You’re doing it wrong.

Of course for most of us, “it” could be an almost infinite number of things, from replacing the toilet paper to deciding whether to discontinue the Netflix subscription to searching for a lifelong romantic companion. But, to that near-infinite set of bungled and ill-conceived things, Jon Wilkins is now adding pronoucing “Muller’s Ratchet.” You’re welcome.◼

Counterfactualizing for truth

Something kind of incredible is going on over at Ta-Nehisi Coates’s place: Bouncing off some typically reprehensible and ahistorical remarks by Ron Paul—who apparently thinks that (1) the U.S. Civil War was started by the North, (2) for the express purpose of ending slavery, even though (3) nonviolent means, such as “compensated emancipation,” could have accomplished that end—Coates is not simply rounding up the contrary evidence, but actually trying to work out whether and how a nonviolent end to the “peculiar institution” could have worked. It’s like a Harry Turtledove novel, except fascinating and good and informative.

Nevertheless, the saving of people is, indeed, a noble goal, and Paul is not without at least the rudiments of a case. Enslaved black people were constructed into an interest representing $3 billion. ($70-75 billion in 21st century money.) But including expenditures, loss of property, loss of life (human capital,) the war, according to Ransom, costs $6.6 billion.

The numbers are clear–the South’s decision to raise an army, encourage sedition among its neighbors, and fire on federal property, was an economic disaster for white America. Moreover, the loss of 600,000 lives, in a war launched to erect an empire on the cornerstone of white supremacy and African slavery, was a great moral disaster for all corners of America.

In the most crude sense, it would have been much “cheaper” for the government to effect a mass purchase. But how?

Spoiler alert: compensated emancipation doesn’t look very practical, especially considering that Southern slaveholders were pretty damned hostile to the idea. But getting to that conclusion is enlightening, and the discussion in Coates’s famous comments section is as well worth your time as the posts. ◼

Happy Darwin Day!

The co-discoverer of natural selection and author of The Origin of Species was born 202 years ago today. Nerdy festivities are in the offing everywhere, even Moscow, Idaho.

To assist in your festivities, allow me to suggest my postings for Darwin’s 200th (I’m not so down with the Christianity these days, but I still stand by the points made) and the New York Times‘s great annotated copy of the Origin. You could also check out this interview with evolutionary biologist David Rezick, who has written his own annotated version of The Origin.

Charles Darwin, born 12 February, 1809. Image via Pharyngula.

Abortion ≠ slavery

Ta-Nehisi Coates explains why equating the ongoing campaign against legal abortion with the abolition movement—a favorite analogy of anti-abortion folks—is not just historically silly, but actually rather racist:

The analogy necessarily holds that the enslaved were the equivalent of embryos–helpless, voiceless beings in need of saviors. In this view of American history, the saviors, much like the pro-life movement, are white. In fact, African-Americans, unlike, say, zygotes, were always quite outspoken on their fitness for self-determination. Indeed, from the Cimaroons to Equiano to Nat Turner to Harriet Tubman to the 54th regiment, slaves were quite vociferous on the matter of their enslavement. It is simply impossible to imagine the end of slavery without the action of slaves themselves.

Coates is eye-opening as always: equating abortion with slavery turns out to be another facet of U.S. conservatives’ bizarre notion that civil rights are bestowed by majority vote, not (in the words of certain historical documents they may have forgotten to read) inalienable. I recommend reading the whole thing.

J.B.S. Haldane and the case of the revivified head

ResearchBlogging.orgHere’s a nicely gruesome image for the week of All Hallows’ Eve.

“I dreamed I was in a dark room,” said Jane, “with queer smells in it and a sort of low humming noise. Then the light came on … I thought I saw a face floating in front of me. … What it really was, was a head (the rest of a head) which had had the top part of the skull taken off and then … as if something inside had boiled over. … Even in my fright I remember thinking, ‘Oh, kill it, kill it. Put it out of its pain.’ … It was green looking and the mouth was wide open and quite dry. … And soon I saw that it wasn’t exactly floating. It was fixed up on some kind of bracket, or shelf, or pedestal—I don’t know quite what, and there were things hanging from it. From the neck, I mean. Yes, it had a neck and a sort of collar thing round it, but nothing below the collar; no shoulders or body. Only these hanging things. … Little rubber tubes and bulbs and little metal things too.”
—Jane describes the disembodied Head in That Hideous Strength

Before he started The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis tried his hand at science fiction. Lewis’s Space TrilogyOut of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength—is like H.G. Wells dunked in (by modern American standards) gentle British Christianity. As in Narnia, Lewis wrote the Space Trilogy with a thesis in mind. The villains of Lewis’s imagined universe are materialistic scientists. In the first two books, the protagonist fights the scientists to preserve prelapsarian conditions among the intelligent inhabitants of Mars and Venus, respectively. The third book returns to Earth, where the evil scientists are plotting to take over the planet in the service of a demon-possessed disembodied head kept alive by technology that would’ve put Frankenstein off his lunch.

J.B.S. Haldane. Photo via limjunying.

Lewis derived the scientists’ ideology, and one of the evil scientist characters in particular, from the writings and person of the evolutionary geneticist J.B.S. Haldane—which is not surprising, since Haldane was something of the Richard Dawkins of his day, a visible public advocate for the scientific worldview. What is surprising, though, is that Lewis may have had a perfectly good reason to connect Haldane to an artificially resurrected head: five years before the publication of That Hideous Strength, Haldane had narrated a film depicting just such an experiment.

Continue reading

Science online, electrifying history edition

A hagfish. Photo by kinskarije.
  • But there’s no mention of the mouse who helped him. Dr. Skyskull unwinds the history of Benjamin Franklin’s famous kite experiment, drawing on original reports in Proceedings of the Royal Society. (Skulls in the Stars)
  • $%@!!?#! Saying an expletive aloud actually helps you tolerate pain. (Neurotic Physiology)
  • I’m guessing that animated tattoos will be first. Stretchable sheets of micro-electronic components will have all sorts of science-fictiony medical applications. (All that matters)
  • It’s an even longer way to amphioxus than we thought. MicroRNA analysis suggests that hagfish, long thought to be the most deeply-diverged relatives of vertebrates, aren’t. (Wired Science)
  • On the wrong track. Dave Munger suggests that the same cognitive bias revealed by the “trolly car” dilemma may underlie people’s willingness to believe pseudoscientific explanations for autism. (SEED Magazine)
  • Like calcium carbonate shells, scansion breaks down at low pH. The perils of ocean acidification, explained in (mostly) rhyming couplets. (Deep Sea News)
  • The king of the Red Queen is dead. Leigh Van Valen, originator of the Red Queen hypothesis, died last weekend. (dechronization)
  • There’s so many, we really ought to have some sort of systematic way to classify them. John S. Wilkins tackles species concepts. (Evolving Thoughts)

Video this week is the supplementary information for a recent study of sloth locomotion [$a] (via Wired Science)—the research found that, although they do it upside-down, sloths move a lot like other mammals.

Thomas Jefferson Adams: Reason

Major, embarrassing update, 2010.09.20: So it turns out that the Slate article from which I learned that Jefferson was the FAITH portrait was pretty much dead wrong. In fact the image is of Samuel Adams, and the source is the same painting in the Adams Wikipedia article. (Although, Shepard Fairey-ized, he still looks like Jefferson to me.) Jefferson makes so little sense for a portrait of FAITH that not even Glenn Beck is stupid enough to try and make him one. I’ve pulled the image from Flickr to prevent propagation of a false meme. Oy.

So there’s this guy who’s really popular with folks who hold political opinions mostly in opposition to mine. It’s come to my attention (probably late, I know) that he’s been waving around images of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin, à la Shepard Fairey’s Obama posters, with the words “Faith,” “Hope,” and “Charity” appended to each, respectively.

Now, I might quibble with “Hope” for Washington (what about “Courage?”) and “Charity” for Franklin (I’m sure Ben would’ve preferred “Thrift”), but I really take issue with assigning “Faith” to Jefferson. If you don’t know why this is both silly and (for a non-faith-inclined person such as myself) irritating, I have two words for you: Jefferson Bible.

So, with a little help from the wonderful open-source image software Inkscape, I fixed it.

Image created by jby.

That’s much better. It’s on my Flickr, and CC licensed, so download away for all your reason-based uses.

If your idea of a fun time might include snarky dissection of illuminated manuscripts,

Then you should definitely be following Got Medieval. You might also consider checking out Carl Pyrdum’s blog if your idea of a good time might include being told another way in which Newt Gingrich is an ass. If your idea of a good time does not involve such things, consider following those links anyway; you many rapidly change your mind.

On Independence Day

Ask not … Photo by bacondit.

I’m acutely uncomfortable with the militarism, overt and implied, that accompanies Independence Day. I do, however, have faith—in the sense of being sure of what I hope for—in government by the people, in freedom of speech and of the press, in the separation of Church and State, in not quartering soldiers in any house without the consent of the Owner. In the ugliest moments of U.S. politics, I worry that my fellow Americans don’t care much for our shared history, or even some of the basic principles that underlie our democracy. Yet we’re still muddling through, and I’d rather do what I can to make this a better, more just, more civil society than just throw up my hands and move to Canada.*

In that spirit, here’s a few lines from one of my favorite figures of American history, Abraham Lincoln, on the occasion of his second Inauguration. It seems appropriate for a nation divided, even if not by actual battle lines:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The image accompanying this post is part of the winning entry for Studio 360’s Independence Day redesign challenge, and I really like it—it responds to John F. Kennedy’s famous imperative by suggesting things you can do for your country, and it includes teachers and judges alongside the more stereotypical soldier and policeman. It’s not often enough we’re reminded that you needn’t carry a weapon to serve your nation.

*This statement is subject to revision in the event that I get a job offer from a Canadian university.