Tentacle sex, part deux

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When male squid get together with their female friends, they have a couple of nuptial options: they can go ahead and use their charm to court the female, or they can just start poking her with tentacles full of sperm in mating frenzy. Now some of you guys might be thinking the latter option sounds good (what’s the point of living the life of a squid if you can’t be selfish and uninhibited, right?), while the ladies and gentlemen here might think the former is better. A study of the mating behavior of squid close-up and in the lab suggests that it’s true: taking one’s time and mating cooperatively is much more likely to get the sperm in the right place and improve the likelihood of reproductive success. And as a bonus it’s got some lovely photos of squid caught in flagrante.

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Squid nuptial dances

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Yesterday’s [21 November 2005] post about squid had a most unsatisfying conclusion, so I feel compelled to mention two things: squidblog has a brief explanation of squid jet propulsion, and I’ve dug up another older paper on squid movement. Even better, it’s about squid nuptial dances and mating.

Here, see? Pretty squid post coitus planting a string of fertilized eggs on the sea floor.

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Photo of a large male escorting a female squid (Loligo vulgaris reynaudii) as she attaches an “egg finger” of about 100 eggs to an egg bed.

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Tentacle Sex

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Doesn’t everyone just love cephalopods? I find them to be a fascinating example of a body plan radically different from our own, the closest thing to a truly alien large metazoan on our planet. I try to keep my eyes open for new papers on cephalopod development, but unfortunately, they are rather difficult to study and data is sadly thin and tantalizing.

I just ran across a pair of papers by Jantzen and Havenhand (2003a, b) on squid mating. That’s close enough to development for me!

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Give me creaturely over preacherly any day

You can tell when a dogmatic theist has to review a book by an unapologetic atheist: there’s a lot of indignant spluttering, and soon the poor fellow is looking for an excuse to dismiss the whole exercise, so that he doesn’t have to actually think about the issues. That’s the case with Leon Wieseltier’s review of Dennett’s Breaking the Spell—it’s kind of like watching a beached fish gasp and flounder, yet at the same time he apparently believes he’s the one with the gaff hook and club.

It’s full of self-important declarations that reduce to incoherence, such as this one:

You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason. In this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason. He will be outraged to hear this, since he regards himself as a giant of rationalism. But the reason he imputes to the human creatures depicted in his book is merely a creaturely reason. Dennett’s natural history does not deny reason, it animalizes reason.

One moment he’s telling us that just tracing the origins of an idea is insufficient to disprove it (sadly for Mr Wieseltier’s argument, there is no sign that Dennett disagrees), the next he’s telling us that the origin of Dennett’s reason is “creaturely” and “animalized”, and therefore of a lesser or invalid kind. I had no idea we could categorize reason by the nature of its source (I’d like to know what varieties of reason he proposes: “creaturely”, “human”, “divine”? Is there also a “vegetable reason”?), but even if we could, by his initial premise, it wouldn’t matter: he needs to address its content, not carp against it because it is the product of natural selection rather than revelation.

Then there’s this rather bewildering build-up. Wieseltier carefully builds a case that he has caught Dennett in an internal contradiction, an idea he pounces on with a kind of petty triumphal glee…but all it shows is that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

Like many biological reductionists, Dennett is sure that he is not a biological reductionist. But the charge is proved as early as the fourth page of his book. Watch closely. “Like other animals,” the confused passage begins, “we have built-in desires to reproduce and to do pretty much whatever it takes to achieve this goal.” No confusion there, and no offense. It is incontrovertible that we are animals. The sentence continues: “But we also have creeds, and the ability to transcend our genetic imperatives.” A sterling observation, and the beginning of humanism. And then more, in the same fine antideterministic vein: “This fact does make us different.”

Then suddenly there is this: “But it is itself a biological fact, visible to natural science, and something that requires an explanation from natural science.” As the ancient rabbis used to say, have your ears heard what your mouth has spoken? Dennett does not see that he has taken his humanism back. Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of biology, then we are not independent of biology. If our creeds are an expression of our animality, if they require an explanation from natural science, then we have not transcended our genetic imperatives. The human difference, in Dennett’s telling, is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind—a doctrine that may quite plausibly be called biological reductionism.

To declare that we are not limited by our genetic imperatives does not in any way contradict the statement that we are material, biological beings with behaviors that can be explained scientifically, without recourse to the supernatural or any other kind of immaterial vitalism. Opposing simplistic genetic reductionism—which, by the way, is good to see from Dennett, because he has a bit of a reputation for being far too narrowly reductionist in his views—is not the same as denying a natural, biological basis for behavior. When Wieseltier tries to insist that genetic determinism is the same as biology, he’s just flaunting his own ignorance.

The whole review reads this poorly, and I suppose I could take it on paragraph by paragraph…but nah. Brian Leiter has already torpedoed it, so even this much seems like excess. The New York Times really needs to do a better job of finding qualified reviewers—it seems in this case they just found a guy anxious to posture against the ungodly, with no competence to actually judge the book.

I get no respect

Here’s the difference between me and Michael Bérubé: he gets labeled a dangerous radical and profiled in David Horowitz’s new book, while all I get is a
mild squeak in our weekly campus newspaper and our local conservative rag.

While perusing the UMM main page, I happened upon the website http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula which belongs to UMM’s own Professor of Biology Dr. Meyers. Upon closer inspection I found content relating to my religious beliefs that offended me beyond belief. Not only was this speech sacrilegious and offensive, but it was readily available to anyone who happens across the UMM main page. The portion of content which I found most offensive was written under the label “humor,” and his blog is in fact up for an online award. Yet despite my outrage I must defend Dr. Meyers. He has the right to state his opinions and it is not my place to try to stop him. I may suggest the administration take the link off the campus website, but that has more to do with the fact that the website speaks for the University as a whole.

He is a bit of a junior Horowitz—I kind of like how he’s bending over backwards to insist I have a right to free speech while calling for the university to censor me—but you know, he put this up almost two weeks ago and the only reason I noticed at all is that my wife ran across it. It’s just sad. I mean, if what I wrote was really sacrilegious and outrageous and offensive beyond belief, couldn’t they get a condemnatory petition going, or a protest march, or even get one of Horowitz’s junior sub-alterns to come out and give a talk in which he complains about not being allowed to give a talk, while my kidneys threaten Western Civilization?

Man, I’d even be satisfied if they just spelled my name right.

It’s not just the genes, it’s the links between them

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Once upon a time, I was one of those nerds who hung around Radio Shack and played about with LEDs and resistors and capacitors; I know how to solder and I took my first old 8-bit computer apart and put it back together again with “improvements.” In grad school I was in a neuroscience department, so I know about electrodes and ground wires and FETs and amplifiers and stimulators. Here’s something else I know: those generic components in this picture don’t do much on their own. You can work out the electrical properties of each piece, but a radio or computer or stereo is much, much more than a catalog of components or a parts list.

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Electronics geeks know the really fun stuff starts to happen when you assemble those components into circuits. That’s where the significant work lies and where the actual function of the device is generated—take apart your computer, your PDA, your cell phone, your digital camera and you’ll see similar elements everywhere, and the same familiar components you can find in your Mouser catalog. As miniaturization progresses, of course, more and more of that functionality is hidden away in tiny integrated circuits…but peel away the black plastic of those chips, and you again find resistors and transistors and capacitors all strung together in specific arrangements to generate specific functions.

We’re discovering the same thing about genomes.

The various genome projects have basically produced for us a complete parts list—a catalog of bits in our toolbox. That list is incredibly useful, of course, and represents an essential starting point, but how a genome produces an organism is actually a product of the interactions between genes and gene products and the cytoplasm and environment, and what we need next is an understanding of the circuitry: how Gene X expression is connected to Gene Y expression and what the two together do to Gene Z. Some scientists are suggesting that an understanding of the circuitry of the genome is going to explain some significant evolutionary phenomena, such as the Cambrian explosion and the conservation of core genetic processes.

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Underworld: Evolution

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Dr Beckinsale visits the Discovery Institute

I saw the movie Underworld: Evolution last night. Stop looking at me like that—it was research. It has the word “evolution” in the title, doesn’t it? Besides, I have this idea to improve the promotion of science by having all of our spokespeople be dangerously nubile armed women with good cheekbones, full lips, and very sharp teeth. I figure the two things we’ve been lacking in our presentations to the public are lust and fear, and if we can just bring those into play, we’ll have an unbeatable combination.

As I learned at this movie, too, if you’ve got gorgeous women and slimy, ravening beasts confronting each other with big guns, nothing in the story has to make any sense at all. There was no plot: instead, there are a series of set-pieces strung together in which Our Heroine is placed in someplace dark, wet, and seedy with a supply of weapons and hapless allies/fang fodder to confront a suitably snouty or batty SFX playtoy. They aren’t even consistent in how these conflicts are resolved. Big bad immortal vampires get shot multiple times at point blank range with a shotgun, and shake it off with a snarl; but when Sir Derek Jacobi, following in the fine British tradition of slumming in some well-paying American trash, finds the movie so embarrassingly bad that he has to get out, the movie makers decide that the way to have his immortal character die is to poke him with something pointy, followed by a languorous death scene in which Jacobi completely turns off his ability to act. It was impressively flat, a cinematic vampire death scene that ranks right up there with Pee Wee Herman’s in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, yet utterly different.

Somehow this murky, muddled mess of a movie got made, and got people (like, say, me!) to attend. There’s a lesson here.

I’m going to have to get a skin-tight vinyl body suit for my next presentation.

I’ll let you guess whether I’m trying to inspire lust or fear.