Henry Gee is probably chortling happily right now

He’s tweaked the noses of those ‘New Atheists’, for sure! One of Gee’s roles is as the editor of the Futures science fiction section in Nature, and he’s proud to have published a story by Shelly Li, which actually is a well-written short dystopian fantasy, titled The End of God. Gee really detests those obnoxious atheists, though, so I think one of the reasons he picked it was that it so perfectly conformed to his idea of militant atheists as fascists.

The story is about a future in which satellites can somehow pick up on activity in the parietal lobe of the brain in individuals — amazing resolution and sensitivity, that — and detect when people are praying. And when they do, naturally, the godless thought police whoosh into action, take the faithhead into the hospital, and zap that lobe of their brain so god won’t talk to them anymore. And then they’re so lonely. Aww.

Taking away faith is a bad thing, don’t you know.

“Faith means believing in something when common sense tells you not to,” I reply, looking around. No one is moved. “And faith gives me a warmth that no amount of common sense ever will. Don’t take this away from —”

Of course, it’s science fiction in multiple ways, not just in the unlikely technology, but in the weird idea of a godless world state enforcing anti-religious mind control with surgery. It’d be a bit more potent if it was something we could do, or if anyone had ever endorsed such a hypothetical procedure as desirable.

I don’t think Henry Gee would have accepted this story if the plot had been inverted, so that it was a member of an atheist minority that was zapped to induce warm, happy feelings of the godhead — so just a hint to SF writers hoping to get published in Nature: Gee wouldn’t compromise on writing quality, so it had better be good stuff, but your odds of acceptance will probably be improved if your Bad Guys are cartoonish Dawkinsites with a penchant for doing evil things to the religious.

Just so I’m not being too vicious, although I would argue that it’s very hard to be too vicious, I’ll mention that I did rather like Gee’s review of the iPad, and he has my sympathies for his back pains, which I’m currently sharing with him to a lesser degree. But please, less unbelievability in Futures in the future, OK?

Attention, perversely assertive women! You are abnormal!

Important clarification: CAH is a real and serious disease. There are no objections to pediatricians treating the physiological disorders in utero. However, lesbianism, traditionally masculine career choices, and disinterest in having children are not diseases…and the problem in this work is that the doctors involved clearly think they are, and are interested in using the drug dexamethasone to modify behavioral choices. That’s the scary part.

Ladies, are you independent, stubborn, or mildly aggressive in your social interactions? Are you perhaps less interested in having sex with men than your neighborhood nymphmaniac? Are you possibly even lesbian or bisexual? Worst of all, are you pursuing a career in a masculine profession, and possibly deferring pregnancy and child-rearing to a later date, or even indefinitely?

*Researchers couldn’t possibly have suggested this, could they? Yes, they did.

In a paper published just this year in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, New and her colleague, pediatric endocrinologist Saroj Nimkarn of Weill Cornell Medical College, go further, constructing low interest in babies and men – and even interest in what they consider to be men’s occupations and games – as “abnormal,” and potentially preventable with prenatal dex:

“Gender-related behaviors, namely childhood play, peer association, career and leisure time preferences in adolescence and adulthood, maternalism, aggression, and sexual orientation become masculinized in 46,XX girls and women with 21OHD deficiency [CAH]. These abnormalities have been attributed to the effects of excessive prenatal androgen levels on the sexual differentiation of the brain and later on behavior.” Nimkarn and New continue: “We anticipate that prenatal dexamethasone therapy will reduce the well-documented behavioral masculinization…”

See? It’s abnormal to have career interests that are not aligned with your gender!

By the way, “46,XX” just means chromosomally normal.

Your diseased state may be due to a congenital abnormality, prenatal exposure to excess androgens. You’ve been mildly masculinized. There are specific heritable traits such as congenital adrenal hyperplasia that can, in extreme cases, lead to ambiguous genitalia, but even at low levels of effect may contribute to such horrors as female homosexuality, childhood playing with trucks, and the ambition to pursue careers in physics or medicine or computer science, where you don’t really belong.*

I fear that if you’re reading Pharyngula, you’re probably one of those more assertive, man-like women, and you’re rapidly reviewing your personal history and realizing it’s true: you didn’t make Scarlett O’Hara your role model, you aren’t submissive to your husband (if you even have one!), and the prospect of churning out a baby a year does not appeal to you. And you’re wondering what went wrong with your life, and what can you do to change your personality to something more demure, more delicate, more passive.

I’m sorry, it’s too late. There’s nothing that can help you now. I told you it’s caused by congenital exposure to androgens. Weren’t you listening, woman?

But wait, don’t despair. You might be condemned to a life of misery trying to compete with men by your aberrant brain, but your children don’t have to. What you need to do is use your ovaries and get pregnant right now — don’t complain, it’s your natural destiny — and if it’s a boy, be happy and relieved, but if it’s a girl, there is a drug you can take that might make her a girly girl girl, one who is joyously heterosexual (unlike you), happy to have sex with men (unlike you), a perfect fit to traditional gender roles (unlike you), and enthusiastic about having babies (unlike you, who is only doing this out of a sense of duty and a diminished self-esteem).

Now the evidence that prenatal androgenization is the cause of your weird unladylike attitude is a little shaky, and the use of this drug is experimental and hasn’t really been tested that well to see if it works as claimed, but never mind all that — its use has been endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society, the European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology, the European Society of Endocrinology, the Society of Pediatric Urology, the Androgen Excess and PCOS Society, and the CARES Foundation. The rather tenuous chain of evidence for this claim, and the peculiarity of diagnosing as a problem something that most of the poor, afflicted, purblind women do not recognize as a problem, is being disregarded because it is so very important that we reduce the incidence of lesbianism by an entirely hypothetical and unmeasured percentage. Lesbianism is just that bad.

Ask for it by name. It’s a glucosteroid called dexamethasone, and tell your doctor you need it because you want to make sure your baby likes pink frilly dresses when she grows up and doesn’t try to compete with men. It’s a convenient anti-uppitiness pill for your baby!

Meanwhile, just sit around and feel miserable about your congenital failures.

Oh, by the way — dexamethosone is a potent little steroid, and there may be a few trivial side-effects of the chronic exposure to the hormone to you while pregnant, including weight gain, diabetes, immunosuppression, hypertension, catabolic muscle atrophy, osteoporosis, and psychiatric disturbances, like mania, depression, and mood swings. It’s just one of those little sacrifices I’m sure you’ll be happy (remember—destiny, natural order, womanly role, etc.) to make in order that your baby grows up knowing her place as an appropriately obedient little receptacle of manly desires, and liking it.

Before you less-than-hyper-macho men get all smug, though, let me warn you: prenatal hormone effects is a hot, hot topic in the heteronormative world of pediatrics. You’re going to be diagnosed as suffering from a prenatal androgen deficiency and shamed if you’re anything less than a man’s man with stereotypic masculine interests. Look for intrauterine testosterone treatments for women carrying boy children, just to make sure they grow up to like football (American, not that pansy soccer stuff) and follow macho careers!

I, for one, look forward to our brave new world of drug-enhanced sexual dimorphism and the extermination of all sexual ambiguity and androgyneity. Aren’t you?

If you aren’t, give us time: we’ll come up with a pill for that, too.

The Curse of Morris

At first, it was a distressing slithery whisper, like a krait loosed in the room; then a sensation, an itch, as if an assassin were trickling arsenic into my ear; and then apparently the assassin decided to get sadistic and switch to sulfuric acid. I woke up and blinked at the alarm clock; the glowing red LEDs balefully informed me that it was 4:30am. I creakily rose out of bed, went to the window, and pressed my ear against it. It wasn’t a horrible dream. It was true. It was…hymns. Cheesy hymns, played mechanically on an electronic carillon.

Normally, I can cope. These well-insulated Minnesota houses muffle the outside noises well, but it was a clear morning and the pre-dawn silence carried the sound particularly well that day, enough to disturb my sleep. Normally, it’s enough that I keep the doors and windows closed all day and stay inside to avoid the intrusion of nonstop hymns and patriotic songs every half hour from the Vortex of All Evil a few blocks north of me, which if you think about it, is a bit oppressive right there. It’s summer here in the upper midwest, the weather is good, I wouldn’t mind taking my laptop out on the shady deck to work, except…the hymns. It’s at its worst when the weather is sweetest, but I must admit, at least when the tornadoes are storming, the noise is drowned out. My Minnesota pallor is going completely unchallenged this summer, again.

I’ve mentioned this nightmare before. It’s a seasonal nuisance — when the weather turns pleasant and we step outdoors, we’re quickly driven back in by the noise. There seems to be nothing we can do. The Vortex is a ‘charitable’ donation to the local Catholic cemetary by an obnoxious community pest, and it’s all wrapped up in Christianity, both in purpose, location, and content. That means it is protected and beloved by sanctimonious asses who don’t have to live near it.

Here it is.


It doesn’t look like much, does it? Yet there it stands, a monument to evil, a grim and horrible stake surmounted by horns of chaos. I’m sure that if you pulled it up, if you could, you’d find it rooted deeply in Christian Hell, and that every night demons rise from the ground and dance horribly around it. It’s convenient that it is located in a cemetary, because only the dead can rest unperturbed by its presence. If we had a Minnesota Stephen King, he’d be writing terrifying stories about the ordinary townsfolk of a small town being warped and poisoned by emanations from the mysterious malign artifact; an HP Lovecraft of Morris would be troubled by the unholy sounds, and would be writing “<ding> ph’nglui <dong> mglw’nafh <ding> Cthulhu <DONG> R’lyeh <DONG> wgah’nagl <DONG> fhtagn <ding>”. We’re living on the Plains of Madness.

In case you’re wondering exactly where this hellish place is, here’s a map. You can probably guess where I am and where the Pillar of Pandemonium is located.


I show you this for two reasons: as a warning, first of all. Shun this place if you value your sanity. Tourists, there’s a nice little campground several miles away on the Pomme de Terre river; stay there, you’ll be out of range of the malefic sonic curse. Beware, beware the throbbing heart of evil in Morris.

The second reason is hope: if a reader out there is in the Air Force Reserve in the region, and is ever out flying around in an A-10, please save us. A volley of Hellfire missiles followed by some napalm to make sure would be delightful.

Otherwise, I’m converting to Islam just so I can build a minaret somewhere central to where city council members live, and send a muezzin up to howl through a loudspeaker five times a day. Surely they won’t mind, especially since it would be less frequent than our damnable Catholic alternative.

Disturbingly weird vampire paraphenalia

You’ve all been wondering, I’m sure, what a vampire penis looks like. We don’t have a picture of one, since Twilight is still the domain of yearningly sexless (we hope!) tweens who are infatuated with the idea of love and sex, just not the reality, but one exploiter has come out with a Twilight vibrator. It’s lavenderish and bumpy and grossly overpriced, if you don’t really want to click on the link. It’s not clear if it sparkles; if not, they missed a good marketing angle.

It’s also not clear who it is for. Don’t you have to be rather repressed to find anything at all attractive about that series?

(By the way, if you want a more chilling picture of vampire sexuality in fiction, look into Let the Right One In, either the movie or book. Creepiest vampire story since Stoker. Plus, nobody will ever try to sell you an Eli vibrator. Ever.)

Make love, not war

Who remembers Robert Ardrey? I must shamefully confess that I was a fan back in the 1970s, when the ‘killer ape’ hypothesis was in the air. This was the idea that one of the things that made humans different and drove the evolution of the human brain was aggression and competition, specifically that big brains evolved as a weapon in a multi-million year intra-specific arms race. Arms races are cool concepts that, when first introduced to natural selection, seem like powerful mechanisms to drive the evolution of elaborate features.

I outgrew Ardrey, have no fear. As I learned more biology, I came to mistrust those umbrella hypotheses that appeared to explain everything with one simple premise — biology is complicated, and rarely fits into those simple categories. I also began to get suspicious of poorly credentialed popularizers who too often seemed most adept at twisting research to fit whatever hobby horse they were riding at the time (see also Elaine Morgan).

But mostly, it didn’t fit what we see in the real world. Think about your interactions with other human beings: probably, unless you’re in the military, the most ferociously antagonistic conflicts you encounter involve commenting on Pharyngula. The internet has a reputation for being contentious, but get real: it’s slinging words back and forth, feelings might get hurt, but the consequences to your survival and mating prospects are very, very low. You could even argue that most of the jostling isn’t about destroying our enemies, but about increasing in-group solidarity.

It’s even more true outside the abstract world of the internet. Most of our interactions with other people are regulated by deep-down protocols that we’re socialized into — if someone cuts into a queue ahead of you, we don’t pull out a stone axe and take care of the problem, we either roll our eyes and acquiesce or we complain verbally and get other people to shame the interloper. It’s relatively harmless. We go to work, and maybe you share an office with annoying jerks (of course you do, we all do), but we don’t go on a rampage and fight the boss for dominance, so we can purge the tribe of the ones we detest, who borrow our stapler and don’t give it back — no, we grumble and accommodate and cope somehow, and maybe try to work our way into a better position with social networking.

It’s what we are. We are social animals. In the history of our species, I think the most important signature of our evolutionary history is the construction of cohesive social units, groups larger than the individual, that allow us to survive better together than alone. We aren’t warring animals, we’re cooperative animals.

War is a byproduct. We’ve evolved and enculturated mechanisms that allow groups of increasingly larger size to persevere — a paleolithic tribe of 30 people is one thing, a nation of hundreds of millions or billions is another — and war occurs when these groups bump into one another. War is not the central activity of the human species, though, but a fringe event, a side-effect of processes that reinforce group cohesion and secondarily create friction when diverse social units encounter one another and demand responses that aren’t so strongly reinforced within our groups.

Anyway, that long ramble is an introduction to an interesting article on the history of war in primates. It’s just not that common in our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, and recent accounts of coordinated gang attacks may be unusual responses to high environmental stresses. This is not a good time to be a chimpanzee.

There are known examples of death by lethal tools in the human archaeological record, and this isn’t an argument that everyone since the dawn of time has been living in peaceful coexistence, but the documentable evidence of war is very thin. People are lovers, not killers.

Archaeologist Jonathan Haas of the Field Museum in Chicago concurs: “There is a very tiny handful of incidences of conflict and possible warfare before 10,000 years ago. And those are very much the exception.” In an interview with me he attributed the emergence of warfare in prehistory to growing population density, diminished food sources and the separation of people into culturally distinct groups. “It is only after the cultural foundations have been laid for distinguishing ‘us’ from ‘them,'” Haas says, “that raiding, killing and burning appear as a complex response to the external stress of environmental problems.”

On the other hand, Haas adds, “groups that are at war in one era or generation may be at peace in the next.” War’s recent emergence, and its sporadic pattern, contradict the assertion of Wrangham and others that war springs from innate male tendencies, he argues. “If war is deeply rooted in our biology, then it’s going to be there all the time. And it’s just not,” he says. War is certainly not as innate as language, a trait possessed by all known human societies at all times.

That’s the good news: warfare is a pathological condition for our species, brought on by external stress. We are not biologically committed to fighting one another.

The bad news is that external stresses are growing, with increasing demands for oil and water and food, with looming climate change likely to disrupt environmental stability, and with overpopulation increasing the friction within and between groups. Brace yourselves.

I might suggest, though, that the greatest human successes have arisen from developing tools to strengthen social unity and encourage competition — killing your neighbors is a sign of failure.

Annoying libertarians

Ah, the funny cartoon yesterday rankled the libertarian contingent again. I’ll explain a few things that will get them fired up even more.

  • Get over yourselves. Mocking libertarians does not bring me a swarm of traffic — you’re like a tiny swarm of self-important rodents who will natter on endlessly in protest, but most normal people laugh once, shrug, and move on. The major traffic-getter on my site yesterday was a post inviting women to express themselves. If all I cared about was sucking in clicks, I’d do that more often; women matter, libertarians are a negligible blip.

  • The funniest thing to me is how quickly libertarians get indignant and demonstrate an absence of a sense of humor. It never fails. Make a joke about libertarians, and they don’t get it, but they will sit there and explain how the joke doesn’t work, endlessly, becoming a new variant of the joke themselves. Please, get some self-awareness!

  • There were the typical claims that government would be at the mercy of whatever rascal we elect to the presidency. I would like more government. A well-regulated civil service would be an excellent buffer against the whims of the executive. Why do you anti-government guys always think so simplistically, assuming that big government means concentrating more power in the hands of an autocratic individual? You do realize that we live in a representative democracy with more than one person at the top, and that non-partisan institutions within government can function without an overlord?

  • The alternative to regulation of basic services by the government is privatizing them and giving more power to corporations — whose goal is to increase profits. Personally, I like to see the Invisible Hand shackled and restricted to doing useful work, rather than picking pockets.

  • I actually do like civil libertarians very much. The rights of the individual to think and speak as he or she pleases should not be compromised. However, the social machinery that maximizes civil liberties is very much the product of cooperation and secular social institutions. Most of the oblivious libertarians — the ones who can’t get the joke — don’t realize that their advocacy of mindless laissez-faire capitalism and unfettered industry is about destroying the social fabric that allows each of us to be something more than a serf. Freedom is worth paying taxes for, unless all you think freedom is about is gathering money.

My apologies for the link to the malware site in that post, too, and I’ve removed it for now. I hope the bad stuff gets fixed soon; Barry Deutsch at leftycartoons.com (right now, go there at your peril) actually has page after page of absolutely marvelous cartoons that will make pro-union, pro-equality, pro-socialism, pro-goodness and light people feel all happy and warm.