Excuses, excuses

Separating the sheep from the goats. Original photo by Nick in exsilio.

I’m not a believer, but I reserve the right to appropriate the religious literature with which I was raised for my own ends. That’s pretty much what Jesus and xkcd did, anyway. And once I thought of this one, I had to write it down.

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, with all his holy angels, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory.

And before him shall be gathered all nations, and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.

And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.

For I was hungry, and you gave me no food; I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink;

I was a stranger, and you did not invite me in; naked, and you did not clothe me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit me.”

Then shall they answer unto him, “Lord, we did indeed see you hungry and thirsty, a stranger, naked, and sick and in prison. We’ll totally cop to that.”

And the Lord shall say, “Wait, that’s not in the script.”

And he shall look on them in great vexation and ask, “If you saw me, why in my name didn’t you help me?”

Then shall they answer, “But Lord, we had perfectly good reasons! Behold:

When you told us you were hungry, we were pretty sure you could stand to lose some weight.

We saw that you were thirsty, but we were afraid that digging a well for your village might distort your local economy and stunt its development.

Some of our best friends are strangers, and we would have been happy to invite you in, but there were other folks inside with us who have old-fashioned ideas about that kind of thing, and we didn’t want to make them uncomfortable.

We saw you needed clothes, but if we just gave you clothes, wouldn’t it undermine the profits of clothing manufacturers? And aren’t they the real job creators, after all?

And, we totally wanted to come visit you in prison, and while you were sick, but you would not believe what a lot of bureaucratic hoops you have to jump through if you want to visit someone in prison or in the hospital. There are forms you have to fill out, and you have to come at a specific time.”

And the Lord shall say unto them, “I liked it better when you pretended you didn’t even know I needed help. Go to hell, the lot of you.” ◼


Over on the recently launched Queereka, an interesting discussion of cognitive biases in the context of life in the closet:

People who comment on how cute you look in that dress, for instance, would be confirming that you perform best as female. If, like me, you are convinced you should be and will be attracted to men, you will remember best the men you did like, ignoring the majority of men who were not sexually attractive to you. The important thing is that the people you try to like are in the arbitrary associative category, “men,” which overlaps somewhat with the category of “male.”

I also appreciate the comparison between the closet and the TARDIS. Both are bigger, and more impressive, on the inside. ◼

Science online, pseudonymous micro-RNAs edition

Embrace the mask. Photo by Annamagal.


Fixing evolutionary psychology

Story time. Photo by McBeth.

Over at Neuroanthropology, Greg Downey’s launching an ambitious project: making evolutionary psychology less … shitty.

More specifically, and more politely, Downey thinks (as I do) that evolutionary biology can tell use some valuable things about human nature; but he’s concerned (as I am) that the most visible representatives of an academic field which takes the evolution of human nature as its central question often apply an impoverished understanding of evolutionary biology to telling titillating (and usually unsubstantiated) adaptive fairy tales. Which fairy tales all seem to take place in a sort of dark Lake Wobegon, where all the women are weak and choosy, all the men are strong and horny, and children are barely more than notches on the bedpost of natural selection.

Against the strong man/choosy woman story, Downey proposes the “long, slow sexual revolution.” The central idea is that, as our ancestors’ intelligence increased toward modern humanity, their interest in, understanding of, and uses for sex and sexuality changed:

The idea of the ‘long, slow sexual revolution,’ I think, provides a simple and balanced umbrella for pulling together contradictory elements of our sexuality, gender relations, and reproductive strategies. Everyone knows that the more recent ‘Sexual Revolution’ didn’t erase pre-existing sexual mores and patterns, but rather mixed with them, producing a conflicted, sometimes-unpredictable pattern of sexual expression. Starting with a ‘sexual revolution’ rather than the Men-are-from-Mars-Women-are-from-Venus story means less erroneous leaping to stereotypes to undo when we teach or communicate about human evolution. [Emphasis sic.]

In one of many insightful points, Downey draws in Emily Willingham’s recent post on family planning before the Pill—humans have had the intelligence, and the means, to use sex for more than making babies since (probably) before the dawn of recorded history.

That’s really only the jumping-off point of a post that delves deep into the problems of evolutionary psychology and what might be done about them. And it’s the first part in a promised series! So go read the whole thing, and keep an eye out for future installments. I’ll certainly be watching with interest. ◼

You should read: Reamde

Reamde. Photo by jby.

Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, Reamde, opens in a self-consciously stereotypical image of rural America: three generations of the Forthrast family engaged in recreational firearms practice in the midst of an annual reunion on an Iowa farm. The next thousand pages follow two members of that family out of the Midwest and across the globe.

Reamde zips from Iowa to Seattle, the mountains of British Columbia, urban China, the Isle of Man, the Philippines, a trailer park in Missouri, and a survivalist compound in north Idaho. The engine driving this jet-setting plot is a computer virus, the eponymous Reamde, propagated through a fictional massively multiplayer online game. Reamde reaches out across the Internet to entangle the creator of that online game and his niece with Russian gangsters, a Hungarian hacker, Chinese professional gamers, a Wales-born Al Qaeda terrorist mastermind, British and American intelligence agents, rural U.S. militia members, and two fantasy authors—one outrageously highbrow, the other hilariously low.

I’ve never read a Stephenson novel I didn’t enjoy cover to cover, and Reamde draws on what I like best about his work. There’s incredible attention to detail, whether in the workings of a fictional online game, the layout and choreography of spectacular action set pieces, or the cultural details of Chinese internet cafes. There’s a delightful slew of nerdy in-jokes, particularly in the simmering feud between the two fantasy authors working as creative consultants for the online game. And there’s an international cast of smart, dryly witty characters risking life and limb in a succession of perfectly rendered international locales. It’s a great read, but it’s also interesting for its perspective on the world we inhabit today.

The first-blush gloss on Reamde is that it’s a William Gibson novel set in the present day. But it even more strongly recalls the sub-genre of international/intercultural dramas that were popular as Oscar-baiting films a couple years ago, like “Babel” and “Crash.” Those movies would pick a selection of seemingly unconnected people across greater Los Angeles or the entire world, and attempt to demonstrate how their lives were really interconnected on some profounder level via apparently insignificant links propagated across the karmic ether. Reamde achieves the same effect organically, accumulating each new player by following the next thread in the widening web of Reamde, and (mostly) doing so without breaking the plot’s techno-thriller pace.

What’s remarkable about Reamde (though not surprising coming from Stephenson) is its unabashed optimism in the midst of circumstances that shade from trying into horrific. Our unprecedented global interconnectedness creates the chaos that propels the plot; but apart from the obvious bad apples (did I mention Al Qaeda is involved?) the wildly disparate people snagged in the web of the Reamde virus react to each other with the open-handedness of friendly strangers meeting in an online comments section, rapidly identifying their common interests to work together across cultural, economic, and even linguistic divides. Even as the body count racks up, the people who need to avoid potentially tragic misunderstandings manage to do exactly that, and see to it that the folks who need comeuppance get it. When the Forthrast reunion reconvenes at the end of the book, the attendees include members of a newly assembled global family. ◼

Science online, top speed edition

Running. Photo by Mark Sadowski.


Carnival of Evolution, January 2012

Lignum vitae est. Photo by Niels Linneberg.

Whoops. I totally failed to point out that the latest Carnival of Evolution is up at The EEB & flow. With bonus historical perspective:

523 BCE
Anaximander: “Thales, my teacher, how is it that animals take their form?”
Thales: “Anaximander, all matter is an aggregation formed from a single substance, water, and qualities are obtained through need”
Anaximander: “Ah yes, water, I will now think about how air can be the primordial substance.”

Fortunately, there’s also lots of much more recent material, which is the whole point of a monthly compilation of all things online and evolution-related. Included are a couple of my latest posts, and Luke Swenson’s great post (for Nothing in Biology Makes Sense!) explaining how biologists can trace the evolutionary past of an HIV infection to identify its source. Go take a look, if you haven’t already. ◼

Iowa hangover

So last night a tiny fraction of the population of a not-very-populous but otherwise unobjectionable Midwestern state demonstrated they’ve never Googled Rick Santorum. Or maybe that they’d rather vote for a hateful, race-baiting asshole than a Mormon. One state down, forty-nine to go.

So here’s a nice animation of imagery from my favorite movie ever, to help take the edge off. In the grand scheme of cosmic history, the Iowa caucuses are much less stressful.

2001: A Space Odyssey from Joe Donaldson on Vimeo.