Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Holly & Anne Tell Penn Jillette Where Babies Come From

Our essay in Aeon magazine called "Sex Makes Babies" has gotten some mixed feedback, and the best reaction we've received so far has come from Penn Jillette. 

He had us on Penn's Sunday School to discuss things. It was a riot (aside from my Skype deciding to update during the show!)


As you'll hear (or as you heard) in the conversation, the Aeon essay is a brief discussion of something we called "reproductive consciousness" that deserves a book. We were so lucky that our amazing editor, Brigid Hains, allowed us 6800 words! But grappling with this enormous idea really deserves 100k or so. 

Whether humans recognize kin in the same ways that other animals do... that's a huge question we need to address And want to. 

Whether humans are self-domesticated and whether reproductive consciousness plays a role in that is definitely something that we need to work through.

Whether reproductive consciousness changes how folks think about free will is also, suddenly, worth a think. 

There are a lot of big ideas wrapped up in this big idea but there are smaller ones too...

Here's one especially relevant to Sunday School.

You may know how the biblical story of Adam's rib may be a myth about why humans lack a penis bone.  Read about it here

Likewise, let me humbly suggest that the story of The Fall is a myth about the origins of reproductive consciousness. 

Before Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they were perfectly wonderful people. However, after they disobeyed God by eating the fruit He cast them out of The Garden and plagued all of their descendents with Original Sin.    

Beyond “right and wrong” or “good and evil” as is commonly written, what if the knowledge that Adam and Eve gained was reproductive?  After all, the punishments and decrees that follow are entirely based on procreation and sex. Women are doomed to have painful dangerous labor during childbirth since Eve was the brains  behind the debauched meal.  Eve’s sin could symbolize a woman’s ability to seduce and, worse, to cuckold a man (only a reality for humans once this Knowledge is on the table), embellished by the fact that she “eats fruit” (origins of euphemism too?) with the serpent before she shares it, sinfully, with Adam.

For naively going along with Eve, Adam’s sin transformed men into highly invested husbands and fathers, cursed to work the fields to feed their families.  

With this brand new notion of paternity (thanks to this new Knowledge) comes the need to secure it, thus the decree that women shall be ruled over by men and that a woman may only have sex with her husband (but vice versa is not spelled out).

Once humans pulled the curtain back on the facts of life and gained reproductive consciousness, it’s understandable that God would become pretty upset. When we learned how to control our own reproduction, “playing god” couldn’t be monopolized by God anymore.

But we mortals would have a rougher time of it too. Once males could track their lineage biologically, they’d be forced to behave in highly inconvenient, less pleasurable, more restrictive, and increasingly costly ways in order to secure paternity and avoid being cuckolded (if that mattered to people, and clearly it does and it has). Increasing parental investment, forming contractual commitments to women, and then preventing wives from bleeping other men would take time and energy. Not to mention all the work it takes to actually get the chance to have sex with a woman under these new conditions.

And while tracking paternity would have been beneficial to mothers because they’d secure more resources and protection for themselves and their offspring, it would also come with a price. To participate in a system where women were no longer trusted, women had to tolerate restrictions on where they could go, how they could dress, and with whom they could interact. And once wealth started to accumulate through paternal lineages, the stakes would be raised to the level of political power and war. It would be so much easier to keep up this new, seemingly unnatural and awfully restrictive sex and marriage system if it were all passed down from God. 

Whether or not my blasphemous interpretation holds any water, Genesis keenly describes what happened to so many of our ancestors because of reproductive consciousness.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

A 65 year-old premonition

In the 50's to 70's the 'funny' papers had their best contributor ever, before or since.  In the comic strip Pogo, the badly missed Walt Kelly blended intelligence, great artistic flair, imagination, satire, humor, and just plain wonderful escapism. His critters of the Okefenokee swamp in Georgia were fiction (I think), but they often clearly related to real-world events taking place outside the swamp.

Often Pogo was funny, but not always silly, and it usually had a serious, intelligent edge far above the level of anything on today's comics page.  Below is a timely example.  Deacon Mushrat represented the obvious sort of pompous, angry, 'true believer' presumptuous clergyman.  Pogo the possum, the star, was the very embodiment of good will; ol' Albert the alligator was a temperamental often boorish fellow, addicted to his seegars....but good at heart.

This image, from 1952/3, is a spooky premonition of current news.  Even over a half-century later, we can all sense Pogo's and Albert's reactions, I think.

From The Pogo Papers, copyright Walt Kelly and Simon & Schuster, 1952/3
The Pogo characters often were take-offs of real figures, including Nikita Krushchev, Lyndon Johnson, Joseph McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, Barry Goldwater, J. Edgar Hoover, and many others of their ilk and time, all cast as animals with appropriate traits.  It is easy to imagine who would be in those pages today.  What sort of animal would that person be?

Ah, wonderful Pogo, how we miss and need you now**!


**fortunately, some of the strips are still available in reprints.  Pure entertainment, not to be missed.  And it's impossible to believe that Pogo and his pals aren't out there, deep in the Okefenokee today, wondering how we can be as doltish out here in our 'real' world as we are.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The state of play in science

I've just read a new book that MT readers would benefit from reading as well.  It's Rigor Mortis, by Richard Harris (2017: Basic Books).  His subtitle is How sloppy science creates worthless cures, crushes hope, and wastes billions.  One might suspect that this title is stridently overstated, but while it is quite forthright--and its argument well-supported--I think the case is actually understated, for reasons I'll explain below.

Harris, science reporter for National Public Radio, goes over many different problems that plague biomedical research. At the core is the reproducibility problem, that is, the numbers of claims by research papers that are not reproducible by subsequent studies.  This particular problem made the news within the last couple of years in regard to using statistical criteria like p-values (significance cutoffs), and because of the major effort in psychology to replicate published studies, with a lot of failure to do so.  But there are other issues.

The typical scientific method assumes that there is a truth out there, and a good study should detect its features.  But if it's a truth, then some other study should get similar results.  But many many times in biomedical research, despite huge media ballyhoo with cheerleading by the investigators as well as the media, studies' breakthrough!! findings can't be supported by further examination.

As Harris extensively documents, this phenomenon is seen in claims of treatments or cures, or use of animal models (e.g., lab mice), or antibodies, or cell lines, or statistical 'significance' values.  It isn't a long book, so you can quickly see the examples for yourself.  Harris also accounts for the problems, quite properly I think, by documenting sloppy science but also the careerist pressures on investigators to find things they can publish in 'major' journals, so they can get jobs, promotions, high 'impact factor' pubs, and grants. In our obviously over-crowded market, it can be no surprise to anyone that there is shading of the truth, a tad of downright dishonesty, conveniently imprecise work, and so on.

Since scientists feed at the public trough (or depend on profits and sales for biomedical products to grant-funded investigators), they naturally have to compete and don't want to be shown up, and they have to work fast to keep the funds flowing in.  Rigor Mortis properly homes in on an important fact, that if our jobs depend on 'productivity' and bringing in grants, we will do what it takes, shading the truth or whatever else (even the occasional outright cheating) to stay in the game.

Why share data with your potential competitors who might, after all, find fault with your work or use it to get the jump on you for the next stage?  For that matter, why describe what you did in enough actual detail that someone (a rival or enemy!) might attempt to replicate your work.....or fail to do so? Why wait to publish until you've got a really adequate explanation of what you suggest is going on, with all the i's dotted and t's crossed?  Haste makes credit!  Harris very clearly shows these issues in the all-too human arena of our science research establishment today.  He calls what we have now, appropriately enough, a "broken culture" of science.

Part of that I think is a 'Malthusian' problem.  We are credited, in score-counting ways, by chairs and deans, for how many graduate students we turn (or churn) out.  Is our lab 'productive' in that way?  Of course, we need that army of what often are treated as drones because real faculty members are too busy writing grants or traveling to present their (students') latest research to waste--er, spend--much time in their labs themselves.  The result is the cruel excess of PhDs who can't find good jobs, wandering from post-doc to post-doc (another form of labor pool), or to instructorships rather than tenure-track jobs, or who simply drop out of the system after their PhD and post-docs.  We know of many who are in that boat; don't you?  A recent report showed that the mean age of first grant from NIH was about 45: enough said.

A reproducibility mirage
If there were one central technical problem that Harris stresses, it is the number of results that fail to be reproducible in other studies.  Irreproducible results leave us in limbo-land: how are we to interpret them?   What are we supposed to believe?  Which study--if any of them--is correct?  Why are so many studies proudly claiming dramatic findings that can't be reproduced, and/or why are the news media and university PR offices so loudly proclaiming these reported results?  What's wrong with our practices and standards?

Rigor Mortis goes through many of these issues, forthrightly and convincingly--showing that there is a problem.  But a solution is not so easy to come by, because it would require major shifting of and reform in research funding.  Naturally, that would be greatly resisted by hungry universities and those who they employ to set up a shopping-mall on their campus (i.e., faculty).

One purpose of this post is to draw attention to the wealth of reasons Harris presents for why we should be concerned about the state of play in biomedical research (and, indeed, in science more generally).  I do have some caveats, that I'll discuss below, but that is in no way intended to diminish the points Harris makes in his book.  What I want to add is a reason why I think that, if anything, Harris' presentation, strong and clear as it is, understates the problem.  I say this because to me, there is a deeper issue, beyond the many Harris enumerates: a deeper scientific problem.

Reproducibility is only the tip of the iceberg!
Harris stresses or even focuses on the problem of irreproducible results.  He suggests that if we were to hold far higher evidentiary standards, our work would be reproducible, and the next study down the line wouldn't routinely disagree with its predecessors.  From the point of view of careful science and proper inferential methods and the like, this is clearly true.  Many kinds of studies in biomedical and psychological sciences should have a standard of reporting that leads to at least some level of reproducibility.

However, I think that the situation is far more problematic than sloppy and hasty standards, or questionable statistics, even if they are clearly a prominent ones.  My view is that no matter how high our methodological standards are, the expectation of reproducibility flies in the face of what we know about life.  That is because life is not a reproducible phenomenon in the way physics and chemistry are!

Life is the product of evolution.  Nobody with open eyes can fail to understand that, and this applies to biological, biomedical, psychological and social scientists.  Evolution is at its very core a phenomenon that rests essentially on variation--on not being reproducible.  Each organism, indeed each cell, is different. Not even 'identical' twins are identical.

One reason for this is that genetic mutations are always occurring, even among the cells within our bodies. Another reason is that no two organisms are experiencing the same environment, and environmental factors affect and interact with the genomes of each individual organism of any species.  Organisms affect their environments in turn. These are dynamic phenomena and are not replicable!

This means that, in general, we should not be expecting reproducibility of results.  But one shouldn't overstate this because while obviously the fact that two humans are different doesn't mean they are entirely different.  Similarity is correlated with kinship, from first-degree relatives to members of populations, species, and different species.  The problem is not that there is similarity, it is that we have no formal theory about how much similarity.  We know two samples of people will differ both among those in each sample and between samples.  And, even the same people sampled at separate times will be different, due to aging, exposure to different environments and so on. Proper statistical criteria and so on can answer questions about whether differences seem only due to sampling from variation or from causal differences.  But that is a traditional assumption from the origin of statistics and probability, and isn't entirely apt for biology: since we cannot assume identity of individuals, much less of samples or populations (or species, as in using mouse models for human disease), our work requires some understanding of how much difference, or what sort of difference, we should expect--and build into our models and tests etc.

Evolution is by its very nature an ad hoc phenomenon in both time and place, meaning that there are no fixed rules about this, as there are laws of gravity or of chemical reactions. That means that reproducibility is not, in itself, even a valid criterion for judging scientific results.  Some reproducibility should be expected, but we have no rule for how much and, indeed, evolution tells us that there is no real rule for that.

One obvious and not speculative exemplar of the problem is the redundancy in our systems. Genomewide mapping has documented this exquisitely well: if variation at tens, hundreds, or sometimes even thousands of genome sites' affects a trait, like blood pressure, stature, or 'intelligence' and no two people have the same genotype, then no two people, even with the same trait measure have that measure for the same reason.  And as is very well known, mapping only accounts for a fraction of the estimated heritability of the studied traits, meaning that much or usually most of the contributing genetic variation is unidentified.  And then there's the environment. . . . .

It's a major problem. It's an inconvenient truth.  The sausage-grinder system of science 'productivity' cannot deal with it.  We need reform.  Where can that come from?

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

I think I know where babies come from, therefore I am human.

Anne and I have a long read up at Aeon today.

Image result for sex makes babies aeon
This is the art that accompanies it.
(The Ain Sakhri lovers figurine. This is the oldest known representation of sexual intercourse in the world, dated c10,000 BCE. Photo courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.)

Some of the commenters say it's too long. We think it's not long enough and tried to get a publisher to agree with us that it needed to be book-length. That didn't work. But that doesn't matter. We had a lot of fun writing it and hope you enjoy reading it!

Here's the link: https://aeon.co/essays/i-think-i-know-where-babies-come-from-therefore-i-am-human

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Nasty People: Tension Release

This is a second guest post by Sophia Weaver (University of Rhode Island '16, Anthropology + Gender and Women's Studies), the author and illustrator of 
Nasty People: an Illustrated Guide to Understanding Sex. (Her first post is here.) 


*Disclaimer: The majority of my posts will be accompanied with original art, but for this post I couldn’t figure out a way to illustrate orgasms…it just seemed impossible. So, for this particular post I’ve added some pictures of flowers. When I am not writing and illustrating I am a flower farmer and my love for flowers runs deep. Somehow I feel like their unique beauty is a perfect illustration for the indescribable experience that is the orgasm. I promise my next post will be accompanied by my own illustrations.

What is an orgasm?

“The sudden, involuntary release of sexual tension.”

“The explosive discharge of neuromuscular tension and the peak of sexual response.”

These definitions are vague because the experience is rather indescribable and it varies between everyone. No two men orgasm the same way just as no two women experience orgasms in the same way. Previous experiences with people and unrealistic performances in porn often give the impression that an orgasm looks a certain way, but in reality everyone orgasms differently. The experience can be defined scientifically and explored in a lab, but only you can know your orgasm.  An orgasm can often be achieved in a myriad of ways and through all kinds of physical and emotional contact. However, and I can’t stress this enough, the majority of women CANNOT reach climax through penetration alone, so be creative folks and never underestimate the power of clitoral stimulation!


For men, orgasms serve an important function. Orgasms are required for conception as they are the vehicle that flings the sperm forth on its journey toward the egg. However, when it comes to women, orgasms seem to have no evolutionary relevance. They are certainly not required for baby making (although it was once believed that mutual orgasm was essential for child creation). The female orgasm appears to function purely for pleasure and this is pretty gosh-darn fascinating and pretty freaking awesome (at least to me). There are two major evolutionary theories on the female orgasm: it functions as a mate selection “tool” (aka a lady’s orgasm serves to further attract a male) or it’s some sort of by-product of the male orgasm (the female orgasm= the male nipple, evolutionarily and functionally irrelevant, but still there). It is pretty amazing to me that something that is so powerful and rather awe-inspiring, is so filled with mystery. The mysteriousness of the orgasm just makes it that much cooler.