The Romantic Tragedy of the Brood Parasite

I’m about to do a lot of talking out my ass on subjects I’m not certified to comment on, but what I’m about to say feels true to me, so … good enough for now.  Just don’t cite me in your term paper.

Today I saw a juvenile brown-headed cowbird being fed by a dark-eyed junco, the first time I have ever witnessed an act of brood parasitism.  I crossed the street to get a better look.  The most famous brood parasite is the cuckoo, whose creepy behavior has been folded into a number of human languages to represent male sexual paranoia derived from the attitude that women and children are more important as property than as people.  This includes the word “cuck,” beloved of internet racists and misogynists, though their memetic use of the word has outstripped any sense of meaning.

I’m not here to talk about that.  I’m talking about birds that destroy the eggs of other birds, leaving their own offspring to be raised by parents of a different species.  Birds that engage in brood parasitism are typically larger than the species they use, meaning that raising the changeling bird is more demanding and potentially dangerous than raising a member of the bird’s own species.  The brown-headed cowbird I saw was larger than its deceitfully adopted parent, a junco that seemed small and skinny as it went about its work.

How is a bird fooled into raising a child that doesn’t even look right?  Depriving itself to feed a monster twice its mass?  It’s like a sheep raising a calf.  A lot of birds just aren’t very smart, have to rely on pure instinct to drive them, and other birds can exploit that.  Even the brood parasites themselves aren’t necessarily clever.  They just happened into that niche a million years ago and it worked, to the point brown-headed cowbirds wouldn’t know how to raise a baby if they were in a position to do so.

Instinct is a weird beast.  People like to say humans have instincts that drive us and take the concept too far.  Yes, we have instincts, but they aren’t necessarily the ones people talk about, certainly the average evopsych tool.  The main instinct I see in people around me is social sorting.  We try to understand and control our relationships with the people around us reductively, drawing in and out groups, choosing arbitrary or socially promulgated ways of discriminating against others.  It can be turned back on ourselves.  When abused as small children or changed by life circumstance to a kind of person we have previously learned to hate, we sometimes socially sort ourselves as “unlovable” and hide away.

Instincts for non-human animals are much more obvious, and without as much ability to teach each other how to act socially, their instincts often have to be wildly specific.  Take cats’ burial of feces.  You do not have to train a cat to use a litter box.  Some cats may have dysfunction that needs to be sorted out, but most kittens will quickly figure out how to use a litter box.  Why?

Here is the instinct, in the cat’s mind:  “I have to relieve myself.  Ugh.  It feels right to do this on a surface that gives beneath my paws.  Ah, this dirt is just right.  Now I can go.  Holy crap!  This smell is terrible!  For some reason, I feel a tinge of mortal fear.  I want to wave my paw next to it.  Oh, that’s moving dirt.  Will scratching the dirt make the smell go away?  If yes, sigh of relief, carry on.  If no, RUN AWAY!”  Some people don’t know about the last part.  It’s hilarious to watch your cats tear ass across the house to get away from their mess, when burying isn’t enough.

Humans have almost nothing like this weird chain of highly specific inborn feelings, because we gained the trait of culture.  We can teach each other to wash our food, to bury our feces, and so on.  Practically anything necessary can be taught instead of relying on instinct alone.  Unfortunately for birds, they aren’t as bright as us.  They have to rely on feelings.

The instinct, in the bird’s mind:  “I got laid.  Woo!  Now I’ve got some other weird feelings setting in.  Better make a nest.  Unggh!  Eggs.  Better sit on these.”  The brood parasite slips in here, knocking eggs out of the nest and laying its own.  The victim of this sheisty move returns to find its eggs different.  (Some birds actually recognize the switch through various means and knock the cuckoo eggs off, try to start over.)  Apparently a lot of birds, even if they recognize the change, don’t know what to do with that, and just carry on.  “Sit on weird eggs.  Baby hatch.  Feed that thing!”

This is the tragic romance.  The finagled parent is operating on the closest thing a bird has to love.  It is selflessly giving up its food, seeking more and more, doing its best to keep this baby alive and well.  A brood parasite baby is even more demanding than its natural child would have been, potentially making the parent wreck itself with hunger and exertion in the process.  But the parent is driven to harm itself like that, for the love of this strange monster.  It’s beautiful and sad, it’s no kind of way to be.  If your human relationships involve giving until you are broken, reevaluate them.  A tragic romance is something to behold, not something to live.

Well, that went around the world, and I have no snappy way to end it.  Have a song.

*the video I’d originally embedded disappeared
    and this was the least worst replacement

FtB’s Statement on Richard Carrier

The ethics committee of Freethought Blogs, including myself, an esteemed Bachelor of the Fine Arts, has drafted a statement regarding the circumstance under which Richard Carrier has left this network.

Freethought Blogs unequivocally condemns any behavior that threatens the safety of atheist community members, including particularly marginalized groups. Freethought Blogs also recognizes the role of sexual harassment as one of numerous barriers for women that limits access to and participation within atheist conferences and spaces.

When the recent allegations against Richard Carrier were made public, Freethought Blogs initiated a process to investigate these claims and formalize its policy concerning the conduct of its members. The FtB Ethics Committee received several reports of Carrier’s behavior and was in the process of reviewing them when Carrier chose to leave the network. A thorough review of the allegations against Carrier cannot be completed by Freethought Blogs without his cooperation.

As part of our commitment to equitable access to freethinking spaces for all, Freethought Blogs members who violate our commitment to social justice by creating or maintaining barriers to participation will be removed from the network as a matter of policy. All reports submitted to us in furtherance of this policy will be kept in the strictest of confidence, unless the accusation was made publicly or in the event we have express permission to reproduce the complaint.

-The FtB Ethics Committee

A number of people on this network have not participated much in this process. I’m certain many of them have barely any idea who Richard Carrier is, no involvement in any of the organizations affected by the situation save this anarchic one.

So for anyone tempted to levy an argument against Freethought Blogs as a whole, keep this in mind. You think someone who has never entered the Western Hemisphere has something to do with this?  Maybe, maybe not.  We’re international.

We’re a group of individuals with a range of opinions. You may see some individual opinions expressed in the future. I’m personally inclined to follow the thoughts of people like Zvan and Christina on The Orbit. Do what works for you.

My individual position? I am not saying or even intending to imply that Richard Carrier is guilty of what has been alleged. My personal opinion remains personal. I only say that anyone who must deal with him personally or professionally will have to observe the situation for their self, look at his side, but try not to fall into our cultural trap of dismissing the statements of possible victims and other people close to the matter. Good luck.

Getting to Know Yooou

Getting to know a new computer program, when you’re not a magical tech baby, is no fun. I’ve been meaning to get into learning Blender (a 3d art program) since late last year, let a bunch of life stuff give me permission to put it off, and now I’m finally getting back to it. Getting used to the interface – for me – is like walking through a waterfall made of karo syrup.

Hey, I didn’t own a computer until I was, like, 27. In college I learned 3d Studio Max and some bare minimum of Maya, but haven’t had to use either of those in ten years. Plus I don’t have much of an attention span for tutorials. Though if you’re like me, I’ve found it helpful to turn on some music with the volume low enough to make out the tutorial presenter’s voice. Education!

Now. The title of the post refers to a song from The King and I, which is about a lady who meets the king of Siam, so here’s a Cramps song that mentions the King of Siam, plus general sleaziness. Sleaze on!

Pay Attention to the Ex-Muslim

In the atheist community, we’ve got an islamophobia problem. This is an especially bad problem for us to have, because we’re the anti-theist Jiminy Cricket for the world. We’re supposed to be the ones who point out how religion contributes to the moral evils of the world as they transpire, and our islamophobia (and often attendant racism) completely undercuts any moral authority we have in criticizing that religion.

This is where diversity saves our bacon. You know who is an atheist with moral authority on the issue of islam? Heina Dadabhoy! You want to say something about rampant homophobia in the muslim community contributing to the actions of horrible outliers like the Orlando shooter, but fear being regarded as just another shitty white person in the shitty white people media hurricane? Link to the thoughtful, progressive, formerly devout muslim, and totally atheist Heina Dadabhoy.

I don’t know if Heina would approve of this approach, but it’s a safe thing to do. I like to play it safe.

Medicine for Islamophobia

I’m getting better about not immediately sliding creepy and rightward in the wake of terrorist acts committed by muslims (in this case, apparently, not even a very devout one). But it’s still good to be reminded of why islamophobia is real and bad (even while islam is as metaphysically wrong and ethically retrograde as any abrahamic faith), and to see who we’re shitting on if we cave into it. I’m not sure about the proper attribution of these images but if someone wants to track that down, they can start where I found them. Here you go, below the fold, LGBTQIA muslims:
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Sex Positivity: Still Necessary

Some people in the lefty / progressive / social justicey sphere of loosely affiliated movements online have disagreements on important issues. That’s fair. The DiscourseTM is meant to help us all improve our ethics, work toward a better world. You don’t have discourse without coming from at least slightly different positions. However, there are some positions people take that are so wrong they tempt me to throw my hands up and give that conversation a pass.
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Pitfalls of RP: Limitations of Medium

When playing an RPG with a GM and your fellow humans, it’s important to keep your imagination engaged – to almost overcompensate for the limitations of the medium. Just consider those limitations and the effect they can have. You can’t see the world and the things in it. Even if you have some kind of visual depiction, it doesn’t include a visceral sense of potential dangers. You seldom have a visual representation of other characters. Especially if your RP is internet based, you miss out on their expression and emphasis in speech.

When interacting with NPCs, you always have an inherent knowledge in the back of your head that they are less central to the narrative – less important – than PCs. Additionally, you may have notions about the players that are not meant to be true of their characters. And you may have knowledge of circumstances in the game that your character should not possess, and (intentionally or not) use that knowledge in game. All of these things can lead you to run your character as if they have an impairment or several that you as the player might not: deficits or difficulties with situational awareness, risk assessment, self-awareness, social propriety, speech comprehension, empathy, imagining characters to have thoughts or qualities they do not have, and so on.
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Pitfalls of RP: Inappropriate Sexy

When the hell did so much online RP become erotic roleplay (ERP)? When I started running games in a public forum, when I opened up a campaign to include people I’d never met, I began to encounter a style of play I had never seen before. Players contriving reasons to have their characters be naked, or falling all over each other dramatically. Literally rolling around on the ground screaming about their feelings while other PCs or NPCs were standing around with question marks over their heads. Breathing into other people’s faces with “kiss me you fool” and the like.
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Pitfalls of RP: Bad Representation

Sometimes people are offensive because they are made out of garbage. Sometimes, it’s because they are operating from a position of ignorance – and possibly amenable to education and improvement. If you want to play characters who are different from yourself without perpetuating bad ideas, let’s talk about it. I love it when character groups are more diverse than the players themselves, as long as it’s done right!
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