Field of Science

Are carnivals relevant?

Recently I have been thinking about the use of blog carnivals. Do they get read by enough people to be considered useful? Do the people who read them actually click through to blog posts they wouldn't have otherwise? Presumably people who read carnivals regularly read a number of blogs regularly, too. So does the carnival add anything for these readers? And what about people who aren't regular readers of featured blogs? Are there any? Do people who don't usually read about the subject matter learn about it through carnivals?

Read more at Carnival of Evolution.

Evolutionary psychology assumes a simple genotype-phenotype map

Satoshi Kanazawa on why older parents are almost twice as likely to have a daughter than a son:
Because both the quality of the eggs and the quality of the sperm decrease with age, it is tempting to explain the declining likelihood of having a son among older parents potentially in terms of such quality of gametes (although I’m not aware of any argument that suggests that lower-quality gametes are more likely to produce girls). However, such explanations, even when correct, are proximate, not ultimate. They answer the question of how; they don’t answer the question of why. The lower quality of gametes, if it indeed lowers the probability of producing boys, is the mechanism that evolution employs to make sure that older parents are more likely to have daughters. But such a proximate mechanism does not explain why evolution “wanted” to make sure that older parents are more likely to have daughters, in other words, why it is adaptive for older parents to have daughters, not sons. That requires an ultimate evolutionary explanation.
The adaptive explanation is given as a necessity. Yes, proximal and ultimate explanations aren't the same thing, but the point here is that there need not be an evolutionary reason. Being more likely to have girls when above 40 does not need to be adaptive, as assumed by Kanazawa. This very assumption, however, is the very livelihood of working evolutionary psychologists.

Here's Kanazawa's proposition:
Being orphaned young is bad both for boys and girls, but it’s much worse for boys than for girls.
Sure, I'll bite. That is a great explanation right there, but in order to work with this hypothesis, it helps (though isn't strictly necessary) to further assume that there is enough variation for selection to act on. For example, it would without a doubt be great for humans if they had evolved flight to better escape predators back in the day, but also without a doubt selection couldn't select for flying humans because no children were ever born with this ability (or even anything that comes close).

In terms of genotype-phenotype maps (the relationship between a given genotype and the phenotype it codes for), it is not easy to reconfigure the genome so that humans are born with rudimentary wings. Some things are more likely to evolve than other, simply because they can occur at all - and wings aren't so likely (though not impossible). Genetic constraints make some things more likely to appear, and for selection to act on - or not. As with the observation that older parents are more likely to have daughters, which may stem from genetic constraints which make it less likely to make sperm with Y-chromosomes, for example. So, even if there is no advantage for older parents to have daughters, it could still be that way without it being selected for. Having more daughters could be a neutral trait.

But that's no fun. It does not make for a newsworthy story, so people in that business are more apt to assume that selection did it. But it really lacks scientific rigor.

A.C. Grayling's Bible

A.C. Grayling et al. is just out with The Good Book: A Humanist Bible (Amazon). It's a book supposed to replace the Bible, for those who need someone else to guide them through life. Judging by how many needs the real Bible to tell them how to behave, perhaps many ought to read this one.

Or perhaps not, because after all, even those who claim to get their morals from the Bible really don't. The Ten Commandments and other guidelines say nothing of many of the moral dilemmas we often find ourselves in (human cloning), are unfailingly broken by Christians (covet not your neighbors possessions would be the very fabric of how capitalism works), contain lots of parables of supposedly good men who behave in utmost appalling manner (giving your wife and daughter to a mob so that they may "know them"), and all of the horrifying acts perpetrated on innocents by God himself (plagues on the people of Egypt, despite only the Pharao refused to let his people go). Also, shellfish are not an abomination.

It is an often repeated canard that we get our morals from the Bible or from God. We all (more or less) come equipped with a sense of morality that tells us how to behave, and this sense of morality comes from our evolutionary history. Empirically, many other primates have been shown to possess morality, from which we can infer that it is not something unique to humans or to the religious. Theoretically, we have a very good understanding of why individuals should behave altruistically towards others. It is no mystery why we don't go around stealing and killing, and it is not solely because the law says so. Rather, the law says so because we all (mostly) think so. There is no law against eating shellfish - my guess it's that in the Bible because the author thought they were nasty.

Grayling offer these ten to replace the original ten.

The secular humanist version of the Ten Commandments:
  1. Love well
  2. Seek the good in all things
  3. Harm no others
  4. Think for yourself
  5. Take responsibility
  6. Respect nature
  7. Do your utmost
  8. Be informed
  9. Be kind
  10. Be courageous
And who can disagree with those? Really, tell me if you do.

Personally, I go by George Carlin's ten two commandments. Watch:

Simona drums on after four engagements and two marriages

[I just read this fascinating story about a Muslim girl growing up in Denmark in Politiken (Danish newspaper). Here's a translation, with apologies.]

Written by Ditte Giese, published online on Politiken April 7, 2011.

Politiken just asked me to removed the translation due to copyrights. I'll ask if they will allow me to put it back up with proper acknowledgments.

Update 4/8:
Yeah! They allowed me to post it - for a fee of 750 Danish kroner (~$150). I think they should be paying me.

So, instead here's a great quote from this excellent article. You can read the rest here in Danish, or run the whole thing through Google Translate here.
Already when she was 15 years the young men began to propose. Flirting is totally banned in that environment, so we meet each other at weddings and engagement parties.

We do not talk at all, but maybe steal a few looks at each other. Or a man could have seen her standing on the balcony and then decided to propose. Simona Abdallah is trying to explain the peculiar process, while laughing at it:

"First our mothers call each other. Then his mother comes for coffee and ask for my hand on her son's behalf. Then the bridegroom and his family comes for coffee, and I would then run around looking good with red cheeks while serving them, and maybe even look him in the eyes to see if there is a... connection, right? And I have to constantly clean and show that my mother has raised me well. "

"You usually have two weeks to think about it. One must NEVER say yes immediately, but should play hard to get. Finally my father asks if I want him. And then I try to assess from what others have said about him and that one time we saw each other. If I accept the negotiations begin'.
Pretty grim outlook for girls raised in such families, I think. Congratz to Simona for breaking free of such narrow-mindedness.

No book is worth even one life

This morning I heard people arguing on NPR that, yes, the killing of 12 UN officials by an Afghan mob is horrible, but must be seen int he light of Pastor Terry Jones burning the Qur'an. Then I got angry.

12 UN officials lost their lives because of a book burning they had nothing to do with. I must take the book burning into consideration because... what? Because that's the kind of reverence we have for scripture? Fuck off!

Quoting PZ Myers, who says it right:
Don't even try to pull out a scale and toss a copy of the Koran on one side and the life of a single human being on the other — the comparison is obscene. Do not try to tell me that some people are 'moderates' when they tolerate or even support and applaud war and death and murder for any cause, whether it is oil, or getting even, or defending the honor of wood pulp and ink.
Pastor Terry Jones is an idiot. A big one. The Afghan mob that killed 12 people have blood on their hands, and that is just much, much worse.

I was not in favor of starting a war in Afghanistan because of terrorists attacking the US. I am in favor of getting out of Afghanistan today.

34th Carnival of Evolution

Just up at Quintessence of Dust.

Get your arsenic-based Sea Monkey kit

Just today I hear of the fruits of the NASA big-deal research on arsenic-based lifeforms: Monkeys. In the sea. Of Arsenic.

You can buy them right here.


The Cuttlefish

Oooh... PZ is Cuttlefish! Now that is a surprise, for once. Even if he reveals it today of all days, he still has me convinced.

That he is leaving ScienceBlogs: not as convincing.

Update 4/2:
Aaah... PZ is not Cuttlefish. He got me, and I think many others. Good one.

No more blogging for me

Yep, that's right. As of today I am giving up blogging.

I could tell you that doing a postdoc is both far more interesting than blogging and far more time consuming than merely working towards getting a PhD. But that would be lying. Those are both true, but that still isn't enough reason to quit blogging.

Rather than wasting a lot of time explaining the real reasons (something that I believe we humans don't really do very well in the first place, when it comes to explaining our own behavior), here's a list that may or may not include some or all of the factors that today has led me to make this hard choice:
  • Blogging doesn't pay enough (so far I've earned a meager $37.28 through Google's Adsense).
  • People don't comment enough, which makes me think no one cares what I write.
  • I only have 58 followers on Blogger, and a paltry 120 subscriptions on Google Reader.
  • Blogging is hard. It requires that I read about evolution and other things of interest (which I abhor).
  • No other rewards have come of it (unlike PZ Myers who gets invited to give talks at meeting solely because he blogs).
  • No matter what I write, it seems someone else have or will say it better.
  • People don't stop me in the middle of the street and ask me if I'm not the writer of that cool blog Pleiotropy (they do it at the end of the street).
  • My wroting, hasnt became any better since begon blogging, so whatz teh point reallly!!! :[
And there you have it. So bye. Go find your daily fix somewhere else.

I'm done.


P.S. And that Carnival of Evolution can suck it, too!

Update: April 1st:
One click today and Adsense pays me two dollars!