Alive, if Unwell

I'm home from my vacation and will be posting again soon. My thoughts on the Atheist Alliance International conference in Iceland will appear on the Brights forums shortly (hopefully), and then I'll get to work on summarising my America Experience (which will be friends-locked). At the moment, I'm mostly trying not to cough my lungs up.

Meanwhile, please check out Clone.Manga. The humouristic strips are some of the most offensive ones I've ever seen and obviously morbidly fascinating just because of that - just look at the story of poor Nana. However, the more serious work (Kanami, Penny Tribute, Paper Eleven) is beautifully drawn and the stories are fascinating, if violent.

The thing that makes me want to draw attention to the page at this moment is the author's ending two of the "humorous" series with a joke about 9-11. Predictably he got a load of hate mail as a reward, and his open response to that (just scroll beneath the top image) is absolutely wonderful. The hate mail he received for joking about 9-11 is symptomatic of much the same hypocrisy that makes me fret every time a natural catastrophy happens. Essentially, people seem to put various bad things on a scale of how upsetting they are, and this scale is in no way related to how horrible the events ACTUALLY are.

Just like people care more for the tsunami and Katrina victims than the people who die daily from starvation and AIDS, they are more likely to be offended if you joke about 9-11 than infanticide or the holocaust. And THAT offends ME.

May the 25th

Today was ascension day, a national holiday in secular Sweden. I took the liberty to celebrate a different fictional event. Thanks willocwen for the icon.

In memory of the revolution!

All the little angels ascend up to Heaven
All the little angels ascend up on high
Which end up?
Ascend up
Which end up?
Ascend up
All the little angels ascend up on high.
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Invasive Ants and Supercolonies

I wrote this a couple of months ago as part of a university course in Ethology. I have been meaning to post it ever since, however first I wanted to make a few revisions. There are some major problems with the essay that I had been meaning to fix before posting it here, but I simply haven't had the time. So here it is, largely unedited (albeit with a few changes that my teacher, who judged the essay "well written and scientifically mature", haven't seen). I have written a short glossary of terms at the end for the benefit of those with no education or special interest in biology. It's rather brief and incomplete though so feel free to ask about anything that's unclear.

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Cue Awe and Wonder

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Aren't they cute? Yes, yes they are. And looking at them now that they are mostly grown up, tweeting along witht their six or so younger siblings of various sizes and patterns, my father and I marvelled at the wonder of nature: Just a few weeks ago, we had been shining a flashlight through the eggs to determine whether they were fertilised. We had seen the embryos' dark shadows and the networks of blood vessels.

This is why I study biology.

Vacation -06

I am going to the US this summer. I have posted about this in a friends only entry, but I figure I could leave it open to anyone who stumbles across this journal to leave suggestions. I will arrive in New York in the beginning of June and will spend about five days there. I will fly home from San Fransisco at the end of June. The only places so far I know that I'm likely to visit is some place in Kentucky, and probably Los Angeles. And, quite possibly, Bryce Canyon in Utah.

Please throw any suggestions as to places I should visit - or avoid - my way.

Douglas Adams at Digital Biota 2

Sometimes when I need cheering up I read this speech that Douglas Adams made at Digital Biota 2 back in 1998. In it he spoke of the four ages of sand, how science has progressed throughout the ages. And about religion's unassailable ideas.

Now there are all sorts of entities we are also aware of, as well as particles, forces, tables, chairs, rocks and so on, that are almost invisible to science; almost invisible, because science has almost nothing to say about them whatsoever. I’m talking about dogs and cats and cows and each other. We living things are, so far, beyond the purview of anything science can actually say, almost beyond even recognising ourselves as things that science might be expected to have something to say about.

I can imagine Newton sitting down and working out his laws of motion and figuring out the way the Universe works and with him, a cat wandering around. The reason we had no idea how cats worked was because, since Newton, we had proceeded by the very simple principle that essentially, to see how things work, we took them apart. If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have in your hands is a non-working cat. Life is a level of complexity that almost lies outside our vision; is so far beyond anything we have any means of understanding that we just think of it as a different class of object, a different class of matter; ‘life’, something that had a mysterious essence about it, was god given—and that’s the only explanation we had. The bombshell comes in 1859 when Darwin publishes ‘On the Origin of Species’. It takes a long time before we really get to grips with this and begin to understand it, because not only does it seem incredible and thoroughly demeaning to us, but it’s yet another shock to our system to discover that not only are we not the centre of the Universe and we’re not made of anything, but we started out as some kind of slime and got to where we are via being a monkey. It just doesn’t read well.


Now, the invention of the scientific method and science is, I’m sure we’ll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and that it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked and if it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn’t withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn’t seem to work like that; it has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. That’s an idea we’re so familiar with, whether we subscribe to it or not, that it’s kind of odd to think what it actually means, because really what it means is ‘Here is an idea or a notion that you’re not allowed to say anything bad about; you’re just not. Why not? — because you’re not!’ If somebody votes for a party that you don’t agree with, you’re free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it, but on the other hand if somebody says ‘I mustn’t move a light switch on a Saturday’, you say, ‘Fine, I respect that’. The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking ‘Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?’ but I wouldn’t have thought ‘Maybe there’s somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics’ when I was making the other points. I just think ‘Fine, we have different opinions’. But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody’s (I’m going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say ‘No, we don’t attack that; that’s an irrational belief but no, we respect it’.

Marriage, Institutionalised Jealousy?

I'm currently (still) reading Why We Get Sick - The New Science of Darwinian Medicine by Randolph M. Nesse and George C. Williams. The book is some ten years old but still incredibly interesting, making many lucid points about how our bodies and minds work in the face of illness.

Not only dealing with infections, cancer and genetic disorders, they also bring up problems of modern life that may stem from our evolutionary origins, for instance our tendency to over-indulge in sugar and fat. What prompted me to write this post was something rather different, however.

In chapter 13, "Sex and Reproduction", the authors tackle the various differences in reproductive strategy between males and females, men and women; and how these differences may have shaped certain parts of society today. One of the most interesting points they make is one about jealousy.

Sexual jealousy is such a strong influence on human life that it is institutionalized and regulated by custom or formal law in almost all societies.

In short, women can always be certain that their children are their own, whereas men can't. While women also display jealousy (and a female has reason to do so, as an unfaithful mate may direct resources elsewhere than their own offspring, hence lowering the fitness of her genes), men consistently show stronger tendencies than women. In almost every society, it is men controlling women's sexuality and not the other way around. The authors list a variety of means people use, from the relatively mild western marriages, to the obscene customs of some cultures to circumcise females. (Although "circumcise", a word normally associated with removing some skin from a penis, completely fails to describe what is done to girls in these cultures: the clitoris is excised and the labia sewn shut.)

Nesse and Williams move on to make this point:

Many people seem to think that culture opposes such biological tendencies, but with jealousy, culture and the legal system exaggerate a biological tendency. People who think that laws should oppose our more destructive biological tendencies would presumably want to change the social system in ways that would discourage divorces based on infidelity.

Definitely food for thought, especially as people, even biologists, are fond of the notion that humans have somehow transcended evolution and their own biology.

ID and the Open-minded Mormon

As a faithful reader of Schlock Mercenary I tend to read creator Howard Tayler's open letters and blogs. Howard Tayler is a full-time cartoonist living in Orem, Utah with his wife and kids, and unsurprisingly, he's a Latter-Day Saint. If you've read Schlock you know there's not one sign of this in his comic - it is utterly secular. In fact, on occasion, he's even made mormon jokes.

I find this in itself rather impressive, as the impression I got when I visited Orem was hardly one of religious tolerance and openness. Mormons are quite friendly, of course, and formidable hosts, but it is part of their religion to be extremely missionary.

Recently in Tayler's blog there has been some discussion about the ID/Creationism vs Evolution debate raging in the US. Tayler sides with the evolutionists, having this to say about ID:

Intelligent Design is not science - not even BAD science - but it is bad religion.

Although he proceeds to halfway stumble into the "evolution is a theory, not a fact" fallacy, I still find this incredibly hopeful. Especially coupled with the link provided in a comment to this article in the Deseret News. Quote from the article:

The controversy over Darwin's work has come to a head in Utah this week as the Legislature debates a bill /.../ expected to come up before the entire Senate today or Friday, requires that public school science classes teach that not all scientists agree about the origins of life.
Although the bill makes no mention of intelligent design /.../ the Utah Office of Education and other critics argue that the bill leaves the door open for religious theory to be taught in science classes. And that, they argue, may violate a constitutional separation of church and state.

It proceeds to mention a recently published book by a physics and a biology professor titled Mormonism and Evolution: the Authoritative LDS Statements. The book contains a compilation of statements "made by or sanctioned by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from 1909 to 2004". Another memorable quote:

The Rev. Webster is one of 40 Utah clergy who have signed a national letter addressed to school boards across the country urging them to "preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth."

Hopeful? I think so. Utah is the last place where I'd have thought scientists could find support among religious leaders for keeping ID and creationism out of class rooms. I'm very happy to have been proven wrong.

Crossposted into the Brights forum.

Mirror Neurons and Autism

There's a very interesting article on mirror neurons featured on Edge's front page at the moment.

/.../ cells in the human anterior cingulate, which normally fire when you poke the patient with a needle ("pain neurons"), will also fire when the patient watches another patient being poked. The mirror neurons, it would seem, dissolve the barrier between self and others.

I found the following quote particularly intriguing:

/.../ autistic children lack the mirror neuron system and we pointed out that this deficit may help explain the very symptoms that are unique to autism: lack of empathy, theory of other minds, language skills, and imitation. Although initially contested, this discovery — of the neural basis of autism — has now been confirmed by several groups including our own /.../

This was mostly a side note, but it is the first time I have come across a statement about a physiological basis of autism. Unfortunately there is no link to an original article on the matter.