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Jul 26 2014

She shouldn’t have gotten her face in the way of his fist

Some football player named Ray Rice got in a fight with his fiancée, and knocked her out cold in an elevator — there is surveillance of him dragging her unconscious body out. You would think, maybe, that a professional athlete would have at some time learned that he’s very strong, and that a little caution in dealing physically with other was warranted, and maybe that the appropriate way to deal with someone you purportedly love does not involve beating her unconscious.

Rice has sort-of-apologized in a press conference — to which he brought his new wife to also apologize for her actions (makes you wonder what kind of beating she’d get if she didn’t). And now he’s been sort-of-punished, so the NFL is back to stroking his ego.

It’s also precious as heck that Ray Rice feels an obligation to The Children, what with being a role model and all, but maybe he should not be a role model because, kids, lady-beating is wrong, even if the NFL doesn’t really think so. Sure, it suspended Rice for TWO WHOLE GAMES and fined him $529,411.24, which sounds like a lot of money until you realize that it is merely two games’ worth of pay for Rice the Role Model. But everyone in the sportsball world is tripping over themselves to assure us that Ray Rice really is a nice guy, no really, and he will never ever knock his wife out cold again, he promises, even though the recidivism rate for lady-beaters is about 110 percent. (Okay, not exactly, but pretty close.) Here’s the team’s general manager, Ozzie Newsome, giving Rice some quality reach-around, but not in a gay way of course, because that would be a REAL problem for the NFL:

“We also respect the efforts Ray has made to become the best partner and father he can be.” Newsome said. “That night was not typical of the Ray Rice we know and respect. We believe that he will not let that one night define who he is, and he is determined to make sure something like this never happens again.”

Hmm. I’ve been married for 34 years, and she’s never hit me, and I’ve never hit her. In our case, if I started using her as a punching bag, you could say it’s “not typical”…but even that many years of respectful behavior would not be sufficient to justify doing harm now. But if he’s a pro football player, it’s all water under the bridge.

What I’d like to know is whether, if there is any other issue of domestic violence with this guy, the NFL will come back and say, “We were wrong — turns out thumping women is typical of Ray Rice, he’s an asshole, and he’s fired.” Any takers on that one? I suspect instead the NFL is right now deploying a team of PR specialists prepared to hush up any future incidents.

But here’s a professional apologist for athletes from ESPN commenting on the issue:

But what about addressing women on how they can help prevent the obvious wrong done upon them?

But what about addressing women on how they can help prevent the obvious wrong done upon them?

Yeah, ladies, it’s your responsibility to avoid pissing off muscular 200 pound football players. Ultimately, it’s all your fault.

Jul 26 2014

Sharp lines

Greta asks where you’d draw the line.

Is there any line that someone could cross that would make you unwilling to support them or work with them? Is there any line that someone could cross that would make you not link to their videos, not share their blog posts, not upvote them, not post admiring comments about them in public forums, not buy or promote their books? Will you really support the work of absolutely anyone, regardless of how vile their behavior has been, as long as they say one thing you happen to agree with?

Would you support the work of an avowed racist, who has publicly and unapologetically stated their opinion that black people are not fully human? Would you support the work of an avowed homophobe, who has publicly and unapologetically stated their opinion that LGBT people are mentally ill and should be locked into mental hospitals?

OK, atheists, think about it. Have you been outraged at the Catholic Church’s cover up of pedophiles, criminal behavior in orphanages or hospitals, or been horrified at their inhuman rejection of family planning in the third world? Have you ever thought to yourself that it was unbelievable that people actually remained in the church and even made excuses for that behavior? If you’re saying that all behavior must be tolerated in the name of the Big Tent, if you’ve been arguing that it’s just one little foible but that these cheerful misogynists have done good work otherwise, if you’re reluctant to call out the ugliness because it might besmirch the good name of atheism, go look in a mirror and say hello to the same damn thing as any Catholic apologist.

Atheists already have a PR problem, in that the stereotype is that we’re all amoral, horrible people. The only corrective is to make it clear that we stand for something more than just making fun of god — and everyone knows this. Atheists like to stand up for science (I approve), but some atheists freak out if we also use atheism as a rational justification for equality (I don’t even understand that). Neither science nor atheism dictate what you must do, but they are frameworks for seeing the universe free of the superstitious fog of human delusions, so that human beings can better pursue human virtues. All human beings. Not just the ones in your ethnic group or your socioeconomic class.

About that ‘big tent’ every movement aims to provide…atheism is a small tent. It was worse 15-20 years ago, when I’d attend atheist meetings and find myself the youngest guy there, but still fitting in as a white male academic. It’s definitely gotten better. But honestly, rather than simply expanding the tent, what I see is resistance, defensiveness, and a hardening of sexist and racist attitudes. And further, I see movement leaders acquiescing or glossing over these flaws because they fear antagonizing people already under the tent, rather than seeing that these same reactionary neophobes (or worse, disruptive trolls) are a major hindrance to further growth. And you have to be willing to adapt.

When you a non-white or non-male person joins your movement, like Sikivu Hutchinson, or Rebecca Watson, or Anthony Pinn, or Heina Dadabhoy, or Jamila Bey, or when LGBTQ atheists like Zinnia Jones or Chris Stedman join, they are not there to bring you cookies. They are not there to reassure you that straight white men are A-OK in their book. They are not there to allow you to check off an entry in your diversity bucket list. They are there to represent their interests, to criticize, to shape the movement to better fill the needs of more diverse people. You can disagree and criticize right back, because that’s what atheists do, but you must take them seriously, and you must try to change yourself, because that’s the only way we can grow this movement.

That’s our choice. We can either make atheism mean something, with substantial ideas that improve people’s lives — and science is one thing that does, but is only going to appeal to a niche audience — or we can fade out and die away, like any of the other tightly focused movements that sprang up in this land of a thousand religions and a thousand self-help movements. Diversify or die. Adaptation or extinction. Your choice.

I’m not making the choice that says we ignore the hidebound dogmatists and stiflingly loud haters in our midst. I’ve got lines that I won’t cross.

Jul 25 2014

So is that the new plan, Israel?

I’m now even more disgusted. Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University made a statement about the ‘realities’ of their conflict.

“You have to understand the culture in which we live,” said Kedar. “The only thing that deters [Hamas leaders] is a threat to the connection between their heads and their shoulders.” When presenter Yossi Hadar asked if that “could filter down” the organization’s ranks, Kedar replied: “No, because lower down the considerations are entirely different. Terrorists like those who kidnapped the children and killed them — the only thing that deters them is if they know that their sister or their mother will be raped in the event that they are caught. What can you do, that’s the culture in which we live.”

When Hadar said, “We can’t take such steps, of course,” Kedar continued: “I’m not talking about what we should or shouldn’t do. I’m talking about the facts. The only thing that deters a suicide bomber is the knowledge that if he pulls the trigger or blows himself up, his sister will be raped. That’s all. That’s the only thing that will bring him back home, in order to preserve his sister’s honor.”

He isn’t actually saying they should start raping Palestinian women, but he just threw it out there as the only way to stop suicide bombers. It’s an actively evil proposition, and it doesn’t even make sense. Would raping their mothers and sisters suddenly reconcile Palestinians to Israeli occupation and oppression? There’s not much knowledge of human behavior there.

Jul 25 2014

We need to ban Minnesotans

Clearly, residents of this state are the problem. Look what this wretched Minnesotan did.

A Minnesota man who admitted shooting a 17-year-old girl multiple times because she asked him to stop trespassing on his riding lawnmower has been charged with attempted first-degree murder.

According to a criminal complaint obtained by The Associated Press, 40-year-old Chad Pickering shot the 17-year-old girl in the chest, right thigh and left ankle while she was standing on the deck of her Bemidji home on Monday night.

“The victim herself was able to describe what had happened and talk to us and tell us that she’d simply been shot when she stepped out of her house to check on her dogs,” Sheriff Phil Hodapp explained to WCCO.

The teen told investigators that she had asked Pickering not to ride his lawnmower through her yard. She also said that he often carried a pistol with him on the lawnmower.

That’s just the way Minnesotans are…

Oh, wait. Wrong word. Not Minnesotans, but rather assholes with guns.

Jul 25 2014

I like this hypothesis

But we have to be clear that it is only a hypothesis at this point. I was reading about domestication syndrome (DS) — selecting animals for domestication has a whole collection of secondary traits that come along for the ride, in addition to tameness. We are selecting for animals that tolerate the presence of humans, but in addition, we get these other traits, like floppy ears, patchy coat color, shortened faces, etc.; the best known work in this area is by Belyaev (YouTube documentary to get you up to speed) who selected silver foxes for domesticity, and got friendly foxes who also had all these other differences from their wilder brethren. Similar changes have been seen in rats and mink, so it seems to be a mammalian characteristic that all these differences are somehow linked. Here’s a handy list of the changes in domestication syndrome.

List of traits modified in the “domestication syndrome” in mammals

Trait Animal species Location/source
Depigmentation (especially white patches, brown regions) Mouse, rat, guinea pig, rabbit, dog, cat, fox, mink, ferret, pig, reindeer, sheep, goat, cattle, horse, camel, alpaca, and
guanaco
Cranial and trunk
Floppy ears Rabbit, dog, fox, pig, sheep, goat, cattle, and donkey Cranial
Reduced ears Rat, dog, cat, ferret, camel, alpaca, and guanaco Cranial
Shorter muzzles Mouse, dog, cat, fox, pig, sheep, goat, and cattle Cranial
Smaller teeth Mouse, dog, and pig Cranial
Docility All domesticated species Cranial
Smaller brain or cranial capacity Rat, guinea pig, gerbil, rabbit, pig, sheep, goat, cattle, yak, llama, camel, horse, donkey, ferret, cat, dog, and mink Cranial
Reproductive cycles (more frequent estrous cycles) Mouse, rat, gerbil, dog, cat, fox, goat, and guanaco Cranial and trunk (HPG axis)
Neotenous (juvenile) behavior Mouse, dog, fox, and bonobo Cranial
Curly tails Dog, fox, and pig Trunk

(Hah, reduced brain size. I have a cat, I believe it.)

We have a very good idea of the proximate cause of tameness: the animals have reduced adrenal glands, which means their stress response is reduced, they’re generally less fearful, and they are more open, in early life at least, to socialization. But why can’t genetic mutations that reduce the size of the adrenal gland occur without also changing the floppiness of the ears? There isn’t an obvious physiological link between the two, or other traits in that list.

One idea is that there is a Genetic Regulatory Network (GRN). A GRN is a set of genes that mutually regulate each other’s expression, and may be controlled by the same set of signals. Imagine a lazily wired house in which the lights in the kitchen and the living room are on the same circuit, so you use one switch to turn them both on and off. Or perhaps you’ve cleverly wired in a simple motion sensor, so that when you trip the living room light, the changing shadows concidentally trigger the kitchen light too. Everything is tangled together in interacting patterns of connectivity, so you often get unexpected results from single inputs. The mammalian GRN works, though, so it’s been easier to keep it for a few tens of millions of years, rather than rewiring everything and risking breaking something.

More evidence that there’s a network involved is the fact that these domestication changes can happen incredibly rapidly — Belyaev was getting distinctive behaviors with only decades of selective breeding. What that means is that we’re not dealing with the sudden emergence of mutations of large effect, but with many subtle variations of multiple genes that are being brought together by recombination. This also makes sense. Rather than gross changes that change the entire GRN, what you are doing is tapping into small differences in a number of genes that individually have little or no effect, but together modify the target organ. So in order to change the size of an adrenal gland, you gather together an existing mutation that makes a tiny change in the size while also making ears floppier, and another one that also makes a tiny change in size while also shortening the snout, and another that makes a tiny change while modifying pigment cells.

That’s a very nice general explanation, but in order to advance our understanding we need something a little more specific. What genes? What links all these traits together?

Wilkins and his colleagues have suggested an obvious starting point: it’s all neural crest. Neural crest cells (NCCs) are an early population of migrating cells that infiltrate many tissues in the embryo — they form pigment cells, contribute to craniofacial cartilages, supporting cells for the nervous system, and just generally are found in precisely the places where we see the effects of domestication. So one reasonable hypothesis is that when you’re selecting for domestication, you’re actually selecting for reduced adrenal glands, which is most easily achieved by selecting for retarded or reduced or misdirected NCC migration or increased NCC apoptosis (multiple possible causes!), which has multiple effects.

nceffects

In a nutshell, we suggest that initial selection for tameness leads to reduction of neural-crest-derived tissues of behavioral relevance, via multiple preexisting genetic variants that affect neural crest cell numbers at the final sites, and that this neural crest hypofunction produces, as an unselected byproduct, the morphological changes in pigmentation, jaws, teeth, ears, etc. exhibited in the DS. The hypothesized neural crest cell deficits in the DS could be produced via three routes: reduced numbers of original NCC formed, lesser migratory capabilities of NCC and consequently lower numbers at the final sites, or decreased proliferation of these cells at those sites. We suspect, however, that migration defects are particularly important. In this view, the characteristic DS phenotypes shown in parts of the body that are relatively distant from the sites of NCC origination, such as the face, limb extremities, tail, and belly midline, reflect lower probabilities of NCC reaching those sites in the requisite numbers. The stochastic, individual-to-individual variability in these pigmentation patterns is consistent with this idea.

They document all the phenotypic changes associated with domestication, and strongly correlate them with neural crest mechanisms. It’s a mostly convincing case … my major reservation is that because NCCs are ubiquitous and contribute to so many tissues, it’s a little bit like pointing at a dog and predicting that its features are a product of cells. It’s a very general hypothesis. But then they also discuss experiments, such as neural crest ablations or genetic neurocristopathies that directly modify the same processes involved in domestication syndrome. So it is a bit helpful to narrow the field from “all cells” to “this unique set of cells”.

I have a similar reservation about their list of genes that are candidates for the GRN — they list a lot of very familiar genes (PAX and SOX families, GDNF, RTKs) that are all broadly influential transcription factors and signaling molecules. Again, it helps to have a list of candidates, it’s a starting point, but in an interacting network, I’d be more interested in a summary of connections between them than in scattered points in the genome.

You need a diagram to summarize this hypothesis, and here it is, featuring the important distinction between selected and unselected traits.

ncsummary

I do have one question that wasn’t discussed in the paper, and would be interesting to answer with better genetic data. We talk about domestication syndrome as if it all goes one way: wild predator becomes more tolerant of humans. But it seems to me that it’s a two-way process of selection, and humans also had to be less stressed out and tolerant of sharing a space with an animal that would like to eat them, or compete with them for resources. Are humans self-domesticated apes? Were we selected for reduced neural crest input? If we figured out the changes in genes involved in domestication, it would be cool to look at dogs and cats and foxes, and then turn the lens around and ask if we experienced similar changes in our evolution.


Wilkins AS, Wrangham, RW and Fitch WT (2014) The “Domestication Syndrome” in Mammals: A Unified Explanation Based on Neural Crest Cell Behavior and Genetics. Genetics 197(3):795-808.

Jul 25 2014

Go ahead, let me plan your wedding

It’ll be cheap, there won’t be much ceremony, and I’ll yell at you to get over yourselves. Matthew Yglesias cites me…for good advice on wedding planning, which is not quite what I would have expected. But that’s OK, the Mediocrity Principle applies to everything.

Jul 25 2014

He will devour Mary Worth and Rex Morgan, MD last

It’s all over the news that Archie Comics is killing off Archie (sounds like a desperate bid to draw attention to a line that has been boring and moribund for decades). But why aren’t these same media outlets talking about the fate of another major character, Sabrina the Teenage Witch?

It’s a bit dark. She casts a spell that starts the zombie apocalypse, and then Dr Lovecraft marries her off to…Cthulhu.

sabrinasfate

brideofcthulhu

Did I say a bit dark? I meant very, very dark. Riverdale must be built over a hellmouth.

Jul 25 2014

Friday Cephalopod: Not a bird with a curved beak, or a curvy flower

But still curvy.

Jul 24 2014

Is Ted Nugent still a darling of the Republican party?

I knew Ted Nugent was a nasty piece of work, but this…can he possibly be a bit more blatantly racist? He’s had a couple of shows cancelled at Indian casinos — first by the Coeur d’Alene tribe in Idaho, and most recently by the Puyallups in Washington — and I guess it made Nugent a mite testy.

“The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has always been about human rights — for decades, we have worked individually and as a Tribe to make sure that each and every person is treated equally and with respect and dignity,” said a statement from the tribe.

A spokesperson for the casino said that the company didn’t want to provide a platform for the “racist attitudes and views that Ted Nugent espouses.”

Nugent responded to the cancelation by calling the Coeur d’Alene Tribe unclean vermin.

By all indicators, I don’t think they actually qualify as people, but there has always been a lunatic fringe of hateful, rotten, dishonest people that hate happy, successful people, he continued. I believe raising hell and demanding accountability from our elected employees is Job One for every American. I am simply doing my job.

Brilliant: fired for racist remarks, so he calls the whole tribe “vermin” and questioning their status as humans, perfectly confirming the accusation.

Jul 24 2014

A nice quote from Harry Harrison

Via Daz:

Stated very simply, I face reality and admit that not only isn’t there anyone at home upstairs, there isn’t even any upstairs. I have one life and I intend to make the most of it. Therefore it follows naturally that if I firmly believe this, why then I cannot deprive another person of their turn at existence. Only the very self-assured political and religious zealots kill people in order to save them.

It takes a real shallow thinker to claim that atheism has no consequences. It actually says that there is no escaping the consequences — you aren’t going to get a lollipop in heaven if you say the right words on your deathbed. You have one life and you have to live with it, and then you die, and there are no take-backs or resurrections or rewards or punishments.

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