.  Several people, however,  have complained that discussion is spread out among so many places — and people — that it’s confusing to follow, especially now that Jason Rosenhouse, Kenneth Miller, “Erratic synapse” (somebody please tell me who he/she is),  and the indefatigable P. Z. Myers have weighed in.   I believe that John Brockman is going to post all this stuff on the Edge website, but until then here are the links in chronological (and philosphical) order.  I think I’ve gotten them all.

Ken Miller has posted a robust riposte to my critique of accommodation (link below), which is cited in a new post by Mooney; I will respond to both of these in due time. In the meantime, P. Z. has written an equally robust response to Miller, and Jason has weighed in again.  I swear, folks, I’m not paying anybody to defend me!  I wouldn’t want to be in league with anybody, for example,  who shaves his cat.

“Accommodation” debate posts  in  order:

1. Coyne (original New Republic piece)

2. Coyne

3. Mooney

4. Mooney

5. Coyne

6. Mooney

7. Coyne

8. Rosenhouse

9.  Coyne

10. “Erratic synapse” at Daily Kos

11. Mooney

12. Rosenhouse

13. Coyne

14. Mooney

15. Ken Miller

16. P. Z. Myers

17.  Rosenhouse

18.  Blackford

19.  Blackford

20.  Coyne (Response to Miller, part 1)

21.  Coyne (Response to Miller, part 2)

22.  Sean Carroll

Can the supernatural be studied? Kiri-kin-tha’s first law of metaphysics

May 18, 2009 • 9:37 pm

by Greg Mayer

A tactic pursued vigorously by cdesign proponentsists is to claim that scientists assume that God (and other supernatural beings) doesn’t exist, and that this assumption is just that: an assumption, with no empirical basis. Roger Pennock has responded to this claim, most notably in his book Tower of Babel, noting that it confuses metaphysical naturalism (claims about the existence of entities) with methodological naturalism (forgoing explanatory appeals to the supernatural, because such appeals squelch further inquiry), and that all science must adopt the latter, lest it give up investigation whenever a problem proves recalcitrant. Its converse, “methodological supernaturalism”, is essentially a God of the gaps argument: what we do not understand, we attribute to the supernatural.  The fallacy of this argument has been known for millenia, and it has perhaps never been better said than by Hippocrates:

Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they do not understand it. But if they called everything divine which they do not understand, why, there would be no end to divine things.

It’s also always seemed to me a rather parlous position for a religious person to adopt, because by identifying the works of God with ignorance, the realm of the divine is on a continual retreat before expanding knowledge. A weaker but related claim made by some accommodationists is that science must be silent about existential claims about God(s), because it cannot contemplate supernatural entities, being bound to consider only natural explanations.

I think Pennock’s response is compelling, but I’ve always thought more could be said.  Is it really true that science cannot investigate the supernatural?

If the goal of science is identified, as it sometimes is, as the explanation of phenomena by recourse to general laws (or some such formulation) then it would appear that supernatural events or entities, being unbound by such laws, could not be scientifically investigated. While this characterization of science is not without merit, it ignores a large part of science– much of astronomy, geology, and biology, for starters– which is concerned with history: what has happened.  They are, as R.J. O’Hara has put it, “those sciences which have as their object the reconstruction of the past based on the evidence of the present.”

For these sciences, supernatural events are not beyond their ken. For if supernatural entities have interacted with the world in a way to produce observable effects (and if they have not, then to posit their existence is vain), then we can surely know of them by the methods of the historical sciences.

In light of the latest box office smash, an example from Star Trek is enlightening.  In the Next Generation and some later series, the crew of the Enterprise periodically encountered a being called Q. Q is immortal and apparently omnipotent: he can do anything. The source and nature of his power is unknown to the Federation or any other galactic civilization.  But was he supernatural? Well maybe in some sense he was, but in another sense he wasn’t: he could be observed, studied, and recorded by all the normal biological senses and scientific instruments.  His actions were known, recorded, and part of documented history. His activities were never explained by general laws, but that his activities took place was well attested.  So although he was not (at least yet) a subject of the sciences of general laws, he was certainly a subject of the historical sciences.

That the supernatural, as exemplified in my example by Q, is not unstudiable, has been proposed in a piece by Russell Blackford and in one of Jerry’s pieces in The New Republic.

But if any supernatural entity in observable contact with the world (i.e. a contact that has consequences) can be studied by the methods of the historical sciences, even if the effects of its contact cannot be subsumed under general laws, is it still supernatural? I would say no. To back me up on this I call on the great Vulcan philosopher, Kiri-kin-tha, and his first law of metaphysics:

Nothing unreal exists.

Or, as I would rephrase his law, anything which exists is natural.

WEIT reviewed in Christian Science Monitor

March 16, 2009 • 2:45 pm

by Greg Mayer

Why Evolution is True receives a favorable review today in the Christian Science Monitor from Todd Wilkinson.  Money quote:weit-cover1

Coyne methodically lays out the complete trail of evidence supporting evolution, ranging from the fossil record of dinosaur bones to sophisticated DNA analysis, and many decades of rigorous peer-reviewed scrutiny in between.

In this 200th anniversary year of Darwin’s birth, “Why Evolution Is True” ranks among the best of new titles flooding bookstores….

He makes the case for evolution in a way that is eminently understandable, colorfully articulated, and relevant to our time.

Update: Jerry and I were apparently writing posts on this review simultaneously, so I didn’t see his post till mine went up.  If I knew how to delete a whole post I would, but I don’t know how!

Caturday felid

March 14, 2009 • 5:20 pm

by Greg Mayer

Until Jerry settles back in there’ll be a bit of overlap in our posting, so I’m providing this Caturday’s felid. Actually it’s two felids: the lion and the tiger (both of these links come from a wonderful page maintained by Virginia Hayssen of Smith College), both photographed today at the Racine Zoo in Wisconsin.

Two young lions at the Racine Zoo
Two young lions at the Racine Zoo

The tiger, unfortunately, sat back out of useful range of the camera I had with me, so I had to settle for this.

Tiger sign at Racine Zoo
Tiger sign at Racine Zoo

In captivity hybrids between lions and tigers, called ligers (male lion X tigress) and tigons (male tiger X lioness), can be produced, which are healthy and vigorous.  As Jerry explains in chapter 7 of WEIT, species are defined by their reproductive relationships: members of the same species will interbreed with one another, while members of different species are kept from successfully reproducing by one or more reproductive isolating barriers. Why, then, do we consider lions and tigers different species?

Most people think of lions as being from eastern and southern Africa, but within historic times lions ranged across north Africa and southeastern Europe through southwest Asia to northern India.  One population of Asiatic lions still survives, in the Gir Forest, closely protected by the Indian government.

Historic distribution of the lion in north Africa, Europe, and Asia
Historic distribution of the lion in north Africa, Europe, and Asia

Tigers were widespread in Asia, from the Caucasus to Siberia in the north and Java and Bali in the south. Until man began to decimate them, lions and tigers broadly overlapped in southern Asia, but remained distinct, without interbreeding. Thus, in nature, lions and tigers did not interbreed. And the full definition of a species, given by Ernst Mayr in 1940, is that species are groups of actually or potentially interbreeding populations in nature, reproductively isolated from other such groups.