Structuralism does not imply that evolution runs on rails

I got a guest spot on Jackson Wheat’s channel, where he’s rebutting a guy who claims that structuralism means that evolution will inevitably lead to humans — that intelligent bipedal mammals are an ideal form that life will converge upon because it is encoded in the natural laws of the universe. That isn’t what structuralism implies at all! Gould and Lewontin’s spandrel paper is not saying that cathedrals are inevitable, but that some architectural features will emerge as a consequence of physical constraints rather than by design.

Jackson explains it all, and I intrude near the end to say a few pro-structuralist marks while totally repudiating the idea that evolution runs on invisible rails that mean certain forms are necessary.

Yay, archaeologists!

It’s too bad a few rotten apples are tainting the archaeology barrel, because we need more responsible archaeologists speaking out. Fortunately, the fightin’ archaeologists are on the job.

Pakal’s supposed seat in a spaceship is just one example of what Anderson and others call “pseudoarchaeology,” which ignores the cultural context of ancient artifacts and uses them to support predetermined ideas, rather than test hypotheses, about the past. Common beliefs include that aliens helped build the Egyptian and Mayan pyramids, that refugees escaping Atlantis brought technology to cultures around the world, and that European immigrants were the original inhabitants of North America.

These outlandish beliefs have been circulating for decades, but archaeologists like Anderson are now mobilizing to counter them. They are taking to Twitter, blogs, podcasts, YouTube, and newspapers to debunk false claims and explain real archaeological methods, and they plan to compare notes this week during a symposium at the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) meeting here. “My profession … needs to do a better job of speaking out,” Anderson says.

It’s getting worse, and some of the blame has to fall on gullible media. All those aspirational cable channels that bloomed in the last few decades, planning to teach and educate people about the wonders of the universe have all fallen into corruption.

He and others are alarmed by the rising popularity of pseudoarchaeological ideas. According to the annual Survey of American Fears by Chapman University in Orange, California, which catalogs paranormal beliefs, in 2018, 41% of Americans believed that aliens visited Earth in the ancient past, and 57% believed that Atlantis or other advanced ancient civilizations existed. Those numbers are up from 2016, when the survey found that 27% of Americans believed in ancient aliens and 40% believed in Atlantis.

“I look at these numbers and say … something has gone massively wrong,” Anderson says. He can’t say exactly what is driving the rise in such ideas, but cable TV shows like Ancient Aliens (which has run for 13 seasons) propagate them, as does the internet.

And further, there’s an ugly strain of fanaticism behind pseudoarchaeology.

Today, “Most archaeological research is unavailable to the public,” she says, obscured by jargon and locked behind paywalls. “But you want something from pseudoarchaeology? I can find you 15 references,” all easily accessible online and on TV.

Re-engaging with the public is an uphill battle, Head says. Debunking specific claims, as Anderson did with Pakal’s “spaceship,” is merely a first step. To make a lasting impact, she and others say, archaeologists must proactively share their work and, in particular, explain their methods step by step. That’s important to counter the common pseudoarchaeological claim that researchers are hiding evidence for aliens or Atlantis.

This isn’t easy work, especially online. All the women interviewed for this article have been harassed online after tackling pseudoarchaeological interpretations. Mulder recently fielded replies that included a knife emoji after she tweeted about research showing that people of diverse ancestries, rather than only Western Europeans, lived in Roman Britain. Colavito reports receiving death threats after a host of Ancient Aliens urged his fans to send Colavito hate mail.

I didn’t get that much hate mail for fighting creationism. It ramped up when I criticized Catholicism (there are some extraordinarily fervent Catholics out there who’d clearly like to burn me at the stake), and it went into overdrive when I openly supported feminism, and now most of my hate mail comes from … atheists, some of whom are even more fanatical than Catholics. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not so much religion that drives the hatred, but dogma about race and gender roles that turns people into foaming-at-the-mouth hate machines (but of course, religion does contribute to promoting that dogma).

The flat earth cult

I don’t think I could survive attending a flat earth conference. The stupidity is a huge backward step for humankind. Michael Marshall attended one, though, and survived. He’s a stronger man than I am, because this would wreck me.

The Earth, according to Nesbitt, is more likely a diamond shape, with East-West travel facilitated by 4D space-time warps along the edges, allowing for a “Pac-Man” version of reality – where a traveller might sail off one side of the screen, and appear at the other side. That diamond is propped up on seven circular pillars, “because God likes the number seven”. This version, he explains, fits the evidence better, and is supported by the Bible, in the book of Job.

Several speakers throughout the weekend take time to highlight that evolution is a myth, accompanied by occasional heckles of “monkey men!” from audience members.

Here’s a telling excerpt. This whole flat earth nonsense is simply weaponized religiosity.

Nesbitt shared what he called the “Flat Earth Addiction” test – seven questions Flat Earth proponents should ask themselves, including “Have people said that you are pushy or obsessive about Flat Earth?”, “Have you thought that if only everyone knew about Flat Earth the world would be a different place?”, and “Have you noticed that you spend less and less time with your family and friends and more and more time talking to Flat Earthers?”.

Looking around the room, I could see knowing nods, as people recognised themselves in each question. The questions, Nesbitt explained, were taken from a checklist used to determine whether someone is in a cult. The implication seemed lost on the audience.

An American esthetic

Hey, I survived registering a bunch of students yesterday! Barely. Spending hours trying to be on and enthusiastic with young people is sometimes tough for this old guy. I’m usually used to having time for my eyes to go black as my soul recedes into the void for recuperation, so I emerged from my day of brightness and light feeling drained. But it was worth it.

Part of my recovery technique was to sit back and watch something on the TV, and this time I tuned into Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé on Netflix. It was non-stop intellectual stimulation, though, and got me thinking.

Remember Nirvana’s “Feels Like Teen Spirit” video? That one tore down that common American experience, life in a public high school. The bleachers, the cheerleaders, the marching bands…all just a framework for ennui, melancholy, dismay. I loved it, still do, but it’s not exactly optimistic.

Beyoncé takes that same framework and turns it into a fierce celebration of music, dance, HBCUs (man, a lot of the dialogue is about the power of education and community), the black experience, liberty, and womanhood. The interludes where they show the process of creating show were exhausting — so much work and talent went into assembling a complex show. Beyoncé is a genius.

This is the America I want to live in.

“The charge on you is to make this country more than it is today.”

Maya Angelou

That’s the opposite of “MAGA” — it’s looking forward rather than desiring to return to the past.

Thanks! And good news! But not enough good news.

I’m in a happy place right now, because a lot of you made donations directly to me to pay off the expenses for the Carrier lawsuit, and some of you made very large donations, and that meant I could finally cough up my share of the legal costs. I’m free! Our lawyer, Marc Randazza, is partly paid off! Thank you to everyone who contributed!

However, while that means I met my personal goal thanks to your help, we still have a ways to go. Skepticon, The Orbit, Lauren Lane, Amy Skiba, and Stephanie Zvan are still needing help — and Randazza still needs all of his fees covered — so the GoFundMe for the Defense against Carrier SLAPP Suit is still open and pining for more donations. And I’m not entirely free, because we have a mutual defense pact and none of us are totally off the hook until this account is closed.

We’ve reached one landmark, but we can’t rest until it’s all done. Donate to our defense fund, or donate to Skepticon, it’ll all help sweep this garbage lawsuit into the rubbish bin of history.

Oh, and hey, you’re all going to Skepticon, right? I’ve heard rumors of a spectacularly fun fund-raising event there, which I can’t tell you about, so you’ll have more opportunities to help us out there, if you can (Skepticon is a free event, so you shouldn’t feel obligated if you can’t afford it.) All the cool people will be there. Richard Carrier won’t.

It’s “Ask an Atheist Day”?

I guess it is. You can ask me anything, but there’s nothing in the rules that says I have to answer.

I probably won’t. I volunteered to help out with new student registration today, I’m going to be locked into working with students all day long, so most of the questions I’m going to be asked are along the lines of:

  • “Why is my class section full?”
  • “Am I actually going to have to take an 8am course? I don’t get up before noon.”
  • “I’d like to take 30 credits this semester & get it all over with. Why won’t you let me?”
  • “Prerequisites? What are those? I want to take that 4000 level course in Fancy Science right now!”
  • “Where’s the pre-med course?”
  • “Why do I have to take a history course? I’m going to be a doctor!”
  • “No one told me I’d need math to be a bio major! Why are you doing this to me?”
  • “I can’t get into that course I’ve been looking forward to? Why does the universe hate me?”

At least I can answer that last one as an atheist. The universe doesn’t hate you, it doesn’t care about you at all.

You may ask, “Why are you volunteering to do this? Aren’t you on sabbatical?” Especially since this is such a highly stressful day for the incoming students — it’s not registration day without at least one student breaking down and crying because they’re confused by all the information coming in, and all the decisions that have to be made. I’m doing it because these are students who will be starting up in the fall, and I have to return to the classroom in the fall, and I better make sure the new students are ready for me.

Another question: “Do I really have to return to my labors in the fall?” <breaks down weeping>

Yes. Because the universe hates me.

“It’s just a joke” is a joke of an excuse

Matthew d’Ancona has seen through the game and noticed that the excuse of “satire” is a hollow shell of a rationalization, especially when listeners know that the plain, literal meaning of the “joke” is what’s actually intended, and what they find most amusing is that you’ll actually be flustered and unable to cope if they say their horrible statement was “just a joke”. It’s the tool that Carl Benjamin, Nigel Farage, and Boris Johnson have used to crawl to prominence.

In what moral universe is the statement “I wouldn’t even rape you” categorised as “satire”? For this is how – in an interview on Sunday with the BBC’s Andrew Marr – Gerard Batten, Ukip’s leader, described a tweet sent to the Labour MP Jess Phillips in 2016 by Carl Benjamin, now one of his party’s principal candidates in the European elections.

According to Batten, Benjamin is a “classical liberal”, “not a bad person”, “a proponent of free speech” and “wasn’t actually making a literal statement”. And there we were, thinking that he was just a vile misogynist, using social media to declare whether, in his opinion, a member of parliament should be raped or not.

In this universe, let’s assume that everyone is of average intelligence and able to comprehend their native language. The Benjamin rape “joke” is a gimmick that is read by everyone for what it is — a statement of misogyny and cruelty and contempt. The “it’s satire” claim is a pretense that everyone can see right through, but that defenders of misogyny, who are also intelligent enough to know it is socially unacceptable, can use to argue to their mothers that they don’t really think about harming women, while they can simultaneously snicker with the lads down at the pub about judging women on their fuckability.

d’Ancona and many others can see right through the rhetoric, and the people who pretend they can’t simply don’t want to.

Benjamin was invited to an atheist conference (a damning fact in itself), and the audience cheered and whooped when he repeated that remark. Don’t ever try to tell me that your typical atheist is gifted with greater intelligence and insight into reality — I’ve seen the fact that they’re just as susceptible to self-delusion and ignorance put on display. And also just as easily manipulated by terrible people who reassure them that their prejudices are righteous.

No more Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe has died. This annoys me, though.

Wolfe went on to write over 30 novels, with his best best-known work, The Book of The New Sun, spanning 1980-1983. The series is a tetralogy set in the Vancian Dying Earth subgenre, and follows the journey of Severian, a member of the Guild of Torturers, after he is exiled for the sin of mercy. Over the course of the series the books won British Science Fiction, World Fantasy, British Fantasy, Locus, Nebula, and Campbell Memorial Awards. In 1998 poll, the readers of Locus magazine considered the series as a single entry and ranked it third in a poll of fantasy novels published before 1990, following only The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.

Every few years, I pick up and reread The Book of The New Sun, because it is amazingly well-written, subtle, clever, and deep. Wolfe was a phenomenal writer, while Tolkien was a plodder who tapped into a well of mythology and told fairy tales. It is a tragic injustice that Wolfe was ranked third after that guy.

Also, if you thought Lord of the Rings was going to be tough to turn into a movie, Severian’s story is even more impossible, so Wolfe isn’t going to get a post-mortem surge in popularity after translation to a new medium. No one is cosplaying his characters. I wouldn’t say there’s no slash fiction about them, Rule 34 and all that, but moral ambiguity and unreliable narrators aren’t easily dragged into simplistic storytelling.

The conspiracy theorists were looking in the wrong place

All those claims of a pedophile ring in the imaginary basement of a pizza place…psssht. False flag. Distraction. All that stuff. Instead, they should have gone digging into the backgrounds of billionaires and people closely connected to Donald Trump. Clots of filth keep tumbling out of the pipeline connected to Jeffrey Epstein.

Epstein is struggling to recover the reputation he had in his glory days.

In the early Aughts, Epstein was known to rub elbows with the likes of Bill Clinton, Donald Trump, Woody Allen and Kevin Spacey. His enigmatic rise from Dalton physics teacher to “international moneyman of mystery” who palled around with Prince Andrew and British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell was chronicled by the tabloids and New York magazine and Vanity Fair, which in 2003 reported, “Epstein is known about town as a man who loves women—lots of them, mostly young.”

I wouldn’t be particularly gratified to have rubbed elbows with that quartet. But being a registered sex offender now damages his ego, so he’s been flinging out millions of dollars in charitable donations through a newly labeled company, Gratitude America Ltd. I suspect one reason for laundering the money through this company is because the recipients of his largesse would love to have some of his money, but at the same time they’d rather not be caught rubbing slimy elbows with Epstein.

So Epstein has been filtering money to Larry Summers, Harvard, Deepak Chopra, a cancer research institute, Elton John’s AIDS foundation, various art philanthropies, etc., etc., etc. All this is claimed in tax filings by Gratitude America. But then it gets confusing…

The Daily Beast left messages for all the schools and charities that Epstein’s group listed as beneficiaries. Some representatives said they didn’t know who operated Gratitude America Ltd. Others said they never received any such donations.

In an email, Howard Straus, president of the Cancer Research Wellness Institute, said his group has “NEVER received a donation of that magnitude from ANYONE.”

“I would know,” Straus continued. “We are perennially short of funds, and would love to be the recipient of such largesse, but not from sexual predators.”

Jennifer Park of New York Concert Artists said her group never received a donation from Gratitude America. “I am sorry but you have completely wrong information,” she said in an email, adding that her nonprofit was perhaps confused with another group.

Well, cool. Shady stuff is going on. Someone ought to investigate.

In other news, another victim has stepped forward to testify against Epstein and his cronies. Maria Farmer was an employee of Epstein’s, and witnessed the young girls trooping off to his bedroom, and her own sister was molested by Epstein. There are also claims that Alan Dershowitz was actively involved in the rape romps.

“To my knowledge, I was the first person to report Maxwell and Epstein to the FBI. It took a significant amount of bravery for me to make that call because I knew how incredibly powerful and influential both Epstein and Maxwell were, particularly in the art community,’’ she wrote.

Farmer’s affidavit is one of 15 exhibits attached to a defamation complaint filed in federal court in the Southern District of New York by Virginia Roberts Giuffre, one of Epstein’s victims, against Alan Dershowitz, one of Epstein’s most vocal and powerful attorneys.

Giuffre claims in the lawsuit, as she has in past court filings, that Dershowitz, 80, knew about and participated in a sex-trafficking operation involving underage girls and run by Epstein and Maxwell, and that she was forced to have sex with Dershowitz and other prominent, wealthy men when she was underage.

I don’t know what Epstein thinks he’s going to accomplish with multiple large donations (maybe) given semi-anonymously. It’s all just confirming to me that anyone with billions of dollars in their pocket is a dishonest sleaze, and we should be working to take their money away.

It’s not as if they actually earned it, you know. No one earns a billion dollars.

Adventures in building science gear

I’m eager to start surveying and collecting spiders, so I prematurely made a Berlese funnel, a kind of filter for collecting small invertebrates from soil samples. I say “premature”, because I made it just before last week’s big blizzard hit, so everything inside refroze, and I’d also overloaded it with too much gunk. So reset: cleared it out and tried again with a smaller sample and warmer weather. It worked!

No spiders, though. Other little critters. I’ll be hesitant to jump into any leaf piles in the future, I tell you what.