Gaily frolicking squid

Some species of cephalopods are incapable of concealing their sexual history. The males produce packets of sperm called spermatangia that they grasp with a specialized arm that they then reach out and splat, poke into their mate. In Octopoteuthis deletron, a deep-sea squid, these spermatangia are large, pale, and distinctive, so every time a squid is mated it’s left with a little white dangling flag marking it — so sex is like a combination of tag and paintball. The males are loaded with ammo — 1646 were counted in the reproductive tract of one male — and the spermatangia can be counted using a video camera.

So a ROV went down deep into the Monterey Submarine Canyon and documented the profligate promiscuity of these squid. The females had been busy: individuals had between 21 and 147 spermatangia dangling from them.

(a) A female Octopoteuthis deletron showing implanted spermatangia in the ventral arms, the ventral lateral mantle and the ventral mid and posterior mantle (arrows) and the characteristic rugose skin of the anterior mantle in females. (b) A spermatangium showing the bulbous proximal portion containing sperm, and the trailing open end. (c) A male O. deletron with implanted spermatangia on the dorsal mantle; the trailing ends are visible in profile. (d) Close-up of (c).

The surprise was that the males were equally likely to have been inseminated multiple times in their life, between 15 and 25 times. They’re all manic bisexuals! They’re also creative in their sexual behavior; as you can see below, spermatangia are implanted everywhere, mantle, arms, ventrally, dorsally. It’s all one big gay orgy down there under the sea.

Frequency of occurrence of spermatangia present on the (a) dorsal and (b) ventral body of male and female O. deletron. The colours of the body parts correspond with the colours of the bars in the graph.

Most cephalopods, this species included, live short lives and the perpetuation of the species relies on rapid, successful mating. The authors explain this same-sex mating behavior as an adaptive response to a life-style in which discrimination is less important than simply getting the job done.

We have only observed them as solitary individuals. The combination of a solitary life, poor sex differentiation, the difficulty of locating a conspecific and the rapidity of the sexual encounter probably results in the observed high frequency of spermatangia-bearing males in this species. Apparently, the costs involved in losing sperm to another male are smaller than the costs of developing sex discrimination and courtship, or of not mating at all. This behaviour further exemplifies the ‘live fast and die young’ life strategy of many cephalopods.

I prefer to think of it as a brief happy life spent writhing constantly, passionately in the arms of love.

Hoving HJT, Bush SL, Robison BH (2011) A shot in the dark: same-sex sexual behaviour in a deep-sea squid. Biol. Lett. doi:10.1098/rsbl.2011.0680.

(Also on Sb)


I’m more than a little appalled. Sam Harris defends racial profiling in airport security screening. I reject this categorically.

We should profile Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it. And, again, I wouldn’t put someone who looks like me entirely outside the bull’s-eye (after all, what would Adam Gadahn look like if he cleaned himself up?) But there are people who do not stand a chance of being jihadists, and TSA screeners can know this at a glance.

Terrorists are people who have an ideological commitment so fierce that they encourage violence in its defense, even to the point of self-destruction. It is a behavioral property, not a racial one; to argue that one can identify it by so superficial a characteristic as appearance is unjust and ineffective. If we’re going to play the odds game in the United States, for instance, the people we ought to be stopping are white males. These are our terrorists, for instance.

Shall we single out people who look like them for special scrutiny? Of course not, that would be so many people, you might say, and most light-skinned European-Americans are not terrorists, so it would be an incredibly inefficient screening protocol. So why should we focus on people with dark complexions and Semitic features? There are many of them, too, and the overwhelming majority are most definitely not terrorists, and it would similarly be terribly inefficient. We would be harrassing mostly innocent people…but of course, these are innocent minorities, so their rights be damned to give the majority a little more privilege.

Harris also argues that some people are obviously not capable of terrorism, mentioning specifically the elderly — “an elderly couple who couldn’t have been less threatening had they been already dead and boarding in their coffins”. I had not realized that destroying required less guile and cunning and technological sophistication than muscle. I know that I don’t plan on seeing my capacity for nefarious scheming to diminish as I become increasingly decrepit physically, and I’m pretty sure that setting off a bomb in the bathroom doesn’t require vast reserves of youthful muscle.

Harris is right to complain about the superficial show of frisking down a subset of people passing through the security chokepoint — it’s a stupid way to prevent terrorism. It would be far more effective to catch them before they show up at the airport, on the basis of associations and activities, rather than their skin color or the shape of their nose; it would also be better to have more robust recognition of identity at the airport, in order to connect information about threatening behavior to the individual.

But never mind me. Ask a security expert, Bruce Schneier, about profiling. He advocates behavioral profiling (are they acting hinky? Is there something unusual about their activities?) but rejects the stupidity of profiling by ancestry.

  • Whenever you design a security system with two ways through — an easy way and a hard way — you invite the attacker to take the easy way. Profile for young Arab males, and you’ll get terrorists that are old non-Arab females. This paper looks at the security effectiveness of profiling versus random searching.

  • If we are going to increase security against terrorism, the young Arab males living in our country are precisely the people we want on our side. Discriminating against them in the name of security is not going to make them more likely to help.

  • Despite what many people think, terrorism is not confined to young Arab males. Shoe-bomber Richard Reid was British. Germaine Lindsay, one of the 7/7 London bombers, was Afro-Caribbean. Here are some more examples:

    In 1986, a 32-year-old Irish woman, pregnant at the time, was about to board an El Al flight from London to Tel Aviv when El Al security agents discovered an explosive device hidden in the false bottom of her bag. The woman’s boyfriend — the father of her unborn child — had hidden the bomb.

    In 1987, a 70-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman — neither of whom were Middle Eastern — posed as father and daughter and brought a bomb aboard a Korean Air flight from Baghdad to Thailand. En route to Bangkok, the bomb exploded, killing all on board.

    In 1999, men dressed as businessmen (and one dressed as a Catholic priest) turned out to be terrorist hijackers, who forced an Avianca flight to divert to an airstrip in Colombia, where some passengers were held as hostages for more than a year-and-half.

    The 2002 Bali terrorists were Indonesian. The Chechnyan terrorists who downed the Russian planes were women. Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber were Americans. The Basque terrorists are Basque, and Irish terrorists are Irish. Tha Tamil Tigers are Sri Lankan.

    And many Muslims are not Arabs. Even worse, almost everyone who is Arab is not a terrorist — many people who look Arab are not even Muslims. So not only are there an large number of false negatives — terrorists who don’t meet the profile — but there an enormous number of false positives: innocents that do meet the profile.

Thorough reform of the security process is needed to make us genuinely safer. Scapegoating ethnic groups is not, however, the answer.

Near-death, rehashed

The story so far: Mario Beauregard published a very silly article in Salon, claiming that Near-Death Experiences (NDEs) were proof of life after death, a claim that he attempted to support with a couple of feeble anecdotes. I replied, pointing out that NDEs are delusions, and his anecdotal evidence was not evidence at all. Now Salon has given Beauregard another shot at it, and he has replied with a “rebuttal” to my refutation. You will not be surprised to learn that he has no evidence to add, and his response is simply a predictable rehashing of the same flawed reasoning he has exercised throughout.

In his previous sally, he cited the story of Maria’s Shoe, a tall tale that has been circulating in the New Age community for decades, always growing in the telling. This story is the claim that a woman with a heart condition was hospitalized, and while unconscious with a heart attack, her spirit floated out of the coronary care unit to observe a shoe on a third-floor ledge. As has been shown, she described nothing that could not be learned by mundane observation, no supernatural events required, and further, that the story is peculiarly unverifiable: “Maria” cannot be found, not even in the hospital records, and no one has been found who even knew this woman. The entire story is hearsay with no independent evidence whatsoever.

Beauregard attempts to salvage the story by layering on more detail. The description of the shoe was very specific, he says, right down to the placement of the laces and the pattern of wear, and she could not possibly have learned this by overhearing staff talking about it because “it would have been difficult for Maria to understand the location of the shoe in the hospital and the details of its appearance because she spoke very little English.” This is a curious observation; the claim is that she could not understand a description of the shoe, but she was able to describe the shoe herself to a woman, Kimberly Clark Sharp, who did not understand Spanish.

“When I got to the critical-care unit, Maria was lying slightly elevated in bed, eyes wild, arms flailing, and speaking Spanish excitedly,” recounts Sharp. “I had no idea what she was saying, but I went to her and grabbed her by the shoulders. Our faces were inches apart, our eyes locked together, and I could see she had something important to tell me.”

The question isn’t whether a seriously ill woman with poor command of English could see the shoe; it’s whether a healthy, ambulatory, English-speaking woman who has made a career out of the myth of NDEs could see the shoe. Beauregard’s additions to the anecdote do not increase its credibility at all.

Beauregard adds another anecdote to the litany, the story of another cardiac patient who was resuscitated and later recounted seeing a particular nurse while his brain was not functional. Seriously — more anecdotes don’t help his case. He threatens to have even more of these stories in a book he’s in the process of publishing, but there’s no point. He could recite a thousand vague rumors and poorly documented examples with ambiguous interpretations, and it wouldn’t salvage his thesis.

This new anecdote is more of the same. The patient is comatose and with no heart rhythm when brought into the hospital; over a week later, he claims to recognize a particular nurse as having been present during his crisis, and mentions that she put his dentures in a drawer.

I am underwhelmed. I must introduce Beauregard to two very common terms that are well understood in the neuroscience community.

The first is confabulation. This is an extremely common psychological process in which we fill in gaps in our memory with fabrications. I described this in my previous response, but Beauregard chose to disregard it. The patient above has a large gap in his memory, but he knows that he existed in that period, and something must have happened; he knows that he was resuscitated in a hospital, so can imagine a scene in which he was surrounded by doctors and nurses; he knows that his dentures are missing, so he suspects that someone put them somewhere, likely one of the people surrounding him during the emergency. So his brain fills in the gap with a plausible narrative. This whole process is routine and unsurprising, and far more likely than that his mind went wandering away from his brain.

The second term is confirmation bias. Only positive responses that confirm Beauregard’s expectations are noted. The patient guessed that a nurse he met during his routine care was also present during his episode of unconsciousness, and he was correct. What if he’d guessed wrongly? That event would be unexceptional, nobody would have made note of it, and Beauregard would not now be trotting out this incident as a vindication of his hypothesis. This is one of the problems of building a case on anecdotes; without knowledge of the range and likelihood of various results, one can’t distinguish the selective presentation of chance events from a measurable phenomenon.

While unaware of basic concepts in science, Beauregard seems to readily adopt the most woo-ish buzzwords. His explanation for this purported power of the mind to exist independently of any physical substrate is, unfortunately and predictably, quantum mechanics. Every charlatan in the world seems to believe that attaching “quantum” to a word makes it magical and powerful and unquestionable. I have to accept Terry Pratchett’s rebuttal: “‘Let’s call it Quantum!’ is not an explanation.” And neither is Beauregard’s feeble insistence that the universe possesses quantum consciousness, that psychic powers represent quantum phenomena, or that there is an infinitely loving Cosmic Intelligence.

Beauregard then accuses me of having an ideological bias, and that I’m a fanatical fundamentalist. He, of course, is the dispassionate, objective observer with no axe to grind, only interested in reporting the scientific facts. Unfortunately, his book The Spiritual Brain reveals to the contrary that he has some very, very strange beliefs.

“Individual minds and selves arise from and are linked together by a divine Ground of Being (or primordial matrix). That is the spaceless, timeless, and infinite Spirit, which is the ever-present source of cosmic order, the matrix of the whole universe, including both physics (material nature) and psyche (spiritual nature). Mind and consciousness represent a fundamental and irreducible property of the Ground of Being. Not only does the subjective experience of the phenomenal world exist within mind and consciousness, but mind, consciousness, and self profoundly affect the physical world…it is this fundamental unity and interconnectedness that allows the human mind to causally affect physical reality and permits psi interaction between humans and with physical or biological systems. With regard to this issue, it is interesting to note that quantum physicists increasingly recognize the mental nature of the universe.”

If I am an ideologue, it’s only in that I demand that if you call something science, it bear some resemblance in method and approach to science, not mysticism. Beauregard insists on trying to endorse the babbling piffle above as science by reciting the number of publications he has made, and how much grant money he’s got, when I’m looking for verifiable, reproducible, measurable evidence.

I would also remind him that Isaac Newton, who was probably an even greater scientist than the inestimable Beauregard, wasted much of his later years on mysticism, too: from alchemy and the quest for the Philosopher’s Stone, to arcane Biblical hermeneutics, extracting prophecies of the end of the world from numerological analyses of Revelation. While his mechanics and optics have stood the test of time, that nonsense has not. That his mathematics and physics are useful and powerful does not imply that he was correct in his calculation that the world will end before 2060 AD; similarly, Beauregard’s success in publishing in psychiatry journals does not imply that his unsupportable fantasies of minds flitting about unfettered by brains is reasonable.

(Also on Sb)

Thank you for the clarification, Ken Ham!

This just in: Jesus was NOT a cosmic Jewish zombie. Ken Ham carefully and very seriously explains to us that Jesus was not mindless, and he ate food, not his disciples brains, therefore the humorous accusations of zombiehood are false.

Jesus did come in the flesh as a Jew, so you got part of this correct. As for the zombie line, you clearly have not taken the time to look at the vast differences between a zombie and the resurrected Christ. Zombies are considered to be part of the undead (not alive), often will-less and speechless bodies that have been reanimated by spirits. The resurrected Christ is not undead, but alive (Revelation 1:18). After His Resurrection, He spoke with His followers and taught them (Luke 24:25–27), reassured them (Luke 24:36–39), and commanded them (Matthew 28:18–20). He ate food with them (Luke 24:43; John 21:15) and urged them to touch Him to see that He was not a ghost but truly risen from the dead bodily (Luke 24:39). He also had a will (John 21:22–23) and performed miracles (Luke 24:31; John 21:6).

He’s a little behind the times. This argument has already been dealt with earlier this month. He has to catch up now and explain why we Jesus wasn’t a lich.