Sunday, February 28, 2010

Family History

I pulled some off-topic expansion from the last post on abortion: on
the whining WASPs still want those rights applied only to "real Americans" -- i.e., whining WASPs
patriarchal societies wanting to keep women in their place to bolster the fragile egos of a male mindset that deep down knows that it is losing its place in the world
Leonard Pitts, Jr. touched on this topic in his column today with regard to teabaggers (disagreeing with Keith Olbermann that it's all about race):
This is race, religion, sexual orientation, gender, "culture," and the fact that those who have always been on the right side, the "power-wielding" side, of one or more of those equations, now face the realization that that their days of dominance are numbered.
This story goes back through all of human history, and even though we left much of european feudalism behind us when we came to America, it still stays with us. It is pecking order, it is love of hierarchy, it is found in everything with a backbone.

I'm reminded of Martin Scorsese's movie "The Gangs of New York". Set in the 1860's this has the whining WASP "natives" opposing the (socialist, anarchist, catholic) Irish immigrants.

So why am I not a whining WASP? Because I grew up being told how my maternal great-grandmother had a cross burned in the front yard of her farmhouse outside Lagrange, KY by the Ku Klux Klan, I would guess in the 1920's. Why? Because they were Catholics and second generation German immigrants. And who were the klansmen doing the burning? That generation's crop of whining WASPs, who in this generation are teabaggers.

During the civil rights movement of the 60's, I was told in no uncertain terms by my mother which side we were on -- we were on the side that didn't burn crosses.

So when I see a sign at a tea party saying "We want our country back", I know that I'm one of the people that the whining WASPs want the country back from. And you know what? A lot of the teabaggers probably are too, but they've made enough money to become Republicans and think that they're WASPs. I've made enough money to become a Republican, but, you know what? Fuck that.

We can build a world where no one is hungry or homeless, but the ultra-rich aren't sure that they would still be rich enough if that happened, and the whining WASPs aren't sure who they would then get to look down on.

We have to put the conservative, patriarchal, backward-looking mindset of the teabaggers ("dumbass dupes descend on DC") behind us and get on to solving the world's real problems -- chief of which is, how do we contain human population growth and build an economy not based on growth?

Still, you gotta love the teabaggers opposing health care reform with "Keep your government hands off of my Medicare". I'm sure they are showing their opposition to "socialism" in the US by tearing up their social security checks and refusing to use Medicare --- yeah, right.

Sin #2: Interfering in Women's Reproductive Rights

So we're driving to Florida a couple of weeks ago. We saw several anti-abortion billboards, with two major messages:
Every day another 3600 children die.
We'll get to the "children" later, but first let's do some math. 3600 times 365 equals 1,314,000. So that's 1.3 million women per year whose intelligence, rights and moral decision-making the religious would like to trample. If breeding age women make up 1/6 of the population of the US, that's about 3% per year.

The second message (I wonder who or what is supposed to be saying this):

My heart is beating after 10 days.
This kind of reminds me of the ancient Egyptian views on the importance of the various body parts. They took great care in their embalming to preserve the heart, liver, and stomach. The brain was thought to be worthless; it was pulled out in shreds through the nostrils and discarded. Oops. A beating heart is a muscle. Enough of a brain to hold the beginnings of a thinking (or dreaming) human mind comes much later.

I had a book that listed the cultural universals of the human race -- the things that all of the hundreds of human cultures known to anthropologists have in common, like shrugging, incest taboos, dogs, and a couple of hundred other things. I couldn't find it to check, but I'm pretty sure that abortion was listed there -- it has been practiced by every known human culture. I read somewhere else that the general wisdom was that it was completely unrestricted up until the fetus could be observed externally, normally about half way through the pregnancy, after which restrictions were applied. So, not so dissimilar to the reasonable restrictions we have now: third trimester abortions only in dire circumstances.

Abortion rights opponents claim that abortion is murder -- taking the life of a human being. This usually is supported by arguments that a zygote is given a "soul" as soon as it forms, or that as soon as you have a zygote you have everything required to make a human being. This also leads to opposition to Plan B birth control -- morning after pills. But, Stephen Pinker pointed out in one of his books, the union of the genetic material of sperm and egg actually takes an indeterminate amount of time. So there is no "magic moment" that can be used to identify when the ensoulment happens. And even if the zygote does represent 50% of the nature vs. nurture that goes to make a human being, it is still not a human being, it is a potential human being. A substantial percentage of zygotes fail to implant into the uterine wall or are otherwise spontaneously aborted -- so nature doesn't put any magical significance on them.

The union of a particular sperm with an egg to form a zygote does represent a collapse of astronomical proportions in possibility space (see "Possibility Space and the Chopstick of Doom" blogged a few years ago). But, it's still just a possible human.

At times abortion rights opponents claim that they are representing the rights of the unborn. In general I do think that the more advanced a civilization is, the more it extends rights. When the founding fathers wrote that "all men are created equal", their worldview was such that "men" meant "white males who own land". Over the years, equal rights were granted to blacks and women (kind of) and non-landowners.

But, we can still see in the current culture wars the whining male WASPs trying to keep rights to themselves while denying them to others: immigrants and gays, and in the case of abortion rights, women. I find it funny that conservatives so strongly oppose the ACLU, which has a single stated purpose -- to uphold the bill of rights of the constitution. The problem is, the whining WASPs still want those rights applied only to "real Americans" -- i.e., whining WASPs.

PETA is another group that is trying to extend rights, to other species. I don't particularly agree with PETA, but I would say that they do represent advancement in our culture and civilization.

So is attempting to extend rights to the unborn not a sign of a more advanced and enlightened civilization? If this were really the thinking, they maybe. But, my gut tells me that this is really about denying women control over their own bodies. It is the same conservative mindset that manifests in other parts of the world as women being forced to wear veils; women being not allowed to drive; honor murders; and female genital mutilation. It is patriarchal societies wanting to keep women in their place to bolster the fragile egos of a male mindset that deep down knows that it is losing its place in the world.

The sad part about the cultures that repress women, the worst of which are probably the Islamic ones, is that they are sentencing themselves to being also-ran cultures. You can't compete in the world economy if you keep half of your most intelligent workers (i.e. the women) out of your workforce.

Abortion is probably the worst form of birth control. Women who have talked to me about it have said that's a very hard choice. And there is often regret later -- but who of us does not regret some possibility from earlier in our life that we decided not to pursue? The bottom line is, it is the woman's decision, and no one else's.

My friend David believes in "the 50 year rule". This is that if you disagree for 50 years, then both sides give up trying to convert the other and live and let live. There are some examples -- the Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants seem to have quit murdering each other. Roe v Wade was in 1973. Ugh, that means the 50 year rule doesn't kick in until 2023 -- 13 years from now. Oh well.

One final note. The authors of "Freakonomics" received major static for suggesting that a precipitous drop in crime rates in the early 90's was due to the fact that it occured 18 years -- when young male criminals enter the "work force" -- after Roe v Wade presumably greatly decreased the number of unwanted children born. Food for thought, I guess.

So the final conclusion: we have magical thinking, "souls" to the catholic church, and keeping women in their proper biblical state, i.e., subservient to males, in the religious right, making what should be a total no-brainer -- let the woman decide -- into a divisive issue that keeps us from solving real problems. For example, health care reform is having problems with house democrats because the senate version doesn't restrict abortion funding strongly enough. Abortion rights opponents say, they don't want their money spent on abortions. I didn't want my money spent on killing 100s of 1000s of Iraqi civilians -- but, I guess they're not as cute as babies, so it doesn't matter. Opposition to abortion rights is probably 99% religious-based. So, another reason to actively oppose religion.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Sin #1: Hampering Science Education re Evolution

"Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution" -- Theodosius Dobzhansky, 1973.
Evolution is one of the four great theories of modern science. The other three are special and general relativity; the standard model of elementary particles; and quantum chromodynamics. Thanks to christian academies, home schooling, and things like the creation anti-museum, we now have, what, maybe 10-20% of the students in the United States being taught creationism and intelligent design instead. 90% of the new scientists and engineers in the world are being created in China and India. They are not being taught that folk tales are rational alternatives to one the greatest theories in science. The current industrial might of the United States comes from the dominance of its science, technology, invention, and entrepreneurism since The Civil War. Our universities are still the best in the world, but we risk all this when we fill our children's heads with nonsense.

I often think that the main problem people have with evolution is that we just cannot conceive of how long millions and billions of year are. I have been thinking about a potential teaching aid, in the form of my official gigging t-shirt, shown below: Actually fairly accurate. Our solar system is 2/3 of the way out from the center of our beautiful spiral galaxy, the Milky Way: 26000 light years. It takes our solar system 250 million years to circle the galaxy. Let's call that a Galactic Year (GY). So 1 GY = 250 million years.

Our galaxy is probably almost as old as the universe: 13.7 billion years old -- that is ~55 GY old. Our solar system is ~4.5 billion years old => 18 GY old (time to register to vote!). Life in the form of bacteria and their precursors have been around maybe 3 billion years => 12 GY. Complex life has been around since the Cambrian Explosion of 530 million years ago -> 2.1 GY.

Now let's get down to our favorite topic: us. Homo sapiens sapiens (us) has been around ~200,000 years => 7 galactic hours. On the shirt, this would be around 1/4 of a degree, or .008 inches -- about the thickness of a thread.

Human civilization, in the form of agriculture and domestication of animals, is around 10,000 years old => 21 galactic minutes. On the shirt, it's .0004 inches or around 10 microns -- microscopic. The 70 years or so that is all any of us get to experience is about 9 galactic seconds. So it's awfully hard for us to comprehend the ~10 GY it look life to find its way from single-celled to multi-celled organisms, or the 2 GY since then.

Scientific theories are compression algorithms: they compress vast quantities of data and observations into as few equations as possible.

Imperfect Replication With Differential Survivability
Five words. That's all it takes to describe evolution. Just add galactic years of time, and it will produce all the life on earth, and the human mind and "soul". What a compression algorithm!

Snarky Blogging

After that last post, I find myself saying: "You know, you have friends and relatives who are religious, why not just live and let live? Do you have to keep doing these snarky posts?"

And the answer is, yes, I do. I used to be very much in agreement with John Lennon's "whatever gets you through the night, it's all right" and Del Hilgartner's "hey, take a look around, it's only people". But in recent years, the religious right in America and the catholic church worldwide both seem to be becoming more and more politically active, seeking to impose their repressive, backward-looking, and just plain wrong views on all of us. They are both dangerous, reactionary forces that must be opposed. Let's first list their sins, and then examine them in detail in subsequent posts. The list of sins:

  1. Hampering science education re evolution.
  2. Interfering in women's reproductive rights.
  3. Hampering scientific research re stem cells and cloning.
  4. Hampering the use of birth control worldwide.