Advice for beginning cyclists

Fat Cyclist lists some handy tips (so far one on gear and one on lifestyle) for those interested in getting started in cycling. If only I’d had such sage advice before I started racing last year:

Bike shorts have the distinction of being both the world’s most and world’s least comfortable clothing, depending on what you are doing at the moment. If you are on a bike, the big diaper-y thing between your nether regions and the saddle clearly falls into the “boon” category, and the lycra wicks sweat away as it stretches to accommodate the motion of your legs and your — let’s face it — unnatural sitting position. Once you’re off the bike, however, the diaper becomes dank and cold and starts breeding bacteria so fast you can actually hear the cells divide. Plus, thanks to muscle memory from when you were a toddler, you will be unable to prevent yourself from walking with a distinct waddle.

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Morality and empiricism

Jerry Coyne reviews two new books, Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory and Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin that vivisect the Intelligent Design movement, and seek to explain how Christianity (or indeed, any faith) is not only compatible with but complimentary to the scientific worldview. Coyne is effusive in praise of Miller and Giberson’s science, but he doesn’t buy their theology:

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers.) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains.

Miller and Giberson make the same fundamental mistake that creationists do, says Coyne, when they look for God in the empirical world.

[To Miller], God is a Mover of Electrons, deliberately keeping his incursions into nature so subtle that they’re invisible. It is baffling that Miller, who comes up with the most technically astute arguments against irreducible complexity, can in the end wind up touting God’s micro-editing of DNA. This argument is in fact identical to that of Michael Behe, the ID advocate against whom Miller testified in the Harrisburg trial. It is another God-of-the-gaps argument, except that this time the gaps are tiny.

I haven’t read either of the books in question (I’m putting them in my queue after Dreams from My Father), but this does sound like a complaint I’ve previously had with prominent scientists who try to reconcile faith and science by direct, causal connections. It seems plain enough to me that a Christian who accepts science must also accept that God is the ultimate in untestable hypotheses, and no amount of speculation about the Anthropic Principle can change this. Furthermore, I think we need to reconcile ourselves to the idea that Homo sapiens might not be the only thing on God’s mind, as it were.

This line of thought draws mockery from fundamentalists on both sides of the religion-science schism. A six-day creationist I met with a few months ago condescended to tell me that, if I wouldn’t join him in rejecting the very laws of physics (which is what you have to do if you want to believe that Earth is six thousand years old), my faith was nothing but “warm fuzzies.” And in his own response to Coyne’s essay, the atheist PZ Myers jeers that Christianity without biblical literalism is “weak tea.” (Got the Christians coming and going on that one, don’t you, PZ?) But what all of these people are missing is that Christianity, and all religions, are not (or should not be) primarily interested in empirical claims about the physical universe. They’re about how humans can best live with each other.

The essence of Christianity, the absolute core of what it means to follow Christ, is a few revolutionary teachings, and one extraordinary act. “Love your enemies,” Jesus taught his disciples, calling them to a moral standard above and beyond the bonds of family, tribe, or nation. And when the Roman government and its local collaborators got nervous about his popularity and executed him as a common criminal, Jesus embodied that moral standard at the cost of his life. You can quibble with every factual claim in the Bible, you can cut out everything in the Gospels that smells of the supernatural as Thomas Jefferson famously did, and that’s what’s left: an innocent teacher accepting death at the hands of civil and religious authorities, and thereby revealing them for the fallible, human things that they are. Vicit agnus noster.

Science can (conceivably, at least) account for the entire history of the universe, from the Big Bang to the invention of digital watches by the ape-descended inhabitants of one small, blue-green planet. But in the end, this is just data. Data can’t tell me whether I should tip the barista at my local coffee shop, or stay late to answer a student’s questions on a lab, or give to NPR, or donate blood. But Christ crucified (Mohamed at prayer, Buddha under the Bo tree, Hume at his books) has something to say about it. The human struggle with the moral universe, the core of all religious thought, is the challenge of a lifetime – every lifetime – and the example of Christ is powerful no matter how many days it took to make the Earth.

The cost – and benefits – of hostility to strangers

ResearchBlogging.orgBruce Schneier points to an interesting post by Stephen Dubner, who asks why we humans are so prone to fear strangers, given that strangeness is such a poor predictor of dangerousness. Dubner proposes, and Schneier agrees, that it has something to do with our tendency to focus on rare, shocking dangers:

Why do we fear the unknown more than the known? That’s a larger question than I can answer here (not that I’m capable anyway), but it probably has to do with the heuristics — the shortcut guesses — our brains use to solve problems, and the fact that these heuristics rely on the information already stored in our memories.

And what gets stored away? Anomalies — the big, rare, “black swan” events that are so dramatic, so unpredictable, and perhaps world-changing, that they imprint themselves on our memories and con us into thinking of them as typical, or at least likely, whereas in fact they are extraordinarily rare.

That’s probably right. But when I read Dubner’s post, I immediately thought of another factor: hostility toward outsiders is instinctive because it can help communities bond.

This idea actually grew out of an attempt to understand altruism. Altruism is something of a puzzle to evolutionary biologists – the easiest thing to assume, under a “survival of the fittest” framework, is that selfishness is always the winning strategy. Yet again and again in human and nonhuman societies, we see examples of altruism, in which individuals help each other without immediate repayment. Societies in which everyone is altruistic should be able to out-compete societies in which everyone is selfish – but a single selfish person in a mostly altruistic society can out-compete her neighbors, make more selfish babies, and eventually drive altruism to extinction. So, if you can come up with a way to make altruism stable in the long term, you’ve got a good shot at publishing in Science or Nature.

Photo by Lawrence OP.

One such paper was published back in 2007. Co-authors Jung-Kyoo Choi and Samuel Bowles noted that tribal human societies spend a lot of time and blood in inter-tribal wars, and wondered if what they called parochialism – hostility to outsiders – helped stabilize within-tribe altruism [$-a]. They built a mathematical model of competing tribes, in which individuals within those tribes had one of four inheritable personality types: parochial altruists, tolerant altruists, parochial nonaltruists, and tolerant nonaltruists. Parochial altruists were something like the medieval ideal of a knight, willing to fight outsiders and die for the benefit of others in their tribe. Parochial nonaltruists weren’t willing to risk their lives for others; and the two tolerant types were, well, tolerant of others.

As I described above, nonaltruists were favored by within-tribe competition: altruists all contributed toward a common resource pool, which was shared among the whole tribe. So nonaltruists got a share, but didn’t contribute, which benefits them but is ultimately bad for the tribe. Tribes that fought other tribes and won could expand their territories and take the losers’ resources. On the other hand, if tribes interact peacefully, the tolerant individuals – and only the tolerant individuals – received a resource reward. (Is this putting anyone else in mind of certain new-school German board games?)

Choi and Bowles found that their model led to two alternative stable kinds of tribe dominated by either tolerant nonaltruists or parochial altruists. This is almost too tidy, because it looks like a dichotomy between peaceful-but-selfish “moderns” and mutually-aiding, warlike “primitives.” Yet tribal societies really do seem to be more prone to a certain kind of war (more like feuding, really), as Jared Diamond discusses in a 2008 essay for the New Yorker [$-a]. And, even in our modern, globalized society, we are immediately and instinctively suspicious of – hostile to – those different from us. Commenting on Choi and Bowles’s paper in the same issue of Science, Holly Arrow called this the “sharp end of altruism,” [$-a] and wondered how to tease apart the apparent association between altruism to neighbors and hostility to outsiders.

The most obvious option may be to expand our definition of “neighbor.” In a world where an Internet user in Malaysia can see (selected portions of) my ramblings on this ‘blog, maybe I’m less of a stranger than I would be otherwise. That’s not much, really, but it’s a start. The wonderful thing about being human is that, understanding our own tendencies, we can seek to overcome them.


H. Arrow (2007). EVOLUTION: The sharp end of altruism Science, 318 (5850), 581-2 DOI: 10.1126/science.1150316

J.-K. Choi, S. Bowles (2007). The coevolution of parochial altruism and war Science, 318 (5850), 636-40 DOI: 10.1126/science.1144237

Inauguration Day

Photo by Jeremy Yoder.

In one of those quirks of political geography, the Idaho panhandle is apart from the rest of the state in the Pacific time zone. So Barack Obama will become President of the United States at about 0830 local time, and I am listening to the Inauguration on NPR as part of only slightly extended morning laziness with a cup of coffee and Ovaltine. Through one of those quirks of weather, my part of Idaho is under what’s called a thermal inversion – a layer of warm air somewhere above us is preventing the air at ground level from moving. At this time of year, that means there’s no wind to blow away the freezing fog, which every night coats trees’ leafless twigs in a filigree of frost. In Washington, though, a new wind is blowing, and today, at least, there’s a smell of spring in the air.

Photo by Barack Obama.

Blogging for Darwin, 12 February 2009

I’ll be joining a long list of science blogs in commemorating Charles Darwin’s two hundredth birthday – only 23 more shopping days left! – as part of the Blog for Darwin blogswarm. (Not sure how I feel about the word “blogswarm,” but I like the concept!) Now: what to write about. There’s a nice list of suggested topics provided, and they only scratch the surface …

Stick insects not so excited about sex, apparently

ResearchBlogging.orgStick insects in the genus Timema have evolved asexual reproduction on five different occasions in their evolutionary history, according to a new study in this month’s Evolution [$-a]. Why? Well, it turns out that from an evolutionary perspective, sex isn’t always a good thing.

A Timema walking stick.
Photo by WallMic.

The problem comes down to the mathematics of evolutionary fitness. Natural selection favors individuals who make more copies of their genes in the next generation – that’s the most basic definition of the “fittest” who survive. In most sexually reproducing organisms, each parent contributes half of the genes necessary to build each offspring. So for every two babies a parent makes with someone else, her genome is replicated once – half for each baby. Consider the possibilities if this parent can instead make a baby all by herself: for each baby, her entire genome is reproduced. That means that, all else being equal, an asexual critter has twice the fitness of a sexual one.

So it makes sense that asexual reproduction might pop up pretty frequently in the evolution of any group, let alone Timema – a mutant who gains the ability to reproduce asexually should be able to overrun a population of sexual competitors with ease. The question turns out to be not, why are some critters asexual? but why are any critters sexual?

One hypothesis is that sex helps in arms races against parasites, by shuffling genes to generate new combinations of defensive traits. This is called the Red Queen hypothesis because the parasite-host arms race recalls the Red Queen’s advice to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, that in looking-glass land, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.” Population genetic studies have shown evidence of Red Queen dynamics in some species [$-a], but it’s not clear how widespread they are. Currently, more biologists favor the alternative hypothesis that sex is important in counteracting the Hill-Robertson effect, which prevents useful genes from spreading through a population if they are associated with damaging genes [$-a].

Under either hypothesis, sex is in some sense more useful in the long term than in the short term. That is, an asexual mutant can overrun a population faster than its offspring are killed by parasites or disadvantaged by the Hill-Robertson effect. This conflict should lead to a specific pattern: evolutionary lineages switch to asexuality rapidly if an asexual mutant arises, then die off when parasites or other hazards of natural selection catch up with them. This is what we see in Timema – several species have given up on sex, but all of them have recent sexual ancestors. Not only does giving up sex make life less exciting – it’s probably an evolutionary dead end.


M. Dybdahl, A. Storfer (2003). Parasite local adaptation: Red Queen versus Suicide King Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 18 (10), 523-30 DOI: 10.1016/S0169-5347(03)00223-4

P.D. Keightley, S.P. Otto (2006). Interference among deleterious mutations favours sex and recombination in finite populations Nature, 443 (7107), 89-92 DOI: 10.1038/nature05049

T. Schwander, B.J. Crespi (2009). Multiple direct transitions from sexual reproduction to apomictic parthenogenesis in Timema stick insects. Evolution, 63 (1), 84-103 DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2008.00524.x

Assuming the conculsion

Yesterday I posted this exchange between Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Attorney General nominee Eric Holder without comment. Thinking about it since, it occurred to me that, apart from its tremendous satisfaction for those of us in favor of the rule of law, this mini-argument sums up a lot about how we think about violence in general, and not just the kinds that are, technically, illegal. As a starting point, here’s the Cornyn-Holder exchange in summary:

Cornyn: If torture were the only way to prevent a terrorist attack that could kill bajillions of innocents, would it be OK to torture?
Holder: Uh – that never actually happens.
Cornyn: But what if it did?

Cornyn’s logic should be familiar to any of us who believe that violence is unacceptable, because it parallels (or, indeed, directly copies) an argument every pacifist has faced from skeptics at some point. It typically goes something like this:

But what if some guy broke into your house and put a gun to the head of your [pick one: child, wife, grandmother – or really any helpless (usually female) loved one], and there was no way to stop it except to shoot him? Wouldn’t you kill to save her?

Apart from how much this question tends to lean on certain ideas about gender roles (I once had a skeptic directly question my masculinity in the course of a conversation about this scenario), its weakness is that it assumes its own conclusion. That is, it asks whether you’d use violence if there were no other option but to use violence. But those of us who refuse violence do so because we’re convinced that there is never such a condition.

Photo by julianrod.

The best elaboration on this position is John Howard Yoder‘s pamphlet What would you do?, which points out that the grandmother-under-threat scenario assumes you have perfect knowledge of the attacker’s motives and intentions, that negotiation is impossible, and that Grandma has no moral interest in the situation besides her own survival. (Both my grandmothers are pacifists, too.) In other words, it’s nothing like real life.

It is, however, a lot like television. It almost seems facile to say this, but most of the plot of your average cop show, thriller, or other “action” drama is an exercise in creating assumed conclusions of violence. Excuses, that is, for violent, exciting, entertaining stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that as entertainment – how much of, e.g., science fiction is about coming up with a plausible explanation/excuse for why our heroes are, e.g., on another planet? There is something wrong with using the logic of a television show in real life, as a matter of national policy. Fortunately, the era of television-show logic for torture seems likely to end on 20 January, 2009. Here’s hoping it puts the U.S., and the world, a little closer toward ending the use of television-show logic for all violence.

Founding faith

Jon Rowe profiles U.S. founding father Benjamin Rush, who, though generally cited as an orthodox Christian, showed ample evidence of freethinking. Rush wrote, for instance, that he “never doubted upon the subject of the salvation of all men,” and seems to have been far more interested in the spirit of the Gospel than proof-texting justifications, opposing both slavery and capital punishment. My holiday reading prominently featured H.W. Brand’s excellent biography of Benjamin Franklin – maybe Rush would make a good followup.