So this is how mainstream religion responds to extremist violence?

I know the excuses already. The cowardly assassin, Mumtaz Qadri, who murdered Governor Taseer in Pakistan was an outlier, a freak, a weirdo, and we atheist bastards better not try to demean religion by associating a rogue individual with it. Can we spit in contempt on an entire culture instead?

Taseer was buried in his home town of Lahore. The 66-year-old was assassinated yesterday by Mumtaz Qadri, one of his police bodyguards, after he had campaigned for reform of the law on blasphemy.

Qadri appeared in court, unrepentant, where waiting lawyers threw handfuls of rose petals over him and others in the crowd slapped his back and kissed his cheek as he was led in and out amid heavy security.

Yeah, Qadri must be a despised outcast and entirely unrepresentative of what the moderates believe.

To be showered with rose petals for gunning down a defenseless man you were hired to protect…it sounds like Islamic Paradise.

Conservative self-identifies with single-celled brainless organism

Among my usual flood of daily email, I frequently get tossed onto mailing lists for conservative think tanks. Why? I don’t know. I suspect that it’s for the same reason I also get a lot of gay porn in my email: not because I follow it or asked to be added, but because some tired d-bag with no imagination thinks its funny to dun me with more junk. The joke’s on them, though: I might keep it around and skim the stuff now and then to get inspiration for a blog post, and then click-click — a few presses of a button and I add the source to my junk mail filter, and never see it again.

No, I didn’t get inspired by gay porn today, but by drivel from some freakish conservative think tank called the Witherspoon Institute, about which I know next to nothing except that they’re another of those organizations that cloak themselves in the Holy Founding Fathers of America to promote illiberal non-freethinking anti-government BS. This latest is by a philosopher criticizing a book about modern reproductive biotechnologies. He doesn’t like ’em. Not one bit, no sir.

But you know an essay from a philosopher is going to be pretty much worthless when it opens and closes with references to… C.S. Lewis. I don’t know why that man gets so much happy clappy press from believers. I suspect he must have sold his soul to the devil.

Anyway, the bizarre part is in the middle, where Justin Barnard is poleaxed by the author’s, Steven Potter’s, willingness to destroy human embryos. Potter apparently considers several of the sides of the debate, but fails to come down on the side of the Religious Right, that is, that embryos are absolutely and undeniably full human beings from the instant of fertilization, instead espousing the dreadful notion that the definition of personhood falls into a huge gray area.

Potter’s own attempt to wrestle with the morality of destroying human embryos is philosophically, if not biologically, confused from the start. He begins by claiming that “each egg and sperm has the potential to make a person.” Biologically, this is simply false. Gametes, by themselves, have no intrinsic developmental potential for human personhood. Of course, Potter knows this. So his use of “potential” is likely more latitudinarian. Still, three pages later, Potter describes the zygote as having “remarkable potential.” “It can,” he explains, “turn itself into a person.” Ironically, Potter fails to recognize that this potentialist understanding of human personhood is at odds with his rather surprising admission of the embryological facts. Potter writes, “Of course we all began as a zygote. Everyone does.” What is shocking about this concession is what it so obviously entails–an entailment that seems lost on Potter. If I, the human being I am today, “began as a zygote,” then the zygote that began the-human-being-I-am-today was me–i.e., it was a human person. It was not merely a cell with “remarkable potential” to become me. It was me.

If anyone is confused here, it’s Barnard. Of course each egg and sperm has the potential to form a person, especially when we throw biotechnology into the equation, as the book he’s reviewing explicitly does. We already have techniques to revert and differentiate a sperm cell into an egg. For that matter, given time and research, we’ll be able to reprogram just about any cell into a totipotent state, and clone someone from a cheek swab. Does Mr Barnard regard every cell he sheds as a potential person?

Perhaps he wants to argue that a sperm or egg cell doesn’t have the potential for personhood without a human assist. But then by that limitation the zygote has to be excluded as well — no human zygote can develop to term without the extreme cooperation of another individual. Try it; extract a fertilized egg and set it in a beaker by your nightstand, and wait for a baby to crawl out. Won’t happen. A uterus and attendant physiological and behavioral meat construct, i.e., woman, is also an amazing piece of biotechnology that is a necessary component of the developmental process.

But the real blow to this whole “potential” argument is damaged irreparably by Barnard’s last few sentences — was he going for a reductio here? Is the entire essay an exercise in irony? ‘Cause that dope was dumb.

Yes, Mr Barnard began as a zygote. That does not mean the zygote was Mr Barnard. My car began as a stack of metal ingots and barrels of plastics; that does not imply that an ingot of iron is a car. My house began as a set of blueprints and an idea in an architect’s mind; nobody is going to pay the architect rent for living in his cranium or on a stack of paper in a cabinet. The zygote was not Justin Barnard, unless Justin Barnard is still a vegetating single-celled blob, in which case I’d like to know how he typed his essay.

Since Barnard claims to be a philosopher, I’ll cite another, a guy named Aristotle. This is a quote I use in the classroom when I try to explain to them how epigenesis works, in contrast to preformation. Aristotle did some basic poking around in chicken eggs and in semen, and he noticed something rather obvious—there were no bones in there, nor blood, nor anything meatlike or gristly or brainy. So he made the simple suggestion that they weren’t there.

Why not admit straight away that the semen…is such that out of it blood and flesh can be formed, instead of maintaining that semen is both blood and flesh?

Barnard is making the classic preformationist error of assuming that everything had to be there in the beginning: I am made of bones and blood and flesh and brains and guts and consciousness and self-identity, therefore the zygote must have contained bones and blood and flesh and brains and guts and consciousness and self-identity.

It didn’t.

Why not admit straight away that the zygote is such that out of it selfhood may arise, rather than maintaining that the zygote is the self?

In that case we have to recognize that the person is not present instantaneously at one discrete moment, but emerges gradually over months to years of time, that there were moments when self was not present and other moments when self clearly was present, and moments in between where there is ambiguity or partial identity or otherwise blurry gray boundaries. This is a conclusion that makes conservative ideologues wince and shy away — I think it’s too complicated for their brains, which may in some ways be equivalent to the gormless reflexive metabolic state of the zygote — but it is how science understands the process of development.

The Annals of Thoracic Surgery has its own notions of transparency

I don’t think journal editor L. Henry Edmunds is quite clear on how the scientific method should work: we’re supposed to have the free exchange of information. His journal recently retracted a paper (from other sources, it was apparently because the authors, um, “recycled” data from another study), and when asked why, his answer was “It’s none of your damned business”, ranted a bit against “journalists and bloggists”, and then made an interesting comparison: “If you get divorced from your wife, the public doesn’t need to know the details.”.

Hmmm. Except that details of your relationship with your wife aren’t part of your professional interactions with colleagues, aren’t usually presented as data in papers and talks, aren’t part of an institution of collaboration and research that relies on those details, and your relationship isn’t going to someday maybe crack open my chest or the chests of thousands of other people, who are going to depend on the information about your divorce to improve the quality and duration of their lives.

So, a cross actually is a Christian religious symbol, then?

The Mount Soledad Easter Cross has a long and contentious legal history. It’s a 43-foot-tall concrete cross standing on public land, initially erected by Christians, and used as the focus of Christian religious ceremonies, and is clearly intended and used for a sectarian religious purpose. It is clearly a violation of the separation of church and state to use public land to promote a specific religion, yet a federal judge ruled that “the memorial at Mount Soledad, including its Latin cross, communicates the primarily nonreligious messages of military service, death and sacrifice,” and decided it was constitutional. I suspect that judge was not an atheist, a Moslem, or a Sikh; it takes some twisted logic to decide that a prominent religious symbol is not actually a religious symbol.

That’s been settled for now. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that a humongous cross erected to celebrate Easter actually is a religious symbol, despite all the dishonest subterfuge by Christians who were emulating St Peter. I recommend that, after reading the ruling, they open their bibles and turn to Mark 14:66-72. The denial isn’t usually considered a high mark of Peter’s service.

They might consider that before filing for yet another appeal, as we all know they will.

Awe ≠ Religion

Jerry Coyne has just heard that Chris Mooney has an article in Playboy — I knew about this a while back, and have a copy of the text. I didn’t mention it before because it isn’t online, and it’s dreadfully dreary stuff. The entire article is a case of false equivalence: he cites scientists like Einstein and Darwin writing about a sense of awe and wonder at the natural world, and then tries to slide a fast one by…the idea that this means science and religion really are compatible. Well, science and spirituality. Well, spirituality is all about the believers. It’s a slimy game relying on the fact that apologists love to dodge criticisms of religion, the body of concrete, specific, institutionalized beliefs about the supernatural, by retreating to the tactical vagueness of “faith” or “spirituality”, whatever the hell they are. Apparently, in Mooney’s head, spirituality is just like religion is just like a scientist appreciating nature. It reduces these words to diffuse meaninglessness.

Would you believe he cites Darwin as a spiritual leader of the sort he likes?

You may argue that Charles Darwin was another spiritual leader of modern science. While he ultimately concluded he would have to remain an agnostic with respect to God, Darwin expressed great wonder at the diversity and interconnectedness of nature.

That’s it. All you have to do is love biology and science, and Chris Mooney has you drafted into the clergy. I guess that makes me a leading ally of the faitheist/accommodationist church of sacred worship, then.

But this is what Darwin actually thought of religion, as he described in his autobiography.

But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished.

And this is a damnable doctrine.

Although I did not think much about the existence of a personal God until a considerably later period of my life, I will here give the vague conclusions to which I have been driven. The old argument of design in nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. We can no longer argue that, for instance, the beautiful hinge of a bivalve shell must have been made by an intelligent being, like the hinge of a door by man. There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows. Everything in nature is the result of fixed laws.

Darwin is not the man to recruit in a crusade to reconcile American Christians to evolution.

Along the way, Mooney praises E.O. Wilson and his book, The Creation, as examples of making a spiritual appeal to find common cause with believers. I’ve read that book; it’s nicely done from the perspective of a liberal environmentalist, but I found it a doomed effort. Wilson is not a believer, he doesn’t hide the fact, but he tries to frame — no wonder Mooney likes it — the issues in a way a religious person could appreciate, and it clunked dreadfully, false notes every step of the way.

In his book The Creation, celebrated Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson makes a spiritual appeal to religious believers for help in preserving the diversity of species on Earth. Similarly, other scientists have reached out to religious audiences to find allies in the fight against climate change and for environmental protections.

It’s true. It was a resepected scientist reaching out to religious audiences. Did it work? It doesn’t seem to have had the slightest effect. If you want to see how religious audiences respond to pleas to preserve the environment, try reading Resisting the Green Dragon. The Green Dragon, obviously, is anyone who tries to argue that the environment is anything but a resource to be plundered. This is how religion — not faith, not spirituality, not awe — responds to science.

Mooney wrote almost two pages of fuzzy drivel, ignoring the actual threat of religious zealotry, and concludes this way:

There is, after all, a common interest between scientists and believers: Secular or otherwise, we cannot have spiritual experiences without an Earth to have them on. “Whether you believe all life reflects the operation of evolution or God’s good grace, our responsibility to future generations is to ensure that the creation is preserved in all its magnificence,” says Doherty. “That will happen only if those who live by science and/or by faith can work together in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and respect.”

Sorry. You can’t expect us to simply respect foolish ideas. We tolerate them, but people like Mooney go further and demand that we respect nonsense, and that’s not going to happen, and shouldn’t happen.

And trying to coopt an honest scientific appreciation of the wonders of the universe as support for religion is a dishonest attempt to prop up bogus superstitions with an appeal to emotions — any emotions. If a scientist isn’t a passionless robot, Mooney wants to be able to pretend they’re on the side of religious dogma. That rankles. Love of science is not equatable to clinging to ignorance, although Chris Mooney is straining to make it so.

The new phrenology

Morphological variation is important, it’s interesting…and it’s also common. It’s one of my major scientific interests — I’m actually beginning a new research project this spring with a student and I doing some pilot experiments to evaluate variation in wild populations here in western Minnesota, so I’m even putting my research time where my mouth is in this case. There has been some wonderful prior work in this area: I’ll just mention a paper by Shubin, Wake, and Crawford from 1995 that examined limb skeletal morphology in a population of newts, and found notable variation in the wrist elements — only about 70% had the canonical organization of limb bones.



I’ve also mentioned the fascinating variation in the morphology of the human aorta. Anatomy textbooks lay out the most common patterns, but anyone who has taught the subject knows that once you start dissecting, you always find surprises, and that’s OK: variation is the raw material of evolution, so it’s what we expect.

The interesting part is trying to figure out what causes these differences in populations. We can sort explanations into three major categories.

  1. Genetic variation. It may be the the reason different morphs are found is that they carry different alleles for traits that influence the developmental processes that build features of the organism. Consider family resemblances, for instance: your nose or chin might be a recognizable family trait that you’ve inherited from one of your parents, and may pass on to your children.

  2. Environmental variation. The specific pattern of expression of some features may be modified by environmental factors. In larval zebrafish, for instance, the final number of somites varies to a small degree, and can be biased by the temperature at which they are raised. They’re also susceptible to heat shock, which can generate segmentation abnormalities.

  3. Developmental noise. Sometimes, maybe often, the specific details of formation of a structure may not be precisely determined — they wobble a bit. The limb variation Shubin and others saw, for example, was almost entirely asymmetric, so it’s not likely to have been either genetic or environmental. They were just a consequence of common micro-accidents that almost certainly had no significant effect on limb function.

When I see variation, the first question that pops into my head is which of the above three categories it falls into. The second question is usually whether the variation does anything — while some may have consequences on physiology or movement or sexual attractiveness, for instance, others may really be entirely neutral, representing equivalent functional alternatives. Those are the interesting questions that begin inquiry; observing variation is just a starting point for asking good questions about causes and effects, if any.

I bring up this subject as a roundabout introduction to why I find myself extremely peeved by a recent bit of nonsense in the press: the claim that liberal and conservative brains have a different organization, with conservatives having larger amygdalas (“associated with anxiety and emotions”) and liberals having a larger anterior cingulate (“associated with courage and looking on the bright side of life”).


I don’t deny the existence of anatomical variation in the brain — I expect it (see above). I don’t question the ability of the technique, using MRI, to measure the dimensions of internal structures. I even think these kinds of structural variations warrant more investigation — I think there are great opportunities for future research to use these tools to look for potential effects of these differences.

What offends me are a number of things. One is that the interesting questions are ignored. Is this variation genetic, environmental, or simply a product of slop in the system? Does it actually have behavioral consequences? The authors babble about some correlation with political preferences, but they have no theoretical basis for drawing that conclusion, and they can’t even address the direction of causality (which they assume is there) — does having a larger amygdala make you conservative, or does exercising conservative views enlarge the amygdala?

I really resent the foolish categorization of the functions of these brain regions. Courage is an awfully complex aspect of personality and emotion and cognition to simply assign to one part of the brain; I don’t even know how to define “courage” neurologically. Are we still playing the magical game of phrenology here? This is not how the brain works!

Furthermore, they’re picking on a complex phenomenon and making it binary. Aren’t there more than one way each to be a conservative or a liberal? Aren’t these complicated human beings who vary in an incredibly large number of dimensions, too many to be simply lumped into one of two types on the basis of a simple survey?

This is bad science in a number of other ways. It was done at the request of a British radio channel; they essentially wanted some easily digestible fluff for their audience. The investigator, Geraint Rees, has published quite a few papers in credible journals — is this really the kind of dubious pop-culture crap he wants to be known for? The data is also feeble, based on scans of two politicians, followed by digging through scans and questionnaires filled out by 90 students. This is blatant statistical fishing, dredging a complex data set for correlations after the fact. I really, really, really detest studies like that.

And here’s a remarkable thing: I haven’t seen the actual data yet. I don’t know how much variation there is, or how weak or strong their correlations are. It’s because I can’t. This work was done as a radio stunt, is now being touted in various other media, and the paper hasn’t been published yet. It’ll be out sometime this year, in an unnamed journal.

We were just discussing the so-called “decline effect”, to which my answer was that science is hard, it takes rigor and discipline to overcome errors in analysis and interpretation, and sometimes marginal effects take a great deal of time to be resolved one way or the other…and in particular, sometimes these marginal results get over-inflated into undeserved significance, and it takes years to clear up the record.

This study is a perfect example of the kind of inept methodology and lazy fishing for data instead of information that is the root of the real problem. Science is fine, but sometimes gets obscured by the kind of noise this paper is promoting.

I have to acknowledge that I ran across this tripe via Blue Girl, who dismisses it as “sweeping proclamations about the neurophysiological superiority of the liberal brain”, and Amanda Marcotte, who rejects it because “This kind of thing is inexcusable, both from a fact-based perspective and because the implication is that people who are conservative can’t help themselves.” Exactly right. This kind of story is complete crap from the premise to the data to the interpretations.