Monthly Archives: February 2020

Matthew Cobb chooses the five best books on the history of science

Why Evolution Is True

Our own Matthew Cobb has just appeared on the Five Books site, where Jo Marchant interviews him about his five choices for “best books in the history of science”. (I think he really means the five best books that are accessible to the layperson.) It’s a good interview, and Matthew sounds very smart, which he is; but I don’t often encounter him in academic mode so I was doubly impressed. Here are his choices; only the first was obvious to me:






I’ll refer you to the Five Books site to read the whole Q&A, but I’ll show just two bits:

Your day job is as a geneticist studying the sense of smell but you also write and translate history books. What is it that draws you to history and, in particular, the history of science?

It’s a bit of a cliché, but if we don’t understand where we’ve come…

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How woke students, academics, artists and galleries help create a metropolitan elite discourse which alienates ordinary people and hands political power to the Right

Books & Boots

‘As polls have attested [traditional Labour voters] rejected Labour because it had become a party that derided everything they loved.’

As of January 2020, Labour has 580,000 registered members, making it the largest membership of any party in Europe, and yet it has just suffered its worst election defeat since 1987. How do we reconcile these initially contradictory facts?

Trying to make sense of Labour’s catastrophic defeat in the 2019 General Election has prompted a flood of articles and analyses. I was fascinated to read in several of these articles, by writers from the Left and the Right, the related ideas that:

  • The decline of the traditional, manual-labouring working class, the decline in Trades Union membership and the increasing diversity of types of work and workplace, with the rise of part-time and zero hours contracts, now mTean that the only section of society which Labour can entirely rely on is the vote…

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The case against identity politics

Books & Boots

Steve Bannon thinks identity politics are great for President Donald Trump. That’s what the president’s adviser told Robert Kuttner at the American Prospect. “The Democrats,” he said, “the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em. I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”


At the press launch of Masculinities at the Barbican I stood by the bar queuing for a free coffee. In front of me were two very posh art reviewers, laughing and joking about people they know in the art world. One was a man, one was a woman. They drank their coffee and set off into the exhibition where a massive introductory wall label asserts that GENDER is the decisive factor in power relations in Western society.

Is it, though? I was…

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Let’s talk about sex… and gender ideology

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French Impressions: Prints from Manet to Cézanne @ the British Museum

Books & Boots

The British Museum Department of Prints and Drawings

The Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum contains the national collection of Western prints and drawings, in the same way as the National Gallery and Tate hold the national collection of paintings. It is one of the top three collections of its kind in the world and home to around 50,000 drawings and over two million prints dating from the beginning of the fifteenth century up to the present day.

French Impressions

This is a lovely FREE selection of prints from the age of the French Impressionists, a wide ranging selection of nearly 80 key works by artists including Manet, Degas, Cézanne, Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s a golden opportunity to view rarely seen artworks by some of France’s most famous artists.

Divan Japonais by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1893) showing the dancer Jane Avril seated next to the critic Édouard Dujardin watching…

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Crazy @BernieSanders on deplatforming

Free speech: one of the few things I would agree with Bernie Sanders about.

Utopia, you are standing in it!

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Mushrooms: The art, design and future of fungi @ Somerset House

Books & Boots

Without fungi all ecosystems would fail.

If you enter Somerset House from the terrace facing the River Thames and across to the South Bank, immediately on your right is a set of three long consecutive rooms which are big enough to house left-field and intriguing exhibitions. In the past I’ve come to see exhibitions about Tintin, Beards, and Mary Sibald here.

Continuing this tradition is the current exhibition, three long rooms packed with Victorian, 20th century, and contemporary art works all on the theme of mushrooms.

The show brings together the work of over 40 leading artists, designers and musicians to present an overview of fungi’s colourful cultural legacy, as well as some optimistic ideas about our fungus future.

Mindful Mushroom by Seana Gavin

Fungus facts

Printed around the walls are some of the fungus facts which we all need to know:

  • It was fungi that allowed plants to colonise…

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Young Bomberg and the Old Masters @ the National Gallery

Books & Boots

The National Gallery regularly uses room to house interesting and quirky, FREE exhibitions. To get there, go up the grand main stairs, then left up a spur of the stairs and then, on the mezzanine, as you come to the shop, turn left into a relatively small exhibition room.

This one claims to be setting the early work of the radical Modernist, English painter David Bomberg (1890–1957) against some of the Old Master paintings in the National’s collection which we know inspired him. We know this because he recorded his enthusiasm for Old Masters at the National in letters and diaries and the exhibition quotes his sister and girlfriends who he would drag, at the drop of a hat, along to the National to show them his latest passion.

Young Bomberg and the Old Masters

Except that, surprisingly, and despite the explicit title, this isn’t what the exhibition actually does.


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More on the Presidential race: Friedman on Bernie, and a new poll showing that socialists and atheists are despised by American voters

Why Evolution Is True

Tom Friedman is worried, as am I, that Bernie, though he clearly has momentum among Democrats and the approbation of the young and the “progressives,” won’t fare well against Trump. I’m hoping he will, but I have my worries. Here’s Friedman’s piece in today’s NYT:

Some excerpts:

So who is the right Democratic candidate? Well, for starters I will tell you who it is not. It is not Bernie Sanders. On which planet in the Milky Way galaxy is an avowed “socialist” — who wants to take away the private health care coverage of some 150 million Americans and replace it with a gigantic, untested Medicare-for-All program, which he’d also extend to illegal immigrants — going to defeat the Trump machine this year? It will cast Sanders as Che Guevara — and it won’t even be that hard.

Yes, the failures of American capitalism to deliver inclusive growth, which have…

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Birds that weave and sew


Why Evolution Is True

Here are a few videos of the amazing behaviors of some birds—birds that sew and birds that weave. After you see these, perhaps you won’t use the term “birdbrain” as pejorative.

Here’s Orthotomus sutorius, the Common Tailorbird (not common in any way), a warbler-like passerine that lives in tropical Asia.  It has a stunning way of building a nest. First it takes a big leaf, pierces it with holes, and then, using plant fiber, sews the edges of the leaf together, making a cradle or cup inside which the real nest is constructed. It’s a way of both protecting and camouflaging the nest.

The first video below was sent to me by Bruce Lyon, who shows it in his ornithology classes at UC Santa Cruz. He was responding to my puzzlement about how this behavior evolved. For the instructions for building this nest-cradle are surely genetic, instilled in the bird’s…

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