As if America needs more monsters

We’ve been missing out. America shed the European tradition of monsters and debauchery on Christmas in the 19th century; all we have left is one saccharine fat man who brings toys. Until now. Scattered small bands of heroes are trying to resurrect the Krampus tradition.

It seems like a good idea to me. Maybe the imaginary monsters will displace the real ones that run the country.

Also, maybe it will succeed if we tell the capitalists that it’s a strategy for extending the retail holiday season from Halloween to New Year’s.

Sneaking political commentary into science papers? Glorious!

Via Jonathan Eisen, a simple exercise.

Please take a minute to experience for yourself one of the greatest scientific Easter eggs in a long time.

Step 1: download the PDF of this paper:

Step 2: Go to Page 3.

Step 3: Zoom way way in on the turd in Figure 1.

Step 4: Enjoy and share.

The article is titled “Methylation-based enrichment facilitates low-cost, noninvasive genomic scale sequencing of populations from feces”, in case you’re interested.

For those of you who don’t want to take the trouble, I’ll put the illustration of a baboon turd below the fold. You never know, someone might decide to insist on having it redrawn.

[Read more…]

Everything is a religion, according to Andrew Sullivan

I’m away. I’m on a break. I’m distracted by an adorable baby granddaughter. But even with those diversions, the stench of Andrew Sullivan’s latest column has disturbed my rest. It is just too stupid. I was stunned by the first paragraph, staggered a little further, and collapsed in defeat.

Everyone has a religion. It is, in fact, impossible not to have a religion if you are a human being. It’s in our genes and has expressed itself in every culture, in every age, including our own secularized husk of a society.

I’ve seen this a thousand times before, and I know what will follow. Sullivan is going to give us his own, personal, idiosyncratic definition of “religion” that he has made so broad and nebulous that he can assign it to everyone, no matter how godless they might be, and he’s going to rely on general human properties that he can then interpret as “religious”.

By the way, no genes for religion have been identified. Not one. He’s lying, unsurprisingly for someone who liked The Bell Curve. He links to a book by some guy named Dominic Johnson, who does have a degree in evolutionary biology, and from what I can see relies entirely on bullshit evolutionary psychology to make his claims.

Here comes his redefinition:

By religion, I mean something quite specific: a practice not a theory; a way of life that gives meaning, a meaning that cannot really be defended without recourse to some transcendent value, undying “Truth” or God (or gods).

I see that he has also redefined the word “specific”, because that is broadly vapid nonsense, not specific at all. A “practice”? So is writing garbage for NYMag his religion? Appearing on Bill Maher’s show is a religion? Except that it is specifically not a theory, but at the same time it requires a “transcendant value” that gives “meaning”. This is such a muddled mess of contradictions and immeasurable assertions that it in itself gives the lie to the idea that it could be based on something as concrete as a gene. He really wants us to believe that this wobbly bullshit is a load-bearing pillar…of jello. And it’s all set up to support this groaner of a familiar assertion by theists.

Which is to say, even today’s atheists are expressing an attenuated form of religion.

If your definition of religion is so amorphous that you can claim everything is a religion, then you’ve said nothing useful. You’ve turned religion into white noise. Religious people ought to find that as offensive as atheists do.

Their denial of any God is as absolute as others’ faith in God,

Wait. I thought religion was a practice, not a theory. But now he’s including “faith” and ideas about a hypothetical concept. He can’t even stick to his own definition!

…and entails just as much a set of values to live by — including, for some, daily rituals like meditation, a form of prayer.

So now it’s defined by daily rituals? I get up in the morning, brush my teeth, have a cup of coffee…this is now, in the mind of Andrew Sullivan, a religion. Hey, if I didn’t get out of bed, my life would be meaningless, if I never brushed my teeth, I’d be disgusting and would die of dental disease, and no coffee…that would be an unimaginable hell.

Also, my spiders spend their days in the endless ritual of maintaining their webs, and their lives would end without them. Therefore, spiders are religious. Maybe they don’t have a concept of a god (which I don’t know for sure), but remember…religion is a practice that gives meaning to life. And is genetic. If you can claim that atheists who explicitly reject gods and religion are religious, we’re at the point where you can’t stop me from claiming spiders are religious.

…(There’s a reason, I suspect, that many brilliant atheists, like my friends Bob Wright and Sam Harris are so influenced by Buddhism and practice Vipassana meditation and mindfulness. Buddhism’s genius is that it is a religion without God.)

OK, I’m done. I can read no further than the point where he claims Sam Harris is a brilliant atheist because he follows some Buddhist practices.

When will NYMag wake up to the fact that they’ve got a columnist who writes drivel? Probably never, since the NY Times has a similar problem, and will never change.

A solution to the “Baby It’s Cold” problem

This is the question that is dominating social media right now. Should it be banned? But that’s censorship! And then the usual free-speech babble is combined with terrible in depth, word by word analyses of the lyrics to show the interpretation is malleable, depending on the views of the analyzer. I hate it all. I hate the song.

The only fair thing to do is ban all Christmas carols. Use objective methods to measure the frequency of play of certain songs, and if they show an unusual annual peak, no matter when, they are clearly not good enough to be enjoyed except in very narrow contexts, and therefore are abominations that should be prohibited. If you don’t want to hear it in July, why do radio stations think it’s desirable to inflict them on us in December? Just kill all the mediocre music.

I’m also considering a prohibition on all media that has “cold” in the title, which seems to be a cause of serious conflict. This would have the benefit of also abolishing all those endless arguments about Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations”, which used to take over certain nerd conversations, once upon a time.

The problem of homology

We don’t get to see our granddaughter this morning — she’s getting her pediatric checkup today — so while sitting on my thumbs in my hotel room this morning, I threw together a video on the problem of homology, as misrepresented by Jonathan Wells and Paul Nelson. Seriously, they get it all wrong with tendentious misrepresentations.

There is a real problem of homology, because homology is rendered difficult to see by standard, naturalistic evolutionary processess. Wells and Nelson get it all exactly backwards. That homologies are obscured by the nature of evolutionary change is what we’d expect from evolutionary theory. It’s like how bioinformaticians will talk about the problem of long branch attraction; it’s a real problem, but it doesn’t imply that evolution is wrong, because it’s an expected effect of evolutionary change.

Likewise, evo-devo people will write long papers about the problem of homology, because the action of evolution obscures homologies and we have to struggle to see beyond it. Only a pair of buffoons would argue that it means evolution is false.

I don’t have a script for this one, because it’s just me talking extemporaneously in a dull hotel room, sorry. But I do have a good quote from Mary Jane West-Eberhard, and that’ll have to do if you don’t have the patience to listen to some geezer talking at a camera.

Changing characters do not march ever outward along the branches of a phylogenetic tree. While homology, parallelism, and convergence remain useful conceptual guides, they need to be seen against a background of continual reshuffling with a particulate, mosaic phenotype that renders linear terms like parallelism and convergence only approximate, and potentially misleading, descriptions of evolution.

Does a concept of mixed or partial homology just make a mess of homology? In fact, evolution makes a mess of homology.

Mary Jane West-Eberhard