Tag Archives: evolution

Take it from the Pope


For the “World Day of Peace,” which is today, instead of congratulating the newly weds – who are upholding the transformed but still living (for better or worse, in sickness and in health) institution of marriage – Pope Benedict (Ratzinger) issued a statement that included this about homogamous marriage:

There is also a need to acknowledge and promote the natural structure of marriage as the union of a man and a woman in the face of attempts to make it juridically equivalent to radically different types of union; such attempts actually harm and help to destabilize marriage, obscuring its specific nature and its indispensable role in society.

These principles are not truths of faith, nor are they simply a corollary of the right to religious freedom. They are inscribed in human nature itself, accessible to reason and thus common to all humanity. The Church’s efforts to promote them are not therefore confessional in character, but addressed to all people, whatever their religious affiliation. Efforts of this kind are all the more necessary the more these principles are denied or misunderstood, since this constitutes an offence against the truth of the human person, with serious harm to justice and peace.

I’m not enough of a Pope-ologist to know how rare this is, but what struck me was his claim that his opinion is “accessible to reason and thus common to all humanity.”

There is a convention in the U.S. that we can criticize each other’s opinions, but it’s impolite to criticize each other’s beliefs (as long as those beliefs are religious, meaning not too recent in origin). So it’s fine for me to say that you are wrong about secular subjects, like physics and sports, but it’s impolite to say you are wrong if you believe that God speaks directly to you or that cavemen played with dinosaurs. Or, more directly relevant to the Pope, scientists can say that virgin conception is generally unlikely, but it would be impolite to say it never ever happened, not even once.

Anyway, that’s a long way of getting around to the point that I find the Pope’s statement galling. If he wants to express political opinions, fine. I have no objection to that as long as the giant, multibillion-dollar real estate and educational empire he runs isn’t tax exempt.

But if he’s going to make statements with that hat on — that is, subject to a declaration of infallibility* – he should lay off the social-science proclamations. If he wants to argue in the realm of reason, rather than faith, then we may weigh his record of expressed belief in fairy tales against his scientific credibility.

Believe it or not

Learning as I go here: turns out the Pope has a whole scientific academy called the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (where the “peer review” is not done by your peers, if you know what I mean). And naturally they’ve been all over this subject of reason and faith. I read a 2006 talk titled “Secularism, Faith and Freedom,” which was apparently presented to this audience:


And I thought the American Sociological Association conference was a dynamic scene!

The paper says it’s necessary for religious people to argue their positions freely in a secular state’s public square. These positions include, “Faith is the root of freedom,” and “a proper secularism requires faith.” That is because liberal democracy otherwise is a moral vacuum of pragmatic consumerism with no higher purpose. So I gather that, just as any “gaps” in the fossil record summon Creation as an explanation, so does any lack of morality in the public sphere demand to be filled by faith — specifically, a “Creator who addresses us and engages us before ever we embark on social negotiation.” Absent that presence, “the liberal ideal becomes deeply anti-humanist.”

Although, after reading this whole paper and the Pope’s statement, I confess (my word choice) that I’m not sure “humanist” is really what they’re going for.

Can. 749 §1. By virtue of his office, the Supreme Pontiff possesses infallibility in teaching when as the supreme pastor and teacher of all the Christian faithful, who strengthens his brothers and sisters in the faith, he proclaims by definitive act that a doctrine of faith or morals is to be held.


Filed under In the news, Politics

Who’s teaching creationism to kids?

…and when did I get so touchy about it?

When someone gave us this chunky dinosaur puzzle, I did a double-take. Yes, that’s a caveman there with the dinosaurs:

The blurb on the company’s website says that, along with the puzzle, ” The accompanying board book teaches young learners about dinosaurs.” Teaches, that is, with lessons like this:

A little harmless fun, or a little creationist indoctrination? (Do sociologists even believe in “harmless fun”?)

According to the Shure company, they deliver these “common threads” in all their products: “Originality and inventiveness; Excellence in design; Attention to detail; Exceptional quality; Educational merit.” So, not just entertainment.

A quick perusal suggests the rest of their products are not creationist — just the usual toy-gendering. They do have a Noah’s Ark puzzle, but it doesn’t claim to be educational. In that Shure is just keeping up Melissa & Doug (whose puzzle is at least Genesis-correct in not naming Noah’s wife):

And anyway, the story of Noah’s Ark is actually not a bad way to talk about reproduction.

But back to dinosaurs and people. Dinosaurs are not really more problematic for creationism than any other creatures that pre-date humans. But maybe because kids love dinosaurs so much, creationists spend inordinate energy trying to place them chronologically with people. Writes one such site:

The idea of millions of years of evolution is just the evolutionists’ story about the past. No scientist was there to see the dinosaurs live through this supposed dinosaur age. In fact, there is no proof whatsoever that the world and its fossil layers are millions of years old. No scientist observed dinosaurs die. Scientists only find the bones in the here and now, and because many of them are evolutionists, they try to fit the story of the dinosaurs into their view.

Up against this kind of propaganda, it is tempting to bring the hammer down on “harmless fun” featuring humans and dinosaurs playing together. That would mean none of these, either:

That is basically the argument of James Wilson, a University of Sussex lecturer, who has a talk on the subject here on Youtube.

For non-biologists, like me, who like evolution and want some ammunition to defend it, I recommend Richard Dawkins’ recent book The Greatest Show on Earth. Some do find it a little dogmatic, and in the grand scheme I prefer Stephen Jay Gould, but it’s good for this purpose. Because rather than block access to dinosaur cartoons, I would rather arm myself – and the surrounding children – with the tools they need to handle them with confidence.


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

Color gender by the numbers

Men and women weigh in on their favorite colors.

Update: I’m curious. Will you take a color preference survey here?

More on the many mysteries of pink and blue, this time from college students expressing their own preferences, rather than adults’ choices for children.

This research is from 2001, but I just stumbled on it. In a survey of 5,000 college students from several dozen universities, men and women were asked to express, on an open-ended form, their favorite color.

MEN                                                     WOMEN

Favorite colors for college students, 1990s.

Other responses not shown (4% of men, 5% of women). My chart from data in the article.

These men have a strong blue preference; the women are more diverse in their choices. Proportionally, the biggest differences are on pink (women 10.6-times more likely to choose) and blue (men 1.8-times more likely).

Here is the interpretation of the authors:

Without ruling out any possibility at this point, we are inclined to suspect the involvement of neurohormonal factors. Studies of rats have found average sex differences in the number of neurons comprising various parts of the visual cortex. Also, gender differences have been found in rat preferences for the amount of sweetness in drinking water. One experiment demonstrated that the sex differences in rat preferences for sweetness was eliminated by depriving males of male-typical testosterone levels in utero. Perhaps, prenatal exposure to testosterone and other sex hormones operates in a similar way to “bias” preferences for certain colors in humans.

You really have to love it. Although it’s not as far gone as the speculation that color preferences evolved from the gender division of labor in the hunter-gathering prehistory, it’s not a theory well suited to the rapid historical change we’ve seen in the case of dressing children, at least.

If I were making up an explanation, I’d say maybe these college students were generally pushed toward girl-pink/boy-blue from infancy, and then the girls more actively incorporated color choice into their identities (the idea of having a “favorite color”) — resulting in greater diversity of choices. On the other hand, maybe boys were more likely not to have a color affinity in their identity toolbox and thus are more likely to have a stuck-in-childhood response that matches the preference their parents had for them, or one they consider socially desirable. How’s that?


Filed under Me @ work, Research reports

Pink/blue, boy/girl?

Update: I’m curious. Will you take a color preference survey here?

Which is the boy and which is the girl here, anyway?

If you said the girl is the one on the right, you are living in the past. Like around 1918, when Ladies Home Journal wrote:

“the generally accepted rule is pink for the boy and blue for the girl. The reason is that pink being a more decided and stronger color is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

Blue was long associated with the Virgin Mary in Europe and therefore with girls, but to the Nazis pink was the effeminate color — so we might owe their anti-Catholicism some credit for reversing the gender scheme.

Anyway, the amazing thing is this information is from an article (behind a pay wall) in the journal Child’s Nervous System that goes on to speculate on reasons why evolution might have made girls prefer pink and boys prefer blue:

Thus, the pink and blue tradition is recent and relatively exclusive to the Western world, but the girls’ preference for the color pink seems to have deeper roots. … It is therefore plausible that, in specializing for gathering, the female brain honed the trichromatic adaptations … and these underpin the female preference for objects reddish. … Whereas discrimination of red wavelengths appears to facilitate identification of plant food, a preference for red or pink appears to have an advantage for successful female reproduction. This preference for reddish-pink is thought to exist because infant faces compared to adult ones are reddish-pink, and red or pink may signal approach behaviors that enhance infant survival…

It’s amazing, isn’t it, that after all these thousands of years, it was just 60 years ago that we finally figured out to dress girls in pink, which is what they wanted all along! (No reason is given for why boys prefer blue.) That must be why women are so happy now. I love this stuff.

Updated here and here.


Filed under Me @ work

Evolutionary sexuality

I’m reading up on the biology and sociology of sexuality, and am struck by the volume of palpable progress being produced, much of it reasonable for all I know. On the biological determinants of sexual orientation, for example, there seem to be at least two thriving growth areas of research concerning androgen exposure or other chemical shenanigans in the uterus: older brothers and finger length. But that’s another story.

Following the references around led me to wider questions of evolution and sexuality, and the real reason for this post. Evolutionary theory done wrong is a carnival mirror: what is good is adaptive and natural, what’s bad is artificial or maladaptive. In a well-written polemic against sexist sociobiology in 1985, Mina Caulfield quoted from The Evolution of Human Sexuality, by Donald Symons. He theorized – amazingly – that real human female orgasms have no “adaptive significance,” but fake orgasms might:

A male’s concern with female orgasm (perhaps based on the misconception that it plays the same role in her sexual experience that it does in his own) might inadvertently lead him to discover heretofore latent erotic possibilities in himself and hence to modify further his behavior to increase his own sensual pleasures. …. A female might have or pretend to have orgasms to enhance her partner’s self-esteem, to increase his sexual pleasures… to increase her value to him, or to indicate that she cares for him.

Go figure.

Incidentally, the speculation and debate over the role of sexual displays in evolution has been going strong ever since, including topics such as the attractiveness of women’s armpit odors to men at different times in their menstrual cycles (it matters, but the results are only generalizable for women not wearing deodorant and not taking the Pill).

Symons’s logic (there is a lot more) reminds me of the funniest sociology spoof I remember, from The Onion, “Sociologist Considers Own Behavior Indicative Of Larger Trends.” The story summarizes research by sociologist Stephen Piers, whose work over several decades has eerie echoes in his personal life.

Piers’ 1974 paper, Domestic Situationality: The Fortunate Male In American Society, was hailed as a landmark work almost immediately upon publication. Published one month after Piers’ wedding to college sweetheart Angela Beckman, Domestic Situationality reported that American males were “blissfully happy, despite lacking the freedom of single life.” However, in his 2000 paper, U.S. Wives: Lying, Cheating Whores? he found an enormous upswing in infidelity among American middle-aged wives and a parallel rise in the risk of fiery death among single male textile salesmen from Seattle.

The story even includes snippy criticism from a rival sociologist, quoted as saying,

Piers reports that ‘the married American male can no longer stand his wife’s hyena-like laugh … I don’t know if Piers keeps up on the literature, but I reported that trend almost three years ago. By the time Piers released his findings, the American husband’s general attitude toward the laugh had long passed into the stage known as ‘icy acceptance.’

As our grad students must know best, the scientific enterprise relies on the image of progress – new discoveries are necessary for career advancement. Some of this is fed by news media, with the complicity of researchers who are so happy to see their work referenced they’re willing to let some exaggerations slide (believe me). Today’s example is the story “‘Useless stay-at-home men’ a female myth,” from the Guardian – that one’s real.

In addition to its pernicious effects, this institutional bias may serve as a motivation to do good research. It’s probably not as corrupting as the tendency for scientists to see what they want to see in their results, and to make theories to justify their preconceptions.

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