Monday, July 14, 2008

Never underestimate the ability of scientific inquiry...

Today I'm going to blog about something that I actually have some expertise in, for once. This has been a blog a long time in coming, an idea that came from an especially bad argument someone defending the existence of the supernatural: Science can't measure everything therefore it is unreasonable to dismiss the existence of the supernatural. This is backwards logic. Since by definition one can have no knowledge of the supernatural, discussing the topic as if any knowledge about it can be had is irrelevant. One example this person gave me refuting the ability of science to measure everything was in the form of a question: "How can I know that I love my wife?"

There are several things wrong about this example, which underscore the problem with the argument itself. Indeed, Science can't measure everything - at the moment. The implication of the above statement is that if something like emotion can't be quantified by any current method available, then it will never be measureable. A bold statement indeed, especially in light of the second premise behind the above challenge which is itself incorrect. I can indeed demonstrate that I love my wife. In fact, I have access to the equipment needed for the experiment.
A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) system is an expensive piece of lab equipment, especially the new generation of high-field systems, but man can they do some amazing stuff. I sat in on a General Electric luncheon in Toronto earlier this spring and was floored not just by the quality, but the applications of MRI. So, how does one go about using MRI to investigate what we call love? This is a special application of MRI called functional MRI, or fMRI for short. The ability to detect brain activation comes from a peculiar decoupling of neuron function and blood flow. What I mean by this is that when the inputs to a neuron from other neurons (delivered by connections between neurons called synapses) cause it to activate and transmit a current down the axon and be the input to the next neuron. This activation of a neuron results in membrane depolarization (ion gradients across membranes, which are kept high by ion transport proteins in the cell membrane, equalize, resulting in electrical transmission down an axon) an increase in metabolism, as it tries to recover the electrical potential across cell membranes. That is, glucose and oxygen usage rise sharply upwards. Local blood flow is sensitive to neuronal activation and increases to meet the increased demand for oxygen, but actually overshoots the requirements of tissue.

Oxygen is carried in red blood cells by hemoglobin. When the oxygen molecules are delivered, hemoglobin becomes deoxyhemoglobin. From a MRI perspective, this is an important change. Deoxyhemoglobin has unpaired electrons (supplied by the iron it contains) that, when oxygen is bound, are not normally there. These unpaired electrons cause very strong local fluctuating magnetic fields, which cause the signal from protons in water molecules (which is how we do MRI) to dephase. In essence, these local fluctuating fields cause the signal to dephase, resulting in a decreased signal that is acquired to produce the image.
How does this show us where brain activation is happening? Well, when tissue is running at a higher metabolic rate, more oxygen gets taken up from blood, increasing the local concentration of deoxyhemoglobin. This deoxyhemoglobin would cause a signal drop to to the dephasing phenomenon, but blood flow local to this increase in oxygen uptake increases to meet the added burden. However, since blood flow overshoots what is necessary, it actually clears out more deoxyhemoglobin relative to tissue that is not running at a higher metabolic rate. Thus, what is seen in the image is an increased signal intensity in those regions where the brain is activated. This is known as the blood-oxygen level dependent (BOLD) phenomenon. It's somewhat more complicated than this, but these are the main events which lead to our ability to do fMRI.

When I made my reply to the question "How can I know that I love my wife?", I wasn't up on the literature in the area. But the experiment was quite obvious to me, so I wasn't all that surprised when I was listening to a CBC radio program called "Between You and Me" where the host was discussing with Helen Fisher of Rutgers University some of the fMRI experiments she has done to study the emotion we call love. So I went into the literature earlier and dug out a couple of papers.

One of the trickiest things in science is designing experiments. The answer from an experiment may not be the answer to the question you were interested in asking, but answering another question altogether. For instance, in Blind Faith Richard Sloan describes the results of a study which seemed to show a significant health benefit related to the amount one attends church. The more often subjects went to church seemed to be healthier than those that did not. What the author of the study failed to account for was what is known as a confounder, which is essentially a word used to describe a monkey wrench thrown into the works. The simple fact of the matter is that healthier people are able to attend church more often than those that are not as healthy. Studies of the type Fisher is engaged in are no different and take very careful designing to remove counfounding variables.

What Fisher and others have shown is that people in a state of what is called romantic love (other states being attachment and lust) show brain activation when the name of their beloved partner was mentioned. The paradigm also included giving the subjects names of neutral friends or describing hobbies they were passionate about. Regions of the brain which are recruited are parts of dopaminergic systems (that is, the primary neurotransmitter in these regions is dopamine). Dopaminergic systems are typically involved in reward/motivation and include such regions as the right ventral tegmental area and right caudate nucleus. This suggests that dopaminergic reward pathways are important in the general arousal component of romantic love.

So, it's quite clear that the poser of the question we started with is in error not only in what we can measure now, but also more fundamentally in the process leading up to the erroneous conclusion. Claiming that Science can not know everything is no reason to believe in the supernatural (which by definition lies outside our experience), nor is there any reason to suggest that we can't at some point in the future measure all things within our experience and then some.

Is this reductionist? Absolutely. But those that use the word in derision are simply ignorant. No one is attempting to demean the emotion of love as a whole by trying to understand from whence it arises. And no understanding of the highest level, our experience of love, can come without understanding the next lower level. Indeed, we gain a lot of insight into other behavior. The same dopaminergic pathways are also involved in gambling addiction. The mind as a whole can not be understood without understanding how neurons work, but not a single neuroscientist will say that such emergent phenomena as the mind can be understood by simply looking at its most basic components. By analogy, we can not understand how a clock works without knowing how gears work. By the same token it is difficult to make a clock by simply looking at a gear. We need to understand each level of organization.

I want to say one more thing here about a new phenomonen popping up, a pseudoscience known as neurotheology. I have one word to describe it: nonsense. What those which push neurotheology are trying to suggest comes from a study on nuns in what they subjectively called "a state of union with God". There are those out there that make outrageous claims that this is some kind of "picture of God". Absolute rot. There is nothing in these images which can not be accounted for by a self-induced change in brain function. As Richard Sloan pointed out in a speech to the Freedom From Religion Foundation on the topic, you will see the brain "light up" while eating a piece of cheese. Does that mean that if you acquired images under such tasty circumstances that you are viewing a picture of Gouda? Hardly. What this is is confusing what we feel with what we believe is the source. However, we've known for a long time that the conscious mind can have a profound effect on brain function and the existence of god is utterly unnecessary in explaining what the fMRI data shows with these nuns.


Fisher H, Aron A, Brown LL. Romantic love: An fMRI study of a neural mechanism for mate choice. J Comp Neurol 493:58-62 (2005)

Beauregard M, Paquette V. Neural correlates of a mystical experience in Carmelite nuns, Neurosci Lett 405:186-90 (2006)

Fisher HE, Aron A, Brown LL. Romantic love: a mammalian brain system for mate choice. Phil Trans R Soc B 361:2173-86 (2006)

Ortigue S, Bianchi-Demicheli F, de C Hamilton AF, Grafton ST. The neural basis of love as a subliminal prime: An event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging study. J Cogn Neurosci 19:1218-30 (2007)

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

In Search of the Protocell - The Work of Jack Szostak

The origin of life problem is perhaps the most important question to ever have been the focus of scientific scrutiny. The only other question that I think rates of similar importance is the origin of the universe. Both questions have special obstacles to overcome before any answers are within sight. 

The Miller-Urey experiment of the 50s was a lightningrod for research into this question, but the euphoria caused by the viewpoint that the answers were near quickly receded once the scope of the problem was realized and it was decades before the excitement was rekindled in the scientific world. It's no surprise that the search is a difficult one. Remember, researchers are trying to compress the millions of years that undoubtedly were required for nature to give life a kick start into the lifespan of humans. Couple this with only a limited knowledge of what the conditions were at the time life started except in the grossest terms with the possibility that trace elements may be essential for the synthesis of life greatly compounds the issue. Anyone thinking that if life arose through naturalistic processes means it should be both easy, and that a mere 50 years of research should have resulted in the creation of protolife really doesn't have a good grasp of the scope of the problem. 

The molecules of life in the prebiotic world were all over the place, and not just on this planet. We know this not only from the Miller-Urey experiment itself, though we now think were the conditions at the time were somewhat different (which does not change the conclusions drawn from that experiment, or from similar ones which simulated what we now think the conditions at the time were), but meteorites have been found with complex organic molecules which could have seeded a barren Earth with the raw materials for the synthesis of life. Amphiphilic molecules (molecules possessing both water-loving (hydrophilic) and water-hating (hydrophobic) regions) have been generated by a variety of means simulating conditions found naturally: ultraviolet radiation of ice particles in the vacuum of space and at hydrothermal vents. Such molecules would provide the first cell membranes. 

A plan for synthesizing life was put forward by Szostak in 2001. It is based on a heterotophic model (cell structure first) rather than on an autotrophic one (metabolism first). First, create a spontaneously-replicating membrane through which small molecules can diffuse but bar larger molecules synthesized from these precursors from escaping. Next, create a replicase - a molecule mediating polymerization of a second molecule - a template containing protogenetic information to be copied.  The template could be RNA complimentary in sequence to the replicase or an unfolded replicase. RNA molecules can be encapsulated in vesicles and the whole cell self-assemble. This compartmentation inevitably results in the replicase component being subject to variation and natural selection.

Under the right conditions, amphiphilic molecules in solution can form micelles, or vesicles. This is similar to what soap, another amphiphilic class of molecules, does. Soap molecules (in the correct range of concentrations) cling together to form balls with the water-loving heads facing outward. In the case of vesicles, the molecules stand tail-to-tail with their hydrophilic heads facing outward from both the inner and outer surfaces of the ball. 

These vesicles would provide microenvironments for retaining and protecting primitive oligonucleotides (short sequences of RNA or DNA, typically of less than 20 bases). It is unlikely that early cell membranes would be made up of the same types of molecules which make up those in modern cells: phospholipids. Membranes made up of phospholipids are far too efficient at keeping out negatively charged ribonucleotides. Modern cells have evolved specific transport proteins to take in nutrients, but the earliest cells would have had no such mechanism available to them. 

Rather, the earliest cells would have used less efficient amphiphilic molecules, such as fatty acids, through which small molecules like ribonucleotides (such as uridine monophosphate, which make up RNA) could pass accross by simple diffusion. One hypothesis for both vesicle formation and RNA synthesis is respectively the interaction of fatty acids and ribonucleotides with clays. There is a growing body of evidence that this is a viable mechanism by which both of these process could happen. The clay montmorillonite has long been known to be able to catalyze RNA from activated ribonucleotides, but it can also greatly increase the rate of formation of fatty acid vesicles. The clay has a positively charged surface which attracts and concentrates the negatively charged fatty acids and thus facilitates their formation. Fatty acid membranes are also permeable to magnesium, a divalent cation necessary in many biochemical reactions and itself increases membrane permeablilty to negatively charged ribonucleotides. 

The surprise is that vesicles created in the presence of montmorillonite will also incorporate clay particles! It was immediately obvious to Szostak that this provides not only a mechanism for vesicle formation, but a method of synthesizing RNA oligonucleotides from ribonucleotides which diffuse through the membrane. Oligonucleotides formed within the vesicle are unable to escape the interior and are trapped. (As an aside, it also provides an explanation as to why L- rather than D-amino acids are utilized in protein synthesis. D- and L-amino acids are non-superimposable versions of each other, rather like the mirror image of your hand is not superimposable on your physical hand. Amino acids synthesized in an isotropic medium would be an equal (racemic) mixture of both optical isomers. These optical isomers have exactly the same physical properties bar one - each rotates the plane of polarized light in opposite directions. However, catalysis by a surface breaks the symmetry and one optical isomer would be selected over the other. It just so happens that L-amino acids were the ones selected. For sugars like glucose, it is the D-optical isomer that is used in biochemical reactions.)

Not only will these vesicles form, they have been shown to be able to spontaneously grow and divide in a series of elegant experiments. It was found that if the high vesicle concentration decreased by slowly adding a dilute solution of fatty acids, the vesicles would actually grow rather than just form new micelles. Vesicle division can be accomplished by extruding them through a polycarbonate filter. This likely happens by elongating the micelles so that they are no longer spherical and resealing after being pinched-off. As confirmation of this, vesicles preloaded with fluorescent dye were run through a filter released the dye into the medium in amounts only slightly greater than what was predicted for this mechanism of division. Had complete membrane disruption and reformation of vesicles occurred, the entire contents of the micelles would have been dumped into the medium. Vesicle division thus strongly resembles cellular division via budding and their formation, growth and division require no complex machinery at all, only raw physical forces. This is consistent with our current hypotheses on how early cell membranes must have formed. It even supplies a means for the first genetic material to have been generated through ribonucleotide uptake and mineral-catalyzed oligonucleotide formation.

Now our good friend Darwin steps in. Vesicles under osmotic stress due to their encapsulated contents need to decrease osmotic pressure by increasing their volume (and hence their surface area) by capturing fatty acids. Either that, or explode, dumping their contents. They do this by stealing fatty acids from other vesicles. But this is not a random process. The encapsulated contents have something to say about how well a vesicle will relieve the stress. Thus, we have what may have been the first example of biological competition! In the paper which covers this research (Chen, 2004), however, the competition was purely for stealing fatty acids from isotonic micelles (that is, vesicles not under osmotic stress). In other words, they feed. Once a truly replicating protocell is synthesized, a goal not yet reached, natural selection will become paramount in importance. The replicase can easily mutate through random mutation (since there are no error correcting mechanisms yet) and those which replicate better than others, eat other vesicles more efficiently and, as a consequence, divide more often will become more prevalent. Sounds like evolution to me.

So, when vesicles divide, how can the genetic material split into two as well? This is a Holy Grail in abiogenesis research. Some RNA can act like enzymes (another tantalizing clue to the origin of bioactive molecules). Such RNA molecules are known as ribozymes. Hammerhead ribozymes, which can catalyze cleavage and ligation of RNA molecules, are thought to be important in an RNA world and allow a mechanism for self-replication in the presence of magnesium. Encapsulated hammerhead ribozymes perform this self-cleavage as well, a necessary first step in this line of study. Research continues in developing a truly self-replicating protocell, and the results to date are highly encouraging. Activated nucleotides permeating across amphiphilic membranes have been shown to non-enzymatically replicate - this is key - encapsulated DNA templates. It just remains to fill in the lines.

When all is said and done, is this going to show us how abiogenesis occurred? Maybe. Note the language that Szostak uses: "model protocell vesicles", "prebiotically plausible membrane", etc. It's very careful language. What these experiments and others give us is a possible pathway, not necessarily the pathway. Perhaps autotrophic and heterotrophic abiogenesis are not either/or propositions and both are possible but only one historically occurred. Unless someone invents a time machine that can take us back to that point in time (current theoretical designs can only take us - well, actually only particles, not us - back in time to the point at which the machine was turned on), it is unlikely that we will be at all confident in having found the pathway. But this is not the point. The point is to find a plausible mechanism whereby abiogenesis could have occurred naturally, and we are well on our way there.  

Sometimes the journey is more important than the destination.


Szostak JW, Bartel DP, Luisi PL, Synthesizing Life, Nature 409387-390 (2001)

Hanczyc MM, Fujkiawa SM, Szostak JW, Experimental Models of Primitive Cellular Compartments: Encapsulation, Growth, and Division. Science 302:618-622 (2003)

Chen IA, Roberts RW, Szostak JW, The Emergence of Competition Between Model Protocells. Science 305:1474-1476 (2004)

Chen IA, Salehi-Ashtiani K, Szostak JW, RNA Catalysis in Model Protocell Vesicles, JACS 127:13213-13219 (2005)

Mansy SS, Schrum JP, Krishnamurthy M, Tobe S, Treco DA, Szostak JW, Template-directed Synthesis of a Genetic Polymer in a Model Protocell, Nature [Epub ahead of print] (2008)

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A sad day in Calgary

I was driving to work this morning, traveling north on Crowchild Trail, when I noticed traffic backing up. As I got closer I realized that it was not due to an accident on my side of the divider, but people rubber-necking at an accident on the other side. There were six or seven cars by the side of the road along with a short school bus and a gravel truck, but I didn't see much in the way of damage. And I must have missed being an eyewitness by mere minutes since the police hadn't arrived yet (an unmarked police van, undoutedly generating cash for the city playing photoradar possum, whizzed by me to get to the scene).

That was until I was going past the gravel truck. On the back end was a yellow school bus panel. I realized what must have happened. The school bus must have sideswiped the gravel truck, shearing the whole right side of the bus off the vehicle in one piece and others had stopped to help out. Once that was clear I hoped no children were on the bus. Unfortunately, my fears were realized. There were 11 special-needs children on the bus on their way to a private school. Two were taken to the Calgary Children's Hospital in critical condition and three others in serious condition. One of those in criticial condition, an 8-year old girl, succumbed to her injuries later in the morning.

To those that stopped to help out I say thank you. I would have myself, but those that know Crowchild will understand how dangerous that would be. It wouldn't be the first time I had been first on the scene of a serious accident and had to care for the injured, but that's another story. My thoughts and those of my wife go out to the victims and their families.

The full news story can be read here. It's hard to believe, but the bus looked completely undamaged from my viewing angle.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ontario Tories trounced by electorate on religious school funding

Canadians pride themselves on being different from our southern cousins. One of the biggest differences in our political systems is that religion is bad form when even mentioned in an electoral campaign, let alone when part of a platform. Yesterday gave us a glimpse at this in the results of the Ontario provincial election. Ontario is the largest Canadian province in population, but no longer is it the economic center. And yet the federal government still acts as if the universe revolves around Toronto (ptew!). Well, enough of my western patriotic rant.

Any how, the election saw two archrivals in the incumbent premier Dalton McGuinty of the Liberal party and Progressive Conservative John Tory. There were the usual accusations of broken promises by the Tories (for those not familiar with the Canadian or British political vernacular, the term 'Tories' refers to Conservatives, not to the coincidentally-similar name of their temporarily-current leader). In response, McGuiny accused the previous Conservative administration of hiding a $5.6 billion defecit.

But what sunk the Tory boat was the inclusion of an ill-advised promise of public funding for religious schools. With the current religio-political climate of the US, I doubt anybody outside card-carrying members of the ACLU and FFRF would bat an eye, but up here you just don't do that. There are two things you don't touch if you don't want to commit political suicide. Obviously, this is one of them (the other being Medicare). This was the first big mistake and I very much doubt that this idea was floated within the party beforehand to test the waters. More likely, this was a solo improvisation which in politics is not a good idea. The second was floating a promise like this a mere nine days before the election date. McGuinty correctly seized upon this. "We do not want to see our children divided," McGuinty told supporters gathered at Ottawa's Fairmont Chateau Laurier. "We want publicly funded schools, not public funds for private schools."

This incredibly bone-headed political move of Tory's completely demolished any chances of an electoral victory. Out of 107 seats up for grabs in the Ontario legislature, McGuinty's Liberals won 71, the Tory's Tories took 26 and the remaining 10 went to the New Democratic Party. All in all, a resounding Tory thumping by the Liberals in a record-low voter turnout. But the final insult was to John Tory himself. He lost his own seat to Liberal incumbent Kathleen Wynne who, appropriately enough, has served as education minister under McGuinty.

John Tory has put on a brave face and plans to remain as leader of the Conservative party in Ontario, but this is highly unlikely in the face of both an electoral defeat and a rejection by voters in his own riding. “You can't stay where you're not wanted to stay, quite frankly,” he told listeners of a Toronto (ptew!) radio station. Well, duh.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Dawkins reviews Hitchens' "God is Not Great"

Bible belter
Richard Dawkins

Christopher Hitchens
The case against religion
307pp. Atlantic. £17.99.
978 1 84354 586 6
US: New York: Twelve. $24.99.
978 0 446 57980 3

There is much fluttering in the dovecots of the deluded, and Christopher Hitchens is one of those responsible. Another is the philosopher A. C. Grayling. I recently shared a platform with both. We were to debate against a trio of, as it turned out, rather half-hearted religious apologists (“Of course I don’t believe in a God with a long white beard, but . . .”). I hadn’t met Hitchens before, but I got an idea of what to expect when Grayling emailed me to discuss tactics. After proposing a couple of lines for himself and me, he concluded, “. . . and Hitch will spray AK47 ammo at the enemy in characteristic style”.

Grayling’s engaging caricature misses Hitchens’s ability to temper his pugnacity with old-fashioned courtesy. And “spray” suggests a scattershot fusillade, which underestimates the deadly accuracy of his marksmanship. If you are a religious apologist invited to debate with Christopher Hitchens, decline. His witty repartee, his ready-access store of historical quotations, his bookish eloquence, his effortless flow of well-formed words, beautifully spoken in that formidable Richard Burton voice (the whole performance not dulled by other equally formidable Richard Burton habits), would threaten your arguments even if you had good ones to deploy. A string of reverends and “theologians” ruefully discovered this during Hitchens’s barnstorming book tour around the United States.

With characteristic effrontery, he took his tour through the Bible Belt states – the reptilian brain of southern and middle America, rather than the easier pickings of the country’s cerebral cortex to the north and down the coasts. The plaudits he received were all the more gratifying. Something is stirring in that great country. America is far from the know-nothing theocracy that two terms of Bush, and various misleading polls, had led us to fear. Does the buckle of the Bible Belt conceal some real guts? Are the ranks of the thoughtful coming out of the closet and standing up to be counted? Yes, and Hitchens’s atheist colleagues on the American bestseller list have equally encouraging tales to tell.

God Is Not Great is a coolly angry book, but there are good laughs too; for example, Hitchens’s hilarious account of how Malcolm Muggeridge launched “the ‘Mother Teresa’ brand upon the world” with his story that, while the BBC struggled to film her under low-light conditions, she spontaneously glowed. The cameraman later told Hitchens the true explanation of the “miracle” – the ultra-sensitivity of a new type of film from Kodak – but Muggeridge fatuously wrote: “I myself am absolutely convinced that the technically unaccountable light is, in fact, the Kindly Light that Cardinal Newman refers to in his well-known exquisite hymn”.

Hitchens also offers an extremely funny brief history of Mormonism: how it was invented from scratch by Joseph Smith, a nineteenth-century charlatan who wrote his book in sixteenth-century English, claiming to have translated the text from plates of gold – which conveniently ascended into heaven before anyone else could see them. Even the amanuenses to whom the illiterate Smith dictated had to sit behind a curtain lest they should catch a glimpse and be struck dead. Do you know anyone so gullible? Yet today, Mormonism is powerful enough to field a presidential candidate, its clean-cut young missionaries patrol the world in pairs, and the Book of Mormon nestles in every Marriott hotel room.

Hitchens’s title alludes, of course, to those famous last words “Allahu Akhbar”. The subtitle has suffered from its Atlantic crossing. The American original, “How religion poisons everything”, is an excellent slogan, which recurs through the book and defines its central theme. The British edition substitutes the bland and pedestrian subtitle “The case against religion”.

I referred earlier to Hitchens’s old-fashioned courtesy, and that was not (entirely) a joke. You can hear it in recordings of his lectures and debates, and you can see it in the first chapter of this book, “Putting It Mildly”.

I leave it to the faithful to burn each other’s churches and mosques and synagogues, which they can always be relied upon to do. When I go to the mosque, I take off my shoes. When I go to the synagogue, I cover my head.

The next chapter, “Religion Kills”, benefits from Hitchens’s experience as a war correspondent. (Others have likened him to Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene, but my own comparison is with Waugh’s intrepid rogue Basil Seal, who couldn’t keep out of trouble or away from the world’s trouble spots.) Publicly challenged by an American preacher to admit that, if approached by a gang of men in a dark alley, he would be reassured to learn that they had emerged from a prayer meeting, Hitchens’s return volley was unplayable:

Just to stay within the letter “B”, I have actually had that experience in Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem and Baghdad. In each case I can say absolutely, and can give my reasons, why I would feel immediately threatened if I thought that the group of men approaching me in the dusk were coming from a religious observance.

He does give his reasons too, and in no case are they vulnerable to the objection “But the dispute in B— is tribal / political / economic, not religious”. It is doubtless true that the people of B— are killing each other over something more than a mere liturgical disagreement. They are pursuing hereditary vendettas, paying back economic injustices. It’s all “them and us” stuff, yes, but how do they know who is them and who is us? Through religion, religious education, sectarian apartheid; through decades of faith-based separation, starting in kindergarten, working up through faith school and on to later life and the inculcated horror of “marrying out”; then, most importantly, the dutifully segregated indoctrination of the next generation.

I once had a televised encounter with a leading “moderate” Muslim, of the kind who gets a knighthood or a peerage for not being an “extremist”. I publicly challenged this “moderate” to deny that the Muslim penalty for apostasy was death. Unable to do so (the Koran is word-for-word inerrant), he wriggled and twisted, and finally claimed that it was an “unimportant detail”, because never enforced. Tell that to Salman Rushdie, of whom the knighted “moderate” had earlier said, “Death is perhaps too easy for him”

. . . . the literal mind does not understand the ironic mind, and sees it always as a source of danger. Moreover, Rushdie had been brought up as a Muslim and had an understanding of the Koran, which meant in effect that he was an apostate. And “apostasy”, according to the Koran, is punishable by death. There is no right to change
religion . . . .

Thus Christopher Hitchens on his friend Salman Rushdie, whom he welcomed into his Washington home and was subsequently warned by the State Department

. . . to change my address and my telephone number, which seemed an unlikely way of avoiding reprisal. However, it did put me on notice of what I already knew. It is not possible for me to say, Well, you pursue your Shiite dream of a hidden imam and I pursue my study of Thomas Paine and George Orwell, and the world is big enough for both of us. The true believer cannot rest until the whole world bows the knee. Is it not obvious to all, say the pious, that religious authority is paramount, and that those who decline to recognize it have forfeited their right to exist.

Hitchens invokes the Danish cartoons to discuss complicity and cowardice in the West:

Islamic mobs were violating diplomatic immunity and issuing death threats against civilians, yet the response from His Holiness the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury was to condemn – the cartoons! In my own profession, there was a rush to see who could capitulate the fastest, by reporting on the disputed images without actually showing them. And this at a time when the mass media has become almost exclusively picture-driven. Euphemistic noises were made about the need to show “respect’” but I know quite a number of the editors concerned and can say for a certainty that the chief motive for “restraint” was simple fear. In other words, a handful of religious bullies and bigmouths could, so to speak, outvote the tradition of free expression in its Western heartland.

While I admire Hitchens’s courage, I could not condemn those editors. There are times when “cowardice” amounts to no more than sensible prudence. But Hitchens is surely right to despise leaders of other religions who, while under no threat, go out of their way to volunteer a gratuitous “respect” and “sympathy” for those who incite murder in the name of God.

To return to Hitchens on Rushdie and the fatwa:

One might have thought that such arrogant state-sponsored homicide . . . would have called forth a general condemnation. But such was not the case. In considered statements, the Vatican, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the chief sephardic rabbi of Israel all took a stand in sympathy with – the ayatollah. So did the cardinal archbishop of New York and other lesser religious figures. While they usually managed a few words in which to deplore the resort to violence, all these men stated that the main problem raised by the publication of The Satanic Verses was not murder by mercenaries but blasphemy.

Moving to today’s Iran (and this may go some way towards explaining his otherwise mysterious flirtation with the neocon blackguards of Washington) Hitchens notes, “as I write, a version of the Inquisition is about to lay its hands on a nuclear weapon”. This is an unexpected threat. Theocracy doesn’t obviously nurture the sort of cultural and educational advancement that goes with modern scientific inventiveness. Hitchens develops his point with respect to September 11, 2001, when

from Afghanistan the holy order was given to annex two famous achievements of modernism – the high-rise building and the jet aircraft – and use them for immolation and human sacrifice. The succeeding stage, very plainly announced in hysterical sermons, was to be the moment when apocalyptic nihilists coincided with Armageddon weaponry. Faith-based fanatics could not design anything as useful or beautiful as a skyscraper or a passenger aircraft. But, continuing their long history of plagiarism, they could borrow and steal these things and use them as a negation.

While my own primary concern as a scientist has been with religion’s claims about the cosmos and the sources of life, Hitchens restricts such matters to two short chapters. Where he really comes into his own is with the evils that are done in the name of religion: “religion poisons everything”. His list is pretty comprehensive. There is a good chapter on religion as child abuse; another on religion as a health hazard, which doesn’t fail to mention those Roman Catholic priests, including at least two cardinals and an archbishop, who solemnly told their flocks, in African countries ravaged by AIDS, that condoms transmit the virus.

Reviewers have variously described Hitchens as an equal opportunity atheist, an equal opportunity embarrasser (of all religions), an equal opportunity ranter, and an equal opportunity bigot. He is certainly not a bigot, nor does he rant (any critic of religion, no matter how mild, is automatically assumed to “rant”). But it is true, as another reviewer of God Is Not Great has put it, that it is “ecumenical in its contempt for religion”. Even Buddhism, which is often praised as a cut above the rest, gets both barrels.

It is no surprise that Hitchens’s chapter “The Nightmare of the Old Testament” effortlessly lives up to its name. The next one, despite its promising title (“The New Testament Exceeds the Evil of the Old”) is more about the unreliability of the texts than about any evil to match the admittedly high standards of the Pentateuch. Many Gospel stories were invented to fulfil Old Testament prophecies, and the shameless candour with which their authors admit it is almost endearing: “All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet . . .”. The real evil of the New Testament gets a chapter to itself: that is, the divine-scapegoat theory of Jesus’s crucifixion, as vicarious atonement for “original sin” (the past sin of Adam who had never existed, and the future sins of people like us who didn’t yet exist but were presumed to have every intention of sinning when our time came).

Hitchens is quick to note the similarity of Christianity to extinct cults. Jesus slots right into a cosmopolitan catalogue of virgin births along with Horus, Mercury, Krishna, Attis, Perseus, Romulus and, incongruously, Genghis Khan. Is it Jungian atavism, shrewd PR, or sheer accident that leads the inventors of cults, and the religions into which they mature, to conjure their gods out of virgin wombs, like so many rabbits out of hats? Jesus’s case was abetted by a simple mistranslation from the Hebrew for “young woman” into the Greek for “virgin”.

One of Hitchens’s central themes is that gods are made by man, rather than the other way around. A related theme is plagiarism: “monotheistic religion is a plagiarism of a plagiarism of a hearsay, of an illusion, extending all the way back to a fabrication of a few nonevents”. A pair of chapters explores “The Tawdriness of the Miraculous” and the widespread fallacy that we derive our morals from religious rules such as the Ten Commandments. As Hitchens witheringly puts it, does anybody seriously think that, before Moses delivered the tablet inscription “Thou shalt not kill”, his people had thought it a good idea to do so?

I said that Hitchens comes into his own on the evils that are done in the name of religion: “in the name of” is important. You can’t just point to evil – or indeed good – individuals who happen to be religious. The case to be made is that people do evil (or good) – because they are religious. Crusaders and jihadis are – by their own lights – good. They do evil things (by our lights) because their faith drives them to it. The nineteen murderers of September 11 scrupulously washed, perfumed and shaved their whole bodies in preparation for the martyrs’ paradise, as they set off on what they sincerely, truly, prayerfully believed was a supremely righteous mission.

If ever a man embodied evil it was Adolf Hitler. He never renounced his Roman Catholicism, and affirmed his Christianity throughout his life, but unlike, say, Torquemada or a typical crusader or conquistador, he did not do his horrible deeds in the name of Christianity. Another deeply evil man, Joseph Stalin, was probably an atheist but, again, he didn’t do evil because he was an atheist, any more than he, or Hitler, or Saddam Hussein, did evil because they had moustaches. Hitchens is especially good on the idiotic challenge “Stalin and Hitler were atheists, what d’you say to that?” – doubtless after plenty of practice. Stalin, Hitler and the others may not have been religious themselves, but they understood the ingrained religiosity of their subjects, and exploited it gratefully. Hitchens makes the point only briefly in the book, but he has enlarged upon it in later speeches and interviews:

For hundreds of years, millions of Russians had been told the head of state should be a man close to God, the Czar, who was head of the Russian Orthodox Church as well as absolute despot. If you’re Stalin, you shouldn’t be in the dictatorship business if you can’t exploit the pool of servility and docility that’s ready-made for you. The task of atheists is to raise people above that level of servility and credulity.

The point applies again to Kim Jong Il (the Dear Leader) and to his late father, Kim Il Sung (the Great Leader), who is still the Eternal President of North Korea, despite having died in 1994. Hitchens has personal experience of North Korea, and his observations on its modern cult of ancestor worship are the sort of thing he does best.

Having failed myself to find anything to complain about, I thought it my duty to examine other reviews in the hope of uncovering something negative to say. Most of them have been favourable, but Matt Buchanan, in the course of an otherwise rave review in the Sydney Morning Herald, hit home with this:

He is also occasionally guilty of crassness. For example: “In the very recent past we have seen the Church of Rome befouled by its complicity in the unpardonable sin of child rape, or as it might be phrased in Latin form, no child's behind left.” Hitchens squanders a lot of trust with that vulgar lapse: readers suddenly catch sight of him chortling at his desk and it’s not pretty, or funny, and it impugns his seriousness elsewhere.

An undeniable lapse but not a characteristic one. The slightly odd habit of downsizing self-important leaders by calling them “mammals” is a lesser error of tone that might be corrected in a future edition.

Peter Hitchens begins his negative review in the Daily Mail quite well (“Am I my brother’s reviewer?”), but the substance of his complaint seems to be that Christopher is as confident in his disbelief as any fundamentalist is confident in his belief. The answer to the familiar accusation of atheist fundamentalism is plain enough. The onus is not on the atheist to demonstrate the non-existence of the invisible unicorn in the room, and we cannot be accused of undue confidence in our disbelief. The devout churchgoer recites the Nicene Creed weekly, enumerating a detailed and precise list of things he positively believes, with no more evidence than supports the unicorn. Now that’s overconfidence. By contrast, the atheist says the humble thing: of all the millions of possible entities that one might imagine, I believe only in those for which there is evidence – trombones, pelicans and electrons, say, but not unicorns or leprechauns, not Thor with his hammer, not Ganesh the elephant god, not the Holy Ghost.

The second commonest complaint from reviewers is that Christopher Hitchens attacks bad religion. Real religion (the religion the reviewer subscribes to) is immune to such criticism. Here is the theologian Stephen Prothero in the Washington Post:

To read this oddly innocent book as gospel is to believe that ordinary Catholics are proud of the Inquisition . . . and that ordinary Jews cheer when a renegade Orthodox rebbe sucks the blood off a freshly circumcised penis.

This complaint, too, is familiar, and the answer (even when the point is not exaggerated, as it is by Prothero) is obvious. If only all religions were as humane and as nuanced as yours, gentle theologian, all would be well, and Hitchens would not have needed to write this book. But come down to earth in the real world: in Islamabad, say, in Jerusalem, or in Hitchens’s home town, Washington DC, where the President of the most powerful nation on earth takes his marching orders directly from God. Channel-hop your television in any American hotel room, look aghast at the huge sums of money subscribed to build megachurches, at museums depicting dinosaurs walking with men, and see what I mean.

Finally, there are those critics who can’t resist the ad hominem blow: “Don’t you know Christopher Hitchens supported the invasion of Iraq?” But so what? I’m not reviewing his politics, I’m reviewing his book. And what a splendid, boisterously virile broadside of a book it is.


Richard Dawkins FRS is Oxford's Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science. His latest book, The God Delusion, has sold more than a million copies in its first year, and is being translated into more than 30 languages.

This review was taken from the Times Online website.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Biology of Sexual Orientation - Cristian C A Bodo

Reposted from the American Sexuality magazine online.

The Biology of Sexual Orientation

Insight from animal research about what turns us on

By Cristian C A Bodo

What determines sexual orientation? What makes a person gay, bisexual, or straight? These sort of questions hold an undeniable interest to the general public and the answers are still hotly debated both by the experts in the field and by society at large. There are some powerful reasons for this universal appeal: First, the vast majority of us have experienced in the course of our lives some sort of sexual attraction toward other human beings, and this attraction in turn exerts a powerful influence in our mood, our behavior, our social interactions, and on the image that we have of ourselves. Since this plays such a key role in our lives, it is only natural that we would be interested in knowing at some point about its origins, and why we are oriented only toward people with certain characteristics and not others.

The examination of sexual orientation also holds relevance to specific social policies. Whether sexual orientation is the result of a conscious choice by the individual, as opposed to just another trait that comes "built-in" in our system, helps determine if it should be categorized as a "moral problem" or not. This seems to matter a lot in shaping out attitudes toward sexual minorities. Specifically (and for better or worse), the public appears to be more sympathetic to variations from the norm, in this case strict heterosexuality, if they are convinced that the individual has no "say" on this departure since it is the product of biological determination. On the other hand, sexual minorities have traditionally regarded this argument with suspicion. They fear that scientific research may open the door to treating these variations as little more than a disease and that efforts will be made to reduce or eliminate incidences of homosexuality in human populations.

Still, as it often happens with contentious issues that have such an impact for everyday life, society has turned to scientific research in order to get some answers. Despite the many occasions in which it has been proved otherwise, science still holds in the public conciousness the image of an unbiased actor whose answers are based solely in the pure application of a rational methodology and are therefore beyond the usual "contaminations" introduced by those who have specific interests in directing the public opinion toward their side of the field.

The question of sexual orientation has received special attention from biologists from early on. In part, this is due to the relevance that this trait is supposed to have for the survival of animal species with two (or more) separate sexes: If reproduction depends on successful mating with a member of another sex, then being attracted and actively attempting to interact with them would seem to be important to ensure that the genes of one generation be well represented in the next.

Plenty of experimental work has been done using lab animals to try to figure out how this is established, and how they develop an attraction for potential mates belonging to a sex other than their own. Most of it has been carried out in rodents (rats, mice, hamsters) for the simple reason that they breed well and adapt easily to a laboratory environment. Their proverbial capacity to deliver plenty of litters in a short time also comes handy at the time of doing an experiment.

The evidence derived from lab animals points directly to hormones derived from the gonads (testes in males, ovaries in females), specifically testosterone, in the determination of sexual orientation. When male pups are castrated at birth, they no longer seek the company of females after they have gone through puberty. Conversely, when females are injected with testosterone early in life, they later show an attraction toward other females, just like a male.

This is often referred to as the "organizational" effect of hormones, meaning that hormones trigger changes in the brain circuit, so that the brain develops in a particular way making animals predisposed to seek the company of one sex over another after reaching sexual maturity. In addition, the levels of hormones that they have in adulthood are very important to maintain this preference: If the gonads are removed, the preference quickly disappears, no matter how strong it may have been before the surgery. So the evidence is strong for a "built-in" mechanism in the determination of sexual orientation in rodents. Whether they will be attracted to females or to males when they grow up seems to be largely determined by the presence of functional testes or ovaries early in life (or even before they are actually delivered by the mother). The million-dollar question, the one that continues to generate heated debates both within and outside the scientific community, is whether this can be extrapolated at all to humans. And the answer is far from being trivial, since there are indeed powerful reasons that call for caution when doing so.

Sexual behavior in rodents is strictly associated with reproductive function, to the point that females will normally accept to mate with a male only during a particular stage of the estrous cycle: immediately after ovulation. Attempts by the male to initiate copulation during any other stage of the cycle are generally met with rejection, and this can turn into downright aggression. It is easy to see why this should be so. By limiting sexual activity to the period in which the female is actually fertile, the waste of energy that mating not resulting in pregnancy represents is actually avoided. Not surprisingly, gonadal hormones control the coordination between these two events (ovulation and sexual receptivity). Cycling ovaries release estradiol and progesterone to the bloodstream, which triggers ovulation and sexual receptivity.

In humans, on the other hand, the situation is radically different. Despite several attemps that have been made over the years to measure variations in sexual desire in women during the cycle, there is virtually no evidence to support such a claim. In humans, and other selected mammalian species, the willingness to engage in sexual activities seems to be dissociated from the hormonal status, and therefore not limited to be a mere prerequisite for succesful reproduction. On the contrary, we are all familiar with the multiple roles that sex plays in human societies, ranging from the expression of affection to the validation of social status. Even in non-human primates we can see some clear evidence of this emancipation of sex from its primitive role: Pygmy chimpanzees (or bonobos) are famous for using sexual intercourse to regulate many aspects of their social interactions, including greeting each other, resolving conflicts between members of the same clan, and exchanging food and other commodities.

Does this diminished role of gonadal steroids in the regulation of sexual activities also translate to the determination of sexual orientation in humans? With perhaps a single exception, researchers have in general failed to find a link between this characteristic and exposure to gonadal hormones at any point during the life of the individual. The exception is a study that showed women affected by congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), a syndrome that caused their adrenal glands to excrete an excesive amount of sex steroids during their development, exhibited a higher proportion of individuals reporting same-sex sexual orientation compared to the general population. Notice, however, that this is not the same as saying that all the women exposed to high hormonal levels as a consequence of their syndrome became homosexual, which suggests that if hormones are playing a role here, they have to be doing it in combination with other factors. On the other hand, there is not a single study to this date that has conclusively proved that gay men are exposed to subnormal levels of testosterone or other sex hormones during development.

So, the evidence for gonadal hormones as the determining factor for sexual orientation in humans seems to be much less abundant than does the evidence in animal models. Perhaps, in part, this is because in the former case studying the phenomenon under strict experimental conditions is impossible, and thus researchers have to rely almost exclusively in the so-called "experiments of nature," clinical syndromes such as CAH in which it is particularly difficult to control for other variables—such as psychosexual history, genetic and social background—that may affect the outcome.

Another reasonable consideration is that with the evolution of higher cognitive functions, our sexuality became a much more complex phenomenon, with multiple purposes beyond mere reproduction and also with multiple variables affecting its different aspects, and this includes of course sexual orientation. And yet, it is difficult to shake off the feeling that some deeply ingrained biological root exists that determines who we feel sexually attracted to. When asked, most people declare having no recollection of making a conscious choice about this issue at any point in their lives. Instead, there is a strong feeling of having been "made" in certain way, which implies an underlying biological cause that overrules any attempts to modify it by conscious decision. (This has been and often still is the cause of a heavy psychological burden for gay/lesbian individuals raised in an environment that does not tolerate their sexual orientation and blames them for it.) But regardless of whether improved experimental methodology and more advanced technology would allow us one day to shed some light on the elusive biological factors that determine sexual orientation in humans, it is important to ask ourselves if we are interested in finding an answer to it, and thus if it should continue to be the object of scientific enquiry. As mentioned at the beginning, sexual minorities have repeatedly expressed concerns about this, since they fear that it may actually increase discrimination practices against them.

It is easy to sympathize with this point of view, especially considering the many instances in which supposedly neutral scientific knowledge was used in the past to justify racist policies or to deny women their civil rights. But at the same time it is perfectly reasonable to wonder if such an attitude is not putting the blame in the wrong place. Instead of making researchers scapegoats, we should ask why society at large would use the tools they create to enforce discriminative policies.

There is a wide amount of variation in human traits, ranging from some that have an obvious external manifestation (eye, hair, or skin color) to others that are virtually impossible to recognize without resorting to specific test tools (blood type), and they are known in many cases to have an evident genetic component. Even though human societies seem to have the unfortunate tendency to use these variations to discriminate, we have made remarkable progress in exposing this tendency as irrational and as the cause of much suffering, so that what was once universally accepted and justified is today relegated to the fringes. There is no reason to believe that this would not also be achieved in the case of our attitudes toward sexual orientation, even if an agreement on its biological causes is eventually reached as a consequence of further scientific research on the subject. By embracing too quickly the other option, seeking to prevent scientists from looking for the causes because of fear of what we may do with such knowledge, we may indeed find ourselves sharing our views with very strange bedfellows.

Cristian C A Bodo was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from the University of Virginia in August 2007. The topic of his dissertation research was the role of gonadal steroids in the sexual differentiation of the mouse brain.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Experiment in Belief Origins - The Cargo Cults

I found this on AirForce Magazine Online (January 1991, Vol. 74, No. 1). I've been fascinated by the rise and continued following of the so-called Cargo Cults. I think this is a great accidental experiment in the rise of a religion and all believers should take note and see the similarities their beliefs have in common with something they consider false.

The Cargo Cults

By C. V. Glines

After World War II, veterans returning from the Pacific all had stories to tell, not only about the war, but also about experiences with other cultures. There were tales of mysterious customs, strange lifestyles, and curious ceremonies. Of all the experiences, however, few were like the encounters with a number of bizarre--to Americans, at least--religious groups: the cargo cults.

"Cargoism" was, and is, a widespread religious movement among natives of the islands of Melanesia in the South Pacific. The theology and practice of the cult centers on the worship of cargo.

In simplest terms, followers of cargoism believe in the imminence of a new age of blessing which, they believe, will be heralded and fulfilled by the arrival of special cargo sent to them by supernatural powers. This belief existed long before the appearance in the Pacific of Western troops.

Western sociologists specializing in Melanesian religions say all the cargo cults are based on a curious mixture of native and Christian beliefs and rituals. The cultists believe their deities will send them ready-made goods just like those used by the military forces that came from far away. In their estimation, the goods will come from heaven, thought by some to be in Australia or, alternatively, in the sky immediately above it.

Those who hold to the latter view of paradise believe that Heaven is joined to Earth by a ladder, down which ancestral spirits carry the goods, packed in crates addressed to specific individuals. They expect that the precious cargo will come to them by ship, airplane, or truck, depending on where they live.

The Millennium at Hand

When soldiers and airmen from the United States and other allied countries arrived in the islands with huge war cargoes, it was for the worshipers proof that those who followed the beliefs of a cargo cult were to be rewarded for their faith. Though the natives did not benefit directly from the appearance on their islands of those types of cargo, the cultists believed that their predictions were confirmed and that the cargo-millennium was at hand. A time of plenty had arrived. There was no longer a need to work. Money was unnecessary. Crops could be, and were, neglected. Pigs were randomly slaughtered for feasts. It was a time to celebrate, and the cultists lived it up.

Things didn't turn out as the cultists expected, but few lost the faith. When goods fail to appear, as in the postwar period, the followers usually assume it is because they have not yet performed the correct ritual, because foreigners have schemed against them, or because the cultists have neglected the gods.

Although the worship of cargo is basic, there are slight variations in theology among the approximately seventy cargo cults that are known to have existed. There are fewer now, and those remaining seem to be waning in religious fervor. However, world religion scholars say interest fluctuates and is revived by forceful, persuasive leaders who appear from time to time.

Typically, all cargo cults begin when someone claims that, through a dream or vision, supernatural powers have told him or her that a messiah and the ancestors or spirits of the dead will soon return bringing huge supplies of manufactured goods. Their arrival will usher in a wonderful new era when the believers will have their identity, dignity, and honor restored. Inequality, suffering, and death will cease. The riches of those they think have so far monopolized wealth and defrauded them of their share will then belong to the cultists.

The cargo cult members do not know how the goods of foreigners are made. They believe that the arrival of cargo must be stimulated by some kind of religious ritual, because the gods will respond only to correctly performed ceremonies. Cult leaders and sometimes whole native communities demonstrate that they have received news about the coming of cargo by falling into ecstatic states.

Typical of cargo dogma is a belief adopted by three groups in Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides). They worship a god named John Frum, king of America, who is said to have arrived in the islands before the appearance there of Christian missionaries in the mid-1800s. John Frum also is expected to return.

The cultists embrace the deity of Frum because he promised them a life untroubled by economic strife and the demanding ways of foreigners, especially Europeans. Although Frum hasn't shown up, Frum followers saw great significance in the arrival of cargo-rich foreign troops on the island Tana in the New Hebrides during World War II. Cargo cult believers on other islands of Melanesia were likewise convinced that the cargoes they saw being unloaded were heaven-sent and that a god or messiah would soon follow.

Worshiping George V

In Papua New Guinea, cargo cults are numerous. The first to be discovered were the Baigona, reported by researchers in 1912, and the Vailala, first described by sociologists in 1919. Researchers found that cultists often were seized by mass hysteria that led to violent shaking fits and ecstatic trances. The Marching Rule movement is popular in the Solomon Islands. Another cult worships a faded portrait of King George V of England, declaring that it is the picture of Ihova, also known as God.

Some cult members believe they must imitate the foreigners. They even drill with wooden rifles and hold flag-raising ceremonies. They adopt Western dress and imitate Western behavior. They have built wharves, storehouses, airfields, "radio masts," and lookout towers in anticipation of the arrival of good fortune. Cult leaders make contact with the deities by using "wireless telephones," often nothing more than wooden posts or carved totem poles.

Cargo is expected to appear in local cemeteries, on altars, or in other places they consider holy and where the deity is expected to emerge. Cultists of Vanuatu have not lost faith in the long-absent John Frum; believers still await his return.

If someone tells you that he has seen natives of the South Pacific building airstrips and piers to prepare for the return of vast cargoes, don't pass it off as just another tall war story. There are still hundreds of cargo cultists out there, patiently awaiting the day when their lookouts will spot a great armada on the horizon and a string of giant aircraft lined up on final approach to their airstrips.

C. V Glines is a regular contributor to this magazine. A retired Air Force colonel, he is a free-lance writer and the author of many books. His most recent article for AIR FORCE Magazine was "The Visions of Hector Bywater," which appeared in the December 1990 issue.