New England Journal of Medicine Peddles Kitty Woo

26 07 2007

In the latest edition of the New England Journal of Medicine, out today, there is a new “Perspective Article” entitled “A Day in the Life of Oscar the Cat.” It is clearly a puff piece, describing how a resident cat named Oscar at Steere House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Providence, Rhode Island curls up to patients that only have a few hours to live. The tone of the article is a bit more mystic however, suggesting that Oscar sniffs the air in order to figure out when someone’s “time” is, acting like a feline Grim Reaper (although to the best of my understanding Death does not purr and nuzzle those about to die, despite his well-known fondness of cats).

Still, the fact remains that this particular cat has attended 25 people who died shortly after Oscar curled up to them, and the cat generally ignores other people. This has led Yahoo! to put the story “Oscar the cat predicts patients’ deaths” on the front page, referring to the NEJM article as if it were some kind of new paper or research. The only real rationality in the Yahoo! story is found in this quote;

Nicholas Dodman, who directs an animal behavioral clinic at the Tufts University Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and has read Dosa’s article, said the only way to know is to carefully document how Oscar divides his time between the living and dying.

If Oscar really is a furry grim reaper, it’s also possible his behavior could be driven by self-centered pleasures like a heated blanket placed on a dying person, Dodman said.

Still, I’m sure plenty of people will latch on to the story as proof of psychic connections with animals, ESP, and other woo despite the fact that an observation has been made but no actual research has been done. I’m not even sure if there have been any studies about how animals react towards the sick or dying, although there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that pets can pick up on signs that we may miss (my parents’ dog knew my mother was pregnant with me before she did, at least that’s how the story goes). Hopefully someone will have a look at this case and determine what is actually going on, but I have the feeling that even if such a study was undertaken many people would ignore it in preference of ideas about special connections with animals.

Update the 1st: Aydin brings up something I didn’t think about at first; maybe Oscar’s actions are a variation on those of Clever Hans the horse. For more, visit Snails Tales.

Likewise, Julia pointed me to a BBC article where it states that Oscar becomes quite upset if he’s removed from the room. This is likely an important clue, and (as morbid as it sounds) maybe there is some sort of chemical/pheromone/scent or something else about the dying that attracts this cat. It would explain the behavior of selecting and being affectionate with those who are about to pass away. Hopefully someone will look into this, and I’d love to see if a reason could be found for Oscar’s behavior.

Strange ending to Strange Creations

20 07 2007

I finished Kossy’s Strange Creations last night, reading the book to my wife as she practiced her knitting, and I have to say that I was not very impressed. While the book is informative (it contained some lesser known-creationist tracts and odd beliefs about human origins I had not heard previously), Kossy seems to give a bit too much credit to kooks and crackpots. It’s almost as if she tried to be objective, but her opinions on certain hypotheses and nutty claims (especially in the sections on creationism [against] and the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis [slightly pro]) clearly come through. The last section of the last chapter dealing with the Heaven’s Gate Cult even ends with a call towards respect for the beliefs of “Bo” and “Peep” (the leaders of the group) and those who committed suicide because they wanted to ascend in a UFO to Heaven, their actions spurred on by the coming of the Hale Bopp comet in 1997.

Kossy’s general appeal is that we’re all looking, in one way or another, for spiritual fulfillment (or, in evangelical parlance, the “God-Shaped Hole” argument, is vulnerable to plenty of dirty jokes), so who is she to judge what someone else believes? What is they were right and are in heaven right now? While Kossy describes herself as a skeptic, the book shows that she does have some fair New Age leanings, and she is far more critical of traditional religious beliefs than crystal power or alien breeding experiments. If Kossy wanted to give her opinion on matters, she should have been forthright and stated what she thought, although such a book might have been very different. She does admit that she became enamored with the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis early on as well, and while she does present criticism against it, she frames it as more of a promising “theory” that just needs more evidence, evidence which I don’t believe exists.

Anyway, the book, as a whole, is a fair index of weird claims and oddball beliefs, and is probably best utilized as such (it’s not written in a way that’s especially friendly to reading it straight through). If you’re looking for some examples of strange origins for humans, then you’ll likely find a fair resource, but otherwise I’d say avoid the woo and read The Demon-Haunted World instead.

Kinky Alien – Ape Sex

19 07 2007

There are lots of crackpot beliefs and ideas in the minds of people the world over. Some believe that Jesus really traveled to India, where his body rests in a tomb. Others believe that Gigantoraptor was really a magical bird called a “Fandor” that carried Adam and Eve around the Garden of Eden. Some of the most surprising and strange beliefs, though, have to do with the origin of our own species, Homo sapiens.

In the first chapter of Strange Creations: Aberrant Ideas of Human Origins from Ancient Astronauts to Aquatic Apes, Donna Kossy reviews many of the strange New Age/Gnostic/pesudo-religious/UFO-obsessed hypotheses that have been invoked to explain how humans came to be, some with great success that others (i.e. Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? is the popular standard by which other idiotic UFO books seem to be judged by). While there are plenty of similar creation myths to choose from (and I could probably devote post after post to such woo), I did notice a strange misogynistic trend among the books which (with the exception of the highly eccentric Helena Blavatsky) were predominantly written by men.

The first example that caught my attention was that of George Van Tassel, author of Science and Religion Merged, and he certainly broke his own spine bending backwards to try and accommodate “science” with religion and paranormal buffoonery. Here is Kossy’s summation of Van Tassel’s mythology;

Van Tassel reveals the true meaning of evolution and the book of Genesis in a chapter of Religion and Science Merged entitled “The Missing Link.” God created Man, Van Tassel tells us – on many planets in many solar systems – before He created Earth. We didn’t evolve from “lower animals,” but were created “to serve as the instrument of God’s doing.” Adam wasn’t the first man, he was an entire race of men brought here by the Adamic Federation in a spaceship. But the colonizers forgot to bring women along – a rather large oversight for a supposedly perfect race. If they wanted to people the earth, the Adamic race would have to mate with female Earth creatures. Fortunately, they were able to breed with one of the animals races here on Earth, the race of Eve, which Van Tassel describes as “upright walking animals… the highest form of lower animal life” on Earth, but they were not apes.

The Bible story of Adam and Eve and the serpent, writes Van Tassel, is really an account of God’s displeasure with this coupling between man and beast; eating the wrong apple is a metaphor for mating with the wrong species. “This,” says Van Tassel, “is where Man became hu-man.” “Hu” represents the animal, killer nature of the tribe of Eve, while “man” is the higher nature, created by God.

Likewise, the authors of Mankind – Child of the Stars (Otto Binder and Max Flindt) tried to find “the missing link” through supposed breeding experiments between early hominids and aliens. Kossy explains;

All [the enigmas of human evolution] Flindt and Binder claimed, were solved if we realized that our species is a hybrid between “Apeman” and “Spaceman.”

Although they try very hard to look scientific, Flindt and Binder find their clearest evidence for the improbable coupling of apeman and spaceman in the Bible. From Genesis 6:2, in which the sons of God marry the daughters of men – “And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair, and they took them wives of all which they chose” – they conclude that “starmen visited Earth and mated with early females (perhaps hominids) to sire the modern human race of Homo sapiens.”

Flindt and Binder conclude that not only humans – but just about every species on Earth – were originally brought here by aliens. The space people first arrived here long before hominids appeared, making countless trips to Earth, each for a different “hybridization project.” They brought with them such creatures as the coelacanth and the duck-billed platypus… The aliens also imported the first apes and then returned about 12 million years ago, in time to breed with Ramapithecus, an early hominid. Not quite 12 million years later, the offspring of this strange coupling had developed into Australopithecus, an early ancestor of Homo sapiens.

As mentioned earlier, Erich von Däniken was perhaps the most successful of the UFO nutjobs, and he borrowed from science, the Bible, and other writers like Blavatsky to come up with his brand of alien breeding project;

Von Däniken’s version of humanity as an alien breeding experiment, like those that came before, loosely follows the Bible. Like Blavatsky’s narrow-headed Lemurians and Van Tassel’s alien-beast hybrids, some of Adam’s genetically altered progeny were unable to control themselves, and continued to mate with animals. This “backsliding” represented the Fall of Man because it “impeded evolution,” and retained the bestial in man.”

These sentiments actually echoed other racist/religious arguments that preceded von Däniken, the racist Edward Long writing (sometime between the late 18th and early 19th century);

Oranguatans, he wrote, “did not seem at all inferior in the intellectual faculties to many of the negroe race; with some of whom it is credible that they have the most intimate connexion and consanguinity… the negroes themselves bear testimony, that such intercourses actually happen; and it is certain that both races agree perfectly well in lasciviousness of disposition…” Mulattoes, Long proclaimed, are infertile, like mules. They come in two types: first, the offspring who result from the coupling of a Negro and a Caucasian; and second, the offspring of a Negro and an orangutan. The latter are often the result of “the passion the male Orang-Outang has for the Negress.”

Utterly disgusting and despicable, and yet such notions found favor among many. While there are plenty examples of humans at their worst in trying to figure out their own origins, I picked these examples primary because they showed the overall bias towards the white male as being the most godlike. According to the racist and idiotic mythologies, men are degenerate gods/aliens while women are directly connected with bestial and stupid apes; the bias could not be more clear. Just like the classical Genesis mythology, “Eve” gets the blame for the Fall or man’s degenerate condition, and the males in these stories are always placed nearest to godliness (if they aren’t already gods).

While I would like to believe that such misogynistic and untenable beliefs no longer exist today, I would be a fool to do so. It is absolutely incomprehensible to me how, at the beginning of the 21st century, we have seemingly changed so little in our prejudices and habits. Like Kossy writes in another chapter of the book, there has never been a “Golden Age” of humanity (nor were “The Good ‘Ol Days” really that good), but still I am continually shocked and amazed by the sort of untenable nonsense that is all-too-readily accepted.

I’d like to see how NOMA would cover this one…

17 07 2007

PZ has a review of the upcoming book Thank God for Evolution! by Michael Dowd, and it ain’t pretty. Here’s an excerpt from the book;

Speaking in tongues has been a significant part of my spiritual practice for half my life. Speaking in tongues has its detractors, but there are sound evolutionary reasons for its effectiveness. The following practice will REALize the act of speaking in tongues, because it doesn’t require you to believe in anything. It’s an experience available to anyone who tries it.

How I speak in tongues is simple. I pretend I can speak a foreign language; vocalizing nonsensical sounds in a gentle, melodic, or rhythmic way. I encourage you to try it, right now. Do it in whatever way comes naturally, for a few minutes or longer, until it becomes effortless. Now speak in tongues again, this time inaudibly, though perhaps still moving your lips. Then continue this “speech” without moving your lips; have it happen just internally. Whichever form suits you best, you should notice immediately that your awareness expands. You are more aware of what you see and hear and feel—without trying.

After this passage alone, I couldn’t help but “REALize” that Dowd’s book, while perhaps earnest, is likely to be little more than pseudo-new age/religious fluff that might help some evangelicals on the fence but will largely be panned by hardcore creationists and secular skeptics alike. What a tutorial about speaking in tongues has to do with evolution, I can’t say (although I should probably go and look up some of the psychological studies about what’s going on in someone’s brain when they’re so engaged), and given the current state of things I doubt that Dowd’s book is going to have any great impact. I may eventually read it (it would be unfair to pan it without having a look myself), but it would have to go to the back of a long queue of woo I already have waiting to turn my brain into mush. At least I now know that if Dowd’s book can get published, I probably have a halfway decent shot.

Speaking of books, yesterday an extremely abused and water-damaged copy of Cuvier’s The animal kingdom arranged in conformity with its organization (1831 edition) arrived, and as soon as I receive my copies of Mantell’s Medals of Creation and H.F. Osborn’s The origin and evolution of life: On the theory of action, reaction and interaction of energy I’ll have to put them all together in a safe spot (my little cat Charlotte loves to chew on my books). They’ll definitely keep me occupied for a bit, but I’m glad that I was able to acquire them. I am actually amazed by how many books, especially good books, I own that have been discarded by libraries. I’ll have to write up a post sometime of all the libraries that have unknowingly added to my collection by discarding books from their collection (i.e. The Lying Stones of Dr. Beringer is from the Ambassador College Library).

Strange silence about paleoanthropology from creationists

16 07 2007

In preparing my post on human evolution (hopefully covering the evolution from tree-shrews to apes to humans), I’ve been trying to get a handle on creationist explanations about fossil hominids and human evolution in general. Thus far, I haven’t gotten any straight answers about what to do with our numerous fossil relatives, human evolution usually considered to be incorrect a priori because the Bible says man was created from dust by God (Eve getting her start as a rib). If we are to accept this, however, then the problem becomes organizing and correctly identifying fossil hominids and apes, a task that creationists don’t seem up to. Given the importance of this topic, uncovering the origins of our species, I would expect that those who believe in a special creation for man would go out of their way to somehow explain where hominids like Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis, and Kenyanthropus platyops came from (thanks for the correction Luca).

Instead of explanations, what I have generally found from major creationist groups like Answers in Genesis is an attempt to discredit any new hominid fossils, pointing to the various changes and discarded hypotheses as proof that scientists have no clue when it comes to the contrary. Indeed, while I have seen explanations for fossil hominids put into context of “confusion” at the Tower of Babel, this is usually downplayed; it is almost as if they’re embarrassed to say that they believe our closest fossil relatives were, in their view, “degenerate” lineages of people that are now extinct. I’ve seen this explanation in some of the creationist literature I have at home (I’ll sift through that when I have time this evening), but for now I’m going to focus on internet sources to see if there’s anything new when it comes to creationist claims about fossil hominids.

The largest creationist index I was able to find was the “Anthropology and Apeman Q&A” at the via the AiG website. The vast preponderance (if not all) the posts seem to primarily deal with criticisms of paleoanthropologists and evolutionary scientists, with little in the way of alternate explanations for the fossils. While some of our more distant ancestors are typically lumped in with apes, the only hominid more closely related to us that is mentioned is Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals). Given this overall inattention to fossil hominids, let’s have a look at what some of the listed articles has to say;

Man: The Image of God (1981)

In this article, Prof. John Rendle-Short proceeds to make a disjointed and largely ignorant argument that man is somewhere, spiritually and mentally, halfway between God and animals (I assume in this instance that “animals” is being used to mean “mammals” rather than all metazoans). The overall thrust of the article is that we are so unlike other animals that we can’t possibly be related biologically to them, thus meaning that we were specially created as told in Genesis, one of the key differences being “creativity.” Rendle-Short has this to say on the subject;

Animals are not creative. They endlessly reproduce a stereotyped design. A particular spider constructs a web of constant pattern. The song of a bird is species specific, or mimicry of another bird or human. No originality is demonstrated.

Apparently this man was not familiar with animal behavior or psychology at the time of writing, and I find it odd that somehow he missed the various reports of apes, elephants, and even cats that enjoy painting (I realize that many of these links were not available in 1981, although creativity in apes, at least, has been known since the 1950’s). The intellectual bias that man is somehow the only creature that exhibits any creativity has long stifled the notion that animals have emotions, can exhibit creativity, and are generally far-more complex than recognized under a strict behaviorist mindset, a bias that exists only because of our own hubris.

No Bones About Eve (1991)
This article by Carl Wieland (now of Creation Ministries International) largely says that if the genetic evidence for “Mitochondrial Eve” fits the Biblical inference of all living people being able to trace their origins back to one mother in the not-too-distant past, then creationists can accept the data pointing to such ancestry (while rejecting any data for a timeline older than 6,000 years). Other than the intellectual cherry-picking going on, the article gives us some clues as to creationist interpretations of some fossil hominids in the conclusion. Wieland writes;

Some of the ‘archaic’ skulls referred to are of the Neanderthal type. Creationists have long recognized these large-brained people as being a part of the range of variation in true humankind. Some of the other of these skulls in question, however, are classified as Homo erectus, which means that at least some of the specimens labelled in this way have to be accepted by creationists as part of the gene-pool of post-Flood humanity.

So, rather than considering Homo neanderthalensis and H. erectus as separate species, they are instead regarded as humans, the clear anatomical differences the products of regional variations that must have occurred at an astounding rate (notice that Wieland states that H. erectus would have survived the Noachian Deluge, therefore proliferating, undergoing variation, becoming extinct, and undergoing some degree of fossilization starting after the flood occurred in 2348 BC [the dispersion from the Tower of Babel is calculated at 2242 BC (figures lifted from AiG estimate)]. As would be expected, there is no actual evidence for this, the creationist assessment of the two hominid species as belonging to Homo sapiens being based entirely on the desire to avoid conflict with a narrow interpretation of the Bible.

Neandertal children’s fossils (1994)
Furthering the idea that Neanderthals were only humans that had undergone variation post-Flood, orthodontist Dr John W. Cuozzo (who is from my home state of New Jersey, no less) makes the claim that growth rates of Neanderthal children were slower than modern H. sapiens children, therefore showing that “humans” (as loosely used by creationists like Cuozzo) lived longer in ancient times. He concludes;

This whole topic is fascinating; as my book [Buried Alive: The Startling truth about Neandertal man] discusses, many of the ‘archaic’ features of some strains of ‘early man’ are very likely due to delayed maturation in early post-Flood people who still had (as the Bible record indicates) significantly longer lifespans than today.

While the article is listed as being “technical,” it is hardly that; short on scientific information and long on astonishment over the author’s proposed findings. Cuozzo’s claims are interesting to consider given the creationist model for human evolution, however, being that not only would the survivors of the Flood have to be dispersed from the Tower of Babel, but they’d have change very quickly despite delayed maturity and long life-span (dying just in time to be fossils to us).

The Caring Neanderthal (1996)
This article, by A.J. Monty White, follows in the same vein as those previously mentioned, attempting to show that Neanderthals were essentially “just like us” and not as brutish as assumed in pop culture. While Neanderthals certainly have gotten some bad press (perhaps because we ended up being the “winners” in an evolutionary sense), White goes too far when he reinforces the idea that Neanderthals were merely dispersed variations of humans;

None of this is surprising when we consider that they were not primitive evolutionary ‘links’. They were people, forced to live in harsh conditions, after the dispersal of humanity at Babel, during the great post-Flood Ice Age.

The Ice Age mention has also been something that has baffled me about creationist mythology; when did the Ice Age occur and for how long? Being that it would have had to occur in the last 4,000 years or less, it would be an awfully fast change, subsiding as quickly as it arose. Just like hominid evolution, the Ice Age is another area where creationists are conspicuously quiet. The Neanderthal explanation, however, just seems to be a variation on a previous argument that all the Neanderthal skeletons were merely H. sapiens skeletons that showed disease or were changed because of taphonomic/environmental factors, the more recent creationist articles recognizing differences but maintaining that they were well within the range of H. sapiens variation or plasticity.

AiG’s response to “Up From the Apes” (1999)
An anonymous article in response to a 1999 TIME magazine article further tries to explain away the more “primitive” tools and cultures of Neanderthals and H. erectus. The author writes;

The Bible makes it clear that all people are descendants of Adam and Eve—there are no ‘pre-Adamites’ coming before the first people. The different fossils which are distinctively human (Neanderthals, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, etc.) must all be descendants of Adam and Eve. It is likely that many of these specimens come from the time after the Babel dispersion. Many of the resulting small people groups would find themselves without city-building technology, so would need to resort to stone tools and finding shelter in caves—as many people do even today, although they are no less intelligent than city-dwellers.

No explanation, however, is given why some dispersed groups prospered and others did not, especially in the middle of a catastrophic Ice Age (see the discussion of the previous article). Indeed, this is merely a just-so story that has no evidence to back it up, but will be readily believed by those already predisposed to agree with the “authorities” at AiG.

The non-transitions in ‘human evolution’—on evolutionists’ terms (1999)
In a 1999 article, John Woodmorappe goes beyond Neanderthals and H. erectus to envelop even more taxa into geographic variants of H. sapiens, essentially suggesting that all “transitional forms” are either clearly apes or variations of our own species, descended from Adam and Eve. He claims;

Adam and Eve, and not the australopiths/habilines, are our actual ancestors. As pointed out by other creationists [e.g., Lubenow], Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis can best be understood as racial variants of modern man—all descended from Adam and Eve, and most likely arising after the separation of people groups after Babel.

This seems to exemplify the overall creationist strategy, lumping all the closest hominid relatives together as our own species, all others being apes. As more discoveries are made and more post-cranial skeletons come out of the ground, I expect that they are going to have to change their stance on this matter.

Where are all the human fossils? (1991)
Andrew Snelling, AiG’s new Flood geologist, wrote a rather odd article for the extinct Technical Journal in 1991. Attempting to address why we do not find fossils of humans and dinosaurs/trilobites/pterosaurs/etc. together, Snelling suggests the following;

It would seem to us unloving of God to execute such relentless judgment, but such is God’s abhorrence of sin that its penalty must be seen for what it is—utter destruction and removal of all trace. If God cannot tolerate sin (His holiness cannot ‘look’ on sin), then all trace of sin has to be removed in judgment, which necessitates utter destruction. Should human remains have been allowed to survive the Flood as fossils, then there could also have been the possibility of such remains being worshiped and revered.

This is a strange claim indeed; that God selectively destroyed the remains of any people living before the Flood (being that they were sinful) for fear that the bones would be revered. I have not come across this argument outside this old article, however, and so I assume that it isn’t a central part of modern creationist dogma (although I could be very wrong). [This article did remind me of Adrienne Mayor’s book The First Fossil Hunters, however, wherein she describes how Greeks revered mammoth, Sivatherium, and other large bones as those of dead heroes and giants.]

‘Oldest’ hominid footprints show no evolution! (1993)
The Laetoli footprints are perhaps my most favorite fossil trackway (if not one of my favorite fossils), but Alexander R. Williams claims that the footprints clearly show that man was specially created and walking upright; if these prints had been made by our ancestor (or a relative of our ancestor), the prints would have been much more ape-like. This entire argument, however, is based upon the primary assumptions already discussed (i.e. AiG’s narrow reading of Genesis is historically accurate, meaning no humans lived before Adam and evolution does not occur, meaning any tracks must be, under these assumptions, made by a descendant of Adam and therefore human), and it is clear that Williams has made no effort to actually even study the fossil in question. This issue has already been discussed at Talk Origins, and from what I can tell the prints are similar overall to our own but are not identical. I’ll have another look for myself when I see the cast of the prints at the AMNH this weekend, but there is no reason to believe that the prints were made by the descendants of the mythical Adam.

A search for the “Tower of Babel” on the AiG website did not offer up anything new; indeed, all that was mentioned was how people were dispersed because because of God’s judgment, giving almost not attention to where people went, how they got there, or what happened to them. This is a huge gap in creationist apologetics, the very events surrounding the origins of man receiving far less attention than dinosaurs. Perhaps this is not surprising given than AiG seems to give a lot of attention to bringing in children, rather than trying to convince those who are already opposed. Nevertheless, the creationist model for human origins seems to hinge exclusively on man’s special creation, all the fossil finds, archaeological sties, etc. that do not fit a 6,000 year old earth being shoehorned into one far-fetched explanation or another. Being that the special creation of Adam & Eve seems central to creationist doctrine (it is among the most central of the given assumptions), perhaps they see no need to provide evidence for one of their strongest beliefs.

Just in case anyone was wondering, this post in no way endorses the previous creationist thoughts/bare hypotheses. Rather, I am trying to more fully understand creationist apologetics so I can more effectively combat their claims, although creationists seem to be long on rhetoric but short on evidence when it comes to fossil hominids. Nothing I saw even came close to sufficiently proving that Neanderthals or other hominids had to be either apes or extinct populations of H. sapiens, thus one of the most central beliefs of creationists has no foundation in reality. Like I mentioned above, I will have a look at some of the books from ICR and AiG tonight to see if there’s anything more to be learned, but I doubt it.

Freudian Field Day; 10 Idiotic Assertions in Psychology Today

10 07 2007

Update: Bora had kindly put together a short-list of other bloggers who have addressed the intellectual poverty of the article. Have a look here.

There’s been a little bit of a stir in the blogosphere in reaction to a recent evolutionary psychology article entitled “Ten Politically Incorrect Truths About Human Nature” that showed up in Psychology Today. I honestly am not terribly familiar with evolutionary psychology outside of how contentious it is (scientists like Niles Eldredge and Ian Tattersall, among others, regarding it as junk science), but at the moment I suppose I take something of the middle ground; our evolution certainly affects our mind today, but figuring out what has and has not changed is the trick. Case in point, I recently watched the first few installments of the BBC program The Human Face hosted by John Cleese. In the discussion of professional models, it was said that a particular look that models can give works so well because it is basically the face that women make before orgasm, so we’re naturally more attracted to such a face. I really have no idea if this is true, and overall it seems a bit too simplistic to me; everyone doesn’t just go helpless with euphoria when we see such an image (at least, I know I don’t). In any case, I’ll be going through the 10 assertions the authors of the Psychology Today list, giving my thoughts on each.

1. Men like blond bombshells (and women want to look like them)

One of the first things that strikes me about this article is that it isn’t especially tentative nor does it back up it’s sources; things are simply said to be as they are and we’re expected to believe what the authors are saying is true. Beyond that, the general hypothesis is that blond women remind men of young women, young women with large hips and a small waist being able to be better reproductively, and therefore they are more desirable sexually. On top of that, large breasts are supposed to be good age indicators, the amount of sag telling males how old the woman is. This, I must say, just sounds stupid; surely there are better indicators of age than breast size in relation to “sag”, and while I’m not an expert, isn’t there a large amount of natural variation in female chests anyway? The authors seem to be confusing correlation with causation, raising a “just-so story” to the level of fact. Likewise, their discussion of blue eyes sounds equally dubious;

Women with blue eyes should not be any different from those with green or brown eyes. Yet preference for blue eyes seems both universal and undeniable—in males as well as females. One explanation is that the human pupil dilates when an individual is exposed to something that she likes. For instance, the pupils of women and infants (but not men) spontaneously dilate when they see babies. Pupil dilation is an honest indicator of interest and attraction. And the size of the pupil is easiest to determine in blue eyes. Blue-eyed people are considered attractive as potential mates because it is easiest to determine whether they are interested in us or not.

This seems more of a reaction to modern eye color variations (which can be artificially achieved through contact lenses) than the effects of something evolutionary; I doubt there was a bias in our hominid ancestors towards blue eyes (if blue eyes were even common enough then). It also raises the question of blue eyes in populations where they nearly never occur today; is there any significant change in attraction to an individual solely because of eye color? What is people just like the color blue, or like blue eyes because they are unusual? The authors don’t put forth any alternative hypotheses.

2. Humans are naturally polygamous

The first thing that irked me about this discussion is that no distinction was made between what science may or may not tell us and morality, i.e. that whether our species was polygamous throughout our evolutionary history does not dictate whether it is good or natural today. As for the argument itself, the authors point to the mild sexual dimorphism between men and women and suggest that bigger, stronger males monopolized the females, females also preferring big and strong males. No alternate hypothesis was given for the variations, nor was it mentioned that it is unlikely that only the biggest, strongest men mated. Thinking back to what I’ve come to learn about sexual selection and the book A Primate’s Memoir, a hyper-masculine male may be highly aggressive (even abusive) in addition to being the biggest and strongest, and just because one male tries to monopolize all the females does not mean that other males never get the chance to mate (less privileged males may keep up longer term relationships with females and produce offspring surprisingly often).

3. Most women benefit from polygyny, while most men benefit from monogamy

Continuing with their assertion that it’s better for females to share a wealthy man (or, in terms of past history, one that can provide protection), the authors assert that monogamy benefits men because a “poor” wife is better than no wife at all. Again, outside of “protection” the authors make no qualifications as to what females actually benefit from sharing a dominant male, and polygynous mating structures do not necessarily guarantee the safety or well-being of the females. While it might be true, in a thought experiment, that less-masculine males would benefit more from a monogamous or polyandrous mating structure than a polygynous one, the authors provide no evidence to support their claim and the overall reasoning is rather shallow.

4. Most suicide bombers are Muslim

The title seems more like a matter of statistics (I wonder if they considered Kamikaze pilots during WWII), but the authors contend that Muslim men are engaging in terrorism to quench their sexual desires. Rather than being a product of religious brainwashing, the authors assert that Muslim suicide bombers are primarily doing it so they can receive 72 virgins when they arrive in heaven. They show nothing to support this at all, nor do they look at the motives of suicide bombers from other cultures and time periods. The authors case is highly dubious, at best.

5. Having sons reduces the likelihood of divorce

Once again, the authors don’t do much other than say “This is how it is, deal with it.” No statistics are given as to divorce rate, family makeup, etc., and they try and make the case that since fathers must pass their wealth and power onto their sons they are more likely to stay involved in the family. This model seems to assume that the family has only one child that is the “heir” to his father’s legacy, and overall it seems like it has more to do with culture than “evolutionary psychology.” Indeed, the model assume that the son actually inherits wealth and power from the father, but no qualification/quantification is made of what this would look like (i.e. making sure the son gets through college before divorcing?)

6. Beautiful people have more daughters

The authors contend that because males have historically been privileged and promiscuous, they produced more sons that went on to become privileged themselves, a kind of artificial selection for males that would cause a higher ratio of males to be born than females. Little is said of infanticide or males being favored over females in families, so once again the authors seem to connect two dots to make a line without trying to plot any more points to see if the results make sense.

7. What Bill Gates and Paul McCartney have in common with criminals

This one might have a grain of truth to it, but once again it is lost because the authors reduce everything to sex. Using Bill Gates and Paul McCartney as examples, the authors contend that much like Jackass-like feats of stupidity and crime, male “genius” tends to peak at an early age. Why? Because we all want to bad to impress women. Even if we were to argue that artists, scientists, musicians, etc. stayed active and creative all through their lives, the authors argue that the “best work” of all these men occurred early on in their lives because they were in competition to secure notoriety in order to obtain a mate. I wonder what Charles Darwin would say to them about this. I found the last few sentences of this point especially wanting;

Women often say no to men. Men have had to conquer foreign lands, win battles and wars, compose symphonies, author books, write sonnets, paint cathedral ceilings, make scientific discoveries, play in rock bands, and write new computer software in order to impress women so that they will agree to have sex with them. Men have built (and destroyed) civilization in order to impress women, so that they might say yes.

Yes, nothing gets women hotter than developing a new computer language or studying the flavors of quarks. While “male conquest” may have been significantly evidenced in the past, the authors don’t think about the societal context in which many men (especially within the past few centuries) create their “great works.” Can it really be all about sex and have nothing to do with having to establish oneself in science, art, etc. or other factors like an openness to new ideas? I don’t want to sound overly idealistic and I’m sure (especially in the realm of modern music) that sex does have a part to play here, but I would hardly argue that all of male artists, musicians, scientists, and writers were only driven by their sexual desire, their intellectual prowess declining as their desire did.

8. The midlife crisis is a myth—sort of

This point was a bit odd; men go through a mid-life crisis because they desire to replace their menopausal wives with a younger wife, once again having sex trump every other potential factor. Because the authors are so sex-obsessed, the “mid-life crisis” is said to have nothing to do with a man wanting to reclaim his own youth or get a “do-over,” but instead he just wants a woman along the lines of the one discussed in asinine assertion #1. I’m certainly not an expert on the “mid-life crisis” but reducing it to sex does a disservice to a complex issue.

9. It’s natural for politicians to risk everything for an affair (but only if they’re male)

Here the authors again make the assertion that every male would have sex with as many women as possible if it were feasible to do so, the primary reason for obtaining a political office being gaining sexual power (have a look at the Washington Monument; what are trying to say to the world?). This seems to run counter to their assertion that influential men do their most important work while young while being potentially in-agreement with or counter-to their “mid-life crisis” argument depending on the age of the man and his marriage. We should fully expect powerful men to try and have sex with as many women as possible, they say; why should we expect otherwise?

10. Men sexually harass women because they are not sexist

The last point is a bit confusing; men abuse and intimidate other men, so why should they treat women any different? Men try to achieve power through competition in the workplace and once they have that power they try to use it to get women to sleep with with in one-night-stands, women taking great offense to the despicable male behavior. The authors make no distinction between abuse/intimidating/hazing etc. amongst men in competition and they way they treat women at work (nor do they say that such behavior is unacceptable), sex being the most important factor in their view.

While the authors of this may have had a few inklings of insight, it was all lost in a flood of male sexuality that seems like an attempt to justify sexually motivated aggression on the part of males. Women are not considered outside their roles of sex objects that males strive to obtain, giving the whole article (and probably the book the article promotes by the same authors) of rather lop-sided view. If this is the best evolutionary psychology has to offer, than I would have to join others like Niles Eldredge who regard it as worthless and even dangerous. It would be foolish to say that our evolutionary history has not influenced the way we are today, but asserting that such selected behaviors dictate the whole of the human experience, that sex rules all and we cannot hope to ever escape our desires, cheapens us all. As much as I disagree with much of what the authors of this article wrote, I could have at least given them some points for mentioning that finding out reasons behind certain behaviors should not endorse immoral or otherwise despicable actions, but the authors of this study would rather tell men that they’re pre-programmed sex maniacs than try and do anything constructive.

Fatally bad

2 07 2007

I finally finished Jeff Rovin’s Fatalis, and while I generally have a great love and respect for books, I had to smite this one upon the ground in frustration. I wish I could say that it was fun, if incoherent, but the action scenes were essentially line-drawings with little detail or tension. Everyone, no matter how trivial their death, got a one and a half page backstory, only to bear no real significance to the plot. And (spoiler alert) the ended was terrible and pissed me off greatly. Rovin decides that his hero and heroine want to take the “Bring ’em back alive” approach with the giant cats that have been devouring people all over the countryside and city (cats that can also sink boats and down helicopters too), releasing a pair of cubs into the wild and hoping that the Smilodon will repopulate. This reminds me of the ill-conceived idea to replace modern equivalents of extinct Pleistocene fauna, Rovin’s hero being a 2D cutout of a “well-meaning” scientist. And don’t even get me started on all the spirit guides/mysticism B.S. sprinkled throughout the book…

Then there’s this little gem involving evolution. It made me wish that Rovin’s own fictional creations had really come to life, only to sink their fangs into his neck before he had a chance to pen this awful piece;

The best weapons are nonlethal, psychological ones,” Grand insisted. He replaced the letter opener on the pile. “According to leather pouches I’ve found in ancient graves, prehistoric hunters carried what we call ‘startlements,’ which may have been used to distract predators. Crushed leaves or feathers to catch their eye, ground bone to make them sneeze. Anything to gain time so they could run or grab a weapon or cry for help. Maybe next time I won’t need the letter opener, just the crumpled paper to remind you that I can get a letter opener. Many evolutionary scientists believe that something simple like that – a crumpled piece of white paper – can change the course of genetics. If you preyed on butterflies, they might notice your reaction to the paper. Through genetic mutation they might slowly turn white to intimidate you.”

“Are you saying that living things can actually will mutation?”

“We don’t understand the mechanism, but it happens,” Grand said. “The perception of threat, the ability to respond, and the desire to survive – they’re all directed from in here,” he tapped his temple.

“I guess if you can make yourself sick or get ulcers, anything’s possible,” Hannah said. “So with any luck I’ll grow myself a sixth finger on each hand to help myself type faster.”

“And then your brain will start to think faster and then you’ll need a seventh finger,” Grand said. “That’s how it happens.”

No, no, Mr. Rovin; that’s not how it happens. While I have heard some teachers slip up and attribute mimicry to animals like butterflies thinking that they are following predators (rather than naturally occurring variation and selection occurring), but I’ve never heard anything as off-the-wall as this. If this kind of junk can get published, it’s no wonder people are screwed-up when it comes to comprehending evolution.