See? This is why we can’t have heroes


Neil deGrasse Tyson stuck his foot in it yesterday.

Ouch. Astronomers talking about biology is probably about as painful as biologists talking astronomy. But at least it inspired the #BiologistSpaceFacts hashtag, which is amusing, and Emily Willingham put together a good summary of cases where sex hurts.

But what I find interesting is the assumption, and it is a common one, that if some phenomenon exists, it must be part of a purposeful good, and that evolution in particular produces only beneficial outcomes. We’d be extinct if it didn’t, is the way the thinking goes.

There are problems with thinking that way, though.

One: natural selection isn’t the whole of evolution. Some features simply have not become fixed in a population because they’re good for it; detrimental novelties exist and can become ubiquitous because they aren’t severe enough to be seen by selection.

Two: In cases where selection applies, advantageous does not necessarily equate to “good”, whatever that means. It is possibly advantageous to male cats to have barbed penises that rake out sperm from other males; it does not make mating more fun. Many species of salmon exert themselves so strenuously to produce and fertilize eggs that they die, and presumably fish that conserved their resources to permit multiple breeding seasons were outbred by their frantically semelparous competitors. Would we say that an explosively fecund death is “good”?

Three: Selection doesn’t demand that an organism achieve an absolute “good”. It only needs to be slightly better than other individuals. So if pain is a negative criterion for sexual success, all you have to do is hurt less than the competition to win.

Four: A twist on my second point is that we often define “good” from a subjectively human view point, and even from a narrow cultural position. We assume that sex should be fun because it is for us, mostly, but from the broader perspective of biological success, “fun” is a concept that’s orthogonal to actually getting the job done.

Tyson’s perspective as an astronomer gave him no information at all on what evolution is all about, so he lapsed into his perspective as a human being, and gave a parochial guess. It takes a major effort to think outside the box of Homo sapiens for us, and the default is always going to be far narrower than reality.

Comments

  1. kevinalexander says

    We should soon find out if Tyson is a real scientist. He will either go “Oh ,shit, I never thought about it that way. I’ll change my mind.” Or he’ll do a dokinz and double down.

  2. says

    PZ:

    A twist on my second point is that we often define “good” from a subjectively human view point, and even from a narrow cultural position. We assume that sex should be fun because it is for us, mostly, but from the broader perspective of biological success, “fun” is a concept that’s orthogonal to actually getting the job done.

    A key word there is mostly. There are several conditions which make intercourse very painful, and unfortunately, there’s a wealth of bad sex out there, usually attached to a fragile ego. When it comes to hetero sex, there are a whole lot of men who somehow got the idea that ramming their partner’s cervix is the way to go. For me, something like that isn’t sexy fun times.

  3. doubtthat says

    Holy crap. Quality arguments aside, 30min watching any nature show should convey a range of unpleasant mating rituals in the animal kingdom.

    I just watched a show where some rogue wolf tried to impregnate another pack’s female, but his penis got stuck. He tugged and tugged hoping to get away before the pack alpha mauled him. The concept of “feeling good” did not enter the equation at any point.

  4. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    I’m kind of amazed by how low my bar for acceptability has dropped – my primary thought about this? “Well, hey! At least he didn’t retweet neo-nazi propaganda!”

  5. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    It’s actually quite pleasant to have a prominent scientist say something ridiculous, and have my strongest negative impulse be an eyeroll. :)

  6. unclefrogy says

    I have watched and listened to Star Talk w/ N D Tyson and one of the things I have learned is that he likes to be funny but he ain’t no Johnny Carson.
    I think he forgets the joke about two guys running from a grizzly Bear, one guys says to the other “you can not outrun the bear!” and the other guy says “I don’t have to out run the bear I just have to out run you.” which is how evolution works.
    Of tom cats and their barb It is fun for them after all that is about all I have ever known tom cats to care about.
    uncle frogy

  7. dianne says

    An astronomer said something dumb about biology. I’m underwhelmed by the horror. Okay, so maybe the fact that he’s probably being quoted as an authority in biology is a little horrifying, but that’s the media for you.

    Also Homo sapiens is far from extinct and sex can be quite painful for H sap especially when they decide…oops, sorry, HIPAA.

  8. unclefrogy says

    @3 I think it was”fun” until the alpha male showed up and he was lockup
    uncle frogy

  9. doubtthat says

    @unclefrogy

    The females did not seem to be flattered by the attention, and the locked position certainly seemed less than enjoyable for both parties…

  10. unclefrogy says

    I have no idea why I have failed 4 times to post a reply to @11 it reloaded then nothing?
    shorter
    lockup is what dogs do “cheating the rules” is what many (most?) animals do some species even fight to the death over the “rules”
    uncle frogy

  11. unclefrogy says

    I wonder if the lost post was denied because I used the what I thought was the standard English word for female dog?
    uncle frogy

  12. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    re @4:
    example of how far the Overton effect can extend beyond the single subject it is mentioned within. With the window so far “off the mainstream”, it seems perfectly allowable for someone, with a respected reputation, displaying his misunderstanding of a subject that is entirely not his own.
    ugh,
    Whenever a response to such a statement is, “at least he didn’t say …”; I hear it as hitting the Overton Window.

  13. Owlmirror says

    @unclefrogy: Yes, the word “bitch” causes comments to be automoderated these days (Unless you know magic, of course). Misogynists decided they needed freezepeech more than they needed to not be misogynists, and PZ decided he wanted to not have misogyny.

    He’ll probably release the comment, if he notices.

  14. Nemo says

    My heroes are Asimov and Sagan. The advantage is that they’re dead, so they can’t say anything stupid. (Well, at least not anything new. I’m sure I could dig some things up.)

  15. Owlmirror says

    @Nemo:

    My heroes are Asimov and Sagan. The advantage is that they’re dead, so they can’t say anything stupid.

    Oh, dear. You really don’t know about Asimov?

  16. Rey Fox says

    I’ve followed Tyson on Twitter for some time now, and really the problem is that he is nowhere near as witty or funny as he thinks he is.

  17. says

    Ooh, ooh, look – he woke up the biologists, so he is poking them a second time.
    Nye poked the philosophers and EVERYBODY woke up.

  18. Tethys says

    I am so tired of science dudes saying really sexist things and referencing evolution. As a farm kid who saw lots of different animals mate and also learned to properly care for them including assisting with births and hatching nests, I just boggle when a supposedly smart, educated person tweets this kind of stuff.

    If there were a species for whom sex hurts!? IF!? Hello douchbrain, have you ever met these creatures known as women? Most animals don’t have sex, they are mating to reproduce. In humans, sex does not = penis. Intercourse and penis are not actually necessary in human sex.

    A. Canines lock for about 1/2 hour. True fact.
    B. Feline males have barbs. Actual intercourse is only 3 seconds and the females clearly do not enjoy it judging by the screams and immediate vicious clawing escapes.
    C. Equines make all human men feel inadequate. Foal feet have soft tissue covering their hooves so they don’t hurt their Mamas by kicking when gestating.
    D. Bovine. Not for the squeamish. Bulls are dangerous and cantankerous. Bottle feeding calves is great fun.

    I knew all of these things and had extrapolated to humans by the time I was ten, so it rather rankles that NDT thinks that his mathy science scientist penis entitles him to tweet about all areas of science. Fool pretty much confirmed in one sentence that he is abysmally ignorant of the basics of reproduction, and biology, and sex. I feel sorry for his wife.

  19. says

    Fair Witness:

    Nye poked the philosophers and EVERYBODY woke up.

    That was not a poke, it was ignorance and stupidity.

  20. Tenebras says

    To be fair, he has at least admitted to being wrong and retweeted at least one of the articles showing how he was wrong. That, at least, makes him better than some of the people I’ve seen, and while I wouldn’t call him my hero, this faux pas isn’t enough for me to oust him from my list of “generally cool people I like”. I mean, it’s one thing to say something ignorant and dumb, everybody winds up doing that sometimes. It’s another thing entirely to double down on it in the face of criticism instead of admitting your mistake (I’m looking at you, Dawkins.) Now we’ll just wait and see if this becomes recurring thing or if he learns his lesson.

  21. sarah00 says

    The first thing I thought of when I read this was bedbugs. They reproduce by “traumatic insemination” where the male sticks his hypodermic-needle like penis into her abdomen in the knowledge that the sperm will eventually make it to her ovaries. I don’t know about you, but that’s not my idea of a fun time!

    While checking that I’d remembered correctly I found that traumatic insemination isn’t limited to bed bugs.
    Wiki lists nine other taxa that use it.

  22. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    I’m glad he acknowledged the correction… it’s kind of amazing how many of the responders to that tweet appear offended at the idea of him being contradicted, though.

  23. golkarian says

    “Ouch. Astronomers talking about biology is probably about as painful as biologists talking astronomy.”

    Only if they/we think we understand astronomy as well as astronomers.

  24. leerudolph says

    Athywren@25: “it’s kind of amazing how many of the responders to that tweet appear offended”

    What’s amazing, and depressing, to me is how many of the responders appear—no, ARE—offensive. … I mean, I suppose I shouldn’t be amazed. But I sort of didn’t expect so much unanimity.

  25. marcmagus says

    On the one hand, he acknowledged the correction, which is good. On the other hand, he immediately found something else to step in.

    If you have a gene for celibacy, you didn’t inherit it.

    Not to even get into whatever he thinks he’s saying about anti-Trump right now.

  26. marcmagus says

    (Oops, quote tag didn’t work as expected, that middle paragraph about the gene for celibacy is a quote from a recent NdGT tweet)

  27. falcon says

    @Athywren – not the moon you’re looking for

    It’s actually quite pleasant to have a prominent scientist say something ridiculous, and have my strongest negative impulse be an eyeroll. :)

    Prepare for your negative impulse to become bigger than an eyeroll. Neil tweeted this only an hour ago:
    https://twitter.com/neiltyson/status/708817118150537216

    “People who are anti-Trump are actually anti-Trump supporters — they oppose free citizens voting for the @realDonaldTrump.”

    Gosh, I can’t think what other reasons people possibly might have for being opposed to Trump.

  28. llamaherder says

    @CaitieCat

    Sounds like he’s trying to denounce the anti-Trump protesters in Chicago.

    Welp.

  29. Tethys says

    I just used the block fuction on FB in self-defense after yet another discussion on Trump with Archie Bunker level racist and proud extended family members. I thought I had blocked any items from worldnetdaily that those fools share from showing up in my feed. I am happy that the cattle prod comment was by a completely unrelated stranger, but dayum I am terrified of white peoples racism right now. That vomit inducing comment was accompanied by a nice patriotic flag fancy effect photo of a woman who looks like Mrs Santa Klaus. Oddly enough, she has not replied to me asking her if she would be ok with anyone using cattle prods on her?

    The racists at WND are currently yammering on about Trumps rights of freezepeach being infringed by “mobs of rioters’ along with a carefully cropped photo of white security thugs pushing back multiple shades of protesters. I have so very little patience for the freezepeach fallacy. Any attempts to introduce factual data by quoting the bill of rights simply get sucked into the black hole of cognitive dissonance.

  30. says

    Regarding the “b word” it got to be such a problem over in the comments section of Dumbing of Age that David Willis set up some sort of autoreplace function. Now when you try to use it the system replaces it with bongo.

  31. Tethys says

    PZ seems to have compiled an effective list of banned terms ever since the terrible war of ‘Guys, don’t do that.’ and the ensuing plague of rageflail men with disturbing ideas and behaviors. I guess it’s not as much fun to attack feminists if you can’t use gendered slurs.

  32. Matrim says

    @3

    I just watched a show where some rogue wolf tried to impregnate another pack’s female, but his penis got stuck. He tugged and tugged hoping to get away before the pack alpha mauled him. The concept of “feeling good” did not enter the equation at any point.

    As an aside, “alphas” don’t exist in natural packs. Wolf packs in the wild are families, led by a breeding pair with the rest of their pack consisting of their unpaired children who eventually wander off (usually when the pack becomes too large to fully support) and find other lone wolves to start a new pack with. The only time “alpha” behavior happens is when you put strangers together in an artificial pack. I haven’t seen the video in question, but it seems very unlikely that a lone wolf would engage a pack like that.

  33. Athywren - not the moon you're looking for says

    @falcon, 30

    Well…… on one hand, yeah, I agree with at least one interpretation of that. I consider myself anti-racism, anti-fascism, anti-reactionism, which means that, yes, I oppose the people who support those things, and so, yes, I am anti-Trump supporters. They have a right to vote in whatever way they see fit, but that won’t stop me thinking that a vote cast in support of fascism is a fundamental betrayal and overt mockery of the very concept of democracy, nor opposing those who would cast such votes.
    That said, I have a hard time believing anyone would try making that point in 140 characters or fewer, and I’m getting a sinking feeling.

  34. says

    Gah… sorry, but I realized I had more to say as that was posting…

    I actually don’t think NdGT is showing support for Trump. I honestly think he’s better than that. But that is exactly how that tweet is being received and how it will be used. And if anyone thinks Trump won’t use that, they are sorely mistaken.

    Regardless of NdGT’s “intentions”, he fucked up.

  35. Tethys says

    The part where he added the @realdonaltrump reveals it as pandering for attention, IMO. Why else include it? Ego gratification plus sexism plus arrogance = I vote for NDG to please stop tweeting.

  36. marcmagus says

    @NateHevens #39

    I agree. I think NdGT is just chiding us for criticizing the frothing mobs of Trump supporters rather than restricting our criticism to Trump and his abhorrent policy proposals, because the candidate is the only appropriate target of political criticism. Or something.

  37. gregvalcourt says

    In this day in age, it’s too easy to rake someone over the coals for something they said on twitter. Especially if you’re a scientist jealous of another’s success at combating theism.

  38. MassMomentumEnergy says

    See? This is why we can’t have heroes

    See? This is why biologists shouldn’t make literary allusions.

    Name one hero from greek mythology that wasn’t deeply flawed and blind to knowledge outside their specialty which often lead to their downfall.

    Heroes without flaws are boring as fuck.

  39. chigau (違う) says

    I don’t think that I could name one hero from greek mythology.
    wait
    maybe that guy with the tendon

  40. Tethys says

    This is why biologists shouldn’t make literary allusions.

    PZ didn’t make a literary reference , so your defense of greek mythology is not actually pertinent to his point about heroes.

  41. MassMomentumEnergy says

    Achilles, invulnerable except for his heel, yet he wore armor everywhere except his heel. His rage issues gave him hero status through mass murder, but also got his ass killed because he didn’t keep his wits about him in battle. He conquered the best his opponents had to offer, yet was killed by the biggest coward of the bunch.

    Heroes.

    They are morally worse than us, but are great to have on your side.

  42. Tethys says

    Persephone has to live in hell for three months of the year. Cassandra was right. Otherwise Greek mythology is pretty filled with stupid arrogant men who ignore the reasonable and accurate advice of women to go off and do really asinine things involving weaponry, and their guy friends. Sounds like a pretty accurate depiction of most heroes to me.

  43. MassMomentumEnergy says

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hero#Etymology

    The word hero comes from the Greek ἥρως (hērōs), “hero, warrior”, particularly one such as Heracles with divine ancestry or later given divine honors.[3] (literally “protector” or “defender”[4]) Before the decipherment of Linear B the original form of the word was assumed to be *ἥρωϝ-, hērōw-; R. S. P. Beekes has proposed a Pre-Greek origin.[5]

  44. qwints says

    I’m anti-Trump, anti-Trump supporter and anti-trump supporter supporter. I don’t want Trump to win, I don’t want people to vote for him and I don’t want people to encourage people to vote for him. There is some classism in some attacks on trump supporters that deserves criticism, but saying that people who don’t want a candidate to win also don’t won’t people to vote for them is asinine.

  45. Tethys says

    Lol, it’s nice that you have helpfully cited the wiki definition of the word hero, but you might want to notice that Hera part of the word Heracles, if you want to understand the etymology of the word hero.

  46. Vivec says

    @45
    How is PZ making a literary reference? By sheer virtue of using the word “Hero”?

    There’s a pretty common connotation to the word “Hero” that managed to tag along since ancient fucking Greece, that heroes are flawless and must be defended from any criticism. Hence “hero worship.”

    Back on topic, I’ve always found NdGT’s twitter presence to be kind of annoying, although it might be a bit of hype backlash from how the “science fandom” types have a special reverence for him. I get that a lot of his tweets are jokes but they kind of come off as pretentious “lol i can point out science flaws in soft sci-fi” sort of things.

  47. Holms says

    This seems minor. He said something that is factually incorrect, and acknowledged that he did so. Whoopdy do.

  48. SqueakyVoice says

    Meanwhile, Neil DeDuck commented on ‘tosser’ (the interquack’s favourite 140 character communication tool, allowing any duck with a smartphone to toss out their random thoughts at will);

    “If ever there were a species that didn’t allow acts of homosexual necrophilia, it has long since gone extinct.”

    May I be the first to wish you a Happy Dead Duck Day everyone. (Seems like it starts earlier every year…)

  49. Intaglio says

    Or as some squid say – “Tear off your arm if you love me”, whilst others like to impale you with their lurve darts.

  50. Rob Grigjanis says

    Vivec @54:

    I get that a lot of his tweets are jokes but they kind of come off as pretentious “lol i can point out science flaws in soft sci-fi” sort of things.

    As I’ve pointed out several times, he is not that good at explaining basic physics. Just a tweet, just a joke, but repeated in an interview.

    Well, it turns out red light is ideal for getting through foggy, cloudy nights, because red light penetrates through fog better than blue light

    I wouldn’t rattle on about it if I’d seen any indication he’d grokked his mistake, or been told by one of his pals.

  51. says

    Vivec @ #54:

    I actually really loved that about him, I think because that kind of thing bothers me, too. Watching sci-fi with NdGT is on my bucket list, in fact…

    But ever since that epic showdown with B.o.B. (the whole flat earth thing), which I loved, he’s… I don’t even know, but I don’t like it… at all… I can’t figure out what the hell he’s doing or why…

  52. ravensneo says

    I seem to remember that some beetle species mate by “traumatic insemination”-or something like this…by piercing directly into the female’s abdomen. My guess–uncomfortable.

  53. tonyinbatavia says

    marcmagus @41:

    I think NdGT is just chiding us for criticizing the frothing mobs of Trump supporters…

    So he’s criticizing those of us who are criticizing Trump supporters? Well then, let’s add me criticizing him for criticizing those of us who are criticizing Trump supporters. Hell, if you add another layer or two of people criticizing criticizers we’ll have a worthy sequel to “Inception.”

  54. says

    Gene Wolfe wrote a whole novel, There Are Doors, about a world where men necessarily die after mating. Doesn’t stop most of them, any more than it does male praying mantises or female octopuses.

  55. Vivec says

    @61
    I mean, different strokes for different folks. I find people that insist on pointing to real-world inaccuracies in escapist fiction really insufferable, but they have the right to do it.

  56. says

    Name one hero from greek mythology that wasn’t deeply flawed and blind to knowledge outside their specialty which often lead to their downfall.

    Sorry to disappoint you, but we’re not living in ancient Greece anymore.
    Words have meanings. Meanings change. Arguments at etymology are therefore silly.

  57. Golgafrinchan Captain says

    @ left0ver1under #59

    You’re correct. Willingham says that hyenas are probably among the worst that she’s aware of where sex is painful for both partners.

  58. WhiteHatLurker says

    I agree with @MassMomentumEnergy – literary heroes have a flaw.

    I expect Tyson’s flaw to be hubris. (For the language purists, in a modern context, not so much the “offensive to the gods” context, though Pluto may have a cause to be a tad pissed off.)

  59. says

    Vivec @ #65

    As an example of the way my brain works with movies and TV shows and such… there are two reasons I tend to hate horror films:
    1. I don’t like being scared.
    2. (this is the one more important for this convo) It gets on my nerves how incredibly unintelligent the “victims” are. They make literally every wrong choice possible, to the point where, when somebody dies in a horror film, my first thought is at this point, they kind of deserved it. Maybe this is required for a horror film to actually be feature-length, but I’m not entirely convinced of that.

    With Sci-Fi, I think I’m only capable of suspending my disbelief so far, and “soft” Sci-Fi tends to break that entirely. Even my all-time favorite show, Doctor Who*, frequently angers me with this (in season 8 there was an episode called Kill the Moon… the “science” there was so abjectly terrible that, even though the acting and script and direction were actually really good, it’s my least favorite episode of the season).

    I’m also a huge fan of YouTube shows like CinemaSins, Honest Trailers, and How it Should Have Ended, as well.

    I think in the end I place more importance on the “Sci” part of Sci-Fi, meaning that I do prefer the science to be grounded in… well… real science…

    Or you could just write me off as an extreme nitpicker, and you would not be wrong.

    Just take heart in knowing that, if I’m watching something with other people, I keep my mouth shut while everyone’s watching and then only bring up my nitpicks if asked. Though I may tweet about them or rant on Facebook or on a forum in the appropriate threads (like a “Skepticism/Criticism about [Film] thread”)… :D

    ——————————————————————————–
    *The reason I don’t actually have a problem with the idea of a TARDIS is because the science of that is not advertised as human science, but alien science. I can accept that a society like the Time Lords can exist and be so far advanced of us that they can create technology like a TARDIS (in fact, I think it’s possible that a civilization like that could be out there, simply because of the sheer size of the universe and the amount of stuff in it; no, I don’t believe we’ve ever been visited, but that’s an entirely different conversation). It’s not completely out of the realm of possibility if only because it relies entirely on what we still don’t know, and the areas we don’t know are ripe for conjecture of the kind. And the show was originally created in an era when our knowledge of the universe and the laws of physics were barely even in their infancy (early 60s… and it’s still going). So with that background to sell things like the TARDIS, I can buy it to a point.

    For this same reason, I find Star Wars a little easier to accept, as well.

  60. thatotherguy says

    If there were ever a species for whom consuming nutrients was always painful, is not a compulsive eater, and has no concept of consequentiality, it surely went extinct long ago.

  61. says

    If your replaced hurt with detrimental . . . and I agree that NDT has an issue with hoping that he is funnier then he actually is.