You go, Harry Lonsdale!

Harry Lonsdale is a godless Oregonian who has just offered a $50,000 prize plus $2,000,000 in funding for research into the origins of life.

A millionaire scientist who once ran as a Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate has just launched a $50,000 prize to promote research on the origin of life. Yes, he has an ulterior motive: He hopes that researchers working on the question will eventually prove that life’s origins can be fully explained by physical and chemical processes, without invoking a creator.

Harry Lonsdale is a chemist in Bend, Oregon, who made a fortune when he sold his drug development and research company to Pfizer more than 25 years ago. Since then, he has leveraged his wealth for social, civic, and political causes, including a series of unsuccessful bids to become a U.S. senator. The 79-year-old Lonsdale is an avowed atheist who has advocated for gay rights, campaign finance reform, and environmental protections. Now, he’s on a mission to accelerate the quest to understand how life originated. Over the past 2 weeks, Lonsdale has taken out ads in Science, Nature, and Chemical and Engineering News announcing an Origin of Life Research Award that includes $50,000 for the best proposal to study the origin of life and up to $2 million in potential funding to carry out the work.

This is serious stuff, with serious people (like Jack Szostak) backing it, and another thing that is cool about it is that Lonsdale openly admits that his atheism is a motivation for funding science. The website for the project explains exactly what he’s looking for.

All submissions will be reviewed by a panel of scientific experts. Submissions should contain a statement of work to be performed and a letter of institutional support where appropriate. Submissions that suggest a multidisciplinary approach should describe how the necessary research capabilities will be provided. Submissions that rely on extraterrestrial sources of key materials must describe in detail how those materials would have been generated. Submissions involving the supernatural or that violate physical laws will not be considered.

That last clause is a given for all scientific research — it’s just rare to see it so clearly said.

Something has stirred up the anti-circumcision brigade

It’s been a rough weekend. It was a rough night, with little sleep. This morning I had the double whammy of a doctor’s appointment and a dentist’s appointment. So I’m feeling a little cranky, and my teeth are all coated with this gummy gritty cherry-flavored fluoride goop. You don’t want to cross me today.

And then some idiot going by the name ‘eident9’ charges into a year-old thread and first demands an audience with me, and then demands an apology. WTF? This is a blog. Just post your comment and be done with it. And what bug has crawled up his butt suddenly? He says, “Recent matters have reminded me of this board.” Which had me wondering. What matters?

I’ve found out. It seems Russell Crowe had a twitter tantrum over circumcision. He’s against it. So am I. But apparently, I am not sufficiently angry about circumcision, and I belittled people who make it an obsession. I’m not going to apologize for that; I consider circumcision to be needless cosmetic surgery and a barbaric practice, and I’m not going to condone it, but neither am I going to go off the deep end like that guy and consider my life ruined by it. A majority of American males have been circumcised, and we’re a randy, raunchy, sexed-up lot who don’t seem to be suffering from an epidemic of sexual inadequacy. Well, maybe eident9 is, but one frustrated guy does not an epidemic make.

Now Salon has followed up with an article that suggests that circumcision may actually have some health benefits. I am not impressed. They cite a couple of incomplete epidemiological studies in African populations for HIV infection, and they come up with some astounding figures: a 50-60% reduction in infection rates. Wow, with that kind of advantage…sign me up.

However, these are deeply flawed studies. None of them were completed: they all abandoned the protocol and stopped the research as soon as preliminary results gave them positive values. This is like shooting craps and announcing that all your dice throws were practice…until you get a good roll, and then, yeah, that was the real deal. That one counts.

They all overstate their results. That 50-60% reduction was in relative rate, in comparison across the two groups. The actual calculated protection in absolute terms conferred by circumcision was a 2% reduction in the likelihood of infection. That doesn’t dazzle me, either, and given that the studies were terminated when they got their best results, I’m not persuaded.

And finally, give me a plausible mechanism for how circumcision would achieve these remarkable gains. Tell me how it is supposed to work. If it’s something to do with hygiene, it seems to me that better sex and health education should have the same or better effect than lopping off bits of skin.

So to my crackpot complainer, I say no apologies. I also say as I always have that I oppose circumcision, think it is a pointless and petty bit of suffering to put children through and ought to be discouraged, but I also don’t think it’s as hideously damaging as the obsessive nuts want to claim. Also, in the context of the original post, I consider it a prime example of selfish privilege to invade discussions of female genital mutilation, which does cause serious sexual and medical problems, with demands that we pay more attention to the lesser concerns of males getting lightly scarred penises.

Shouldn’t it be called “The Great Wall of Vulva”?

It looks like I missed my chance — I think this place was only a few blocks from the hotel where I stayed in Brighton a few weeks ago. An artist has put together a montage of 400 casts of women’s personal bits, called The Great Wall of Vagina. It’s impressive and rather pretty.

You know, I’ve been planning some research on natural variation in populations, and I’ve been looking into variation in limb morphology as an easy assay…but man, I’m looking at that and thinking there’s an even bigger reservoir of natural varieties right here in the human population. Somebody ought to do a study on that — preferably with a multigenerational sample and sibling comparisons to to see how much of it is heritable. We’d need to develop some standardized metrics, though, and it would probably be a much bigger project than I could handle at this point in my career, not to mention the strain it would put on the eyebrows of the human research review committee.

I did take a quick scan of the research literature, but only came up with this one source that mentions the paucity of research in this field.

Howarth H, Sommer V, Jordan FM (2010) Visual depictions of female genitalia differ depending on source. Med Humanit 36(2):75-9.

Very little research has attempted to describe normal human variation in female genitalia, and no studies have compared the visual images that women might use in constructing their ideas of average and acceptable genital morphology to see if there are any systematic differences. The objective of the present work was to determine if visual depictions of the vulva differed according to their source so as to alert medical professionals and their patients to how these depictions might capture variation and thus influence perceptions of ‘normality’. A comparative analysis was conducted by measuring (a) published visual materials from human anatomy textbooks in a university library, (b) feminist publications (print and online) depicting vulval morphology and (c) online pornography, focusing on the most visited and freely accessible sites in the UK. Post hoc tests showed that labial protuberance was significantly less (p<0.001, equivalent to approximately 7-14 mm) in images from online pornography compared to feminist publications. All five measures taken of vulval features were significantly correlated (p<0.001) in the online pornography sample, indicating a less varied range of differences in organ proportions than the other sources where not all measures were correlated. Women and health professionals should be aware that specific sources of imagery may depict different types of genital morphology and may not accurately reflect true variation in the population, and consultations for genital surgeries should include discussion about the actual and perceived range of variation in female genital morphology.

Somebody get to work on this! The artists are beating the scientists to the data!

The focus so far has been on the perception of the female genitalia, but it seems to me the really interesting question is in the source of these amazing variants.

Bill Donohue and I agree on something?

I know, it’s a sign of the coming apocalypse…but Bill Donohue of the Catholic League opposes faith-based federal programs, just like I do! Well, not quite like I do. It turns out he has a different reason than I do.

When Sen. Obama was running for president three years ago, he pledged support for faith-based programs provided they were emptied of any faith component: he opposed the right of faith-based programs to maintain their integrity by hiring only people of their faith.

When faith is gutted from faith-based programs–when Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox Jews can’t hire their own–we are left with a carcass. It would be better to save the money (Obama’s faith-based program received $140 million in stimulus money last year) than to pretend that we are helping religious social agencies. The goal, obviously, is to convert these religious entities into full-blown secular organizations. It would be better not to let them hijack these programs in the name of assisting them, thus it makes sense to shut them down.

Oh. He opposes them because Obama doesn’t think it’s right to use federal money to promote bigotry, while Cranky Bill thinks that bigotry is the precious guts of his faith.

I oppose them because faith doesn’t work.

I guess we won’t be high-fiving each other if ever we meet, then.

Why use a poll to determine who gets civil rights?

You know who is really unhappy about NY’s gay marriage law? “Religious leaders”, of course.

Religious leaders slammed the state’s new gay marriage law on Saturday, vowing to ban politicians who supported the measure from any Catholic church and parochial school events.

The city’s top Catholic clergy released strongly worded statements in the hours after the state Senate voted 33-29 to legalize gay unions.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, of the diocese of Brooklyn, called on all Catholic schools to reject any honor bestowed upon them by Gov. Cuomo, who played a pivotal role in getting the bill passed.

He further asked all pastors and principals to “not invite any state legislator to speak or be present at any parish or school celebration.”

“This is a further erosion of the real understanding of marriage,” DiMarzio told the Daily News. “The state should not be concerned about regulating affection.”

And the Catholic church should? I think affection is a matter between the individuals concerned, and no one else…so the state did the right thing by taking away barriers. We don’t need the church putting up more.

Anyway, there’s a poll. It’s not going well. Do what you can.

Do you agree with the legislature on gay marriage?

Yes, the bill needed to be approved. 14%
No, I don’t think that gay marriage should be legal. 86%
I’m not sure yet. 0%

From the land of Hume

Edinburgh will be hosting Skeptics on the Fringe in August — three solid weeks of skeptical events. Danger! All of your illusions will be scoured away, the flamethrower of reason will turn all your generous delusions to ash, the bones of reality will be unclothed and exposed…I expect people will come staggering out of Scotland at the end of August with eyes like lasers, burning with the unholy light of truth unmasked. Someone might want to alert the local fire department.


Yeah, that’s me. Ken Ham has noticed a certain article I wrote, and describes it for his blinkered followers.

Apparently, in this instance with Emma, a well known atheist wrote (very typical for him) an anti-Christian blog attacking me/AiG. Apparently some of his followers decided to send this on etc. I don’t read these vile blogs, but it is typical of these extremely intolerant people who in the anger, shake their fist at God.

I am amused at the characterization of the article in question. Emma’s mother is quite irate, too:

I had to tell you that my friend wrote on Ken’s Facebook page that she knows Emma and some guy… sent my friend a PRIVATE message blasting Ken and Emma (how sweet). I didn’t see the message because I didn’t want to…

Well, Emma’s mother is willfully blind, while Ken Ham knows full well what was written, and has chosen both to lie about it and to run away from providing a link to it. Now his followers are claiming that atheists are making “cowardly attacks”, that we “must be really scared of all the Emmas in the world to attack a 9 yr old like that”, and that atheists are “cowards at heart.” — but we know who the real coward is here, and it is the dishonest fool who is afraid to expose his lies by linking to me.

Liars for Jesus who have to cower and hide before the truth…it is so typical.

I was sent the perfect illustration for this post: