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.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

The joys of demolishing bad religion....

I hadn't meant to blog this morning, but I saw this one and thought I'd set yet another theist who just didn't get it straight. Feel free to go over and add you own two cents worth of reason. It's fun! It's free!

Atheism: Does it make sense or is it an uncompromising, fundamentalist religion?
I'm not going to respond to the other blogs any more. The readers have taken them so far down rabbit trails that the subject matter and purpose of the blogs have gone way over their heads. Instead, I will pose this points for all of you evolutionists, theistic or otherwise, atheists, and agnostics to consider:

You claim that you cannot trust the bible because it was written by men, yet you trust and seem willing to be martyred for fallible textbooks written by... men. Think about that one for a moment.

You claim tolerance when you can't even tolerate us speaking up against a THEORY.You wonder why the Bible never changes, when textbooks and evolutionary 'discoveries' change all the time to stay 'current'. Here's my quesetion: Which scientific statement in the bible needs to be updated? Answer: They are all current, yet were written 4,000 years ago. Hmm...

You wonder how theists can believe that there is something outside of time and space and matter, yet you wholeheartedly, uncompromisingly believe that matter came from nothing. Question: Where's the evidence for that?

You wonder why Christians are always trying to 'shove the Gospel down your throat', yet would not stand idly by if someone was in danger and you were the only one around to rescue them. Answer: Chew on this - If you wholeheartedly believed there was a heaven and a hell and knew you had the information to prevent people from going to hell, would you sit on your hands and watch people go there daily, or would you do something about it?

Do you realize that your insults and cursings look to us like prisoners on death row despising and forsaking a pardon from the governer? We are adamant with you because we can't comprehend why you would be willingly ignorant of the idea of a Creator, whose rules you have violated, just as we have, who has every right to judge His Creation, yet cares enough to offer you redemption. We just can't figure out why you would reject that offer.

Everything in you screams "Oh, I don't want to die", yet you celebrate death (evolution would mean death brings forth the next kind, whereas Creation dictates God breathes life, and life is a gift not to be taken for granted).

Rather than answer me point-by-point, pick the point that bothers you the most about this blog, and respond to it FREE OF CURSING OR INSULT. I just received a message from one of you saying you don't use insults, then replying to my response with cursings and blasphemy. Come on, act your age and let's reason together.

Here's what we do know: You're going to die, and we care enough about you to rescue you from the grips of Hell. Is that not compassion?

Also, please proofread your responses to make sure they make sense to the other readers. Thanks.

With all the presupposition I can muster, God bless!!

Atheist's Nightmare

I must say you know absolutely nothing about not only atheism, but your own religion. You are so wrong that I cannot possibly do this point-by-point. Okay, let's begin the education (cracks knuckles....).

"You claim that you cannot trust the bible because it was written by men, yet you trust and seem willing to be martyred for fallible textbooks written by... men. Think about that one for a moment." No. I accept provisionally theories (the definition of which you, as many other fundies, do not actually know, as I will get to in a moment...) which explain sets of observations. The Bible has all the hallmarks of being written by men and none of those I would expect if it were a god's word. It has changed drastically to the point where we do not actually know with any certainty what parts were actually contained in it! Atheism, on the other hand, is simply an acceptance of the null hypothesis in the lack of any evidence to the contrary that there is no supernatural being.

"You wonder how theists can believe that there is something outside of time and space and matter, yet you wholeheartedly, uncompromisingly believe that matter came from nothing. Question: Where's the evidence for that?" This seems to me to be the First Law of Thermodynamics argument. The problem is that the sum total of the mass-energy of the universe is exactly 0. As to what initiated it, we do not know. So what? To immediately jump to a supernatural origin is what is known as premature curiosity satisfaction. The so-called Big Bang model predicted the results of several to incredible accuracy. Two of these are the hydrogen/helium ratio and the cosmic microwave background. Question: what part of the Bible predicted the observed expansion of the universe? While we do not have all the answers yet, at least we are willing to admit it instead of making convoluted arguments as to how scientific discoveries 'fit' into the Bible somehow.

"You wonder why the Bible never changes, when textbooks and evolutionary 'discoveries' change all the time to stay 'current'. Here's my quesetion: Which scientific statement in the bible needs to be updated? Answer: They are all current, yet were written 4,000 years ago. Hmm..." The Bible has changed considerably, as I've said. Any textual critic would tell you that. As for the "scientific statements" in the Bible (there are no correct ones), how about rabbits and coneys chewing cud? (They do not.) How about a description of the Earth as flat? (It is not.) A bat is not a bird, etc. For a more full description of biblical 'science' gaffs, see here. The reason that Science changes is due to our ever increasing knowledge base leading to asking new questions. Question to you: what new discoveries in Science have been made stemming from the Bible? Answer: none in the last 2,000+ years. Hmm....

"You wonder why Christians are always trying to 'shove the Gospel down your throat', yet would not stand idly by if someone was in danger and you were the only one around to rescue them. Answer: Chew on this - If you wholeheartedly believed there was a heaven and a hell and knew you had the information to prevent people from going to hell, would you sit on your hands and watch people go there daily, or would you do something about it?" There is a big difference between pulling someone from a burning building (a very real, immediate threat) and some perceived, nebulous future threat. Let's change the question around. Would you kill someone if you thought that they would some day years later attempt to cause you harm and claim self-defense in the same way you might kill an armed intruder invading your home that meant you immediate physical harm?

"You claim tolerance when you can't even tolerate us speaking up against a THEORY." You are under the impression that a Theory is just some sort of idea pulled out of thin air. Nothing could be further from the truth. A Theory in Science is something that 1) explains a set of observations; 2) makes testable predictions which can verify the theory; 3) explains new data as it comes in; 4) is falsifiable (that is, it can be shown to be incorrect). Natural Selection is a Theory, explaining a huge amount of data from comparative morphology, molecular genetics and paleontology. Intelligent Design, on the other hand, has absolutely none of the attributes just described. Nothing makes a scientist like myself angrier than someone ignorantly saying "Well, it's just a theory." We fell embarrassed for people that say that. The biggest difference between Religion and Science is that in Science our Theories can change if a better explanation can be found. This has happened a number of times. Two that come to mind are the development of the Relativity and Quantum Theories. Along with Natural Selection, these Theories changed the way in which we look at the world and even the universe. Religious dogma, on the other hand, is brittle and incapable of taking in new ideas and prefers to place its fingers in its ears and annoyingly go "La-la-la-la-la!"

"Do you realize that your insults and cursings look to us like prisoners on death row despising and forsaking a pardon from the governer?" The reason people insult you for 'witnessing' to them (what an odd term) is because they are insulted. What it says to them is that you think you have a superior moral system (you do not, by the way). By trying to convince someone to convert to your world view you are insulting theirs. You bring insults onto yourself and haven't the foggiest why. Such is the blinding effect of religion. Not everyone shares your beliefs, even other Christians. 'Witnessing' is disrespectful every bit as much as if you were asked to dinner and insulted your host's cooking . Actually, it's more disrespectful because you are rarely invited.

"Everything in you screams "Oh, I don't want to die", yet you celebrate death (evolution would mean death brings forth the next kind, whereas Creation dictates God breathes life, and life is a gift not to be taken for granted)." I have found this to be the opposite. Knowing that I have only this one life to live I cherish every moment of it. I am willing to lay money down on a bet that I have accomplished more in this life to this point (roughly half way) than you will in the whole of yours. When I leave I will go to the same place I was before I was born: oblivion. Religious people are quite happy to hasten the process for some reason.

"You're going to die, and we care enough about you to rescue you from the grips of Hell. Is that not compassion?" No, it's just disrespect for my beliefs. Worry about yourself and I will worry about my own fate. You don't have the right to take that responsibility onto yourself.
"We are adamant with you because we can't comprehend why you would be willingly ignorant of the idea of a Creator, whose rules you have violated, just as we have, who has every right to judge His Creation, yet cares enough to offer you redemption. We just can't figure out why you would reject that offer." Let me say this really slowly so you can understand. All religions bear the hallmarks of being totally man-made. Therefor there is no gods, no heaven, no hell (what kind of a god would create hell? not a loving one...), no redemption, no.... If the Bible is God's word, wouldn't you think that he would have made his words immutable and immune to the huge number of copying errors made by scribes? There are more errors in the manuscripts than words in the whold of the New Testament! What atheists don't understand is why you would believe in a deity just because a book says so! I've said it before, just because the National Enquirer says Bat Boy exists doesn't make it so!

I am not one of those atheists that will insult you or curse at you (unless you really tick me off). That there are atheists that will do that is true, just as there are theists who will do the same, but they are a minority. People are people. Most atheists are (unfortunately) silent. Thankfully, this is changing due to people like you.

In Reason,
Unashamedly Atheist

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Columbia - Bill O'Reilly's "Paradise on Earth"

Bill O'Reilly is some piece of work. He's certainly opinionated, which is okay. So am I. But the difference between us is that I rely on verified facts to guide my views, whereas Bill makes the stuff up as he goes along. Many readers already know about O'Reilly's interesting statistics about the need for abortion when the mother's life is in jeopardy, but I'll restate it here simply because it is just so asinine: "South Dakota, as you know, has voted to outlaw abortions unless the mother's life is in danger, which is never the case, because you can always have a C-section and do those kinds of things." It never ceases to astound me what things Bill can pull out of his own ass.

First, there's ectocopic pregnancies, the condition where the egg implants itself outside the uterus. The worst case is when the implantation site is the Fallopian tube and accounts for 9% of all (according to Bill, nonexistent) pregnancy-related deaths. According to the Mayo Clinic, "The developing embryo can't survive, and the growing placental tissue may destroy important maternal structures. Without treatment, life-threatening blood loss is possible." Bill's comeback? You can always have a C-section- as long as you live long enough to get one.

How about preeclampsia, which is abnormally high blood pressure and protein in urine? It occurs in one in seven pregnancies world-wide and can lead to seizures after the 20th week of pregnancy (eclampsia) resulting in permanent damage to organs, coma and death. Bill's comeback? You can always have a C-section- as long as you live long enough to get one.

So, what would Bill's ideal world where abortions were outlawed look like? Unfortunately, we do not have to use our imaginations. Thanks to Mother Fucking Theresa and the Vatican, we need look no further than South America. (For those that think that Mother Fucking Theresa really was a saint, I suggest either viewing Penn & Teller's Bullshit episode on the subject, or read Christopher Hitchens' The Missionary Position. She had no interest in helping the poor out of their plight, since she felt suffering brought one closer to God and who was she to change that?)

I was listening to a documentary on The Current yesterday morning about a woman named Martha Solay that lived in Columbia. (Unfortunately, I can't give a link since "Due to various rights issues this segment is unavailable for internet use".) While abortion is illegal in Columbia, 400,000 procedures are performed each year under unsafe conditions. At the time she was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, Martha was pregnant and could not legally undergo radiotherapy because it would kill the fetus, becoming a de facto abortion.

Martha's story lead to Columbia's Supreme Court partially lifting the ban on abortions, the penalty for which is outrageously severe. The all-male court legalized abortions after sexual assault or incest when the fetus is expected to die, or when a pregnancy puts a woman's life at risk. How gracious of them (dripping with sarcasm). Her struggle also lead to her excommunication from the Catholic Church, despite the fact that she was never able to obtain an abortion enabling her potentially lifesaving treatment. In fact, the church has vowed to excommunicate anyone having an abortion. I for one can not 'conceive' why this would be a bad thing, but apparently some do. One priest was quoted as saying she should have more faith, as if that has ever done anything. I'd like to meet that bastard in a dark Bogota alley.

Martha was not sorry she gave birth to her last child, of course. But she knew that because of the seven month delay in her treatment that she would not live to see them grow up. Sadly, Martha died on June 11 of this year, leaving behind four motherless children. They lost their house and the children have been split up and live apart from each other. But I guess anti-choice people can console themselves knowing that they accomplished their goal

It has always galled me that there are people will fight tooth-and-nail and even to kill in order to deny access to abortion services, but these same people do nothing to help once they have achieved their goals. Why should they? It's a fait accompli, not their problem. I lose all respect for people like that. To equate a blastocyst with being a person is simply ridiculous. I had one discussion with a Catholic on this and he brought up the 'silent scream' propaganda that we so often see. The problem with that argument is that the fetus has no capability of feeling pain before the 24th week (hence the 26-week limit on abortions in Canada and the US), and some place this point even later into term. How do we know this? The connections from the thalamus (a brain structure critical in pain sensation) to the cortex have not formed. Certainly, pain perception is impossible before 12 weeks gestation, the first point at which there is a measurable EEG signal.

I'm not trying to push an agenda whereby everyone should have an abortion, and the idea that it ends up being used as a form of birth control is pretty damned stupid. The only absolutist view here is anti-choice, not pro-choice. The vast majority of planned and/or wanted pregnancies are wonderful experiences, and why would I have a problem with that? But not everyone finds themselves in such happy situations and I firmly believe that the option should be available. People that picket abortion clinics, or worse, organizations masquerading as abortion counseling services when they are really pushing their victims take their pregnancies to term no matter what, have no concern for the harm that they cause. Am I supposed to respect them for their beliefs? Not when they are actively engaging in twisting a pregnant woman's psychological suffering.

Oddly, I do not want Bill O'Reilly to shut up. He has a right to say his say (but I don't have to listen, and generally, I don't), even though I doubt he would say the same for me. But this does not mean he should be immune from criticism and Fox has an obligation to keep his stupidity in check. I mean, The O'Reilly Factor purports to be a journalistic (sort of) program for crying out loud, so Bill should probably include some facts for once. As such, I reserve the right to call him for what he is - an asshat.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Is Evolution the Drunken Man as Behe claims?

I was listening to the latest episode of 'The Things That Matter Most' with Dr. Michael Behe, the man that put forth the idea of Irreducible Complexity (IC), as guest. Wow. Some of the worst arguments for Intelligent Design (ID) I've heard to date. It's no wonder that his colleagues at Lehigh University have disowned him.

I've blogged on the many problems of the IC concept before and, even though it is impossible to believe that Behe has never heard of the complete and utter refutations by others with far more expertise than I (little-known people such as Richard Dawkins, Ken Miller, PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne,....), he continues to espouse this idea. Even his mousetrap has been found to be reducible. I'm sorry, Dr. Behe, but this makes you a dishonest broker. 'Irreducible complexity is this fancy phrase that all it means is that you've got a machine like a mousetrap... that has a number of different parts all of which are required [for it] to work.' The mousetrap is a red herring because I have yet to see a mousetrap replicate. Since the primary mechanism by which Natural Selection is removed, the analogy is false one.

Behe arbitrarily declares that structures serving other functions can't be co-opted to be brought together for a new function. 'Even if you are hoping to use thos
e things [parts] for something else, like a doorstop, a doorstop has nothing to do with catching mice.' What's he done here? He's concocted a straw man (hardly original) of Evo. He presumes that catching mice (function) is something not only desirable, but a necessary end point. But function is something we ascribe to a system - the genes themselves do not care what or even whether they provide a function, only that they impart survival value.

So, what we should always be looking for is whether a genetic change imparts a survival advantage, not whether the change maintains function. The latter is simply irrelevant. DNA does not care about any one of its gene's functions, or whether there even is a function for it, only the effect of the gene on survival probability. To illustrate this using the mousetrap example, let's say that a cell contains the parts that are required for the mousetrap and the catching a mouse results in an increase in the chances of survival. If bringing some of the parts together confers some survival advantage (or is benign in terms of survival) then the changes will tend to be passed on to the next generation. In other words, bringing two parts together can increase the chances of survival more than the parts being separate. Then, in a future generation, another part gets added, conferring even more survival value, and so on. Thus, structures better and better suited to survival are produced. Here's the kicker: the function of the early versions of the mousetrap need not even have involved catching mice at all so long as some net survival advantage was gained by combining parts! When looked at in these terms, there is no basis on which to deny the base of the mousetrap to have originally served as a doorstop!

At some point, the functions of the structure changed from whatever they were to by catching mice. This is immediately apparent to anyone familiar with Natural Selection and Behe's poster child for ID, the bacterium flagellum. When Behe artificially rules out functional change the flagellum seems 'irreducible', but he provides no good reason that we should accept omitting such evolutionary paths to this structure. He is simply invoking an artificial restriction that he claims Evolution can not violate (yet it clearly can and does) simply because it makes IC look good and for no other reason that anyone can fathom.

Does the Type III secretory system, which comprises part of the flagellum motor, lose its function when combined with another part on its way to powering the flagellum? Quite probably. Does this matter? Not at all if a net advantage is gained.

For all his philosophizing he has yet to perform a single experiment to confirm irreducible complexity. I can think of a number of experiments off the top of my head to test the validity of IC. One is simply looking at the parts of a complex structure such as the bacterium flagellum and seeing if the parts have analogous structures in related organisms. That the individual proteins of the flagellum are completely conserved and have wholly different functions in related bacteria does not bode well for IC at all and clearly points to an evolutionary process. Why would you, if you wanted to design a mousetrap as opposed to evolve it, use a blender? I think if you wanted to make a mousetrap you would do what is already done - create the individual parts specific to the task.

The blood clotting cascade, another of Behe's examples, can also be tested as to whether it fits the IC model. In this case, we do not have a single structure composed of several proteins, but a series of biochemical reactions. Ideally, one would like to be able to remove one or more enzymes catalyzing reactions in the cascade. Can this be done? Absolutely. Genetically engineering mice to inactiveate genes is routine these days. Dr. Behe has never even suggested such experiments, let alone performed them. Fortunately, less lazy researchers have. Knocking out one gene or even several encoding enzymes in the cascade does not stop the blood of mice from clotting. That knockout mice blood doesn't clot as well is irrelevant, since Behe predicted there should be no clotting ability at all. Of course, all that has to be done is look at the blood clotting cascade in whales and dolphins to see that they have what Behe would have considered an incomplete cascade already.

Indeed, all examples held up as for IC are similarly fatally flawed. Behe claims that 'blind searches do not lead to complex systems.' Really? Again, this is a blanket assumption for which he has no evidential basis for making, and Dr. Behe has never made an attempt at experimentally verifying his ideas. For purely random processes this statement is true, but Natural Selection is anything but random. For examples of such complexity arising from blind searches just google 'genetic algorithms'. A word to the wise: If you are going to put forward a radical idea such as this, you'd better have something to back it up with and that something had better be more than half-baked philosophizing.

Interestingly, Behe says 'I think the most compelling evidence for common decent is when you see features in organisms that seem not to have any particular function but look like genetic accidents and if that's the case then a kind of a parsimonious or a reasonable explanation is that these organisms are both descended from some previous organism. This genetic accident happened in the previous organism and both lines descending from that earlier one inherited the change.'

Wait a minute, Dr. Behe - You accept common decent, but deny macroevolution? What the....? Is he trying to tell us that bacteria containing the flagellum, which are closely related to bacteria having the Type III secretory system from which it evolved, both have a common ancestor, yet the flagellum needed to be added to the 'design'? For this to work, the molecular genetic evidence pointing to close relationship to these two types of bacteria must be wrong. Not bloody likely. He's trying to have his cake and eat it, too, by picking data supporting his position and ignoring all other data.

The question must be asked: why does Dr. Behe accept some parts of Natural Selection while discarding others? The answer is simple: he has a major problem explaining the existence of broken genes. I once heard PZ Myers say what he'd like most explained by supporters of ID, why a 'designer' would equip humans and other primates with a broken enzyme catalyzing ascorbic acid synthesis. This is exactly why Behe brings a limited version of Natural Selection into his world. He realizes that ID, as originally formulated, has no answer to this. But if you accept one part you must accept, if you are to remain intellectually honest, Natural Selection in its entirety. Note to Dr. Behe: the Theory of Natural Selection is irreducibly complex.

I've already blogged about the example contained in his new book, Edge of Evolution, where Behe claims that the development of malarial resistance to
chloroquine through evolutionary processes is improbable. Behe again arbitrarily says that two mutations are required for any level of chloroquine resistance without explaining why no resistance is conferred by a single mutation in the right place except that it suits his argument. 'But suppose in order to be effective it needed not just one but it needed two and with just one that it didn't help or might even hurt the organism. So it had to get a change not only in the left side of its DNA but somewhere in the middle of its DNA as well. Then it turns out that that is a whole lot more difficult than just getting one [mutation].' Sorry, but as many have pointed out, mutation is not the bottleneck in Evolution. The arbritrary assumption that multiple mutations must take place at the same time is simply baseless. And what exactly is he saying? That a designer is making malarial parasites more resistant to human medical interventions in order to make them better killing machines? I don't think he's thought this through...

But my biggest objection is his analogy of the drunken man to Evolution, which falls flat on its face. (I know, I know - bad pun. Bad!) Behe describes his analogy thus: 'Suppose there were this drunk, this dizzy fellow, who had a blindfold on, and you want to get from some place in the city to the top of some tower in the downtown and suppose he's in the suburb. Well if he had to follow a rule that whenever possible you feel the ground going up you have to take a step up and you can never go back down because going back down means becoming less fit in a Darwinian sense, then if this fellow walks along he will climb up onto roofs of cars or onto porches of houses. Once he's up there he'll get stuck and he's not going to find his way to the tower downtown.' Here he's plagiarizing Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable example, the peaks of Dawkins' version correspond to the car roofs and porches in Behe's. Such a view gives the false impression that point B is some kind of objective. In Natural Selection there is no desired end point, just what is working at this point.

Behe twists Dawkins' version to make it appear as if the tower (the highest mountain peak in Dawkins' version) can't be reached by random processes without outside help because it is only one person. The likelihood that one person will reach the tower through a random walk with the rule that you can't take downward steps is indeed extremely low.
But Evolution is an ensemble of organisms each taking paths going in any direction without any thought as to where they will end up, not a single one trying to get from A to B. To make this analogy work better, you need many, many drunks (an experiment which seems to be carried out spontaneously during Stampede Week every year). As in Behe's version, you will have many drunks finding car roofs or porches, but there will be those that do indeed get to the tower. In fact, with enough drunks all apexes in the search space will be occupied. His is a horribly inaccurate analogy and I've done my best here to try to correct it.

Are there limits to what can and can not be done by Natural Selection? Absolutely, but it's quite clear that Dr. Behe has not found the Edge of Evolution yet at all.

Stampede is over for another year....

Ahhhhhhhhhhhhh.... The tourists have either gone home or to Banff. I feel almost agoraphobic. No more vehicles blocking traffic while the driver figures out where he's going, no more yielding in a merge lane (well, not much, anyway), no more people trying to merge onto Crowchild 30 km/hr below the speed limit (except for the usual geriatric drivers), no more getting cut off by Texan drivers (well, there was that one Texan on the way in to work this morning).

I do enjoy the Stampede, the one time I go. The rest of the time I just stay the heck away from downtown Calgary. This year in the 10 days of the Stampede there were over 1.1 million visits to the grounds. The temperature in Calgary for most of the week was quite hot, in the mid-30s, but on the Stampede Grounds, where it's mostly asphalt, the thermometer read The bars are overflowing all Stampede Week, so I avoid those as well. It's just crazy. And while the mayor is unsuccessfully trying to get money from the Province of Alberta to shore up the infrastructure of the city, our illustrious premier gives $40 million to the Stampede for future expansion. I agree that the Stampede brings in a huge amount of cash to the city, but I never see any benefit from it. People here are not too pleased with the situation.

In all the times that I have been to the Stampede I have never been to the Rodeo. I'm going to have to do that next year. I have, however, seen the chuckwagon races. In one of the last races of this year's competition, a serious accident (which resulted in killing one horse outright, and two others had to be put down on the spot) caused a wagon to lose its driver. One of the outriders had to jump from his horse onto the wagon a la Hollywood to keep things from getting worse.

This is also the first year that I didn't do any of the rides on the midway. Been there, done them. It's a lot of fun, but my darling wife gets motion sickness easily. I was impressed that she went on some of them with me last year as it was. I went last Friday mainly because the Payola$ were playing. It was a really good set, taking me a long ways back. A new EP is being released next week with some pretty good material. I especially like the song 'Bomb', a politically charged piece about suicide bombers. Some of the old songs had the instruments reworked a bit and I thought improved certain songs like 'China Boys'. The one tune I didn't like redone was 'Never Said I Loved You', since (as Paul Hyde lamented) Carole Pope wasn't there to sing the female role of the duet.

But the main reason I go every year is to see the doodads in the Roundup Center. I like seeing all the latest kitchen gadgets, etc., and I usually fork out $150 for something, but there wasn't all that much that was new this year. Along with the usual fudge and mini donut stands there was a place that sold cheesecake-on-a-stick. The cheesecake could be dipped in one of several coatings. But I did end up forking out $100 this year not for a doodad (at least, not one I could take home), but for a salon-style teeth whitening procedure. I have never understood why it is that for the longest time you had to go to the dentist for this service, resulting in paying several hundred dollars. The conditions on this have relaxed and you can go to the local Safeway and pick up a kit, but then it takes 2 weeks to do it. The whole length of the procedure at the Stampede was 12 minutes. The light in the photo is not UV, but approximates daylight (similar to the lights used to treat seasonally-affected disorder). Considering that one of those kits from Safeway costs about $50, the $100 fee for a few minutes as opposed to two weeks was a good deal. The company is planning to open salons in malls across Canada.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Firearm violence and gun control

Sure, guns don't kill people, people kill people. But what this popular (at least in the US) bumper sticker fails to convey is just how much easier killing is made by the culture of firearm ownership. I pretty much always agree with Penn & Teller's show on Comedy Central, 'Bullshit', till the one on gun control. While not a problem in Canada, for some reason even the US Supreme Court seems to take the First Amendment in a rather weird light.

The original Second Amendment states "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Penn (and presumably his usually silent partner Teller) complains that gun control advocates concentrate on the first part of the amendment and ignore the second. However, it is clear that Penn is concentrating on the second part and ignoring the first. The Founding Fathers were smart guys and didn't put the part before the comma in there for no reason. It's a caveat, dictating under what conditions the part after the comma makes it valid. Is there a necessity for a militia? I don't think so. This is just a holdover from when militias were a valuable military resource, hardly the case in modern warfare. But money talks, and the NRA certainly has a lot of that. I suggest that Penn and Teller get out of the 18th century and back into the 21st on this one.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine clearly demonstrated that you are more likely to kill a family member than an intruder. Penn counters that this study did not take into account the number of intruders that were scared off by a weapon-wielding homeowner, but this does not in fact change the results of the study, nor put them in a new perspective at all.

So let's take a look at some interesting statistics that Penn and Teller completely ignored. Firearms are involved in about 2/3 of homicides in the US compared to only 1/3 in Canada. Looking at violent crime rates in 30 North American cities shows some stark contrasts between cities that are separated only by the international boundary. In Toronto the homicide rate is 1.6/100,000 persons, while just across in Detroit it is 42.1. Seattle has 4.2 homicides/100,000, while in Vancouver it is 2.6. (Oddly, New York rates much better than most US cities at 7.0 homicides/100,000 persons. You wouldn't believe that from watching movies or television.)

So, on the surface, it appears that gun control legislation is a no-brainer. But, did I miss something? There was something that was not said at all in this episode of 'Bullshit', but was plainly obvious if you watch. Gun control can not work unless the culture of gun ownership (in particular, ownership of firearms which have no purpose other than killing fellow humans) is changed to allow gun legislation to work. I propose that the major reason that the difference between violent crime rates involving firearms in Canada and the US is cultural and not legislative in nature. I find it very hard to believe that gun control can work if the general population does not buy into it like we do here in The Great White North. The current Wild West attitude which pervades large swaths of the US doesn't make me hopeful that this will happen any time soon.

What do I mean a culture of gun ownership? Just look at the woman (7 min into part I) with the .357 under the counter, a pump-action shotgun behind a wall, a .45 by the phone, a 9 mm carbine behind a door and a .32 in her bra, and all easily accessible (except for the .32, of course) by anyone in her store. Why? Because she doesn't want to get mugged! She's a lawsuit waiting to happen when some kid finds them and starts playing around. You call this a responsible gun owner? I'm afraid to ask what percentage of gun owners she represents. I'll bet they didn't have to look far, at least not in Texas.

Let's face it, the vast majority of handgun owners haven't got the first clue about how to use one. Use of a handgun requires a great deal of training and upkeep of that training, and I seriously doubt that more than a few percent have this training. I know, I was in the Canadian military. (I gotta admit, firing off a submachine gun is an awful lot of fun.)

One part I totally agreed with was that passing 'feel good' gun legislation that doesn't work is a waste of time and in fact makes it harder for police to do their jobs. We've had our own bad law recently, the failed gun registry. I have absolutely no idea how they thought that registering every gun would do any good, even if you could register all weapons. The cost overruns were huge and the present administration is attempting to repeal the law. Simply put, we need legislation that works, but first the culture of firearm ownership has to change.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

No atheists in foxholes? Give me a shovel and a gun...

Ok, I'm a big believer in gun control, which is a good thing. What's got me in such a frenzy? My brother Boomer informed me that on the latest segue of The Things That Matter Most, entitled Why Good Arguments Often Fail, part of my angry response to Don the Engineer's (what I took to be) insulting quote by Julian Huxley's grandson, who implied on the Merv Griffin Show that those that accept Evolution and Natural Selection as its explanation do so because of their lack of morality. I don't know about you, but I would knock anybody that said something as asinine as this to my face. This is a personal insult even if you are speaking in the general sense. If Don didn't think it himself, he wouldn't have wrote in that quote. So I'm going to ask Lael point blank whether she believes this herself and why that wasn't even mentioned when discussing my email to her.

I was not asked if that could be read out on the air (the show is on FM radio in the Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth areas). I wouldn't have denied such a request, but I would like to have been at least included in some way to ensure that this kind of attack in absentia didn't happen. I don't believe this was at all nefarious, but it is still unsettling.

I admit that I wrote that email in a very agitated state, but I'm the one that was insulted. I got the distinct feeling from the show that I was being made out to be the bad guy! My feelings while listening to this?

I'll keep you all posted.

Yet another nail in the coffin of ID

Seen any of the Terminator movies lately? If so, you may want to wait a while before reading this, but this is cool. Trust me. Even if you spell it 'evilution', you are going to think this is cool. Really cool. Alan Bellows did a writeup on hardware evolution, a brand new area of study, which has direct parallels to biological evolution. The main figure in this article is a Dr. Adrian Thompson at the University of Sussex. The experiment that has so wowed me involved the use of a field-programmed gate array (FPGA) to distinguish between two tones. The FPGA used was small, only 10 x 10 cells in size, and removed access to the system clock (I presume that this ensured that the program could not time the waveforms coming in and accidentally result in a program that just measured the waveform frequencies). Dr. Thompson programmed in a random set of binary data, the initial DNA if you will, and judged the ability of each set of digital DNA. The programs which produced the best ability to differentiate between tones were kept for the next generation, with a bit of random mutation thrown in for good measure.

"For the first hundred generations or so, there were few indications that the circuit-spawn were any improvement over their random-blob ancestors. But soon the chip began to show some encouraging twitches. By generation #220 the FPGA was essentially mimicking the input it received, a reaction which was a far cry from the desired result but evidence of progress nonetheless. The chip's performance improved in minuscule increments as the non-stop electronic orgy produced a parade of increasingly competent offspring. Around generation #650, the chip had developed some sensitivity to the 1kHz waveform, and by generation #1,400 its success rate in identifying either tone had increased to more than 50%.

Finally, after just over 4,000 generations, [the] test system settled upon the best program. When Dr. Thompson played the 1kHz tone, the microchip unfailingly reacted by decreasing its power output to zero volts. When he played the 10kHz tone, the output jumped up to five volts. He pushed the chip even farther by requiring it to react to vocal "stop" and "go" commands, a task it met with a few hundred more generations of evolution. As predicted, the principle of natural selection could successfully produce specialized circuits using a fraction of the resources a human would have required. And no one had the foggiest notion how it worked." And that is what is so cool about this. Until the program was back-engineered, how it did what it did was a complete unknown and totally up to the selection process.

And that was where the surprises were found. A mere 37 of its logic gates were used, compared to hundreds of thousands in a sound processor designed specifically for the task. Even though only a very few gates were used, they were organized in a complex and completely unexpected way. "The plucky chip was utilizing only thirty-seven of its one hundred logic gates, and most of them were arranged in a curious collection of feedback loops. Five individual logic cells were functionally disconnected from the rest– with no pathways that would allow them to influence the output– yet when the researcher disabled any one of them the chip lost its ability to discriminate the tones. Furthermore, the final program did not work reliably when it was loaded onto other FPGAs of the same type." The purpose of the seemingly unconnected logic cells seems to be in supplying magnetic flux, and the program makes use of this in lieu of not having access to the system clock.

"These evolutionary computer systems may almost appear to demonstrate a kind of sentience as they dispense graceful solutions to complex problems. But this apparent intelligence is an illusion caused by the fact that the overwhelming majority of design variations tested by the system– most of them appallingly unfit for the task– are never revealed." This concept is key in understanding why proponents of intelligent design (IDiots) see conscious design everywhere. Natural selection eliminated the 'designs' that didn't work, so we only see the ones that do! So everything around us are the resulting successful designs. It's no wonder why engineers see god everywhere. But it's all an illusion, complexity arising from a simple set of rules. What works moves on, what doesn't is discarded. Random mutations occur ensuring that falsely optimized configurations don't occur. Evolution is such an elegant process!

From Pharyngula, PZ Meyers writes: "That looks a lot like what we see in developmental networks in living organisms — unpredictable results when pieces are "disconnected", or mutated, lots and lots of odd feedback loops everywhere, and sensitivity to specific conditions (although we also see selection for fidelity from generation to generation, more so than occurred in this exercise, I think). This is exactly what evolution does, producing a functional complexity from random input."

I think there are limits on the analogy to biological evolution, but the parallels are immediately obvious. There will always be those out there that say that Dr. Thompson was the designer because he set up the initial conditions. But simulating the initial conditions and creating them (as many IDiots are wont to say of the ) are two very different things, so reading that kind of IDiocy into this is reaching. One thing this experiment makes abundantly clear is that by following the rules set out by natural selection apparent complexity can become manifest in a relatively short amount of time.

Science is so cool.