A defense of Dawkins by Andrew Sullivan

July 29, 2017 • 10:30 am

by Greg Mayer

Jerry has written a number of times about Richard Dawkins’s deplatforming by radio station KPFA, and others (here, here, here, here) have come to Dawkins’s defense as well. In his weekly diary in New York magazine, Andrew Sullivan has also come to Dawkins’s defense. This might surprise some, since Sullivan is a fan of religion and a devout Catholic. But Sullivan is also a staunch secularist, who coined the term “Christianism“, in analogy with “Islamism”, to decry the theocratic aspirations of right wing Christians. Sullivan would doubtless contest some of Dawkins’ criticisms of religion in general and Christianity in particular, but he accepts that much evil has been done in the name of religion: “History is replete with horrors of all religions when abused by fanatics.”

He goes on in his diary to quote in full Dawkins’ remarks on the evil of Islam, including “It’s terribly important to modify that because of course that doesn’t mean all Muslims are evil, very far from it. Individual Muslims suffer more from Islam than anyone else.” Sullivan mocks KPFA, dryly remarking “KPFA couldn’t read that far?”

Having highlighted the ecumenism of Dawkins’ critiques of religion, he finishes by explaining why a “progressive” radio station would take offense at Dawkins:

I fear that the truth is Islam has become an untouchable shibboleth for some on the left. What they lacerate in other religions, they refuse to mention in Islam. Sexism, homophobia, the death penalty for apostasy … all of this is to be rationalized if the alternative is Islamophobia. Why, one wonders? Is it because Muslims are a small minority? But the same could be said for Jews. My best guess is simply that, for the far left, anything that is predominantly “of color” is preferable to anything, like Judaism and Christianity, that can usually be described as “white.” That’s how “intersectionality” can be used to defend what would otherwise be indefensible. The preoccupation with race on the far left is now so deep, in other words, it’s becoming simply an inversion of that on the far right.

For an earlier post on Sullivan’s view of “intersectionality”, see here.

Kerri Miller’s journalistic double standard

November 19, 2014 • 12:55 pm

Kerri Miller is either a dreadful journalist or an uneven one, and here’s the evidence: her interviews with Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins. The former is saccharine and uncritical, the latter hypercritical and unfair.

Yesterday I mentioned Kerri Miller’s interview of Karen Armstrong on Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). I didn’t hear the whole thing, but did watch three 10-minute video clips and commented on one. Now you can hear the whole interview, which is 58 minutes long, at this site.

Go there and press the button that looks like this:

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If you are even a bit critical of religion, you’ll find the interview infuriating. Armstrong, with Miller’s approbation, excuses religion and fields Miller’s softball questions. Miller didn’t ask a single hard or provocative question, but merely eggs on, worshipfully, Armstrong’s long-winded lucubrations.  (Warning: don’t listen to this unless you have a strong constitution!). Armstrong apparently doesn’t know how to answer a question without nattering on for ten minutes. Arrogant, self-centered, and afflicted with a chronic case of logorrhea, Armstrong even reads her entire Charter for Compassion, and lets us know that she won the TED Prize for it. And, of course, she exculpates religion for every evil supposedly done in its name, blaming oppression (that goes for ISIS, too).

Now, if you have time, listen to her 2009 interview of Richard Dawkins here (there are six YouTube pieces that will play in order).

It’s the usual aggressive interview leveled at Richard by those who believe in belief. She accuses him of conceiving of religion as “infantile” and “unsophisticated” (the usual strawman), calling Dawkins a “fundamentalist” similar to religious fundamentalists. She even asks him whether, as an ageing male, he might possibly find God on his deathbed. Miller also doesn’t seem to evince much understanding about how science works, and asks him why on Earth he would bother writing his book on the evidence for evolution (The Greatest Show on Earth). It’s clear that she is hostile, and I’m gratified that Dawkins remains fairly calm when under attack.

Now I don’t mind interviewers being hard on their subjects, but it’s simply bad journalism to be hard on an atheist while kissing the rump of a closet religionist like Karen Armstrong. Welcome to America, and National Public Radio.


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The stuff below is from an interview of Kerri Miller by Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine. The warning signs are already there:

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Caturday felid: “Methinks it is like a catcerto”

March 15, 2014 • 5:41 am

Today we have a rare guest Caturday felid; I can’t remember one since I started this site five years ago (has it really been that long?). So here’s Greg’s contribution, which shows a concerto (“Catcerto”) composed by Mindaugas Piecaitis to embellish and complement the playing of Nora the famous piano-playing cat. (The score for “Catcerto” can be found here.)  Greg goes on to relate this to evolution.

by Greg Mayer

Although Jerry posted the following video a couple of years ago, it came to my attention again yesterday, when a friend sent it to me. (And I did not recall until I checked that Jerry had posted it!)

My friend asked, “Can your cat do this?”, to which I replied

“Yes, if you taped her sitting at the keyboard long enough, only selected those bits where she hit several keys in a row, and then had the orchestra play around these selected moments.”

What immediately came to my mind (and what I quickly tried to explain to my correspondent), was that the cat playing the piano was not the result of the cat “knowing” how to play the piano, but rather the result of a cumulative selection process, in which the cat’s more or less random key strokes and rubs are filtered for those that are “good”, and the good ones then strung together.  If you let the cat sit at the piano long enough, recording all the while, then splice together all the times it made several euphonious keystrokes in a row, you can build up a “solo”. The composer then composed a piece around these selected euphonious elements.

The video exhibits something akin to Richards Dawkins’ “me thinks it is like a weasel” story, which he related in The Blind Watchmaker (my favorite of his books, though I’ve not read them all). Given enough time, a monkey pounding at a typewriter would reproduce all of Shakespeare, but it would take a very long time indeed. But if you allow cumulative selection to work—saving correct steps when they occur—it is possible to get a coherent phrase rather quickly. Dawkins illustrated this with a famous line from Hamlet, in which Hamlet is making a fool of Polonius; says Hamlet, “Methinks it is like a weasel.”

The probability of a monkey producing the 28 characters in the sentence in a single try is one in 27 (the number of letters plus the possibility of a space) raised to the 28th power, or roughly 1/10^40– a mind-bogglingly small chance. But if you select any correct letters that happen to appear, and then let incorrect letters vary again, and then repeat, you will soon get the full sentence. In Dawkins’ first try with a simple computer program that implemented this selection algorithm, it took just 43 trials (“generations”) to get it, and that result was typical. The point of course, is that random variation and cumulative selection is a very different process from just random variation (which many critics of natural selection seem not to get).  (The program captures only some of the characteristics of cumulative selection, and Dawkins discusses these caveats in the book: see Chapter 3, “Accumulating small change”).

In the “Catcerto”, the keystrokes of the cat (which are apparently encouraged in some way by her owner, whose hands appear briefly at one point in the tape) are recorded, and the euphonious combinations selected, much as the correct letters are saved in Dawkins’ program. The composer can then select from among these, and splice them together, including changing their order (something for which there is no analogue in Dawkins’ program), and then write the chamber orchestral score around these spliced together euphonious moments.

h/t: D. Pham

Wallace statue to be erected at the Natural History Museum– and you can help! (Upcoming UK events with Dawkins et al.)

August 17, 2013 • 12:43 pm

by Greg Mayer

As Wallace Year continues, events are coming fast and furious. One to look forward to on November 7 is the unveiling of a life-sized bronze statue of Wallace in the garden outside the Darwin Centre 2 at the Natural History Museum in London. The statue, by sculptor Anthony Smith, will be unveiled by Sir David Attenborough on that date, which happens to be the 100th anniversary of Wallace’s death.

Sir David Attenborough and Anthony Smith with the Young Charles Darwin statue at Christ’s College Cambridge. Photograph by Richard Lewisohn, via Entangled Bank Events.
Sir David Attenborough and Anthony Smith with the Young Charles Darwin statue (by Smith) at Christ’s College Cambridge.
Photograph by Richard Lewisohn, via Entangled Bank Events.

Thanks to George Beccaloni, who has spearheaded Wallace celebration events at the Natural History Museum, we have learned of several ways in which you can support the ongoing efforts to fund the statue, which are being led by Entangled Bank Events and the Ancestor’s Trail on behalf of the Wallace Fund. If you are in the UK, there are two upcoming events, both featuring Richard Dawkins, the proceeds of which will benefit the statue fund raising efforts.

First, in connection with the Ancestor’s Trail event, there will be a day-long series of talks and performances at the Wills Memorial Building in Bristol on Saturday, August 24. Speakers include Richard Dawkins, and Peter Raby, author of the fine biography Alfred Russel Wallace: A Life (Princeton University Press, 2001). Ticket options and further details can be found at the Ancestor’s Trail website.

Second, another day-long series of science talks and performances, Consensus?, will be held in London on Saturday, November 16 at ExCel London. Speakers again include Richard Dawkins, along with famed paleontologist Richard Fortey and Wallace enthusiast, presenter, and comedian Bill Bailey. Check back at Entangled Bank Events for the announcement of when ticket sales will begin.

And finally, anyone, not just those in the UK, can contribute to the statue campaign directly through Entangled Bank (scroll to bottom).

Since I’ve got the attention of Wallace enthusiasts, I’ll note here that George Beccaloni has compiled a great many (all?) of the photos of Wallace, including not only the iconic ones you’ve seen before, but a great many others on one convenient Picasa album.

Development is epigenetic

May 14, 2011 • 10:21 am

by Greg Mayer

One of the points I stress to students in my evolution class is that development is epigenetic: organisms develop from a less differentiated state to a more differentiated state. In modern terms, genes, the intraembryonic environment, and the extraembryonic environment interact to produce the organism through a sequence of stages going from an undeveloped to a mature state. The general point (though not the part about genes) has been known for a couple of centuries, so it might seem it wouldn’t be necessary to emphasize it, but the alternative view of development– preformationism— has a surprising hold on people’s minds. Preformationism maintains that development is essentially growth: there is in the germ cells a differentiated organism, which grows or unfolds during the course of development.

A homunculus inside a sperm, by Nicolaas Hartsoeker, 1695. This is not how development works.

Preformationism, though wrong, is frequently reinforced by the common (though badly mistaken) practice of referring to DNA or the genome as a “blueprint” for the organism. It is of course no such thing. A blueprint is a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional object. There is, in a blueprint, a scaled representation of all the parts of the object. We can tell, for example, that the window on the second floor is 4 m above and 2m to the left of the door. There is nothing like that in your DNA: there isn’t a gene for your left eye, which is a scaled distance away from the gene for your right eye. Your DNA (and your development) is much more akin to a recipe. In a raisin cake recipe, there isn’t a line in the recipe that says place a raisin 2 cm in from the upper left hand corner (there would be, if we had a blueprint for the cake). Rather, if you combine the right ingredients, in the right sequence, in the right environment, the result is a cake with raisins distributed through it at a certain density.

Richard Dawkins expounds the recipe analogy in The Blind Watchmaker (1986, pp. 295-296):

A recipe in a cookery book is not, in any sense, a blueprint for the cake that will finally emerge from the oven…. a recipe is not a scale model, not a description of a finished cake, not in any sense a point-for-point representation. It is a set of instructions which, if obeyed in the right order, will result in a cake.

Now, we don’t yet understand everything, or even most things, about how animals develop from fertilized eggs. Nevertheless, the indications are very strong that the genes are much more like a recipe than like a blueprint. Indeed, the recipe analogy is really rather a good one, while the blueprint analogy, although it is often unthinkingly used in elementary textbooks, especially recent ones, is wrong in almost every particular. Embryonic development is a process. It is an orderly sequence of events, like the procedure for making a cake…

The genes, taken together, can be seen as a set of instructions for carrying out a process, just as the words of a recipe, taken together, are a set of instructions for carrying out a process.

The reason this is important for students of evolution is that most of evolution is the modification of pre-existing structures, and these structures arise in the organism via a process of epigenetic development. Thus, most of evolution is the modification of pre-existing developmental programs.  Evolution doesn’t swap out one adult structure for another, but rather alters developmental programs, which results in differences in adults.  To understand phenotypic evolution, we must understand the variations which alterations of the developmental program can give rise to, their natures, and frequency. These studies are the domain of what has come to be called “evo-devo“. (From the evidence of at least vertebrate paleontology [this, this, and this], we can expand the generalization and say that most of evolution is the gradual, adaptive, modification of pre-existing developmental programs.)

I’ll finish this post with three brief observations. First, doesn’t it seem strange that the man who has provided the most compelling way of seeing the complex and interactive nature of development has been so frequently assailed for being reductionist and atomistic? Second, the fact that certain genes that have a major effect on development (Hox genes) are arranged along chromosomes in antero-posterior order of their influence on the developing body, while not preformationist, is nonetheless an intriguing and unexpected correspondence of the spatial arrangement of the body and the genes. And third, I’m using epigenetic in the original embryological/morphological sense, from which C.H. Waddington derived the term “epigenetics” in 1942, and not the recent odd usage, in which epigenetic means ‘heritable variation not associated with nucleic acid variation’ or, even more oddly, “all the weird and wonderful things that can’t be explained by genetics“; the hijacking of the word, and the conflation of the pseudo-neologism with Waddington’s ideas, have been nicely explicated in a paper by David Haig. Epigenesis is too useful a concept to lose the word for it.


Dawkins, R. 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. W.W. Norton, N.Y.

Haig, D. 2004. The (dual) origin of epigenetics. Cold Spring Harbor Symposia on Quantitative Biology 69:1-4.

No theists at 30,000 feet

May 12, 2011 • 6:34 am

by Greg Mayer

I mentioned to Jerry a while back that I’d heard somewhere the phrase “there are no atheists at 30,000 feet” (i.e. in an airplane), but that it’s actually just the opposite: anyone in a plane off the ground is fervently attached to Bernoulli’s principle, Newton’s laws, fluid dynamics, etc. At 30,000 ft., everyone is a rational materialist, and you damn well better make sure your pilot is, too. (Unlike the infamous Tuninter airline pilot in Italy a couple of years ago “who paused to pray instead of taking emergency measures before crash-landing his plane, killing 16 people”; the praying pilot survived.)

I was reminded of this by PZ’s recent post about his son, who is a Lieutenant in the U.S. Cavalry*, which drew some comments about foxholes. I decided to try to track down the source of the airplane phrase and reaction to it, and, as I’d suspected, Richard Dawkins was the source (although I might have first read it as quoted by the behavioral ecologist John Krebs). My recollection of it was a bit mangled. Here’s what Dawkins wrote in River Out of Eden (1995, pp. 31-32):

Show me a cultural relativist at thirty thousand feet and I’ll show you a hypocrite. Airplanes are built according to scientific principles and they work. They stay aloft and they get you to a chosen destination. Airplanes built to tribal or mythological specifications such as the dummy planes of the Cargo cults in jungle clearings or the bees-waxed wings of Icarus don’t.

So, he was addressing cultural relativism, but I think the point holds for theism as well. And I also found that the original phrase is usually stated as there are “no atheists on airplanes crashing from 30,000 feet”, but I think the Tunisian pilot story puts paid to the idea that that might be a good thing.


*Although Lt. Myers wears crossed sabers and an all-blue uniform, there actually aren’t any horse soldiers in the U.S. Army anymore. The army has recently adopted a blue service uniform (reminiscent of Civil War uniforms), and cavalry insignia are used for certain armored units.

Dawkins’s book out; reviews appear

September 6, 2009 • 6:56 am

Richard Dawkins’s latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth, was released Thursday in the UK (it shows up in the US September 22).  The title, of course, refers to evolution, and the book, like mine, is a summary and discussion of the massive evidence that has turned evolution from a hypothesis into a fact.

I’ll be reviewing the book elsewhere, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment here, but you can read extracts from Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 at the Times Online.  Richard also gives a video introduction to TGSOE in a short YouTube video.

So far I’ve seen three reviews of the book: by paleontologist Richard Fortey in the Guardian, by Anjana Ahuja in the Times, and by an anonymous reviewer in The Economist (for some bizarre reason, Economist reviews are never signed).  And of course the sourpuss creationists at the Discovery Institute have already dismissed the book as a compendium of the “same tired old evidences.”  Well, some of them may be tired, but — unlike intelligent design — they have the merit of being true.

How the tapir got his spots III

August 13, 2009 • 12:49 pm

by Greg Mayer

The two great classes of phenomena that Darwin set out to explain were those of adaptation– the fit between an organism’s features (structure, behavior, etc.) and its conditions of existence; and unity of type — the similarities of basic structure among organisms in diverse conditions of existence (e.g., the one bone-two bones-many bones pattern of tetrapod forelimbs, whether they be burrowers, swimmers, climbers, runners, etc.). The unified explanation that Darwin provided for these phenomena was descent with modification: the similarities were due to inheritance from a common ancestor (i.e. descent), while adaptation arose from the process of modification (i.e. natural selection).

The methods of studying adaptation are thus crucial for biology.  How can we tell what (if anything) the spots of the baby tapir are adaptive for?

There are three basic ways of studying adaptation, in the sense of determining what a trait is an adaptation to. The first is engineering: does the feature conform to what we would expect if it is performing some adaptive function?  Study of hydrodynamics enables us to understand the shapes of the bodies, flippers, and fins in fish, dolphins, icthyosaurs, etc. as adaptations to movement within a fluid environment.  The dorsal fin of an ichthyosaur, for example, stabilizes the reptile in its forward movement through water, preventing unwanted roll (for recent discussions of ichthyosaur aquatic adaptations, see here, here, and here). For another example of the engineering approach, see Richard Dawkins’ delightful account of bat sonar in chap. 2 of The Blind Watchmaker.

Second, there is the method of correlation (also called the comparative method): does the feature evolve repeatedly in particular environmental circumstances? Thus even if we were wholly ignorant of hydrodynamics, the repeated evolution of dorsal fins in aquatic fish, reptiles, and mammals provides evidence that dorsal fins are adaptations to an aquatic existence.


Third, we can study the effects on survival and reproduction of variations in the trait of interest.  This can be done either by altering the features of the character experimentally (as in this neat experiment on sexual selection in widowbirds) or by studying naturally occurring variants (as was done with peppered moths by  H.B.D. Kettlewell).

The evidence for the adaptiveness of spotting/striping in mammals is primarily of the first sort (Hugh B. Cott, in his classic Adaptive Coloration in Animals, has a lot about optical principles, and what makes things hard to see), the second sort (pacas, bongos, deer, tapirs all have spots and/or stripes [and note that pacas are rodents, and that tapirs, which are perissodactyls, are not at all closely related to the artiodactyl deer and bongo, so it would be hard to argue it’s a retained ancestral feature]), and very little of the third sort– no one’s painted baby tapirs’ spots over to see what happens to them (at least as far as I know). I’ll touch on all three sorts as they relate to tapirs in later posts.

(For other examples of camouflage, see Matthew Cobb’s earlier post on the subject.)

Faitheist t.v.: Historian of science joins young-earth creationist in an old fashioned Coyne-and-Dawkins roast

July 25, 2009 • 3:20 pm

This morning an alert reader called my attention to a Bloggingheads discussion between Ronald Numbers, a historian of science at the University of Wisconsin/Madison and self-described agnostic, and Paul Nelson, Discovery Institute young-earth creationist.  I watched the debate with an increasing sense of unease in my lower mesentery.  Nelson and Numbers engaged in an oh-so-civil discourse, with Numbers standing idly by as Nelson attacked both Dawkins and myself. I come in for some disapprobation for criticizing Francis Collins’s appointment as head of the NIH and for making unwarranted  “theological arguments” in my book.

I was going to dissect this debate here but, damn him, P. Z. Myers went and did it first.  I swear, the man is all over the blogosphere, no doubt aided by his horde of informants. I have little to add to what P.Z. said except to note that the argument from imperfection — i.e., organisms show imperfections of “design” that constitute evidence for evolution — is not a theological argument, but a scientific one.  The reason why the recurrent laryngeal nerve, for example, makes a big detour around the aorta before attaching to the larynx is perfectly understandable by evolution (the nerve and artery used to line up, but the artery evolved backwards, constraining the nerve to move with it), but makes no sense under the idea of special creation — unless, that is, you believe that the creator designed things to make them look as if they evolved.  No form of creationism/intelligent design can explain these imperfections, but they all, as Dobzhansky said, “make sense in the light of evolution.”

Numbers was pusillanimous and failed to engage Nelson as strongly as he should have.  I was ashamed of his performance, especially because I considered him one of us. And shame on Bloggingheads t.v. for putting on a young-earth creationist on Science Saturday. (Bloggingheads t.v. is sponsored by The Templeton Foundation; could this have something to do with it?)

Numbers’ performance was a fine example of faitheism, and of the kind of non-threatening discourse that faitheists think we should all have with religion.  Watch it if you can, and then tell me if Numbers’ “civility” is certain to win more friends for evolution than, say, Richard Dawkins would have done in the same position.  I doubt it.