This surprises me

I guess I wasn’t aware of how deeply down a people could be held.

In her fearless defense of lynching victims and African Americans’ right to due process, Wells often bucked the backward conventional wisdom of the era. When she began her campaign against lynching in the late 19th century there wasn’t consensus among African Americans that lynching was worthy of a national social justice movement, nor was there agreement about the terroristic sexual politics that motivated white lynch mobs.

There wasn’t a consensus to oppose lynching? It’s a good thing Ida B. Wells was there to fight the fight.

Might Christianity be both true and terrible?

I am late to the feast! the Digital Cuttlefish, Larry Moran, and Jerry Coyne have all picked over the bones of this ridiculous fellow Damon Linker, who has been moaning about the dearth of honest atheists nowadays. Real atheists, he says, should be dismayed and horrified at the absence of a god-being in their lives; they should be despairing at the knowledge that their lives are meaningless and doomed, nothing but the tragedy of blindly executing chemical reactions until they flop into the grave and rot. Oh, and also, atheist views are so despicable that they not only shouldn’t be allowed to run for public office, they shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

Sweet guy, huh? And so trite and unimaginative. His lack of ability to comprehend our sense of liberation at being free of his petty tyrant of a god is not an argument that we should be similarly fettered.

But all those other guys have torn that part of his argument to shreds. Let me take a different tack and approach another of his assertions. This one, the subtitle of his article.

“That godlessness might be both true and terrible is something that the new atheists refuse to entertain.”

I’m going to try something unusual, for me. I assume that Damon Linker fervently believes that his god is real, and normally I’d go after that and argue against his deity. But this time try pretending that somehow, by some miracle, it turns out that the Christian god exists, and Mr Linker is actually correct. Is he able now to contemplate this possibility?

“That Christianity might be both true and terrible is something that Christians refuse to entertain.”

Let it sink in, Christians. Really think about it.

If this religion were true, here is what we have to live with.

  • Our lives are miserable and evil, tainted everywhere by sin. Only in our death do we have an opportunity to escape.

  • We are pawns in a war between a god and an army of demigods (angels), and Satan and his army of demons. Satan is constantly trying to corrupt us.

  • When we die, we have two possible fates. The most likely is that we’ll end up in Satan’s clutches, which means an eternity (Forever! Endlessly!) of pain and agony and grief, tortured in a lake of fire.

  • If we win the god’s favor, we get to spend an eternity (Forever! Endlessly!) servilely worshipping this deity.

  • We have a purpose. It is to be slaves to god. That’s right, under Christianity we are all slaves to a omnipotent, omniscient master.

  • In some Christian sects, everything is predestined. Your efforts are futile, your ultimate fate in heaven and hell is set. No amount of struggle will change what will happen to you.

  • In other sects, you have free will, and can influence where you end up. Unfortunately, the exercise of your will is irrelevant except in your ability to follow arbitrary and peculiar rules: you may not masturbate, for instance, and you must avoid eating certain foods. You are free to obey god’s capricious whims, or not.

  • Your god loves you so much that he will kill his own son for you. But there’s a catch: you have to believe that god is the kind of guy who would murder his own son (and worship him for it!), ot you will go to hell.

  • Your god is the kind of monster who would exterminate just about every living thing on the planet because they were wicked. But at the same time, it’s dogma that every one of us is a wicked sinner. The axe is always suspended above your neck, the only thing keeping it away are the fancies of a tyrant.

  • This god is not a moral being: he has advocated rape, genocide, the murder of children, slavery, and blood sacrifice. The purpose of these horrific acts? His glorification.

Now please notice: I am not making the fallacious argument that because these consequences are awful, god is not real. I’m stipulating that the Christian god actually exists, and I’m asking Christians whether that would be a good thing or not — whether we should exult or be downcast at the idea of Jehovah’s existence.

If it would help, because I know they’re so soaked in the indoctrination that says an immortal incarnation of Dexter is a great thing that they’ll find it difficult to see beyond that, imagine if Allah were the one true god and you were expected to follow Muslim practices in order to be in his good graces. Or if that’s still too benign for you (I can’t imagine how), picture what eternity would be like if the True God were Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec god of war and human sacrifice.

I rather suspect that extortion on a cosmic scale will dictate what most Christians can say. The existence of the Christian god would be a colossal catastrophe for humanity, reducing us to inconsequential slave to an invulnerable authoritarian megalomaniac, but if you really believe in such a nightmare, you wouldn’t be able to complain — you’ll LOVE GOD AS HE DEMANDS, or he’ll SET YOU ON FIRE. And if you have any doubt, if you speak out and suggest that maybe his rule is a bit scary, he’ll just wish you into the cornfield.

But try, for just a moment, to admit that that god is damned evil. If he’s not so evil, he’ll forgive you a little doubt, right? And if he is that evil, why are you planning to spend eternity worshipping him?

Hamza Tzortzis’s reputation goes before him

Ophelia is hosting a wonderfully entertaining guest post on Hamza Tzortzis and the UCL segregation debacle. I know that guy; Tzortzis seems to show up somewhere every time I’m in Europe to peddle his peculiar brand of ignorance, and he’s invited me to debate him a couple of times now. The article will make clear why I’ve turned him down every time, even though it would have gotten me an expenses-paid trip to London. There are some things I just won’t do.

What I taught today: farewell to flies (for a while)

A good portion of what I’ve been teaching so far uses Drosophila as a model system — it’s the baseline for modern molecular genetics. Unfortunately, it’s also a really weird animal: highly derived, specialized for rapid, robust development, and as we’ve learned more about it, it seems it has been layering on more and more levels of control of patterning. The ancestral system of establishing the body plan was far simpler, and evolution has worked in its clumsy, chance-driven way to pile up and repurpose molecular patterning mechanisms to reinforce the reliability of development. So I promised the students that this would be the last day I talk about insects for a while…we’ll switch to vertebrates so they can get a better picture of a simpler, primitive system. What we’ll see is many familiar genes from flies, used in some different (but related!) ways in vertebrates.

But today I continued the theme of epistatic interactions from last week. Previously, we’d talked about gap genes — genes that were expressed in a handful of broad stripes in the early embryo, and which were regulated in part by the even broader gradient of bicoid expression. The next level of the hierarchy are the pair rule genes, which are expressed in alternating stripes — 7 pairs of stripes for 14 segments.

First point: notice that we are seeing a hierarchy, a descending pattern of regulatory control, and that the outcome of the hierarchy is increasing complexity. One gene, bicoid sets up a gradient that allows cells to sense position by reading the concentration of the gene; the next step leverages that gradient to create multiple broad domains; and the pair rule genes read concentrations of gap genes and uses the boundaries between them to set up even more, smaller and more precise domains of stripes that establish the animal’s segments.

This is epigenesis made obvious. The 14 stripes of the pair rule genes are not present in the oocyte; they emerge via patterns of interactions between cells and genes. The information present in the embryo, as measured by the precise and reproducible arrays of cells expressing specific genes, increases over time.

So part of the story is hierarchy, where a complex pattern at one stage is dependent on its antecedents. But another part of the story is peer interaction. Cells are inheriting potentials that are established by a cascading sequence of regulatory events, but in addition, genes at the same approximate level of the hierarchy are repressing and activating each other. We can tease those interactions apart by fairly straightforward experiments in which we knock out individual pair rule genes and ask what the effect of the loss has on other pair rule genes. I led the students through a series of epistatic experiments which started out fairly easy. Knock out a pair rule gene that is expressed in odd numbered parasegments, for instance, and it’s complement, the pair rule gene expressed in even parasegments, expands its expression pattern to fill all segments. Sometimes.

Some of the experiments reveal simple relationships: hairy suppresses runt, and runt suppresses hairy. That makes sense. They have mutually exclusive domains, so it’s no surprise that they exclude each other. But then we looked at other pair rule genes which are expressed in patterns slightly out of phase from the hairy/runt pair, and there the relationships start getting complex. Genes like fushi tarazu are downstream from all the others, and their effects are straightforward (their loss doesn’t disrupt the other pair rule genes), but genes like even-skipped have much messier relationships, and the class was stumped to explain the results we get with that deletion.

So I asked them to come up with other experiments to tease apart these interactions. I was somewhat amused: when I think along those lines, I come up with more genetic crosses and analyses of expression patterns — I think about regulatory logic and inferring rules from modifications of the pattern. Students nowadays…they’re so much more direct. They want to go straight to the molecular biology, taking apart the genes, identifying control elements, building reporter constructs to see gene-by-gene effects. I felt so old-fashioned. But we also had to talk about the difficulty of those kinds of experiments, and that often the genetic approach is better for building a general hypothesis that can be fruitfully tested with the molecular approach.

Then we stopped — we’ll come back to flies later, and start looking at some specific subsets of developmental programs. Next, though, we’re going to take a big step backward and look at early events in vertebrates and progress through that phylum until we see how they build segments. I’m hoping the students will see the similarities and differences.

Slides for this talk (pdf)

Bring back the Shasta ground sloth

Bringing extinct animals back to life is big news this week. Not because there’ve been any particular recent breakthroughs, but because the upcoming issue of National Geographic features the topic as a cover story, and is hosting a related TEDx meeting this Friday in Washington D.C. that’s also sponsored by Stewart Brand’s Long Now Foundation. There’s a Twitter hashtag for the meetup, National Geographic has set up a portal page for the topic (credit Brian Switek for that labor), and the event is driving a lot of traffic to the Long Now site — which is worth checking out, especially its FAQ and its list of criteria for choosing extinct animals to bring back.

But I see no mention of bringing back the extinct animal we actually really need.

[Read more…]

Sadly, it’s International Women’s Day

It’s that day when we’re supposed to celebrate the accomplishment’s of women. I say “sadly,” because unfortunately there are way too many people out there who would rather sneer at and diminish women’s status in the world.

Case in point: on twitter, I ran across this lovely tweet from one of those repugnant slymepitters.

On #IWD remembered the nearly 0 wimmin – Nobels in science, highbrow art, chess GMs, great standups, but 100s of pop-culture hos #ftbullies


Yes. Let’s remember those women.

Let’s remember Lise Meitner, Hilde Mangold, Chien-Shiung Wu, Rosalind Franklin, and Jocelyn Bell — who were all well-qualified (men won the prizes for work equivalent to what they did, instead) to win a Nobel but didn’t get one.

Rather than 0 women, perhaps we should remember Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert Mayer, who won Nobels in physics; Irène Joliot-Curie, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, and Ada E. Yonath in chemistry; Barbara McClintock, Carol W. Greider, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Gertrude B. Elion, Gerty Cori, Linda B. Buck, Rita Levi-Montalcini, and Rosalyn Yalow, in physiology or medicine. Clearly women are not intrinsically incapable of scientific work at the highest levels. Of those whose work I’m familiar with in detail, I have to tell you that McClintock blows me away with the stunning brilliance of her abstract reasoning — I know of no other male scientist whose work is at all comparable (that of course is a matter of taste!)

The relatively lower frequency of women recieving Nobels is not something any man should take pride in; what it really indicates is that we’ve been shortchanging half the human population, depriving them of opportunities to excel. Wait — we’ve been doing worse than shortchanging women; we’ve been depriving all of humanity of the potential in those minds. This pattern of discrimination against women has hurt us all.

Let’s not forget also all the people, men and women alike, deprived of opportunities because of their race or class — deprived by the kind of endemic bigotry that would, for instance, denigrate an entire group of people as “pop-culture hos”. And it’s not just science — it was good of our petty MRA to remind us that we’ve also lost their contributions to art and theater and games.

That’s what I think of everytime some bigot crows about the absence of some group of people from some field of endeavor — it’s a reminder of all that we’ve lost to selfish stupidity.

Absurd segregation

Lawrence Krauss agreed to a debate with a Muslim spokesman at University College London, and discovered that the Muslims had organized segregated seating: men in one section, couples in another, and women in a third (apparently, in back, too). He walked out until they agreed to allow mixed seating. Richard Dawkins has an account, and there’s another on facebook from an attendee, with video.

It’s bizarre. I have no idea what they talked about; it’s all overshadowed by the archaic bigotry of an old patriarchal religion. Of course, do we even need to know what was said after the Muslims shot themselves in the foot so thoroughly?

A punishment poll

The Magdalene Laundries were a horrible blot on Irish history — thousands of young women and girls were basically enslaved by the Catholic church and abused and exploited. The Irish government is taking steps to make amends and be open about this unsavory taint, and one of the things proposed is to pay compensation to the surviving victims. Seems only reasonable, right? The church profited, it’s fair to extract the money criminally acquired back, with some punitive damages as well.

But no — the nuns who tortured and mistreated girls are unapologetic and claim they provided a “service”, and that €200,000 (less than €7 per victim!) was “excessive”.

There’s a poll. Apparently a majority of the respondents think the nuns are right. The horrible, awful, nasty nuns.

Should the religious orders involved pay compensation to the survivors of the Magdalene laundries?

Yes 31%
No 61%
Don’t know 7%

My university in the news!

Now if only it were good news. It seems we’re the victim of bureaucratic excess.

College administrators have found an interesting new way to strike it rich: quitting their jobs. Upon leaving his role as executive vice president of NYU for a job with Citigroup in 2006, Jacob J. Lew (the current Secretary of the Treasury) took a $685,000 bonus from the university. Harold S. Koplewicz, an executive at the NYU Medical Center, got a $1.2 million severance after choosing to leave voluntarily. Given that NYU’s tuition and fees are among the highest in the nation, we’re curious how students who took out hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans feel about their money going towards generous benefits and severance packages for administrators.

At least NYU is a private institution, so tax dollars are not spent to cover its inflated costs. As the New York Times notes, public universities are just as guilty of letting a bloated and inefficient administration drive up tuition costs. The University of Minnesota employs 19,000 administrative officials employees, and administrative personnel account for 24 percent of its total payroll, compared with only 20 percent in 2001. At Purdue, the number of administrative employees grew by 54 percent in the last decade.

Overall, the number of administrators hired by colleges and universities increased 50 percent faster than the number of instructors hired between 2001 and 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

We’ve felt the pain down here in the trenches, too. Our core biology curriculum was disrupted a bit by the reluctance of our administration to hire replacement faculty — they saved a few pennies by bringing in temporary faculty as replacements and deferring filling tenure track lines. The replacements were good people, but when you’ve got students coming up through a curriculum pipeline, you really want stability and continuity at the base.

The good news, though, is that the blockages have been uncorked and we’re finally expanding our biology faculty from 8 to 9 — a big boost at a small college.

Well crap, I missed out on the cake

This is what happens when you stay off the internet all day: you miss your co-blogger’s birthday celebration.

I didn’t even get a card together or anything. Guess I’ll have to dust off this old thing again. Just add 7 to all the ages mentioned.

Actually, from the looks of that cake plate, I think it’s just as well I missed the party. How did those sucker marks get all over the tablecloth?