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February 28, 2004

Homo-gays & evolution

I stumbled upon this article on WorldNetDaily titled Homosexuality: Evolution of the human race?. I'm going to avoid commenting on the whole gay marriage thing, let's just say I'm a federalist (*wink*), but the article itself was kind of weird. It struck me almost as something out of Star Trek where they try to explain how the "trilithium crystals" generate "star drive," in other words, instead of taking the jargonistic scientific babble that you find in a typical abstract and transforming it into something that is close to readable prose, the author seems to be trying to impress the audience with her credentials manifesting themselves in her mastery of the terminology (can you say magic words of power!).

I googled her and the first link is from a group called Answers in Genesis. The top of the page reads UPHOLDING THE AUTHORITY OF THE BIBLE FROM THE VERY FIRST VERSE. So I suppose Dr. Hollowell does believe that the post-menopausal Sarah did conceive Isaac through a miracle of the Lord God? Ergo, I find the tutorial about the "birds & the bees" coming from this individual a bit tiresome. Dr. Hollowell also founded Science Ministries, a site that has a link to an article that she wrote explaining how physics can be reconciled with Young Earth Creationism! (if you've read any YEC apologetics it will be familiar) So the woman lecturing us on the finer points of evolution isn't a believer herself...add a politicized topic, and color me even more skeptical!

I'm not going to nit-pick her article attacking any biological basis in homosexuality because it is obviously preaching to the choir-her scientific background is nothing more than impressive adornment for her ideological crusades, for her the question is never the answer. She is pretty cute though, the WorldNetDaily pic doesn't do her justice.

These disputes that swing between is and ought get tiresome. Supporters of gay rights want to "prove" that homosexuality is genetic, and those who wish to maintain the social stigma on homosexuality want to confirm the converse, but the reality is many of us out there don't care either way. Homosexuality isn't like cystic fibrosis, an autosomal recessive disease that is easy to explain in genetic terms, people should stop trying to argue politics from science that is barely off the ground.

P.S. I suspect that there are individuals who have a combination of genes that indicate a high probability that they might be amenable to psychopathic behavior in the "proper" environmental context. Doesn't mean that that's OK....

Posted by razib at 02:22 PM | | TrackBack

Why your head hurts....

BioMed Central has an article up (here is the full PDF) titled The methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase gene variant C677T influences susceptibility to migraine with aura. Yeah, a headache to verbally digest, but basically, it is an attempt to pinpoint genetic precursors of a phenotype that is evident in 12% of the Caucasian population. This is an example of behavioral genetics, exploring individual differences within a population (note that they limited the study to Caucasians), which doesn't often get as much play as evolutionary psychology in the popular press in my opinion. Evolutionary psychology focuses on traits we share in common from the primordial environment of evolutionary adaptedness, or EEA. While as many individual popular press stories circulate about human differences as human universals, it is obviously harder to parlay the former into an interconnected paradigm (though both would fall under the rubric of sociobiology).

Posted by razib at 01:51 PM | | TrackBack

God, country & family (rewind)

A year and a half ago I wrote a series titled "God, country & family." I've copied them over from the old blogspot site. For new readers who weren't around in the summer of 2002, I submit these....

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

I'll probably be reposting articles like this that have "aged well" since there has been a sharp increase of our readership since the fall of 2003 (by an order of magnitude).

Posted by razib at 12:36 PM | | TrackBack

February 27, 2004

Pages to learn by

The Speculist ruminates on "Great Books."

Posted by razib at 06:49 PM | | TrackBack

Wing dogs & relative fitness?

1) Coors has a new commercial about the "Wing Dog," basically, the canine that butters the hot chicks up so that they will pay attention to some normal looking guy.

2) I'm thinking of going down the street and talking to a neighbor because I suspect that the 12 hours a day our cat is "outside," much of that time is spent in this house, and I would like to confirm my hunch.

I have been wondering if pets serve as crucial social lubricants in dense living. Let me elaborate: no matter how butt ugly you are, if you have a cute dog, chicks might actually treat you in a civil manner in public. Once a chick gets to know you, well, then it's all in your court. The dog can be a butt ugly guy's "in," as far as the mating game goes.

Cats, now these creatures do not recognize conventional neighborhood boundaries. Their very existence trangresses property lines and often neighbors might have to meet and discuss cat-related issues. Of course, we all know that cat owners have a special bond of understanding that serves as a medium between those who are often likely to be introverted in any case.

My point: who cares about herding sheep and killing mice, domestic pets serve as crucial intersects in a world of strangers, where laughing at doggish crotch-sniffing or monitoring the movements of a narcissistic feline can act as points of protonation from which social intercourse blossoms.

Posted by razib at 02:58 PM | | TrackBack

One True Source

In my comments on TangoMan's post that links to Richard Carrier's essay lauding Solon I expressed some doubt as to the force of the Richard's point.

My doubt can be summed as follows: intellectuals often look for the Holy Grail of the One True Source of all that is Good In the Modern World.

There are many candidates: Christianity, Greek philosophy, the Roman republic, German barbarians, etc.

In rebutting the claims of the dominant Christian zeitgeist many secular intellectuals have claimed the Greeks as the predecessors of modernity (that's you Will Durant!). In the process, the Romans and the Medieval period have received short shrift. This development is explicitly documented in David Gress' From Plato to Nato. Its reality can be discerned in the fact that many American school-children look to Athenian democracy as the model for our republic, as if the 2,000 year intervening period was only one of chrysalis. I emphasize the term republic because the very nomenclature of our system of governance is Roman, not Greek, despite its manifest democratic elements, that.

I will not rehash the Republican Roman models that the Founders had in mind and contrast that with the Greek mythology that is foisted upon many elementary school children in the United States[1]. My overall point is the quest for the One True Source is more often a practice is writing ideological opponents out of history, or neglecting their contributions. I have seen my secular associates attempt to denigrate the contributions of Christian thought and tradition to the Western civilization, as if the "Dark Ages" was simply a demon-haunted interlude between the age of Socrates and the Enlightenment. Similary I have also seen Christians & Jews ascribe the origin of ethics & law solely to the Hebraic tradition, as if Confucius, Socrates or the Buddha were lacking in the inner moral compass that can only be imposed from without by fidelity to the One True God.

To look at Christianity specifically, it is clearly hard to digitize it and separate its various strands. We may credit the rise of the West to Christianity, but one might also ascribe the rise of Christianity to the philosophy of the pagan Greeks and the administrative efficiency of the pagan Romans, in addition to the acknowledged religious root in the Hebraic tradition[2]. This sort of attribution to various sources can be practiced ad infinitum. So next time someone tells you How the Irish Saved Civilization, remember that part of that saving was the preservation of Greek learning via the Western Roman Empire through the medium of the early Christian Church propogated by Celtic Britons like St. Patrick.

Addendum: Abiola asks "but what about the Germans?" The curious should type "Germanization" in the search feature on this site. Better yet, you could read books like The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity or Age of Charles Martel. Just some suggestions....

1. Perhaps today children are told that the Iroquois invented the American democracy.

2. The term diocese comes from the administrative units of the Empire devised by the pagan Christian persecutor, the Emperor Diocletian. You can also see the origins of the cell structure of the early Church in the Epicureans and some of the ideas for monasticism in Buddhism (originally Hindu ascetism). The coexistence of Greek and Hebrew thought in Christianity (and Pharisaec Judaism, ie; post-Roman Judaism) is illustrated by the simultaneous belief in bodily resurrection and separation of soul from body after death.

Posted by razib at 02:23 PM | | TrackBack

Chimp Tickling

Steve Johnson is interviewed on NPR about his new book Mind Wide Open: Your Brain and the Neuroscience of Everyday Life. Chimps like tickling & being tickled....

Posted by razib at 12:23 AM | | TrackBack

They so horny?

Was watching The Daily Show on Comedy Central and Samantha Bee put together a segment titled "They so horny" about the dearth of Asian American men in porn. One of the funniest parts was when she interviewed a professor of Asian American Studies who has published academic articles on this topic. Darrell Hamamoto (professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis) took himself rather seriously-great material for a mockumentary. Hamamoto explained that he noted that of the hundreds of men in The World's Biggest Gangbang none were of Asian origin. His solution? He produced his own Asian American porn, "Skin to Skin." Here is an article about the professor and his body of work, and another piece in Salon.

"They so horny" should show up in the Samantha Bee video archive at some point in the near future-watch for it!

Posted by razib at 12:00 AM | | TrackBack

February 26, 2004

Context matters

Decline Seen in Science Applications From Overseas. This isn't that big a deal, a nation has a right to control who comes & goes, but it seems perverse that the current regime is succeeding in discouraging graduate students at the same time it is aiming for a modus vivendi with those who circumvent the process & violate our laws. There are practical reasons that these students are easier to monitor and control, and discourage, but perhaps we should consider reallocating resources to create a level immigration playing field so that those who violate our laws are as discomfited.

Posted by razib at 09:19 PM | | TrackBack

Distinction without a difference?

You all look alike (whites & Hispanics) asserts a candid black female congress-person. To some extent she's correct (especially Cubans). But this is a no-no since everyone has to go around and pretend that the man in the middle is the future of political "black" America. Remember, this man is an icon of African-American political leadership. This man was for years the most prominent "black" in the NAACP (Walter F. White). This man calling this man a "gorilla" couldn't be racism since both were "black." Those in glass houses....

Posted by razib at 06:17 PM | | TrackBack

The strangers among us

This David Goodhart two part essay in The Guardian (originally in Prospect Magazine) is now on the minds of many in the thinking class. I don't have much to add, explaining why I didn't post a link to Goodhart's original essay....

Life is about constraints. Duh.

Posted by razib at 06:03 PM | | TrackBack


The BBC reports that four Nigerian states are refusing to take part in a mass immunization drive against polio because "some Muslim clerics say the vaccine is a western plot to make women infertile."

Although "Muslim clerics" are reportedly at the root of this story, I don't think that it is at all fair to blame the refusal of polio vaccine on religion. The same sort of thing seems to thrive over here too.

Anyway, you can't deny that this fellow has a point:

"It is a lesser of two evils to sacrifice two, three, four, five, even 10 children (to polio) than allow hundreds of thousands or possibly millions of girl-children likely to be rendered infertile," Kano state Governor Ibrahim Shekarau told the AP news agency.

At least it beats magic, penis-snatching, Jews.

Addendum from Razib: This site (non-English speaking and a google cache) reports that 35% of Italians believe in the "evil eye" (control-f "evil eye"). Here is a compilation of surveys from the United States on the "paranormal." From an EU opinion survey (control-f "astrology," it's a PDF):


With or without explanation, about a quarter of respondents think that astrology is either "very scientific" or "not at all" scientific. The other half of the respondents attribute scores somewhere in between (2, 3 or 4 points) (figure 2.2).

In Greece/Spain and Portugal, astrology is seen as rather scientific. Between 30 per cent and 40 percent of the respondents give astrology the highest possible score of 5 - "very scientific" On the other hand, in Italy Germany (East) and the United Kingdom, between 30 per cent and 40 per cent of respondents think astrology is "not at all" scientific.

Scepticism as to the scientific nature of astrology is strong expressed among respondents with a high level of education, people with a higher income, people who consider themselves as politically left and people who rank high on the European social grade. The scientific nature of astrology receives more credit from people who finished their education by the age of 15 years, people with a low income, opinion followers, people in the political centre, as well as on the lower grades of the European social grades.

Please note that astrology was ranked as more scientific than either economics or history (just below psychology). Also, I tried to transcribe exactly, the weird grammar, etc. isn't my fault.

Posted by Thrasymachus at 11:54 AM | | TrackBack

February 25, 2004

The Family Guy is coming back!

Fox's show Family Guy had a bizarro run from 1999 to circa 2002 (it was on "hiatus" so often it was hard to predict when it would resurface between "Anchorage Cops: Eskimo Hell" and "When Housewives Attack IV"). Well, it seems huge DVD sales have resulted in its resurrection.

Posted by razib at 05:49 PM | | TrackBack

Of wolves & sheep

About a week ago I posted The gentle jihadist & other tales. In it, the old conundrum about the reality of liberal Islam surfaced again. I repeat over and over that there is issue of quantification-there are certainly liberal Muslims, just as there are out homosexual Muslims (to push the analogy a few orders of magnitude).

But how many? Is it a non-trivial number?

Below are a few anecdotes that illustrate my viewpoint, and allow me to be more precise in what I'm getting at....

Setting: Bangladesh, visiting family in the early 1990s.

I'm at my father's family's place. They live in a high rise apartment complex-and there are a lot of people over visiting. The apartment is packed. Suddenly, a great cacophony of screaming and shouting. My aunt rushes toward the back-room, and I see people cleaning up and hiding pictures.

What's going on?

My cousin tells me, "Your uncle is coming!" There is worry in his eyes. My "uncle" is my maternal uncle. I can see him in the distance, he is wearing a white cap (his "toupee") that marks him as a religious individual, and striding in his white pajamas. My father's side doesn't know him well, but they are terrified of him. The half of a dozen females over the age of 12 in the apartment complex have sequestered themselves in the back room so as not to offend him.

My uncle shows up, and my cousins and uncle greet him. He sits and has tea, and lectures them mildly, because he's noted that my 12 year old cousin is outside playing. He tells my father's brother that he shouldn't allow his daughters outside like that, unaccompanied. My uncle nods and smiles.

As my religious uncle leaves, the pictures come out, and the women emerge from their hiding. Life goes on....

Setting: Upstate New York, early 1990s.

We are visiting a close friend of my father's, a physician. He's preparing to move out of his small cramped apartment, he finally is finishing up his residency, and will soon be making bank. About 25 people are crammed together, chatting and gossiping, eating and drinking (water or juice).

Suddenly, a quiet passes over the room. I don't know what's going on, but next thing I know my mother is gone, she's disappeared. All the women are gone. They've crushed themselves in my "auntie's" bedroom (use of kinship terms with non-blood friends is common among Bengalis). My "uncle" (the host) ushers in a new guest. A man dressed in quasi-Islamic garb and his two sons rush into the living room. A woman covered in a burqua slinks into the bedroom. I vaguely remember him, he's an engineer or something. Someone mentions that he's had a religious conversion in the past year and has become very pious. I try to go talk to my mother, but they only let my younger brother in. I'm 12, too old to hang with the ladies.

My father is irritated, he finds such segregation ostentatious, but he doesn't want to make a scene, so he keeps quiet. My "uncle" stops talking about Madonna (he's a fan). The religious engineer starts talking about some inane Islamic point of ritual or dress.

Setting: Eastern Imbler, 1994.

I'm hanging with my best friend. He invites me to his Catholic youth group. His mother has bugged him about it, and there's a hot chick there. Everyone looks bored, and his sister is there too. People start talking about God, and staying "pure."

My friend's sister starts talking about how "we" have to stay sanctified or something, because that's what the Church teaches. Everyone agrees. My friend seems bored. Someone says that "of course we all believe in Christ," I raise my hand and say, "No, count me out." A little shock, but the conversation moves on.

I wonder, how exactly is lathering yourself up with whipping cream and having sex at your father's house when he's off fishing staying "pure," because I know from my friend's sister's boyfriend that that's what she did 2 weeks previous....

Setting: Western Imbler, college, 1996.

I'm at a party. A feminist friend of mine is telling me how science is another "superstition." My roommates and I are laughing at her. Some hotties in togas (they just showed up from a frat party) walk by and I lear at them. My roommate starts giggling like a moron (he's drunk).

A woman in a short hair-cut walks in. She's wearing some shapeless shirt and loose baggy pants (kind of like a granola version of a burqa). People stop laughing as much. Something has changed in the air.

I smile toward my feminist friend's toga-wearing friend. She gives me an annoyed look, but I'm enjoying myself. My roommate is also glancing her way.

The granola-burqa figure comes up toward me and stands next to my feminist friend. She looks me over as I try to ignore her. "Is she there for you to look at?"

I shrug, not really caring. The granola-burqa keeps staring at me, and a few people are looking my way, but I don't care, as a half-Japanese girl that I know has just walked into the room, and is also wearing a toga. "Women aren't there for you to look at, that's not why they exist. I think perhaps you should be more respectful."

Granola-burqa looks at my feminist friend. "I can't believe you'd throw a party where the power dynamics are like this, we need a place where we can feel safe, not objectified."

I'm annoyed, the corner of the room is tense, and everyone is worried. I pull out the proverbial race card, and granola-burqa backs off and life is good. I never do get to start on a conversation with the toga-wearers, my feminist friend starts ripping into me about science again and I think I lose it....

The moral: the stories illustrate on a personal level how minorities terrorize and dominate majorities. From the Bolsheviks, to the early Christians, to the fundamentalist Muslims of today, True Believers can conquer the apathy of the masses. I remember seeing polls before Roe vs. Wade where the majority of Americans didn't want abortion legal. Today, the culture has changed, and people are OK with the status quo (if not with its exact execution).

My major point is that numbers alone do not matter, the weighting, the organization of the numbers, does matter. Those who mean well can name hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands and millions of liberal Muslims, but as long as they don't organize and make their impact felt to the same extent as the retogrades, and the sheep will keep tumbling over the cliff at their urging. Tipping points happen. I won't make any bets about the Muslim world 50 years from now, once gratification wins over "honor," life will be good. But that's not now, and we shouldn't pretend that that time is forseeable. It's possible, but it will probably slap us on the ass before we've reoriented ourselves. Life goes on....

Posted by razib at 01:25 PM | | TrackBack

Views on The Passion

Aziz on The Passion. I don't think I'm going to watch, sounds too bloody.

Update: Compare these two pictures: James Caviezel at the opening of High Crimes and a still from him in The Passion. Looks like he's wearing brown colored contacts to play Jesus-so Caviezel is right when he states that they weren't trying to portray the typical "Aryan Jesus."

Update II: OK, it's post-production....

Posted by razib at 12:57 PM | | TrackBack

February 24, 2004

Let us not forget . . .

With the public discourse soon to be overwhelmed with the release of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ we should expect to be hearing and reading about the profound influence that Judaism and Christianity have had on modern society.

Let us not forget that we owe a greater debt to Solon than to the religious precepts passed down to us.

Posted by TangoMan at 08:57 PM | | TrackBack


The Hispanic Challenge by Sam Huntington.

Update: Matt Yglesias has linked to this article too, and he's kind of harsh on it. Many of his readers are polarized, though they tend to agree with Matt from what I've seen. I don't think there is a binary division here, as in:

A) that was then, this is now.
B) that was then, this is then.

The immigrant experience has both changed and remained the same. There are salient points on both sides.

Let me add something that I've noticed from my own personal perspective.

I have 3 siblings. One is 4 years younger than me and was also born in Bangladesh. The other two are elementary and early middle school age and were born in the United States. My younger siblings are more "culturally aware" and plugged into being South Asian and Muslim than either my somewhat younger brother or I (the Islam related forwards from my sister are starting to get on my nerves). Many factors account for this, but the combination of the growth of the Muslim South Asian community in the past generation, cheaper flights and telecommunications as well as a native culture that has nurtured and encouraged their differences (in the aim to foster diversity) are just a few of the changes in the past 20 years.

Posted by razib at 05:17 PM | | TrackBack

Musings on the madrassa

My previous post had a few comments, and one thing I want to note to make clear to everyone, memorizing the Koran in its totality is intellectually sterile, but spiritually powerful (for the believer). To the vast majority of Muslims-the Koran is the Word of God, and to the vast majority of Sunni Muslims, the Eternal Word of God. To a believer, it is a book of power, and repeating those words is a deeply significant act. This idea does not map well to Christianity because even fundamentalists acknowledge that the Bible is a narrative collected by various human authors.

Also, I want to add one thing that came to mind, many eloquent rhetoricians in Christendom have traditionally used Biblical phraseology to add gravity and power to their speeches. Abraham Lincoln comes to mind. But since the Koran is written in archaic Arabic, and 80% of the world's Muslims do not know Arabic, this same process does not occur. Additionally, the idea that the Koran could be considered canonical in a literary manner might be perceived to be blasphemous by some. I can not but help and wonder if this renders Muslims cultures poorer in spirit and speech-rendering the Koran a static idol, rather than a living, breathing document that is an expression of its civilization.

Posted by razib at 04:49 PM | | TrackBack

Causes and Christianity

In follow-up on godless' post on the religious Right, a few quick thoughts....

As some readers have implied, he might have switched "Christianity" with a more qualified statement. I think a big point to note is that congregationally oriented Christianity (ie; the more "radical" Protestant sects) have played an outsized role in American history. The top Protestant sect in the United States, the Southern Baptists, are part of the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation, broadly speaking. Two of the major high status "liberal" churches, the Presbyterians & Congregationalists, are also from the radical tradition (the Methodists can also be argued as part of the radical tradition, though they are more complicated). And we all know about the Puritans (who were the direct ancestors of the Congregationalists and the uncles & aunts of the Presbyterians).

Some readers have pointed out that Russia was a Christian nation before the revolution. I think what must be noted is that the structure of its Christianity was very different than that of the United States, from what I can see the Church was subordinate to the state. When the state turned against it the Church had less of a populist base to fall back on, and in any case, Russia had been a top-down society in many ways throughout its whole history. Interestingly, China was also traditionally a top-down society, with the place of the Czar taken by the Emperor, and the nobles by the mandarinate. These are the two large nations where Communism was victorious from within (as opposed to the eastern European nations or North Korea, where the help of the larger powers aided Communism. Also, I believe that the Russian Communists had placed their bets on the Chinese Nationalists, not the Communists, initially).

In contrast, the United States, has at least the mythology of broad-based grass-roots politics. A coup by Communists that beheaded the national government in D.C. would likely have been faced with a far greater national resistance than the White Russians put up against the Bolsheviks. Whether congregational Christianity was the cause or a correlated variable I will not explore any further.

But, I would like to point out that secular/anti-religious/anti-clerical governing elites (the three are not identical) have had a long history in the modern West. You can see this beginning during the rise of Cromwell's New Model Army when religious radicals like the Levellers were given shelter by his power-in a nation that was still predominantly Anglo-Catholic or moderate Calvinist. Later on, we all know the history of the French Revolution, turning against the Church, and eventually the faith of the Church with the "Cult of Reason." A generation before Frederick the Great of Prussia was an openly irreligious and heathen autocrat (though he came from a Calvinist family who ruled a Lutheran land). Mexican readers will know of the anti-clericalism of the elite revolutionaries like Carranza which can still be found echoing in modern day politics south of the border (in contrast to the pious populism of Zapata). Similarly, many Latin American leaders, from Simone Bolivar, to the Emperor of Brazil, to the modern day president of Chile, did not share the religious faith of those who they ruled. In Europe the anti-clericalism of Garibaldi or the Spanish Republic is well known. In India, the founder of the modern nation, Nehru, was an agnostic who did not want a Hindu funeral (they gave him one anyhow).

I list all these to point out that in top-down societies anti-religious views can be espoused by the elite. My friend Zack Ajmal points out that atheism is popular among the Pakistani elite. But it is somehow different in the United States. I think it is important to note that the most anti-clerical public figures in the United States who rose to political prominence all seem to cluster early on in the history of the nation. Though evangelicals dispute it, men like Jefferson, Adams and Madison had views that would not be at variance with the skepticism or heterodoxy of their European counter-parts. Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine were two founding fathers who were even more explicit about their anti-Christianity. But after the period of Andrew Jackson, the rise of universal (male white that is) sufferage, this sort of attitude seems to disappear (Abe Lincoln was publically pious for all his personal heterodoxy). I can't help but think that the participation of the masses in the political process caused the religion of the masses to percolate up.

Did congregational Christianity result in the populism that characterizes the American republic? Some would argue so. I am not so sure, though I think it might be possible. Some would argue that the high home-ownership rated mentioned by Vinod is just as plausible a cause (and that this also fostered congregational Christianity-or perhaps congergational Christianity fostered economic development which fostered home ownership which fostered populism which fostered anti-Communism, etc.). But I do think its genuine populism blocked any "take over" of a Communist elite. Instead, you had the quasi-socialism of the New Deal espoused by a leader who was popular in the religious south (which was opposed by atheist intellectuals like H.L. Mencken and initially blocked by the Supreme Court-the representatives of the elite).

Update: Please note Roosevelt's consistent super-majorities in the deep South. New England, and to a lesser extent the Midwest and Mountain/West seem to be the major Republican strongholds (yes, I know there are historical reasons for this, nonetheless, after 1932 when Roosevelt had dealt his hand, the south remained Democratic, probably because of programs like the WPA and TVA).

Update II: Amusing historical anecdote: the Socialists were the second biggest vote getters in Texas from 1912-1914.

Addendum: New readers might find my old post, The Germanization of the liberal idea, interesting as it relates to this topic.

Posted by razib at 12:28 PM | | TrackBack

February 23, 2004


Comes the Thaw, the Gulag's Bones Tell Their Dark Tale:

Yelizaveta I. Obst, whose father, an ethnic German, was sent to the gulag in 1943, said history in Russia remained ambivalent because so many were implicated in it.

Sound familar?

Posted by razib at 09:15 PM | | TrackBack

The madrassa & me

I just realized today that I don't think I've spoken in detail of my 2-week experience when I was 11 in a madrassa.

Setting: Bangladesh. Visiting my mother's family. My mean fundamentalist uncle told her she should give my brother & me an Islamic education. So my nice fundamentalist uncle (if you care to know, my mean fundamentalist uncle was rather Arab influenced, while my nice fundamentalist uncle is an imam in my family's more traditional Hanafi orientation) takes me to a nearby mosque.

The Mosque: Two stories tall. Pretty normal. Doesn't look new or old.

The teachers: Two dudes, one 35, another 30. Seem nice and pleasant. They agree to teach my brother & me how to read Arabic. We are going to be students for a few weeks. Proviso: we are not to be beaten and receive explicit special treatment.

The schedule:
4:30 AM wake up, "read" Koran.
5:30 AM perform dawn prayer.
5:45 AM keep reading.
6:00 AM eat breakfast.
6:30 AM keep reading.
11:00 AM lunch.
11:30 AM sleep for siesta.
2:00 PM keep reading.
7:00 PM dinner.
7:30 PM sunset prayer.
8:00 PM keep reading.
10:30 PM last prayer.
11:00 PM sleep.

...and repeat.

A few points. I left out two day prayers. They would puncuate the reading, though I forget the times we performed them. The food was OK if plain. I could never sleep during the siesta. It seemed kind of weird to me. I put "read" in quotes initially because I didn't understand Arabic, and we were basically just learning the alphabet so we could recite the Koran.

As I said, we got special treatment. We saw our mother sometimes in the evenings during this two week period. Most of the students were from rural areas. They just read the Koran, though of course none of them understood it that I gathered, they simply would keep going to school until they memorized it front to the back. Their days were basically the same for 5-7 years, excepting the festivals when they prayed all day and ate some more food.

They had one 15 minute break once a week. They always looked forward to it. The madrassa was in a big hall on the second floor of the mosque, and during this break, they could go out on the terrace and look at people. To my knowledge the kids never really left the grounds of the mosque, though one or two might work as errand boys. This 15 minute period was their time of freedom, and they would stare at women walking by. No woman would come into the hall without covering herself up (usually sisters or mothers of students), but they still stared at them too-like hungry dogs. Sometimes uncovered women would stand outside, and kids would try and catch a glimpse. They seemed awfully horny, though they weren't particular articulate in their ribald conversation since they had so little experience and information to create fantastic scenarios around.

The teachers were nice to us. They were modern, and seemed associated with a Southeast Asian Muslim order. They were excited to talk to us, because they never got to speak "English" with anyone. They had taught in Thailand for a few years, where they had used English with their pupils. So one day, they spoke to us in English. What my brother and I heard was a vaguely tonal language. We spoke to them in "English," and they looked at us in frustration. They told us that because we spoke American English, and they spoke Thailand English, we couldn't understand each other, since Thailand English was more like British English. Since these were men who beat kids on a regular basis, we didn't say anything.

I never did learn the Arabic alphabet, I had just memorized it before we left the madrassa, and have forgotten the details, though I can still recite many of the letters (quite a few like "aleph" show the common Aramaic roots of the Latin alphabet through Etruscan through Greek). The madrassa was not like those you hear about in Pakistan that sent holy warriors to Afghanistan or Kashmir, it really was about learning (memorizing). It wasn't a Saudi funded institution and had local ties to the Hanafi tradition of Bangladesh as well as Thailand and Malaysia (I think Southeast Asia is Shafi, though people can correct me). The teachers were liberal, and had pictures taken with us before we left. They were very ignorant about non-Muslim things, and the senior teacher admitted to my uncle that his Arabic was very weak in terms of comprehension, though unlike his students he did understand some of what was being said in the Koran.

The kids were sad. Many of them didn't know what they were going to do with their lives, they were just very horny and fixated on memorizing the Koran so they could actually have free time. The kid who was my "minder," (he showed us the best way to wash before prayer and what not) was beaten regularly because helping my brother and I meant that his Koranic studies went a bit lax.

My uncles told me that the madrassa would open my heart to Allah, to the message of the Prophet, but it just made me sad, and more confirmed in my atheism. There was a sterility in that hall that I can't put into words. It was in some ways the most mentally bleak and desolate 2 weeks of my life. Allah seems to demand a monopoly on heart and mind-so that no room is left for anything else. And that, I could not abide....

Posted by razib at 02:22 PM | | TrackBack

Cats & dogs

Dogs are very similar genetically but variant phenotypically. Dog breeds differ in behavior, though some of them have only come into existence in the past few hundred years.

But turn to one species of cat, the cheetah, which shows shocking homogeneity at key functionally important locii because of several population bottlenecks (like HLA). On the neutral regions of the DNA mutational changes can build up because there is no functional constraint-and so here cheetahs display more diversity.

Update: Here are some articles on cat genomics. Seems like a work-in-progress. Cats are to my knowledge more specialized predators than dogs-so perhaps they have less genetic diversity that is amenable to selective breeding.

Posted by razib at 12:52 AM | | TrackBack

February 22, 2004

Free is good

Abiola points me to this site featuring free mathematics texts. Another friend pointed me to Sacred Texts, all the religious esoterica (and not so esoteric) you could want.

Posted by razib at 07:35 PM | | TrackBack

No Pain, no Gain

In my post Changing the Subject I said I would come back to proposition D:

“Some subjective sensations, such as pleasures and pains, are adaptive traits of organisms.”

I don’t want to spend all day on definitions, but I must quickly say what I mean by subjective sensations. They are broadly what in recent philosophy have been called qualia, and include:

- the qualitative aspects of what we perceive by the traditional five senses, such as a patch of blue in the visual field, a buzzing sound, or the taste of a piece of lemon
- sensations appearing to be inside the body, such as pains, itches, tingles, etc
- mental images occurring in memory, imagination, or dreams
- sensations associated with emotional states, such as feelings of anger or

Of course, extreme Behaviorists would deny that some or all of the above exist, but I won’t waste time discussing that. The best reply to an extreme Behaviorist is like Dr Johnson’s refutation of Berkeley - except that you kick the Behaviorist, not a stone. [I can’t resist repeating an old joke: the Behaviorist says to his wife, after sex: ‘That was great for you, honey - how was it for me?’]

It can be plausibly argued that all of these categories of sensations have some effect on behaviour, and that they have evolved by natural selection for that purpose. For example, the feelings of anger help us win fights and resist aggression. However, I want to concentrate on the narrower category of pleasures and pains, which I interpret as including pleasant and unpleasant sense perceptions, such as delicious or disgusting tastes and smells.

The fundamental argument for the causal efficacy of pleasures and pains was well-expressed by William James (Principles of Psychology, Dover edn., vol. 1, p.143):

“It is a well-known fact that pleasures are generally associated with beneficial, pains with detrimental, experiences. All the fundamental vital processes illustrate this law”.

To take obvious examples, pain is usually associated with injury and illness. Extreme heat or cold are painful as well as biologically harmful. The unpleasant sensations of hunger, thirst, and suffocation are associated with deprivation of vital resources. Excrement and rotting food are bad to eat (for humans, but not for dung-flies) and also smell bad (to humans, but presumably not to dung-flies). Poisonous defensive chemicals produced by plants (or animals such as toads or millipedes) taste bitter or acrid. Conversely, moderate warmth feels pleasant, and nutritious foods such as meat, fruit, and sugars (beneficial during most of our evolutionary history) taste good. The most intense pleasure of all is associated with sex and therefore with reproductive fitness.

As William James recognised, there are apparent exceptions to the general rule. It is important to take account of these exceptions, and I discuss them more fully in the continuation. I conclude that there are very few genuine anomalies, and that most of the apparent exceptions positively support an evolutionary interpretation. It is not surprising, for example, that we do not feel pain from ionizing radiation, because it is not a hazard to which we have been exposed during our evolutionary history. It also seems clear that the correspondence of pleasures with biological benefits, and pains with biological harm, is too close to be explained by mere chance association.

How is this correspondence to be accounted for? The common-sense hypothesis is that the intrinsic pleasantness and unpleasantness of sensations causes us to seek out or avoid the circumstances giving rise to such sensations. For example, the pleasant taste of chocolate is one reason why we eat chocolate, and the pain of getting a finger caught in a door is one reason why we are careful in closing doors. (People who do not feel pain, such as lepers, frequently injure themselves).

So far as we know, there is no fundamental physical reason why pleasure is attached to some circumstances and pains to others. We might have evolved to find the sensation of having a finger caught in a door intensely pleasurable, just as dung-flies may well relish the smell of excrement. On the evolutionary hypothesis, the fact that pleasures are generally associated with beneficial, and pains with detrimental, experiences, is the result of natural selection among random variations: those individuals who happen to have an association of this kind have higher biological fitness than those who have no such association, or the reverse association.

This is obviously not the place to develop a full evolutionary theory of pain and pleasure. Unfortunately I don’t know of any satisfactory published treatment to refer to. I was very disappointed in the book Pain: the science of suffering by Patrick Wall, one of the world’s leading authorities on pain. It contains a great deal of fascinating information, but evolutionary considerations are conspicuous by their absence - another sign that in some respects Darwin’s time has still not come.

As I argued in my previous post, natural selection can only operate if it affects reproductive fitness. If proposition D is accepted, sensations must have causal efficacy in the physical world. But this is philosophically a very controversial position (which doesn’t worry me), and it may seem to conflict with physical laws such as the conservation of energy and momentum (which does worry me). So in my next post I will consider whether there are any viable alternatives to this hypothesis. I will also try to respond to comments.

Continuation: Exceptions and anomalies

If we classify sensations into the categories pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral, and the circumstances with which they are associated as beneficial, harmful, and neutral, then the following associations are appropriate:

pleasant sensation - beneficial circumstances
unpleasant sensation - harmful circumstances
neutral sensation - neutral circumstances.

All other combinations are inappropriate, and may be considered possible exceptions to William James’s general rule.

There are therefore six categories of possible exceptions to be considered.

1. Harmful circumstances associated with pleasant sensations

There are some obvious examples: notably addictive drugs such as alcohol, heroin and cocaine, which give pleasure but are harmful in the long run. (Tobacco addiction is slightly different, as tobacco seldom gives the addict much pleasure, but withdrawal is unpleasant.) Heavy consumption of fats and sugars is also pleasant but harmful.

These exceptions present no serious threat to the evolutionary theory, as addictive drugs were not generally available during most of our evolutionary history. In the case of alcohol, it is possible that different ethnic groups have evolved a degree of resistance proportionate to their length of exposure, so that long-civilised groups like the Chinese have high resistance. (This cannot be explained by a general immunity to addiction, since the Chinese are notoriously addicted to gambling.)

The attractiveness of fats and sugars is no mystery, as during most of our evolutionary history they were in short supply and highly beneficial. It is only within the last hundred years or so that they have become harmful.

2. Harmful circumstances associated with neutral sensations (or absence of sensation)

Again, there are many obvious examples. X-rays and other ionising radiation are harmful but not immediately painful. Many poisonous chemicals and gases are tasteless or odourless. These present no evolutionary puzzle, as the hazards are too recent to have produced an evolved response.

More interesting is the pattern of response to injury and disease. Serious injuries do not always cause pain. It is said that injuries to the brain itself are not painful, and I have seen it stated that most of the internal organs are not sensitive to cutting or burning, though they are sensitive to pressure. This makes good evolutionary sense: there would be no selective advantage in evolving a pain-response to such injuries, since in natural conditions they would almost always be fatal. By the time your guts are roasting over an open fire, there is no point in learning to avoid the experience in future, because you have no future.

It is also said that massive traumas, like being hit by a truck or a bullet, are usually painless. This may be because such traumas were rare and/or invariably fatal in our evolutionary past. Another possibility is that major traumas would have occurred mainly in attacks by wild animals or fights with rivals, and that in such circumstances the ‘fight or flight’ response, charged by adrenalin, takes over.

Another interesting example is cancer, which is usually painless until it is well-advanced, and the cancer begins to press on nerves or vital organs. From an evolutionary point of view this makes sense, as our ancestors could do nothing either to avoid or to treat cancer. In modern circumstances the absence of pain is disastrous, as cancer can often be cured in its early stages but not by the time it has become painful. (Patrick Wall, op. cit. p. 104, makes this point but characteristically overlooks its evolutionary significance.)

In general, the main evolutionary function of pain following serious injury or disease (as distinct from minor cuts, stings, etc) is probably to promote healing, rather than to deter the victim from repeating the event. E.g. the pain following a bone fracture promotes healing by preventing the victim from putting strain on the injured area. Unfortunately, a lot of pain experienced by individuals is probably ‘useless’, in the sense that it does not enhance their personal reproductive fitness. For a pain response to evolve, it is not necessary that it should always promote fitness, only that it should do so often enough to outweigh the cost, in extra nerve cells or whatever, of producing it.

3. Beneficial circumstances associated with unpleasant sensations

I can’t think of many examples, but there is one biggie: childbirth. Childbirth is obviously vital to reproductive fitness, but it is also very painful. One might expect this to deter women from having children. So why hasn’t natural selection eliminated the pain? Of course, it is not surprising that having a large object extruded from a narrow orifice is painful, but we might expect evolution to have provided a flood of natural painkillers (endorphins) to remove the pain.

I don’t claim to have a conclusive explanation. One argument might be that painful childbirth is a modern phenomenon, a product of our soft Western civilization. There is a widespread modern belief that in ‘primitive’ peasant or hunter-gatherer societies women feel little pain from childbirth; they just squat behind a bush, pop out the baby, and get on with their work. This belief has encouraged the ‘natural childbirth’ movement, which teaches that a fit, healthy and unstressed woman should be able to give birth without pain. Women who demand drugs or anaesthetics are made to feel guilty and inadequate. Unfortunately it is all bollocks. ‘Primitive’ women do feel pain, it is just that in some cultures they are expected to keep quiet about it (see Wall, op. cit., p. 84). Not for the first time, a large area of modern medical practice is based on a delusion. Demand the drugs, girls.

Another possibility is that the mother’s pain is beneficial to the baby, by encouraging her to push harder and get the damned thing out more quickly.
But there is no evidence for this: childbirth proceeds just as well under complete anaesthesia, as the Victorians discovered, led by Victoria herself.

I can only suggest that for much of human evolutionary history the pain of childbirth did not act as a deterrent to having children because women had no choice in the matter. They didn’t have any choice about having sex, and if they had sex, they had children. Moreover, the connection between having sex and having children may not have been understood until a few thousand years ago, perhaps when man started keeping and breeding livestock. According to Malinowski, even in modern times the Trobriand Islanders did not see the connection, except in the limited sense of recognizing that a virgin could not give birth. Hence it was necessary for girls to be deflowered at a very early age, to ensure they could have children. (I’m not sure I believe Malinowski’s account! See also the discussion in Westermarck’s History of Human Marriage.)

4. Beneficial circumstances associated with neutral sensations (or absence of sensation)

I can’t think of many examples, but it is interesting that air and water are necessary for life, but tasteless and odourless. In the case of air, this is probably because we are normally surrounded by air, and do not need to seek it out. But why doesn’t water taste pleasant? Well, drinking water when you are thirsty is very pleasant, even if the water is tasteless. And since saliva contains water I guess it might be inconvenient if water had a taste, which would lead to overproduction of saliva.

5. Neutral circumstances associated with pleasant sensations

I can’t think of many examples, but it is puzzling that flowers smell so good to us. Indeed, the scent of flowers is probably the nicest smell of all. This would be understandable if humans fed on nectar or pollen, like bees, but we do not, except in the form of honey. I can only suggest that some of our primate ancestors did, and we have inherited their pleasure in the scent of flowers. (Some primate species do eat flowers or suck nectar.) But it must be many thousands of years since flowers were a major food item for humans, so this is a thin explanation.

6. Neutral circumstances associated with unpleasant sensations

I really can’t think of any obvious examples. This is a strong point against any suggestion that the distribution of pleasures and pains is random with respect to biological utility.

Posted by David B at 05:17 AM | | TrackBack