Whoa, Fark achieves a glimmering of enlightenment

They’ve just announced a new moderation guideline.

Adam Savage once described to me the problem this way: if the Internet was a dude, we’d all agree that dude has a serious problem with women.

We’ve actually been tightening up moderation style along these lines for awhile now, but as of today, the FArQ will be updated with new rules reminding you all that we don’t want to be the He Man Woman Hater’s Club.  This represents enough of a departure from pretty much how every other large internet community operates that I figure an announcement is necessary.

There are lots of examples of highly misogynistic language in pop culture, and Fark has used those plenty over the years. From SNL’s "Jane, you ignorant slut" to Blazing Saddles’ multiple casual references to rape, there are a lot of instances where views are made extreme to parody them. On Fark, we have a tendency to use pop culture references as a type of referential shorthand with one another.

On SNL and in a comedy movie, though, the context is clear. On the Internet, it’s impossible to know the difference between a person with hateful views and a person lampooning hateful views to make a point. The mods try to be reasonable, and context often matters. We will try and determine what you meant, but that’s not always a pass. If your post can be taken one of two ways, and one of those ways can be interpreted as misogynistic, the mods may delete it — even if that wasn’t your intent.

Things that aren’t acceptable:

- Rape jokes

- Calling women as a group "whores" or "sluts" or similar demeaning terminology

- Jokes suggesting that a woman who suffered a crime was somehow asking for it

Obviously, these are just a few examples and shouldn’t be taken as the full gospel, but to give you a few examples of what will always be over the line. Trying to anticipate every situation and every conversation in every thread would be ridiculous, so consider these guidelines and post accordingly.  I recommend that when encountering grey areas, instead of trying to figure out where the actual line is, the best strategy would be to stay out of the grey area entirely.

As one of the folks who picks headlines, I can also say with some certainty that we’re not going to get everything right all the time on our end either.  I’ve been trying to keep an eye toward these guidelines for a couple months now and I still make mistakes and/or miss problem taglines completely.  We’re trying to make the Fark community a better place, and hopefully this will be a few steps in the right direction.

Cue blithering ninnies whining about censorship; sad pitiful people who want to complain about about how men are discriminated against, line up over there; everyone who decides they’ll never read Fark again…well, that’s fine, just go away. But I think it is a nice step in the right direction, and it’s good to acknowledge it.

Now, about Reddit…

Christians, stop doing this

It makes you look very, very stupid. Kevin Sorbo doesn’t understand why atheists might be angry.

“I’m a Christian myself and had to play an atheist. I see the anger of these (atheist) guys on TV and it’s like ‘wow, how do you get so angry at something you don’t believe in?”  Sorbo said.

Guy, it’s pretty simple. We’re not angry at any gods. We know they don’t exist.

We’re angry with you.

If I had an address, I’d send him a copy of Greta Christina’s book. I wouldn’t do that for every stupid Christian (there are so many it would be a total transfer of every penny of my income to Greta), but my kids were huge fans of Hercules, so I’d be willing to do that for him.

At least Xena seems to have left god behind.

18 August 1976

“Since the invention of the kiss, there have only been five kisses that were rated the most passionate, the most pure. This one left them all behind.”

My apologies, William Goldman, but that is pure bunkum. Either a lot of kisses deserve the assessment, or I’m the most fortunate person in the world to have seized the title of holding all five.

I remember the 18th of August, 1976 vividly. It was a Wednesday. I was 19, which is a damn fine age to be. I was spending my summer saving up money for college, doing stoop labor at a nursery, spending my days weeding and hauling plant pots and clambering about on greenhouse frames nailing down sheets of plastic. My neck and ears were red — I wore a hat, but even the Pacific Northwest sun will scorch you on those days when you aren’t slogging about in the rain. I wasn’t making much money — minimum wage — but in those days, college was a bit more affordable, so I’d get by.

That doesn’t sound like a glorious summer, I know, but at the same time I’d started dating a girl. Really, when you’re 19, having a girlfriend puts a glowing rosy patina on everything (hmmm…it even helps when you’re 57.) We’d both done some traveling fresh out of high school, and I’d called her up back in June when we’d both come back to our home town, and asked her out on a date, and then we started going out every week, and then more often than once a week. It was a Wednesday, you know. I got off work, cleaned up, and borrowed my father’s station wagon to go out to the pizza parlor.

That’s what we’d do. We’d get together, we’d talk. We’d go places, and talk. She was smart and funny and interesting, and we had good times together. To explain this next bit, though, you have to understand that I have no illusions that this was a simpler, more genteel time, with ladies acting like ladies and gentlemen like gentlemen — it was the 70s. It was a loud, raucous, garish decade, and casual sex was common. But I was a shy nerd with absolutely no self-confidence at all, and she was a serious young woman working towards an academic career.

So on that warm August Wednesday, I was working up my courage to ask for a goodnight kiss.

Stop laughing.

No, really, stop. We were both comfortable with a friendly relationship, you know, and I liked her.

So we’d only been dating for 2½ months, and I didn’t want to be too pushy and risk ruining a good thing for a kiss.

You’re laughing again.

So there we were, at about 11 at night, and I’d walked her to the door of her parents’ apartment, and as she was going inside, I nervously delivered my corny and clumsy line: “I was hoping to say goodnight more properly.”

She laughed…and she started to raise her arm, as if she was going to give me a goodnight handshake, which would have been hilarious and soul-crushing. Then she seemed to think better of it, smiled mischievously, and stepped forward and planted a good one right on my lips. And then she whirled about and went inside.

It was glorious. Thirty eight years ago and I still remember it, and I know I’ll remember it on my deathbed someday.

What made it especially wonderful was the unmistakeable consent — she wanted to kiss me. And afterwards, she looked…happy. I felt like maybe I wasn’t so awful after all, and that maybe someone in the world could actually like me. Every human being needs that, and it’s in our power to give it to others, so I don’t think it’s rare. Maybe it’s more uncommon than it should be, but I would hope everyone can feel it sometime in their life.

It also gives you magic powers. I somehow floated home, and the old station wagon drove itself back to the garage, I think.

Congratulations to the Hugo winners

The 2014 Hugo Award Winners have been announced, and to my astonishment, I have already read all the winners (but not all the nominees). I must be some kind of SF nerd.

Ancillary Justice, the space opera that won best novel, was one of the big surprises of my reading. I’m a fan of space opera (see Iain Banks), but this one, about an AI imbedded in a dead soldier, also did unexpected things with gender assumptions and made me think confusedly quite a bit. But it makes sense — why should we assign a sex to an artificial intelligence? Wouldn’t a gender-free mind not really care that much about the conventions of our language traditions? And wouldn’t interactions with biological beings that care very much about gender cause all kinds of interesting conflicts?

I also read one of the big losers, Vox Day. His pedestrian short story, clearly tailored to avoid the controversies that usually dog his work (there were zero women in it, so there was no opportunity for him to vent his usual bog-ignorant misogyny), was dead last. Worse, “No Award” beat it in the final runoff. I laugh schadenfreudenly.

Scalzi has a few words for the guy with the flaming sword. I agree with him.

Why do cavefish lose their eyes?

It’s another Dawkins question!

Why do cave-dwellers lose their eyes? They’re useless, but are they harmful? Costly to make? Or eroded by rain of uncorrected mutations?

I thought I’d already addressed this in a blog post long ago, but I searched, and I didn’t — it was my inaugural column in sadly defunct Seed magazine, way back in the paleolithic, I think. Fortunately, I still have the copy I sent in to the editor, so I resurrect it here.


Degeneration and development
It’s not disuse that leads to loss of organs in evolution, but competitive genetic interactions

Reduced or degenerate organs, such as the evolution of flightless birds or eyeless cave dwelling animals, were a problem that Charles Darwin considered; his answer was that disuse would lead to their progressive reduction over time (we do not believe this is correct any more). Darwin’s confusion is shared by many even today, and Stephen Jay Gould, in his magnum opus, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, listed three things that his readers found most confusing, as measured by the correspondence he received:

“I can testify that three items top the list of puzzlement: (1) evolution seen as anagenesis rather than branching (“if humans evolved from apes, why are apes still around”); (2) panselectionism (“what is the adaptive significance of male nipples”); and (3) Lamarckism and the failure of natural selection (“doesn’t the blindness of cave fishes imply a necessary space for Lamarckian evolution by disuse”).”

While all three are interesting questions, let’s consider just the third, which Darwin failed to answer. Why should animals living in total darkness lose their eyes? Gould described two good answers in his book, but recent work by W.R. Jeffery and his colleagues on the Mexican blind cavefish has supported a third. It’s an answer that highlights the importance of developmental biology in explaining some evolutionary phenomena…and it’s also an excellent way to introduce this new column, in which I’ll regularly be discussing the evo-devo way of thinking.

One possible answer is that it is an economical adaptation. It requires energy and effort to build something as intricate and fragile as an eye, so shutting off that pathway would be a sensible strategy in the embryo: the energy that would be used in constructing and maintaining the eye could instead be diverted to other growing organs. One analogy would be in building a house that will have one wall facing a brick wall; it would be sensible to not bother building a large and expensive picture window there. For the cave fish, those embryos that did not bother to build an eye that would never be used acquired some slight advantage over their fellows that did bear the burden of an eye, and so gradually came to dominate the cave population.

In the case of the Mexican blind cavefish, though, there is a striking observation against this explanation: the embryos make eyes! They initially develop, they form an eye cup, they develop the beginnings of neural circuitry, neurons proliferate…and then they stop. The rest of the skull continues to grow, overwhelming the budding eye with new tissue. It’s as if one paid to have that picture window built into the house, and then halfway through construction had it ripped out and a wall put in. This is hardly economical.

Another possible answer that loss of an eye in a cave fish does not impose any cost, and the eyes disappear in the population by random chance, and that without selection for sightedness, there is nothing to prevent the blind variants from competing equally with their sighted counterparts. This is a neutral theory of the loss of unused characters, which suggests that mutations that knocked out genes needed for development of the eye wouldn’t necessarily have any advantage, but they’d also have no cost. The eye is lost by harmless attrition, and would be represented by broken genes in the animal’s genome.

This explanation doesn’t seem to fit the facts, either. The genes involved in generating the eye all seem to be present and functional in the blind cave fish. Transplanting a lens from a cavefish species with eyes to the blind cavefish embryo is enough to rescue the eye—it then develops into a perfect and functional visual organ. The problem isn’t caused by outright broken genes, but by genes that are being regulated in a different way. Something is actively switching off lens formation and thereby removing a signal for eye development, and in fact, analysis of gene expression in the developing blind cavefish eye reveals that many genes are more active than they are in the sighted fish.

If neither the economical hypothesis or the neutral hypothesis adequately explain how cavefish lose their eyes, what is the answer? The evidence suggests a third alternative, an explanation based on pleiotropy and developmental interactions.

Pleiotropy is a common phenomenon in genetics: all it means is that a single gene may have many different effects on the organism. Two genes that interact with one another in this system are pax6, a ‘master gene’ controlling the development of the eye, and hedgehog, a signaling molecule that plays an important role in setting up the midline of the animal. pax6 is a transcription factor (a gene that regulates the expression of other genes) and is active in the region of the embryonic head where eyes will form, is expressed in the eye cup and lens, and regulates the development of the eye. hedgehog is a protein that is secreted at the midline and diffuses laterally to regulate many other processes. It’s function is complex, but one role is to inhibit and separate structures; one effect of mutations in hedgehog is midline defects, such as cyclopia, where the eyes fuse together in the absence of a hedgehog boundary. Among those effects is an inhibition of pax6.

hedgehog is also expressed in teeth, tastebuds, and the jaw. This is what we mean by pleiotropy — the gene is a midline gene that suppresses the eye gene pax6, but it’s also a jaw gene and a tooth gene and a tastebud gene. Now imagine a population of fish feeding and swimming in total darkness; which individuals will be most adapt at finding food, and therefore most likely to pass on their genes to the next generation? Those that are best at using senses other than vision, that can use the tactile senses of their lower jaw to probe the environment for a meal, and that can use taste instead of sight to discriminate among food choices. What this suggests is that animals with expanded hedgehog function would thrive best, and selection would work to increase the frequency of greater hedgehog expression in the population.

There is a side effect — pleiotropy at work — in that hedgehog also inhibits pax6 expression, which means that expanding jaws and tastebuds will lead to a concomitant reduction of the eyes. What we have is a perfect example of an evolutionary tradeoff. Because hedgehog and pax6 are negatively coupled to one another, one can be expanded only at the expense of the other, and what is going on in the blind cavefish is not selection for an economical reduction of the eyes, nor the accidental loss of an organ that has no effect: it is positive selection for a feature that is only indirectly related to the eyes.

Gould would have appreciated this discovery. The cause of the blindness is the interrelationship between two genes which have complementary roles in development in establishing the architecture of the face. This is not a necessary relationship — not all genes have to be coupled to one another in this way — but a result of the evolutionary history of the organism, and a different kind of economy. The lower part of the face can be expanded, but only at the expense of the upper half.

The general lesson from this analysis is that understanding selection is not enough. We also need to understand the developmental interactions present in an organism to understand how selection for one feature might lead to a surprising pleiotropic change in something completely different.


Just for completeness, I’ll include some bits that weren’t published, but passed along for the editor’s edification.

(Chris: for your fact checker, the reference to Gould is from page 204 of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

Darwin’s explanation for the eyelessness was this:

“By the time that an animal had reached, after numberless generations, the deepest recesses, disuse will on this view have more or less perfectly obliterated its eyes, and natural selection will often have effected other changes, such as an increase in the length of the antennae or palpi, as a compensation for blindness.”

That’s from Chapter 5, “Laws of Variation,” in his Origin of Species.

I don’t know how you want to include formal bibliographic citations. A good summary of the cavefish work is here:

Jeffery WR (2005) Adaptive evolution of eye degeneration in the Mexican blind cavefish. J Hered 96(3):185-196.

I notice these kinds of things weren’t explicitly listed in previous examples of the column.)

Rewinding the tape of life

Here’s another of those Dawkins questions.

Stuart Kauffman’s thought experiment: If evolution could be re-run 1000 times, would certain patterns predictably recur? Humanoids?

Only I already answered it a few weeks ago! I know that Dawkins is more sympathetic to the idea of evolutionary convergence than I am, but I don’t think you’d get recurrence of humanoids. If we could reset everything to the precise state the world was in during the Cambrian, half a billion years ago, I think it would be safe to say we’d get a planet full of molluscs and arthropods, but that’s about all we could say — tetrapods are not inevitable. If we could rewind to a few billion years ago, before the evolution of eukaryotes, we could talk about a planet of algae and bacteria, but other derived forms would be so contingent on chance that no prediction is possible.

The best examples of actually doing this experiment come from the Lenski lab and their work on bacteria, where generations could be frozen and restarted at will, and the answer is…no, it isn’t inevitable that a lineage will emerge that carries even an expected optimal simple biochemical pathway.