Saturday, December 31, 2011

"Evolutionary morality"

So, my brother used the phrase "evolutionary morality" in a message to me recently.  He's been interested, and been a supporter of, "creation science" before "creation science" was cool - so you can imagine we have some lively discussions.

In our last discussion, he used the phrase "evolutionary morality".  So, I've been trying to figure out what that might be.

Apparently, according to some creation science advocates, evolutionary theory is racist, responsible for the holocaust, is demeaning to humanity, causes moral decay, is counter to egalitarian ethics, promotes socialism, the common cold and head lice.

It's easy to just dismiss this as fantasy, and have the same old argument about Hitler's personal and public religious beliefs and all that nonsense; or rail about how Social Darwinism is a misnomer and has nothing do with Darwin's personal beliefs; or how the term "race" in the subtitle of some early editions of On the Origin of Species was a much more general term than it is used now.  Let's not.  The old ashes of that dead horses bones do not need to be beaten anymore.  I just wanted to point out the bones of the dead horse in the unlikely event you haven't tripped over them yet.

So, let's just clear this up a bit.  It would be completely dishonest to pretend that evolutionary theory has not been used by racists and eugenicists.  It has.  The tiniest bit of wiki-reading reveals that the co-option began very early as various translations of Darwin's book into other languages (notably French and German) were added to and changed to suit the agenda of the translators.  However, it would also be dishonest to pretend that somehow selective breeding, ethnocentrism, and genocide were inventions of evolutionary theory.  If they were, they would not exist before it, right?  I mean, you can find stories of the whole-sale slaughter of ethnic groups in very old accounts...well, like the Bible.  Also, evolutionary theory began to solidify around 1855, yet Friedrich the Great was selectively breeding humans to create a regiment of taller-than-average infantry around 1688.  How could he ever have gotten that wacky idea?  (Perhaps from those guys that were selectively breeding and hybridizing bananas.)

But, let's get back to the here and now.

I asked a friend of mine about why many people considered evolutionary theory "racist" and she explained to me that her father, a scientist himself, would never accept it.  As a black man living in the United States, he was referred as an "animal" and a "monkey".  To accept common ancestry of humans and accept the idea that humans are related to other animals; was simply emotionally impossible.  I find this incredibly regrettable, but I can't blame him one bit.

I had an interesting conversation with an old-school Nazi I met at the mall.  He certainly viewed non-whites as simply monkeys dressed up as people.  I'm aware that some "pro-white" groups teach that white people were created and non-whites evolved, and see inter-racial marriages and nothing less than bestiality.  I know, I know...I suggested NOT talking about Hitler, but Hitlers dead - the Nazi aren't.

Let me be clear about my position on that:

Is that where evolutionary theory leads?

Are we somehow destined to become racists, eugenicists, and complete arses if we accept the scientific consensus?  We will be compelled to consider the humans around us as "more" or "less" evolved as some sort of value judgement on their right to exist and reproduce?  Does accepting evolutionary theory require us to also accept a hierarchy of races with black people a the bottom? Does accepting evolutionary theory require that we reject the notion of a Creator-God?

Many Creationists answer all of those questions with an emphatic, "yes".  While the vast majority of evolutionary scientists slap their foreheads with their palms and say, "no".  If you doubt me - spend some time on YouTube - starting with this:

First things first.  What does evolutionary theory actually say?  Maybe, just maybe, we shouldn't be trusting Nazi scumbags to tell us the truth about science.  Similarly, we probably shouldn't be trusting a movie that quotes On the Origin of Species, a 150 year old book on the subject, to make a point that is contradicted in the next paragraph that they fail to mention.

Don't trust me either.  I'm not even a biologist.  I'll do my best, but if you actually care to understand the issues in-depth, go to the Talk Origins website or better yet, buy a book about evolution written by a biologist who writes text books. 

Be that as it may, here is a summary of my understanding of fundamental biological evolutionary theory:

1) There exists genetic diversity in living things.
2) The genetic traits of living things more suited for thriving within their environment and/or are more preferred as mates within their population, will be more likely to be passed onto the next generation.
3) The frequency of genetic traits within a populations of living things change in time.

Here is my understanding of the fundamental concept of common ancestry:

1) Early life was much different than it is today.
2) As populations of living things became isolated from each other, they evolved separately.
3) All current life on Earth can trace it's ancestry to early life.

The "Tree of Life Web Project" explains our current understanding of how living things are related to one another.

If we assume that is actually the case, does that automatically send us to racist crazy town?  Well, what are some common racist and eugenicist ideas?  Let's address them one by one.

There are distinct races.

Evolutionary theory says no.  There are populations of people that have been isolated from others, and because of that isolation have evolved separately.  However, there is a continuum of genetic diversity.  There is a multitude of ethnic groups scattered about human migratory routes.  There is an evolutionary advantage to having light skin in areas of the world where there is little sunlight, because of increased vitamin D absorption.  As populations of people migrated north from equatorial regions in Africa, those with lighter skin thrived better in that particular environment.  However, there is not a distinct "white race" or "black race" or "Asian race" or any "*blah* race" - which is probably one reason race-obsessed people have such difficulty deciding who belongs to what "race".  Instead of realizing that their model is wrong, they explain that natural multitude of human variation in terms of degrees of "racial purity".

Let's contrast this with an alternate theory to evolution: theistic polygenism. 

Polygenists say yes.  According to some polygenists, God created the races separately and placed them in separate areas of the world in order to keep them apart.  Just ask Judge Leon Brazile, who justified his ruling in the landmark interracial marriage U.S. court case of Loving v. Virginia by invoking his particular view of :

"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

To assert that there are distinct separate "races" or a biological category resembling the social construct of "race" is to deny evolutionary theory, it is not a consequence of it.

Some races are better than others.

Evolution tells us nothing.  Science does not make value judgements.  However, some have interpreted evolutionary theory to mean that some groups of people or individuals are more "evolved" than others.  This assumes that there is a linear progression to evolution making living things better and better.  This isn't the case.  All the is required for a particular genetic trait to become more prevalent is if more of the next batch of babies has it.  These are sometimes very specific to the environment, sometimes are pretty neutral, and sometimes are pretty bad in every way except survival and reproduction.  Genetic traits that become more prevalent in a population might have little to do with how "good" anyone is.  If we had the chance to meet some of our common ancestors, there is no guarantee that we'd find them "inferior".

Another common misconception of evolutionary theory is that since the population of humans that we are all descended from probably came from somewhere in Africa that Africans are "less evolved".  Evolution of African human populations didn't just stop once groups of people started moving around.  We have common ancestors, modern African people are not actually our ancestors.

Also, again, there is no such thing as a distinct biological category called "race".  There is a tremendous amount of genetic variation within each social construct of "race" - as much if not more than the genetic variation between them.  Even if you had some sort of criteria for judging "better", you're going to have a very tough time making value judgements concerning "races" if you buy into science, especially since many of the differences among "races" commonly used to justify racism are demonstrably the result of racism.  I'm just waiting until the local "pro-white" group buys into mainstream science and, in desperation, starts carrying around signs that say "The percentage of Northern Europeans with lactase persistence is 95%!  We are the master race!!!" during an annual milk drinking parade.  (Although, I'm not sure if they could possibly look any more ridiculous, but they could always try.)

About the only genetic traits that could be considered objectively bad are ones that are incompatible with comfort and life.  Some of these are more prevalent in some ethnic groups that others, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes that are linked to increased breast cancer risk.  This seems like a pretty stupid reason to hate on anyone, but I suppose if you really felt like it you could. 

Let's contrast this with a completely different idea: curses and blessings.

The Jews are cursed because they killed Christ - well, until Vatican II.  It is God's Will to enslave black people because they carry the "Curse of Ham".   Add to this list various and contradictory claims of  being a member of "God's Chosen People" based on ethnicity or "race".

People of the same race as me should attempt to eliminate other races or at least isolate them.

Again, evolutionary theory says nothing about this because science doesn't tell anyone what we *should* do.

However, one idea within evolutionary theory is that given a specific set of circumstances, living things with particular traits are going to thrive while others do not.  Which essentially means that genetic variation increases chances of survival as environmental pressures change.  Mass slaughter of entire ethnic groups is a great way of lowering the genetic diversity of humanity.  That's not good.  One immediate way that could be incredibly problematic is if you accidentally slaughtered one of the only groups of people that happen to have members with a natural immunity to the next pandemic.  Oops.

Isolation includes some of the same problems.  If your little in-group is isolated from the rest, there may be limited genetic diversity within the group.  So you are lowering the chances that there will be people within your cultural group surviving and thriving given various circumstances because your just too genetically similar.

Of course, both of these concerns are extremely minor compared to the ethical implications.  I just wanted to point out that evolutionary theory certainly doesn't require that you slaughter other ethnic or "racial" groups or freak out when your child brings home someone with more or less melanin in hir skin.

Let's contrast this with: Christian Identity Theology

A prominent figure in the movement is a cute little Quisling named Richard Kelly Hoskins, an American who identifies with the "Nordic Race" which apparently was descended from the original Israelites and believes that the Jews are literally the children of Satan, and uses the story of Phinehas in Numbers 25:1-15 as a justification for domestic terrorism against race traitors.  He wrote a few books, one called "Our Nordic Race" which included the lines:

"...we must add to the large number of states who already have laws prohibiting racial interbreeding and insure that these laws are made ironclad. It would be an irony indeed to protect ourselves against a second Pearl Harbor only to be destroyed by Marxist mongrelism from within"

He tries a little bit of pseudo-science here:

"When a race which produces original thought breeds with a race which produces little or no original thought, the resulting breed is a failure."

He also ran for office once:

"A political candidate need take just 3 simple stands. 1) Abolish usury. 2) Root sodomists from the land. 3) Outlaw racial interbreeding."

Just to put a fine point out his complete break with reality or decency, he is also a holocaust denier.  He does pepper his crazy with a few pseudo-science concepts such as "breeding" and "race" but he appears to be fueled primarily by the concept that the "Nordic Race" is God's Chosen People and that the United States is the promised land.  It sort of makes all those white blonde Jesus pictures I grew up with seem much more sinister.
We should prevent the genetically inferior from breeding or at least encourage the breeding of good "stock".

Evolutionary theory includes the concept of "natural selection" - note the term "natural".  Evolutionary theory does not directly concern "artificial selection" although both obviously involve genetics and heredity.  (Also scientists can artificially create select environmental pressures on living things to guide their evolution.  This is done a lot with bacteria.)  To say there are no implications would be dishonest.

To be fair, I have to say, that if I happen to be carrying some sort of serious genetically determined disease, depending on the specific situation I would seriously consider not having biological children and ponder why others in the same situation would.  However, we all know that in various times in our own history and even now, the number of traits that some regard as "undesirable" enough to actively attempt to destroy is frighteningly large and many of these traits have little to do with genetics and more to do with environmental factors and social perception.

Have you ever used some sort of ridiculously fake Ozark accent to indicate that what you were saying was stupid?  It's sort of an awful thing to do, but innocent enough right?  Well, reportedly some eugenicists thought that having a rural accent was justification for sterilizing people without their consent - because even with the doctors' considerable social privilege they were too stupid to understand the difference between an accent or dialect and a genetically based mental deficiency.  Ironic dotcha think?

The other problem with purposefully selecting-out undesirable traits within a population, is that under some circumstances they are desirable or have some desirable aspects.  For example, we are currently dealing with an "obesity epidemic".  This is a big deal, and at least in theory, we have control over our weight.  However, there are genetic factors that affect appetite, how the body uses fat, and how the body reacts to stress and a host of other fun things.  For example, about one in three American have a so-called "fat gene" FTO.  (It is most prevalent among Americans with European descent; a fact which could be used to taunt the lactase-persistance parade.)

Being obese is generally bad.  It is linked to all sorts of health problems.  It certainly would seem to not give an evolutionary advantage, especially since obesity is associated with fertility problems and complications in pregnancy.  How could being obese possibly be a good thing?  Shouldn't we take steps to eliminate FTO as well as the genetic mutation associated with binge eating and all other genes and mutations associated with obesity?  Everyone will have the same healthy appetite, the same healthy well-oiled fat burning apparatus, and it will be great!

Well, my husband read an incredibly depressing book a while ago, which detailed someone's experiences living in a society under famine.  Dying relatives became so common-place it was light conversation.  The author certainly saw a pattern in who seems to die first and who died last.  Well, who tended to survive?  It wasn't the thin people, obviously, but it wasn't healthy active people either.  The ones who fared best were the obese sedentary people (in jerkese that's "fat and lazy").  If those people had some of the genetic traits associated with obesity, went on to have more children than those without those traits, and passed those traits onto those children, the population evolved.  If the prevalence of genetic traits changes in a population, that population is evolving.  That is evolution by definition.  Attempting to encourage or discourage the prevalence of genetic traits that we have decided are good or bad, is not.

Biology and genetics can help us understand how nature works in order to make better decisions.  However, it doesn't say anything about where we should draw lines or make compromises or which ethical concepts we hold firm when discussing the difference between a genetic disease and natural genetic variation; or how a society views the autonomy and rights of it's citizens.  It certainly doesn't require us to start draconian efforts to "purify our race" or find the "most eugenics baby" or attempt to create some sort of homogeneous "master race".

Let's contrast this with: The Christian concept of Creation and Original Sin.

I've mentioned quite a few Christian ideas so far.  All of them are not the least bit mainstream.  Most Christian theology is not polygenist, does not accept the idea of curses or blessings on groups of people based on race or ethnicity, and certainly doesn't resemble the bizarre theology of the Christian Identity movement.  With this one, I'm going to hit the mainstream a bit.

We were created as perfect beings.  It was because of sin that we are imperfect.

This is a mainstream idea that is usually no longer interpreted the way it has been in the past.  Not too long ago, if someone were ill, or was poor, or heaven forbid had some sort of deformity, it was because of sin.  A baby with a birth defect was considered evidence of a mother's sin.  Those who were rich were considered blessed by God - Divine Right and so forth.  Left-handed people were sinister.

Very few people believe this today, however, the implications that there is some sort of perfect human is a persistent concept.  It denies natural variation as a potentially positive feature of living things, and instead replaced it with a model that makes it easy to consider traits outside the norm as perversions of this mythical "perfect human" brought about by sin, or being sinful.

God made Adam and Eve and not Adam and Steve.  Transgender people are denying their God-given sex - men are men and women are women.  God made women to be good at this that and the next thing, and men to be good at this that and the next thing.

Does anyone actually believe that Alan Quist, once candidate for Minnesota governor, was informed by scientific research when he said, "Men are genetically predisposed to the be heads of households"?

It all boils down to a underlying idea that there is only one, perfect, way to exist that is ordained by God, and all other variation are dangerous, sinful and unhealthy.  God has made nature in His perfect image, and straying from that is going "against nature".  However, this concept of "nature" is not a scientific concept.  Within science, nature is what it is.  As one of my insightful young students once said, "It do what it do."

Some living things are humans and others are animals

We are animals.  We are vertebrates.  We are mammals.  We are primates.  We are apes.  Absolutely.  However, this applies to all of us.  Using the terms "animal" and "ape" as an insult, is generally used by people who consider themselves neither.

If evolutionary biology is true, what sets us apart from the animals?  Well, nothing at all.  There are plenty of things that humans are incredibly exceptional at, but biologically speaking, we are most certainly classified as animals.

A generation or so ago (and arguably now as well), people who were physically different were put on display.  The people who were put on display were not regarded as performers or entertainers or reality TV stars, but as essentially "animals" while the people paying money to go to the shows were considered, at the very least a "higher order" of animal. 

Here is how P.T. Barnum promoted an "exhibit" of African Pygmies.

Is it a lower order of man?  Or is it a higher order of monkey? None can tell!  Perhaps it is a combination of both.  It is beyond dispute the most marvelous creature living, it was captured in a savage state in Central Africa, it is probably 20 years old, 2 feet high, intelligent, docile, active, sportive, and playful as a kitten.  It has a skull, limbs, and general anatomy of an orangutang and the countenance of a human being.

The Bronx Zoo displayed a young man named Otta Benga who was also an African Pygmy, although they attempted to justify their treatment of him by explaining that the monkey house was the most practical place for Otta to meet the large crowds of people that came to meet him.

Many would see these actions and point to evolutionary biology as the cause of them.  The people put on display were sometimes billed as "the missing link" or some other sort of pseudo-scientific clap-trap.  As mentioned earlier, calling Otta Benga or any other human being a "missing link" or "lower order of man" is like calling your brother your great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great (well you get the idea) grandfather.  Evolutionary biology didn't cause anyone to treat a fellow animal with the "countenance of a human being" as anything other than a human being.

If evolutionary biology tells us anything, it's not that some humans are "animals" but that other animals may be much more like humans than we previously believed.  We now know that keeping chimpanzees in captivity, even in well-run zoos, leads to mental illness.  The worse the conditions, the worse the effect, but even in very good conditions the simple fact that the chimpanzees are confined leads to abnormal behaviors associated with psychological problems.  Similarly, some scientists do not dismiss the idea that dolphins and whales may have the capacity to mindfully commit suicide.  This disturbing possibility was given media attention when Richard O'Barry explained that one of the dolphins he trained for Flipper, Cathy, refused to breath as a means to end her own life.  He blames himself for bringing her and other dolphins into captivity and contends that doing so is inhumane.

Let's contrast this with: Dominion Theology.

I'm talking about the idea that God told humans to "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth."

Some Christian thinkers have interpreted this passage as a mandate of "husbandry" which is the idea that humans should be good stewards of the earth.  Others - not so much.  This is what a Jesuit named Joseph Rickaby wrote in 1896:

"By divine ordinance the life of animals and plants is preserved, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of man." 

Others, like Augustine of Hippo, had the idea that people should be kind to animals, only because if they were not kind to animals this would carry over into a lack of kindness to humans.  It was also practical to be kind, because abusing your livestock is really financially irresponsible.  He also pointed at Jesus' drowning of the swine as evidence that refraining from killing animals was simply superstitious.

I wonder how these early Christian thinkers would respond to the research being done with other primates, showing that they are able to learn language, are self-aware, show empathy, and bond with one another.  Would it make sense to them that their philosophical ideas are being used to justify changing the face of the earth the way that we have, while treating all animals as things, regardless of the extent to which they are aware, feel and suffer? 

So, what is "evolutionary morality"?

As a rule, science does not deal with morality.  My knee-jerk reaction to my brother is simply to say, "There is no such thing!"  Arguably, however, there are moral implications to accepting evolutionary theory as valid.  Many people digest the ideas as simply a strong concept of interconnectedness and legacy, as well as an affirmation of the positive aspects of naturally occurring biological diversity.  While, some fixate on the tenuous idea of an evolutionary hierarchy, distort science beyond recognition or simply make things up as an excuse to hate-on people.

I can imagine a Christian reading this post being offended by most of theological ideas I discussed.  I hope they're disgusted.  The interpretations of those theologies are seen by many Christians as focusing on the wrong messages of the Bible, distorting the Bible beyond recognition, or simply making things up as an excuse to hate-on people.  Some may even go as far as calling a few of them good old fashioned blasphemy.  It would be incredibly dishonest and insulting to pretend as if those examples represented Christianity or how Christians, as a group, thought and felt.  Most Christians see the moral implications of their ideas as affirming life, treating all other human beings with respect, and treating all living creatures as sacred.

Whether or not someone accepts biological evolutionary theory does not determine whether or not that person is a crazy racist.  Just as, whether or not someone accepts Christian doctrine does not determine whether or not that person is a crazy racist.  (They aren't mutually exclusive either!)  Someone with the self-loathing to require using an immutable personal characteristic as a means of boosting a decrepit sense of self-worth and positive identity is just going to take any excuse, and half-learned fact, any obscure passage, any notion of confirmation of preconceived models of reality....well, what I'm trying to say is:

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Science is not on my side

It doesn't take sides.

In a recent online discussion, the subject of male and female typical traits came up.  Inevitably, the person I was talking with mentioned the studies involving spatial reasoning.  From what I could gather, the person believed men act like "normal" men and women act like "normal" women but that, with training, a man or woman could "go against biology" and be an exception.

My response was:

There are two common mistakes in interpreting scientific research 1) thinking of results as prescriptive instead of descriptive and 2) over-generalizing results to the entire population.  

For this, I was accused of being "anti-science", which is a first for me.  Ironically, I tried to teach the boy math - you know, overlapping distributions and standard deviations.

At any rate, I'd like to take that phrase "go against biology" and think on it for a moment.  How can someone "go against biology"?  How would someone do that?

I mean, can I "go against physics"?  If I were to float up in the air, would I be somehow defying physics?  Well, I might be going against our current understanding of nature, but I couldn't go against nature herself.  ("Nature" as in how the universe functions, not as in trees and birds.)  If I could float in air unaided, obviously our understanding of nature is incomplete and physics would need to be changed.

So, how would someone go against biology?  Has every women in science "gone against biology"? Well, there are a great number of successful women in the sciences and in engineering, so if biology says that's impossible (as if it did) then apparently biology would need to be changed.

The idea that science is telling us what *ought* to be is simply wrong.  Scientific theories and principles are predictive, but if they predict something different than what we actually observe, then those scientific theories and principles require revision.  That's how it works.  You don't point at the observation and say, "That goes against science, so it's wrong!"

This is similar to the argument that homosexuals and transgender individuals "go against nature".  Going against nature is impossible.  However, the existence of homosexual and transgender individuals goes against many people's concept of naturally occurring variation in humans, so those concepts would need to be changed for that understanding to conform to our observations of nature.  Just as it's silly to point at an observation and say it's wrong, it's bizarre to point to a person and say that the person "goes against nature".  What?  Are gays and gender queer people all supernatural?  OOooooOOooo spooky!

That's silly, so quit using science as if it is telling you anything about what *ought* to be the case.  Science is an attempt to make sense of how the universe functions.  It is a description of what IS.  It doesn't tell us what should be.  Even if what we know about psychology, sociology, or biology seems to require a particular result; we're living in that "result" currently.  The "result" is necessarily what IS and what actually happens, not what *ought* to happen according to our current models.

Don't confuse this with simply basing opinions on evidence, scientific or otherwise.  When someone tells you that science dictates *blah* that's nonsense, especially when *blah* isn't the case.  Science can predict and usually be right, but it dictates nothing.  In contrast, if people simply bring up a systematic observation within a scientific study to attempt to support their claims - they are golden.  Well, occasionally they are golden...okay, a great deal of the time they are still full of it, but at least they aren't implying that scientists are gods that create rules for nature to follow.

Friday, December 23, 2011

We are not the same

So, what first made me think of this topic is this wonderful piece by a school teacher discussing gender variance and gender concepts in small children.  This was my initial reaction:

I think it is important to realize that generally, the more gender variant a child is the worse off they are with respect to bullying. The code phrase here is "gay or perceived as gay" - and I don't think that reflects the underlying issue. It's not always about "the gay". The more we understand gender variance, the more we realize that forcing conformity is not the answer to social trouble - and doing so may cause extreme harm. This should not be controversial. I am not, in any way, advocating some sort of backlash against those who are gender conforming - there is no need to shame girls that love pink princesses. I am not, in any way, suggesting that we accept only androgyny or hate-on housewives. I'm suggesting that we stop bashing round pegs with a hammer in order to distort and mangled them enough to be shoved into a square hole, because we're just too simple-minded to deal with reality.

I have two relatives who are gender variant and my nephew has been living with us for the last four months, so I've learned a great deal.  I've stumbled along the way, but I'm hoping that I'm at least getting close to being able to support the well-being of children and adults who are gender variant without putting my foot in my mouth too badly.  Trust me, my nephew lets me know when cis-gender people, however well meaning, are being stupid and terrible (although he sometimes uses more colorful language).

I absolutely loved the article, but the title of one of the books that the teacher read to the students made me pause a bit:  "It's Okay to be Different" by Todd Parr.  I looked it up on Amazon to see the preview.  The body of the book includes phrases such as "It's Okay to be embarrassed" and "It's Okay to be adopted" and "It's Okay to have wheels" (showing a child using a wheelchair).  I don't have any of Todd Parr's books, but he has been highly recommended to me by my friends.  I don't have a beef with the book at all, don't get me wrong, but the title "It's Okay to be Different" implies that there is a standard normal against which to judge someone as "different".

There is no denying that sometimes there is a prominent "normal", in that the vast majority shares a trait with little variation of that trait.  For example, it is "different" to be conjoined with your twin.  However, the "standard normal" of some traits is complete fiction and the variance of a great number of traits is so broad that there is no clear distinction where "normal" ends and "different" begins.  Dividing the world into "normal" and "different", where the "different" people requires validation (of being "okay"), is completely unreasonable and I can guarantee not what Todd Parr was going for.

If "It's Okay to be Different" is taken in the spirit is was intended, it would mean the same as, "It's Okay to exist".  I'm pretty sure that is the message the children reading the book will take away from it, as the traits listed in the book are broad enough that at least one of those traits will apply personally to the child being read the book.  They will, at some point, realize that they are "different" just like everyone else!

A problem still remains when we categorize the traits of other human beings and label them, because one of those categories or labels is inevitably going to be considered the "normal" one.  So, now we're back to the creation of the mythical "normal" human - or at least a list of "normal" human traits.

The desire to label may arise simply for sake of brevity in communication.  It's much easier to simply say that someone is straight for example, without getting into the details of the person's personal experiences or attractions.  Parents I met at the playground mentioned that their daughter was autistic, without giving me a detailed explanation of the behaviors, their frequency and severity, that led to the diagnosis.  Someone may say zie is Christian, without giving a run-down of hir personal theological stances, church affiliations, or personal religious experiences.  Without using labels and categories, we would have a very difficult time - however, the labels and categories are invariably insufficient to communicate the nuances of human variance.  Those labels and categories take the fuzzy spectrum of human existence and artificially delineate and parse it into recognizable distinct illusions.

So, at what point do these categories simply become unacceptably non-representative?  I suppose they do when someone stands up and simply asserts, "No, that's not me".

So, at what point is our insufficient language forcing conformity to conceptual models and ignoring reality?  I suppose it is when someone takes the time to explain who zie is, what zie thinks, or how zie feels....and the person who should have been listening looks confused or annoyed and says, "I don't get it, are you an X or a Y?"

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Play the game

[This is a response to the suggestion that someone, who is worried that he can't afford healthcare for his family, should "play the game" of making more money.]

I understand there are different stances on the real issues here: people who blame specific government programs (such as Fannie and Freddie Mac's lack of assets) and people who blame lack of government regulations (such as the role-back of Glass-Steagall); people who point out the agency of individuals to make good choices and avoid being taken advantage of and those who squarely blame those who have profited off the bad debt, volatile markets, and exotic financial products. Actually figuring out how our economy became so vulnerable and why it took such a strong hit, isn't as easy as a bunch of sloganeering.

Defending the status quo however, as you have done, is just painful. When arguments are easily bandied around that justify treating low-income earners as less than human; it's hard not to respond with anger. If you really think that it's okay for 45,000 people in the U.S. to die yearly due to lack of healthcare coverage; you're sort of a horrible person. Then to justify this fact by proclaiming that low wage-earners should "play the game" like the Kardashians; is just mind-numbingly ridiculous. On top of that, you go on about how other people should educate themselves; implying that you know what your talking about because you haven't been influenced by the "liberal media"?! Are you kidding me?

How so many people can, with a straight face, be so incredibly complicit in perpetuating the increase in wealth disparity (not just in the U.S. but around the world) is amazing to me. It's difficult to understand the arguments when the people who are talking about NOT benefiting from the labor of others are defending the people who profit from the labor of others.

The only way I can reconcile this weird stance, is that when poor people benefit from the labor of others - this is bad - but when rich people profit off the labor of others (raking in record profits, draining pension and retirement funds, demanding union concessions while voting yourself a raise, rolling back benefits, taking out insurance policies on bad debt you just sold, out-sourcing to countries with more exploitable labor markets - like slaves, etc) - this is AWESOME because rich people did it, so it's just "part of the game".

But yeah, people should do something when they are in a bad situation. They should do something when other people are leeching off their labor. They should do something - those "tiny steps" toward being respected and being able to provide for themselves and their families through their hard work - like the Haymarket riots.

Slave labor and underpaid labor around the world can rise up, they can change their situation by being bold enough to stand up and risk their lives to change the game. You're saying people should play the game to avoid their preventable deaths. That's just beyond the pale.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

"Dirty hippie"

[This may just be a troll feeding, but I created a rebuttal to the idea that the occupy movement is a bunch of "dirty hippies" that believe they are entitled to the benefits of other people's labor.  Parts of the rebuttal use the original posters language, so it should have enough context within it.]

Yes, Paul, there is something rotten in Denmark when one assumes that a choice to live off of the products of other's work is an act of god. We called that "Divine Right" back in the day and it was also a back-bone of the lord-serf economic system. It was born out of Calvinist and Stoic ideas that the poor were poor because they were inferior and God loved them less, because everything happened according to God's will. If someone suffered it was because of sin, not because of bad circumstances or abuse. This was the way that the powerful stayed in power - and sat on their asses as the serfs and blue-collar workers, child labor and slave labor, did all the work and they profited - by convincing those laborers that working their lives away with little compensation was godly. 

I know - it's a radical idea to think that someone who works 40 hours a week (oh wait, 40 hours? - that was the labor movement) should get a living wage; and receive the pension and retirement they depend on and were promised. I know - it's a radical idea to think that someone's tax dollars should be spent on educating children and investing in infrastructure instead of giving tax-breaks and subsidies to companies making record profits. I know - it's a radical idea to disallow someone to sell bad debt that they know will fail and take a large insurance policy out on it. I know - Reinstating the Glass-Steagall act is all about looting, not bathing, and living in your mom's basement. I know - Protesting the increase in wealth disparity, decrease in socioeconomic mobility, and lack of employment is the SAME as being content to subsist off a welfare safety-net, not increase your productivity through education and vocational training, and not work. 

Just plug your ears and repeat the mantra "dirty hippie" "dirty hippie" "dirty hippie" - it will make all those issues disappear and make you feel better about yourself. It will also make all the veterans and professionals involved in the movement disappear - and replace them with your second nephew's brother's sister's cousin that smokes too much weed and litters.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


 [This is a little different than what I envision for this blog - as it contains more than a few positive assertions - but wanted to share.]
 - just a brief note about the concept of "class warfare" and "anti-corporatism". I don't think it is that simple. Some corporation are pretty damned cool. Many rich people are rich because they are hard-working and have great ideas. I don't see anyone picketing the Gate's family. What is at issue is that many people make incredible money playing money games - essentially gambling. 
Their money does depend on how smart they are - but not on the quality of the goods and services that they produce. Their money depends on things like how long the cable is to their computers, so their trades go in a couple milliseconds faster. It depends on how much interest they can collect because the people that owe them are unable to pay down the principle of their loan; they get rich when people pay money and get nothing tangible in return. I think many people were more than willing to let this go - until it got completely out of hand. 
Government regulations were either insufficient or created unintended consequences. Banks started trading financial "products" so exotic that even insiders were perplexed - and somehow rain or shine - the banks won their bets. The people became irresponsible borrowers, allowing credit to sustain them instead of insisting on fair wages and benefits for work. Opportunists started flipping houses on credit so frequently that HGTV was full of reality shows about it. Then, as many suspected, it blew up - causing difficulty for nearly everyone without a golden parachute. 
I'm incredibly happy that the problems of these systems have come to light. I have hope that the next group of young people won't get trapped in the cycle of debt that many of us have allowed ourselves to fall into. This isn't a movement that ignores personal responsibility, is anti-business, or pro-hand-out....quite the opposite. I'm hoping that this conversation ends in pointing out that usury and gambling aren't acceptable sins and a successful rebuttal to the bizarre neo-Calvinist concept that being rich automatically means that God loves you more, that you are responsible, that you aren't taking advantage of anyone, that you aren't stealing, that you aren't sucking on the public teat, that you aren't a drain on society, that you aren't dangerous, etc.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011


I've been pondering a real question.  I say this because most people don't ask this question.  It seems like one of those questions where the answer is already known, to the point where the dogmatic sacred truth of the answer prevents the questions from ever being asked.

Is pacifism evil?

Most of us have seen the pictures (both real and re-imagined).  I was exposed to them at too young an age.  My parents rented the movie "Gandhi" and the only thing I can remember from it, that stuck in my young mind to the point where I could not get rid of it, was the scene where hundreds, maybe thousands (when you are young you conceptualize it simply as "many" - a number without an upper bound), of native Indians stood like a marching band, each line standing up to the English in turn willingly being beaten down, perhaps to death - sacrificing themselves.

It is easy to see the English as evil.  The idea, in part, is to make the good-guy and bad-guy obvious.  If you don't fight back, there is little ambiguity.  The idea, in part, is that the people killing you and the people watching them kill you, will not be given the luxury of not knowing who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed.  This of course, only works if you have enough people willing to be killed.  Somehow this only works if the observers cannot see an upper bound of your numbers.  It only works with "many".

It also gets you statues in the park.

So, enter the current discussion of economic disparity.  It's getting some attention these days.  We also know what extreme economic disparity looks like.  It's on display on long infomercials, full of nearly starving children, asking you to sponsor a child.  It's always children they show - because seeing children has a greater chance of creating a hormone in our blood associated with love.  It also avoids dealing with the absurd concept in our heads that adults somehow automatically have the power to change their situation regardless of what oppressive institutions and practices, backed by force, are disallowing that.  If there is an adult shown, it's a woman.  Men are not allowed to need anyone.  In our bizarre emotional landscape, a man has infinite undeniable agency in all situations.  I have never seen a man in any of these, unless it is the white-guy narrator swooping down like a gray-bearded god.  The non-whites never speak.  They look into the camera like a puppy.

These are the people the charity can get to.  The country may or may not have enough food and wealth to feed their own people, however, obviously systemic problems exist that allow malnutrition, lack of medical care, lack of economic opportunity, lack of infrastructure, lack of family planning, lack of education, etc.  Those problems, with both local and global reasons, fail to be adequately addressed.  However, at the very least, the charity workers are not being killed.  They are allowed to stay.

Now, enter the ones we can't get to.  Why are they dying?  Why do we get to see, watch in horror, as children and adults are thrown on piles of bloat and bones?  We blame war.  We blame desperate economic systems.  We allow our well-fed and well-educated and sheltered selves to feel guilt, but turn away in hopelessness and disgust.

We never blame pacifism.

The food we send is used to feed armies who are able to take it.  The armies are the ones who are killing the people.  This is an old tactic.  All you have to do is circle the castle and wait.  No food goes in or out.  We've used this tactic ourselves for our own political goals.  Remember the trucks of food going to waste outside of Gaza when the election didn't go like we wanted?  This isn't new.

So, what should we do?

We have the means to help.  We don't have the will to become the many - to use pacifist tactics leading to our own deaths.  It's more difficult to conflate humans and puppies when the humans look more like you.  So, I suppose if enough white people are killed, are arrested, are tortured, the wealthy Western nations might wake up to our complicity - or not.

In the end, do we just lack the courage and rage to act?  Do we hide behind the concept of non-violence to sit on our hands and pretend there is nothing we can do?  Did "Never again" turn into "It's not our place to police" - or did "Never again" always only apply to whites and Jews?  The effect is the same - mass graves and genocide.

To choose whether or not to defend yourself with violence: to die staring your killer in the face or to die fighting.  That is a sacred personal choice.  Do we have the same moral right to non-violence when we are choosing death for the people around us?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

On physics and philosophy

So, I was in a common area of the college I work at.  Two students and a faculty member were discussing philosophy.  (My apologies for being a horrible eaves-dropper.)  The discussion inevitably included references to Star Trek: The Next Generation and whether or not Data had a consciousness - not, of course, whether or not the writers envisioned him as having one or whether or not Brent Spiner was attempting to act as though the character didn't - but if a mechanical creation could have it, regardless of how complex that machine was.

It's an interesting question, I suppose.  It reminded me of this:

The conversation involved whether or not various ideas by various philosophers (that I am not familiar with) violated principles such as the conservation of mass/energy, this was coupled to a positive assertion that the "laws of physics" don't change in time.

This opens up an issue that I think about quite often, since my background is in physics.  For full disclosure, my background is not in theoretical physics nor to I have a PhD.  I'm just a happy button-monkey who teaches introductory physics classes, and has soft spots for microscopy and acoustics.  The very basic concept though, of using science as a window into philosophy is something I have some business discussing.

Here is the idea: Science is descriptive, not prescriptive.  In other words, science (even the most fundamental laws) by it's nature does not tell us what ought to be only what appears to be.  It's observing and making sense of what we have observed; creating models that appear to be predictive.  We only think that the conservation of mass/energy is reasonable, because we have evidence to support the idea and no strong counter-examples to dismiss the idea.  We only entertain the notion that nature does not change fundamentally with time, because it would be inconvenient if it did and we have little evidence that it does (at least right now).

One activity of experimental physicists is to study "violations" of "laws".  Many times these experiments simply find out how certain we are about the patterns we see.  We add significant figures to our measurements and length to our ranges and greater certainty of applicability within the confines of what is currently practically observable - but always fail to "prove" our models as universal, eternal, or true.

I realize that using scientific principles to drive philosophy is not the same as using science as a prescription, or imposing "science" on ethics or behavior.  Any examples I can think of are, by nature, pseudo-scientific.  For example, some people have used the concept of "natural law" to oppress and demonize sexual minorities.  This is ludicrous on two levels if you think of "natural law" as coming from science:  1)  As mentioned before, science does not tell us what ought to be only what appears to be, and 2) The current science starkly conflicts with many statements of "fact" that are usually used to justify the oppression and demonization of sexual minorities on "biological" or "psychological" grounds.

More fundamentally, the concept that the "law of physics" (for example) govern the universe, instead of the other way around, is pretty popular.  Although, to be fair, most creation-science groups have stopped using the Second Law of Thermodynamics as an argument against evolution, it was pretty popular for a while.  The idea is that evolution violates the Second Law because it asserts that more complex things came from less complex things; that structure somehow spontaneously erupted and that just CANNOT happen because of the Laws of Thermodynamics.  The idea was pretty popular, until enough people picked up on it; using it as a prime example of how creation-scientists misrepresent science, since the argument hinges on the absence of the sun, not to mention geothermal energy, and is really easy to make fun of.  (If only there was a gigantic, practically inexhaustible, energy source bathing the earth with high quality electromagnetic radiation and decreasing the entropy of the earth's systems through differential heating!  Oh wait...)

The implications go beyond bad science however.  The argument was that evolution CANNOT happen because of the Laws of Thermodynamics.  This sets up physicists as gods.  Apparently we decide what can and cannot happen in the universe?!  Besides simply debunking the argument on the grounds that it doesn't make any sense scientifically AT ALL because evolution does not violate the Laws of Thermodynamics; a more thorough refutation includes the idea that the Laws of Thermodynamics simply doesn't matter.  Evolution can be observed.  It is backed with observational evidence.  If the Laws of Thermodynamics and The Theory of Evolution actually conflicted, it would not be evolution that would be in jeopardy but the assumed universality of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.  The laws themselves - our models of the universe - have no power (at least we like to think they don't).

So what about using physics as a basis for philosophy?  Does it make sense to throw out "Newtonian" determinism in the light of "Heisenbergian" probability distributions?  Does it make sense to use Conservation Laws to evaluate philosophical constructs and arguments?

The scientific method, methodological naturalism, and Occam's razor define modern science.  It is a powerful "way of knowing" - or at least, a way of creating the best models of natural behaviors to make the best predictions.  In a nutshell, what scientists do, is create models based on existing evidence and then obtain additional evidence to either support of falsify aspects of those models in an effort to uncover weaknesses to drive meaningful revisions.  Essentially, we attempt to prove ourselves wrong.  We search for violations of our own "laws" and "principles". 

In testing, we usually end up gathering more evidence in support of well-accepted theories.  That's why they are "well-accepted".   However, if we start to assume we are correct - all the sudden science stops.  If we forget that our task is to test and not just to support, we become scientists prone to confirmation bias at best and quacks with pet theories at worst.

In this context, asserting that an idea CANNOT be true based on scientific principles, laws or theories - seems undesirable.  It's simply weird to use scientific principles as philosophical assumptions when, philosophically, scientists try desperately not to assume those principles are universal, eternal, or true.  We certainly know that, throughout the young history of modern science, well-accepted models contained deeply divergent philosophical implications.  The danger of misusing science as a means to bolster otherwise philosophically painful stances, while arguably based on "bad science" and not applicable here, looms with such brilliant awfulness that it casts a shadow on the conversation as well.

Enter Sam Harris:

My knee-jerk reaction, due to how he framed the whole conversation, was to be incredibly pissed.  I have not read his book, and perhaps if I did I would understand his position better.  I also toned down my pissed when I watched the talk again, and tried to give him the benefit of careful listening.  The reason for the initial pissed-ness?  I routinely teach my students that science is not prescriptive, but descriptive - I mean, I feel so strongly about it that I would be likely to blog about it. (Ha.)  I see this distinction as a way to ease some of the anti-science sentiment creeping into American culture and politics - and I wasn't keen on Sam Harris making it more difficult when I attempt to explain that science is apart from what "ought" to be the case, how someone "ought" to act, that evolutionary theory was not responsible for the well as, making me a liar every time I asserted that atheists do not use science as a religion.

Science cannot tell you that it is good to attempt to reduce suffering or that it is wrong to take away the autonomy of others or that genocide is wrong.  It can't do that.  It can't tell you if forcing women to cover is wrong, or if banning burqas is justified, or if allowing women to run around naked without fear of societal condemnation is awesome.  Can we use scientific methods to attempt to figure out what the psychological or sociological effects of various attitudes, actions and policies are?  Sure - and it appears that Sam Harris actually stops there, but that isn't science telling us anything about moral decisions, it's just science helping us gather information.

Can it tell you how to weigh that information, such as balancing the well-being of the majority and the few?  Can the fact that scientific methods are used assure the applicability of those results to all situations and to all people for all time?


To assume that specific scientific principles are "true" for sake of argument or for the creation of theory based on those assumptions - with full understanding of the limitations of science - can be pretty fruitful, I realize.  Without the "thought-experiments" Einstein is well-known for, we may not understand the universe as well as we currently do.  I get it.  Certainly, the original over-heard conversation between a couple students and a college philosophy professor was in that category.  It might seem a bit alien to me, a little strange, but I do not maintain a stance against it.

In contrast, to pretend that science can give you answers when it simply can' not good.  How did I decide that it wasn't "good"?  Trust me, I didn't use the scientific method and I am not currently devising an experiment to test my hypothesis concerning the "wrongness" of it and expecting my data collection and analysis to either support or falsify that "wrongness".

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Virgin post

I just started this blog up and I'm not sure how it is going to shape up.  My usual discussions on the internet involve talking to anti-vaccine advocates, climate change deniers, creation science supporters, and anti-queer fascists - for fun.

That does get a bit old though, and I'm just too lazy and busy to be a really good skeptic.  Being a really good skeptic involves doing real research about real things, and having an evidence throw-down.  There are a few subjects I am talented with, but others are more talented then I.  I wouldn't want this blog to become a list of links, however wonderful those links are.

Ideologies are easy to talk about, because you don't need evidence - you need your convictions and the ability to make logical arguments based on agreed upon premises (in theory).  This is more fun.  I'm not great at this either, but it may make for good theater.

So, I'm trying to figure out if I have anything uniquely interesting to contribute.  I suspect this may simply become a pot for angry rants.  I dare not share too much personal experience, but I'm sure I will find a voice.  I usually do.