Gender essentialism is not scientific

A reader let me know that I was mentioned on the March for Science Seattle page.

An excellent example of the perils of ideology trumping science.... from the left. Yes, we love talking about how the Right is so anti-science and ideologically based and praise the Left for being so much better. But they aren't. They just have different ideologies and therefore reject different science. We laugh at those dumb Republicans for denying climate science while our own "tribe" screams about the (false) perils of nuclear power, the (false) dangers of GMOs, and now, with the Regressive Left (of which PZ Myers is as deeply dogmatic as the worst Evangelical) the idea that there are no biological differences between men and women, that there are no evolutionary differences in male and female psychology, and that everyone is a clean slate (tabula rasa hypothesis - false) with gender being 100% socially determined without biological basis.Men and women ARE different. We have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to be different. Yes there is a lot of variation and there is more in group heterogeneity than between group heterogeneity (meaning that there will be a lot of overlap where on just about any characteristic there will be men that are less "manly" than some women and so on), but that doesn't mean that there aren't legitimate differences based purely in our biology and contingent evolutionary history.But as Steven Pinker points out, it is ALWAYS a mistake to tie your *ethics* to your *science*. Different =/= better or worse. It CAN be, but usually isn't. Acknowledging that men and women are biologically different is not the same as as saying one is "better" than the other. But in a bizarre and ironic twist the Left (particularly the regressives) have fetishized science to the point where they can't make an argument that they see as valid without referencing science, and so they twist and deny scientific facts to fit into their ideology, bastardizing it just as much as their counterparts on the right.


An excellent example of the perils of ideology trumping science…. from the left. Yes, we love talking about how the Right is so anti-science and ideologically based and praise the Left for being so much better. But they aren’t. They just have different ideologies and therefore reject different science. We laugh at those dumb Republicans for denying climate science while our own “tribe” screams about the (false) perils of nuclear power, the (false) dangers of GMOs, and now, with the Regressive Left (of which PZ Myers is as deeply dogmatic as the worst Evangelical) the idea that there are no biological differences between men and women, that there are no evolutionary differences in male and female psychology, and that everyone is a clean slate (tabula rasa hypothesis – false) with gender being 100% socially determined without biological basis.

Men and women ARE different. We have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to be different. Yes there is a lot of variation and there is more in group heterogeneity than between group heterogeneity (meaning that there will be a lot of overlap where on just about any characteristic there will be men that are less “manly” than some women and so on), but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t legitimate differences based purely in our biology and contingent evolutionary history.

But as Steven Pinker points out, it is ALWAYS a mistake to tie your *ethics* to your *science*. Different =/= better or worse. It CAN be, but usually isn’t. Acknowledging that men and women are biologically different is not the same as as saying one is “better” than the other. But in a bizarre and ironic twist the Left (particularly the regressives) have fetishized science to the point where they can’t make an argument that they see as valid without referencing science, and so they twist and deny scientific facts to fit into their ideology, bastardizing it just as much as their counterparts on the right.

Wow. Let me repeat that amazing accusation.

…the idea that there are no biological differences between men and women, that there are no evolutionary differences in male and female psychology, and that everyone is a clean slate (tabula rasa hypothesis – false) with gender being 100% socially determined without biological basis.

I am a fairly conventional cis-het man, steeped in Western culture, married to a conventional cis-het woman. I have seen porn. I have had heterosexual intercourse. I’m entirely conscious of the biological differences between men and women.

I’m also a biologist. I know the difference between a testis and an ovary, between a Mullerian duct and a Wolffian duct, between testosterone and estrogen (which, in the latter case, isn’t much). I’m also fairly well acquainted with the literature in evolutionary biology, and even know a bit about neuroscience.

To say that I claim there are no biological differences between men and women is so patently absurd and totally divorced from reality that Mr Pavlov ought to be embarrassed about saying something so stupid while accusing me of saying something so stupid. He won’t be.

What he’s doing is a common rhetorical trick. It’s obvious that most men have a penis and most women have a vagina, therefore, with a bit of clumsy sleight of hand, he wants to claim that every bit of cultural bias about the relative abilities of men and women is equally valid. He wants to pretend that because ovaries exist, all his notions about femininity must be equally rooted in biological reality.

Similarly, he reveals his hand with that odious Pinkerism about blank slates — that’s exactly the same game! Argue that some element of human psychology is not fixed by genetics and that it arises in a social context, and you are castigated by Pinker fans who like to bring the discourse to a dead stop with the ludicrous accusation that you must believe everything is 100% socially determined without biological basis. It’s idiotic and dishonest, but right now it’s Pinker’s main claim to fame.

Some things are complex and culturally determined. Biological sex is strongly canalized to produce a bimodal distribution of physical properties, but intersexes do exist. The brain is a plastic organ that responds to its environment in sophisticated ways, and carries both predispositions and the potential to develop in new ways, and gender is less strongly specified by genes than is the reproductive tract. If anyone is anti-science, it’s these people who want to argue for a less responsive, less adaptive, less diverse pattern of possible behaviors from the human brain.

You don’t get to claim that you have a solid biological footing in arguing that women are more nurturing, are less capable of doing math, and prefer the color pink because estrogen unless you’ve done actual work to demonstrate that those differences are real. Breasts aren’t your shortcut for imposing a mass of narrow Victorian cultural prejudices on how people should be, and you don’t get to hide behind science on this one.

Also…hiding behind trivially exposed lies isn’t science, even if some of your scientific heroes who try to defend a regressive conventionality think so.

Cordelia Fine is doing the math

I’m reading Cordelia Fine’s Testosterone Rex: Myths of Sex, Science, and Society –it’s my airplane reading for today, as I travel east — and am getting increasingly enlightened. It addresses these terrible myths about men and manliness and sex that afflict us all, and most importantly, knocking down a lot of scientific fables that seem to be readily disseminated and accepted. Here’s an example from chapter two. She quotes a psychologist who describes a common hypothetical scenario, it’s even one that I think I’ve used in the past, the idea that the reproductive capacity of men is vastly greater than that of women, because we produce lots of cheap sperm, while they are limited by all that pregnancy and child-rearing stuff. Beat your chests in pride at your immense potential virility, men! She quotes a psychologist who makes this kind of facile quantitative argument.

Consider that a man can produces as many as 100 offspring by indiscriminately mating with 100 women in a given year, whereas a man who is monogamous will tend to have only one child with his partner during that same time period. In evolutionary currencies, this represents a strong selective pressure—and a potent adaptive problem—for men’t mating strategies to favor at least some desire for sexual variety.

Then — and this is what I love about this book — she takes it seriously and introduces all the factors involved in conception and does a simple calculation, assuming a man seriously goes on a crusade to impregnate 100 random women.

So what’s the likely return on this exhausting investment? For healthy couples, the probability of a woman becoming pregnant from a single randomly timed act of intercourse is about 3 percent, ranging (depending on the time of the month) from a low of 0 to a high of nearly 9 percent. On average, then, a year of competitive courtship would result in only about three of the one hundred women becoming pregnant. (Although a man could increase his chances of conception by having sex with the same woman repeatedly, this would of course disrupt his very tight schedule.) This estimate, by the way, assumes that the man, in contradiction with the principle of “indiscriminately mating,” excludes women under twenty and over forty, who have a greater number of cycles in which no egg is released. It also doesn’t take into account that some women will be chronically infertile (Einon estimates about 8 percent), or that women who are mostly sexually abstinent have long menstrual cycles and ovulate less frequently, making it less likely that a single coital act will result in pregnancy. We’re also kindly overlooking sperm depletion, and discreetly turning a blind eye to the possibility that another man’s sperm might reach the egg first. In these unrealistically ideal condition, a man who sets himself the annual project of producing one hundred children from one hundred one-night stands has a chance of success of about 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000363.

(Number of zeroes only approximate — I just estimated from the layout on the page, which is hard to do. If only she’d used exponential notation!)

Let’s make the math even simpler and more stark.

Indeed, a promiscuous man would need to have sex with more than 130 women just to have 90 percent odds of outdoing the one baby a monogamous man might expect to father in a year.

Suddenly, my preferred reproductive strategy, monogamy and paternal investment in offspring, seems to be the best evolutionary strategy. It’s much less exhausting, too, and has given me time to do other things in my life.

Anyway, this is a delightful book that has made me question ‘facts’ I’ve long taken for granted multiple times so far, and I haven’t yet finished it. It really pays to think about one’s assumptions now and then, and it’s making me aware of how badly a lot of gender essentialism has poisoned our culture with lies.

She also takes a lot of swift, sharp pokes at evolutionary psychology, if you find that entertaining. I certainly do!

Creationist myopia

Tomkins is at it again. He’s a creationist who, for some reason, detests the idea that human chromosome 2 is the production of a fusion of a pair of ancestral ape chromosomes. I don’t understand why; all he’s got to do is invoke The Fall and claim it’s an error of Biblical origin, it’s not as if the Bible has anything at all to say about chromosomes. But he does like to go on and on about searching for evidence of a fusion at the fusion site, like he’s expecting an intact centromere and telomere to be right there, fossilized in the sequence. He’s written another article for Answers in Genesis that is an amazing welter of obfuscation.

In 2013, it was shown that the alleged interstitial telomeric repeat site of the human chromosome 2 fusion corresponding to chimpanzee chromosomes 2A and 2B of a hypothetical common ancestor was actually a second promoter in the DDX11L2 long noncoding RNA gene. Additional ENCODE related data are provided in this report that not only debunk evolutionary criticism and obfuscation in response to this discovery, but solidify the original finding. New data come from epigenetic-modifications, transcription factor binding, and transcription start site information. It is also shown that the alleged cryptic centromere site, which is very short in length compared to a normal centromere, is completely situated inside the actively expressed protein coding gene ANKRD30BL—encoding both exon and intron regions. Other factors refuting this region as a cryptic centromere are also discussed. Taken together, genomic data for both the alleged fusion and cryptic centromere sites refute the concept of fusion in a human-chimpanzee common ancestor.

This is remarkable. His entire ‘evidence’ consists of looking in a region of poorly conserved, non-functional DNA, and failing to find a conserved sequence, as if that’s what is expected. It’s the wrong approach. He has to ignore all the other cytological and sequence data that show that chromosome 2 is similar in structure to two chimpanzee chromosomes. This makes no sense. I explained all this before.

…what they do is focus on just the region of the fusion, and complain that it is a tangled mess and hard to interpret — that it is a degenerate telomeric region, rather than a complete and intact telomere, which is what they demand be present. This is an unrealistic expectation, given that every paper on the structure of the fusion region makes the point that it is degenerate.

An analogy: imagine a red Ford Mustang and a blue BMW X6 are in a head-on collision, and both have totally wrecked front ends, with bumpers and radiators and headlights interlocked and everything about their grilles in tangled confusion, and with bits and pieces torn loose and flung about. You’d be able to look at the crash and still tell by everything in and behind the engine compartment that Car #1 was a Mustang and Car #2 was an X6.

Bergman and Tomkins are the bewildered and incompetent investigators who ignore every other factor in the crash, look at a few particularly mangled bits of the wreckage, and declare that they can’t identify it, therefore…the two vehicles were assembled at the factory in this particular configuration, and no crash occurred. But they use lots of sciencey language to explain this at tendentious length, which is sufficient to convince non-scientists that the interpretation of an obvious historical event has been refuted. And that’s all they need to do to accomplish their goals: fling about unfounded fear, uncertainty, and doubt to win over the ignorant.

Tomkins has done it again. He stares fixedly at the debris and fails to pay any attention at all to the intact, functional regions of the human chromosome and ape chromosomes, which are all you need to tell the tale.

That’s not how the brain works!

I’m watching this video of Ben Carson’s recent speech, and I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I know everyone is aghast at his trivializing of the slave trade, and that’s the more important example of negligent ignorance to focus on, but good grief, I was trained as a neuroscientist, and his remarks about the brain are appalling.

It remembers everything you’ve ever seen. Everything you’ve ever heard. I could take the oldest person here, make a hole right here on the side of the head, and put some depth electrodes into their hippocampus and stimulate, and they would be able to recite back to you verbatim a book they read 60 years ago. It’s all there; it doesn’t go away. You just have to learn how to recall it. But that’s what your brain is capable of. It can process more than 2 million bits of information per second. You can’t overload it. Have you ever heard people say, “Don’t do all that, you’ll overload your brain.” You can’t overload the human brain. If you learned one new fact every second, it would take you more than 3 million years to challenge the capacity of your brain.

None of that is true! Not one bit of it! I can’t imagine anyone who learned the slightest bit of neurobiology in the 20th century believing any of that. The brain throws away most of its sensory input. We don’t know what the “storage capacity” (and it’s fundamentally wrong to think of it that way, as if it’s a flash drive) of the brain is, and we don’t know the storage requirement of a “fact”, so that’s just a bullshit estimation.

Do you even need to know anything to be a brain surgeon? Somebody wack him upside the head with a copy of Kandel and tell him to start reading this stuff he pretends to know.

Apparently, he’s been reciting this pseudoscientific claptrap for years, in his books and speeches before religious groups, but we all know that anybody who read or listened to that stuff wasn’t competent to criticize his bad science.

Bird killer

We’ve got this great big glass-fronted stadium in the Twin Cities, located near the river and on the migratory flyway for birds. Everyone said before it was built that it was going to kill lots of birds. Now that it’s looming there, people are patrolling around the base and looking for dead birds. And guess what? It’s killing lots of birds. Surprise!

I’m interested in how people respond to the confirmation of this prediction. The comments are predictably depressing.

Wind turbines kill an estimated 140,000 to 328,000 birds each year in North America, also according to the National Audubon Society.

Yes! This is a big problem! We need better solutions to prevent bird and bat deaths by turbines, and no one is going to disagree with that. The story here, though, is that we have good solutions to the problem of birds hitting buildings, and they were even proposed during construction. As the article points out:

ird strikes with buildings are avoidable. Manhattan’s Jacob Javits Center, built in 1986, reduced collisions by about 90 percent by replacing reflective glass with a visibly patterned glass three years ago. American Bird Conservancy suggests using window films, decals, netting, screens and awnings to deter bird collisions.

So here’s a situation with a clear solution, which the owners of the stadium dismissed and did not implement, and someone is pointing to a completely different problem that lacks a good solution as an excuse to do nothing? Weird.

Do you really want to destroy what is suppose to be a revenue generator with bad publicity?

Did you know that stadiums don’t profit the communities they’re built in? They line the pockets of sports team owners, for sure, and you could argue that there are lots of intangible values that having an entertainment complex brings in…but please. Don’t argue for a non-existent profit.

Also, most troubling is the idea that we should be silent about bad ideas lest we discourage people from investing in them. That seems precisely backwards to me.

Those are the reasonable (by comparison) criticisms of the article. Are you ready for the unreasonable ones?

These crazy liberal democrat groups are nuts. They care more about 35 birds dying versus millions of human fetuses murdered by Planned Parenthood.

If you look at the statistics, less than a million abortions per year are performed in the US. These are not acts of murder. These are safe, legal operations carried out for the health and benefit of almost a million women per year. I actually do care more about the health and future of women than I do the safety of birds, but that is irrelevant. Putting a film on a stadium to reduce bird collisions will not increase the abortion rate, if that’s what you’re concerned about.

This next one, though, is just plain stupid.

Just put a big ugly Elizabeth Warren face up there with mouth open. That’ll scare crow those birds away if it doesn’t scare’em to death first.

It would actually work. Setting aside the bigotry and misogyny about calling Warren ugly, putting up a great big decal of any kind — you could even use Donald Trump’s lovely face — would disrupt the reflective surface that fools the birds and would solve the problem. A non-reflective film was what was originally proposed, which would probably be simpler and cheaper, but sure, slap a great big American flag across all that glass; an abstract pattern; pictures of bald eagles; whatever. This is not an insoluble problem.

Where does this weird idea come from?

Ed Yong has written about a common assumption that scientists must be ‘objective’: Do Scientists Lose Credibility When They Become Political? (the answer is “NO”, by the way), and ThinkProgress is also concerned about it.

Scientists have historically stayed above the political fray, but now that researchers face regular attacks under the Trump administration, many are planning to fight back.

TP cites the same study to say that it does no harm for scientists to be politically active.

I’m curious, though, where this odd notion that scientists are or should be apolitical comes from, though, because it’s never been true. Never. Not once in the history of science. When scientists have socially relevant information in their field of expertise, they tend to speak out — even when they’re wrong. How do you think eugenics became so popular? It wasn’t because geneticists at Cold Spring Harbor were reluctant to advise the public. How about the battles over the health effects of smoking? Scientists were generally quite clear about how bad it was, except for the minority of paid shills who, again, weren’t shy about advertising their views.

I’d have to say that it’s a nearly universal property of scientists that they are political because they are human. The only time it hurts their credibility is when they use their authority to promote lies.

Way back when I was a grad student, I worked with George Streisinger, the man who put zebrafish on the map. He was also Jewish, born in Hungary, and when he was a child, his family emigrated to the US to escape Nazi persecution. Do you think he was apolitical? He organized to oppose the Vietnam war. He shut down efforts to create a unit for war research on the University of Oregon campus. One time, I was in his office to talk about some routine lab issues, and we somehow got off on a tangent about dose-response curves to toxins and radiation, and we spent an hour talking about testimony he was going to give in a court case for the Downwinders. He was passionate and fierce, and a model for me for how a scientist ought to be.

So when people beat their breasts about whether scientists are too political, I feel like I’m listening to aliens from another culture, another world, one that I have never visited. It’s very strange. I wish George were still alive to instruct them in the folly of their assumptions.

That ThinkProgress also has a remarkable map that shows what happens when scientists aren’t loud enough. This is a map of the proportion of people who have swallowed the lie that scientists are in disagreement about global warming. This is not true, of course: the overwhelming majority of scientists agree with the consensus that global warming is happening, and that it has an anthropogenic cause. So this is simply a Map of Wrong, where all the blue areas represent large numbers of people who hold demonstrably incorrect views about what scientists think.

The proportion of adults who believe that most scientists think that global warming is happening.

The proportion of adults who believe that most scientists think that global warming is happening.

That’s stunning. This doesn’t say that scientists should avoid political issues, it’s saying that there are active forces of ignorance lying about the science, and at the same time spreading this destructive idea that a good scientist should be above the fray.

How can you be a good scientist and restrain yourself from pointing out where people are wrong?

Marching, marching onward for Science!

I just had a conversation with Adam Ford about the March for Science and miscellaneous other topics, and it has been recorded for posterity.

My greatest accomplishment here is that my lungs were gradually filling with phlegm the whole time, and I managed to avoid doubling over and horking up a lobe for a whole hour. It helped that my ribs are so sore from prior coughing episodes that it’s agony every time I do that.

Also, drugs. Drugs are good.