30 December 2010

Political phrenology

Sigh.....here we go again. The mass public mind seems drawn to the concept of a "gene for" some complex trait like homosexuality, criminality, intelligence, etc. Having read a fair bit of evolutionary biology, I know well how far removed such simplistic thinking is from the way genetics actually works; yet the mainstream media seem all too inclined to cater to it -- perhaps in the same spirit that they often still have a horoscope tucked away somewhere. The current example is a claim that current brain research is finding a genetic basis for people's political views.

A few basic facts to bear in mind: Most genes influence more than one trait. Most traits are influenced by more than one gene. The development of a complex organism like a human, especially brain structure, is massively influenced by the environment, which interacts with the genome in highly complex ways as the organism develops. As a human learns and develops and changes his ways of thinking, the brain physically re-wires itself to reflect those changes (in fact, the brain re-wiring probably is those changes).

The idea that genes could determine political views in any simple or straightforward way (never mind "political views 'hard-wired' into your brain", in the words of the article's amazingly-stupid headline) is immediately belied by the fact that very many people change their political views over time; in fact, some people change their political views drastically and quickly as a result of a single experience or exposure to new ideas. For that matter, the very meaning of political right and left varies over time and from place to place. In the US, the left-vs-right divide is primarily a matter of secular vs intensely-religious world-views, and church attendance correlates with voting patterns better than any other factor does; in Britain, where this story originates, both left and right are mostly secular and the differences lie in other areas.

Looking at the specifics of the story:

It's quite possible that there are genetic propensities to be fearful and irrational, and that some people's genomes contain genes which code more strongly for that trait.

It's quite possible that people born with genes which predispose them to be fearful or irrational are, in fact, somewhat more likely to grow up to actually be more fearful and irrational than average, although I'd expect that any such predisposition would be mostly swamped by the influence of life experiences.

It's quite possible that people who are more fearful or irrational than average (whether the main reasons are environmental or genetic) have brain structure which visibly reflects this.

It's even possible that people who are more fearful or irrational than average (whether the main reasons are environmental or genetic) are somewhat more likely to become more politically conservative, although one could easily think of a dozen other factors which would likely have a larger influence on a person's political views.

So, yes, there could be some correlation between genes and political views, but it would be too fuzzy and indirect to tell us anything of value about actual people.

Look, it's only a few decades since some people were claiming that blacks or women were genetically hard-wired for traits that made them unsuited for full citizenship. Enough is enough.

About the whole idea that something as complex as a person's world-view could be genetically determined in a straightforward way, I liked this item -- but at least it was intended as a joke.

28 December 2010

Video of the week -- songs of praise



Subtitled for the hard-of-hearing, by the hard-of-hearing.

24 December 2010

Link round-up for 24 December 2010

(Doing it a day early this time.)

Ranch Chimp responds to the Repent Amarillo Santa firing squad video (my "video of the week" this week).

What if math were taught like biology?

Some personal ads are a bit confused.

Differences of opinion are expressed in the Ukrainian parliament.

I've never understood people who refer to vehicles as "sexy", but crocodiles may disagree (found via Mendip).

Jesus, who's your daddy?

Godless Girl shows how to get snow cleaned off your car for free.

.....because they work.

Fort Worth's mass-transit system is trying to avoid religious squabbles.

The "professional offended religious people" are getting more and more touchy, and they have a new recruit in Spain (but see here).

PZ Myers receives a stupid e-mail and another stupid e-mail.

'Twas around winter solstice, alone in the house.....

America is full of idiots, many of them fat.

Those who jump to conclusions about the Assange sex charges are betraying important principles.

Phillip Greaves, author of a notorious how-to book for pedophiles, has been arrested (sent by Ranch Chimp).

The casting of Idris Elba isn't the only thing white supremacists hate about the new Thor movie.

Is the right wing turning pro-obesity and anti-vegetable?

Conservative blogger Confederate Yankee rebuts Bryan Fischer's crazed anti-gay rant -- but Fischer has more. As for Tony Perkins, he's sunk to sniping at Lady Gaga.

The NAACP will protest a celebration of treason.

There are now 308,745,538 of us, but growth is slowing.

California is a dysfunctional mess? Wrong.

Current polls suggest problems for Republicans in 2012. But David Frum sees moderates making a comeback.

Obama has already accomplished most of his first-term agenda. Congress deserves credit too.

Senate Democrats unanimously support filibuster reform (found via Politics Plus).

RNC Chair candidates support the essence of modern right-wing ideology: increasing state control over the individual.

Republicans block a proposal to outlaw child marriage (found via Republic of Gilead, who has more).

Wikileaks debunks conspiracy-style crackpottery.

Hispanic population growth is nothing to worry about (link is to a conservative blog, but if you ignore the leftist-bashing, his basic point is correct -- I made a similar point here).

Signs point to continuing economic recovery. More here.

The tax/unemployment-benefits compromise will help Obama politically.

Yet another slimy criminal tries to blame society for the actions of himself and his gang.

NCSE lists the year's top news stories from the struggle against creationism.

There exists a privileged class which can enjoy high incomes without paying the same taxes you or I would.

Oklahoma banned Sharî'ah, but another theocratic menace looms.

Get a crash course in Mormonism in six minutes (found via Plead Ignorance).

The latest anti-abortion propaganda echoes the Satanic Ritual Abuse Myth of decades past.

End-of-the-world crackpots become a pain in the ass for a small French village (found via Mendip).

The war on Christmas spreads to Britain (don't miss this site). Update: According to this, the organization has been banned in Britain for almost a year; if so, it must be operating illegally.

Germany's success is a challenge to American right-wing ideology.

Europe's last dictatorship resorts to the typical shabby brutality of authoritarianism.

The interminable euro currency crisis is Europe's problem, not ours.

Some Europeans complain that Germany has lost interest in EU integration and is simply trying to strengthen its own dominant position.

British police foil a terrorist plot.

There was never any real hope that Sweden would avoid becoming a jihadist target.

The New Humanist (UK) announces the 2010 Bad Faith Awards.

Iraqi secularists assert their presence with billboards.

Religious mob violence mars a Shiite holy day in Saudi Arabia.

Mumbai is on terror alert again.

Companies involved in the BP Gulf disaster may have tampered with evidence.

The Obama administration broadens protections for wilderness.

Rejecting science is easier when you don't bother to understand it.

A new Japanese invention aims to make the internet more touchy-feely.

The future of cars lies in lighter, stronger materials.

A burial ground from the Wars of the Roses offers clues about 15th-century life.

A tiny bone from Siberia suggests the existence of a previously-unknown human sub-group (sent by Ranch Chimp) -- but see if you can spot the technical error in the article.

The teenage birth rate is at an all-time low, mainly due to high rates of contraceptive use.

22 December 2010

Video of the week -- the war on Christmas



"Repent Amarillo", a Christian Right group from Texas, reclaims the holiday for the faith.

21 December 2010

Trimming the left fringe

Lately some of the rhetoric of the radical left has grown almost as ugly and delusional as what we've seen from the teabagger/fundie right over the last couple of years. Cleaning up this cesspit is going to be a tough and nasty job, but Parsley's Pics is making a good start. Head on over.

19 December 2010

The fall of DADT -- reactions

I have long thought it ironic that if Alexander the Great (one of the greatest military leaders in history) were alive today, he would not be allowed even to enlist in the US Army. After all, he never made any effort to hide his sexual orientation.

Now, however, the twenty-first-century United States is finally about to catch up with fourth-century-BC Macedonia on this point.

The Huffington Post has an early round-up of statements on repeal from prominent figures; Christian Right leaders and politicians beholden to them are predictably hostile, with most others being supportive. Josh Gerstein sees the vote as inevitable bowing to a massive cultural shift. Andrew Sullivan takes a similar view and sees it as vindicating Obama's long-game strategy. PoliticusUSA echoes Rachel Maddow's call for the ideological left to start giving Obama some credit. And PZ Myers reminds us that the crazies never sleep.

From the Left lists who voted how in the Senate; FiveThirtyEight analyzes possible motives of Republicans who voted for repeal. West Virginia DINO Joe Manchin's decision not to vote at all is earning contempt from all sides. Prop 8 Trial Tracker looks at the next steps.

Liberal bloggers celebrate: Progressive Eruptions, Hello Mr. President, Mauigirl, Politics Plus, Oliver Willis, Wonkette, and doubtless many others who will post today.

On the right, Frum Forum seems sympathetic to repeal, but the comments thread here -- and at NRO and American Spectator -- suggest a right wing deeply divided between pro-repeal thinkers and the anti-repeal troglodyte element. Regulars at The Crossed Pond (libertarian) side with the former.

My own view: Once DADT has been gone for a while and everyone has gotten used to the fact of some soldiers being openly gay, and none of the predicted disasters have materialized, it will become difficult to find any politician (outside the hard-core fundie crowd) who wants to advertise the fact that he ever opposed repeal. But that won't stop them from being just as obstructionist, the next time an opportunity arises to block progress.

Update 1: A few more blogger reactions: Rmuse at PoliticusUSA, The Immoral Minority, and (on the right) Bungalow Bill.

Update 2: More from Skepchick, Mario Piperni, and 365gay. Right Wing Watch has a round-up of Christian Right reactions (found via Republic of Gilead, which has more).

18 December 2010

Link round-up for 18 December 2010

Meet Dragan Stevic, fearless shark hunter (found via Mendip).

An Ohio man sees an image of Jesus and Mary in a piece of candy (sent by Ranch Chimp) -- hmm, to me it looks more like an image of Winona Ryder shoplifting a piece of toast.

It's not a lifestyle choice -- it's genetic.

Even with aliens, turnabout is fair.

Dai Haifei built his dream home -- but Beijing authorities have scrambled his plans (found via Mendip).

Pompous fascist thugs and sexual puritans are easily rattled.

Murr Brewster doesn't much care for the idea of post-mortem religious conversion.

Pastor Wiley Drake and his crack team of prayer warriors are watching over the Senate.

British shipbuilders respect tradition perhaps a bit too much (found via Mendip).

World War II in the Pacific was a religious war (found via Uzza -- check out her profile). Uzza also looks at the hilariously fake Mormon history of North America.

Greg Bean looks at Palin's hunting style (found via A Feather Adrift). Hysterical Raisins has, as usual, a funnier view.

Paranoid fantasies of a war on Christmas are nothing new.

Liberation comes when you realize that what you have been told throughout your life is a lie. The journey can be painful, but it is worthwhile.

Christianity among most teenagers isn't what it seems.

God is on the wane as a topic in books.

Ranch Chimp takes a look at my home city.

Gut feeling doesn't prove anything.

Teabagger influence on Republican primaries saved Democrats' Senate majority this year -- and could do so again in 2012.

The American people support the Obama compromise on taxes and unemployment benefits, 59% to 36%. The supposed liberal backlash against Obama over the deal is small-scale.

Frank Schaeffer points out that institutional Christianity is in no position to denounce sexual sin among gays.

We're lucky that Obama, and earlier Presidents, didn't act as the ideological purists demand. But the Republicans have far worse problems with their own ideological purists.

Christopher Hitchens turns his keen eye on the teabaggers.

NOM wants to dictate who can use an image older than humanity.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Fox viewers are less well- informed than other people. Frum Forum looks at an example.

Chrys Stevenson looks at the Christian take-over of Christmas (found via Russell Blackford).

Religion may work by appealing to the same brain quirks as bad movies do.

Sweden's recent first-ever suicide-bomb attack was the result of another stupid hissy-fit over cartoons (sent by Ranch Chimp).

Americans must continue to learn foreign languages -- just not the same ones as in the past.

Thugs in South Africa "cure" lesbians with "corrective rape".

Ukraine will open the Chernobyl disaster site to tourists (found via Mendip).

Indonesia's religious pluralism doesn't include everyone.

In the midst of sectarian fanaticism, an Iraqi police officer died as a true hero.

After a nuclear explosion, the most important thing to do is avoid the fallout.

Why bother to go on living?

When getting information from the internet, consider the source.

Here's an overview of important themes in current anti-aging research.

15 December 2010

Video of the week -- scarfing the prophet



In the face of such bullying, blasphemy is no longer merely a right -- it is a duty.

Thought for the day

To those who always just knew that all conservative criticism of Obama over the last two years had to be motivated by racism, regardless of its actual content: does the same apply to all the liberal criticism of Obama which is flying around right now?

11 December 2010

Link round-up for 11 December 2010

A Danish pastor uses a mock execution to protest against Satanic influence on Christmas. He'd probably like these ornaments (found via Mendip).

Christine O'Donnell is still saying stupid things.

Fluorescent light bulbs come under attack from a dim bulb.

These snazzy tables would liven up any living room (found via Mendip).

A cartoon sums up selective outrage.

Ireland's "Minister for Social Protection" (whatever the hell that is) wins the True Believer of the Month award for November.

PZ Myers pwns another dumb-ass e-mailer.

Bay of Fundie looks at Islamic swimsuits.

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer meets a tragic end in Virginia (sent by Mendip).

Is Charlie Brown a Christian?

British police ignore a chilling case of abduction.

Rival creationist groups bicker over who has the real Noah's ark (found via Republic of Gilead).

An Austrian man may have inadvertently discovered an effective mosque-abatement weapon (sent by Mendip).

Some residents of Brazos county, TX, think atheists don't belong in a Christmas parade (Elvis and tractors are apparently OK).

There's now a whites-only version of Facebook.

Jack Jodell posts the conclusion of his Progressive Manifesto.

Don't bother donating Harry Potter toys to the Salvation Army.

Banks inflict yet another torment on home-owners -- foreclosure errors.

People should be able to deal with the DMV without being forced to confront religious harassment.

Anti-jihadist hacker "The Jester" sets his sights on Wikileaks.

Republicans filibuster a bill to help 9/11 emergency workers (found via Ranch Chimp).

It's never quite the right time to do the right thing.

From a certain viewpoint, unbelievers are in the majority.

Some of the "progressive" reactions to the sex charges against Assange are disturbing.

The Christian Right is vetting Presidential candidates for 2012.

Fred Phelps's "God hates fags" church plans to picket the funeral of Elizabeth Edwards (more here).

Anti-abortion religious fanatics go on the warpath in Maryland.

Progressive Eruptions has a round-up of sober commentary on the tax/unemployment compromise; Rmuse looks at who gains from the left's attacks on Obama. Update: see also this item-by- item review of the deal (thanks TNLib for the link).

Mycue23 looks at the implications of a primary challenge to Obama.

"The vast majority of Muslims reject violence".....not exactly.

Ireland is being driven to ruin by the madness of applying austerity measures while unemployment is still high -- a policy forced upon it by the EU.

The trial of Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff is a crucial test for free speech and the fight for truth.

Mexican police kill a major drug gang leader.

The US oil industry hasn't gained much from the Iraq war -- but Halliburton has.

The growing Chinese presence in Africa provokes resentment.

Don't forget about Sakineh Ashtiani.

Liu Xiaobo is not the first Nobel prize winner to be barred from receiving the award by a tyrannical regime.

One of the world's smallest countries is under threat (found via Mendip).

Ideologists make fools of themselves when they try to pass judgment on science.

Science education scores a victory in Louisiana.

Chicago researchers are testing "anti-Nogo-A therapy" to repair stroke damage (in rats, so far), with good results -- more here.

Peter Thiel is holding a summit to encourage funding of life- extension research.

10 December 2010

Quote for the day -- same old same old

"The Wikileaks controversy is unfolding in exactly the way almost everything else in this country unfolds – in a yawning divide lined with yapping dachshunds."

Omnipotent Poobah

09 December 2010

Misconceptions about evolution

I recently made the error of getting drawn into a "debate" with an evolution-denialist in the comment thread on another blog. I quit after a couple of exchanges because (a) the argument was as pointless as such arguments usually are, and (b) it was off-topic from the posting on the blog. However, it reminded me of one reason why such arguments are usually pointless: most evolution-denialists have such basic misconceptions of evolution that they don't even understand what they're rejecting.

Here are some of the mistaken ideas about evolution commonly held by denialists:

Evolution is a "random" process. A couple of times the person I was arguing with used the common tactic of pointing to some complex biological system or process and saying it could not have arisen by random chance or "happenstance". Well, of course it didn't. Evolution is not a random process. Mutation and the re-shuffling of genes by sexual reproduction are pretty much random, and those are the main sources of variation within populations. But the driver of evolution is natural selection, which is anything but random. Genetically-inheritable traits which make an organism more likely to survive and reproduce cause the organisms which carry them to survive and reproduce better than their competitors, and their success means that the genes for those traits (and thus the traits themselves) tend to become more widespread. This process preserves and spreads traits which enhance survival and reproduction, while filtering out those which do the opposite. This is not "random chance".

Evolution is an explanation of origins. It's surprising how often evolution-denialists bring up the big bang, seemingly thinking it has something to do with evolution. Evolution is a theory of the development of life. It does not claim to explain how life got started in the first place (natural selection only works when there are already self-replicating structures of some kind -- it does not explain how the first self-replicating molecules arose), much less the origin of the physical universe. As it happens, we now have a pretty good understanding of the origin of the universe, while the origin of life is harder to explain; but neither of these questions has anything to do with evolution.

"Just a theory". In common usage, the word "theory" is often used to mean a mere hypothesis or even just a guess. In science the word has a different meaning: a system of ideas which successfully explains a wide range of observed phenomena and is supported by a great deal of evidence. That's the sense in which scientists call evolution a "theory". They don't mean there is any serious doubt that it is the correct explanation for the development of life.

Evolution disproves religion. This depends on what one means by "religion". Evolution is incompatible with the stories in Genesis and with other specific beliefs of various religions (and claiming that Genesis is some sort of allegory of evolution is nonsense); so, since we know evolution did in fact happen, those specific beliefs have been proven false. However, evolution doesn't disprove the very existence of gods or other supernatural entities -- it says nothing about them at all, except that they are not necessary to explain the development of life. It's possible to imagine a god creating the universe and evolution then happening by itself, once self-replicating molecules had appeared somewhere within that universe. I don't believe there are any such entities, but evolution says nothing about their existence either way. Again, it's two separate questions.

07 December 2010

Video of the week -- more Ken Russell



The D'Ampton Worm song from the 1988 film "Lair of the White Worm". See also the dream sequence from the same film (slightly NSFW, short ad at beginning of video).

04 December 2010

Link roundup for 4 December 2010

LTD Jewelers in Wisconsin is holding an end-of-the-world sale (sent by Mendip).

Pravda pwns Palin (found via Progressive Eruptions).

"But as soon as Moses came down from the mountain, he saw that the people of the camp had fashioned a beer bong out of gold....." (found via Blag Hag).

An online retailer's effort to succeed by infuriating its customers backfires.

Tom Tomorrow looks at the new bipartisanship.

Fags will destroy civilization and Harry Potter is in league with the Devil.

1946-1973 was the golden age of foreign films in the US, and for good reasons.

Apparently some employers actually fire employees for having bad personal credit (my own home state is one of the few that has a law against this).

Helen Thomas says what others have said.

You might be a Republican if..... (found via Blue in the Bluegrass).

Bush's new memoir contains unflattering revelations about how he made decisions.

I don't consider myself well-informed enough about Wikileaks to venture an opinion on it, but Heather Hurlburt argues that it will harm efforts to settle problems diplomatically instead of by force.

The Christian Right has Obama in its sights (found via Republic of Gilead).

Teabagger views on illegal aliens and foreign policy conflict with those of the Republican establishment.

Rude Pundit has ideas for a winning Democratic ad campaign (found via Blue in the Bluegrass).

The Family Research Council richly earned its designation as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (more here).

Strong stuff, but it's what the Bible teaches (found via Republic of Gilead).

More evidence has surfaced that Ratzinger personally colluded in keeping a pedophile priest free and with access to children.

Homophobia distorts everyone's life (found via Russell Blackford).

Christian groups like NOM claim they're being persecuted if they can't keep gays down or a symbol is disrespected -- here's what real persecution of Christians looks like.

Ancient Thebes had a very different view of gays in the military than modern America does.

Apologetics isn't really about the arguments.

Insiders are planning how to profit from the coming Chinese crash (found via Hillblogger).

Hundreds of thousands of years ago, the western desert of Egypt was the site of a lake larger than Lake Michigan.

Future rises in sea level will be unevenly distributed, with the level actually dropping in some areas.

All those nightmarish dystopian visions of the future? They're describing the past.

As machines get smarter, we'll have to decide what tasks to hand over to them.

This upcoming documentary on the future looks a bit too oh-wow and un-sober for my taste, but anything with Kurzweil and de Grey prominently featured is worth a look (found via The Crossed Pond, which has an intriguing assessment of me).

02 December 2010

Christmas cheer


Korans roasting on an open fire.....
Jazzed cops nabbing pedo priests.....
You'll find gays being wed as they desire.....
And folks defiling eucharists.....

What a year it's been! But as December begins, one's thoughts turn to Christmas shopping. Some people aren't so easy to buy for, but I've thought of a few appropriate gifts.....

For Rich Iott: a catalog of Halloween costumes, clown suits, and ComicCon outfits, because anything, absolutely anything, would be an improvement.

For Christine O'Donnell: a vibrator with plausible deniability.

For Pastor Terry Jones: a Koran printed on flame-proof paper, in the hope that he'll realize the best way to attack Islam is to make people read the damn thing, not burn it.

For Joe Miller; a heavy-duty electric razor, so he can finally stop looking like he spent last night in a dumpster.

For Sarah Palin: a detailed map of East Korea, so she can work on planning the first war she'll start if she ever becomes President. Also a note-pad, so she doesn't need to go back to the writing-on-the-hand thing.

For Richard Dawkins: another year of his ideal arch-enemy.

For the racists of the world: a lesson from the salamanders.

For the altar boys of the world: spray-on relief.

For Senate Democrats: a spine apiece.

For the Hollywood movie industry: the collected works of Larry Niven, Brian Lumley, William Barton, and Richard Matheson, in the hopes of inspiring some decent science-fiction and fantasy movies (and a round of floggings for what they've already done to I Am Legend).

For the office HOPA: Jenny's chutzpah.

For the Pope: Tim Minchin on an endless loop, so he can finally get it through his skull how he and his look to the rest of the world.

For the Tea Party movement: all the Thunderbird they can drink, in the hopes that they'll adopt it as their new symbol and cease to sully own my favorite beverage by associating themselves with it. (Calling them thunderbirds instead of teabaggers would actually fit well -- it would evoke the marionettes from the old kids' TV show, who acted like mighty warriors but were actually cheap puppets manipulated by barely-hidden string-pullers.)

And finally, for all of those liberals who react to every defeat by proclaiming the end of all hope, the death of democracy, the final triumph of fascism, etc.: this posting.