No heroes — unless we’re all heroes

Here’s something really nice: an impromptu choir formed to join David Byrne in singing a David Bowie song. These are the kinds of communal heroes we should encourage.

Byrne comments:

What happens when one sings together with a lot of other people?

A couple of things I immediately noticed. There is a transcendent feeling in being subsumed and surrendering to a group. This applies to sports, military drills, dancing… and group singing. One becomes a part of something larger than oneself, and something in our makeup rewards us when that happens. We cling to our individuality, but we experience true ecstasy when we give it up.

The second thing that happens involves the physical act of singing. I suspect the regulated breathing involved in singing, the act of producing sound and opening one’s mouth wide calls many many neural areas into play. The physical act, I suspect, releases endorphins as well. In singing, we get rewarded by both mind and body.

No one has to think about any of the above-we “know” these things instinctively. Anyone who has attended a gospel church service, for example, does not need to be told what this feels like.

So, the reward experience is part of the show.

Lobsters are not people

I’ve been getting a tremendous amount of pushback from Jordan Peterson cultists on this video about his ‘lobster’ claims — it’s my most popular (or should I say, unpopular) one yet. I’m seeing a lot of “context!” and “strawman!” and “he really meant to say…” and “you need to watch these 6 hours of videos to understand” kinds of comments. No one cares that his reasoning is flawed or his evidence is weak or wrong, all that matters is that he comes to the conclusion they like — they sound exactly like creationists, or Sam Harris fans. It’s more than a little ugly, and rarely have I seen a more unpleasant collection of people using poorly understood evolutionary justifications for bad science since the last time I looked at an evolutionary psychology article.

Interestingly, though, a colleague independently came to the same conclusions and made very similar arguments. He remains nameless, unfortunately, because no one wants that troop of Peterson’s baboons flinging feces at them, but he did allow his arguments to be posted.

In case you want to use this, here’s an updated write-up. You don’t need to attribute it to me (“a handsome biologist” will do) as I don’t care to engage with you-know-who’s fanbois.

The lobster (i.e., arthropod) and human (i.e., chordate) lineages did not diverge “350 million years ago”. They already existed as separate phyla by the Cambrian (~550 million years ago). Molecular divergence estimates are on the order of 800 million years ago. This error jumps out immediately to anyone with even a basic knowledge of evolutionary history.

All bilatarian animals, including all the non-social ones, have serotonin. Some plants, fungi, and amoebae produce versions of serotonin. Serotonin has several functions — in humans, most of it is found in the gastrointestinal tract. It’s not particularly surprising that lobsters and humans both use serotonin as a neurotransmitter, nor that this would be involved in the neurobiology of any particular behavioural system. There are only so many neurotransmitters, and it is pretty likely that any innate behavioural system is going to evolve to be regulated by the same basic ones. Social hierarchies are almost surely examples of homoplasy across phyla, as is the co-option of serotonin in affecting various behavioural systems.

That anti-depressants “work on lobsters” is not very surprising given the pharmacology of serotonin reuptake inhibitors, which we might expect to work on any neurons that use serotonin as a neurotransmitter. This does not imply that the neural systems of lobsters and humans are especially similar beyond this, however. For one, lobsters don’t even have brains in the same sense as vertebrates. We share some superficial similarities in neural biochemistry (as do pretty much all animals), that’s about all.

Leaving aside the comparison of deeply divergent lineages, there is enormous variability in social structures even among our closest primate relatives. Bonobos have promiscuous sex and matriarchy as part of theirs. The point is that even where hierarchical systems have a presumed genetic basis, this is a rather malleable trait evolutionarily and the specific forms of social hierarchies can be quite different even among species with brains that are extremely similar.

Of course, innate tendencies and genetic hardwiring are at best only part of the story in a complex, cultural primate like humans. Consider language. The physical and neural structures involved in language use are encoded genetically. Which language we learn is cultural. Social behaviour is similar. Yes, there can be genetic underpinnings based on brain chemistry, but how this manifests in a given human society may be greatly dependent on cultural influences. We could also have a culturally-driven system that is enabled because there is a neurological system that can support it. Nature via nurture and nurture via nature.

Moreover, culture can easily override genetic programming in humans — we see examples of this all the time. One of the great things about human brains and human societies is that we can overcome our most base biological impulses through a combination of personal choices and societal norms. In fact, modern society would not function were it not so.

This is an unremarkable example of convergence. Anyone with any competence and basic training in evolutionary biology would come to the same conclusion.

Do some faint wisps of shame still waft through the minds of Republicans?

Suddenly, Trey Gowdy has announced his imminent retirement. Seems like an awful lot of establishment Republicans are fleeing congress — perhaps they’ve seen the writing on the wall? Or, more likely, they’ve gotten a whiff of the money in lobbying and media?

ABC News is hiring corrupt failure and Trumpian butt-sniffer Chris Christie. If that blowhard can prosper in the media, anyone can.

Secular Social Justice — we need more of it

This message reflects my views pretty accurately, except that at that 2012 Reason Rally, I was on the stage…so I’ve fallen even further in my disillusionment.

He’s promoting the Secular Social Justice Conference, which will be held on April 7 in Washington DC. That’s a Saturday! I might be able to escape to attend that one, if I can just scrape up the cash to make it. I think I might need to go to find something to re-inspire me about atheism.


My first thought was this joke, “WE! DO NOT! TALK ABOUT! THE ORANGUTAN!” Academics do have bitter fights, sometimes — they’re usually pretty polite, but I have seen a distinguished professor stand on his chair to point and scream at the speaker at a conference, who fired right back in kind. It was loads of fun.

But they’re also fighting over serious issues. This SciAm article is a good summary of ongoing battles among taxonomists. The core problems is that naming a species has a set of rules, and one of those rules is that the species has to be named in a published journal article…and online publishing has removed most of the barriers, and it’s become trivial to snag the preliminary work of a serious researcher and dump it to an online vanity “journal”, stealing credit and getting the privilege of naming it.

Vandals have zeroed in on the self-publishing loophole with great success. Yanega pointed to Trevor Hawkeswood, an Australia-based entomologist accused by some taxonomists of churning out species names that lack scientific merit. Hawkeswood publishes work in his own journal, Calodema, which he started in 2006 as editor and main contributor.

“He has his own journal with himself as the editor, publisher, and chief author,” Yanega says. “This is supposed to be science, but it’s a pile of publications that have no scientific merit.” (In response to questions about the legitimacy of his journal, Hawkeswood delivered a string of expletives directed towards his critics, and contended that Calodema has “heaps of merit.”)

Raymond Hoser also owns his own journal, the Australasian Journal of Herpetology (AJH). AJH has faced similar criticism since it was launched in 2009, despite claims by Hoser that the journal is peer-reviewed. “Although the AJH masquerades as a scientific journal, it is perhaps better described as a printed ‘blog’ because it lacks many of the hallmarks of formal scientific communication, and includes much irrelevant information,” wrote Hinrich Kaiser, a researcher at Victor Valley College in California, and colleagues in the peer-reviewed journal Herpetological Review.

They do propose a solution. The International Commission of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), which approves species names, is behind the times, so tear it down and replace it with a more modern institution.

…move the code under a different purview. Specifically, they suggest that the International Union of Biological Sciences (IUBS)—the biology branch of the International Council for Sciences—should “take decisive leadership” and start a taxonomic commission. The commission, they propose, would establish hardline rules for delineating new species and take charge in reviewing taxonomic papers for compliance. This process, they say, would result in the first ever standardized global species lists.

“In our view, many taxonomists would welcome such a governance structure,” the authors write. “Reducing the time spent dealing with different species concepts would probably make the task of describing and cataloguing biodiversity more efficient.”

It may be time to make such a radical change. Raymond Hoser has named over 800 taxa. I’ve seen the work involved in actually thoroughly characterizing a new species and justifying it’s difference from extant species, and I can assure you that Hoser has not done that work 800 times.

I had to check the bottom of my office chair

I was relieved — it was made in Green Bay, Wisconsin, not by slave labor from MINNCOR, the Minnesota Department of Corrections. It seems that $700,000 worth of dorm and office furniture for the University of Minnesota is purchased from MINNCOR, but the money is not going to the inmates/workers.

While most inmates languish making less than $1 an hour, public records indicate that Minnesota Department of Corrections executives, including those at MINNCOR, made over $100,000 per year in fiscal year 2015-16. MINNCOR CEO David Milton made $58 an hour, approximately $120,000 per year starting in February 2016. Despite numerous lengthy, in-person conversations Milton declined to speak on the record for this article. Milton and his executive team lease inmate labor to private companies, government entities and nonprofits and manage the prison canteen system – the internal grocery and convenience store for inmates. MINNCOR’s overall sales revenue has expanded to $44 million for 2015 alone, with profits going to the DOC general fund and MINNCOR’s budget.

They’re paid a pittance, and the only place they have to spend that pittance is the company store.

That same year, the state’s disparate canteen systems were consolidated under MINNCOR. 2003 was also the first time that MINNCOR was profitable. Annual profits for 2003 totaled $100,000, jumping to $2.5 million in 2004. Writing in the Stillwater’s prison-produced and award-winning newspaper, Prison Mirror, investigative journalist and inmate Matt Gretz explained that when MINNCOR consolidated the canteen the expectation from inmates was that bulk purchases would cause prices to go down. Instead, canteen prices increased.

Centralization allowed the state to dip more easily into MINNCOR profits as budget cuts abound – putting more pressure on MINNCOR to generate profits. According to annual reports in 2008, canteen sales were 18 percent of MINNCOR’s revenue. By 2014 canteen sales amounted to $10.9 million, almost 25 percent of overall sales revenue for MINNCOR. This means that the single largest portion of money that MINNCOR earns comes from taxing the low wages that the organization pays inmates. After MINNCOR deducts up to 80 percent of an inmate worker’s pay for everything from the cost of confinement to victim restitution and medical co-pays, the little that is left of an inmate’s paycheck often goes to the canteen.

Like I said…slaves.

I wouldn’t boycott MINNCOR, though, since we shouldn’t punish the inmates, but I would think it only fair to arrest and imprison MINNCOR executives for corruption, and put them to work making chairs. I’d buy those.

How to demonstrate your love of animals

Kill them, take off all your clothes, snuggle up nakedly with their corpses, and have someone take your picture and post it to the internet (nsfw!). This is one of those public service campaigns to promote conservation that I just don’t get. Do these celebrities realize the props they are holding are dead animals? Is this more about flaunting your skin than doing good?

This might be one rare case where the useless phrase “virtue signaling” might actually be appropriate, because they sure as heck aren’t doing anything productive.

For sale: one country

You now have another reason to skip the state of the union address — the commercials.

President Trump is seeking to parlay his first State of the Union address on Tuesday into cash for his reelection campaign by offering supporters a chance to see their name flashed on the screen during a broadcast of the speech.

In a fundraising solicitation on Monday, Trump offered those willing to pay at least $35 the opportunity to see their name displayed during a live streaming of the address on his campaign website.

This guy really is a cheap huckster, isn’t he?