18 December 2008

Evolution and the Economy, Redux

A few months ago, I wrote a rather incoherent post about the economy. I had a good point, but I made it badly, and it's been nagging me ever since. Well, just now, doing dishes, the answer came to me. Here's hoping it works better this time:

Conservative on the Economy:

"The economy is far too complex for human beings to control effectively. All attempts to create a more perfect economy through design (i.e. Communism) have ended in dismal failure. The only way to create a functional, prosperous economy is to let market forces decide everything."

Conservative on the Origin of Life:

"It's impossible for something as perfect and complex as a human being to exist without an intelligent creator behind it. It is impossible to conceive of how something so complex can work so well together without some element of design. There is no way that dispassionate, natural forces could create something so streamlined and elegant."

An elegant little bit of hypocrisy, innit? The argument from personal incredulity was flimsy enough already -- but to argue that dispassionate selection could never create a human being, but is nevertheless the *only* way to create a functional economy is absolutely galling.

So-called fiscal-conservatives are more Darwinian, methinks, than they would care to admit.

12 December 2008

Merry Christmas

I've said it once before, and I'll say it again: we're doing it wrong.

You might think that taking a pluralistic approach to the holidays is a good idea. The Christmas Tree is a Christian symbol, so for parity's sake, wherever there's a Christmas Tree there also has to be a Chanukah Bush, an 'Eid Palm, a Kwanzaa Rock, a Buddha Bonsai, a Shiva Spruce... And then we start insisting on our own representations and put up an Atheist sign, a Festivus Pole, a Pastafarian Manicotti, and what have you, and then everybody's all up in arms about who gets to be in the public sphere and who's trampling on whose rights and nobody gets to have fun because we're all too busy fighting with each other to enjoy the egg nog.

This is ridiculous.

Problem 1: By siding with the people who insist on equal time for non-Christian religious symbols on public display, we are helping to reinforce the idea that it doesn't matter what religion you are -- as long as you are one. By fighting for the rights of minority religions to have public displays, we're not helping to create a more equal society, we're fighting for the equality of all religions, leaving us freethinkers as the obvious scapegoats when the rest of the faithful unite in self-righteous solidarity.

Problem 2: By fighting against public displays of Christmas Trees and the like, we're effectively reinforcing the Christianization of Christmas. Christmas already is a secular event, and we need to make sure we keep it that way. Take the Japanese, for example: Christmas is *huge* with them, but Christians only amount to about a tenth of one percent of their entire population. Granted, their historical relationship with Christianity has been, on the whole, more desirable than ours, but even in America Christmas isn't really about Baby Jeezus. As I've mentioned before, most Christmas and Advent sermons are all about not forgetting the 'real' meaning of Christmas -- and the fact that people need to be reminded of this by their pastors means that they have other things in mind when they think about Christmas.

We will never win if we try to ban Christmas from the public sphere. Never. It means too much to too many people - especially the secular, apathetic Christians to whom we should be reaching out the most. We need to stand with the moderates on this one. We need to say OK to Christmas Trees, but no to Nativity Scenes. Secular Christmas is something we can and should all get behind - a season of showing people we love them, gathering with friends, and being good to each other regardless of the reason. Let the religious fight about why we do so, and let the rest of us just have some goodwill and holiday cheer.

And don't act like petulant children about words. If English-speaking Christians can call their highest holy day by the name of a pagan goddess, then we freethinkers can bear to call the festival we grew up with by the name of Christmas. It's an accident of linguistic history that we call it Christmas instead of Weinachten, Noel, or Jul - nothing more. Let's focus on what Christmas has come to mean to all of us, instead of what it has traditionally meant to some.

Have a Very Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

10 December 2008

Loath to Admit It, but Denyse and I Share Genes

Normally, I don't bother to give Denyse O'Leary and her Shady Valley Link-Farm & Dairy the time of day.  But seeing as how it's the middle of the night, and how her latest prattle at Uncommon Descent contains a particularly glaring nugget of stupid, I'll make an exception.  Don't worry, I'll keep it brief.

Ms. O'Leary regularly tries to make hay of a perceived conflict between altruistic behavior and evolution.  Her strategy seems to consist of alternating between heartwarming tales of good deeds and gross ignorance of actual science.  This time, she invokes acts of heroism during the recent attacks in Mumbai, and then follows it up with some truly ignorant genetics:
[A]ltruism would mean helping one’s own kinfolk in order to preserve one’s own genes - which one shares with them (= Dawkins’s ” “selfish gene”). That really doesn’t apply to situations where people help strangers at the risk of their own lives.
Purely for the sake of this statement, let's assume that altruism evolved so the individual would work to preserve his kin and thereby preserve their shared genes.  Did it ever occur to O'Leary that two strangers might share some genes in common?  Like, the vast, vast majority of them?  We are, after all, all distant kin.  Hell, I'm preserving a fair number of my genes by feeding my cat.1

Poor, short-sighted O'Leary...

1 Though, if that's the goal, getting him neutered was probably a step in the wrong direction...

09 December 2008

Carter and the Dragonslayers

My brother, a college senior aspiring to veterinary medicine, spent four weeks this past summer working on a pair of wildlife reserves in Uganda and Kenya. He had the time of his life, as should any young man seeing the world and fulfilling a lifelong dream to boot. And he managed not to get into too much trouble while doing so. (As he put it, "I promise I was in nearly complete control of almost all of the situations I found myself in some of the time.")

However, all was not beer and skittles and charging rhinoceroses. To manage the trip, he had to put up with the threat of parasites. A particular friend to the little things that creepeth within one's flesh, my brother is not. But I guess when you get the chance to dart lions on the savannah, you deal.

Anyway, at one point he expressed concern that he might have contracted guinea worms. He didn't contract guinea worms (at least, not that we know of), he was just being momentarily paranoid.

In a few years, he might never again have to worry about contracting guinea worms. Former President Jimmy Carter announced this past Friday that cases of dracunculiasis (guinea worm disease) have hit an all-time worldwide low (AP):
Only 4,410 cases were reported worldwide during the first ten months of this year, all in six African countries. Nearly 80 percent were in Sudan, according to The Carter Center, a nonprofit founded by Carter and his wife that helps fight disease and champions voting and human rights around the world.

That total is a dramatic drop from the 3.5 million cases in 20 nations that were reported when The Carter Center's eradication campaign began in 1986. It's also less than half the 9,585 cases reported by individual nations in 2007.

"Our record on Guinea worm for the last few years has been steadily and rapidly downward," Carter said.

Health experts hope that next year may see the last reported cases of the parasitic illness, which would make it the second infection — after smallpox — to be eliminated from the world.
Mind you, there is no vaccine against guinea worms, nor is there any medicine to treat them. The eradication of this disease is being carried out via simple education and sanitation.

The only way to eradicate guinea worms is to interrupt their life cycle. The good news is, since guinea worms only infect humans, not other animals, once the disease is gone from the human population, it's gone for good. There can be no environmental reserves of the parasite.

Infection starts when a person drinks water containing copepods (itty-bitty planktonic crustaceans) infected with guinea worm larvae. Once in the person's stomach, the guinea worm larvae burrow out into the abdominal cavity, where they spend several months growing, maturing, and mating. The males die after mating. The females, now three feet long or so and almost as thick as a spaghetti noodle, need to deliver their young to a water source. To that end, they burrow down the host's leg and form an excruciating blister on the surface of the host's foot. As soon as the foot touches water, thousands of larvae are released to continue the cycle.

There are two main strategies, therefore, to preventing guinea worm disease from spreading:
1) Limit exposure by educating people about the disease and developing safe sources of drinking water (providing water filters, digging wells, etc.)
2) Prevent spread of the next cycle through good sanitation. Teach people to recognize signs of the disease, to identify it early and prevent those afflicted with emerging guinea worms from coming in contact with the water.

Dracunculiasis a devastating affliction. It cripples the host and causes incredible pain. And the only way to remove the worm is to wrap it around a stick (or, nowadays, a piece of gauze) and slowly, over the course of weeks, pull the three-foot worm out through the blister, with the afflicted having to endure burning pain all the while. Hence the worm's nickname, "the fiery serpent," and disease name dracunculiasis, Latin for "affliction with little dragons" and perhaps the most kickass of all parasite names.

Rod of AsklepiosIt is also an ancient affliction. Guinea worms have been found in calcified Egyptian mummies. The symbol of medicine, the Rod of Asklepios, is thought by many to be representative of the method of guinea worm extraction.

And now, it's almost gone. By sheer know-how and concerted effort, a disease that has plagued humans since before the time of the pharaohs is being driven to the brink of extinction.

I'm giddy. I'm eager to hear what the Carter Center has to report next year.

(Tip o' the hat to Effect Measure.)

06 December 2008

Memetics: Firsts of the Firsts of the Months of 2008

It's funny, the things that stick with us. What with Grandpop's funeral and all, I completely forgot to make note of a certain date. Sara and I were at PharynguFest Boston last night at the Cambridge Brewing Company.

Every time I pass a Reformed Church of Christ, I think to myself, "I wonder what a Delinquent Church of Christ looks like." I'm not crazy about public debates; they seem to me to give too much power and import to rhetorical tricks rather than honest academic pursuit.

Apologies for the unannounced absence. I considered avoiding comment on this one, but the pun was too good to pass up.

Stumbled across this the other night. It's fairly remarkable... since having seen Dinesh D'Souza in a live debate, I've felt much less compelled to shred the inanity he posts to his blog. How can you live like that?

Miss me? Clockwise from left: the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus.


Tip of the hat to some science bloggers.  If you have a blog of your own, then play along: go through your archives, and post the first sentence of the first post of each month of the past year.

01 December 2008

Planets By the Naked Eye

Moon, Jupiter, Venus Clockwise from left: the Moon, Jupiter, and Venus. Taken from Cambridge, MA, at roughly 5 PM EST, 1 December 2008, with a 1.3-megapixel camera phone.

As astronomy pictures go, this is a pretty darn wimpy one. But so help me, every once in a while I look at the sky, and the sense of what's physically out there really hits me.