Monday, November 17, 2008

Why Believers Kick Atheist Ass at Scrabble

Here's a fascinating possibility: that people with religious beliefs are better at pattern-matching than those without.

The empirical findings are out of the Netherlands (popsci summary here), and are phrased much more conservatively: when presented with visual stimuli containing two levels of resolution (for example, a big square consisting of a bunch of little rectangles) "Calvinists showed a smaller, but still significant, … global precedence effect than Atheists". (Basically, they were quicker to recognize the local pattern within the global one.) Like all good scientists, the authors brim with caveats and qualifiers: does religion shape perception, or merely attract those with certain perceptual inclinations? Is this a hallmark of religious belief generally, or merely a feature of the Calvinist eyes-on-the-ground credo of "mind your own business"? The authors defend their choice of religious group on the reasonable grounds that in a country as small as the Netherlands, there just aren't any other religious groups for whom extraneous variables are comparable; the Catholics mingle too much with the Belgians and the Germans to assume a common cultural context, and Jim Jones' followers never had a significant Dutch component even before they were all dead. Follow-up international studies, encompassing other religious groups, are currently in the planning stages. In the meantime, Colzato et al admit to being worried about the implications of this whole religion-affects-perception thing:
…it seems possible that religious beliefs may indeed lead to different and sometimes discrepant and incompatible interpretations of the same incident. That this can happen is a well-known empirical fact but that it can originate in basic automatic visual operations that precede conscious representation is surprising and in some sense worrying — as it seems to work against the scientific ideal that careful observation is sufficient to reach agreements about basic facts and what we consider reality.
But here's the thing. The study focused on whether or not Calvinists had a different "global precedence" effect than atheists, and they pretty much confined their analysis to that question. But I'm not writing for a peer-reviewed journal here1, so I can wander a bit further afield: and if you actually look at the data they present, Calvinists are faster on the draw than atheists on both local and global levels; and their error rate is lower, too:

So I say, screw this global/local bullshit. The take-home message I'm reading here is that Calvinists are just better at pattern-matching than atheists, period. And I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that when Colzato et al get around to testing other religious groups, they'll find the same pattern: I think they'll find that ass-hamster fans of any stripe will be better pattern-matchers than us heathens.

You shouldn't be surprised by this; we've talked about it before. A few weeks back — during my recent infamous dissection of fear, religion, and the Republican Right —I cited a couple of sources describing the increased tendency among believers to see patterns and connections in random visual static, to attribute Agency and Cause where none exists. And over a year ago I mused about lateral specialization in our cerebral hemispheres, how one half of the brain seems to look for patterns while the other is more pragmatic. I even raised the possibility that one might deliberately crank up the pattern-matching modules (while giving the pragmatic ones veto power) so that one day we might actually derive legitimate scientific insights from religious rapture.

So these Netherlandian findings give me hope. At the very least, they give me a legitimate peer-reviewed title to stick in Dumbspeech's appendix — because it is this exact process which inspires the religious group that figures front-and-center in that book (the Bicameral Order by name, " a bastard Jainist sect with one foot in ancient India and the other in the splice-and-dice frankenworks of late-21rst-century neuroscience").

So today is a day to celebrate my shrewd insight, eyesight, and foresight into the future of the Human experience. And also to mention, apropos of nothing in particular, that the Dresden Dolls in general and Amanda Palmer in particular absofuckinglutely rock my world.

1 Well, not that you lot don't review it to within an inch of its life, of course. Just that your reviews can't stop me from posting

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Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Understanding Sarah Palin: Or, God Is In The Wattles

Here's a question for you. Why hasn't natural selection driven the religious right to extinction?

You should forgive me for asking. After all, here is a group of people who base their lives on patently absurd superstitions that fly in the face of empirical evidence. It's as if I suddenly chose to believe that I could walk off the edges of cliffs with impunity; you would not expect me to live very long. You would expect me to leave few if any offspring. You would expect me to get weeded out.

And yet, this obnoxious coterie of retards — people openly and explicitly contemptuous of "intellectuals" and "evilutionists" and, you know, anyone who actually spends their time learning stuff — they not only refuse to die, they appear to rule the world. Some Alaskan airhead who can't even fake the name of a newspaper, who can't seem to say anything without getting it wrong, who bald-facedly states in a formal debate setting that she's not even going to try to answer questions she finds unpalatable (or she would state as much, if she could say "unpalatable" without tripping over her own tongue) — this person, this behavior, is regarded as successful even by her detractors. The primary reason for her popularity amongst the all-powerful "low-information voters"1? In-your-face religious fundamentalism and an eye tic that would make a Tourette's victim blush.

You might suggest that my analogy is a bit loopy: young-earth creationism may fly in the face of reason, but it hardly has as much immediate survival relevance as my own delusory immunity to gravity. I would disagree. The Christian Church has been an anvil around the neck of scientific progress for centuries. It took the Catholics four hundred years to apologize to Galileo; a hundred fifty for an Anglican middle-management type to admit that they might owe one to Darwin too (although his betters immediately slapped him down for it). Even today, we fight an endless series of skirmishes with fundamentalists who keep trying to sneak creationism in through the back door of science classes across the continent. (I'm given to understand that Islamic fundies are doing pretty much the same thing in Europe.) More people in the US believe in angels than in natural selection. And has anyone not noticed that religious fundamentalists also tend to be climate-change deniers?

Surely, any cancer that attacks the very intellect of a society would put the society itself at a competitive disadvantage. Surely, tribes founded on secular empiricism would develop better technology, better medicines, better hands-on understanding of The Way Things Work, than tribes gripped by primeval cloud-worshipping superstition2. Why, then, are there so few social systems based on empiricism, and why are god-grovellers so powerful across the globe? Why do the Olympians keep getting their asses handed to them by a bunch of intellectual paraplegics?

The great thing about science is, it can even answer ugly questions like this. And a lot of pieces have been falling into place lately. Many of them have to do with the brain's fundamental role as a pattern-matcher.

Let's start with this study here, in the latest issue of Science. It turns out that the less control people feel they have over their lives, the more likely they are to perceive images in random visual static; the more likely they are to see connections and conspiracies in unrelated events. The more powerless you feel, the more likely you'll see faces in the clouds. (Belief in astrology also goes up during times of social stress.)

Some of you may remember that I speculated along such lines back during my rant against that evangelical abortion that Francis Collins wrote while pretending to be a scientist; but thanks to Jennifer Whitson and her buddies, speculation resolves into fact. Obama was dead on the mark when he said that people cling to religion and guns during hard times. The one arises from loss of control, and the other from an attempt to get some back.

Leaving Lepidoptera (please don't touch the displays, little boy, heh heh heh— Oh, cute...) — moving to the next aisle, we have Arachnida, the spiders. And according to findings reported by Douglas Oxley and his colleagues (supplemental material here), right-wingers are significantly more scared of these furry little arthropods than left-wingers tend to be: at least, conservatives show stronger stress responses than liberals to "threatening" pictures of large spiders perched on human faces.

It's not a one-off effect, either. Measured in terms of blink amplitude and skin conductance, the strongest stress responses to a variety of threat stimuli occurred among folks who "favor defense spending, capital punishment, patriotism, and the Iraq War". In contrast, those who "support foreign aid, liberal immigration policies, pacifism, and gun control" tended to be pretty laid-back when confronted with the same stimuli. Oxley et al close off the piece by speculating that differences in political leanings may result from differences in the way the amygdala is wired— and that said wiring, in turn, has a genetic component. The implication is that right-wing/left-wing beliefs may to some extent be hardwired, making them relatively immune to the rules of evidence and reasoned debate. (Again, this is pure speculation. The experiments didn't extend into genetics. But it would explain a lot.)

One cool thing about the aforementioned studies is that they have relatively low sample sizes, both in two-digit range. Any pattern that shows statistical significance in a small sample has got to be pretty damn strong; both of these are.

Now let's go back a ways, to a Cornell Study from 1999 called "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". It's a depressing study, with depressing findings:
  • People tend to overestimate their own smarts.
  • Stupid people tend to overestimate their smarts more than the truly smart do.
  • Smart people tend to assume that everyone else is as smart as they are; they honestly can't understand why dumber people just don't "get it", because it doesn't occur to them that those people actually are dumb.
  • Stupid people, in contrast, tend to not only regard themselves as smarter than everyone else, they tend to regard truly smart people as especially stupid. This holds true even when these people are shown empirical proof that they are less competent than those they deride.
So. The story so far:
  1. People perceive nonexistent patterns, meanings, and connections in random data when they are stressed, scared, and generally feel a loss of control in their own lives.
  2. Right-wing people are more easily scared/stressed than left-wing people. They are also more likely to cleave to authority figures and protectionist policies. There may be a genetic component to this.
  3. The dumber you are, the less likely you'll be able to recognize your own stupidity, and the lower will be your opinion of people who are smarter than you (even while those people keep treating you as though you are just as smart as they are)
Therefore (I would argue) the so-called "right wing" is especially predisposed to believe in moralizing, authoritarian Invisible Friends. And the dumber individuals (of any stripe) are, the more immune they are to reason. Note that, to paraphrase John Stuart Mill, I am not saying that conservatives are stupid (I myself know some very smart conservatives), but that stupid people tend to be conservative. Whole other thing.

So what we have, so far, is a biological mechanism for the prevalence of religious superstition in right-wing populations. What we need now is a reason why such populations tend to be so damn successful, given the obvious shortcomings of superstition as opposed to empiricism.

Which brings us to Norenzayan and Shariff's review paper in last week's Science on "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality". To get us in the mood they remind us of several previous studies, a couple of which I may have mentioned here before (at least, I mentioned them somewhere — if they're on the 'crawl, I evidently failed to attach the appropriate "ass-hamsters" tag). For example, it turns out that people are less likely to cheat on an assigned task if the lab tech lets slip that the ghost of a girl who was murdered in this very building was sighted down the hall the other day.

That's right. Plant the thought that some ghost might be watching you, and you become more trustworthy. Even sticking a picture of a pair of eyes on the wall reduces the incidence of cheating, even though no one would consciously mistake a drawing of eyes for the real thing. Merely planting the idea of surveillance seems to be enough to improve one's behavior. (I would also remind you of an earlier crawl entry reporting that so-called "altruistic" acts in our society tend to occur mainly when someone else is watching, although N&S don't cite that study in their review.)

There's also the recent nugget from which this figure was cadged:
This study found not only that religious communes last longer than secular ones, but that even among religious communes the ones that last longest are those with the most onerous, repressive, authoritarian rules.

And so on. Norenzayan and Shariff trot out study after study, addressing a variety of questions that may seem unrelated at first. If, as theorists suggest, human social groupings can only reach 150 members or so before they collapse or fragment from internal stress, why does the real world serve up so many groupings of greater size? (Turns out that the larger the size of a group, the more likely that its members believe in a moralizing, peeping-tom god.) Are religious people more likely than nonreligious ones to help out someone in distress? (Not so much.) What's the most common denominator tying together acts of charity by the religious? (Social optics. "Self-reported belief in God or self-reported religious devotion," the paper remarks wryly, "was not a reliable indicator of generous behavior in anonymous settings.") And why is it that religion seems especially prevalent in areas with chronic water and resource shortages?

It seems to come down to two things: surveillance and freeloading. The surveillance element is pretty self-evident. People engage in goodly behavior primarily to increase their own social status, to make themselves appear more valuable to observers. But by that same token, there's no point in being an upstanding citizen if there are no observers. In anonymous settings, you can cheat.

You can also cheat in nonanonymous settings, if your social group is large enough to get lost in. In small groups, everybody knows your name; if you put out your hand at dinner but couldn't be bothered hunting and gathering, if you sleep soundly at night and never stand guard at the perimeter, it soon becomes clear to everyone that you're a parasite. You'll get the shit kicked out of you, and be banished from the tribe. But as social groupings become larger you lose that everyone-knows-everyone safeguard. You can move from burb to burb, sponging and moving on before anyone gets wise—

unless the costs of joining that community in the first place are so bloody high that it just isn't worth the effort. This is where the onerous, old-testament social rituals come into play.

Norenzayan and Shariff propose that
"the cultural spread of religious prosociality may have promoted stable levels of cooperation in large groups, where reputational and reciprocity incentives are insufficient. If so, then reminders of God may not only reduce cheating, but may also increase generosity toward strangers as much as reminders of secular institutions promoting prosocial behavior."
And they cite their own data to support it. But they also admit that "professions of religious belief can be easily faked", so that
"evolutionary pressures must have favored costly religious commitment, such as ritual participation and various restrictions on behavior, diet, and life-style, that validates the sincerity of otherwise unobservable religious belief."
In other word, anyone can talk the talk. But if you're willing to give all your money to the church and your twelve-year-old daughter to the patriarch, dude, you're obviously one of us.

Truth in Advertising is actually a pretty common phenomenon in nature. Chicken wattles are a case in point; what the hell good are those things, anyway? What do they do? Turns out that they display information about a bird's health, in a relatively unfakeable way. The world is full of creatures who lie about their attributes. Bluegills spread their gill covers when facing off against a competitor; cats go all puffy and arch-backed when getting ready to tussle. Both behaviors serve to make the performer seem larger than he really is— they lie, in other words. Chicken wattles aren't like that; they more honestly reflect the internal state of the animal. It takes metabolic energy to keep them plump and colorful. A rooster loaded down with parasites is a sad thing to see, his wattles all pale and dilapidated; a female can see instantly what kind of shape he's in by looking at those telltales. You might look to the peacock's tail for another example3, or the red ass of a healthy baboon. (We humans have our own telltales— lips, breasts, ripped pecs and triceps— but you haven't been able to count on those ever since implants, steroids, and Revlon came down the pike.) "Religious signaling" appears to be another case in point. As Norenzayan and Shariff point out, "religious groups imposing more costly requirements have members who are more committed." Hence,
"Religious communes were found to outlast those motivated by secular ideologies, such as socialism. … religious communes imposed more than twice as many costly requirements (including food taboos and fasts, constraints on material possessions, marriage, sex, and communication with the outside world) than secular ones… Importantly for costly religious signaling, the number of costly requirements predicted religious commune longevity after the study controlled for population size and income and the year the commune was founded… Finally, religious ideology was no longer a predictor of commune longevity, once the number of costly requirements was statistically controlled, which suggests that the survival advantage of religious communes was due to the greater costly commitment of their members, rather than other aspects of religious ideology."
Reread that last line. It's not the ideology per sé that confers the advantage; it's the cost of the signal that matters. Once again, we strip away the curtain and God stands revealed as ecological energetics, writ in a fancy font.

These findings aren't carved in stone. A lot of the studies are correlational, the models are in their infancy, yadda yadda yadda. But the data are coming in thick and fast, and they point to a pretty plausible model:
  • Fear and stress result in loss of perceived control;
  • Loss of perceived control results in increased perception of nonexistent patterns (N&S again: "The tendency to detect agency in nature likely supplied the cognitive template that supports the pervasive belief in supernatural agents");
  • Those with right-wing political beliefs tend to scare more easily;
  • Authoritarian religious systems based on a snooping, surveillant God, with high membership costs and antipathy towards outsiders, are more cohesive, less invasible by cheaters, and longer-lived. They also tend to flourish in high-stress environments.
And there you have it. The Popular Power of Palin, explained. So the next question is

Now that we can explain the insanity, what are we going to do about it?

Coda 10/10/08: And as the tide turns, and the newsfeeds and Youtube videos pile up on my screen, the feature that distinguishes right from left seems ever-clearer: fear. See the angry mobs at Republican rallies. Listen to the shouts of terrorist and socialist and kill him! whenever Obama's name is mentioned. And just tonight, when even John McCain seemed to realise that things had gone too far, and tried to describe the hated enemy as "a decent man"— he was roundly booed by his own supporters.

How many times have the Dems had their asses handed to them by well-oiled Republican machinery? How many times have the Dems been shot down by the victorious forces of Nixons and Bushes? Were the Democrats ever this bloodthirsty in the face of defeat?

Oxley et al are really on to something. These people are fucking terrified.

Photo credit for Zombie Jesus: no clue. Someone just sent it to me.

1And isn't that a nice CNNism for "moron"? It might seem like a pretty thing veil to you lot, but then again, CNN isn't worried about alienating viewers with higher-than-room-temperature IQs.
2And to all you selfish-gene types out there, where you been? Group-selection is back in vogue this decade. Believe me, I was as surprised as you…
3Although we might be getting into "Handicap Principle" territory here, which is a related but different wattle of fish. I confess I'm not up on the latest trends in this area…

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Friday, December 21, 2007

The God-Shaped Hole

Previously, on No Moods, Ads, or Cutesy Fucking Icons...

Many religious people are idiots. My Dad's religious, but he's no idiot. There are some other smart religious people out there too. Maybe they're right and I'm wrong. But they can't be, because I'm a scientist and they're not! But real scientists have to allow for the possibility that they can be wrong about anything; otherwise they're just another breed of fundamentalist. Oh, look, here's a scientist called Francis Collins. He is much smarter, more prominent, and way better-paid than I ever was. He says I'm wrong. He says he has evidence for the existence of the Christian God. He uses many scientific-sounding words to convince me he might be on to something.

Teach me, Francis Collins, Director of the Human Genome Project, arch-nemesis of the evil Craig Venter! Show me the way!

Here it is. Dr. Francis Collins' Big Reveal. Actually, his Big Reveal was a personal epiphany he had while looking at a bunch of icicles; this is his Evidence That Demands A Verdict, and it is, wait for it:

The warm fuzzy feeling you get when you "Do The Right Thing".

Yup. That's it. A dopamine rush, elevated to the status of "The Moral Law". Universally extant in every Human culture, he says, and unique to Human culture as well. "Evolution will never explain The Moral Law and the Universal Search for God", he assures us, will never explain that uniquely, universally human urge to help those in need, even if they don't share our genes, even at our own expense. We are beyond evolution — for if the evolutionists were right, we'd never do anything except selfishly try to spread our own genes. Collins actually uses the word "scandal" to describe the way in which we "evolutionists" regard altruism.

He invokes C.S. Lewis's faux-adaptationist argument to induce God's existence from these warm fuzzies:

"Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Pedophiles feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as alter boys*. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."

After which Collins cuts in and asks "Why do we have a 'God-shaped vacuum' in our hearts unless it is meant to be filled?"

Where to start. (Beyond noting that while some sort of vacuum does seem to persist in one Francis Collins, it is unlikely to reside in his thorax...)

Let's start with a general observation. Collins' understanding of natural selection appears to be a woefully-ignorant caricature in which every organism always behaves optimally to promote its own fitness, and every instance in which this doesn't happen constitutes a failure of evolutionary theory calling out for Divine intervention. What he doesn't seem to understand (or perhaps, what he's hoping you won't) is that the whole basis of natural selection is variation. Organisms differ; some do better than others; the losers leave fewer offspring. Nature, in other words, is chock-full of creatures who do not selfishly spread their genes, who benefit others at their own expense. Conspecifics might call such organisms "unsuccessful competitors". Parasites would call them "hosts". Predators would call them "food". The Archdiocese calls them "parishioners".

Perhaps you're thinking that's a cheap shot; prey may not successfuly spread their genes, but that's not for want of trying. I would counter that the same could be said of all those good folks who turn the other cheek expecting a grand payoff in the Kingdom of Heaven. Either way, this Collins guy needs to be taught the basics — not just of biology, but of elementary logic. To claim that non-selfish acts contradict evolutionary theory is like claiming that blow jobs contradict the orgasm's role in reproduction.

But fine: he's talking about the knowing and voluntary sacrifice of one's own interests to benefit another. That's what he defines as uniquely human. Except it isn't. Empathy for nonrelatives, efforts expended to help others (even members of different species), have been documented in nonhuman primates and cetaceans. The concepts of fair play and justice don't seem to be uniquely human either. Contrary to Collins' claims, sociobiologists don't have any real trouble reconciling such actions with evolutionary processes; in fact, the neurochemistry underlying empathy is a pretty basic social-cohesion mechanism. And while Collins has a field day hauling out Oskar Schindler and Mother Theresa as examples of selfless service to a greater good, he's only cherry-picking one or two convenient outliers from a cloud of data. Readers of this obscure little newscrawl may remember that there is a data cloud, statistically quantifiable, and it shows that people tend to engage in risky heroics or acts of altruistic generosity primarily when it improves their chances of getting laid. (And don't bother pointing out that Mommy Theresa's chances of that were pretty much nil — we both know the basement circuitry works the same way regardless of motivational overlays. Besides, she was expecting a whole other kind of payoff, just as Schindler more likely than not feared some kind of payback.) You may also remember that this "Moral Law", such as it is, is inconsistent and often downright wrong, that the truly altruistic — those who'd unhesitatingly sacrifice two of their own children to save four of someone else's, for example — suffer from a specific and precise form of brain damage. The truly moral are those with lesions in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex; not, so far as I've heard, a "universal" aspect of the Human condition.

And that's not even getting into the self-sacrificing behaviour of those who have merely been tricked into furthering someone else's agenda. How many Christians would have marched in the Crusades, how many jihadists would have strapped bombs across their bellies, how many missionaries would have risked disease and death in darkest Africa if they'd actually believed that eternal damnation was waiting at the end of it? (Now that would be altruism.) Is Collins really so blind to the workings of his own religion that he can't tell the difference between true selflessness and the manipulation of selfish motives by parasites wielding imaginary payoffs?

Which leads to another, and mind-bogglingly obvious failing of Collins' argument: the ubiquity of the "Moral Law". His claim that we all share the same standards of right and wrong would, I expect, come as news to all those cultures throughout history who kept (and keep) slaves, who mutilate the genitals of their women, who regarded (and regard) foreign races, beliefs, and behaviours as things to be avoided at best and hammered into extinction at worst. The ongoing genocides of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries provide eloquent testimony to the ubiquity of Collins' Moral Law, and while he leaves himself a bit of wiggle room (we all have the Moral Law, you see, but some of us choose to ignore it), he cites nothing to justify the claim that this sense of right and wrong is universal beyond the one-two punch that a) he feels it and so do all his friends, and b) C.S. Lewis told him so. (In fact, reading The Language of God, you get the sense that Francis Collins has anointed himself C.S. Lewis's Official Corporeal Sock Puppet.)

For all his talk of agape and altruism, Collins may be the most profoundly self-centred human being I've read. The possibility that everyone doesn't feel just the way he does seems completely beyond his grasp.

The search for God? I'm a pretty introspective dude, and I can say with a high degree of confidence that I don't have anything like that gnawing away inside me. I recognise that many people do— but I also recognise that our brains are hardwired to see patterns even where none exist, to attribute agency even to purely indifferent phenomena. It's a small enough step from the "Theory of Mind" that allows us to suss out the agendas of the creatures and conspecifics we encounter day to day. So the very clouds can look angry to us, or benign; and who hasn't wanted to put a brick through that fucking laptop and its fucking Blue Screen of Death which always, malevolently, crashes your system when you're six hours from deadline and have forgotten to save?

Apply equal parts ignorance, pattern-matching, and the attribution of motives onto nature's canvas: angels and demons sprout like Spears sprogs behind every rock (much as they appeared to Collins in his frozen waterfall). But Collins doesn’t even admit that such neural circuitry exists, much less contemplate its potential relevance to human superstition. No mention at all of Persinger's work, or Ramachandran's. Not a word about the brain's God Module. And once again, no credit whatsoever to the guys with the mitres and crosses — not to mention the iron maidens in their basements — and the role they might have played in inculcating a sense of the divine into the culture (albeit granted, a form of the Divine that seems chronically in need of alms).

So Collins' central, most rigorous argument for a personal god — who created heaven and earth and made us and only us in his image — is that everybody shares the same sense of right and wrong (except they don't); that everybody seeks God (speak for yourself, buddy; I'm happy if I can just find a decent pint of Rickards); that Human beings are unique among all species in being altruistic and moral (except we're not); and that there's no other explanation but the God of Abraham for any of this (except there sure as shit is).

Let me repeat: this is his strongest argument.

It's not his only one, though. Collins commits numerous other sins, easily recognised by anyone with even a passing familiarity with the moves of flat-earthers and climate-change deniers and spin-doctors the world over. Statements initially introduced with all the right caveats ("If we accept the possibility of the supernatural, then it is possible that...") reappear later, unsubstantiated but nonetheless miraculously transmuted into statements of absolute fact (believers are "right to hold fast to the eternal truths of the Bible"). Legitimate objections to his positions (e.g., that religious beliefs are irrelevant to the study of Nature) are dismissed for no better reason than that Collins finds them unpalatable ("that doesn't resonate with most individuals' human experience", he writes). In the manner of fundies everywhere, and in the spirit of that book he holds most holy, he contradicts himself whenever it suits him. At one point he argues against the God-as-wishful-thinking model by pointing out that a product of wish-fulfillment would be cuddly and indulgent, not demanding and judgmental as the God of Abraham is wont to be. (Oddly, the prospect of an intimidating God invoked not for comfort, but as a way for folks in funny hats to exert control over credulous followers, never seems to occur to him.) But when facing off against those who'd claim that God scattered photons and fossils across heaven and earth to test our faith, he decides that a little wishful thinking is just fine: "Would God as the great deceiver be an entity anyone would want to worship?"

He rejects a naturalistic universe because after all, something had to kick-start the Big Bang (it couldn't have just booted itself, that would be silly) — then changes the rules to exempt his own model from the same criticism (oh, nothing had to create God, God just booted Himself). (As I would too, hard in my own ass, if I'd created a sentient being as wilfully stupid as Francis Collins). He hauls out the old atheism-is-faith-based-too chestnut, because after all, nobody can prove God doesn't exist, so if that's what you believe you're just taking it on blind faith, right? (Of course, nobody can prove that omnipotent purple hamsters aren't partying it up in the Pleiades either; I guess Collins must believe in those too, or he'd be just as blind as the creationists.)

He quotes Hawking's Brief History of Time out of context, in a way that portrays ol' Wheels as a believer; he makes no mention of Hawking's explicit denial of religious belief in the same book. He tries to tell us that creationism and Intelligent design are different things, and goes so far as to state as a scientist that the ID movement "deserves serious consideration" — evidently unaware that the IDiots got caught passing their creationist textbook through a global search-and-replace to turn every instance of the word "creationism" into "intelligent design", as a way to get around legal proscriptions against religion in science class.

I don't care if this guy did nail the gene for cystic fibrosis. If this book exemplifies his cognitive skills, I gotta wonder who he slept with to end up running the HGP.

Once, many years ago, Francis Collins claims he was an athiest. Maybe he still is, at heart. Maybe he's just lying through his teeth with this book. Maybe he's a player with an agenda, a guy who wanted to climb up the ranks and figured that atheism would keep him off the guest lists for all the best parties. I have no evidence of this, but I hope that's the case. I hope that he's merely an opportunist. I really do.

Because judging by this self-righteous, irrational, and contemptible book, the only other explanation that comes to mind is that Dr. Francis Collins is a fucking moron.

(edited for style 22/12/07)

*Okay, maybe Lewis didn't use this particular example. But you take my point. NAMBLA's gonna have a field day with this rationale; according to Francis Collins, God wants them to be pedophiles...

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Selfish Bastards, Every One

Now and then I've fielded questions — in interviews, private e-mails, maybe even here in the 'crawl — about my reductionist take on human nature. In particular, a lot of folks are not comfy with my dissing of altruism, which (if it ever does arise in a population) is likely to get weeded out real fast because Hey, who's going to leave more offspring to the next generation: the selfless doof who gives up his life jacket on the Titanic or the selfish bastard who takes it for himself?

Seems pretty straightforward to me, but it seems to give pause to a lot of folks (I even recently received an e-mail on the subject from the legendary Ted Chiang). What about Mothers who rescue their babies from burning buildings? some of the most egregiously out-clued might ask (A: Kin selection, dummies). What about people who willingly die for their countries or for their religious beliefs? (Yeah, and if Christ had said "Do unto others, turn the other cheek, walk the second mile and in the end you'll go to hell anyway", I'm sure the Christians would've just been lining up to go one-on-one with the lions.) What about people who just act out of the goodness of their hearts and help out those who are not so fortunate, even if they're athiests or unrelated to the beneficiary? (Ah, you mean reciprocal altruism. That's done in expectation of a payoff somewhere down the road— and remind me to scribble a post at some point reviewing what we do to people who accept our kind gestures and then don't reciprocate...)

Yeah, well, um— yeah, what about people who give to panhandlers, or volunteer for good causes even though there's no way some rubby or Malawian foster-child will ever be able to return the favour?


This last challenge never really shook my position much. I can rattle off "status enhancement/increased mating opportunities" as fast as the next guy. Still, I wasn't aware of any actual studies on humans that backed it up. But now there is one, courtesy of the niggardly cocksuckers at the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, who — despite my online access privileges as a postdoctoral fellow at a major academic institution — still want to charge me $30 before letting me see any more than the abstract. Screw that. Fortunately there's a layperson-friendly summary in The Economist. So here's the he-said/she-said version:

Men, like most male mammals, like to acquire resources. When they're not especially horny, they're as likely to go for furniture and big-screen TVs — i.e., major, nonportable items that remain in the home — as anything else. When they're horny, however, they'd rather buy bling and fast cars — flashy stuff they can take on the road to attract mates. Also, when in a horny mood, they're more likely to give publicly to panhandlers (also to indulge in risky/heroic behaviour). In other words, both conspicuous consumption and conspicuous generosity are just ways of attracting mates: hey baby, lookit me! I've got so much money I can just give it away!...

Women are no better. They aren't so much into resource acquisition as they are into volunteer work and do-gooding social causes — and once again, when they're not thinking about sex, they don't really care what kind of good they're doing. When horned up, however, women show a distinct preference for conspicuous do-gooding (working in a homeless shelter, for example), while shying away from other kinds (e.g., going off on their own and picking up garbage in a ravine).

So once again, behaviour that seems noble at first glance turns out to be stone self-serving upon closer examination: another brand of faux altruism that has far more in common with peacock's tails and wattles on chickens than with any spark of divine generosity. What's more, the nature of our displays breaks down along the same stereotypic r/K selection lines that have always (understandably) driven feminists up the wall because seriously, who really wants to believe that sex-is-destiny shit anyway?

Not that this should come as news to anyone. (Have any of the men in the audience ever been targeted by a street vendor with an armload of overpriced roses when they weren't in the company of a woman?) Still, it's nice to see actual data backing up the just-so story.

Now, anybody know of any cases of Human altruism that haven't been exposed as kin selection or sleazy get-laid strategies?

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Motherhood Issues

How many times have you heard new parents, their eyes bright with happy delerium (or perhaps just lack of sleep), insisting that you don't know what love is until you first lay eyes on your baby? How many of you have reunited with old university buddies who have grown up and spawned, only to find that mouths which once argued about hyperspace and acid rain can't seem to open now without veering into the realm of child-rearing? How many commercials have you seen that sell steel-belted radials by plunking a baby onto one? How many times has rational discourse been utterly short-circuited the moment someone cries "Please, someone think of the children!"? (I've noticed the aquarium industry is particularly fond of this latter strategy, whenever anyone suggests shutting down their captive whale displays.)

You know all this, of course. You know the wiring and the rationale behind it: the genes build us to protect the datastream. The only reason we exist is to replicate that information and keep it moving into the future. It's a drive as old as life itself. But here's the thing: rutting and reproduction are not the traits we choose to exhalt ourselves for. It's not sprogs, but spirit, that casts us in God's image. What separates us from the beasts of the field is our minds, our intellects. This, we insist, is what makes us truly human.

Which logically means that parents are less human than the rest of us.

Stick with me here. All of us are driven by brainstem imperatives. We are all compromised: none of us is a paragon of intellect or rationality. Still, some are more equal than others. There is a whole set of behavioral subroutines that never run until we've actually pupped, a whole series of sleeper programs that kick in on that fateful moment when we stare into our child's eyes for the first time, hear the weird Middle-eastern Dylan riffs whining in our ears, and realise that holy shit, we're Cylons.

That is the moment when everything changes. Our children become the most important thing in the world, the center of existence. We would save our own and let ten others die, if it came to that. The rational truth of the matter— that we have squeezed out one more large mammal in a population of 6.5 billion, which will in all likelihood accomplish nothing more than play video games, watch Inuit Idol, and live beyond its means until the ceiling crashes in— is something that simply doesn't compute. We look into those bright and greedy eyes and see a world-class athlete, or a Nobel Prize-winner, or the next figurehead of global faux-democracy delivered unto us by Diebold and Halliburton.

We do not see the reality, because seeing reality would compromise genetic imperatives. We become lesser intellects. The parental subroutines kick in and we lose large chunks of the very spark that, by our own lights, makes us human.

So why not recognise that with a new political movement? Call it the "Free Agent Party", and build its guiding principles along the sliding scale of intellectual impairment. Those shackled by addictions that skew the mind — whether pharmaceutically, religiously, or parentally induced — are treated the same way we treat those who have yet to reach the age of majority, and for pretty much the same reasons. Why do we deny driver's licences and voting priveleges to the young? Why do we ban drunks from the driver's seat? Because they are not ready. They are not competent to make reasonable decisions. Nobody questions this in today's society. So tell me, how are offspring addicts any different?

I'm thinking of adding such a political movement to the noisy (and slightly satirical) background of an upcoming novel, but the more I think of it, the more it strikes me as an idea whose time has come. It's a no-lose electoral platform as far as I can see.

Now go find me a campaign manager.

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