Archive for the ‘ Science and Evolution ’ Category

A Feminist and an Evolutionary Psychologist Walk into a bar…

There are a lot of people radical feminists hate (not unreasonably so, in most cases) and frequently argue with. But if you ever manage to find a feminist and an evolutionary psychologist at the same table, get some popcorn.

Feminists and evolutionary psychologists make natural enemies for the following reason:

Feminism asserts that the gender stereotypes and current mindsets about gender roles, are the product of the culture of patriarchy. Evolutionary psychology postulates that the way human societies are structured today, is the natural result of our evolution. In other words, it’s not the culture of patriarchy that gave birth to gender roles and stereotyping. It’s our innate, gender-stereotypical behavior that generated the patriarchal culture.

Evolutionary psychology explains, though not necessarily encourages, gender stereotyping as a natural behavior. Here’s why:

Take, for instance, these popular notions that feminists aren’t too pleased with:
– Women are easily intimidated, while men are stronger and more aggressive.
– Men have greater sexual needs than women

Almost universally in the animal kingdom (and more pertinently, among our evolutionary ancestors), it is the males who compete with each other to mate with the female. The female does not have to compete for the male. This is because a female only reproduces once every 9 months (different for various species, plus the lactation period), while a male reproduces around the year.

Because of this, the male has a reproductive advantage if he fertilizes multiple females simultaneously. The female, however, would receive no such benefit because she can only reproduce once in several months, no matter how many males she mates with.

As a result, we see males who are constantly searching for mates while females aren’t. This generates intense competition among the males, in which the more aggressive, narcissistic males have a natural advantage. The males thus evolved to become more aggressive and ever-ready for intercourse.

Females, on the other hand, had no natural advantage in scurrying around looking for males to mate with. Consequently, the female gender evolved to be less aggressive than men. Also, since mates were available to the females a dollar a dozen, they’ve had the luxury to be more choosy. This is why females are less obsessed about sex than men are.

This is as I said, merely an explanation of why things are the way they are, not how they have to be in modern society. For instance, evolution has designed us to bear and nourish our own kids. Instead, we sometimes adopt children and help advance their genetic lineage.

As repulsed as we often are by the idea of biological determinism in these situations, we have to acknowledge the presence of real biological barriers in combating certain behaviors. This is not the same as being an apologist for misogynism, but recognizing that undoing hundreds of thousands of years of behavioral shaping is not something that can be done in a matter of decades.

Gender stereotyping is wrong, because it does injustice to the outliers in the group. Women who are physically strong, and men who are not hypersexual should not be clumped with the average people and receive blanket treatment.

Some behaviors, however, are so deeply ingrained within the male psyche that fixing them could be a pathological change.

Radical feminists sometimes complain about men who drool over pictures of nude women, and in doing so, they’re not fighting for gender equality as much as they’re calling for global castration. No amount of education and awareness could make a male less titillated by erotic imagery.

In such cases, it’s far more rewarding to rethink our expectations than to fight our hardwired biological instincts. Sex-positive feminism, which I subscribe to, proposes that we change our attitude about sex by removing the stigma, instead of railing out against men for their desire seek it. A stripper, female or male, is degrading herself or himself only if we believe it’s a degrading job.

Why is quenching a patron’s thirst as a bartender not as great an embarrassment as serving a client as a prostitute? It’s because the society has not stigmatized the former, or at least, not the the extent as it has the latter.

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Eighth Deadly Sin: Denying Science

Science is a cold-hearted bitch, isn’t she? She doesn’t care about our sense of political correctness or our convenience. She doesn’t care about our religions or our cultures. The electron dances around the nucleus irrespective of what the mullah says, the bible commands, or the culture demands.

Tell a mutating DNA that you don’t believe in evolution, and see if it gives a fraction of a fuck. Nature is so selfish, so inconsiderate of our desires, necessities and beliefs. And that’s why science, a quest to find out how nature works, is every bit as ruthless.

We have deluded ourselves with an idea that science is simply an opinion, that can be embraced or rejected based on our own convenience. Evolution not compatible with your faith? Deny evolution. It would be too costly or inconvenient to slow down human-induced climate change? Deny climate-change.

Here are a few questions and concerns I regularly get to hear from our cardinal sinners: Continue reading

Zombieland: The Illusion of Free Will

The very idea seems both incongruous with reason, and profoundly perturbing…as truths often are.

There are two kinds of behavior: Innate and Acquired.

Innate behavior is that which we are born with. It is influenced by our genetic make-up, which in turn is the result of natural selection over many ages (or sporadic mutations within the same generation). In other words, this type of behavior is beyond an individual’s own control.

Acquired behavior is that which is shaped through environmental forces. Molding of such behavior begins from childhood and continues till death, depending on the type of environment(s) we go through. Since our environments are beyond our control, so are their effects on our behavior.

You may think that we are often capable of choosing the environments we expose ourselves to. That is incorrect, because such choices themselves are influenced by behavioral conditioning from environments we have previously been exposed to. For example, in a home where a child is taught to take good care of his personal hygiene will likely stay in places that are clean. The more he spends time in such places, the more accustomed he becomes to them. He may also spend more time with people who share the same interest in cleanliness as him. Thus commences a positive feedback loop in which he’ll become growingly concerned about good hygiene.

A perceptive reader may have noticed that this is not always the case. Quite often, we have children behaving completely opposite to how they’ve been taught to behave by their parents. How is that possible if free will is non-existent?

For two very good reasons. Firstly, our milieu is not nearly as simple as the one described in this example. It is a complicated mess of uncountable, indiscernible variables, each influencing one’s behavior in a different way. For instance, the same child who is taught that cleanliness is next to godliness by his parents, may be taught a different lessons by his peers at school, most of whom enjoy playing in mud. Ultimately, the shaping of his behavior will depend on which environment is dominant.

The other reason is his innate behavior. By the virtue of genetic variations and mutations, each one of us is endowed with a slightly different kind of behavior, arising due to differences in neuronal circuitries of our brains (the MAO-A gene has been implicated for hereditary tendency towards criminal behavior). Often, our acquired behavior conflicts with our innate behavior. When it does, the environmental factors have to be extra-strong to produce any behavioral alteration. Otherwise, they’d fail to exert any influence.

We are, at our most basic level, prisoners of the electric currents coursing through our brain.

A neuroscientist is able to work a human being like a puppet simply by using an electrode to stimulate or excite the right areas of his patient’s brain. He can make the patient move his hand by exciting a certain point of his motor cortex, or make his patient want to eat food by stimulating a group of neurons in his lateral hypothalamus. And the best part: the patient feels as if he’s performing such actions by his own volition!

We are the products of our genes and environments, and nothing more. What I’m typing is exactly what one would’ve expected me to type given my genetic make-up and the environment(s) I’ve been exposed to.

The free will theory defies both biology and physics. Biology, because we have no reason to expect such a thing to magically appear at this level of the evolutionary tree. Physics, because it deals in precise (or near precise, if you consider quantum mechanics) laws about how things work, and free will would mean complete stochasticity (randomness) that would play havoc with such laws.

The free will theory is accepted only because the variables involved in conditioning our behaviors are so numerous and complex, that it’s impossible to predict accurately how a person would behave. Otherwise, it’s nothing more than an illusion.

Spiritual Science

It is truly unfortunate that a vast majority of the public views science as a soulless institution. It considers logic as a robotic trait, and finds it a virtue to be swept away by a tsunami of uncontrolled emotions. Doing ridiculous, and often perilous, deeds out of love, hate, vengeance or envy is thought of as a sign of “being alive”.

Scientists (especially non-religious scientists) are widely perceived as dull, lifeless, and sin-of-sins, non-spiritual beings losing touch with their human roots. They’re sometimes looked upon with pity – as creatures so lost in studying the physical universe that they can’t see and enjoy the pleasures of the metaphysical.

But truth is far from that. Scientists are the Picasso’s and Van Gogh’s of the 21st century. When Craig Venter and his team constructed artificial life, there was more art in it than science.

In their search for spirituality, people often find themselves tapping into the vast reserves of human stupidity and coming up with the most ludicrous ideas: tattooing Chinese ideograms upon their arms, wearing gaudy jewelry, “cleansing” their “auras”, sitting in a certain uncomfortable position for a long period of time with eyes closed – in a pitiful attempt to “clear one’s mind”.

Those who like to believe in life as a mystical force of its own kind might to be disappointed to hear a scientist telling them that it’s actually just a series of nucleic acids studded onto a chain of deoxyribose-sugar. They may be let down on finding out that the only “gods” we know are the fundamental physical forces: gravity, electromagnetism, weak and strong nuclear forces. Too dull? Yeah, let’s just get back to our auras and spirits and jinns and angels.

Not many of us realize that the same spirituality we seek in superstitious nonsense can be found right here in science. There’s nirvana in biochemistry and poetry in physics. The deliriousness of a scientist studying a bacterium under a microscope, is comparable to that of a pir meditating in a distant, mountain-top shrine. For those who’ve truly learned to appreciate the physics of our universe and spend a good amount of time studying how nature works, discover a unique kind of high that only they can delineate.

And should a scientist stumble upon an answer to one of his queries or discover something previously unknown to man, the bliss is indescribable.

It is only through psychology that a person can fully appreciate the beauty of a human mind, and through a detailed study of anatomy can one recognize the true brilliance of nature. The feeling that one’s pushing the boundaries of human knowledge outwards, slowly but consistently, is pleasantly intoxicating.

Since I became an Atheist, I’ve found this whole new appreciation for nature. Before my deconversion, I used to take everything for granted by associating false purpose with it – flowers are there to appease our sense of smell, sun’s there to give us light, and stars are there to look pretty. I respected science only for the occasional bounty that fell out of the laboratories and research facilities – like a new camera phone, an iPod, a better graphics card. But there’s so much more to science than that.

So the next time you decide to spend half an hour humming, “Ommmmm…”, try something new: go to a library or an online scientific source and study the constellations. Read a little about the replication of DNA, or evolutionary biology. Odds are that you’ll find the same illumination that you find in prayer and yoga.

Why Do We Believe In God?

Theory of Mind

This is the capacity of a human mind to figure out how another organism thinks or feels. It’s not mind-reading, per se, but a set of accurate assumptions about the cognition of another being. Our mind achieves this by generating a secondary mind and associating it with the person we’re concerned with. And whatever thought processes are carried out by the secondary mind, we assume that they are the thoughts of the person in front of us. This is how we are able to tell if another person is feeling angry, or sad, or bored etc.

The problem is that sometimes, our mind tends to apply the theory of mind on non-living, inanimate objects and forces, and treats them as living beings who can think and feel different things. An example is a guy who’s computer hangs up, and in anger, he strikes the keyboard or starts clicking furiously. The guy knows that doing this won’t make the problem disappear, but his mind has tricked him into temporarily believing that the computer is a living being that is trying to mock or deliberately annoy its user.

Just like that, when we see powerful acts being carried out by insensible forces of nature, like earthquakes, or lethal diseases resolving by themselves, we generate a “mind” for these forces as well. We think that nature is angry at us and that’s why its sending down earthquakes. We think that nature is happy with the way we have behaved and is blessing us by curing our diseases. We call this self-generated secondary mind “God”. Continue reading

Muslims and their contribution to science

If you ask a Muslim about how his brethren have contributed to the scientific progress of man, he’d blithely mention scientists like Jabir Bin Hayan, Ibn-e-Sina and Omar Al-Khayyam. Such Muslims have, without doubt, contributed generously to science.

But that was centuries ago, all the way back in the middle ages. When it comes to modern science, Muslims have little to be proud of. A few names are worth mentioning – Dr.Abdus Salam being one of them – but beyond that, there isn’t much.

For a religious group that constantly talks about how “scientific” Islam is, and persistently attempts to prove the authenticity of Quran as divine writ by pointing out the “scientific miracles” mentioned in it, the reality doesn’t quite concur with their beliefs. Continue reading

A Brief History of Everything

The Big Bang: About 13.75 billion years ago, the vast oceans of space and time were all condensed into something believed to be the size of a pinhead. Though the scientists have plentiful evidence to support the Big Bang theory, the origin of it is still shrouded in mystery.

Inflation: The universe began to expand at an exponential rate, driven by negative-pressure.of the vacuum in space. As it expanded, it began to cool as the energy was thinned out.

Earth forms: From a gigantic molecular cloud forming a protoplanetary plate, a red-hot blob appeared 4.54 billion years ago, a baby later to be called “Earth”.

Asteroid hits the Earth: A gigantic asteroid strikes the infant, tilting its axis by 23.5 degrees.This tilt is crucial to our planet because it is what grants us our different seasons.

Abiogenesis: About 3.5 billion years ago, life began from what’s referred to as the “primordial soup”. Life, in scientific terms, is defined as a piece of information capable of maintaining its own progeny through self-replication. The primordial replicator is believed to be a crude form of RNA (a bit like DNA, but simpler), which originated from clay crystals.

Bacteria develop: The new DNA acquires a wall of fatty acids and other cell-components to form a bacterium, the simplest organism known to man.

Evolution: A fascinating journey which led to the existence of the vast number of living species we see in the world today. The bacteria evolved into tiny underwater creatures, who evolved to fish, then ambhibians, land animals, and finally, primates.

Anthropogenesis: From Australopithicines, the genus “Homo” began to branch out about 2.4 million years ago. The other branch led to chimpanzees (who are now our cousins in the ancestral tree, with their DNA varying from our own by only 2.5%). The Homos evolved further into what we are today, the Homo Sapiens.

What it Means to be a Homo Sapien: We come from a long line of winners. Each one of our ancestors, from the bacteria 3.5 billion years ago to us now, has been a survivor who has managed to successful propagate its genes forward. If any one of them had failed nature’s test of survivability, the progeny would have been broken and we would never have come into existence.

In our long journey, we’ve acquired the kind of evolutionary baggage that is shared by no other species on Earth. A sense of altruism. Love and compassion for our children, not because they are the carriers of our genes, but out of our own selflessness. A curious organism contemplating its own origin. An organism whose aim is no longer just “survival”, but something more. A person sitting on his/her computer wondering how far we’ve come since that tiny speck of gases glowing in the middle of space 14 billion years ago.