Laden on Evolutionary Psychology

Greg Laden summarizes the evolutionary origins of human gender disparities.

I live with two females, and one of them is the only person in the house who can program the VCR. I can do it if I need to, but I threw out the directions and it will take me a while to figure out, and blood will be spilled and profanities uttered. Both of my female house mates are about as fixated on the remote as I am. They tend to be able to find it more easily than I can, because their ancestors were gatherers and finding the remote is roughly the same thing as finding nuts, berries, and most importantly, plant underground storage organs. I, on the other hand, descend from a long line of hunters, so I tend to hunt the remote. Hunting, as is well known, tends to yield a more inconsistent return. So most of the time I don’t find any remote at all, and now and then, I find three or four of them in one episode of searching.

I’m sure that a similar argument will soon be able to explain the different sizes of the male and female crockus. Clearly, the crockular region of the frontal lobe was once used to coordinate the swimming motions necessary when holding a child in the water, as per the aquatic ape hypothesis.

The Relativity of Wrong

Phil Plait points out a link to one of my favorite Asimov essays, “The Relativity of Wrong.” Like most of his essays, it begins with an anecdote: in this case, Asimov receives a letter from a fellow “majoring in English literature,” who took offense at Asimov’s implication in an earlier essay that people have made definite gains in understanding Nature.

The young specialist in English Lit, having quoted me, went on to lecture me severely on the fact that in every century people have thought they understood the universe at last, and in every century they were proved to be wrong. It follows that the one thing we can say about our modern “knowledge” is that it is wrong. The young man then quoted with approval what Socrates had said on learning that the Delphic oracle had proclaimed him the wisest man in Greece. “If I am the wisest man,” said Socrates, “it is because I alone know that I know nothing.” The implication was that I was very foolish because I was under the impression I knew a great deal.

My answer to him was, “John, when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”

Asimov goes on to defend this position. This is actually a short version of the essay which appeared in The Skeptical Inquirer; a longer one was published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and later became the title essay of the collection The Relativity of Wrong (1988). The introductory anecdotes of the essays in that book also tell how Asimov met Harold Urey and, many years later, F. Murray Abraham — so, even without the science content, it’s an interesting little book.

Great Moments in Duplicity

It’s late enough (the Boston sky is violet and orange outside my window) that I feel like posting these without much additional comment:

As this matter of faith is so much talked of, I have to reply that we accept it as useful for the multitude, and that we admittedly teach those who cannot abandon everything and pursue a study of rational argument to believe without thinking out their reasons.

— Origen (c. 185–c. 254), theologian and early Church Father
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Non-materialist Neuroscience

Trent Toulouse writes to say that RationalWiki has finished switching its service providers, so that it is once again available at I had previously pointed to their growing article on non-materialist neuroscience, the domain of Michael Egnor and Denyse O’Leary. The article is clearly a work in progress, but it’s already a good read.

I added some stuff on the abuse of quantum mechanics, too.

Salvinorin A Acts on k-Opioid Receptors

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchReally, that’s about the size of it (although I do get a small kick from writing about psychedelic drugs immediately after wallowing in cultural heresies like multilingualism).

Salvia divinorum, which is scientist’s Latin for “diviner’s sage,” is a smokable plant which induces powerful but relatively short-lasting hallucinations. The main active ingredient, salvinorin A, acts on a class of nerve-cell input devices known as “κ-opioid receptors.” It’s a κ-opioid agonist, which is the opposite of antagonist — inducing activity, rather than suppressing it. Folks in the know had hypothesized that salvinorin A acted on the κ-opioid receptors, but Catherine B. Willmore-Fordham of Ohio Northern University and her colleagues were recently able to prove it. Of course, they had to work with rats, instead of people.

The paper, damnably, is locked behind a subscription wall, because Neuropharmacology is an Elsevier journal. (You did hear that Elsevier publishes a journal called Homeopathy, didn’t you? I guess they had to make up for the lost profits of not running arms fairs anymore.) Still, ye olde trusty webloggers will come through in a pinch:
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Cultural Heresies

Dennis Preston quotes a column in State News, official student newspaper of Michigan State University:

Leftists have tried fervently since the 1960s to subvert American culture by promoting cultural heresies, which really only amount to a form of subversion. These cultural heresies include but are not limited to: Radical feminism, sexual deviancy, multilingualism and atheism.

Woot woot! Ding ding ding! We have a winner! I’d like to present this ceremonial, platinum-plated wingnut to Nate Sherman, “State News columnist and a member of MSU College Republicans and Young Americans for Freedom.” For his next trick, maybe he’ll accuse those subversive Leftists of eating sushi!
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Stuart Pivar: Man and Myth

First, an announcement: Brent Rasmussen has the sixty-ninth Skeptic’s Circle up at his place. Rasmussen taps into that deeply American mythos, the aquifer of imagery which we specialists call “the Western.” Science After Sunclipse is represented by my two entries on Stuart Pivar, the hapless businessman who wrote a silly book, tried to sue the professor who gave it a scathing review and earned the moniker “classic crackpot,” bestowed upon him by an unsympathetic Internet.

In and of itself, that sounds like a nice legend too, doesn’t it? “Businessman versus blogger,” a hero tale for the Wild West Web.

But myths have their underside, and the closer we poke at a myth, the more interesting the telling becomes. The story of Cain and Abel might be an adaptation of a Sumerian fable; all that business about Cain finding a wife and needing a mark to protect him from the other people — what other people, if his was the only family on Earth? — may be the residue of a polytheistic age, when Yahweh was only supreme thunder-bringer of one patch of land, and Genesis was the origin story of his people alone. (In ancient Ugarit, Yahweh was the son of Elyon, the Most High.)

And what of our modern story? The clash between Pivar and PZ Myers is such the perfect Slashdot item; could there be more to it than that?
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Math in the Movies

I’ve been running around this weekend doing important things like appearing in a musical comedy — 22, in which the terrorist threat involves an Infinite Improbability Drive — so thanks for not breaking the Internet whilst I was away! I notice that Mollishka has raised the topic of science and math in the movies, which sounds like a nice way to ease everybody back into the work-week.

Several years ago, I was visiting a friend in a mental institution. (See? Your first story of the week is shaping up just great!) In fact, she was a resident of McLean Hospital, whose wards have housed such notables as John Nash, James Taylor and Sylvia Plath (and oddly enough, I’ve seen the first two of those notables, live). My friends and I had driven out to Belmont to visit our colleague, and while we were chatting in the dining area, another resident of that hall poked into the conversation. He was of average height, but wiry, and spoke as if drawing upon deep reservoirs of energy; he had been placed in McLean by his family, he said, and he let loose a shrill cascade of invective upon the orderlies who eventually took him away.

Before he was hauled back to his room, he got to talking about Darren Aronofsky movies. At the time, those were Pi (1998) and Requiem for a Dream (2000). I’m grateful to him for providing a calibration mark by which I can judge those movies, for in the interval before the orderlies carried him away, he told us that Aronofsky was going to be making more movies, and — children, cover your eyes —
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The Pew Survey, in a Soundbite

I just noticed that the Columbia Journalism Review‘s blog picked up the story about the Pew survey on religious voting habits. The conclusion:

The survey concludes that religion is “not always the most important factor, but one important factor” for voters. This statement is about as mushy as they come, and if you ignore the headline and read to the end of the AP article, you pretty much arrive at the same place—nowhere.