Our (MacPhee and Preston Marx) hypothesis gained some credence from well examined instances of widespread population collapses due to disease in the modern era, such as the rinderpest epizootic in eastern Africa in the 1890s, which attacked most of the region’s native even-toed ungulates and caused appalling mortality. Some species were very seriously affected, with one subspecies of hartebeest disappearing in the early twentieth century in possible correlation with the disease’s outbreak. A more recent example of a disease-induced disaster was the die-off of more than 80 percent of the central Asiatic wild herd of saiga antelope (Saiga tartarica …) in 2015-2016 from hemorrhagic septicemia, or blood poisoning due to bacterial infection. There are still other examples of almost unbelievable mortality in wild animals within breathtakingly short intervals, all of which underlines the fact that there is really nothing in ordinary nature that can bring down the standing crop of a species as quickly as emerging infectious diseases.

Ross D. E. MacPhee, End of the Megafauna: The Fate of the World’s Hugest, Fiercest, and Strangest Animals (2018), pp. 181-182

Environmental fastid?

This week’s winner of the clumsy spam scam:



That stray “}” just melts my heart. And who knew that Interpol was investigating works of art?

Breath and light

The play, as seen from the side, seemed to have little to do with her. She watched it, the way you watch an oncoming train, wondering if it will stop at a far platform—and suddenly you realise it is coming straight at you. There was no avoiding this thing. She would have to step into it, a kind of collision in time. The play was alive. It was made of air, with rules of iron. It was a marvel, and when it was over you were also Marvelous, Darling.

—Anne Enright, Actress, p. 50

But we disagree about “e-mail”

Anne Fadiman, of my generation and fellow sentence-diagrammer, distinguishes the nonbinary they and the generic singular they and makes a persuasive case for both.

My students endorse the singular they not because they’re snowflakes but because they’re activists. The nonbinary they appeals to them because even if they’re not nonbinary themselves, they wish to support those who are; the generic they appeals to them because they wish to be inclusive: Why would you say “If someone has a question, he or she should stand up” when there might be a they in the room?


[Clem] Whitaker and [Leone] Baxter won nearly every [political] campaign they waged…. Every campaign needs a theme. Keep it simple. Rhyming’s good (“For Jimmy and me, vote ‘yes’ on 3.”) Never explain anything. “The more you have to explain,” Whitaker said, “the more difficult it is to win support.” Say the same thing over and over again. “We assume we have to get a voter’s attention seven times to make a sale,” Whitaker said. Subtlety is your enemy, “Words that lean on the mind are no good,” according to Baxter. “They must dent it.” Simplify, simplify, simplify. “A wall goes up,” Whitaker warned, “when you try to make Mr. and Mrs. Average American citizen work or think.”

—Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (2018), p. 451

One of the first efforts by Whitaker and Baxter’s Campaigns, Inc. was to defeat Sinclair Lewis’s bid to be elected governor of California in 1934.

Some links: 87

Trees and the three-lettered insects that munch on them:

  • To protect Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga candensis) from the Hemlock Woolly Adelgid (Adelges tsugae) (HWA), researchers are exploring natural genetic resistance, biological controls, and forestry techniques: Gabriel Popkin.
  • Emerald Ash Borer (Agrilus planipennis) (EAB) is clobbering native ashes (Fraxinus spp.) in the eastern U.S. Could doomed trees be turned into commercially useful building materials? Yes, say Sasa Zivkovic and Leslie Lok.

Article VI

To say that [the revival of evangelical Christianity in the 1820s] marked a turn away from the spirit of the nation’s founding is to wildly understate the case. The United States was founded during the most secular era in American history, either before or since. In the late eighteenth century, church membership was low, and anticlerical feeling was high. It is no accident that the Constitution does not mention God….

The United States was not founded as a Christian nation. The Constitution prohibits religious tests for officeholders. The Bill of Rights forbids the federal government from establishing a religion, James Madison having argued that to establish a religion would be “to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.”

—Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (2018), pp. 199-200

Number 51

On the centenary of gifted, careful researcher Rosalind Franklin, a reminder of the obstacles she overcame.

[James] Watson and his Cambridge collaborator and eventual fellow Nobel Laureate Francis Crick were not doing laboratory research on the structure of DNA, but they were actively attempting to build a model of it. Franklin’s image provided them with a breakthrough. Franklin was a cautious scientist, believing that modeling should await airtight scientific evidence. But Watson and Crick were less hesitant and became convinced that their double helix model must be correct.

Not a thread

My, there certainly have been some people with things to say about holding a meaningful conversation. I’ve read the open letter to Harper’s, and I’ve read at least some of the criticism, most saliently the response posted to The Objective. Frankly, I see little to object to in the words of the Harper’s letter. The nut sentence for me:

The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.

I am not particularly persuaded by the The Objective‘s response. Much space is given to quibbles about some of the examples cited. The responders write,

Under the guise of free speech and free exchange of ideas, the letter appears to be asking for unrestricted freedom to espouse their points of view free from consequence or criticism.

I don’t read a request for “unrestricted freedom to espouse” at all.

However, context is crucial. The Harper’s signatories, at least the names that I recognize, do make up a list of prestigious and powerful (insofar as any intellectual can be called powerful, these days) persons. And there are some people on the list with whom I rarely agree, others whose writing is rather superficial, and still others who have uttered some awful things.

A more nuanced, persuasive response comes from Gabrielle Bellot in Literary Hub: “Freedom Means Can Rather Than Should: What the Harper’s Open Letter Gets Wrong.” She writes:

The problem, then, is that the letter… fails to consider the experiences of others, the experience of what it is like to see your very identity coldly dissected and suspected in the name of free speech.

* * *

I want to believe in a world where, if someone doesn’t understand what it means to be an identity different from their own, they can at least open up a conversation with someone who has this different identity, and, if that person feels inclined to share their experience, they can help show that uncertain person a bit of what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

But it’s difficult to hold these dispassionate discussions in a world where I feel scared when I see a police officer, and, when I say why, I am asked to “prove” that systemic racism exists, or where I am asked to “prove” that I have a right to use the women’s restroom.

Her nut graf:

…I became accustomed to such thinkpieces, which never seemed to truly grapple with what it must feel like to be transgender—pieces that failed, like simplistic novels, to put oneself in the shoes of someone wholly different. Ironically, I loved debates, but calmly discussing my very right to exist felt icy and isolating. The philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked in a 1974 essay entitled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” that very question, trying to put himself into an ontological, experiential position deeply dissimilar to his own. I found myself wishing that some of these anti-trans screeds, which were often defended as simply people “asking questions,” would take the time to truly imagine what it might be like to be someone so different from themselves, rather than treating people like me as clinical subjects to be unempathetically, dehumanizingly dissected in the name of free speech.

When I first read the Harper’s letter, I had recently seen Conor Friedersdorf’s “The Perils of ‘With Us or Against Us’,” which has attracted relatively little attention even though it hits the mark more cleanly.

… in the stifling, anti-intellectual cultural climate of 2020, where solidarity is preferred to dissent, I hear echoes of a familiar Manichaean logic: Choose a side. You are either an anti-racist or an ally of white supremacy. Are you with us or against us? (emphasis in the original)

In my younger days, this idea was often expressed as some version of “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” And when I was young, I subscribed to that idea, but I’ve let my subscription lapse. There are just too many problems to go around: climate change looming like a melting iceberg, the crushing loss of habitat and species diversity, the nuclear doomsday clock (it’s at 23:58:20), shameful human rights violations by our allies and our rivals, excruciating tropical diseases—all of this on top of galloping economic inequality and the string of issues connected to it, not least among them the disenfranchisement of 700,000 Americans. It’s too much. I can’t expect you to drop everything to work on everything that I know is important; how can you expect me to do so for you?

You have to pick your battles. Today, I worked in the park: I rebuilt a protective cage around an oak sapling, and I sowed seeds. Tomorrow will be another project.

I’ll close with Friedersdorf’s closing:

Absolutely, Black lives matter, which is part of why everyone should encourage constructive dissent, even when it seems frustratingly out of touch with the trauma and emotion of the moment. Identifying changes that will achieve equality is hard. Avoiding unintended consequences is harder. Without a healthy deliberative process, avoidable catastrophes are more likely.